The Value Proposition of Hedge Funds Today – September 20
Sentiment toward hedge funds remains notably negative, with mediocre to poor returns the primary focus.
Dave McMillan, Mercer's Chief investment Officer for Hedge Funds spoke to what he considers the value proposition for hedge funds today – not coincidentally the same value proposition offered fifteen years ago when he created Hammond Associates' hedge fund consulting efforts (since acquired by Mercer). Namely:
- Generate Equity-Like Returns
- Generate Bond-Like Volatility
- Provide Downside Protection
- Diversify Interest Rate Risk – and –
- Diversify Equity Risk
Of course, any student of the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM) will recognize that the first two bullet points taken together imply a risk/return trade-off above and to the left of the Efficient Frontier – an enviable position if realized. The target return selected by Mercer at inception was cash (T-Bills) + 4%; a reasonable proxy for equity-like returns given the historical equity risk premium. Cumulative returns since 2005 show mixed results: On one hand, Mercer's realized experience hugging their target (cash + 3.8%) while falling short of replicating equity returns (here represented by the MSCI All-Country World Index) in an environment where realized risk premia have exceed the target; while on the other hand, the broader Hedge Fund Research Fund of Funds Composite Index (HFR FOF) has fallen far short of both equities and the cash + 4% target. On the risk side, both Mercer's experience and the Composite Index fulfilled the promise of bond-like volatility, measuring slightly above that of the BBg Barclays Aggregate Index.
As the name implies, hedging the downside risk is where Hedge Funds shined during the Global Financial Crisis. With a drawdown of value less than ¼ that of global equities, Mercer's funds were in a position to get back to their high-water marks a full four years ahead of the equity markets – not by out-earning equities in the recovery, but by preserving capital in the drawdown. This trend has continued for both Mercer and the HFR FOF Index in the 2015-16 and late 2018 market declines.
In examining beta to equities in the form of the MSCI ACWI and fixed income as represented by the BBg Barclays Aggregate Index, McMillan illustrated that hedge funds provide an almost unique source of diversification with low betas to both asset classes.
McMillan highlighted the returns available on a consistent basis to long/short investors that have not been historically available to long-only investors. The spread between the 66th and 33rd percentile global equity issues in any given year has averaged 23.5%, has been remarkably consistent, and, of course by construction, has been positive each year. McMillian was quick to point out having the opportunity and being able to harvest that spread are two different things.
Opportunities on the credit side arise for hedge funds as well that not all investors can participate in. Hedge funds can provide liquidity when institutional investors are forced to divest issues after downgrades or missed coupons. Furthermore, according to McMillan, they have the expertise and are in a position to drive favorable outcomes through their influence as members of credit committees and through restructuring.
McMillian cautioned that hedge funds are not homogeneous and should not be treated as an asset class – rather each should be viewed as an individual small business. On top of this, he warned against placing a portfolio's entire hedge fund allocation with a small number of managers. Finally, care should be taken not to substitute hedge funds for other classes simply because the fund invests in the space – a hedge fund with equity exposure is not a substitute for equities.
Most of the Q&A that followed focused on expenses. Though the original '2 and 20' structure has fallen in price, McMillan offered that he is still paying a fairly expensive 1.45% (of assets) and 17.5% carry. He pointed out that these are negotiated rates and newer manager are usually less expensive. Justifying the fees, he noted, "we pay for things I can't buy at Vanguard" and "More capital is destroyed by bad managers than fees." He was also questioned on the current opportunity set for hedge fund managers (long/short and distressed debt) and his turnover (roughly 8%).
McMillan left us with the thought that hedge funds are meant to perform over a complete business cycle. Recent underperformance has come late in one of the longest expansions in history. Hedge funds may well show their true value when the expansion ends.
Positioned for Success – August 21
10% of Charterholders serve in the role of financial advisor and 40% serve or manage individual assets.
This prompted the CFA Institute to conduct research in 2018 to investigate how the CFAI can differentiate its Charterholders in the High Net Worth (HNW) advisory market, articulate this message to HNW clients, and deliver value to its practitioner/members. Bob Dannhauser, CFA, Head, Global Private Wealth Management at the CFA Institute delivered these results to the membership over lunch at the St. Louis Club. Beginning with industry research, CFAI assembled focus groups of HNW investors and practitioners, both CFA Charterholders and non-CFA advisors. Survey were sent to those groups as well as CFA candidates. Results were collated by age and wealth levels.
