Seth Klarman's January, 2019 Letter to Investors #9 is a biggie IMHO
Seth Klarman's letter to his Limited Partners has received a lot of chatter in Davos and over the business news airwaves this week.
1. The Bull Market in Complacency
"Last year once again demonstrated that markets can be confoundingly fickle. Well- known conditions and widely anticipated events, such as Federal Reserve rate hikes, ongoing trade disputes, and the unsettling behavior of an erratic president, were shrugged off by the financial markets one day and driving markets down the next. Is there a cumulative impact, where no one thing matters until the collective weight of them starts to? Is the market simply myopic, whereby it ignores signs of trouble until they become more immediate and it can ignore them no longer? It's always hard to know why the market does what it does. That's part of the ever-interesting challenge we face in traversing the twists and turns of fluctuating prices and evolving fundamentals. On any given day, the sheer number of players, behaviors, economic factors, and business developments defy anyone's ability to fully grasp what is going on and why. That's why we develop and follow a game plan that does not purport to tell us what to do moment by moment, but rather is intended to help us successfully navigate the most challenging tumult. This is the essence of value investing.
2. Enter the New Regime of Volatility
"The major U.S. stock market indices steadily gained ground for the first three quarters of 2018, before plunging in a highly volatile fourth quarter. Early in the year, those who had bet that the market would remain on a steady uptrend were briefly caught flat-footed when volatility surged higher. The most jarring example was the near complete wipeout and sudden liquidation in February of the exchange-traded note XIV, a retail product used by many traders to short volatility. (The name XIV is the reverse of VIX, the common measure of market volatility.) Since its inception in late 2010, this instrument had appreciated 14-fold into early 2018, and then it was shockingly wound down within a month after it had lost 95% of its value. By mid-April, however, volatility abated and the stock market resumed its seemingly habitual march higher...
Waves of selling swamped equity markets in the fourth quarter, as volatility surged. While in 2017 the U.S. equity market did not experience a single daily fluctuation up or down of as much as 3%, in 2018 there were 15 such days, 10 in the fourth quarter alone."
3. The Changing Market Structure Poses Sizable Risks
"Generally rising share prices over the ensuing months more or less moved in tandem with higher corporate earnings, the result of massive fiscal stimulus, large corporate tax cuts, and historically low - albeit generally rising - interest rates. Cash continued to move into indexing strategies and out of the hands of active managers, with U.S. index fund holdings, after doubling from 2002 to 2009, nearly doubling again by 2018 (with important ramifications for market liquidity and corporate governance). Market pundits calculated that valuation multiples, with earnings assessed on a cyclically-adjusted basis, had reached the second-highest level ever (though reported earnings were more in line with historical averages). The economic expansion, clocking in at nine-and-a-half years, neared the longest on record. As usual in a bull market, the warm feelings generated by rising prices had the effect of overcoming any sense of looming danger in the hearts and minds of most investors. And as in all bull markets, skeptics lost both credibility and assets to manage. Many investors had evidently adopted the usual dubious emergency plan: Get out when the market starts to fall. In August, the bull market became the longest on record - at nearly 3,500 days and counting. It felt like forever...
As for algorithmic leverage, a growing amount of capital is today managed using model- based technologies to pick investments, many of which attempt to improve over time using artificial intelligence capabilities. (The Wall Street Journal recently estimated that 85% of all stock trading is now controlled by machines, models, or passive investing formulas.) The amount of capital invested in this way has grown massively since the last bear market, and no one can know how the various trading algorithms might respond to (or potentially even trigger) the next major selloff, especially after virtually an entire decade with low volatility. We simply cannot know how those algorithms might respond to new and unexpected conditions.
4. We Saw Who Was Swimming Naked In 4Q2018 and The Risks Associated With "The Negative Wealth Effect"
"In the fourth quarter, the market increasingly looked like what our retired Partner Brian Spector once referred to as a "tide market." When the tide goes out, it takes everything with it, and an investor must adjust in real time to the rapidly changing prices while considering the possibility of a deterioration in fundamentals. Sometimes, prices decline unrelated to those fundamentals. But at other times, they are anticipatory of fundamental erosion and can even be reflexively linked: lower share prices can adversely impact the economy in a sort of "reverse wealth effect;" investors feel poorer when the value of their portfolio falls, so they consume less. In addition, corporate management may view the share price decline as a potential increase in their cost of equity capital, causing them to delay capital expenditures or expansion plans, again reflexively weakening the broader economy. Yet as the market sold off this fall, there were mixed indicators as to whether the U.S. economy was actually cooling. "Hard data," such as holiday retail sales (November 1 - December 24), posted a very healthy 5% increase over the year before, even as "soft" survey and sentiment data such as consumer confidence fell from the October highs."
