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.

Rolling Bubbles

I just ran across an article on the recent collapse of the “emerging art” scene, which revolves around works by young artists, many still in their 20s. An art dealer bought a work by a hot young artist for $100,000 back in 2014, and is now trying to sell it for $20,000, before it goes to zero. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

This week, estimates for three Smith pieces are as low as $7,000. One, from the series he made by spraying more than 200 canvases with paint from a fire extinguisher, is estimated at $12,000 to $18,000. A bigger spray work sold for $372,120 two years ago.

Who knew that one episode of spraying paint from a fire extinguisher could create art worth more than $74 million at the peak? If the nomination of Donald Trump was not enough proof, this seems like persuasive evidence of the apocalypse to me.

This is also a good reminder to every would-be speculator about the risks of buying any asset simply because it is going up, without regard for its intrinsic economic value. When bubbles burst, they do so without warning, and they can trap even the most sophisticated investors.

We have been defensive in our portfolio commitments for several years now. As a result, we’ve missed some of the apparently easy money, in emerging tech stocks in particular. Right now we’re observing a global tendency for some of the most over-inflated asset markets to head south. This broad decline has already affected some of Silicon Valley’s “unicorns,” the term for non-public companies valued at more than $1 billion, as well as real estate in recently red-hot markets like Vancouver, which was down as much as 17% in a single month.

When considering any investment, the two questions we always ask are:

Does this investment represent an underlying asset or business with real and enduring economic value?

Is the price I’m paying reasonable in relation to that underlying economic value?

If the answer to either question is “no,” our practice is to stay on the sidelines. This causes us to miss out on some apparently easy money, but also helps protect us from permanent and irrecoverable losses.

I’ve been in the investment business since 1978. Time and again, I’ve observed greedy individuals chasing over-priced nonsense, solely based on the fact that it has recently gone up. They always seem to believe there will be some sort of warning before the bottom falls out.

Let’s all consider ourselves warned.

A Choice, Not an Echo

Spoiler alert! This post will disclose my political affiliation, not that I believe most long term readers will find it a surprise.

I grew up as a Democrat. My first vote was in the Presidential election of 1976. I was a registered Democrat and had spent the summer working in the office of a Democratic Congressman. I actually met candidate Jimmy Carter in my office building on Capitol Hill. But that fall I cast my vote for Republican Gerald Ford, and against the candidate of my own party. I thought Jimmy Carter was a fool, and his foreign policy positions a collection of self-righteous platitudes.

Events proved me correct. Carter won the 1976 election, announced that the United States was “at long last free of our unreasoning fear of Communism” and then pronounced himself astonished at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At that point in Carter’s single Presidential term, I switched parties. By 1980, I was a Republican, because it was the party of free trade, a strong military, and robust leadership in the international struggle against totalitarian Communism.

In the 1990s, I watched as the Democratic Party tied its fortunes firmly to the coattails of the Clintons, nominating for President in 1992 and then re-nominating in 1996 a man who was clearly a sexual predator, who abused his office to suppress legal scrutiny, whose campaign took money from foreign interests including the Chinese military, and who lied carelessly and deliberately about both issues of public policy and personal transgressions. Since their Arkansas days, the Clintons have been unable to differentiate their personal political, financial, and legal interests from those of the nation. Indeed, by using the Clinton Global Foundation as a personal piggy bank, they have conflated their personal finances with those of global progress itself.

In the 1990s, I gave meaningful dollars to the Republican Party. I attended both the 1996 and 2000 conventions. I’ve met the last three Republican Presidents, all but one of the last four Vice Presidents, even every failed Republican candidate for President except Mitt Romney. Heck, my oldest child’s middle name is Reagan. So an election between any Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton should be a slam dunk decision for me. Easy and obvious.

Except it’s not. In 1996, I said the Democrats had made a deal with the Devil in re-nominating Bill Clinton, definitively decoupling the Democratic Party’s fortunes from historically progressive principles–that public service is a higher calling, requiring the highest standards of integrity to command the nation’s allegiance to our shared purposes.

Now the Republicans have done the same thing.

Donald Trump, like Bill Clinton before him, and like Hillary Clinton today, has personal qualities that clearly disqualify him from holding high office. He is an habitual liar. He is a gross, childish bully. He has been entirely unprincipled, both in his past business dealings and in his recent political campaign. He is less intelligent than any other major party Presidential candidate of at least the last half century. He has less impulse control than the typical adolescent male, and he appears to be impervious to advice, instruction, or any form of self-correction. And at age 70, none of this is remotely likely to change.