- High Net Worth Individuals
- The search for a Private Wealth Manager (PWM) is often triggered by a referral or simply accumulating enough assets that it makes sense to seek professional advice.
- Relationships are sticky, but the main reasons for switching are clients' unhappiness with the PWM's performance or the retirement of the PWM.
- The biggest challenge HNW have in finding a Wealth Manager they like and trust is knowing the right questions to ask.
- More attention is being paid to credentials than in the past, but the CFP® designation is still better recognized than the CFA® (66% vs 43%). CFA Chaterholders are more recognized for their technical competence.
- The biggest surprise may have been the relatively high number of 25 to 39 year-olds with PWMs, though among those who don't have one, half feel they are comfortable managing their own investments, while 1/5th are concerned about receiving value for the cost.
- The top skillsets valued by HNW individuals by age were:
- 25-39 – knowledge of a variety of products
- 40-49 – Good listening skills
- 50+ (and overall) – Experience and savvy in investments
- Overall, about a quarter of HNW individuals report considering Fintech solutions over PWMs. As might be expected, the rate is twice as high in the 25-39 cohort than the 50+.
- CFA Members want to be seen as trusted advisors.
- Non-CFA advisors want to be regarded as reliable financial practitioners.
- CFAs are more pessimistic than non-chartered practitioners about being able differentiate themselves based on credentials.
- From the CFA Institute, Charterholders want:
- Intellectual capital vs. soft skills; programs to provide soft skills are not gaining traction at the CFAI level or from members.
- HNW awareness of the value of the CFA charter.
The CFA Institute estimates there may be as many as 126,000 HNW individuals over the age of 50 receptive to selecting a new PWM and 111,000 under 50 out of roughly 3 million (of all ages). To raise awareness, they've launched the media campaign: Does Your Wealth Manager Measure Up? centered around investing. In addition, they've launched he website www.the-right-question.org. Dannhauser closed with news that the campaign will be back on the market in October and showed an ad run on CNBC.
(For the pre-roll video presented at the meeting, click here)
Freight Futures – August 14
The trucking industry is 30% larger than the oil, natural gas, and coal industries combined. It is subject to large swings in supply and demand, and thus, prices. It is facing a current shortage of drivers. And it has had no way to hedge this variability in prices.
Craig Fuller, CEO and Founder of FreightWaves spoke to a small, but curious, audience at the St. Louis Club about the freight futures market his firm, with Nodal Exchange, launched in late March of this year. Currently trading eleven contracts on just seven of the most popular 'lanes', as the thousands of freight routes in the United States are called, the contracts are standardized 1,000 mile lots in specific lanes (e.g. LA-Dallas) that settle on a cash basis. As Fuller put it, "there's no danger of a trailer showing up at your loading dock."
There was immediate demand for trading as profitability of many firms turns on transportation costs. Almost every food company faces narrow margins that can turn on shipping costs. On the other hand, freight companies were looking for a way to manage demand in the face of limited, but sunk cost physical capacity and, more importantly, fluctuation in a driver supply running a chronic shortage. Many companies missing earnings expectations last year cited transportation costs as a major element.
The contracts are regulated futures with FreightWaves/Nodal Exchange acting as the clearing house. FreightWaves earns commissions on the contracts.
Questions from the audience touched on the specifics of the contracts noted above as well as taking advantage of FreightWaves' position as the leading source of information in the industry (they employ 30 journalists and seven PhDs). Fuller predicts driverless trucks are years out –the resistance is more political than technological. He also pointed out the utility of freight as a leading economic indicator with 30% of the GDP exposed to freight costs in one way or another.
Despite a late start and technical problems, the members enjoyed an insightful presentation and an inquisitive exchange.
Changing the Framework of Asset Manager Research – March 20
With the continual wearing-away of competitive returns, Tom Brakke, CFA contends that it is in the interest of both asset allocators and asset managers to improve the asset manager research process.
The compression of out-performance by asset managers is an old and oft-repeated story: from active mutual funds in the 1980s, to hedge funds a decade later, to private equity, success fosters competition among analysts and erosion of alpha. This makes selection of active managers more difficult over time. Brakke presented a framework to the attending members and guests with which to analyze that selection.