5. Given the Reduced Credit Quality and Explosion in Quantity - Leveraged Loans and Private Equity May Be The Most Vulnerable Asset Classes Now
"The most over-extended asset class in 2018 may well have been private equity. With public equity markets expensive and yield still scarce, many investors have lately concluded that private equity is the one place where double-digit returns may be achievable. Private equity fundraising has set records, with estimates of more than a trillion dollars in capital available to be put to work. The multiples of leverage extended in private equity transactions is approaching previous peaks, as are valuations of such transactions, while the laxity of financing terms is unprecedented. Private equity investors have had the wind at their backs for a decade, the result of a steadily growing economy and sustained low interest rates, conditions that will almost certainly not prevail forever...
Driven by such a protracted period of near-zero interest rates, investors have stampeded into anything - bonds, loans, REITs - offering a current return, leading to a degradation in the quality of outstanding credit. The proportion of U.S. non-financial corporate investment grade bonds rated BBB - the lowest investment grade rating - has increased to 58% today compared to 48% in 2011, even as the total investment grade market has increased from roughly $2.2 trillion in 2007 to $3.8 trillion today. The proportion of total non-investment grade issuance rated B- or below is nearly 25% of the overall high yield market. And high yield plus BBB-rated bonds comprise 68% of the total U.S. corporate bond universe.
The leveraged loan market, a critical funding source for lower quality issuers, has been on fire, with a record $788 billion of leveraged loans issued globally in 2017, and just below that pace of issuance in 2018. Almost 80% of the 2018 vintage was issued as "covenant-lite" - compared to about 30% in 2007. Record annual volumes of low grade bond issuance - including a 130% increase in the U.S. CLO market since 2008 - has surely created a vast future supply of distressed debt, but any calamity has seemed off in the distance. By year-end, however, it appeared to draw closer. Bank trading desks have pulled back from risk-taking, resulting in lower liquidity for bondholders and the possibility of greater price volatility. Late in the year, corporate credit spreads started to widen. The credit markets were hard hit in November, with yields on U.S. corporate debt reaching an 8 1/2-year high of 4.38%. Yields on the debt of fallen icon GE at one point hit 6.4%, from under 3% earlier in the year.
By the end of the year, cracks had also started to appear in the leveraged loan market, and investors pulled a record $3.3 billion out of U.S. loan funds in one week in mid-December. Junk bond fund outflows also set a record in 2018. Higher interest rates will significantly burden today's highly leveraged issuers, and the challenges will be made more severe when the next economic downturn hits."
6. The Pivot of Monetary Policy is A Hurdle To The Equity Market
"In 2018, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates four times as it sought to get to the "neutral rate," but late in the year it signaled it would slow the pace of rate hikes in 2019. The Fed continued the process of reducing its bloated $4.5 trillion balance sheet. In Europe, interest rates remain at historically low levels, with over $4.7 trillion of sovereigns still offering negative rates as of year-end, but the European Central Bank announced the completion of its almost four- year long program of net asset purchases in December. Even though everyone knew it was coming, the end of low rate policies and planned reduction of central bank balance sheets is far from a riskless endeavor, since these policies are unprecedented in scale, and such an unwind has never before been attempted. There should be concern about symmetry: If lowering interest rates coupled with central bank asset purchases stimulated economic expansion and a bull market in stocks and bonds, will raising rates drive a reversal? If the market's reaction to the Fed's December rate hike is any indication, the path to normalization of interest rates and of central bank balance sheets is going to be rocky indeed."
7. The Three Decade Bull Market in Bonds May Be Over
"There are also concerns that the lengthy 36-year bond bull market is nearing its end. At one point last year, rates on U.S. Treasury 10-year bonds had more than doubled from their 2016 lows. Given the length of the bond buying spree, many of today's market participants have never experienced a bear market in bonds. The riskiness of their exposures may surprise them. And because marketplace conditions have evolved greatly over the last three decades, when we do eventually enter a fixed income bear market, neither historical correlations nor prior experience are likely to provide much guidance for how to successfully navigate this treacherous terrain."
