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Thomas J. Feeney's Measure of Value offers periodic commentary on leading financial issues of the day. Additionally, we present occasional articles explaining the philosophical underpinnings of the investment approach that our firms have employed successfully since 1986. Our thinking frequently differs from the common wisdom of the investment industry. The investment approaches we employ always recognize this as a probability business, not a certainty business. In evaluating any investment action, we always weigh the potential damage should the market prove us wrong.

While we have great respect for investment history, we recognize that each era introduces unprecedented specifics. In all that we do, we attempt to identify value, in both a relative and absolute sense. History has demonstrated that long run investment performance leaders need not be the leaders in bull markets as long as they avoid giving up significant portions of their assets during bear markets.

We firmly believe that one need not be fully invested at all times. In fact, we far prefer to assume relatively large levels of risk when assets are historically cheap and to be heavily risk-averse when assets are historically expensive. This approach has proven successful for our clients over more than a quarter century.


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“China orders banks to keep lending to insolvent provincial projects.” That front page headline in the May 16-17 weekend edition of The Financial Times shines a spotlight on one of history’s most perilous financial conditions. Since the end of the 1990’s, we have been warning of the extreme danger posed by excessive debt. In this century’s first decade, the world suffered two painful recessions, and domestic stock markets twice declined by 50% or more.

According to former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, the United States was headed into a depression following the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, necessitating what has become the most massive financial rescue in history. In this country alone, the Federal Reserve has created about $3.5 trillion since 2008, in the absurd, but ironic, attempt to solve a problem precipitated by excessive debt by creating even more egregious levels of new debt. That effort has succeeded in levitating stock, bond and home prices, although the broader economy has made only meager progress. With no dire consequences so far attending the “money for nothing” approach, the central banks of Japan, Europe and China have decided to follow the U.S.’s lead in supplying unprecedented levels of monetary stimulus.

One need only reread the headline at the top of the page to view the logical extension of this misguided policy. The U.S. banking system has become expert at the “extend and pretend” approach to excessively indebted borrowers. The European Central Bank continues its ongoing charade with Greece over debts that will never ultimately be repaid. Now China has reached the point at which numerous local government projects can’t meet principal or interest deadlines. Again, the solution around the world is not to stop borrowing but rather to borrow more, ultimately creating a bigger problem but deferring the day of reckoning.

In February, the McKinsey Global Institute highlighted the dangers of the expanding world debt burden. Their report warns that the $200 trillion global debt, much of it recently accumulated, “poses new risks to financial stability and may undermine global economic growth.” Former Fed governor and close personal friend Martha Seger stopped by our offices recently, where she was once Mission’s first Vice Chairman. Martha confessed her concern that someday she’ll awake in the middle of the night, turn on financial TV and learn that the over-indebted world financial system has unraveled.

None of that seems to bother equity investors, who have bid prices in most of the world close to all-time highs. There is a remarkable complacency that central bankers have the situation under control. History disagrees. As Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff point out in copious detail in This Time Is Different, debt levels even less onerous than today’s have been severely punished with regularity over many centuries. With central bankers building the debt edifice ever taller, investors are betting either that they’ll be able to time a prudent exit or that this time is truly different.

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Tom Feeney is Chief Investment Officer for Mission Management & Trust Co., a full service trust company regulated by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. If you would like to explore the management of an investment portfolio of $1 million or more, you are invited to email your interest to Tom@missiontrust.com or call (520) 577-5559 to speak with one of the Portfolio Coordinators.

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Since July of last year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has experienced 16 price moves ranging from 600 to 2000 points, eight up and eight down. Twelve of those moves have taken place in the last five months, each lasting an average of just two weeks. This is highly abnormal market action, clearly demonstrating a lack of investor conviction. In fact, volatility has become even more intense since mid-April. The Dow has experienced six moves ranging from 350 to 450 points in just 17 market days, each move completed on average in less than three market days. Some rallies and declines have lasted as little as a day or two.

 

In recent months, volatile market moves have typically come in response to domestic or international news, especially related to our Federal Reserve or other central banks. Now, apparently, markets have decided to move many hundreds of Dow points in a day or two without the stimulus of news stories. This, too, shall pass, but not without leaving a trail of serious investors longing for regulators to crack down on high frequency traders and others gaming the system for ill-gotten short-term trading profits. Reform on Wall Street is desperately needed.

