Well. The scariest night of the year is almost upon us (take your pick of October 31st or November 3rd), and it definitely feels more trick than treat in the markets this week, doesn't it? Monday was off a couple percent, no bounce on Tuesday, and then down another 3.5% Wednesday. A little bounce yesterday, but all given back again so far today. Frustratingly, Wednesday's selloff was another one of those days where literally everything sold off. Stocks, bonds, gold..everything. To put that into perspective: stocks, bonds, and gold all down on the same day has happened twice. Ever. And both those times were back in March of this year.
Which kind of makes sense...the catalyst for the selloff is a little murky, though it seems like Europe (at least Italy, Spain, France, Germany, UK, Belgium, Czech Republic, and Poland) reinstating various lockdown measures is largely to blame. Domestically, optimism around a fresh stimulus deal seems misplaced (though does that actually surprise anyone a week before the election?), and the election races seem to be tightening.
A few weeks ago, the default positioning on elections felt like expectations of a "Blue Wave" result next week, and markets had been rising ahead of an expected proverbial opening of the government spending floodgates. Now, it feels like there is a reconsideration of that outcome. Markets hate uncertainty. The worst possible outcome (for markets) is a contested election that has to spend months working its way through the courts. Tighter polls make that outcome marginally more likely, so perhaps what we're seeing in this selloff a broad deleveraging of risk assets. Or maybe it's the opposite of what we saw back in Q2 and is a bit of a negative gamma squeeze.
In the spirit of Halloween, we'll take this newsletter in less of the obvious Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk direction and more of a The Gamma People/Creature with the Atom Brain direction as we dive into what exactly gamma is and how it moves markets.
The upshot of last month's webinar, for those of you that missed it, was that the Fed is turning the stock market into a house of cards, but you might as well make yourself comfortable in it. Recently, we've been having a number of conversations that suggest we need to elucidate that point a little further than can be accomplished in a 40-minute Zoom. So here we go:
What is investing?
Are you "investing in companies" when you buy into the stock market?
99% of the time you are not investing in a company. The only ways you can actually invest in a company are: public stock offerings (usually IPOs); public debt offerings; private equity or debt deals. Last year, there were a low-200's number of IPOs that raised around $62B total. Through the first half of 2020, there have been 64 IPOs that raised $22.3B. The total value of the US stock market is right around $30T with a "T". So in any given year, about 0.2% of the stock market is actual "I want to invest in your company" money.
You've seen a record $1.2T in new bond issuance (more on this in a bit) year-to-date in a $40T bond market. Private markets are up to about $6.5T total and have added $370B or so a year (including performance). So recently, in any given year, you could reasonably expect about $1.6T in real "give this company my money" investment. In a combined stock/bond/private marketplace in the US of $77T or so. That's 2%.
Okay, sorry, we were wrong: 98% of the time you are not investing in a company (though really, most of that 2% is limited to a very select few, so in our defense it is likely closer to 99%).
So what are you investing in? When you buy your shares of Apple or Tesla or Aurora Cannabis, you aren't giving your money to the company for them to do amazing world-changing things with. You're not giving your money to the company at all. That's why the stock market is a "secondary" market - you're giving it to the person you bought the shares from.
This month we're going to talk about a somewhat taboo subject in investing: gold. There are those who still hold that gold is nothing more than a "barbarous relic", a literal lump of rock that, while shiny, produces nothing, yields nothing, pays nothing, and is essentially a way that financial companies have found to charge you for keeping money under your mattress.
On the other side are those convinced that gold is a necessary store of value in a world where paper money is backed by nothing more than the (perhaps rapidly eroding) "full faith and credit" of the issuing government. Our money used to be backed by gold and silver. Now it's backed by nothing. And in point of fact, there aren't even enough paper dollars to cover the amount of money in the US economy.
Gold bugs tend to get a bit of a bad rap and are lumped in with doomsdayers and naysayers of various ilks. But with gold at all-time highs over $2,000 an ounce, let's try and take a rational look at why and how one might invest in gold.
Because we're also doing a live market update this month, this note is (hopefully) going to be on the shorter side...but no guarantees.
We've written about inflation before. It was a couple years ago now, and the thesis was basically that wage inflation would pick up, signaling minimal slack in the economy and the need for tighter monetary conditions going forward that had the potential to prick the stock bubble. Spoiler alert: that didn't so happen so much. Real wage inflation did pick up and actually spent most of 2018 and 2019 above 3% before sliding back to the mid-2%'s as the calendar turned into 2020.
