This Time It Really Is Different!

By Edward A. Studzinski

“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

 Kafka

So, time now for something of a follow-up to my suggestion of a year ago that a family unit should own no more than ten mutual funds. As some will recall, I was instructed by “She Who Must Be Obeyed” to follow my own advice and get our own number of fund investments down from the more than twenty-five where it had been. We are now down to sixteen, which includes money market funds. My first observation would be that this is not as easy to do as I thought it would be, especially when you are starting from something of an ark approach (one of these, two of those). It is far easier to do when you start to build your portfolio from scratch, when you can be ruthless about diversification. That is, you don’t really need two large cap growth or four value funds. You may only add a new fund if you get rid of an old fund. You are quite specific about setting out the reasons for investing in a fund, and you are equally disciplined about getting rid of it when the reasons for owning it change, e.g. asset bloat, change in managers, style drift, no fund managers who are in Boston, etc., etc.

Which brings me to a point that I think will be controversial – for most families, mutual fund ownership should be concentrated in tax-exempt (retirement accounts) if taxes matter. And mutual fund ownership in retirement accounts should emphasize passive investments to maximize the effects of lower fees on compounding. It also lessens the likelihood of an active manager shooting himself or herself in the foot by selling the wrong thing at the wrong time because of a need to meet redemptions, or dare I suggest it, panic or depression overwhelm the manager’s common sense in maintaining an investment position (which often hits short seller specialists more than long only investors, but that is another story for another day).

The reasons for this will become clearer as holdings come out for 12/31 and 3/31, as well as asset levels (which will let you know what redemptions are – the rumor is that they are large). It will also become pretty clear as you look at your tax forms from your taxable fund accounts and are wondering where the money will come from to pay the capital gains that were triggered by the manager’s need to raise funds (actually they probably didn’t need to sell to meet redemptions as they all have bank lines of credit in place to cover those periods when redemptions exceed cash on hand, but …..).

The other thing to keep in mind about index funds that are widely diversified (a total market fund for instance) – yes, it will lag on the upside against a concentrated fund that does well. But it will also do better on the downside than a concentrated fund that does not do well. Look at it this way – a fifty stock portfolio that has a number of three and four per cent positions, especially in the energy or energy services sector this past year, that has seen those decline by 50% or more, has a lot of ground to make up. A total stock market portfolio that has a thousand or more positions – one or two or twenty or thirty bad stocks, do not cripple it. And in retirement accounts, it is the compounding effect that you want. The other issue of course is that the index funds will stay fully invested in the indices, rather than be caught out underinvested because they were trying to balance out exiting positions with adding positions with meeting redemptions. The one exception here would be for funds where the inefficiencies of an asset class can lead to a positive sustainable alpha by a good active manager – look for that manager as one to invest with in either taxable or tax-exempt accounts.

China, China, China, All the Time

In both the financial print press and the financial media on television and cable, much of the “blame” for market volatility is attributed to nervousness about the Chinese economy, the Chinese stock market, in fact everything to do with China. There generally appear to be two sorts of stories about China these days. One recurring theme is that they are novices at capital markets, currencies, as well as dealing with volatility and transparency in their markets, and that this has exacerbated trends in the swings in the Shanghai market, which has spread to other emerging markets. Another element of this particular them is that China’s economy is slowing and was not transparent to begin with, and that lack of growth will flow through and send the rest of the world into recession. Now, mind you, we are talking about economic growth that by most accounts, has slowed from high single digits recently (above 7%) to what will be a range going forward of low to still mid-single digits (4 – 7%).

I think a couple of comments are in order about this first theme. One, the Shanghai market has very much been intended as a punter’s market, where not necessarily the best companies are listed (somewhat like Vancouver in Canada twenty-odd years ago). The best companies in China are listed on the Hong Kong market – always have been, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The second thing to be said is that if you think things happen in China by accident or because they have lost control, you don’t understand very much about China and its thousands of years of history. Let’s be realistic here – the currency is controlled, interest rates are controlled, the companies are controlled, the economy is controlled – so while there may be random events and undercurrents going on, they are probably not the ones we are seeing or are worried about.