Brakke suggests looking for points of differentiation when evaluating asset managers and enumerates seven facets to examine. He points out that research suggests that to be successful in delivering alpha, a firm needs to be effective along all seven of these dimensions:
- Organizational Design
- Human Capital
- Flows, Scale, Capacity
For each of these facets, he rooted out the essential questions that allocators should be asking and how managers can best answer them.
Presenting a couple of complementary organizational models, Brakke offered a simple three factor model from Focus Consulting consisting of the interaction of Performance, Operations, and Distribution. Whereas typical manager research focuses on Performance (and just a subset of Performance at that), effective evaluation should take a holistic view of the firm under scrutiny and concentrate on the intersections. For example: where operations and distribution meet, probe the accuracy of the information used to market the investment strategy – are there capacity issues?
Brakke offered a list of sample questions to ask about the firm's organizational design. Allocators should ask which organizational characteristics add and which detract from the firm's value proposition. Managers should be prepared to explain why they are organized the way they are.
According to Brakke, allocators should not be focused on superficial people traits: years in the business, eloquence, familiarity, or even intelligence when it's not correlated with wisdom – but rather they should ask themselves what traits they want in a manager, what traits they wish to avoid, and how to test for those traits. In a broad sense, focus on the theory of the firm, hiring practices and processes, training and development, and organization of teams and units – especially in terms of diversity and breadth of capabilities. Managers must be able to articulate their plan for the effective development and use of their human capital. Underlying any assessment of human capital is the realization that investment roles are, and will continue to be, changing.
Citing Charlie Ellis's What It Takes, Brakke pointed out culture is one of the keys to success for a professional firm and presented Stanley Herman's "Cultural Iceberg" model – the formal, overt aspects of the firm, they way they say they get things done, being the smaller, visible tip of the iceberg. The larger, hidden piece of the firm's culture – its beliefs, attitudes, norms and other informal, covert aspects – are how things 'really' get done. Brakke presented two more models for understanding: a two-dimensional representation with stability/flexibility representing one axis and independence/interdependence representing the other (from the research of Groysberg et al.) and a model from the intelligence alliance Five Eyes illustrating the tensions that push teams together or pull them apart.
In encounters with managers, Brakke urged allocators to act like anthropologists or investigative journalists – spending more time discovering information that is not common knowledge. Documentation should be done outside time spent with the manager and 'investment chatter' kept to a minimum. Allocators should develop strategies to designed to get at deeper cultural issues within the subject organization. Managers should understand the distinguishing aspects of their culture and how the reveal them.
The respective goals, according to Brakke, are for the asset manager to create the narrative and the asset allocator to crack it. Unfortunately, in practice, 95% of what an asset allocator reports to their principal is the manager's original narrative. Allocators must form insights independent of the manager's narrative and managers, ideally, should craft a narrative that generates a deep understanding of what they do.
Brakke presented a simplified investment funnel ranging from the universe of securities through screens, research, and candidate issues to portfolio inclusion. Focus, he argues, should be on the break-points between the stages of the process: Where is value added? Where do errors occur? What behavioral guardrails are in place? Stress changes the process and in a complex adaptive system, he notes, consistent and repeatable processes lose while continuous improvement wins.
A process is often marketed, but the marketed version is not the true process. Process is inferred from performance and allocators must ask themselves if they are spending enough time digging into the details of the advertised investment process. Asset managers need to probe how deep they can go into describing their investment process.
Often, performance dominates all other considerations in asset manager evaluation, but short-term, luck often dominates skill says Brakke. Long-term we assume skill plays the largest role in performance, but it may take 25 to 30 years before that is a settled question. There are genuine business and career risks for an allocator who persists in placing capital with a manager who is under-performing in the short term, but according to the model Brakke presented from Scott Stewart's Manager Selection, chasing performance on a cycle dominated by luck may exacerbate under-performance. Presenting a list of performance evaluation problems, including the performance compression effects presented at the beginning of the talk, Brakke suggests the allocator should not look to performance for answers, but to generate questions. For the allocator: Are they willing to design out performance chasing? For asset managers: Does their performance presentation tend to exacerbate that tendency?
