About jimhemphill

I am Chief Investment Strategist for an investment advisory firm in Radnor, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. Our investment approach is globally-diversified, with our research focus on using relative-pricing and relative-yield information in historical context as a guide to optimal asset allocation.

Bitcoin Bubble

Our office has been closed the last two days because of the winter cyclone that hit the East Coast. I’ve spent this unexpected time off reading and thinking about Bitcoin. I’m putting together a white paper that will pull my thoughts together in long format, but I think it may be useful to get a few tentative conclusions out there quickly, just in case things fall apart in the near future.

The nature of bubbles is that inexperienced investors think they are making huge money because they are smarter than everyone else. This illusion is self-reinforcing. It is why bubble pricing goes parabolic before it crashes. The reality is always that the late stage of a bubble is when the greedy and inexperienced make big profits, while the expert and experienced stand on the sidelines shaking their heads. And then it all falls apart, and perhaps one of twenty of the peak-era traders has actually gotten out with substantial wealth intact.

My opinion, as someone who has been running investments since 1978, and has seen bubbles in gambling stocks, precious metals, oil services stocks, tech stocks, shore real estate, residential real estate, tech stocks, shore real estate, tech stocks, residential real estate, tech stocks, and cryptocurrencies, and has correctly identified the last five or more of them, is that we are in the blow-off phase of the cryptocurrency bubble. I’ll develop this thesis further in the coming white paper.

So this blog post is aimed at Bitcoin hodlers (a deliberate misspelling with meaning to Bitcoin enthusiasts) who are sitting on significant wealth, and who are open to the possibility that they might, just possibly, maybe perhaps, be making a mistake by holding a large portion of their net worth in Bitcoin and/or other cryptocurrencies.

I have come to three semi-firm conclusions about Bitcoin and its variants (including Bitcoin Cash, Bitcoin Gold, Bitcoin Diamond et al) and competitors (including Litecoin, Ripple, et al):

  1. Blockchain is a powerful new technology, which is likely to have huge impact going forward, especially in those parts of the economy (brokerage, real estate, insurance) where assets are bought and sold, and their ownership tracked.
  2. Bitcoin innovated blockchain, but has no priority claim on using it. People can design their own novel blockchain applications and Bitcoin does not benefit. Indeed, competitors or would-be successors can duplicate Bitcoin’s software in every respect, make a few tweaks, and launch their own competing cryptocurrencies.
  3. We can’t know the future. Even you, Mr. Bitcoin Hodler. In one possible future, Bitcoin becomes as valuable as Netflix, Google/Alphabet, Amazon, or Facebook. In another, a different crypto makes it big and replaces Bitcoin. And a third possibility is that all cryptos become worthless, while the big money from blockchain applications will be earned based on another use-case entirely.

Which leads to one simple suggestion. If you are sitting on big money in Bitcoin, especially if you got in early and your net worth has exploded, even more especially if Bitcoin and other cryptos represent most or all of your portfolio, do two things:

  1. Sell half your holdings right away. Take the proceeds, hold back enough to pay the capital gains taxes, and invest equal amounts in three things: an S&P 500 Index, a global stock index, and a money market fund.
  2. With the remaining holdings, consider diversifying, again into three equal buckets: Bitcoin, a “portfolio” of three to five credible crypto alternatives, and a portfolio of public companies that are doing important work in the crypto space.

If Bitcoin is gonna be Google, and cryptocurrencies as valuable as the Internet, you’ll still get filthy rich, but not quite as rich as you might have. A billionaire, perhaps, instead of a multibillionaire. If some other crypto replaces Bitcoin as the future Google, you’ve still got a shot at owning it, and getting much richer than if you stay concentrated in what might end up a loser. And if the whole digital currency thing is not the second coming of electricity, the internal combustion engine, and the internet rolled into one can’t-miss digital asset, you’ve still got a chance for profits owning real companies that derive economic advantage from blockchain innovation.

If Bitcoin is in a stupid bubble, and loses 90% or more of its value, you will have changed your life, and you will be the envy of your techie friends who didn’t get out, even a little bit.

Either way you win. Fail to diversify, and there is a non-zero possibility you end up with nothing, or something close.

This is going to be real interesting to watch.