I spent the first year of Trump’s campaign in denial that he could secure the nomination. And then got stuck there, as he won primary after primary and walked out of Cleveland as the standard bearer of my party. Like so many of my conservative friends, I’ve been confused and conflicted about what to do. Time and again, I’ve watched Trump give another speech, or lead another rally, hoping against hope that he’ll somehow rise to the occasion, always disappointed.

It might be tempting to overlook Trump’s character flaws if he was sound on policy. After all, Lyndon Johnson was one mean SOB. Richard Nixon was a paranoid tough guy, surrounded by similarly ruthless partisans. FDR and John Kennedy were both notorious philanderers. If being a nice guy was the criteria for occupying the White House, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush would be among the great Presidents.

But Trump’s policy positions are a confusing and incoherent mash-up. The defining principles of Republican domestic policy since Reagan has been an informed skepticism about the effectiveness of larger government, coupled with an understanding of the Constitutional limits on executive power. There is no indication that Trump even understands that we have a Constitution, and every indication that he believes the President has the same kind of autocratic power as the owner of a non-public company.

On foreign policy, Trump is a protectionist and a quasi-isolationist. He has aligned himself with Vladimir Putin, who has stolen tens of billions from the Russian treasury, murdered hundreds of journalists within Russia, assassinated his political opponents overseas, and invaded two neighboring countries. Putin has been clear about his desire to revive the Cold War, and his belief that the United States remains Russia’s principal enemy.

Trump is not qualified to be President.

I remember when the racist David Duke secured the Republican nomination for governor of Louisiana, and the national Republican party endorsed the candidacy of corrupt Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards, launching the slogan, “Do the right thing. Vote for the crook.” Edwards won, and later went to prison.

I’ve always said that I am a Republican third, a conservative second, and an American first. So must I vote for the crook, Hillary Clinton, to keep The Donald’s hands off the nuclear codes?

After months of struggle, I have decided that rejection of Trump in no wise justifies a vote for Hillary Clinton, an individual herself disqualified on personal character criteria from the Presidency, even if I agreed with her policies (whatever they actually turn out to be), which I do not. (I will note in passing that Hillary Clinton is smart, very hard-working, and supremely disciplined, all fine qualities. Plus it would actually be nice to see a woman occupy the highest elected office. Just not this one.)

Fortunately, the range of possible choices does not stop with two lying, unprincipled, self-centered, super-rich liberals from New York.

For the first time in my adult life, I will be supporting someone other than the Republican nominee for President. I will vote for the Libertarian candidates, Gary Johnson and William Weld, for President and Vice President. As soon as I get a chance, I plan to put a Johnson-Weld sign on my lawn.

For all of my conservative friends still struggling with the Hobson’s choice of Clinton or Trump, let me offer you some hope.  Once I made my choice, my despair and confusion vanished, replaced with relief, optimism, and even excitement. I believe this is much more than a lesser-of-three-evils choice or protest vote. It is, at a minimum, a vital next step in an overdue national conversation. More on this later.

On this post, more than any other I’ve ever written, I’d welcome your comments.

Brexit or Bust

As it happened, my wife and I were in Europe when the Brexit vote took place, and had several conversations with bemused Britons, Scots and Italians about the vote and its potential consequences. I was out of the office until July 5, so I missed the sharp market decline and equally sharp recovery, though I followed both the commentary and the market activity quite carefully.

The Economist, the English-speaking world’s most reliable source of utterly conventional wisdom, called the Brexit Leave vote “a senseless, self-inflicted blow.” Nigel Farage, head of Britain’s nationalist UKIP party, called it “a victory for ordinary people, for decent people.” Wealthy London, home to the UK’s powerful finance sector, voted to Remain, as did poorer, welfare-dependent Scotland. Most of the rest of the country voted to Leave.

The contrast says much of what one needs to know about the two closely-balanced factions throughout the West. Bureaucratic elites, finance types  and wards of the state versus strained working and middle classes struggling with a moribund global economy and stagnant wages.