What ended up popping the equity bubble was not wage inflation but rather a little spike protein on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Of course, that equity bubble was subsequently reinflated faster than you could say "Thank you sir, may I have another", but there's still an interesting question of inflation on the table.
Namely: are we headed into disinflation/deflation, or are we headed in the other direction into (perhaps significantly) higher inflation? It's an important question, because the kind of investments that tend to do well during inflationary regimes are categorically not the kind of investments that tend to do well during deflationary regimes.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights - a great movie from the early 90's (which, not to make anyone feel old but was 30 years ago) starring Westley from The Princess Bride, Dave Chappelle, and Patrick Stewart.
Brilliant! Anyway, it's a Mel Brooks movie, so it's a hilarious parody of the Robin Hood story, in a similar vein to Young Frankenstein. And this is relevant to this month's note because there is another hilarious Robinhood parody playing out right now: Robinhood, the online brokerage platform, and the parody is the stock market, and by hilarious we mean sad.
With nothing to do except stay at home under shelter-in-place orders, people apparently turned to day trading in a big way. It seems like the combination of time, boredom, stimulus checks, and no sports to bet on have people piling into the market (see: anything from Dave "Davey Day Trader" Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports-turned day trading stock market guru who picks stocks out of a Scrabble bag and whose first maxim of investing is: "Stocks never go down"). E*Trade, TD Ameritrade, and Charles Schwab all saw record new accounts in the first quarter of the year. All 22 trading days in March were among Schwab's 30 most active days ever.
Mel Brooks has already made one parody movie entitled Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The year was 1993, and you had Westley from The Princess Bride, Dave Chappelle, and Patrick Stewart all on screen at the same time. Brilliant.
And now, nearly thirty years later, we have a real-life Mel Brooks-ian parody playing out in the stock market. May I present - Robinhood: Men in Tights (the reprise).
"Capitalism is the worst economic system ever invented...except for all the other ones."
- Winston Churchill (paraphrased) et al.
One of the main effects of this virus - and our response to it - has been to shine a light directly on all the broken parts of our societal system. A really harsh, fluorescent light. In some cases even a seizure-inducing strobe light. Whether your particular flavor of failure du jour is institutional, political, economic, macro, or micro, there is something there for everyone.
Remember all the outrage over "faithless electors" a few years ago? That was people waking up to the fact that their vote doesn't matter. In point of fact, you don't actually vote for President at all. You are really voting for which party you want to appoint a donor fundraiser elector to vote for you. This is like that, but with everything. In the interest of page limits, we'll stick to our broken economic system for now: Covid killed capitalism.
Well. We knew we didn't have any kind of monopoly on rogue waves, but this one...wow. Iceberg ahead, captain.
In early March, when stocks were down 15%, we wrote that if you were asking yourself "should I be selling stocks", our answer was "yes". Apparently, nobody listened.
Shelter-in-place orders turned people to day trading in a big way. E*Trade, TD Ameritrade, and Charles Schwab all saw record new accounts in the first quarter of the year, with Schwab alone reporting 300,000 just in March. All 22 trading days in March were among Schwab's 30 most active days ever. For the new hundreds of thousands of you that will soon be asking "should I sell my stocks", we will reiterate: yes.
Part 2. There is so much to unpack economically here, it might take us the rest of the year. So we’ll just start for the time being with a real-time post-mortem of the stock market and economy. A peri-mortem, perhaps.
Things in the land of fiat money and made up valuations are...bad. Like, Stewie destroying Mr. Rogers’s Land of Make Believe bad.
The S&P 500 had a closing high on February 19 of 3,386. As we write this on March 19, exactly one short month later, the S&P 500 is sitting at 2,323 about 15 minutes into the trading day. That is a loss of 31% in a month, which is the fastest drop into a bear market from an all-time high on record (the red line).
As I’m writing this (first week in March), the market is in the middle of some obscene volatility thanks to the coronavirus that has started taking over the world like the second coming of Genghis Khan. The crystal ball is decidedly murky on this one, so no telling what things will be like when you’re reading this in April, but here’s hoping the zombie apocalypse chapter story you’ve read in these very pages hasn’t been a massive case of cosmic foreshadowing!