FLOWS, SCALE, & CAPACITY
Brakke presented several findings regarding performance and fund flows (performance affects fund flows and vice versa) and scale (bad for future performance) and introduced the concept of 'auto-flow', the stage at which the money into an investment product decreases in terms of quality while its volume increases. As he put it, "This is a business of herding." Allocators should ask themselves if they reassess alpha for flows, scale, and capacity, while asset managers should determine how robust their own models are.
Answering questions from the audience, Brakke offered that to avoid 'short-term-itis' (regarding performance), you "need to do the ground work up front" to manage expectations. When asked about Artificial Intelligence (AI), he reiterated this opening observation that alpha has been, and continues to be, eroded and will be in the future as more analysts are drawn to the profession and AI improves.
For more from Tom Brakke, see his recent article for the CFA Institute, "Disruption and Differentiation".
An Investment Odyssey – early 2019 Global Market Perspective – February 20
The Hilton Frontenac St. Louis hosted the CFA Society St. Louis and guest speaker Chris Dillon, CFA, Investment Specialist, Capital Markets at T. Rowe Price. Bringing a unique analysis from his studies as a history major (in addition to finance), Dillon unloaded a Gatling gun's-worth of informational slugs and views at the audience regarding T. Rowe Price's global market perspective - early-2019 version.
Noting that T. Rowe Price was 'taking something off' after the recent run-up, Dillon allowed that there were still worries over the current US-China trade war posturing and the flat yield curve. What's different at the moment, Dillion says, is the FOMC which has backed off its more aggressive rate hike posture. Also troubling Dillon is an 'earnings recession' now that the tax rate reductions introduced by the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act has washed through companies' financials.
Globally, he pointed to a chart showing the close correlation between the MSCI All-World ex-US equity index and weakness in the U.S. dollar. That weakness began to reverse early in 2018 as the Fed started to unwind its balance sheet. Peaking near $4.5 trillion, Dillion does not expect assets and liabilities to fall to the pre-Great Recession levels of $800 billion ('maybe $3 trillion'). Like Odysseus, Dillion noted, it may take ten years for the Fed to return 'home'. Meanwhile, he observed, 'Fed Funds died with QE' as an effective lever in the machinery of central banking in the U.S. as excess reserve balances have eliminated the need for Fed Funds.
And with the strengthening of the dollar, how will various overseas markets fare? Not so well in the case of Europe which, Dillon points out, has little of its economy invested in information technology and faces the financial drag of zombie banks. Emerging markets will fare better, especially China where nearly 60% of their economy is driven by the financial and IT sectors and, with 1.6 billion people with little expectation of privacy, data or otherwise, have a goldmine of data for AI technology to exploit. Dillon expects China to prevail regarding trade policy as well, seeing superficial concessions on soybeans and steel while conceding little ground on intellectual property. He sees China expanding its trade capabilities outside the U.S. with its One Belt, One Road initiative.
Before opening the floor for questions, Dillion highlighted his takeaways:
- As quantitative tightening continues to replace quantitative tightening, we expect market behavior patterns to change
- And in an environment of rapid change, value investing trends may be prospectively unique
- The U.S. dollar is a key factor for determining what to expect from international and emerging market equity classes
- As material clouds have formed around the investment environment, we expect active management to matter increasingly more
In the Q&A, he revealed his concern over the U.S. budget deficit, advised that creditworthiness of high-yield and corporate issues be reviewed – suggesting there may be value in munis, and reiterated the importance of currency movements as a driver of market in 2019.
Investing in Tomorrow – A Presentation on Thematic Investing – February 6
Electric Vehicles. Lithium. IoT. FinTech.
Just a few of the thematic ideas presented by Jay Jacobs, CFA – Head of Research & Strategy at Global X ETFs. Contrasting Thematic Investing to Factor Investing, Jacobs expressed Thematic Investing as forward-looking and paradigm-changing as opposed to harvesting alpha from factors that are, backward-looking, cyclical and mean-reverting. In constructing ETFs (and indices to support them), Global X takes a top-down/bottom-up approach, looking for disruptive macro trends (e.g., robotics and AI), then identifies companies well-positioned to exploit those trends.