The immediate consequences for the markets were negative. Worldwide, equity markets fell sharply, then rallied. For the second time this year, bears cried havoc and were proved wrong…or at least, premature.Markets dislike uncertainty, but amid record low interest rates on cash, stocks remain the preferred asset class. The dollar strengthened against both the pound (significantly) and the Euro (slightly).

A key investment principle is that disorder creates opportunity. The V-shaped market action (sudden fall, quick recovery) has been a pattern in recent years, as one market break after another has failed to transition into a true bear market. As usual, we took careful advantage of the market break to buy low in accounts with excess cash.

What will Brexit mean long term? That is very hard to predict. Protectionism weakens economic growth, but the UK leaving the EU does not necessarily mean adopting higher tariffs. All that must be negotiated.

Brexit is a very different proposition from Grexit. In the case of Greece, a net recipient of Eurozone transfers required immediate financial assistance in order to avoid defaulting on its obligations and possibly suffering a chaotic exit from the common currency. Brexit, on the other hand, contemplates one of the Eurozone’s wealthiest members, a net payer into the system, exiting the common market but not the common currency. (Britain never joined the Euro, keeping the pound.) Further, the Leave vote represents a mandate without a mechanism. There are provisions within the Lisbon agreement for member states to leave, but they have never been tested. Britain’s departure is likely to be a protracted process of negotiation and compromise. There could even be another vote repudiating the Leave vote.

We appear to be witnessing the end of the post-war project of economic and political integration in the Western democracies. That project paid great dividends, both in rising wealth and  (more important) in two generations of peace in Europe. (Or at least Europe’s core. The Balkans wars of the 1990s demonstrated the inability of united Europe to deal with even minor security issues, absent American leadership.)

Free trade and free markets create wealth, as Adam Smith argued centuries ago. But not everyone wins from globalization. In recent years, the economic benefits of a more-connected world have been concentrated in the hands of the finance sector and government. They have almost entirely bypassed the working and traditional middle classes. For those voters, Brexit was a rational rejection of the status quo.

Reducing regulation and bureaucracy, making markets more free and hence more dynamic and productive, could have widespread benefits. But higher growth would come at the cost of reducing both the power and the compensation of entrenched, unaccountable elites in both Europe and the United States. We’ll see whether those members of the New Class get the message.

Hope Springs Eternal

“This is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it might just be the end of the beginning.”

                                                                                                                           Winston Churchill

The runaway Trump train may have finally begun to run out of steam. More accurately, the Trump Express may have lost just enough momentum to roll to a steaming, trembling halt just short of enough votes to secure Trump a first-ballot victory in Cleveland, and the Republican nomination for President.

One can only hope. In every way that matters, Trump has shown himself to be intellectually and temperamentally unfit for high office.

Trump briefly lost momentum because of comments about women that were ill-considered and offensive even by his standards, as well as positions on foreign and defense policy revealing a comprehensive ignorance of the sources of international stability and prosperity after the Second World War. But in the last week, both in his home state of New York and elsewhere, he has achieved dominant victories.

Trump’s complaint is that the voting process is rigged, which is true, though not wholly in the ways he means. Each state party has its own rules. But the combination of all the various state-specific rules has resulted in Trump controlling a larger percentage of first-ballot delegates than he has received of the total primary vote. In this sense, the system is indeed rigged — for front-runners like Trump, and against second-tier candidates.

Polls suggest that most Republicans believe the candidate who arrives in Cleveland with the largest delegate count should receive the nomination, even if he fails of a majority. They misunderstand both the nature of the rules and the history of their own party. The Grand Old Party’s second nominating convention, in Chicago in 1860, began with no candidate near a first-ballot victory. The two front-runners were Senator William Seward of New York and Governor Salmon Chase of Ohio. Both had alienated key segments of the party. Seward carried a commanding lead on the first ballot, with Lincoln a distant second. But having failed of a first-ballot majority, the front-runner from New York saw his support began to erode as delegates sought a less-divisive and more broadly-appealing alternative. The Keystone State of Pennsylvania switched to Lincoln on the second ballot, and Honest Abe won the nomination on the third.

So the precedent exists for a bad-tempered jerk from New York to come close on the first ballot, and still be denied the nomination. And the precedent exists for my home state of Pennsylvania to have, every century or two, a consequential influence on the Republican nomination for President.