8. Debt Loads are Untenable
"Because it is always easier for politicians to borrow rather than pursue a responsible fiscal course, there is a propensity for sovereign debts to grow over time, not only in absolute terms, but also as a percentage of GDP. Since the 2008 financial crisis, aggregate global sovereign debt has nearly doubled, and most major sovereign debtors have experienced a significant increase in their debt-to-GDP ratios. In the U.S., this ratio actually had declined for many years after wartime spending started to wind down in 1945, but then it began ramping up significantly between 1980 and today. The ratio of U.S. government debt to GDP, for example, has grown from over 74% of GDP in 2008 to 105% in 2017. For the U.K., the ratio has surged from 50% to 88%. For France, 69% to 98%. For Italy, from 102% to 132%. For Spain, from 39% to 98%. Canada has gone from 68% to 90%. China from 27% to 47%. The seeds of the next major financial crisis (or the one after that) may well be found in today's sovereign debt levels."
9. The U.S. Deficit and our National Debt Are Being (Wrongly) Ignored By the Markets
"In 2018, the U.S. budget deficit soared to nearly $900 billion and could top one trillion dollars in 2019, a sorry consequence of the 2017 tax cuts that were funded with borrowed money. Growing deficits have ballooned the national debt, which by year-end hit a record $21.9 trillion (with potentially multiples of that in off-the-books entitlement promises), this while debt costs are suppressed by low interest rate policies. Approving massive tax cuts and generating the resultant huge deficits so late in the economic cycle while unemployment is so low seems particularly irresponsible, as there is little room for new fiscal stimulus if and when the economy softens. While the U.S. dollar maintains its de facto reserve currency status, this is a privilege ("America's exorbitant privilege," it was once called) never to be taken for granted. The nation's fiscal irresponsibility jeopardizes this status, which has allowed Americans to live beyond our means for a long time without paying any price. There is no way to know how much debt is too much, but America will inevitably reach an inflection point whereupon a suddenly more skeptical debt market will refuse to continue to lend to us at rates we can afford. By the time such a crisis hits, it will likely be too late to get our house in order.
Moreover, we have been increasingly worried that the U.S. financial markets are very highly leveraged not only with copious direct borrowings but also in less obvious ways - psychologically, algorithmically, and structurally - with investors vulnerable to exactly the same sort of urgent pressures that actual portfolio leverage can give rise to. As with a margin call, those pressures can include an intensely short-term orientation, extreme loss resistance, and an inability to stand apart from a panicky crowd."
10. Diminished Liquidity
"Meanwhile, many stocks have become less liquid and ownership has become more concentrated; we have previously noted that index funds hold a growing fraction of their shares. Because of limited liquidity and the potential absence of index buyers or even advent of index sellers, a bear market could have a surprisingly severe impact on small cap companies, something we started to see more frequently in the fourth quarter. As for shares not incorporated in major indices or held by ETFs, some days they seem lucky to catch any bid at all."
11. Global Economic Growth Is Moderating
"As 2018 progressed, storm clouds started to gather over the global economy. While the year began with IMF proclamations of "synchronized global growth," by the end of the year that institution was downgrading its 2018 and 2019 GDP forecasts and warning of challenges ahead. In retrospect, 2018 may be more appropriately categorized as a year of synchronized global disappointment. While some of the weaker emerging markets were the first to stumble (e.g., Argentina and Turkey), others soon followed. Japan's economy, after eight consecutive quarters of growth (their lengthiest expansion in 28 years), contracted in the first quarter and again in the third. Europe experienced its slowest growth in over four years, with even Germany cooling. China continues to be a cause of concern, with investors focusing on the numerous deteriorating data points while trying to decipher the meaning of Communist Party pronouncements. Time will tell if the U.S. economy, which has managed to stay strong thus far despite the turmoil abroad, can remain decoupled. One thing does seem certain - the world is entering 2019 with more economic question marks than were present a year earlier."
12. The End of the Post World War II Order Spells Trouble Ahead
"For the first three quarters of 2018, the markets more or less shrugged off a steady barrage of troubling economic and political developments, including escalating White House- driven trade feuds with, first Mexico and Canada, and then China, leading to the mutual imposition of higher tariffs. Turkey was forced to substantially devalue their currency as a result of twin deficits (trade and government) that led to an overheated economy. Argentina also devalued, the result of a widespread drought that impacted agricultural production, which triggered stagflation and a decline in dollar reserves. The U.K. continued to stumble toward some form of Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May's attempt to negotiate Britain's withdrawal from the Eurozone has proved to be extremely challenging, and perhaps even fatal for her politically, while many investors are holding back from commitments to the U.K. until the details are sorted out. In Italy, a coalition government of the Northern League and Five Star took power and promised tax cuts and an exit from the Eurozone, as well as a hardline anti-immigrant policy. While they have since moderated their language, the risk is heightened that Italy could soon face even deeper political and fiscal challenges.
