Rings of Fear

September 3, 2007

August certainly didn’t seem like a month that would end better than it began. The S&P 500 was up just over 1% - not exactly a barnburner, but given the turmoil in July and early August, nothing short of a miracle - and certainly the result of some sort of divine intervention.

That divine intervention involved no less a deity than the Chairman of the Federal Reserve himself, who in mid-August reversed what appeared to be a true stock market death spiral – a black hole increasing in velocity and scope as it sucked down an increasing number of (former) market standouts.

While we’ve yet to witness the true bloodletting that is the housing bust (massive foreclosures, falling home prices, a retreat in economic activity,) the simple fear of this now inevitable future has caused sufficient market panic. Lenders stuck holding trillions of dollars in mortgages (1st lien, 2nd lien, and even say-it-ain’t-so, 3rd lien loans) have resorted to selling apples and even – gasp! - Apple stock in the street to raise money. Because nobody, but nobody wants to touch investments backed  by the now-tenuous American Dream.

Nobody, that is, except the so-called lender of last resort – the Federal Reserve.

According to some reliable sources, there are several rings in Hades, with different levels of fear and suffering associated with each one. In the markets, these rings of fear are based upon your personal relationship to the money you are managing.

The deepest ring of fear in Hades involves losing your own money (YOM). Market drops have a significant impact on the investor psyche. No one wants to lose money, even if that money did just materialize out of thin air, thanks to a strong market. The Dow is still much higher than it was only a year or two ago, so you’d think that investors would be perfectly calm about losing some of those gains. This is not generally the case, however, perhaps because some investors only recently broke even after making ill-timed bubble purchases.

The second, and arguably the largest ring of fear in Hades, involves losing other people’s money (OPM). The managers of the Bear Sterns “Subprime A-Go-Go” funds have probably lost a few nights' sleep since they wiped out the bulk of their clients’ accounts in leveraged bets gone bad as bankers began questioning the wisdom of various brave new world loan features like Ninja, No Doc, Piggy Back, Neg Am, IO, and others. While the fear of potentially losing your year-end bonus or even your job is enough to induce insomnia in even the soundest sleeper, managing OPM usually affords you the vision to see the forest in spite of the trees. At least, that is, until a logger begins cutting down the trees around you, without so much as shouting "TIMBER!" first.

The third ring involves writing about other people’s money (WAOPM). Certainly, reporters and analysts can separate sound from fury in the market, and the pain of being wrong falls somewhere between a mosquito bite and a paper cut. Hence, the plethora of articles with titles like “Buy on the Dips,” and “Tech Funds to Buy Now that the Nasdaq is Down 10% from 5,000” that we saw after the last bubble market.

Today’s WAOPM favorites remind home buyers that buying is always smarter than renting and home prices never fall – the "stocks always beat bonds" rationale of the real estate bubble. This last part was recently revised to “home prices might fall, but surely never more than 10%, and then they'll recover in a year or two.” Even Hades' third ring of fear (the 4th estate) is still connected to real monetary losses. Even if the writers' own 401(k) plans and houses remain intact, the emails they receive from desperate housewives and househusbands may tell a different story altogether. In the past, these unfortunate folks were merely worried that they might need to return to work due to losses in their formerly five star tech “value” fund. Today’s emails, however, reveal the fears of house flips gone flop and the aftermath of adjustable rate home equity line investments in stainless steel appliances.

The fourth ring in Hades is the most Zen of them all. Take a look at Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s face during his next appearance. Even in the midst of a trillion dollar loss in global market value, this guy's as cool as a cucumber. Is he paid in government bonds? How does he remain so composed? It's simple. Benny and the Jets (NY Fed and other key players) deal in monopoly money (MM). Why not offer to buy debt of questionable foundation when it's unclear who actually loses money when the chips are down?

And so, as bankers and other smart people at the heart of our overgrown financial system have begun asking, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” the Fed responds, “Alms to the (Standard & ) Poor’s (and others who made teensy, weensy errors rating home loan debt). The Fed speaketh: “I’ll buy your downtrodden debt rather than let you panic and sell it into the gutter.”

And why shouldn’t Wall Street bounce back right on cue? We have a long history of financial bailouts with government monetary and fiscal support during financial crisis: The Great Depression, the 1987 crash, the Asian Contagion/Russian debt default/LTCM hedge fund disaster, 2000's stock bubble crash. The greatest hits. And that bountiful support is only going to grow from here. Even before big government, we had financial support from the days when the rich had more power than the government (marginal tax rates have more or less shifted powers). JP Morgan himself had to rustle his associates together in order to halt the 1907 bank panic. It’s now quite clear that the White House is going to step up to the plate and take a few swings at rescuing the housing market.

Apparently, financial professionals like free markets until free markets panic, and then they crave the steady hand of those capable of making decisions without concern for mere profit and loss. Those whose only concern is the people. Or at least the people’s vote.

This all plays into our own portfolio allocations (which incidentally are a strange mix of the first three rings of investor Hades). As previously noted, we're quite sure that the housing troubles are even worse than most fear. And it's only a matter of time before the markets realize that although the Fed may be able to waive its magic wand and make irrational panic and fear disappear, making upwards of a trillion dollars in bad loans go away is a trick beyond the scope of any mere mortal. 

Our portfolios are driven first and foremost by fund investor behavior and their interpretation of risk and reward. If we see significant changes in fund investor actions, we’ll adjust our portfolios – even go down into a burning ring of fire, and up our ante. Let’s not forget that we’ve been running low to no allocation in foreign funds ever since fund investors decided that was the best place for over 90% of their new investment dollars. We're tracking inflows and outflows very closely, since it's generally a good idea to increase stock fund allocations across the board when fund investors start bailing out of stock funds.

August figures are still coming in, but it looks like the month left stock funds about $10 billion lighter (not including ETFs, which have so much fast money sloshing about within them that it's hard to make a call on the short-term action). Investor pessimism lies strictly in U.S funds, however. Foreign funds still impress fund investors as a sure-fire way to earn double digit returns and dodge America’s problems. In this era of unbalanced optimism, we don’t plan to invest abroad anytime soon. Current investor behavior calls for a continued focus on U.S funds, notably tech and growth funds, and on more fund outflows and increased overall stock allocation.

As the current monetary and fiscal welfare programs have settled down the markets and fund investor outflows, we don’t envision a stellar opportunity presenting itself within the next few months - but anything's possible.