 

Vaccinate Your Portfolio

Faith in institutions is near all-time lows. Americans don’t trust the mass media. We certainly don’t trust politicians. The internet allows each of us to construct a comfortable cocoon of congenial opinions. It appears we are each allowed to select our preferred set of “alternative facts.” Absent trusted sources of data, confirmation bias runs rampant.

Yet there remains an objective reality out there. In many disciplines there are recognized best practices that define how well-informed and prudent individuals and institutions should act; failure to follow those best practices risks adverse consequences.

Consider vaccination.

My wife is an epidemiologist trained at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Some of my closest friends, and many of my clients, are physicians. None of them have any doubt whatsoever that vaccination is safe and effective. All recognize the absolutely central role of vaccines in improving public health.

We no longer have thousands of children and adults confined to iron lungs because of polio. I don’t know anyone whose brother, sister, son, or daughter died of measles, mumps or whooping cough as a child. Unless the Iranians or Russians have retained live smallpox cultures, a disease that has killed millions over the centuries is gone from Planet Earth.

All because of vaccinations. Yet vaccination has become controversial because of misinformation spread on the internet. Even intelligent people, when struggling with a personal tragedy, can be led astray into believing in the non-existent dangers of vaccination.

Vaccination remains a sensible, indeed essential, best practice for the protection of something precious–the lives and health of people we love. Bad information about vaccination puts unvaccinated individuals at risk, but it also harms all of society as we lose the important protection of “herd immunity.”

A recognized best practice also exists in investment management. Diversification is the proven, sensible, documented best practice for managing investment portfolios. All professional investors, charged with managing entire portfolios for individuals or institutions with long-term goals, diversify.

Period. Hard stop. No capable investment professional ever fails to diversify, regardless of the temptations of today’s “hot” speculative opportunity. No sensibly-run college endowment ever puts all its money in one asset class. No foundation decides to bet it all on a single hot stock, fund or manager. No pension plan abandons diversification to go entirely into cash, stocks, venture capital, pork belly futures or Bitcoins.

All of these professional investors recognize that diversification is the key strategy to manage risk and deal with the intrinsic uncertainty of the financial markets. The intellectual foundations for diversification are simply too robust, well-documented, and mathematically compelling to be ignored.

That doesn’t mean institutions never make mistakes. As behavioral finance demonstrates, we humans are all potentially subject to information-processing and decision-making errors. At market extremes, many tend to over-weight the best-performing asset classes, confusing recent price trends with long-term economic advantages. (For a great summary of the thought process that leads investment committees astray, here is a recent piece from the smart folks at GMO, one of the world’s premier asset-allocation firms.)

Despite the abundant evidence in favor of diversification, we’ve recently observed a small number of investors choosing more focused portfolios. They believe they have identified the specific assets that will perform best in the near future–as at prior market highs, usually those assets that have performed best in the recent past. Right now, some smart people are inclined toward investing all of their money in U.S. large-cap stocks, believing that the “Trump trade” will continue to drive domestic stock markets to new highs.

I doubt that any of these folks would consider not vaccinating their children. But they may be in danger of making a tactical blunder with important consequences for the health of their portfolios. We’d hate to see that result.

Be smart. Vaccinate your portfolio. Stay diversified.

J

 

Enough

In 1898 novelist Emile Zola published an open letter in the wake of “l’affaire Dreyfus,” the attempt by reactionary forces in France’s military to falsely accuse a Jewish artillery officer of passing secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was convicted, stripped of rank, and sent to Devil’s Island. Zola’s letter was titled “J’Accuse.” It is one of history’s more important works rejecting the poison of anti-Semitism.

Over the last few days, as the events in Charlottesville and their aftermath have played out, I’ve been thinking about the long, terrible history of anti-Jewish sentiment and activity.

Those of us on the right who declined to support Trump, the nominee of the Republican Party, still generally hoped to have been wrong about him. Wishing the country success, we hoped President Trump would behave differently than Candidate Trump. That hope took two forms.

First, we hoped but did not believe that Trump’s anger, rudeness, and apparent inability to express complex thoughts were an act designed to energize a specific political constituency, and that the inner man was more intelligent and sensible. (Few of us really believed this.)