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Tom Feeney is Chief Investment Officer for Mission Management & Trust Co., a full service trust company regulated by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. If you would like to explore the management of an investment portfolio of $1 million or more, you are invited to email your interest to Tom@missiontrust.com or call (520) 577-5559 to speak with one of the Portfolio Coordinators.

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March marked the sixth anniversary of the Fed–sponsored stock market rally that, along with the housing recovery, has resuscitated the balance sheets of the wealthiest segment of the American population. Having benefited from mountains of essentially free money and generous accounting forbearance, the nation’s major banks were rescued from insolvency. The Fed’s intended “wealth effect” has served the wealthy well. Unfortunately, it has done relatively little for the vast majority of Americans, who continue to struggle in the slowest economic recovery in three-quarters of a century. As the latest iteration of money printing winds down, the dominant question is whether or not stock and bond markets can continue to progress without the benefit of unprecedented Fed stimulus.

Both domestically and internationally, central bank largesse has overcome a litany of geopolitical and economic concerns including: Greek solvency and Eurozone membership, Russia/Ukraine and sanctions, Israel/Gaza, ISIL, Ebola, the end of Quantitative Easing and the prospect of rising rates, IMF warnings of another Eurozone recession, Japan slowing, dramatically slowing growth in China, growing evidence of global deflation and the emergence of currency wars. Clearly, the world’s investors retain confidence that central bankers remain willing and able to keep stock and bond prices elevated despite this lengthy list of concerns.

Failure to accept major risks has seriously reduced portfolio performance for the past six years. On the other hand, properly identifying major risks preserved portfolio values over the nine immediately prior years. Over that nine-year period following the dot.com peak in 2000, Mission’s risk-adverse approach produced a 5% per year return for clients with the S&P 500 declining by 6% per year. That 11% average annual advantage saved clients from one of the most dangerous periods in U.S. market history. Evidence strongly indicates that at least one more major stock decline is probable before the long cycle that began in 2000 ends. We expect that Mission’s appreciation of today’s unique risks will serve clients well as this decade further unfolds.

Central bank policies have driven risk-free rates to zero, which has eliminated return for those unable or unwilling to accept investment risk. The Fed has held short rates at the zero bound for more than six years, penalizing savers to rescue overextended debtors.

Those willing to invest in the normally low-risk Treasury bond market may, in fact, be assuming far more risk than they perceive. Longer fixed income yields in the U.S. and around the world are at or near historic lows. At current yield levels, an increase in rates of less than one-half of one percent would turn the total return on a 10-year U.S. Treasury negative for a year. A significant jump in rates would decimate a fixed income portfolio. At these yield levels, the penalty for being wrong in fixed income securities is far greater than the reward for being right.

Fearful of danger to the world’s financial system, investors have committed $4.2 trillion to securities providing no yield or a negative yield. In a quest for safety, many are paying for the privilege of loaning money to several seemingly safe countries for periods even up to ten years. This is the quintessential example of investors concentrating on the return of their money rather than the return on their money. There is no comparable example in world history, and it highlights how far from normal are today’s financial conditions.

To implement their stimulus programs, our Federal Reserve and other major central banks have effectively “printed money.” So far, those programs have successfully supported both stock and bond markets, but at the expense of creating historic, formerly inconceivable debt burdens. By horrific example, in its first 95 years the Fed built a balance sheet of just over $800 billion. In just over six years since, it has multiplied that balance sheet by more than 400% to about $4.5 trillion. Over centuries, countries that have created debt burdens even less onerous than today’s relative to the size of their economies have suffered economically and in their securities markets for a decade or more.

Compounding the problem, stocks today are more overvalued than at any point in U.S. history but for the dot.com mania at the turn of the century, from which point stock portfolios were more than 50% lower nine years later.

For the third time in the last 20 years, stocks have risen steadily to levels of overvaluation unprecedented before this period. In all three instances, investors willing to ignore fundamental risks, ride the momentum train and believe in central bank guidance substantially outperformed investors who relied on fundamentals and historical precedent. After each of the first two instances, however, despite aggressive Fed support, stock prices plummeted by more than 50%. In fact, the stock market decline from 2007 to 2009 took prices back their 1996 levels, eliminating 13 years of price progress. In the current instance, the Fed has played an even more aggressive role, and the price advance could continue if investors retain their faith in central bank support and control. Confidence in central bankers may waver, however, as investors reflect further on central bank activities in the early months of 2015.