Something I’ve heard a lot in the last week from clients is: “should we be selling stocks?” Perhaps you’ve had the same thought yourself. Fortunately, there’s a straightforward answer to that question: yes, you should sell.
But, but....what about long-term investing and buying the dip and “the market will recover” and everything else people say? Irrelevant! Let me explain:
We had originally intended to keep unpacking December’s This One’s For Us newsletter and get into the superstitions and black magic of technical analysis...but things have taken a rather interesting turn in the last week, so let’s address the elephant - er, the bioengineered microscopic pathogen - that’s (probably) in the room. It’s not yet April, so we’ll try really hard to stick to facts...or at least what has been publicly admitted to.
Here’s what a pandemic looks like:
It’s beach renourishment time again! The dredges and pipes and bulldozers are all hard at work this offseason fighting with mother nature to try and keep those free-spirited sand grains in one place. Or at least temporarily reset them, I suppose. The more cynical among us might argue that it’s a bit of a losing battle...but man does that new beach look good.
From time to time, it’s a good idea to give your portfolio a little renourishment as well. We’re not talking about selling everything and starting over - after all, you don’t scrape the beach away down to bedrock and then rebuild it. You just need to move some things around a little bit.
There are all kinds of pithy sayings out there about how to renourish your portfolio: “cut your losers and let your winners run”, “if you liked it before, you should like it even more now that it’s cheaper”, etc. Gag. All you really need to do is a simple rebalance.
Happy Holidays, dear readers! Believe it or not, the vast majority of the newsletters we write are not, in fact, for our own entertainment. A couple of them definitely are - notably the April Tin Foil Hat series and the October Halloween series - but apart from those semiannual gems, most of the time we are trying to educate, inform, amuse, explain, entertain, and/or deobfuscate.
This one, however, will likely turn out to be none of that. If you’ve been paying attention to those trade confirmations that hit your inbox at the stroke of midnight, you’ll have noticed that we’ve been busy headed into year-end. The following is a glimpse into what we’re thinking, and why. Fair warning, it may feel a bit like climbing up an Escher staircase. But like we said, this one’s for us.
Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Unfortunately, since my benevolent overlords editors here at Beachcomber have these things called “deadlines”, there is absolutely zero hindsight available for this first Rogue Waves of 2020, as it is, in fact, still 2019 as I write this. Which must mean it’s Magic 8-Ball time!
What’s that? You think we meant to say “crystal ball”? Ah, yes, that is to be expected given all the punny ways you can put “vision” and “2020” together for economic forecasting. But from time to time we like to refrain from beating a dead horse. And also, economic forecasts are useless.
To pick up where we left off last month: Diversification, huh, what is it good for? Well, most people would say a lot, that diversification is the foundational bedrock of an investment portfolio. But also - and this next point might be somewhat controversial - nothing.
If you want to make money in the stock market - like, turn $1,000 into $100,000 money - you won’t do that with diversification. Well, you will, but it’ll take 50 years. The quickest way to make money is by making a very small number of very large, concentrated bets...and then hopefully the bets pay off. Think of any famous investor you’ve heard of, and they’ve probably made their money that way.
The problem is, it’s a huge gamble. For every one investor you just named, there are hundreds that nobody has ever heard of, because they lost. And then there’s the ones that made it to the big leagues and subsequently crashed into bankruptcy: Long-Term Capital Management, Amaranth Advisors, Marin Capital, Tiger Management, MF Global...the list goes on. So sure, you can do all kinds of research/activism/questionably-legal market manipulating activities to try and make the gamble less of a gamble (*cough*hedge funds*cough*), but any investment with that kind of payoff comes with all sorts of risk.
That risk is exactly why the SEC, in their paternalistic omniscience, have limited most of the best investment opportunities out there to “accredited investors”. For the vast majority of “non-accredited investors”, that level of risk is unacceptable. If your investments are in the form of a 401(k), or maybe you have a brokerage account but know you will be needing to use those funds in retirement, the possibility of losing all your money should never be on the table to begin with. Yes, turning $1,000 into $100,000 a couple times over would be nice, but we’ll choose instead to take the worst possible outcomes off the table and make money the old-fashioned way: savings and time. And so we turn to diversification. Diversifying will not make you money, but it will certainly mitigate potential losses.
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