Last February we began a series on pension protection and the deceits of intervention. The first article New Program Increases Pension Risk shared how new regulations that began in New York City were allowing municipalities to borrow from their pension to fund their pension. This is one of the most deceitful moves I have seen… the snake eating its tail.
Does borrowing money from a pension to make a payment into the pension really make sense?
Now at least we can see one honest comment about pensions from a New York City official. It is an honest statement about a universal pension deceit from New York’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
He said: “If I can give you one piece of financial advice: If somebody offers you a guaranteed 7 percent on your money for the rest of your life, you take it and just make sure the guy’s name is not Madoff.”
This quote comes from a New York Times article entitled “Public Pensions Faulted for Bets on Rosy Returns” by Mary Williams Walsh and Danny Hakim.
Here is an excerpt: Few investors are more bullish these days than public pension funds.
While Americans are typically earning less than 1 percent interest on their savings accounts and watching their 401(k) balances yo-yo along with the stock market, most public pension funds are still betting they will earn annual returns of 7 to 8 percent over the long haul, a practice that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently called “indefensible.”
Now public pension funds across the country are facing a painful reckoning. Their projections look increasingly out of touch in today’s low-interest environment, and pressure is mounting to be more realistic. But lowering their investment assumptions, even slightly, means turning for more cash to local taxpayers — who pay part of the cost of public pensions through property and other taxes.
In New York, the city’s chief actuary, Robert North, has proposed lowering the assumed rate of return for the city’s five pension funds to 7 percent from 8 percent, which would be one of the sharpest reductions by a public pension fund in the United States. But that change would mean finding an additional $1.9 billion for the pension system every year, a huge amount for a city already depositing more than a tenth of its budget — $7.3 billion a year — into the funds.
But to many observers, even 7 percent is too high in today’s market conditions.
“The actuary is supposedly going to lower the assumed reinvestment rate from an absolutely hysterical, laughable 8 percent to a totally indefensible 7 or 7.5 percent,” Mr. Bloomberg said during a trip to Albany in late February. “If I can give you one piece of financial advice: If somebody offers you a guaranteed 7 percent on your money for the rest of your life, you take it and just make sure the guy’s name is not Madoff.”
In short, most pensions are relying on unrealistic projections to have enough to meet their obligations. This is a very neat form of hidden inflation.
Seven percent may be a long term
Here are three simple facts can help you spot distortions in equity markets.
The first fact. Overall we should expect the global economy to grow at about 3%.
This first fact was confirmed by Alan Greenspan in his excellent book, “Age of Turbulence”. He wrote:
“A major aspect of human nature-the level of human intelligence-has a great deal to do with how successful we are in gaining the sustenance for survival. As I point out at the end of this book, in economies with cutting-edge technologies, people, on average, seem unable to increase their output per hour at better than 3% percent a year over a protracted period. That is apparently the maximum rate at which human innovation can move standards of living forward. We are apparently not smarter to do better.”
This gives us a baseline for how much an investment should grow.
If an economy rises faster than 3%, it is distorted. During early stages of excessive growth, investors will be attracted. Shares will rise faster.
If the economy remains robust, shares become overbought. Then watch out! A correction will come.
This leads us to the second fact which is “All investments have risk”.
Rather than wasting time trying to avoid risk…which cannot be done, investors should look at three risk elements instead.
#1: How much risk is there in any particular investment?
#2: What perceptions do the markets have of the risk?
#3: What risk premium is due?
Bank accounts and government bonds, for example, are perceived as the safest investments (especially if government guaranteed). A look at their long term history shows that they pay about 3%. So if a bank account or government bond pays less…in the long term it’s bad. If it pays more…that’s better. Yet the idea is that bank accounts will not really make money. They will just keep up with growth…at 3%.
To get real growth requires taking risk. If an investment appears to be less safe it will pay more than 3%. This is called a risk premium.
Bonds pay more than bank accounts because they are perceived to be less safe. Stocks pay more than bonds because they are perceived even riskier. Emerging market stocks pay more than major market stocks. Emerging market bonds pay more than major markets bonds.
Over the long run, bonds issued in countries and currencies perceived to be stable pay 5% to 7%.
Stocks in major countries should pay 7% to 10% annual return in the stock market as a function of global growth, long term earnings growth plus risk premium (above bank accounts and bonds).
To attain higher growth than 7% to 10% investors must either increase risk, trust luck or spot distortions.
This is good because the market is almost always wrong. Most investors always trying to avoid risk. Most investors dump their wealth into investments that are perceived to be safe. This creates excessive demand and lowers value and actually makes the perception wrong.
Knowing this helps wise investors spot deceits in the dimension of time.
Take, for example, the emerging market trend that has been created by an imbalance in labor costs around the world.
There are 6.6 billion people on this earth (give or take a few hundred million). 1 billion of these people live on a dollar a day. 2.5 billion live on two dollars a day. This means that there is a vast pool of cheap labor that can create goods at bargain prices. Mature economies are buying these goods at such an increased rate that 20% of all goods produced now cross a border, mostly from poor countries to the rich.