In January, the highly regarded Swiss National Bank, with no warning, abandoned its peg between the franc and the euro, which it had held for 3 ½ years. This so shocked the foreign exchange market that the relative value of the two currencies diverged by 38% in minutes, a move that would normally take years. Soon after, the Austrian central bank indicated that it would not make good on the debts of the “bad bank” set up to house the weak loans of a leading Austrian bank rescued in the financial crisis. And most recently, the Brazilian central bank abandoned its expressed intent to support the Brazilian real. Within three months, three central banks were forced by overwhelming market action to abandon clear commitments, with disastrous consequences to investors who counted on those central bank promises. If investors begin to doubt more broadly the ability of central bankers to support markets, there may prove to be an air pocket beneath prices. As seen in the case of the Swiss National Bank, such consequences can unfold with lightning speed.

As we head into the year’s second quarter, investors are faced with the dilemma of whether to align assets with historic probabilities or to cast their lot with central bankers. Central bankers have been winning for the past six years, but with experimental policies that have been penalized throughout history. As has been the case twice so far in the 21st century, capital preservation may soon again prove critical in the period ahead. Mission’s great success through the last two major market declines was the reward for our accurate anticipation of the pending problems.

The final page of this analysis summarizes our concerns about threats to the world economy and markets. The cartoon originally appeared in The Financial Times and we have provided annotation and statistics.

DEBT PIC

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Tom Feeney is Chief Investment Officer for Mission Management & Trust Co., a full service trust company regulated by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. If you would like to explore the management of an investment portfolio of $1 million or more, you are invited to email your interest to Tom@missiontrust.com or call (520) 577-5559 to speak with one of the Portfolio Coordinators.

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For more than two centuries, Americans have pointed with great pride to this country as a bastion of democratic free markets. Many have looked with antipathy at European economies tinged with socialism and with disdain at the centrally planned economies of communist countries. Whether out of convenience or desperation, we have recently come to welcome central planning.

In pursuit of its dual mandate of a stable currency and maximum employment, the Fed has apparently decided that it simply cannot allow even a garden-variety recession–possibly ever. With the Fed balance sheet and total domestic debt at levels inconceivable just a few years ago, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which a recession would not lead to dangerous debt defaults.

This week’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting produced a statement designed to be all things to all people. Language from earlier statements was eliminated, and Fed Chair Janet Yellen stressed that future action on interest rates would be “data dependent.” Those words, however, have now become meaningless, because prior data hurdles that were to be triggers for interest rate rises have all been abandoned when reached. This Fed has clearly painted itself into a corner. They hate to leave interest rates at the zero bound, because they have no ammunition left to counter future problems. At the same time, they are deathly afraid to raise rates because the economy remains in its weakest recovery since World War II. Celebrating the continuing medicine of easy money rather than fearing the underlying disease necessitating it, Wall Street partied on, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising 400 points intraday from just before the FOMC announcement to just after.

Because the Fed continues to accede to Wall Street’s wishes, there are few complaints from the financial community about the erosion of free market principles and the progressive evolution toward central planning. Should the Fed’s experimental monetary policies fail to keep stock prices buoyant, however, stones will inevitably be cast. There will logically be questions asked about how the country could have allowed its economy to be controlled by a group of academics and regulators, virtually unsullied by any real world business experience.

This week’s violent anti-European Central Bank protests in Frankfurt, Germany bring to mind other potential problems. Our central bank has been an integral force in creating an environment in which the economically privileged have prospered mightily from Fed-sponsored stock and bond market progress, while little benefit has filtered down to the broader economy. Should that disparity continue or worsen, it’s not unrealistic to imagine large protests born out of economic frustration in this country as well.

I have long opposed the Fed’s zero interest rate policy and the massive expansion of its balance sheet. With an admitted objective of pushing stock prices higher for a positive wealth effect, the Fed, I suspect, has also succumbed to the temptation to support stock prices with strategic buying, almost certainly through surrogates. Since the market bottom in 2009, buying has mysteriously appeared at points from which price breakdowns would normally have proceeded in decades past. Should the Fed eventually be found to have surreptitiously supported stocks as part of their central planning and control, I hope they will be properly punished. And if Main Street protestors become sufficiently incensed, they may seek to identify those who unjustly rewarded Wall Street insiders.

