The Investment Scientist

Here are your answers to the survey question: “What You Learn The Most From Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger?” Most people pick “They are patient” as their top take-away, followed by “They are value-oriented”.

If I had been asked the same question ten years ago, I would have picked these two as well. However, today I want to discuss the point that came in third, that they stay alive and sharp

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Thank you for all the responses to my last survey.  Here is the breakdown of your answers – the table below shows the percentage of you who think the specific asset is an enduring asset.

Bitcoin is not an enduring asset. The so-called cryptocurrency is neither used for any meaningful exchange, the primary function of a currency, nor is it safe from hacking or outright bans from governments. 

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My last newsletter illustrated an actual example of a client portfolio that had fallen 17% in value over the previous 12 months.  Despite that, the portfolio’s projected income had increased by 10%.

This client’s portfolio is a 50/50 portfolio, with 50% in bond funds and 50% in stock funds. The same factor that drives the portfolio value’s fall also drives the increase in income. The factor I’m talking about is the long-term interest rates. 

Don’t mistake this for the Fed’s interest rate hike. The Fed only controls the overnight Fed fund rate, it does not control the long rates like the 5-year rate, 10-year rate, etc. It is the market that sets the long rates. When the market believes that the Fed needs to tighten up a lot more to control inflation, long rates increase across the board, causing both stock and bond values to fall. (If the central bank will pay high overnight interest long into the future, all existing investments become less valuable.)

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In a previous article, I argued that for folks in the wealth accumulation phase, market discounts like we are getting now, between 22% of the S&P 500 and 33% of the Nasdaq, are actually good news. The same amount of money can now buy more enduring assets. And yes, owning more enduring assets in retirement is absolutely better than owning fewer! In the future, I shall write another article about what constitutes enduring assets (#). But back to the current topic.

I got an email from a retired client of mine, who asked: “What about me? I am past the accumulation phase. I need to draw a fixed income from my portfolio, and I just saw it shrink by nearly 20%.” We did a review of his portfolio, afterward, he felt much more reassured.

Did I do some kind of magic trick? No, I simply showed him what was hidden in his portfolio statements. I compared not just the value of his portfolio, but also his projected yearly portfolio income between August of last year to this August. Here is the comparison table. 

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The following is a chart I grabbed from the St. Louis Federal Reserve website. It more or less explains why we are experiencing runaway inflation now, and why it may not easily go away.

The chart shows the total M1 money supply. Note that as recently as 2012, the total money supply was just over $2T, but now, only ten years later, it is over $20T. That’s a ten-fold increase. The majority of this increase came during the Pandemic when within a few short months, the money supply increased from $4T to 16T. 

Only after March of this year, when it became clear that inflation is not “transitory,” did that money supply begin to taper off slightly. It does not look like it will ever go back to the level it was at prior to 2020, though.

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Since the beginning of this year, the stock market has experienced its worst six months in the last 50 years. At one point, the Nasdaq was down 30%, and the Dow and the S&P 500 were in bear market territory. From its lowest point, the market has recovered a bit, but after Chairman Powell’s Jackson Hole speech, the market seems to have resumed its slide. So the question is, will the market give us even deeper discounts on stocks?

Before we go into that, let me sum up my impression of Chairman Powell’s Jackson Hole speech. He has found his inner Paul Volcker! He has turned from a super dove to a super hawk when it comes to inflation.

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What a difference a month can make! At the end of June, the stock market gave us discounts of between 20% to 30% (depending on indexes.) That made the first half of 2022 the worst six months of the stock market since 1970. Many investors were panicky! I, on the other hand, called it a good opportunity to acquire assets on the cheap. 

What a difference one month can make! All through July, the market went up and up despite much bad news like we are now technically in a recession. Now that the month is over, stocks are between 7.5% to 10% more expensive (depending on indexes.) Happy now?

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The first half of 2022 was the “worst” six months of the stock market since 1970 according to the financial media. The S&P 500 is in bear market territory. The tech-heavy Nasdaq is down 30%. Even the bond market, which is usually up when the stock market is down, is down by double digits. What a blood bath!

I had rolled over an old 401k account to an IRA last October. By the end of June, the account was down nearly 15%. Let’s take a closer look at how I invested the money.

The Initial balance was about $711k, which I used to invest in 3054 shares of US Total Stock Fund (USTSF), 4511 shares of Global Real Estate Investment Fund (GREIF), 4900 shares of International Stock Fund (INTSF), 263 shares of Nasdaq 100 Stock Fund (NDQSF), and 53109 shares of High Yield Corporate Bond Fund (HYCBF). Note that all of these symbols are pseudonyms. 