As the post-World War II international order continued to erode, the markets ignored the longer-term implications of a more isolated America, a world increasingly adrift, and global leadership up for grabs. The post-war order relied on philosophical alignment among democratic societies, investment in international institutions, and effective diplomacy to manage competing interests across nations. American hegemony played a key role in supporting this order and the unprecedented peace and prosperity that had generally prevailed since 1945. Recently, foreign affairs pundit Walter Russell Mead wryly observed that the old system was neither liberal nor international nor an order, yet he added that its absence will surely be felt if it disintegrates."
13. The Screwflation of the Middle Class Will Likely Have Adverse Economic and Investment Ramifications
"Social frictions remain a challenge for democracies around the world, and we wonder when investors might take more notice of this. The recent "yellow vest" marches in France, which subsequently spread to Belgium, Holland, and Canada, began as a petition against fuel tax hikes, and grew through social media into a mass protest movement led by suburban commuters, small business owners, and truck drivers. The demonstrations, which appear to have broken out spontaneously throughout the country, became widespread and even violent. While the French government is clearly concerned - in December, it reversed the planned tax increases while announcing a higher minimum wage - the financial markets have taken the unrest largely in stride, as the French 10-year note at year-end yielded a meager 70 basis points...
Social and economic advancement in America today seems increasingly dependent on demography and geography. The economic advantages enjoyed by college graduates continues to grow. Unsurprisingly, income growth in most major metropolitan areas surpasses gains in rural areas of the country. Economic inequality continued to worsen in 2018, and for many, real wages have not increased in decades. It seems clear that economic anxiety contributed to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
The divide between Americans has been exacerbated by the echo chambers of modern- day media and the internet. Many have written of how, in only about four decades, an America of three broadcast networks has become an America of hundreds of cable channels. A few decades ago, we had less connectivity but more connection. David Brooks and others write regularly about the challenges of increased loneliness and isolation. A person today can have a thousand Facebook friends - and few, if any, actual friends."
14. The Behavior and Policy of President Trump May Weigh on the Markets
"In the U.S., meanwhile, investors truly have no idea how to react to the steady dose of presidential tweets seasoned with presidential pique. America's body politic remained inflamed in 2018. The President regularly stirred up his base with campaign-style rallies in which he endlessly warned, without evidence, of rampant voter fraud while stoking fears over the looming arrival of a caravan of Central American refugees. Claiming, also without evidence, that criminals and possible terrorists made up a significant component of this caravan, Trump sent troops to reinforce the border. Yet in the days and weeks following the midterm elections, the caravan disappeared entirely from his rhetoric, its purpose apparently served. Immigration remains a hot button issue, and whether or not to "build the wall" was the proximate issue in the prolonged partial government shutdown that started in late December.
The November midterm elections became, in many ways, a referendum on the President. The result, with record turnout, was that blue states got bluer and red states even redder, as Republicans tightened their grip on the Senate while Democrats rolled to a net gain of 40 House seats and control of that body, winning by the largest midterm popular vote margin in history. Democrats did particularly well among women, minority groups, and suburbanites, groups which have largely found Trump's policies and tone distasteful. In December, a bipartisan group of 44 former Senators signed an editorial begging today's Senate to put country ahead of party. Yet the vast majority of Senate Republicans continued to stand resolutely by the President, despite mounting indications that special counsel Robert Mueller and other investigators are delivering not only a growing number of indictments and guilty pleas but are also uncovering damaging information regarding Donald Trump's Presidential campaign and business interests. The chaos and consequent uncertainty emanating from Washington D.C. will likely only intensify as we approach the 2020 election.
The bottom line is that leadership matters. The growing turmoil in Washington and other world capitals is taking a toll on the country. As The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens recently observed, "the problem with Trump isn't that he's an empty vessel. It's that he's a malignant one." Amid all this turmoil, should investors simply hunker down and keep their focus on markets? That might be a challenge. By way of illustration, on December 18, on the FedEx earnings call, CEO Frederick Smith noted that "most of the issues that we're dealing with today are induced by bad political choices, I mean, making a bad decision about a new tax, creating a tremendously difficult situation with Brexit, the immigration crisis in Germany, the mercantilism and state-owned enterprise initiatives in China, the tariffs that the United States put in unilaterally. So you just go down the list, and they're all things that have created macroeconomic slowdowns.
These days, American do not seem to agree on much of anything. Some of it is today's politics: "Deep state" or dedicated civil servants? Witch hunt" or legitimate investigation into crimes? "Fake news" or free press? "Alternative facts" or facts? Accomplished adversary or "lock her up?" And some of it goes beyond politics into the realms of scientific inquiry and American values. Climate change or "climate hoax?" Refugees seeking sanctuary or "caravan of foreign invaders?"