When I get home from work tonight, I’ll cast my Republican primary ballot against Trump, hoping to do my small part to save my party from intellectual and moral ruin. If you can, I urge you to do the same.

The China Syndrome

Twice within the first week’s trading in 2016, Chinese stock markets were halted by a 7% “circuit breaker” designed to pause trading to allow panic selling to calm. When it became clear that denying investors liquidity for their shares was feeding panic, not calming it, Chinese officials wisely suspended the circuit breaker yesterday, on Thursday, January 7, 2016. Friday, Chinese markets inched higher, and most world markets followed.

China’s market problems immediately spread to the rest of the world. Here in the U.S., we had the worst first four days of trading in a new year since 1950. (Both 2008 and 1991 saw sharper declines, though they took five and six days respectively.) Those first four days alone officially qualify as a market correction for both the Dow and the NASDAQ, though not for the S&P 500.

There are several lessons here:

For years, there has been a disconnect between financial markets and the real economy, driven by monetary stimulus and access to easy credit. Rising stock prices became the self-fulfilling justification for further rises, largely decoupled from economic fundamentals. China’s problems with bad debts and malinvestment have been visible for five years or more, but the Chinese stock market continued to rise, finally peaking in June of 2015 after an astonishing 150% over seven months.

Though the combination of public and private borrowing, combined with cheap and easy money, can drive speculative excesses for shockingly long periods, they cannot do so indefinitely. In China, in Japan, in Brazil and Greece, we see again and again the ultimate consequences of stupid public- and private-sector investments fueled by borrowed funds. (Put another way, both Tom Friedman and Paul Krugman are idiots, though Krugman’s idiocy is fueled by ideology, not genuine stupidity.)

A heavily indebted world awash in cheap money is unable to generate sustained economic growth at a pace sufficient to lift incomes. More debts and more liquidity will not solve a problem caused by the destruction of both financial prudence and the possibility of rational price discovery. Durable prosperity depends on the action of free markets, with capital flowing toward projects with the highest economic returns. Empty, roofless cities in China, a train to nowhere in California, billions diverted to the private pockets of public officials in Brazil–none of these can provide a solution to stagnant global growth, but all can absorb capital, attention, and human creativity that would earn much higher rewards chasing genuine progress.

To return to robust global growth, we need a return to more normal interest rates and a reduction in the size and regulatory scope of government. (Who in the U.S. political system understands this? Certainly Fiorina, probably Paul and Cruz, perhaps Kasich and Rubio. Clinton? Surely not Trump or Sanders.)

Enough economic commentary. What are the implications of China’s meltdown for investment strategy?

For much of the last two years, our portfolio strategy has been defensive while U.S. stock prices (at least through mid-2015) continued to advance, with that advance highly concentrated in speculative tech stocks. We under-performed. Now that markets are falling sharply, our diversified, cash-heavy portfolios are holding value better than stocks in general.

We live in an interconnected global economy. That means there is no safe place to hide, while still earning positive real returns. (In a low-inflation world, you can hide in cash, but it surely will not provide returns sufficient to buy lunch, gas up the car, or put a roof over your head.) Here is the good news: globalization also means we have the ability to flow capital toward areas of genuine economic opportunity, across national borders, and between industries and asset classes.

There is a fundamental difference between 2007 (the market peak before the 2008 financial crisis) and today. Back then, nothing was either absolutely or relatively cheap. Today, there are huge divergences from historical price relationships, particularly between growth and value (value is cheaper than at any time since 1929, with the exceptions of 1998 and 1999), and between U.S. and foreign stocks. (U.S. stocks are more expensive than foreign developed-market stocks by a larger margin than we’ve ever observed, going back to the creation of the MSCI EAFE Index in 1969.)

Our long-term strategy remains the same. Avoid permanent impairment of capital; don’t own stupid, over-priced assets. Own more of those quality assets that are cheap according to robust historical measures. If the market crashes and they get really cheap, buy more.



Trump: Less Than Meets the Eye

“There is no there there.”

                                                                                                Gertrude Stein

Many years ago, Saturday Night Live did a bit called “The Thing that Wouldn’t Leave.” As I recall, John Belushi played the part of the dinner guest who refused to get the hint, hanging around long after his exhausted hosts were clearly ready for bed.

I feel that way about Donald Trump. His persistence atop the polls, despite statements that to me appear radioactive, and debate performances that combine ignorance with bombast, continually confounds my expectations.