What makes a theme attractive? According to Jacobs, there needs to be a high level of conviction around the theme. As an example, he offered 'lithium' as a viable theme thanks to a well-defined use case, while something as ephemeral as 'space' is, at present, more of an exploratory concept than a defined theme. Investability is key as well with a minimum of 20 and preferably 25-30 companies in the space. Viable themes should also avoid cyclicality, opting instead to focus on one-off paradigm shifts that follow an S-Curve of growth, often over 5 years or more, on the way to permanent adoption.
To illustrate his point, Jacobs presented four specific themes:
ROBOTICS & AI
Robots have been around for decades on manufacturing – why would they be a growth theme now? According to Jacobs, the answer lies in the aging populations of industrialized countries, especially Japan and China, where the trend is accompanied by rising labor costs – and performance improvements in manufacturing, military applications, medicine, transportation, and agriculture. China and the U.S. are far behind high robot-density markets like South Korea and Japan.
Currently, 60% of lithium use is industrial with 40% of demand coming from battery production. Jacobs thinks those numbers will reverse soon. What is the source of the demand? Electric vehicles (EVs) according to Jacobs. Costs of EVs are falling as manufacturers have been able to scale up production. Demand has also benefitted from government intervention in the form of subsidies and emissions regulation. All major auto manufacturers are investing in EVs. Why is this pushing lithium up the S-curve? Consumer demand so far has been driven by smart phones and other small devices. A single EV uses over 10,000x the lithium as a smart phone and it seems unlikely auto manufacturing would revert to carbon fuels.
THE INTERNET OF THINGS (IoT)
IoT, a web of connected devices that connect, interact, and exchange data, is riding simultaneous waves of rapidly falling costs, improved internet speeds and connectivity (with 5G on the horizon), strong consumer demand, and growing commercial adoption according to Jacobs. It is being expressed as driverless cars, smart cities (for example, trash cans connected to the internet to make servicing them more efficient), smart homes (Nest, smart toasters), and robotics (see above). Who benefits? Connected device manufacturers (e.g., fitbit), communication providers (the IoT 'pipeline'), and chip manufacturers.
Jacobs points out Fintech provides advantages to the customer and provider alike. The customer gets anytime, anywhere service, personalized experience, and real-time data. On the operations side, there is reduced operations risk, enhanced financial risk management, scalability, and a source of data to fuel predictive analytics. Fintech is really taking off in large, emerging markets. India & China's middle classes are growing at 6% per annum and further growth is being pushed by the ease of digital remittance and demonetization, particularly in India. Finally, because Fintech scales so well, incremental costs are zero so the market is expanding to include small accounts that were previously too expensive to be bankable.
Jacobs noted that these trends are interconnected.
Expanding on questions from the audience, Jacobs expressed his view that in assessing the relative value between AI platforms, algorithms, and data, data was the hardest to replicate and the most valuable, noting that based on their size and lack of expectation of privacy, China had a large advantage. Regarding geopolitical risk, he answered there is always tension between diffusion and protection of technology.
Other questions asked about the creation and lag time of tracking indices for the ETFs (Global X works with index providers to create custom indexes six-twelve months prior to the ETF launch) and the impact the recent cold snap might have had on EV adoption (though cold weather negatively impacts range and recharge times, adding to 'range anxiety', advances in battery chemistry are working to adapt to differentiated environments).
Finally, recalling Buffett's observation about another permanent, disruptive technology, ("investors have poured their money into airlines and airline manufacturers for 100 years with terrible results,") a questioner asked if identifying the themes necessarily led to good investments. Jacobs replied that the technologies presented today were scalable and, unlike a commoditized product like air flight, were protected by economic moats making them sustainable, investable, themes.
The Growth of Passive Investing and Its Impact on the Market – January 30
Around 70 members, candidates, and guests braved the frigid weather to meet and hear Christopher Escobar and Ivan Cajic of ITG deliver insights on the state of the Indexing industry.
And industry it is, with the major index providers, S&P Dow Jones, MSCI, and FTSE Russell, providing the bulk of the indices (though new entrants are challenging) and global growth in passive investing doubling in less than seven years to reach $13.5 trillion. As a portion of investment in U.S. equities alone, passive investment makes up $6.5 trillion or roughly 45% of the public float. For many firms, passive investment makes up over 20% of total ownership.