Does this matter? We think it does. It's hard for our leaders to guide us when we don't agree on our values or even on how we decide what is true. Worse, our enemies, including but not limited to Russia's autocratic government, are using social media and internet postings to confuse us and divide us further. They know which hot buttons to push. Moreover, our willful disbelief of facts, truth, and science increases the chance that we will fail to recognize or take seriously growing threats. In 1993, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who famously said that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts," observed that America was "defining deviancy down." His point was that behavior that had once been seen as deviant was now considered acceptable. To paraphrase Moynihan, today we may instead be defining reality down.
This post-truth moment is quite dangerous. Imagine an incident that threatens national security. Will Americans see eye-to-eye on the seriousness of the threat? If our leaders are truth-challenged, will Americans believe the official explanation of the threat and the wisdom of the proposed response? Should they?
Jonathan Rauch, an American journalist and author, has written about a Constitution of Knowledge, an objective reality of facts and truth that he believes is now under attack from President Donald Trump. The Washington Post reports a troubling escalation in the rate of Presidential lies, from an average of around six per day in 2017 to 15 per day in 2018. Former C.I.A. Director Michael Hayden recently observed that "We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality ... but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself." Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse notes, "we have a risk of getting to a place where we don't have shared public facts. A republic will not work if we don't have shared facts.""
15. Deep Partisanship and an Anti Democratic Policy (and Mindset) Could Undermine Investing in America
"American democracy operates not just from a system of rules but also norms. Norms have provided historically valuable guardrails for proper behavior that protect the integrity of the system from possible misdeeds by the people in it. The critical importance of norms is easily dismissed, especially by those willing to pursue power and self-interest ahead of all other considerations. But norms reflect a core cultural aspiration of fairness, civility, and community that is more socially powerful, and broader in reach, than any statute or regulation. There can be a certain reckless power in violating norms, since the sanctions for doing so are neither immediate nor obvious. But the consequence is a dangerous erosion of our greatest bonds of community.
Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees the breakdown of democratic norms in post-election developments. She notes, "Democracy requires citizens' votes to be counted fairly, and those votes must determine who wields power ... in Wisconsin, the Republican legislature has stripped the incoming Democratic governor of capabilities that voters assumed their leader would have when they voted." For the great majority of American history, Supreme Court nominees needed 60 votes in the Senate for confirmation; otherwise, a filibuster could hold up a nomination indefinitely. But in 2017, the Republicans exercised the "nuclear option," changing the required vote to a simple majority. This eliminated the need for the President to identify mutually agreeable centrist nominees and instead increased the politicization of the Court.
We would argue vehemently that democracy, and the liberties and protections it provides, is not just of importance to individual citizens, but also to businesses and markets. In a democracy, businesses have the benefit of equal treatment under the law, including unbiased regulation. Yet these days, the President often singles out for criticism enterprises he finds personally objectionable or executives who disagree with him politically. These anti-democratic tendencies are extremely dangerous, particularly as the Congressional Republicans show no interest in reprimanding him, even though his behavior violates a core principle of the conservatism they claim to espouse.
We would also argue that social cohesion is essential for those who have capital to invest. Businesses need a long-term horizon to plan, and social unrest makes planning more difficult. It can't be business as usual amidst constant protests, riots, shutdowns, and escalating social tensions. It is not hard to imagine worsening social unrest among a generation that is falling behind economically and feels betrayed by a massive national debt that was incurred without any obvious benefit to them. If things get bad enough, we could see taxes once again raised to confiscatory levels. We should all be rooting for (and acting to support) social cohesion and a renewal of the American dream.
David Moss, a Harvard Business School professor, teaches a course on democracy and has found that over much of American history, partisanship was cutthroat and political divides were wide and bitter. Yes, people said horrible things about each other. But when critically important issues were being decided, even while participants in the debate were intensely focused on winning, they were also focused on how their actions might affect democracy over the long run. More recently, it seems as though politics has been transformed into an intense focus on immediate victory, the system be damned. We have seen behavior in national and local politics where those in power changed the rules to the disadvantage of those out of power (or about to come into power) simply because they could. As stewards of your capital, we see these ominous and widening social divides as risks to the economy and even to the system. Politicians have been putting self-interest and party ahead of country. Absent facts, truth, and science, we expect poor governmental decisions to become the rule and not the exception. There is no hedge to such risks, other than to work together to reverse course, heal the divides, and strengthen American democracy."