The Investment Scientist

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I must admit that I used to have a very weak immune system. Every year during flu season, I usually caught the flu twice. While others would get well within a week, my flu symptoms lasted for weeks. The worst part was the endless coughing, all day and night. Not only could I not get good sleep, I also coughed so much that my ribcage hurt. I couldn’t have imagined that I could cure all of that simply by taking cold showers.

I started doing that the year before the Pandemic. Throughout the subsequent two years, while Covid raged through the world, I had to travel frequently between Europe and America since my kids live in Germany. I saw my friends fall ill with Covid one by one, and then all my immediate family fell ill, not once but twice. All throughout that frightening time, I never got sick from Covid, or the cold, or the flu. I have to give the credit to cold showers.

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Today I had a conversation with a friend of mine who recently participated in a conference with the mayor of Washington, DC regarding the dire state of the office rental market. The bottom line is that people love working from home, they are not coming back to the office after the Pandemic as initially expected. This means that companies and even government branches are not renewing their office space leases. The ones that do need a much smaller footprint. Developers are considering converting office spaces into residential homes, but that’s easier said than done since office buildings are constructed differently. 

On top of that, most real estate companies use debt financing and since last year, the financing cost has skyrocketed, thanks to the Fed. They are really caught between a rock and a hard place.

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Ten years ago, I was overweight, my blood lipid profile was quite messed up, with my triglyceride and cholesterol several times the normal level, I was pre-diabetic, my attention was short, my memory was failing, and I got hungry and dizzy easily. 

I tried everything I could think of to remedy the situation. I took medicines and played sports. I tried diets like juicing, vegetarianism, calorie restriction, and many others, all to no avail. Then an acquaintance shared with me that intermittent fasting (IM) had worked magic for her. I decided to give it a try. 

My initial attempt was rather tentative since I was really afraid of hunger. When I was hungry, I got so dizzy that I felt like I could pass out. When that happened, I needed something very sweet like ice cream to bring me back. 

The first change I made was simply to have breakfast one hour later than before. That way, the hunger I felt was totally bearable. Within a month, I had made so much progress that I could combine my breakfast and lunch together and just have brunch. That’s when I started two meals a day (TMAD). 

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Three weeks ago, in the middle of the Silicon Valley Bank saga, some of my clients got really panicky because they read predictions that we would soon see a total banking system collapse. 

At the time, I advised sitting tight and, if indeed the market should fall, using this chance to buy durable assets at a discount. I know full well how messed up the system is, but I also know that as long as the US dollar remains the world currency, there is unlimited ammunition to deal with the problem. We are not Zimbabwe or Argentina. 

And that is exactly what happened (see the Fed balance sheet here.) In the three weeks since the SVB collapse, the Fed has printed nearly $400B of new money, reversing 2/3 of the tightening we have seen since March of 2022. In other words, since the Fed decided to fight inflation in March of 2022, about $600B has been unprinted (this compared to $5T that was printed after the Pandemic.) However, in just a short three-week time, $400B was printed to rescue weak banks.  

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In this article, I will not discuss the Credit Suisse collapse and rescue that just happened less than ten hours ago, since I don’t understand the Swiss banking system as well as I understand the US system. Here in the United States, we have had a rapid succession of specialty bank collapses: Silvergate Bank, Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank. Most of their depositors are super wealthy people or businesses whose deposits amount to much more than the 250k guaranteed by the FDIC. The majority of American banks do not have that kind of customer profile and the majority of American depositors have less than $250k in their bank accounts. Does that make the rest of the banks in America safe? I am afraid not. 

Though the depositor profiles may be different, all banks invest in the same “safe” government or government-backed debt securities, and all banks have unrecognized losses in those securities. By some estimates, the entire US banking system has $660B in unrecognized losses. 

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There is so much to write about the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) collapse and the subsequent government rescue plan. Let me start by saying that I do agree that the government’s action has arrested a panic that could lead to a domino of bank collapses. In today’s article, I’d like to present my thought that the rescue mechanism as it is now could lead to more problems down the road that one day might become an even bigger crisis. 

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During 2020 and 2021, the Fed printed $5T to combat a potential economic collapse caused by Covid 19. Some of this newly minted money found its way into Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) deposits. Since the short-term interest rate at that time was essentially at zero, SVB invested a large portion of the money into long-maturity mortgage-backed securities (MBS) that at the time were at least yielding somewhere around 1.6%.

If we look at the SVB Balance Sheet, this investment is classified as Held-to-maturity securities on the asset side (shown in green.) This means if they hold the securities until maturity, they will definitely not lose money. But if they are forced to sell before maturity in a rising rate environment, they will lose money. 

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Last month, I wrote about how my father is 6 years older than my mom but he looks and moves like he is 30 years younger. This just shows how our calendar ages do not always reflect how old we actually are, or how fast we age. Luckily, there are services out there that can help us figure this out.

These tests are usually called biological age tests. They often involve taking a blood sample, a saliva sample or even just a cheek swab, and analyzing it to determine a person’s biological age. The method by which they determine this can fall into two camps as well, either the phenotypic method or the methylation method. One looks at your biomarkers which correspond to biological age, the other looks at your epigenetic information to determine how old your DNAs are. 

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Two months ago I wrote about the top ten reasons that Equity Index Annuities are ripoffs, but apparently I did not exhaust all possible ways an insurance company can get at your money. Recently, a client of mine asked me to review an EIA he bought two years ago. Oh my goodness! I have had my eyes opened and my heart disgusted once again!

