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Shakespeare was right.  In Hamlet, one character, Polonius, counsels his son “neither a lender or borrower be.”

While not entirely realistic, then or now, it does have a grain of truth in it.  Too much debt limits one’s flexibility and options.  If you borrow too much, you are forced to service that debt with resources that can’t be used for other things.  If you lend too much, you are at risk of never seeing your money again (or being forced to take less when your borrower defaults).

Cash Flow Impacts Personal, Corporate and National Choices

This is as true for individuals as for sovereign nations and corporations. You can’t eat your shoes or your car.

You may have assets but without cash flow, the grease that keeps the system running smoothly, you can only keep going for so long.  Just ask your neighbor who has lost a job and run out of unemployment benefits.  While the house, car and stereo all are assets with value, unless he can turn them into cash he can’t use them to eat. And when you’re forced to sell them, don’t expect to get the same sort of cash money price for them. Boon to the buyer but not to the seller.

Debt Crises and Dominoes

Earlier this year, the banking crisis in Greece occupied the top spot in the headlines.  While a loan from the EU backed by the Eurozone’s largest and most healthy economy so far, Germany, placed a bandage over the immediate crisis, structural problems persist.  This has led the Greek government to roll out a number of stringent and very unpopular austerity measures.

At the time, the open question was how would this crisis in Greece impact the rest of Europe.  No country in the developed world has been spared by the current global recession and slow down.  Would this create a domino effect where weak economies lost the faith of the markets and were forced into their own crises?

The Story of the PIIGS – Scarier Than the Bedtime Story

The targets to watch were the PIIGS of Europe:  Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain.

Each of these economies have structural deficit issues and are the weakest links in the Eurozone chain.

Just like the children’s tale, these little PIIGS are threatened with being gobbled up but in this case by the firm hand of the market in the form of higher interest rates and loss of investor confidence needed to keep their debts financed.

Sure, there is the potential for bailout from other Eurozone members. While Germany continues to be a relatively strong economy, it alone cannot support all of these economies.

So Ireland is the latest victim to the excesses of easy credit.  Now their economy and banks are saddled with real estate loans gone sour and no one to buy the leftovers. Even Great Britain, not part of the EU, has its own issues that they are trying to tackle by implementing severe cuts in their social services, government programs and employment.

Cash Flow and Jobs Closer to Home

Looking back to 2008, the loss of faith in the financial system by nearly everyone cut off the money lifeline to otherwise solvent businesses.  Companies with lots of assets (real estate, machinery, equipment and workers) lacked the cash to continue operations.  Typically, a business (and governments, too) finance themselves from short-term borrowing to cover operational and payroll costs while waiting on the collection of accounts receivable.

But when the faith in getting repaid dried up so did the credit forcing many to the brink.

Eventually, here in the US we saw the Fed and the federal government step in to provide the needed liquidity to the system.

Now while other economies are being forced to make unpleasant choices about their economic structure and priorities, we in the US continue to avoid any real adult discussion about our own issues.  Since market investors continue to buy up our public debt, we continue to run as if nothing has changed.

As the world’s primary reserve currency, we continue to benefit from the world’s use of the US dollar as a safe haven.  But as has happened to Greece, Ireland and companies like Lehman Brothers before them, a flick of a switch can change investor sentiment and the near-term financing needed to keep our economic engine running can be shut off.

Whether or not this will lead the political classes to do what is right in the long-term (beyond the next election cycle) to get our finances in order is another open question.  The President’s debt commission has come out with a number of laudable, if not popular or pleasant, options that offer ways to share the pain to make sacrifices that will keep us on track for continued economic growth and national security. Unless we follow through and take up the hard choices that have otherwise been forced on other nations, we risk our own crises more nightmarish than we have seen as we are forced to make bad or worse choices with limited options.

Let the adult conversation begin.

 

 

 

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After the Dow Industrials reached their peak on October 9, 2007, there was a long, painful decline to the trough reached on March 9, 2009.  During that time the DJIA lost 54% but was followed by a rally of 70%. Even with this spectacular run up through 2009, the index never reached it peak. While closer now after a good 2010 it, the peak is still a long climb up the mountain.  In fact, to break even from a 50+% loss requires a disproportionate increase (more than 100%) just to “get back to where you once belonged” as the classic rock song lyrics said.

Investors Win By Not Losing

As this roller coaster shows, its easier to keep what you have than try to rebuild it.  Unfortunately, after such volatility, investors tend to flee to places that are perceived to be safe.  For most that has created a flight to bonds. While investors think of risk as “loss of capital” the traditional views of risk continue to be turned on their head. Sure, you could stash your money away in a money market or under the mattress but what kind of return will that produce?  Will you have enough to eat more than dog food in retirement?