Second, we hoped more realistically that President Trump would surround himself with wise advisers, who would help him to reach out to a broader audience, adopt rhetoric and a communication style more appropriate to high office, while providing the President-elect access to the mature judgement and understanding of policy he so obviously lacked on his own. That hope seemed somewhat realistic. Every new President finds the office more daunting than expected. All lean on experienced advisers wise in the ways of Washington, even if (like Ronald Reagan) they reject many inside-the-Beltway values and priorities.

Both hopes have now been entirely dashed. On Friday night, a protest by a coalition of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the pending removal of a statue of Confederate war hero Robert E. Lee. A broad coalition, from the center left to the far left, gathered for a counter-protest.

When the alt-right demonstrators marched through the University of Virginia campus on Friday night, they did so carrying flaming torches while chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” The references to Nazi rallies at Nuremberg were obvious. The next day there were multiple violent clashes between the alt-right demonstrators and their opponents. The police ultimately donned riot gear and called an end to the alt-right’s scheduled and permitted demonstration. They began to march away. Then in mid-afternoon a 20 year old neo-Nazi accelerated his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one and injuring dozens. The young woman killed was in no sense any sort of dangerous radical leftist.

This act of deliberate murder motivated by political ideology was an obvious act of domestic terrorism. Across the political spectrum, elected officials rushed to condemn it as such. Except one. On Saturday afternoon, hours after the deaths, Trump made comments condemning violence “on many sides, on many sides.” That night, he suggested that some “very fine people” had been among the gathered Nazis and Klan members. These garbled comments suggested both sides somehow equally shared the blame, triggering an immediate firestorm of criticism.

On Tuesday, Trump walked back his earlier comments and made a sock-puppet speech condemning “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups.” Late but appropriate. If President Trump lacked the historical perspective and political wisdom to reject Nazis, he had at least been persuaded to pretend to do so.

Then yesterday, while appearing in Trump Tower, he reversed himself, and doubled down on his earlier remarks. He informed us that there were “some very good people” among the crowd of skinheads giving Hitler salutes, and suggested again that perhaps it was really the counter-protesters who were responsible for the violence.

There could not have been a more blatant display of intentional anti-Semitism and white-supremacist ideology than that on view in Friday night’s march. The guys carrying the torches on Friday night were intentionally identifying themselves with the movement that started World War Two and ran the death camps.

As an historian, I believe that anti-Semitism is the most reliable marker for political evil in the modern world. It has been rejected by every U.S. President of the modern era. Full welcome of the Jewish community as members of the American landscape is one of our country’s most essential advantages. This acceptance goes back at least to our first President, George Washington. Yet today there is a continuum of sympathy with anti-Semitic thoughts that reaches closer to the Oval Office than it ever has in modern American history. (If you don’t believe me, look at the comments section of any article on Steve Bannon’s Breitbart.com.)

Anti-Semitism appears to have allies at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or at least an apologist. With this latest Trump outrage we wonder again whether his bizarre behavior is the result of ignorance, stupidity, malice, or actual age-related cognitive decline. That no longer matters. Trump is awful. Whether he was born awful, attained awfulness over time, or has had awfulness thrust upon him no longer matters. He is unfit for the office and shows zero signs of growing into it.

In the early 1960s, William Buckley, editor of  influential conservative journal National Review, explicitly rejected the lunatic John Birch Society and read them out of the conservative movement. He paid a price for doing so in cancelled subscriptions. In the 1990s, Buckley again acted with courage, correctly identifying anti-Israel comments by former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan as evidence of anti-Semitism and isolating him from mainstream conservative opinion. (Buchanan went on to found The American Conservative, a new paleo-right opinion magazine associated with the more rational segments of the alt-right, and dedicated to nationalism, isolationism, and protectionism.)

I’m a conservative and remain a registered Republican, at least for now. It is time for my party to do what William Buckley did back in the day. Republican leaders must go beyond piecemeal criticism of Trump’s serial blunders, and proceed toward an explicit repudiation of his occupation of the Oval Office. The political costs of such a rejection may be profound. Much of Trump’s base continues to support him, and many are as angry and reactive as he is. Absent their support of the Republican coalition, my party may suffer a historic defeat at the polls next year, turning over the House and Senate to Democrats starting in 2019.