After the initial investment, I made only one change in April, which was to sell some GREIF and HYCBF to buy 223 shares of Gold Fund (GOLDF). In the table below, I show how the amount of each asset increased (green) or decreased (red). In the last two rows, I also show the value and the income of the portfolio and how they increased or decreased over time.

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In a previous article, I used the Quantity of Money equation to explain what the Fed had done to rescue the economy from imminent collapse at the onset of the Pandemic. Today I will explain why doing that caused inflation and why that inflation is not unlikely to be transitory unless certain things happen.

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Today I had a very productive meeting with a long-time client of mine. At the end of the meeting, I mentioned that he appeared to have lost quite a bit of weight and he went on to tell me that through diet, exercise and some medications, he was able to reverse his diabetes. I am so happy for him! He is truly making the best investment in his life!

Did you know that Warren Buffet made 99% of his $90b wealth after he turned 50? To be more exact, he did it after he turned 54. Now he is 91. So how did he do that? After all, he is such a boring investor! He missed the best moment to get into AAPL. To this day, he is still not invested in TSLA and he totally doesn’t understand Bitcoin. In his entire investment career, he has rarely had a blockbuster win. So how on earth did he accumulate so much wealth? One often-overlooked reason is that he has lived a very long life.

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I learned this “Quantity of Money” equation during my Oxford program and it has greatly helped me understand Fed’s actions and their implications.

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It appears to me that in times of great uncertainty, people want me (a financial advisor) to know where the market is heading the most. Certainly, I have my informed opinions, bringing all my education and experiences to bear. But I often find myself having to explain that I can’t see into the future and tell them exactly what the market is going to do, all I can provide is informed guesses, and long-term investment success should not depend on guesses, informed or otherwise.

Today, let’s do a mental exercise: imagine I can actually accurately predict the market. If an ordinary person had $10,000 to invest in the S&P 500 index on 1/1/2000, by the close of the market yesterday his investment would have grown to $45,320. Not too bad!

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About a month ago, I wrote about the silver lining of fallen bond prices. The message I tried to get across was that the lower prices are not a bad thing: 1) You will still get your principal back; 2) You will earn higher interest income. Today I would like to tell you about another money-making opportunity presented by fallen bond prices – tax loss harvest!

This technique is usually used for stocks, but you can use it for bonds as well.

Let’s say that at the end of last year, you had $200k invested in various bond funds. Since then, bond prices have fallen about 10%. Your bond funds will show a $20k loss on paper. Now you can sell these funds to realize the loss and use the proceeds to buy other bond funds so that you have the same exposure. 

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I am writing this article one hour before today’s market close. If there are no surprises, the S&P 500 will end the day in a bear market, meaning the index is giving us a 20% discount  from its peak. As a comparison, the Nasdaq is already giving us a 30% discount. 

As savvy investors, many of my clients and readers want to know: will the discount get deeper? And how long will the discount last? Well, like I always say, nobody can predict the future, but we surely can learn from history. That’s why I have done a study of all twelve bear markets since 1950. The table below illustrates my findings:

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If you bought a bond fund three months ago, you may have seen your fund go down about 10% in value! What the heck is going on? Aren’t bond funds supposed to be safe? In today’s newsletter, I will explain what’s going on, I will explain why you should still consider your bond funds safe, and I will even give you some hidden upsides of bond funds going down in value.

What’s Going On?
Last month we saw interest rates rallying. Bonds are essentially fixed future promised payments.  The current value of a bond is the sum of all fixed payments discounted by interest rates. When interest rates go up, it stands to reason that, applying the mathematical formula, the current value of the bond will  go down. This mathematical logic applies to all bond funds. 

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From the peak, Nasdaq is down about 24% and the S&P 500 is down about 14%. I am sure when you read your investment statement, you will feel queasy and wonder if you should stay invested. I think this is a good time to review my wardrobe theory of investment. Here is what I wrote in December 2018:

Treat your investment portfolio the same way you would treat your wardrobe…

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say you acquire your entire wardrobe from Neiman Marcus. If Neiman Marcus had an across-the-board 50%-off sale, would you throw up your hands in despair and say, “Darn it, my entire wardrobe just lost half of its value. I better sell it all at the flea market or I will lose everything?”

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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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