A recent documentary on the disaster at Pompeii and Herculaneum shows how many townspeople fled to the concrete tunnels near the wharves.  Considered a safe place, it ended up as a tomb to more than 300 skeletal remains. These hopeful survivors were trapped by the lava flows which sealed up the tunnels where they had fled.

In many ways, investors fleeing the danger of the markets by shifting to government bonds could be dooming themselves to a similar fate as the Pompeians.

The returns from “safe” Treasuries are pathetic.  Huge investor appetite has driven up to demand and helped lower the yields offered.  A backlash could hurt investors when interest rates rise as they inevitably have to.

If the goal is to preserve capital and avoid dangers, it shouldn’t matter to an investor what asset class is used.  (It’s Halloween.  Watch any scary movie and when the hapless victim is trapped he/she could care less whether the guy in the hockey mask is stopped by a dump truck or an arrow).

In much the same way, we should be looking at other ways to conserve capital.

Carrying Junk Around

Say “junk bonds” to someone and they may be thinking about Michael Milken in the 1980s or businesses on the brink of bankruptcy.  While these bonds are issued by companies with lower credit ratings, they offer a very good alternative to “safe” Government bonds. The point of diversification is to not put all your eggs in one basket.  Today most investors are torn between a savings account paying practically no interest or reaching for yield using alternatives.

The bond market prices the risks of bonds every day.  Currently, the bond market is pricing in a possibility of 6% default risk on junk bonds as a group.  That’s down from its historic number. Some individual bonds of companies may certainly be higher but as a group that’s not a bad number.  Some analysts at JP Morgan Chase have even estimated that the default risk for 2011 is as low as 1.4%.

Why so low? The projected default risk is low in part because companies are showing their highest level of profits in years.  They have shed workers, squeezed productivity gains from those remaining and taken over market share as weaker competitors have failed. The prospects for these companies look even better considering that as a recession ends company cash flows improve.  This means more cash available to service debt. And as these companies improve so too will their credit ratings leading to lower interest rates that they can get when they refinance their debts just like any homeowner would who has an improved credit score.

Avoiding the Danger of a Secular Bear

In a secular bear market, there are rally periods while the markets as a whole may languish or sometimes drop.  During the secular bear from 1/1/1965 to 12/31/1985, a Buy and Hold bond investor would have been whipsawed but ending up gaining about 1 basis point (or 0.01%)  per year for 20 years.  Not a lot of payback for the sometimes stomach-churning ride over that time.

A More Tactical Approach to Risk Management

Not all bonds are the same.  There are government bonds, municipal bonds, US investment grade corporate bonds, US hi-yield/junk bonds, convertible bonds, bonds from overseas and bonds from emerging markets.  Just like every homeowner applying for a mortgage is different and has to go through different underwriting,  the characteristics of all these bonds are different as well.

For instance, hi-yield bonds are more likely subject to credit risk.  Since the rates on these types of bonds are higher than that found on a Government bond or investment grade corporate bond, they are not so sensitive to changes in interest rates.  On the other hand, Government bonds are more sensitive to interest rate risk and the perceptions about expected inflation or the impact of monetary and fiscal policy on future interest rates.

Since these two bond categories are influenced by different factors, they tend to not be correlated meaning that they don’t move in lock-step: When one is zigging the other is probably zagging in the opposite direction.

A key way to reduce risk and potentially increase returns when dealing with bonds is to rotate among the different bond types.  Sometimes the market conditions favor one flavor of bonds over another.  At other times it’s better to reduce all bond types and shift to cash or money markets.

Simply buying and holding means that gains made in one period may be taken away by another. If you’re able to make gains and take them off the table from time to time, you’ll have less money at risk and greater opportunities at preserving capital for the long term.

In the chart below, you can see that buying each of these major bond indexes can produce widely different results.  For nearly the same risk level (as measured by the standard deviation), US High Yield long term bonds have a clearly higher overall return and higher return during periods of higher interest rates than the long-term US Treasury index.

Bottom Line

Investors seeking ways to add income to their portfolio and reduce risk of loss to their capital really need to consider alternatives to buying and holding.  Rotating among these different bond asset types may reduce the overall volatility to the portfolio and preserve capital for the long term.

If you don’t want to end up like the victims of Mount Vesuvius and be buried by a “safe” move, you should open your minds to understand all the risks and ways to manage them.