As one firmly committed to non-violence, I regret seeing public protest turn violent. However, I would welcome comprehensive investigations and appropriate prosecutions of anyone who distorted free and honest securities markets–up to and including Fed officials. If individuals can be prosecuted for distorting market prices, so should those wielding far greater power. And if regulators really wanted to reestablish free markets, they could and should go after large trading desks that paint the tape in one direction to create an environment in which they can establish their intended larger position for a move in the opposite direction. Distorted markets will continue until the clamor is loud enough to make them free and honest. A welcome first step would be for the Fed to abandon its direct interference and to back away from its artificial experimental monetary policy.

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Tom Feeney is Chief Investment Officer for Mission Management & Trust Co., a full service trust company regulated by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. If you would like to explore the management of an investment portfolio of $1 million or more, you are invited to email your interest to Tom@missiontrust.com or call (520) 577-5559 to speak with one of the Portfolio Coordinators.

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The theme for investors in 2014, at least in the United States, was “Don’t worry; be happy.” Anyone who let worries about slowing global growth, unprecedented debt levels, Ebola, terrorism or Russia’s theft of Crimea from Ukraine keep them from fully invested positions sacrificed performance.

While worries about deflation put downward pressure on bond yields, aggressive central bank buying was an even bigger factor in pushing prices up and yields down. In our country, the Fed kept short-term rates essentially at zero, penalizing retirees and all others desirous of low-risk returns. In Europe, fears of potential sovereign defaults or of a Eurozone breakup have pushed safe haven fixed income yields to 300 to 500 year lows. Some giant investors, more concerned about the return of their money than the return on their money, have been willing to pay for the privilege of loaning money to governments considered “safe”. In a half dozen northern European countries, investors are willing to settle for negative returns for periods ranging from a few months to a few years. In Germany, the perceived safest of the safe havens, interest rates are negative out to five years.

The willingness to settle for a small negative return is more understandable in Europe than here in the United States. The major stock markets in Europe and around most of the world were down in 2014. Similarly, the US markets were down for the year when the markets tumbled in September and October. The coordinated verbal rescue efforts, however, by the Fed, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Japan and People’s Bank of China stopped the decline and turned prices back up. While US prices moved from negative into the plus column, they stayed negative for the year throughout most of the rest of the world. Clearly, investors are still responding enthusiastically to central bank promises of further stimulus and support.

It is tremendously frustrating to investors–like Mission–that prices respond more directly to promises by central bankers than to fundamental economic and corporate data. While market prices throughout history have always eventually reverted to valuation and other fundamental means, such factors are far from accurate timing criteria. There is, in fact, a venerable old saying that markets can remain irrational longer than you can stay solvent.

Our primary concern, as we have communicated repeatedly, is the exploding level of debt, both domestically and internationally. Virtually all major stock market declines have followed outsized debt expansions. Debt extremes throughout history have invariably led to lengthy periods of below par business conditions, and some of history’s most severe stock market declines. Central bank rescue efforts have raised debt totals to levels that would have been inconceivable just six years ago. In response to prodigious increases in money supply and debt in countries worldwide, currency wars loom as a significant risk in 2015.

When the Fed commenced its experimental monetary policy a few years ago, virtually all analysts said something to the effect of: “This will undoubtedly end badly, but it will help in the meanwhile.” Since no horror has yet unfolded, and Fed intervention has been greeted with ever-higher stock prices, we no longer hear about such intervention ending badly. Additional Fed support is seen as all good. Even though history argues convincingly that excessive debt build-ups will ultimately be punished, investors have adopted the Scarlett O’Hara approach. They’ll worry about that tomorrow. For clients who, for the most part, are not able to replace substantial lost capital, we are not inclined to assume high levels of risk in a historically dangerous debt environment. For a fuller analysis of the debt situation, refer to our Quarterly Commentary for the third quarter of 2014. You can find this on the blog page of the Mission website, under October 2014. The link is as follows: http://www.missiontrust.com/blog/2014/10/quarterly-commentary-third-quarter-2014/

In the shorter term, what horror could Fed Governor Charles Evans have been anticipating in his comment last week that it would be a “catastrophe” if the Fed raised short-term interest rates above zero any time soon? If the domestic economy would find it catastrophic if short rates were above zero in the sixth year of recovery from recession, conditions are far from sound.