This has gone beyond any calculus of political advantage. Back in 1990, a small number of activists succeeded in hijacking the Louisiana Republican primary and nominating David Duke for U.S. Senator as a Republican. The national Republican party immediately disowned him and announced support for his Democratic opponent, Edwin Edwards. (The bumper stickers read, “Do the right thing. Vote for the crook.”)

Once you get to the point of Nazis and the Klan marching with torches, giving Hitler salutes, carrying long guns and pistols into a public park, brawling in the streets of an American city and launching an automobile into a crowd of people, you have no moral choice but to reject both the message and the messengers. Trump has refused to do so with the simplicity and clarity the moment demands.

He has to go.

 

Mad Libs for Investors

The emotions are really starting to heat up. During most of the typical stock market cycle, most investors are able to keep their emotions well in check. That is particularly true of our clients, who tend to be a patient, mature, and generally cerebral bunch.

But during certain parts of the cycle, the mass of investors, including even our cohort of unusually smart and even-tempered clients, begin to behave less as individuals and more as a herd. As emotions take over, reasoning ability becomes compromised. Vision narrows, blood pressure elevates, time horizons shorten, and calculation gives way to expectation; what is happening right now becomes all important, while what is likely to happen longer-term appears entirely unimportant. The chance for profits seems both immediate and certain, while the danger of loss appears theoretical and distant.

With the market making new highs day after day, we are beginning to get those phone calls, and have those conversations. The content of these discussions sound something like this:

“Everyone is getting rich! Why do I still have cash?”

“We need to buy now!”

“I’m tired of underperforming when the markets are going straight up. I need a better strategy.”

At market extremes, whether the market is making exciting new highs or scary lows, the emotions of the crowd are a deadly danger to our long-term financial interests. At those market inflection points, our job as financial advisors is to refuse to validate our clients’ emotions as a basis for action.

That sounds really harsh. I still remember, more than twenty years later, one of my favorite clients, a retired woman of unusual grace and poise, telling me in a profoundly wounded tone, “You don’t want me to have any feelings!”

I was trying to explain to her, at the depth of the 2000-2003 market decline, that she should not sell out at the market low, amid all the bad news, as she had done in the three prior bear markets.

When my kids were younger, they loved Mad Libs, and filling out those forms prompted great hilarity during long car rides. “I need a noun! Now a verb! An animal!”

So here is a very simple Mad Libs style exercise about the current exciting market. I’ll provide four phrases with blanks, and a choice of words to fill them in.

Active investors are advantaged if they ______ low and ______ high.

Right now, the market is at an all-time ______. The mass of investors are _______ing. We should be _______ing.

The four words to use to complete our Investor Mad Libs are:

Buy

Sell

High

Low

(One hint. You will need to use only three of the four words.)

Please let me know if this exercise makes sense to you, and if it changes your current thinking in any way.

Ponzi Redux

“What we mostly learn from history is that people are unable to learn from history.”

Warren Buffett

Back in the 1920s, Carlo (Charles) Ponzi got an entire class of financial fraud named after him, when he convinced greedy investors that he had a mechanism to double their money in a short period by buying international postal coupons at a discount and redeeming them at face value. Hundreds lost their life’s savings in his scheme.

A Ponzi scheme, also called a pyramid scheme, offers apparently superior returns through some kind of financial legerdemain, but actually pays early investors with the funds of later investors. Pyramid schemes inevitably collapse when there are too many early investors expecting cash flow, or demanding their money back, and not enough new money flowing in to keep the illusion going.

The financial press has just broken the story of the collapse of a Ponzi scheme based in New York City, in which investors were promised high returns from buying up blocks of theater tickets for hot shows, which would then be re-sold at higher prices. The big draw for many was the understanding that they’d be capitalizing on the success of Hamilton, one of the most popular musicals in Broadway history, with the highest ticket prices ever.

Of course, there was no actual buying of theater tickets. A money manager cooked up the scheme to reimburse investors whose money he had misappropriated in his investment firm. Three guys were arrested, one is pleading, and the other two will go to trial.

Who was taken in by this nonsense? Surely only credulous old ladies on Long Island or the equivalent?

Actually, not. Among the victims were billionaire computer titan Michael Dell, billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, an executive at Och-Ziff Management Group (an investment firm) and 125 others.