So as a citizen, Republican, and conservative, I’m going to take another swing at the noisy excrescence that is The Donald.

A considerable part of Trump’s raison d’etre (reason for being, not just reason for running) is his oft-repeated claim to be smart and rich. “I’m, like, a really smart guy…I’m worth ten billion dollars.”

At the moment, Trump is in fact quite rich. Probably about one-third as rich as he claims, as discussed here. But almost certainly a billionaire. And surely he must have been pretty darn smart to get there…or perhaps not.

Recently several substantial news organizations have looked at a fairly simple question. How has Trump done as a businessman/investor, compared to how he might have done if he had simply taken the money he inherited from his father, a highly-successful real estate developer, and placed it into an utterly passive investment, a S&P 500 Index Fund?

The answer, pretty clearly, is not very well, as noted and here and here. Long story short, Trump has made about half as much, with all of his Trump-branding of casinos, office buildings, golf courses and condos, as if he had simply taken his inheritance, bought the Vanguard Index 500 mutual fund, and wandered off to spend the next few decades playing golf on a course he did not own.

And this is before adjusting for risk, and for opportunity set. In terms of risk, Trump has used leverage freely. He has swung for the fences, not once but many times. He’s taken enough risk to have his public company, once Trump Casinos and Hotels, more recently Trump Entertainment, go bankrupt four times.

And consider the opportunity set Trump confronted when he got started. Trump’s father put him in charge of a successful New York real estate development company in 1975. New York has, in the years since, floated atop a tidal wave of investment success. The stock market went up more than twenty-fold. When we talk about the richest 1% in the United States, we are talking largely about New York City. Surely there can have been few better places on the planet to have owned and developed real estate. Surely there can have been few better-heeled customers than Wall Street and its moguls. And yet Trump earned returns roughly half as large as those realized by a sensible mail carrier who put his Federal savings plan into a stock index fund.

One of the great ironies of Donald Trump’s life is his own utter lack of irony. It is entirely clear that Trump believes every one of his self-aggrandizing assertions. He believes himself to be the Titan of the age, one of the great businessmen of his time. It simply isn’t true. He is a guy who inherited a pile of money and a single-syllable Anglo-Saxon last name, engaged in a whirlwind of activity, relentlessly promoted his name and brand, and after four decades ended up with a larger pile of money, which he believes wrongly to be the result of his own activity, but which was actually simply the consequence of the swiftly-rising tide that made many others richer still.

Donald Trump was born on third base, re-named it Trump Terrace, and believes he hit a triple. He got thrown out four times trying to steal home. And he proclaims himself, to everyone who will listen (far, far too many of my fellow Republicans) one of the greatest hitters of all time. He is a fraud.

If Trump remains a player in the Republican field, at some point I promise to share what I really think about him.

Prediction vs. Valuation

Two weeks ago we hosted a quarterly investor call, discussing our strategy and our viewpoint on the financial markets. Afterwards we took questions.

The first question we got was, “When will the Fed raise rates and what will happen when they do?”

Our answer was to quote Warren Buffett’s observation: as investors, we are better at valuation than prediction. We can’t know what will happen in the future, no matter how badly we wish to, but even if we could confidently predict a future event, we would still be unable to reliably forecast its effects.

This past week, events demonstrated Buffett’s acumen yet again, and our borrowed wisdom in aping his viewpoint. With many investors publicly worried that the Fed would raise rates, and that the end of free money would hurt the markets, instead the Fed chose to stand pat on rates.

So the market went up, right? No, the market went down, concerned that the Fed’s restraint proved the world economy was in worse shape than we thought. (We are not the first to observe that the Fed is trapped in a Catch-22 of its own making.)

There are two takeaways here. First, forget about predicting. Second, markets that want to go up will interpret most news as bullish, while markets biased toward decline will go down on a similarly broad span of news. Right now the markets see the glass half-empty. Which helps us not at all, since sentiment can swing from greed/bullishness to fear/bearishness with shocking speed and unpredictability.

This leaves us with valuation. U.S. stocks remain very expensive by the long-term measures we find most persuasive, though another week or two of declines would change “very expensive” to merely “quite expensive,” with some limited implications for asset allocation. Foreign stocks are, relatively speaking, unusually, even extraordinarily cheap. That we can act on, never mind the Fed.