Investors and investment managers alike are faced with a critical dilemma. Do you maintain your assets in concert with fundamental conditions and historical probabilities, or do you simply go with the flow, throw caution to the wind and cast your lot with central bankers? The latter approach has been winning recently, but the former wins eventually unless excessive debt becomes irrelevant.

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Tom Feeney is Chief Investment Officer for Mission Management & Trust Co., a full service trust company regulated by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. If you would like to explore the management of an investment portfolio of $1 million or more, you are invited to email your interest to Tom@missiontrust.com or call (520) 577-5559 to speak with one of the Portfolio Coordinators.

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Readers of the financial press have undoubtedly seen recent articles describing investors’ retreat from actively managed portfolios and migration to passive investments that attempt merely to match market indexes. The latter have done better in recent years. Because investors are invariably trend followers, that phenomenon is very understandable. When markets go up or down for several years in a row, investors have a predictable habit of connecting the dots, creating a trend line and projecting it into the indefinite future. Collectively we expect good news to be followed by good news and bad news by more bad news. Unfortunately, those expectations lead the majority of investors to buy high and sell low.

 

Mutual fund purchase and sale data demonstrate the perverse buy high/sell low tendency quite clearly. Near market highs, news reports are typically positive and confidence is high. Investors who may have missed much of a rally see how others continue to profit by participating. The siren call to get invested becomes increasingly compelling the longer a rally lasts. Conversely, when markets have declined for an extended period of time, the news invariably turns gloomy and forecasts become increasingly negative. As market prices descend, growing numbers of investors reach their pain tolerance limits and lighten or eliminate their risk exposure. As a result, there are far more fund purchases at high prices and redemptions near the lows. This tendency plays itself out across all sectors of the investment spectrum. And it’s not just a recent phenomenon.

 

In the twentieth century, it was very common for investment managers to assume the prime responsibility for adjusting investors’ asset allocations. Many investment managers were categorized as Tactical Asset Allocators (TAA), whose approach was to move assets to those investment areas deemed safest and/or potentially most productive. For decades, many of those firms practicing the TAA approach did an excellent job of protecting and growing client assets. The decade of the 1990’s, however, produced a major shift in investors’ attitudes. There were precious few market declines of any consequence, so managers who allocated away from risk almost inevitably were penalized for their caution, not rewarded, as they had often been in the past. As the decade wore on, TAA firms became scarce. Those that survived largely migrated to a more fully invested, fixed allocation approach. The good times lasted so long that even the most patient investors opted to join the crowd and assume greater and more permanent risk exposure. Unfortunately, this shift was just before the 50% stock market decline from 2000 to 2003, when properly executed asset allocation would have been most appropriate.

 

The tendency for investors today to forego caution and simply go with the flow of free money and rising stock prices is remarkably similar to attitudes prevalent around the turn of the century. Tomorrow is unknowable, but there is substantial reason to expect reversion to the mean in the years ahead as the excesses of the free money era are eventually eliminated. Beware of herd mentality. Remember: what we get to keep is typically what we have at market lows, not what we have at the highs.

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Tom Feeney is Chief Investment Officer for Mission Management & Trust Co., a full service trust company regulated by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. If you would like to explore the management of an investment portfolio of $1 million or more, you are invited to email your interest to Tom@missiontrust.com or call (520) 577-5559 to speak with one of the Portfolio Coordinators.

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VOLATILITY IS BACK


December 16, 2014

Many ordinary Russians are standing in line at local banks trying to withdraw their savings in dollars. The value of the ruble has been cut in half since the beginning of the year, with the decline accelerating dramatically this week. Obviously weighing heavily on the Russian currency is the plummeting price of oil, now trading at roughly half its price of just six months ago. Economic sanctions imposed by western nations are also taking their toll.

When one of the world’s ten largest economies staggers, repercussions are unpredictable. Questions arise. Who holds the more than $600 billion in external debt of Russian banks and companies?

Apart from Russia, how heavily leveraged are oil companies worldwide who borrowed to expand their drilling activities to take advantage of early 2014’s rising prices? A 50% decline in oil prices, totally unexpected just six months ago, may leave some borrowers on the verge of insolvency. In turn, what lenders might be endangered?