According to Cajic, Head of Global Index & ETF Research at ITG, demand is being driven by low cost, ESG (Environmental, Social, & Governance) criteria, factor/smart beta investing, and foreign market access. Low cost indexing has arisen as cost transparency has increased and as a result of consumer demand via innovation like robo-advisors. Passive index fund expenses have fallen into the single basis point range for U.S. equity and fixed income as well as developed markets, with emerging markets only slightly costlier according to ITG at 11-14 bp. ESG (e.g., firms with a low carbon footprint, strong corporate governance) has become more popular with a growth in consistent criteria for index inclusion. Factor and smart beta strategies are a hybrid of passive and active – often with liquidity, volatility, or momentum overlays. Demand for access to foreign markets, especially China and other emerging markets, has further driven demand for passive indices and funds targeted at those markets.
U.S.-China Trade Relationship – January 23
In the last of three programs in January centered around the economic outlook, Dr. Yi Wen, Assistant Vice President – Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis1, spoke to the CFA St. Louis membership at the
St. Louis Club on the US-China Trade Relationship: A Macroeconomic Perspective.
Dr. Wen observed that the U.S. trade balance ran a surplus until the 1970s. The trade deficit began with the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement and the abandonment of the fixed dollar-to-gold exchange rate. Since then, the U.S. trade deficit had been growing in absolute terms and relative to GDP. There has been a concurrent rise in foreign holdings of U.S. Treasury debt (35% of debt outstanding) and the holding of dollars as foreign reserves.
Wen gave evidence the decline of manufacturing employment in the U.S. was primarily due to structural changes brought on by productivity growth, much like the decline in agricultural employment in the first half of the twentieth century, rather than the result of the trade deficit and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. What then is the rationale for a trade war with China?
Dr. Wen points to a recent Bloomberg article by Stephen Roach, "Is China Really Cheating?", that asserts there is no evidence supporting the main allegations:
In fact, data showed foreign intellectual property payments to the U.S. grew 20-fold in the 1999-2017 period, and China's share grew 11x – faster than their GDP.
Wen predicted the effects of tariffs will:
- Make imports to the U.S. costlier
- Make exports from the U.S. more expensive
- Shift the trade deficit to other countries
- Not increase exports to China
He went on to suggest a trade war becomes a 'strategic gift' to China, internationalizing the renminbi, encouraging more government investment in science & technology, and spurring them into a leadership role in globalization.
So why China? Wen contends the trade deficit has followed labor-intensive industry's off-shoring from Japan to the Asian Tigers to China. To compete, Dr. Wen thinks the U.S. needs to reform its education system, invest more in infrastructure, science, & technology, and redistribute trading profits.
In taking questions, Dr. Wen was asked to predict the 'winner' of the current trade war ('who knows?'), and to comment on the life-cycle of nations, what portion of the trade imbalance is due to unfair practices, and whether imbalances due to changes in relative advantages could be deemed 'unfair'.
Wen likened China's position to that of the U.S. in the 19th century. He argued that the size of the United States allowed it take over from Great Britain as a global powerhouse – the same factor that will let China succeed where Japan failed. He thinks it will be at least 50 years before the renminbi will take over from the dollar as the world's reserve currency as first China will need to force trade in the currency, stabilize the RMB, and have a robust futures market.
1Dr. Wen reminded the audience that his opinions were his and not those of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
2019 Macroeconomic Outlook – January 17, 2019
Anne Vandenabeele, Economist at Capital Group, delivered her firm's 2019 outlook before a large crowd at the St. Louis Club.
Recapping developments of the last quarter, she observed that the S&P 500 was down 19.8% on the close and 23% intraday from 2018 highs, if not technically a bear market certainly close enough to be wary. Though there are conflicting signals as to whether a recession is looming, we are 'starting to see contours of the next recession'. She feels those causal factors will be:
GLOBAL TIGHTENING: Despite Chairman Powell signaling a pause in rate hikes for the next FOMC meeting, planned hikes and quantitative tightening will proceed apace.
A SLOWING CHINA ECONOMY: Not just due to U.S. tariffs, but 55% of Chinese firms have been impacted by the tariffs and 25% of those affected are cutting CapX and other spending.
