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Trade Alert

April 7, 2020

We executed trades in both portfolios on April 3 (just over one month after our previous trades on February 28th) to cut way back on corporate bonds and deal with the cash from a liquidated inverse 3x oil ETF that the fund company shut down on March 27. This ETF returned around 90% since our buy at the end of February and at least offset huge losses in our inverse gold miners ETF (which declined significantly even though gold mining stocks were down in March). So wild were the oil swings in March that at one point when the Dow was in freefall on March 19, we were up about 379% from our buy, which did briefly offer a performance offset to our declining stock funds.

Right now, corporate bonds have far more downside than upside. If we're going to take double-digit decline risk, we want more upside. While it is possible that the Fed can make this debt problem go away (or at least get lucky if we can reopen the economy sooner rather than later), there is also a chance of either serious corporate defaults or inflation resulting from distributing trillions to everyone in desperate need yet allowing production to drop. More demand, less supply is not a good mix.

The safe move with bonds is inflation-adjustable government debt or Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS). In general, we don't like this innovation because the government invented these bonds to save the treasury money, not to reward investors. Bond investors have historically required an irrational premium to own regular government debt because of the risk of inflation, a hangover from the 1970s. As we have said for years, there is not much risk of inflation above 2%, and your real danger is deflation, like in the Great Depression.

This is why regular government bonds have beat TIPS for years. That said, TIPS won't get stung much if we get depression-grade deflation from these levels (they don't pay a negative inflation adjustment, although they should). They have already underperformed as inflation expectations (correctly) have come down in this crisis, as they did in 2008. We still have some significant credit risk with our recently added emerging market bonds in case we walk away from this crisis—and the returns should be better than U.S. corporate debt in that situation.

The bulk of the trades are getting out of bond funds and into two TIPS ETFs: Vanguard Short-Term Infl-Prot Secs ETF (VTIP) and Schwab US TIPS ETF (SCHP). We are also adding a pharmaceutical ETF, mostly because they have underperformed for years and should do well in a coronavirus-slowed economy, and generally won't have trouble making debt payments (though many drug companies have lots of debt). There are some risks the government could crack down on pricing.

In our Conservative portfolio, we are adding iShares Edge MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF (QUAL), which hasn't done any better than the S&P 500 but in theory may be positioned to benefit as riskier competitors fail and are acquired by stronger players, sort of like what happened in banking in 2009. That said, these types of ETFs that try to screen for success—so-called smart beta funds—are generally bad ideas compared to the S&P 500. We also added tiny Franklin FTSE South Korea ETF (FLKR) in our continued effort to shift to countries that seem to be managing the crisis better or have more financial resources available to stimulate the economy. Somebody is going to come back online fully and fill orders, and it isn't looking like that will be us, for a variety of reasons.

In summary, we are increasing our stock risk (as we typically do during big drops), yet decreasing some of our bond credit and duration risk, and shifting more to foreign stocks that could recover faster.