Not surprisingly, such uncertainties make investors nervous. Over the past seven market days, the Dow has fallen 900 points from its all-time high on December 5th. Today showed quite remarkable volatility, reflecting the dichotomy between weakening fundamentals and the expectation of a year-end rally. The Dow opened down 100 points, rapidly rising about 350 points through the morning, then declining by about 360 points through the rest of the day, closing at the low.

Notwithstanding oil, Russia, the threat of contagion, as well as hideous acts of terrorism in Australia and Pakistan, investors have a deep-seated belief that late-December seasonals–especially the highly predictable Santa Claus rally–plus the positive January effect will push prices higher over the next few weeks. With most hedge funds performing far below their benchmarks for the year, there are a great many firms trying to take advantage of any rally opportunities.

That the market was unable to hold its rally on the day before a Fed announcement–an almost universally positive day over the past several years–may introduce further doubts about a prospective year-end rally. As most recently evidenced in mid-October when all world central bankers sang a dovish song to stem the September-October market decline, central bankers have adopted the support of stock prices as an additional mandate. Janet Yellen has the opportunity to provide more support tomorrow (Wednesday) both in the wording of the Fed’s statement and in her press conference to follow.

With just two weeks remaining in calendar 2014, markets may experience abnormally severe volatility as central bankers and seasonal tendencies wrestle with deteriorating world financial conditions. It promises to be a robust conflict.

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Tom Feeney is Chief Investment Officer for Mission Management & Trust Co., a full service trust company regulated by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. If you would like to explore the management of an investment portfolio of $1 million or more, you are invited to email your interest to Tom@missiontrust.com or call (520) 577-5559 to speak with one of the Portfolio Coordinators.

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At the end of the 1990’s, I wrote an article entitled “The Fiduciary’s Dilemma,” forecasting the likely demise of the then nearly two-decade-old equity bull market. Individual investors and fiduciaries for institutions had reaped substantial rewards from almost twenty years of powerful advances in both stocks and bonds. In fact, there had never before been as profitable a period for the stock/bond combination as that from the early 1980’s to the end of the 1990’s. One didn’t need to be a particularly astute investor; one only had to be invested to make significant profits.

In numerous written commentaries and speaking engagements at the end of the 90’s, I flagged the primary dangerous conditions of excessive debt and extreme stock market valuations. Based on historic precedent, there was good reason to anticipate a long corrective phase, potentially lasting as long as two decades. Prior long weak cycles lasted until the excesses of the previous long strong cycle had been expunged.

From the bull market peak in the early months of 2000, stocks have experienced two devastating 50+% declines followed by two powerful rallies, netting an annualized century-to-date common stock return in the low single digits. For a variety of reasons, most investors have earned even less than this meager amount, despite powerful government stock market support since 2009. We are pleased that Mission clients with us for the entire century-to-date have earned more than the S&P 500 while assuming far less risk than the index.

A decade and a half later, we are faced with conditions very similar to those that characterized the late 1990’s. Stocks have been in a powerful bull market since 2009. Investors who have exercised caution have sacrificed performance. Equity valuations are near historic highs, although below the dot.com highs seen at the 2000 peak. On the other hand, debt burdens are considerably more severe today than they were at the peak in 2000.

Just as at the end of the 1990’s, investors hate to give up on the golden goose, which has been so generous for years. At the near collapse of the financial system in 2008, the Treasury and Federal Reserve Board stepped up with unprecedented amounts of rescue money. With the economy never recovering to “escape velocity”, the Fed has continued to pump a previously unimaginable amount of money into the banking system. That flood of money has still not been able to kick-start the economy out of the slowest recovery from recession in the past half century. It has, however, kept stocks climbing, with the Fed stepping up its efforts whenever stocks began to demonstrate even marginal weakness. As a result, investors have developed overwhelming confidence that the Fed has their back and will not allow significant market declines. Near historically low interest rates have made the choice of equities easier. Many believe there is no alternative to equity ownership. As was the case in the late 1990’s, the longer the equity rally continues, the stronger the belief that stock prices will continue to climb, notwithstanding the lengthening list of geopolitical and economic concerns.

The perfect scenario, of course, would be to remain heavily invested in equities to the ultimate market peak, whenever that is, then to get out or go short. History shows, however, that even the most successful investors rarely pull off such a feat–very few even try. Both diversification into various asset classes and remaining relatively permanently invested are concessions to the industry’s inability to identify peaks and troughs with any degree of certainty.