Figure 1 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation/Nataxis Global Assoc, 10/27/2010)

Bond Index Annualized ReturnNov 1992 – Aug 2009 Standard Deviation (measure of risk) Annual Return During Rising Rate Period
BarCap US High Yield Long 10.45% 10.94 6.75%
BarCap US Corp Baa Investment Grade 6.97% 6.31 1.75%
BarCap US Aggregate Bond 6.46% 3.82 1.31%
BarCap LT US Treasury 8.11% 9.28 -0.40%

Figure 2 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation, 10/27/2010)

Bond Sector Credit Risk Interest Rate Risk Currency Risk
US High Yield High Low None
International Developed Market Low Medium High
Long-term US Government None High None
Emerging Market High Low High
US Municipal Low High None
US Investment Grade Corporate Low High None

Figure 3 (Source: BTS Asset Management Presentation, 10/27/2010)

CAPITAL PRESERVATION KEY to LONG-TERM SUCCESS
Loss Gain Needed to Get Back to Break Even

(15%)

+ 18%

(20%)

+ 25%

(30%) + 43%

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For individuals in retirement living on a fixed income, it can devastate one’s savings and lifestyle.

As a bond or CD-holder, the purchasing power of regular interest income gets hit.  As a stock investor, stock prices can suffer as profit margins and earnings of your equity holdings are hurt by the higher costs for inputs like energy, precious metals and labor.

Right now, Wall Street is in a good mood.  For the quarter just ended, the Dow has gained about 14%, the S&P increased 14.5% and the NASDAQ was up 15%.  In fact the last time the Dow saw such a large quarterly surge was back in the fourth quarter of 1998 when it rose more than 17% as the dot-com bubble was forming.

This quarter’s rally continued a trajectory that began in mid-March 2009.  It has been primarily propelled by glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel.  A variety of positive statements from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke contributed to a more optimistic view.  Residential real estate sales continued to come back mostly prompted by a first-time homebuyer tax credit.  Corporate earnings have been up.  The popular “cash for clunkers” program spurred auto sales and by some measures consumer spending increased marginally even without the impact from auto sales.

Despite the Wall Street rally, Main Street is still hurting: unemployment continues to rise, business and personal bankruptcies have increased, bank failures are at their highest level and the dollar continues to weaken fueling fears of inflation down the road.

Signs of future higher inflation are on the radar screen:  All the government economic stimulus here and abroad coupled with mounting public debt; the Fed’s projected end of a program in March 2010 that will likely lead to higher mortgage rates; a Fed interest rate policy which has no place to go but up and rumblings that foreign governments and investors may not want to continue at their current pace of supporting our debt habit. 

So how do you position yourself to profit whichever way the tide turns?

Now, more than ever, it is important to have a risk-controlled approach to investing.  This is centered on an age-based allocation that includes exposure to multiple assets.

This is why we will continue to manage portfolios with an allocation to bonds and fixed income but there are ways to protect from the impact of inflation and still allow for growth.

1.)    Include dividend-paying equities:  Using either mutual funds or ETFs that have a focus on dividend-paying stocks will help boost income as well as return.   Stocks that pay dividends have averaged near a 10% annual return compared to a total return less than half of that for stocks that rely solely on capital appreciation.  Better yet, consider stock mutual funds or ETFs that focus on stocks that have a record of rising dividends.

2.)    Stay short:  By owning bonds, ETFs or bond mutual funds that have a shorter average maturity, you reduce the risk of being locked into less valuable bonds when higher inflation pushes future interest rates up.

3.)    Hedge your bets with inflation-linked bonds: Fixed-rate bonds offer no protection against inflation. A bond that has changes linked to an inflation index (like the Consumer Price Index) like TIPS issued by the US-government or ETFs that own TIPS (like iShares TIPS Bond ETF – symbol TIP) offer an opportunity for a bond investor to get periodically compensated for higher inflation.

4.)    Float your boat with Floating-Rate Notes: These medium-term notes are issued by corporations and reset their interest rates every three or six months.  So if inflation heats up, the interest rate offered will likely increase.  Yields in general are higher than those offered by government bonds typically because of the higher credit risk of the issuer.

5.)    Add Junk to the Trunk: Hi-yield bonds are issued by companies that have suffered down-grades – sort of like homeowners with dinged credit getting a mortgage.  Yields are set higher than most other bonds because of the higher risk.  Yet, as inflation heats up with a growing economy, the prospects of firms that issue junk improve and the perceived risk of default may drop. So as the yield difference narrows between these “junk” bonds and Treasuries, these bonds offer a “pop” to investors.

6.)    Own Gold and Other Commodities:  Whether as a store of value or hedge against inflation, precious metals have a long history with investors seeking protection from inflation.  It’s usually best to focus on owning the physical gold or an ETF that is tied directly to the physical gold. Tax treatment of precious metals is higher because of its status as a “collectible” but this is a minor price to pay for some inflation protection.  And because the demand for commodities in general increases with an expanding economy or a weakening dollar (in the specific case with oil), owning funds which hold these commodities will help hedge against the inflationary impact of an expanding economy.

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