This means that emerging economies are growing much faster than 3%. They are catching up and this has caused major markets to slow down.
Yet emerging economies are perceived to have greater risk.
Smart investors have seen the value create by this distortion and have been cleaning up. They have been paid a huge risk premium when the risk has not been real!
The risk has been eliminated by low labor costs in poor countries and improvements in communications and transportation.
From 200o to 2010, the average annual return on emerging markets was 19.81% compared to 10% for major markets.
The third fact is that periods of high performance are followed by times of poor performance.
Emerging stock markets have outgrown major markets by about 7.5 times in the last seven years. Yet their economies are only growing about twice as fast.
Major markets have grown on average about 6.5% per annum for the past seven years….a little below what they should.
This has led to the point where emerging equity markets around the world correct down and major markets up a bit.
Yet in times of global panic as we have seen, all markets tend to drop. This means that at this time, major markets which may have been somewhat undervalued and should be rising are being pushed down by the drop of emerging markets (which should correct themselves).
Understanding these three facts leads us to know that a portfolio of European shares is a great bargain at this time…. but there is a special time risk.
Micheal Keppler stated in his latest major market valuation:
In my more than 30 years’ experience, I have never seen such a bad sentiment towards continental Europe. After a strong start in 2012, chances are good for a continuation of rising stock prices in general for the coming years.
If history is any guide, chances are better still for the Major Markets Top Value Model Portfolio.
This view is supported by our implicit three-to-five-year projection for the compound annual total return of the Equally-Weighted World Index, which now stands at 15.3 %, down from 17.6 % last quarter.
The upper-band estimate of 13,835 by March 31, 2016 implies a compound annual total return of 20.7 %; the lower-band value of 9,223 corresponds to a compound total return of 9.0 % p.a. Even our worst case makes equities look attractive — please see chart below, which shows the entire real-time forecasting history of Keppler Asset Management Inc. for the Equally Weighted World Index.
These numbers are based on relationships between price and value over the previous fifteen years. Given the current low levels of interest rates – real rates are negative in most places – I would like to point out that we do not have to be right with regard to the magnitude of our projections, but only directionally for investors to make money.
This is why we have been recommending High Yield shares at this time. Most are major market equities that provide income and growth potential… plus make it easy to diversify. This is why we are weighted into Northern European and Italian banking shares shares that we feel offer extra special value and extra risk premium.
There you have it. Understanding the 3% solution and what markets have done shows a distortion. Blue chips may be oversold more than emerging shares now.
In the long term, emerging shares will rise. Poor people remain and are willing and able to make goods that others will buy. This will push their economies higher faster than in major economies. Yet for now the three percent solution shows that major markets and high quality shares are more likely to recover from the current doldrums first.
Jyske Global Asset Managers agree. Thomas Fischer recently wrote: We had our investment committee meeting yesterday and we decided to sell our commodity currencies and increase exposure to dividend paying stocks.
We looked at the market and asked ourselves “Where will the money go?” and we believe investing in “global Gorillas” with world wide income, good cash flows and revenues will be the place to be. Cash pays nothing, bonds are low yielding and commodities have done nothing for 9 months.
JGAM’s latest update said: We have decided to sell our positions in Carlsberg and FLSmidth & Co and establish new positions in Vodafone Group and Nissan Motors. Additionally, we have added to some of the existing positions in defensive and/or dividend paying stocks such as Nestlé, PepsiCo Inc., Statoil and Novartis.
Global investing has proven itself to be more profitable. Why not? Modern communications and transport coupled with a vast pool of low cost labor almost guarantees this fact. Now knowing three more facts based on the 3% solution can give you an edge when it come to taking advantage of the ups and downs in this global trend.
However we have to take into account the impact of time
A look at the Dow Jones Industrial for the past 10 years shows great volatility.
We can see this better in this long term global equity chart at www.affinity-consulting.com
Global equity markets are quote high now and we can see the formation of a head and shoulders pattern suggesting a downturn.
Investments in the overall performance of global equity markets in 1999 made a nice profit if held until 2007. There was a window of profit taking for about one year (2006 to 2007).
What if we have another downturn and it takes as long as it did from 1999 to 2006?
Can you or your pension wait for another eight years before you start to take funds?
This is one reason why we are more focused on good value shares (more likely to rise sooner), good value dividend paying shares (that can provide income so they do not have to be sold at a bad time), good value real estate (can earn rental income) and your own micro business.
Markets will rise. Markets will fall. Global population will increase and the global economy will expand. History suggests that these are fundamentals we can depend upon unless there is a really major disaster. However these fundamentals only work for us when we give them enough time. Plus global institutions have enough risk now that a downturn (if the EU divides for example) may take longer than normal.
We should not rely totally on pensions that have not adequately protected against the risk of time (assuming 8%… even 7% growth is a sure sign they have not). The way to be sure you have extra income and enjoy life to the fullest is to have a purpose that also creates an income.