The Investment Scientist

Archive for the ‘Economics & Markets’ Category

I asked my assistant to do an updated stock market seasonality study.

The data we used was the S&P 500 index from 1927 which we found in Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller’s database.

We assumed that at the beginning of each year we invested $1 in the index, and we observed how the investment fluctuated over the year. Then we took the average over three different periods of time: the last 20 years, the last 50 years, and the last 86 years.

Here is the chart we got: Read the rest of this entry »

images-75Yesterday I received an email from a doctor client of mine telling me how he had a conversation with some fellow doctors, and all of them are pulling their money out of stocks because they feel that with the market breaking new high after new high, a crash is imminent. He wanted my opinion.

First of all, while all of his doctor friends might feel a market crash is imminent and certain, there is simply no such thing as certainty in the stock market. All we can work with are odds. The following are the odds of market corrections:

Magnitude of market decline Frequency of occurrence (out of 64 years from 1950-2013)
>5% Every year (94%)
>10% Every two years (58%)
>20% Every five years (20%)
>30% Every ten years (10%)
>40% Every fifty years (2%)

My study also shows that the market breaking a new high does not substantially change the odds of returns. In other words, the odds of the market dropping over 20% in the next twelve months are still about one in five; the odds of the market dropping over 30% in the next twelve months are still about one in ten.
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Ken French

Professor Kenneth French

Last month I did a study to understand why equally weighted the S&P 500 index RSP has outperformed value weighted S&P 500 index SPY by almost 3% a year since its inception. My conclusion is that it’s mostly due to Fama French risk factor loading.

However, my research also found after removing the effect of risk factors, RSP has a slight alpha advantage over SPY. I conjecture this alpha advantage is due to the fact that RSP requires annual rebalancing and SPY does not. In other word, this could be the so-called “rebalance bonus.”

To test its robustness, I extended my study to six pair of Fama French “indices.”

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ImageAccording to Nobel Laureate Eugene Fama, there are three major risk premiums.

1. Equity premium is the additional “wage” one can earn from taking stock market risk over not taking stock market risk.

2. Small cap premium is the additional “wage” one can earn from taking small company risk over taking large company risk.

3. Value premium is the additional “wage” one can earn from taking non-growing company risk over taking growing company risk.

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images-58In the arena of academic finance, the debate over whether a rebalancing “bonus” exists or not has become somewhat of a religion!

Those who are ardent believers of an efficient market such as Nobel Prize winner Eugene Fama usually believe all returns should be the result of taking risk and that simple actions like rebalancing periodically should not produce additional returns.

Those who believe the market is emotion-driven, such as Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller, believe in a rebalancing “bonus”. Since the market is either over-priced or under-priced from time to time, rebalancing allows us to take advantage of this market mispricing.

The return differential of RSP vs SPY provides an excellent control experiment to test whether this illustrious rebalancing “bonus” actually exists. SPY and RSP invest in the same 500 largest stocks of the US. SPY being a cap-weighted fund, does not require rebalancing, while RSP being a equally weighted fund requires periodic rebalancing.

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ImageSince its inception on March 9, 2003, RSP has returned 193%. At the same time, SPY has only returned 97%. This is extremely puzzling as both RSP and SPY hold the same S&P 500 stocks.The only difference is that SPY is a cap-weighted fund and RSP is an equally-weighted one. This begs the question, is RSP’s outperformance normal; and more importantly, is it likely to continue?

To answer the question I asked my intern Nahae Kim to run a regression based on the Nobel Prize winning Fama-French Three Factor Model.

R(x) – rf = alpha + beta1*(Rmkt – rf) + beta2*SML + beta3*HML

Where R(x) is the return of the selected fund, x being either RSP or SPY, alpha is the “skill” of the fund, beta1 is the market risk loading, beta2 is the small cap risk loading and beta3 is the value risk loading.

Here is what I got from the two regressions.

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images-54Recently, a prospective client of mine sent me an email asking about my thoughts on Bill Bernstein’s new book “Deep Risk.” I have not read the book yet, but I do have my own ideas about deep risk vs shallow risk.

I define shallow risk as a potential loss that you can recover from and deep risk as a loss that you cannot recover from.

Market volatility, for example, is a shallow risk. It is very visible and it is scary, there is even a TV channel devoted to it. (That TV channel is called CNBC.)

But taking on shallow risk is how you earn your investment keep. Thus, it should not be feared, it should be welcomed.

Now what are the deep risks you should ardently avoid? I can think of three: inflation risk, behavior risk and agency risk.

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Image2013 has been a stellar year for stocks. As of today, the S&P 500 is up more than 25%. There are about ten trading days left and barring unforeseen circumstance, the index will end the year in the 20+% range.

A few of my clients are concerned; with the market doing so well this year, what does that bode for 2014? Well, I don’t have a crystal ball, so all I can do is to look at historical data to make an imperfect reference.

To answer the question, I asked my intern Nahae Kim to do a study of the relationship of immediately subsequent year returns. Specifically, can one year return predict the next year?

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ImageThat was a message I got from a new client of mine. I must admit, it really bites. Yes, I sold his Apple stock. And yes, since then the price has gone up 15%. So of course, I can understand he’s upset and beginning to question whether I know what I am doing.

Having studied improvisational comedy, I’m aware that regardless of how I feel, it is wise to always validate others’ feelings. So I replied, “Yes, I should have asked you before I sold it.”