Ours is a business of probabilities, not of certainties. What often gets ignored, however, is investors’ need to weigh not just the probability of an event occurring but the relative consequences of a good or bad outcome.

In 2009, Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff wrote This Time is Different, contributing greatly to the industry’s knowledge about economic and market behavior in the wake of financial crises, such as the world experienced in 2008. They analyzed more than 300 such crisis events worldwide over the course of eight centuries. While circumstances inevitably differed from event to event, there were a great many commonalities.

Reinhart and Rogoff have recently stated that the US and Europe are betting against overwhelming historic odds that they will be successful in guiding their respective economies back to normal primarily through austerity and growth. The authors contend that history argues convincingly that regaining economic normalcy will involve some lengthy combination of restructurings (defaults), financial repression and significant inflation. Clearly, restructurings are a last resort. In this country, the Federal Reserve has been exercising financial repression for years by reducing short-term interest rates essentially to zero, seriously penalizing retirees and other risk-averse investors who prefer to rely upon investment income. The Fed has simultaneously been attempting to erase the sting of our country’s unparalleled debt by raising inflation. So far their actions have penalized those in need of income, but have failed to raise inflation even to their minimal 2% target. Far more significant inflation will be needed to appreciably reduce the negative impact of our overwhelming debt load. What the Fed’s historic economic stimulus program has accomplished is to have boosted the country’s relative debt burden to a level that has created multi-decade economic slumps elsewhere in the world over the centuries. Those actions make restructurings an increasingly likely part of our future. Most of the developed world has become debt dependent to a degree that makes major economic collapse likely if current experimental monetary policies fail.

Even members of the Federal Reserve itself have voiced serious concerns about the course of monetary policy. Richard Fisher, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas stated: “[N]o central bank anywhere on the planet…has the experience of successfully navigating a return home from the place in which we now find ourselves. No central bank…has ever been on this cruise before.” Earlier this month, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said: “This is an unprecedented period in monetary history. We’ve never been through this. We really cannot tell how it will work out.” More than a year ago, former St. Louis Fed President Bill Poole pointed out that when you look at the numbers, the US is only a few years behind Greece.

We are clearly not in a business as usual environment. Various governments and central banks rescued the economic system from collapse in 2008. They gave banks enough money to lift them from apparent insolvency six years ago. They have not been able, however, to promote normal economic growth, despite historic levels of stimulus. The Eurozone is now perilously close to its third recession in recent years, and most emerging nations – China most importantly – are experiencing economic slowdowns, while the world strains under the most extreme debt burdens ever. It is instructive to recollect that excessive debt has played an integral role in virtually all of history’s great economic crises.

Investors should not alter traditional risk-assumption patterns if the only fear would merely be occasional weak years in which stocks might lose ten or fifteen percent. So far in this still young century the S&P 500 has declined by 50% and 57%. Those bear markets respectively erased seven and thirteen years of price progress. Having already bet the house on the current rescue effort, world central banks would be ill-equipped to rescue markets and the economy if once again needed. If history repeats its typical pattern, we can expect at least one more major stock market decline before the current long weak cycle ends as debt and valuation excesses are extinguished.

While stock prices around the world are still not far below recent highs, there have been quite a few recent indicators of slowing momentum. Although the S&P 500 was up slightly in the third quarter, the average stock in the US and around the world was down. In fact, before last week’s rally, most major domestic and international indexes were down for the year-to-date.

Clearly, fear levels have also risen. Quite remarkably, despite obvious intentions of the world’s central bankers to support equity prices, vast quantities of world investment assets are being held in instruments offering essentially no yield. In fact, concern about dangers in the economy and markets have led investors to pay for the privilege of lending money to seven European countries. Instead of receiving a positive yield, these investors are willing to pay these governments for the guarantee of receiving their money back in one, two or three years. These are giant investors not worried about small consequences, but trying to guard against a mega-collapse. The yields in Europe are at 300-to 500-year lows. Another illustration that this is not business as usual.