FISCAL POLICY: Countries have increased their deficits despite being in the boom stage of their economic cycles. This has been built on low interest rates, but now they are rising. The U.S. tax cut has washed through the economy and the partial government shutdown is costing an estimated 10-15 bp in GDP each week.
Right now though, the U.S. economy is fundamentally sound with low unemployment and inflation hovering around the Fed's target of 2%. So what tripwires should we look for? According to Vandenabeele:
EMPLOYMENT: The unemployment rate stops declining before recessions.
INFLATION: The New York Fed's Underlying Inflation Gauge (UIG) forecasts inflation rising to 2.5 – 3.0%
BUILDING DEBT IMBALANCES: Corporate debt levels have risen as borrowing is being used to pay dividends and buy back shares in excess of free cash flows.
Ms. Vandenabeele wrapped up quickly and left plenty of time for Q&A where she dealt with: China's recent fiscal stimulus moves (limited effect from rate cuts – not likely to curb their slow-down), feedback loops between 10-year rates and the stock market, why the U.S. is doing better than the rest of the world (a slow-down in oil demand hurting exporters and the consumer-driven nature of the U.S. economy), and the outlook for the U.S. Dollar (the U.S. is close to its maximum inflation & interest rate differential – there may be a weakening in the dollar though a global recession and a flight to quality would be good for the dollar). Responding to a question about leverage, Vandenabeele pointed out that there has not been an increase in interest coverage for some firms because they took advantage of lower rates to lever up. The worst offenders may be looking at a dividend cut when rates rise. Sovereign debt levels have also continued to grow, but households have, by and large, managed to de-lever. The exceptions are low income households and new workforce entrants (thanks to student debt).
Addressing a question about the yield curve's power in predicting a recession, Ms. Vandenabeele offered that Capital Group's adjustments signal a much lower chance of recession than that predicted by the raw yield curve data. After fielding questions about the conflicting data signals being seen by the FOMC and PG&E's bankruptcy, she turned to global issues, opining that political instability was 'important, but not critical' and driven in part by the rising share of GDP flowing to profits at the expense of labor. Expectations are low enough in Europe that surprises are more likely on the upside than the downside.
This was the second of three broad economic presentations to kick off the new year, following on the heels of January 10th's Annual Forecast Dinner where public policy issues were addressed. The series concludes January 23rd when Dr. Yi Wen, Assistant Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, speaks on the US-China Trade Relationship: Past, Present, & Future.
Forecast Dinner – January 10, 2019
2019 kicked off in grand style as the CFA Society St. Louis hosted its Annual Forecast Dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Clayton.
Members and guests noted an addition to the program this year on their arrival. Member Zheng Liu, CFA greeted the attendees with solo piano to accompany the pre-dinner conversation and drinks. She was followed by vocalist/guitarist John Dutemple, CFA before the remaining members of The Charters – all members of the CFA Society St. Louis – took the stage: Winnie Cai, CFA-vocals/drums and Steve Jones, CFA-vocals/bass/guitar/keys.
The crowd filtered into the ballroom to hear the speakers for the evening. President Paul Simmons, CFA kicked off the program, noting that 2019 is a special year for the CFA Society St. Louis – our 70th Anniversary! He thanked those that make the Society work and asked for recognition from the audience: the volunteers and especially Joan Hecker, our Executive Director. Added to the list of thanks were those that made the event special, the band and the evening's sponsors: Kennedy Capital Management, PIMCO, and Voya Financial.
Always a highlight of the Forecast Dinner, Vice-President Nong Lin, CFA joined President Simmons to give out the Bullseye Awards for 2018's market predictions and the Volunteer of the Year Award. Winners were:
- S&P 500: Josh Snyder, CFA, GQG Partners
- 10-Year Treasury Yield: Kevin Schultz, CFA, NISA Investment Advisors, LLC
- Crude Oil: Greg Ferguson, CFA, Wells Fargo
- Stock Selection: Tom Eidelman, CFA, Eidelman Virant Capital with his pick of Renewable Energy Group, Inc. (REGI)
- Volunteer of the Year: John Dutemple, CFA, Compton Advisors, LLC
After reminding the membership of upcoming events, President Simmons turned the night over to the featured speaker of the evening, Libby Cantrill, CFA and Moderator Christine Sinicrope.