The moral of the story is that simply following the crowd, even the famous and supposedly sophisticated crowd, is no guarantee of good results. Often it is precisely the richest and most sophisticated who are the victims of scam artists. (See Madoff, Bernie.) If it sounds too-good-to-be-true, it very probably isn’t, you know, true.

Transition

“What we witness here today is not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.”

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

When I was younger I could recite John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address by heart. Like many of my generation, Kennedy’s life and death had a profound impact on my early life. While I no longer believe that Kennedy deserves a place among America’s great Presidents, the soaring rhetoric of his inaugural, penned by Theodore Sorenson, remains among the greatest and most consequential speeches of the mid-20th-century.

I just listened to Trump’s inaugural. What struck me most is how much it departed from the conventions of such speeches, and how uniquely Trump’s distinctive voice and viewpoint came through. As usual, Trump was Trump, for better or worse.

I have been thinking a lot about Obama’s legacy, and trying hard to find reasons to be optimistic about Trump’s rise to power. I’ll share some thoughts about both issues soon. Here’s my immediate reaction to Trump’s speech from the portico of the Capitol:

The phrase “America First” has powerful echoes in our history, and none of them are positive. If Trump used the phrase after consultation with his advisers, he needs different advisers. If he used it despite such consultation, he is willfully ignorant. If he used it in full understanding of its historical importance, we and the world are in big trouble.  I became a Republican, above all else, because the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan had clearly replaced the Democrats of FDR, Truman and Kennedy in recognizing the irreplaceable role of America in the world. Trump’s speech sounds to me like a clear rejection of that legacy.

The unequaled success of the United States is the result of our institutions, our traditions, and our people. The Founding Fathers recognized that no institutional framework could preserve our Republic if the people chose the wrong leaders, or if we abandoned the essential characteristics of our civil society. The Constitution limits the power of the President, but several Presidents have refused to recognize and abide by those limits. If we want better leaders, we need to be better voters. Especially in the primaries.

There is always majesty in the peaceful transfer of power. I will continue to pray for my country, and for our new President to find wisdom and humility in that high office.

After the Deluge


 

I went to bed last night at 2 a.m. I’d been sure of the outcome since about 11 p.m., and got tired of waiting for one network or another to announce it. I woke up this morning to Donald J. Trump as the President-elect. Not what I expected yesterday morning when I went to vote, though I had discussed the specific scenario by which he won several times in the days before the election.

So how do we find sound footing after being swept away in this historic flood? We don’t. Because there was no flood.

Donald Trump secured one of the most unlikely victories, in one of the most amazing upsets, in American political history. This is bigger than when “Dewey beats Truman” was wrong in 1948, because Trump won against the projections of a massive apparatus of scientific polling. He confounded the doubters and the critics. He has swept away one of the most powerful American political dynasties. (And good riddance.)

But astonishing does not equal overwhelming. Right now, Donald Trump trails Hillary Clinton by less than 200,000 votes. Yes, you read that right, he trails. Depending on which website I consult, he has a confirmed total of between 276 or 289 Electoral votes. (The most likely final count adds 30 Electoral votes to the lower of Trump’s totals.)

This is a huge upset. Trump won, Clinton lost, absolutely certain, almost entirely unexpected. But it is no kind of landslide, no kind of mandate. It is, for the fifth time in American history, an Electoral College victory combined with a loss in the popular vote.

President-elect Trump savors his victory amid the most bitter partisan divide since Abraham Lincoln took office at the beginning of the Civil War. Public anxiety is the highest since December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor. Confidence in government and our public institutions is at the lowest level ever. And over 60% of American voters believe that Trump lacks the temperament to be President.

Sounds like we have nowhere to go but up.

Eight years ago, Obama took office with high expectations that he would lead us into a bright, prosperous and post-racial future. That hope went unfulfilled, with the blame fairly shared between President Obama and Congressional Republicans.

Trump will take office with the lowest possible expectations, with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, but with Senate Democrats retaining the power of the filibuster. He’ll have the opportunity to replace a deceased, very conservative Supreme Court Justice with a new judge unlikely to be any more conservative.

Last night his victory speech hit all of the right conciliatory notes. Let us all hope that Trump governs effectively and inclusively, that he surrounds himself with capable men and women, and that America’s future is bigger than its past.

May God bless, protect, and strengthen the United States of America.