U.S. stocks steadied Friday after a three-day slide, while Treasury yields and the dollar edged lower. The week was largely dominated by crude’s tumble into bear market territory yet all three major American assets didn’t seem to care.
The S&P 500 Index finished the week virtually where it began, as rallies in health-care and tech shares offset a rout in energy producers. Small caps rallied Friday to end higher on the week.
Also of interest this week was Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., buying a 38 percent stake in Home Capital for about C$400 million ($300 million) and providing a C$2 billion credit line to backstop the Toronto-based lender.
With the deal, the billionaire investor is wading into a housing market that’s been labeled overvalued and over-leveraged, with home prices in Toronto and Vancouver soaring as household debt hits record levels.
Warren Buffett’s deal to back Home Capital Group Inc. was quickly interpreted by Toronto real estate pundits as a vote of confidence for a housing market that everyone from investors to global ratings companies say is a bubble ready to burst. Nevertheless, before getting too jubilant about Canadian real estate one should consider the terms of the deal.
Buffett is no stranger to taking advantage of dark times to opportunistically turn need into an attractive investment (famously investing $5 billion in Goldman Sachs right after the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers). Securing Buffett’s participation came at a high price for the Canadian company, including giving Berkshire Hathaway a large stake at a steep discount to a recent trading average. Based on Friday’s closing price Buffett appears to have already have nearly doubled his initial $153 million investment in Home Capital’s equity, on paper...
A classic example of: “be greedy when others are fearful.”
Weakness in energy prices were the theme of the week, yet few signs of contagion emerged leaving everything from gold to the dollar to U.S. equities to stay range bound as the traditionally slow summer season began.
As Bloomberg remarked, the bear market in crude in many ways resembles its more severe predecessors from 2014 and 2016: oil prices plummeting, non-U.S. producers floundering to keep supply at bay and concerns swirling around the impact of energy companies on high-yield bonds.
The correlation between daily swings in the S&P 500 Index and crude has been roughly zero in the past month, the lowest since January and far below the five-year highs reached in 2016 as the oil prices bottomed near $26 before staging a rebound.
Why? Perhaps the industry’s impact on the overall market is simply low. Today, energy stocks account for less than 6 percent of the S&P 500, compared with 11 percent three years ago. Or perhaps investors see little possibility of systemic risk.
One thing is evident: that falling energy prices will likely further subdue inflation.
Treasury yields have fallen from their 2017 highs recently, with the benchmark 10-year yield trading around 2.15 percent. In March, it traded around 2.6 percent. The bond market doesn't appear to see inflation coming in the near term, and so far it's been right.
The consumer price index fell 0.1 percent in May, raising questions about whether the Fed will be able to raise rates once more this year. The next rate hike isn't fully priced in until March 2018, according to the CME Group's FedWatch tool.
In addition, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos may be single handedly killing inflation. As recently pointed out on CNBC, at a time when central banks are starting to prepare for an expected rise in inflation ahead, Bezos' move to acquire Whole Foods looks to be a significant counterweight.
The entire food retailing industry is an $800 billion market and it is likely that the the supermarket wars are only just beginning. Food makes up about 14.6 percent of the consumer price index, a widely used inflation index…
In addition, this move will likely put greater pressure on other chains such as Target and Wal-Mart to lower prices. Neil Irwin for the NY Times goes so far as to say that the Amazon-Walmart showdown has come to explain the modern economy as in the short term consumers will benefit from lower prices but in the long term will have worrying implications for jobs, wages and inequality.
Interestingly, few are following the Federal Reserve’s lead to raise interest rates. In fact, inflation appears to slowing worldwide and a broad measure of rich-world monetary conditions implied by Morgan Stanley, which incorporates short-term interest rates, bond yields, share prices and other variables suggests monetary policy is becoming looser, if anything…
In this environment further tightening presents asymmetric risk to the downside. Much better to let the economy run a bit hot and raise rates than exacerbate a deflationary environment...low inflation and thus low interest rates will likely remain the “only game in town”...
This week I read an interesting piece in the Atlantic which suggested that power causes brain damage. Many leaders actually lose mental capacities - most notably for reading other people - that were essential to their rise.
Is it perhaps useful to think of power as a prescription drug which comes with side effects? After 2 decades of lab research, Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, found that subjects under the influence of power acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.
Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar.
When he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy.
Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.
These findings are concerning as we look to those in our societies who have power including perhaps ourselves.
What blind spots has our power generated in ourselves and our leaders? Do these findings help to explain current political events and leadership styles? How much do they contribute to trends in income distribution, social stratification and investment returns?
What I found most interesting and perhaps most alarming about these findings is to set them in the context of another ill which society is currently suffering from: an inability to acknowledge error.
In a wonderful piece in The Economist a few weeks ago it was posited that humanity is getting worse at owning up to its gaffes.
Few enjoy the feeling of being outed for an error but real damage can be caused when the desire to avoid reckoning leads to a refusal to grapple with contrary evidence.