Afterward, I sent him some data to mull over.

Nasdaq just crawled its way back to 4000 a few days ago, and this time Apple is the biggest and hottest stock in the Nasdaq 100.

Last time when Nasdaq passed 4000, the top ten tech stocks (try saying that ten times fast) were, Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Qualcom, Oracle, JDSU, Nextel, Sun Micro, Veritas and MCI Worldcom.

Since the last time Nasdaq passed 4000, Microsoft has gone down 34%, Cisco 59%, Intel 53%, Qualcomm, the only up stock in the group, has gone up 25%, Oracal has gone down 67%, JDSU 98% and the remaining four are no longer in business; they were either merged out of existence or end ignominiously.

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images-42It is exceedingly difficult for mutual funds to beat market indexes. For the past decade, Standard and Poor’s has methodologically documented returns by mutual funds and what they found is something those fund managers do not want you to know: the majority of mutual funds under-performed their respective indexes literally every single time.

Here is an infographic published by MoneySense, a Canadian financial magazine, that shows 90% of Canadian money managers under-performed the market index in 2012; I can assure you that US money managers are doing no better.

                                      FundManagers

JingToday I went to listen to Professor Jing of Renmin University speaking about US – China relations. The last time I went to listen to the same subject, it was Professor Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago speaking. His theory predicts that the US and China will come into conflict inevitably. I was curious to hear a Chinese perspective.

When I told Professor Jing about Dr. Mearsheimer’s theory and prediction, I was surprised to learn that the two professors are friends. In fact, Dr. Mearsheimer teaches at Dr. Jing’s Renmin University as a visiting scholar.

Dr. Jing does not agree with Professor Mearsheimer’s theory and prediction.

He does however agree that the rivalry between China and the US will intensify in coming years. In his words, “This is structural.” No matter how hard the leaders of the two nations try, the most powerful nation on earth and the second most powerful will always be suspicious of each other.

However, Professor Jing believes this rivalry need not result in open conflict. “Both the US and China are nuclear states. Should war break out between us, only cockroaches will survive.”

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One very very sharp reader of my blog sent an email to me, and here is what it said:

Aren’t these 2 philosophies opposites of each other? If the market prices correctly based on all available information, how can the stock price be different from the expected dividend? Aren’t these 2 prize winning economists speaking in opposites?

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ImageAs far as investment philosophy is concerned, I am solidly in the camp of Nobel Prize winner Eugene Fama and Vanguard founder Jack Bogle. They both believe that the market is by and large efficient, and there is no point in picking stocks.

Most of my money is in broad-based passively managed asset class funds, but I do set aside 5% just to have some fun with and right now I only have three stocks in my fun account.

Safeway

I bought SWY last November after going to the Chicago Booth Entrepreneur Advisory Meeting. From the meeting, I learned that big retailers routinely write off their inventory at a huge loss. The reason being that they can not control demands as they have little information about the needs of the individual consumer, though they can usually make a rough guess on aggregate needs.

I noticed my wife had been shopping at Safeway more and more. After a little digging, I found out Safeway had set up a technology system to track each individual’s needs and price sensitivities. Then it can make targeted offers to shoppers like my wife that unfailingly brought her back over and over. I recalled my earlier meeting and realized they would save tons of money just from better inventory management.

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ImageIt really caught me by surprise when Eugene Fama, the newly minted Nobel laureate in Economics said: “It doesn’t matter that much.” when speaking about investing outside of the US.

OK sure, I can understand his point. Why invest outside of the US when the US markets already account of 40% of world capitalization? “The U.S. market is so well-diversified already that combining it with global markets doesn’t really matter,” so said Fama.

However, I think it actually does matter ….

Proportionally, the US market is getting smaller. Right after the second world war, the US market accounted for 70% of world capitalization, now it only accounts for 40%. For a country that boasts only 5% of of the world’s population, this is still exceptionally high.

For the foreseeable future, there are better than even odds that the combined markets outside of the US will grow faster than the US market will do alone. Why forego those opportunities?

The diversification benefit you’d get is certainly not negligible either. During the so-called ‘lost decade’ of 2000 to 2009, the US market, as measured by the S&P 500, had a net loss of 9.1%, while international developed markets went up by an anemic 12.4%, but emerging markets went up by a whopping 154.3%.

It would have made a bog difference if you have a piece of emerging markets in your portfolio.

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I jumped out of my chair in delight when I learned that Eugene Fama and Robert Shiller had won this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. These are two economists that greatly influenced my investment philosophy and their works have been an integral part of how I help my clients build and preserve wealth.

Let me explain their contributions:

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ImageWhen I was in California, I had a very intelligent debate with a doctor. He mentioned that in 2012, the US took in $2.5T in revenue and spent $3.6T in government expenditures.

He accurately pointed out, “If I spent like that, I would be bankrupt in a few years.” He believes so strongly that the US is going the way of national bankruptcy that he has moved substantial amounts of his money overseas and has invested a great deal in gold.

I happen to believe that gold is the most unproductive of assets, since it does not generate dividends or interest and it actually costs money for upkeep in a safe in a Singapore bank.

On top of that, by throwing so much money into gold, one could over prepare for a disaster that is very unlikely to happen and thereby miss out on all the opportunities to grow wealth in this country.

But I still need to explain why the US won’t go bankrupt anytime soon. Here are two explanations:

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Author

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

Twitter: @mzhuang

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