The contract I looked at for my client put his money in a so-called “1 Year Average Participation Index Account” with an initial participation rate of 30% and a minimum participation rate of 10%.

Injury #1: With all EIAs, you give up the dividend, which is about 2% a year. So you need to plan to give up 20% in ten years and 40% in 20 years.

Injury #2: This injury stems from the word “average.” Let’s say in a given year, the market goes up 10%, you are not getting this 10% growth, you are getting the “average” growth. You have to read the whole contract to understand what a ripoff this term is. Let’s assume that in January, the market goes down 1%, and in subsequent months, the market goes up 1%. So adding all the gains together, for the whole year the market goes up 10%. The way they do the average is this: for every month, they will calculate the Year to Month Return, and then average them. The effect of this is to cut the annual return number by half. In a year the annual return of the market is 10%, after the insurance company applies their “average”, the return becomes 5%. See the table below for an illustration.

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“The January Effect” refers to two phenomena in the stock market that elude good explanation: 

  1. The market tends to perform exceptionally well in January.
  2. The market’s January return tends to predict the rest of the year. That is, if we have a good return in January, it is more than likely that we will have a good return for the whole year.

In recent years, however, people have been saying that the January Effect is weakening. So today I am going to revisit these two phenomena using the S&P 500 return data from the last 10 years. In the table below, I calculated the January returns (and the annual returns) from 2013 to 2022 and arranged them from the lowest to the highest. 

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My dad turned 90 recently and he can still do this move: He can sit down on the floor with his legs crossed and can stand up again without using his hands to assist him. Try it yourself and see if you can do that. It turns out that this simple test predicts your longevity. People who can get up unassisted will live many years longer than people who can not. 

My mother is five years younger than my dad. In contrast to my dad, she can barely walk on a flat floor. Usually, she shuffles and she is so unstable that I am afraid a tiny coin on the floor could trip her up. 

Judging by the way they walk, my dad looks like he is 60, and my mom 90. 

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I am talking about an HSA – the Health Saving Account. Why is it the best? Because it is the only saving vehicle that gives you triple tax benefits. The money goes into the account pre-tax, the money inside can grow tax-free, and all health-related qualified withdrawals are tax-exempt. 

However, not everybody is qualified to open such an account. Only folks who have an HDHP – High Deductible Health Plan can contribute to such an account, and the contribution limits are relatively low. For 2022, the limits are $3650 for an individual or $7300 for a family; for 2023, the limits are $3850 and $7750 respectively. 

Who should have an HDHP in order to have an HSA? Folks who are young or very healthy. In my case, I am not that young, but I am super healthy and I plan to live a long life, so an HDHP makes sense for me. Not only can I pay a lower health insurance premium, but I can also open an HSA and begin to save for my future healthcare needs. 

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I have a 14-year-old son who has done some odd jobs for my business this year. What he did not know until now is that I actually paid him about $7000 in 2022 and put $6000 of that into a kiddy Roth IRA that I opened for him. 

This is how I told him.  I pulled him aside and announced: “Son, I just made you a millionaire!” That got his attention away from playing video games!  He asked: “How so?”

“Daddy just put $6000 into your Roth IRA. In a few days, when it’s 2023, daddy will put another $6500 into your Roth IRA. This type of account lets your money grow tax-free, and when you retire, lets you withdraw the money tax-free. Let’s say you have a very productive life and retire at 74. If you don’t touch the money until then, how much money will you have assuming the money grows at 8%?”

Being the smart boy that he is, my son quickly figured out he should use the compounding formula: 8% per year, compounding over (74-14) = 60 years will make the money 1.08^60 = 101 times over. Since he gets $6000+$6500 = $13,500 from daddy (actually by his own work.) $13,500*101 = $1,363,500! He broke out in a smile! 

I smiled as well since I taught him a lesson about investing: start early, stay disciplined and let compounding work its magic. 

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It has been a few months since I decided to write a newsletter about Health. As I get older, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that health is the ultimate wealth and one can not talk about wealth in isolation of health.

However, I don’t know where to start. My own awareness of the importance of health has been a slow and gradual process. After I first became cognizant of its importance, there was a long process of knowledge acquisition as well as plenty of trial and error on myself.  Following that, there was yet another long process of habit formation. Truth be told, there was no “aha” moment and there was definitely no instant success. Instead, it has been a constant learning and many micro-adjustments over many years

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A new client of mine asked me to evaluate this situation. Last year, a so-called “financial advisor” who was actually an insurance agent got them to transfer all of their money from TSP (a fantastic retirement plan for federal employees) into an equity index annuity with an insurance company. 

The selling points often presented by these “advisors”  for products like these are that an index annuity can save them taxes and that the money is protected from market drops and will never go below its original value. The first selling point is bogus in this case! Since the money was in TSP where money grows tax-free anyway. The second selling point appears on the surface to be valid, but it is also bogus as I will show you in a moment. 

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A client of mine came to me very worried because at this time last year, his account was $1.35mm and now it’s only $1.19mm. That’s a “loss” of nearly 12% in one year. “At this rate, am I gonna lose everything in 8 years?” he asked. 

I showed him a number buried deep in his statement, and he immediately regained confidence that he is not losing, he is, in fact, gaining. What number did I show him? Just stop reading for a minute to think about that. After one minute you can read on.


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Michael Zhuang is principal of MZ Capital, a fee-only independent advisory firm based in Washington, DC.


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