People often disregard information that conflicts with their view of the world. Why? Roland Bénabou, of Princeton, and Jean Tirole, of the Toulouse School of Economics posit that: “In many ways, beliefs are like other economic goods. People spend time and resources building them, and derive value from them. Some beliefs are like consumption goods: a passion for conservation can make its owner feel good, and is a public part of his identity, like fashion. Other beliefs provide value by shaping behaviour.
Because beliefs, however, are not simply tools for making good decisions, but are treasured in their own right, new information that challenges them is unwelcome. People often engage in “motivated reasoning” to manage such challenges. Mr Bénabou classifies this into three categories. “Strategic ignorance” is when a believer avoids information offering conflicting evidence. In “reality denial” troubling evidence is rationalised away: house-price bulls might conjure up fanciful theories for why prices should behave unusually, and supporters of a disgraced politician might invent conspiracies or blame fake news. And lastly, in “self-signalling”, the believer creates his own tools to interpret the facts in the way he wants: an unhealthy person, for example, might decide that going for a daily run proves he is well.”
These tendencies/biases linked to the desire to avoid acknowledging error are relatively harmless on a small scale but can cause major damage when they are widely shared or exhibited by those in power.
It is no wonder that motivated reasoning is a cognitive bias which better-educated people are especially prone. This takes us back to the research on how power can cause the brain to become more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of views.
As investors, but more broadly as humans we would do well to recognize how these tendencies cross-pollinate and threaten to wreak havoc on our decision making and its outcomes.
Particularly as we accumulate success and thus power we become more vulnerable. Blinded by our own righteousness, increasingly unable to consider differing narratives, facts, perspectives, ideas and at times even reality.
What can be done to avoid these blind spots? Research finds that humility can go a long way to counter such tendencies. Yet to build humility, experiences of powerlessness may be key.
By experiencing or at minimum recounting moments of powerlessness, you maintain a connection or “groundedness” in reality.
When was the last time you felt powerless? The last time you made an error? Hold onto those moments. They may more important than you think.
Ideas from Logos LP
Huntington Ingalls Industries (NYSE: HII)
Logos LP in the Media
Our 2016 Annual Letter to Shareholders Published by ValueWalk
Thought of the Week
"It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows." -Epictetus
Articles and Ideas of Interest
- My algorithm is better than yours. Just 10% of trading is regular stock picking estimates JPMorgan. The majority of equity investors today don't buy or sell stocks based on stock specific fundamentals. No wonder the world’s fastest growing hedge funds are quant funds and robots are eating money managers lunches.
- Finland tests a new form of welfare. An experiment on the effect of offering the unemployed an unconditional income. Interesting piece in The Economist chronicling Mr Jarvinen who was picked at random from Finland’s unemployed (10% of the workforce) to take part in a two-year pilot study to see how getting a basic income, rather than jobless benefits, might affect incentives in the labour market. He gets €560 ($624) a month unconditionally, so he can add to his earnings without losing any of it. Finland’s national welfare body will not contact him directly before 2019 to record results. I see this happening more often in the developed world. Something to keep an eye on.
- Stop fooling yourself about 8% returns. Nice piece in Gadfly suggesting that There's an amazing amount of denial going on right now. Investors are simply ignoring current market dynamics and are still expecting average annual returns of 8.6 percent, according to a Legg Mason Inc. survey of income investors released this week. Those who were employed expected more than 9 percent gains, with retirees expecting less. Actual returns have come in markedly lower of late, but hopes remain high. It is important that investors become realistic. If they're not, fund managers will try to serve their hopes and dreams, making the financial system all the more fragile for it.
- The web makes it harder to read market sentiment. The internet swept away the old-school financial pundits, turning the public forum into the Wild West. Inflammatory click bait filled with extreme opinions has found its way into ordinary discourse. Not too long ago, anyone who held radical opinions about markets, individual stocks (or even politics) could freely opine about them, just as today. But it was local and contained; those with idiosyncratic opinions could only scare their friends and neighbors, one at a time, at backyard BBQs and school plays. That is no longer the case as “crash”, “hyperinflation”, “monetary debasement” are becoming more common than “value investing”, “long-term” and “prudence” ;).
- The cheapest generation. Why millennials aren’t buying cars or houses and what that means for the economy. Younger generations simply haven’t started spending yet….But what if this assumption is simply wrong? What if Millennials’ aversion to car-buying isn’t a temporary side effect of the recession, but part of a permanent generational shift in tastes and spending habits? It’s a question that applies not only to cars, but to several other traditional categories of big spending—most notably, housing. And its answer has large implications for the future shape of the economy—and for the speed of recovery. After all the old are eating the young. Around the world, a generational divide is worsening.
- The older we get, the person we spend the most time with is the one we see in the mirror. QZ reports that time with friends, colleagues, siblings, and children diminishes over the course of a lifetime. One doesn’t have to be alone to be lonely. More than half of the lonely respondents in the UCSF study lived with a partner. To feel connected to others, it seems, the number of hours spent on relationships is less important than the quality of the relationship itself.
Our best wishes for a fulfilling week,