“I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.”
Michel de Montaigne
At this point in time, rather than focus on the “if only” questions that tend to freeze people in their tracks in these periods of market volatility, I think we should consider what is important. For most of us, indeed, the vast majority of us, the world did not end in August and it is unlikely to end in September. Indeed, for most Americans and therefore by definition most of us, the vagaries of the stock market are not that important.
What then is important? A Chicago Tribune columnist, Mary Schmich, recently interviewed Edward Stuart, an economics professor at Northeastern Illinois University as a follow-up to his appearance on a panel on Chicago Public Television’s “Chicago Tonight” show. Stuart had pointed out that the ownership of stock (and by implication, mutual funds) in the United States is quite unequal. He noted that while the stock market has done very well in recent years, the standard of living of the average American citizen has not done as well. Stuart thinks that the real median income for a household size of four is about $40,000 …. and that number has not changed since the late 70’s. My spin on this is rather simple – the move up the economic ladder that we used to see for various demographic groups – has stopped.
If you think about it, the evidence is before us. How many of us have friends whose children went to college, got their degrees, and returned home to live with their parents while they hunted for a job in their chosen field, which they often could not find? When one drives around city and suburban streets, how many vacancies do we see in commercial properties? How many middle class families that used to bootstrap themselves up by investing in and owning apartment buildings or strip malls don’t now? What is needed is a growing economy that offers real job prospects that pay real wages. Stuart also pointed out that student debt is one of the few kinds of debt that one cannot expunge with bankruptcy.
As I read that piece of Ms. Schmick’s and reflected on it, I was reminded of another column I had read a few months back that talked about where we had gone off the rails collectively. The piece was entitled “Battle for the Boardroom” by Joe Nocera and was in the NY Times on May 9, 2015. Nocera was discussing the concept of “activist investors” and “shareholder value” specifically as it pertained to Nelson Peltz, Trian Investments, and a proxy fight with the management and board of DuPont. And Nocera pointed out that Trian, by all accounts, had a good record and was often a constructive force once it got a board seat or two.
Nocera’s concern, which he raised in a fashion that went straight for the jugular, was simple. Have we really reached the point where the activist investor gets to call the tune, no matter how well run the company? What is shareholder value, especially in a company like DuPont? Trian’s argument was that DuPont was not getting a return on its spending on research and development? Yet R&D spending is what made DuPont, given the years it takes to often produce from scientific research a commercial product. Take away the R&D spending argued Nocera, and you have not just a poorer DuPont, but also a poorer United States. He closed by talking with and quoting Martin Lipton, a corporate attorney who has made a career out of disparaging corporate activists. Lipton said, “Activism has caused companies to cut R&D, capital investment, and, most significantly, employment,” he said. “It forces companies to lay off employees to meet quarterly earnings.”
“It is,” he concluded, “a disaster for the country.”
This brings me to my final set of ruminations. Some years ago, my wife and I were guests at a small dinner party at the home of a former ambassador (and patriot) living in Santa Fe. There were a total of six of us at that dinner. One of the other guests raised the question as to whether any of us ever thought about what things would have been like for the country if Al Gore, rather than George W. Bush, had won the presidential election. My immediate response was that I didn’t think about such things as it was just far too painful to contemplate.
In like vein, having recently read Ron Suskind’s book Confidence Men, I have been forced to contemplate what it would have meant for the country if President-elect Barack Obama had actually followed through with the recommendations of his transition advisors and appointed his “A” Economic Team. Think about it – Paul Volcker as Secretary of the Treasury, the resurrection of Glass-Steagall, the break-up of the big investment banks – it too is just too painful to contemplate. Or as the line from T.H. White’s Once and Future King goes, “I dream things that never were, and ask why not?”
Now, a few thoughts about the carnage and how to deal with it. Have a plan and stick to it. Do not panic, for inevitably all panic does is lead to self-inflicted wounds. Think about fees, but from the perspective of correlated investments. That is, if five large (over $10B in assets) balanced funds are all positively correlated in terms of their portfolios, does it really make sense not to own the one with the lowest expense ratio (and depending on where it is held, taxes may come into play)? Think about doing things where other people’s panic does not impact you, e.g., is there a place for closed end funds in a long-term investment portfolio? And avoid investments where the bugs have not been worked out, as the glitches in pricing and execution of trades for ETF’s have shown us over the last few weeks.
There is a wonderful Dilbert cartoon where the CEO says “Asok, you can beat market averages by doing your own stock research. Asok then says, “So … You believe every investor can beat the average by reading the same information? “Yes” says the CEO. Asok then says, “Makes you wonder why more people don’t do it.” The CEO closes saying, “Just lazy, I guess.”
Edward A. Studzinski