Ms. Cantrill, a regular contributor the Bloomberg and CNBC, is a Managing Director and head of Public Policy for PIMCO. She is a member of PIMCO's Americas Committee and Co-Head of their New York office. She is a founding member of PIMCO Parents and PIMCO Women. Prior to PIMCO, she served as a legislative aide to a member of Congress. In her role at PIMCO, she helps coordinate the firm's response to public policy issues and analyzes policy & political risk for the firm's Investment Committee. She brought those insights to her discussion with Ms. Sinicrope.
Cantrill's thoughts on the Federal government shutdown:
- The highest visibility is at the TSA though there are about 800,000 Federal employees that have now gone without a paycheck
- No quick compromise as both sides are politically entrenched
- Any declaration of a National Emergency to reallocate funding to a border wall would be immediately contested in court and, if upheld, set a bad precedence.
- She shared the estimate that the shutdown could cost 10 bp in GDP for every week it continues.
Her thoughts on trade:
- Markets underestimated President Trump's resolve on trade
- The appointment of Robert Lighthizer as U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) signaled the President's seriousness. Lighthizer curbed Japanese steel exports to the U.S. with threats of tariffs when he was Deputy USTR under Ronald Reagan.
- The U.S. trade position with China is anathema to their 'Made in China 2025' plan
Her thoughts on the economy in 2019:
- Recession is unlikely (30%) in 2019
- Real GDP growth in the 2.1% - 2.2% range
- Auto tariffs are coming
- Any investigations of the President's administration under Speaker Pelosi will be deliberate and focused
- There is an appetite for a bipartisan agreement on regulating internet companies where privacy is concerned, but Congress needs to give the SEC more authority before that can happen
- Many positions remain unfilled at Treasury under the current administration
Ms. Cantrill also addressed the importance of diversity of race, gender, and opinion to the industry and the steps that PIMCO has taken towards that ongoing standard.
Questions from the floor touched on the impact of the deficit on the currency trade and international equities relative to the U.S., foreign policy, Michael Bloomberg's 'green' platform, and the true extent of the shutdown.
Navigating Tax Reform, Key Provisions Impacting Investors - December 6, 2018
Dan Thieret and Luke Pope of CliftonLarsonAllen LLP met with membership at the St. Louis Club to present an overview of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (Tax Act) and Opportunity Zone Funds December 6.
Mr. Thieret kicked off the discussion by briefly reviewing the highlights of the Tax Act's changes for Individuals, Businesses, and Estates, specifically:
For individuals and families:
- Lowering of the marginal tax rates (generally)
- Raising of the Standard Deduction
- Capping the deduction of State and Local taxes
- Repeal of the Personal Exemption
- . . . and more
Thieret shared his observation that in over 99% of the cases he's examined, his clients pay less tax under the new rules.
Businesses find their corporate tax rate falling to 21% and are benefitting from bonus depreciation along with an increase in Section 179 limits. Certain pass-through businesses will benefit from a 20% net income deduction while the domestic manufacturing deduction is being repealed. Some changes favor businesses, especially small businesses, while others like changes in net operating loss treatment, removal of entertainment expense deductions, and interest deductibility limits negatively impact businesses.
On the estate tax side, the estate tax exemption was raised to nearly $11.2 million per person.
Mr. Thieret fielded questions from the floor including the impact of the changes on farmers, Roth conversion strategies, and charitable giving strategies under the new rules.
Luke Pope then shared information on an aspect of Tax Act that was not as well-known: Opportunity Zones.
Created by the Tax Act to spur economic development and job creation in economically distressed areas (as designated by states' Governors), investments in Opportunity Zones provide investors with the ability to shelter from taxes some existing capital gains as well as 100% of capital gains on reinvested funds placed into a Qualified Opportunity Fund (QOF) and held for 10 years.
According to Pope, capital gains reinvested into a QOF within 180 days can be deferred until the end of 2026 of the QOF investment is sold (if sooner). Furthermore, 10% of the deferred gains are excluded if the QOF investment is held for 5 years – 15% if held for 7 years. Gains in the QOF itself will be untaxed if held for ten years.
Questions focused on the structure and mechanics of QOFs and the tax treatment of depreciation and losses.