Regardless of long-term concerns, stock prices could continue higher. The determination of central bankers to support stock prices was glaringly apparent when markets plunged two weeks ago. Within hours, we heard dovish, supportive comments from officials of the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Japan and People’s Bank of China. The ensuing rally quickly recovered more than half the losses from the September highs. Such government-supported rallies could continue so long as investors remain confident that central bankers retain the will and ability to support markets. On the other hand, given the long list of economic and geopolitical concerns, prices could collapse suddenly if central bankers are ultimately seen to resemble the wizard behind the curtain.

Central bank support has proved to be a powerful stimulus for securities prices since the near collapse of the economy in 2008. At the same time, it’s a fair question to ask what these central bankers see and fear that keeps them actively pursuing history’s largest ever rescue program fully five years since the alleged recovery began.

In such a highly uncertain environment, we have warned that traditionally diversified, relatively permanently invested portfolios could be in considerable danger. Unfortunately, with the future uncertain, there is no clear right answer. Mission has chosen for the equity portion of client portfolios to employ a quantified equity allocation process that carefully weighs dozens of economic and market conditions. The process promotes equity ownership when historical probabilities are favorable and removes equity risk when historical probabilities are questionable or negative. The process is not designed to anticipate news stories or sudden policy changes, but rather to respond to them by measuring their effects on the economy and markets. By measuring those effects well over the past third of a century, the process’s criteria have been able to identify major trends after markets have finished vacillating in the transition period from up to down or vice versa. Successfully identifying major trends has led to participating in (not beating) strongly rising markets and defending against–even profiting from–significantly declining markets. Over full market cycles, the process’s results have outperformed the S&P 500 with fewer and smaller losses.

While Mission has been highly risk-averse since the end of the 1990’s, Mission’s portfolio results since the turn of the century have outperformed the S&P 500, not by matching the strong markets but by avoiding the worst consequences of the weak markets. We expect that protective approach to lead again to significant outperformance over the next few years.

We look forward to the next long strong stock market cycle in which accepting significant equity risk will be prudent, but not until current excesses are expunged. The environment will remain very dangerous until then.

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Tom Feeney is Chief Investment Officer for Mission Management & Trust Co., a full service trust company regulated by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. If you would like to explore the management of an investment portfolio of $1 million or more, you are invited to email your interest to Tom@missiontrust.com or call (520) 577-5559 to speak with one of the Portfolio Coordinators.

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Day to day stock market volatility, even intra-day volatility, over the past two weeks has risen to the highest level in several years. I will be addressing this phenomenon, along with several other matters, in our Quarterly Commentary, which will be sent out next week.

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Tom Feeney is Chief Investment Officer for Mission Management & Trust Co., a full service trust company regulated by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. If you would like to explore the management of an investment portfolio of $1 million or more, you are invited to email your interest to Tom@missiontrust.com or call (520) 577-5559 to speak with one of the Portfolio Coordinators.

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We lived in mid-town Manhattan in the mid-1980’s when the Japanese were actively buying trophy properties. We could look out our 59th story windows and see several iconic New York landmarks that had recently changed hands. In the same era, Japanese buyers acquired the renowned Pebble Beach golf complex to fulfill the golfing dreams of well-to-do businessmen traveling to this country.

Those old enough to remember may recall that Japan at the time seemed to have developed the new industrial paradigm. Japanese companies dominated the electronics industry. Detroit-made automobiles were considered second-rate compared to their Japanese competitors.

Japan was truly a country with an unlimited future. At the end of the 80’s, the Nikkei index measured the progress of the world’s largest stock market by capitalization. The Nikkei closed the decade at just about 39,000.

After powerful rallies over the past several years, that same Nikkei has recently climbed above 16,000–still down almost 60% from its 39,000 high a quarter century ago. Japan continues its desperate attempt to extricate itself from the deflationary malaise that characterized a significant portion of the most recent 25 years.

Today we read about Chinese buyers picking up the venerable Waldorf Astoria hotel for just short of $2 billion. Although we can no longer look out our windows at the latest trophy acquisition, there is a clear sense of déjà vu. With obvious parallels between Japan and this most recent Asian power and its growth prospects, it’s worth leaving some room for doubt about the inevitability of a coming glorious period of economic domination.

Just saying.

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Tom Feeney is Chief Investment Officer for Mission Management & Trust Co., a full service trust company regulated by the Arizona Department of Financial Institutions. If you would like to explore the management of an investment portfolio of $1 million or more, you are invited to email your interest to Tom@missiontrust.com or call (520) 577-5559 to speak with one of the Portfolio Coordinators.




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