The Investment Scientist


1.jpgPrior to the market’s open yesterday, the Fed announced unlimited asset purchases that also include corporate bonds, municipal bonds and securities backed by consumer loans.


There is a long-term downside of taking this measure. I am not going to write about it until the market calms down. Today I am going to write about the short-term upside for the economy, for the market and for investors like us.

Whether it is called QE (quantitative easing), asset purchases, or balance sheet expansion, it means the same thing: the Fed is creating new money. Just ten days ago, the Fed announced they would create $1.5T new money, but the market pretty much ignored that. Now the Fed is essentially saying that they will create as much money as possible to back-stop this financial crisis.

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018443422de7644a788fd5f9daa27e3a.jpgOver the weekend, a client of mine sent me a news report about how Senator Richard Burr, head of the Senate intelligence committee, sold his stocks before the coronavirus market crash. This maneuver is called front-running the market. Simply explained, if you possess superior information that the market does not have yet, you can massively profit from this superior information by positioning your portfolio ahead of the anticipated impact the information will have on the market once it becomes public.

There is a whole body of academic studies on who has superior information. They are the usual suspects: lawmakers and company executives. Regarding company executives, research shows that CEOs and COOs have the best inside information, followed by CFOs. After that, information superiority drops off quickly. The information possessed by company directors is rarely superior. Research also shows that legislators are able to position their portfolios as they make laws. The difference between lawmakers and company executives is that the latter’s actions are heavily regulated and the former’s are not.

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MW-DB025_balaci_20141208133245_ZQ.jpgBy the close of the market yesterday, the Dow was discounted by 32% from its peak just three weeks ago. This level of discount happens once a decade. The last two times were during the 2000 dotcom bubble burst and 2008 financial crisis. 

I have been busy rebalancing portfolios for myself and my clients. What is a rebalancing? Imagine a client has a target allocation of 60/40, that is, 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds. After the last round of discounts, the allocation becomes 45/55. To get back to the target, I must sell bonds worth 15% of the portfolio and use the money to buy stocks.

All investors set out to buy low and sell high, but when the market is giving them a 30% discount, most of them freak out and want to sell every stock instead. There are a few human judgement heuristics and biases at play here that were studied by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, like representative bias, base rate neglect, availability bias, anchoring and framing heuristic. When I have time, I will write about those heuristics and biases.

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unnamed (11).jpgYesterday, what got lost in the panic selling was the Federal Reserve’s announcement that $1.5T will be injected into the banking system. 

Nowadays, money is created not through Treasury’s printing press, but through the Fed’s central bank balance sheet expansion. I won’t bore you with the mechanism. Suffice to say that yesterday, $1.5T of new money was created, and this new money has to go somewhere.

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Let me start with my usual disclaimer that I can not predict the market. This article is an exercise in which I think through possible scenarios for the market. Also, while the media and common folks like to use “crash”, “tumble”, “fall,” etc to describe the market, I prefer to use the term“discount”. The former signifies danger while the latter signifies opportunity. 

As of the market close yesterday, after dropping 2000+ points, the Dow is right at the edge of correction territory (meaning down barely 20%.) The 2000+ point drop was the result of the double whammy of coronavirus out of control in Italy, and oil prices dropping 30% because of a price war between Russia and Saudi.

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Predicting the market is a dangerous business, but there are enough people asking me this question that I thought I’d give it a try.

First things first, Covid19 is not a Pandemic yet.  It is primarily in China and even within China, 88% of the cases and 95% of deaths are in Hubei province which has 60mm people. The second worst-hit province is Guangdong (my hometown). There are 586 existing cases and 7 deaths there as of this writing and this goes up by one or two cases every day. Guangdong has a population of 113mm people. So my sense is that outside of the epicenter province, the situation is under control within China.

That said, the virus has spread beyond  China and infected hundreds of people in Japan, Korea, Italy, and Iran. The first three countries are unlikely to implement draconian measures limiting movements of people, the latter country does not have the medical resources to detect and fight the virus. The chances of Covid19 becoming a pandemic are increasing. So asking how that will affect your investments is a reasonable question.

The best way to answer the question is to study close historical precedents. The most recent, I believe, is the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. We have the added benefit that this virus was first detected in the U.S., which took the worst economic hit. Covid19 has barely reached the U.S. shores yet. Whatever impact it will have economically, it should be less than H1N1.

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Part of Wall Street analysts’ job is to make earning forecasts of covered firms so as to guide investors’ actions. In 1996, Professor Rafael La Porta discovered an interesting phenomenon: the better the forecasts, the worse the returns! Twenty years have passed since his last paper, now we have two more decades of data. Does the new data confirm or contradict his original discovery? Well, see this graph, which I lifted right from his new paper.

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

Twitter: @mzhuang

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