This brings me to the second different theme you hear about China these days, which is that China and the Chinese economy have carried the global economy for the last several years, and that even last year, their contribution to the world economy was quite substantial. I realize this runs counter to stories that you hear emanating from Washington, DC these days, but much that you hear emanating from Washington now is quite surreal. But let’s look at a few things. China still has $3 trillion dollars of foreign exchange reserves. China does not look to be a debtor nation. China has really not a lot of places left to spend money domestically since they have a modern transportation infrastructure and, they have built lots of ghost cities that could be occupied by a still growing population. And while China has goods that are manufactured that they would like to export, the rest of the world is not in a buying mood. A rumor which I keep hearing, is that they have more than 30,000 metric tons of gold reserves with which to back their currency, should they so choose (by comparison, the US as of October 2014 was thought to have about 4,200 metric tons in Fort Knox).

For those familiar with magic shows and sleight of hand tricks, I think this is what we are seeing now. Those who watch the cable financial news shows come away with the impression that the world is ending in the Chinese equity markets, and that will cause the rest of the world to end as well. So while you are watching that, let’s see what you are missing. We have a currency that has become a second reserve currency to the world, supplanting the exclusive role of the U.S. dollar as countries that are commodity economies now price their commodities and do trade deals in Chinese currency. And, notwithstanding that, the prices of commodities have fallen considerably, we continue to see acquisition and investment in the securing of commodities (at fire sale prices) by China. And finally, we have a major expansion by China in Africa, where it is securing arable land to provide another bread basket for itself for the future, as well as an area to send parts of it population.

And let me suggest in passing that the one place China could elect to spend massively in their domestic economy is to build up their defense establishment far beyond what they have done to date. After all, President Reagan launched a massive arms build-up by the US during his terms in office, which in effect bankrupted the Soviets as they tried to keep up. One wonders whether we would or could try to keep up should China elect to do the same to us at this point.

So, dear readers, I will leave it to you to figure out which theme you prefer, although I suspect it depends on your time horizon. But let me emphasize again – looking at the equity markets in China means looking at the wrong things. By the end of this year, we should have a better sense of whether the industrial economy is China has undergone a rather strong recovery, driven by the wealth of a growing middle class (which is really quite entrepreneurial, and which to put it into context, should be approaching by the end of this year, 400M in size). And it will really also become clear that much of the capital that has been rumored to be “fleeing” China has to be split out to account for that which is investment in other parts of the world. Paying attention to those investment outflows will give you some insight as to why China still thinks of and refers to itself as, “The Middle Kingdom.”

Edward A. Studzinski

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About Edward A. Studzinski

Ed Studzinski has more than 30 years of institutional investment experience. Until January of 2012, he was a partner at Harris Associates in Chicago, Illinois. Harris is known for its value-oriented, bottom-up investment approach that frames the investment process as owning a piece of the business relative to the business value of the whole, ideally forever. At Harris, Ed was co-manager of the Oakmark Equity & Income Fund (OAKBX). During the eleven plus years that he was in that role, the fund increased more than 35 times in size. Concurrently Ed was also an equity research analyst, providing many of the ideas that contributed to the fund’s success. He has specialist knowledge in the aerospace & defense, financial services, and spirits & tobacco industries, having followed and owned companies as diverse as Alliant Techsystems, Catellus Development, GATX, General Dynamics, InBev, Kirby, Legacy Hotels, L-3, Nestle, Partner Re, Philip Morris International, Progressive Insurance, Rockwell Collins, Safeco Insurance, Teledyne, Textron, and UST. Before joining Harris Associates, over a period of more than 10 years, Ed was the Chief Investment Officer at the Mercantile National Bank of Indiana, and also served on their Executive and Asset-Liability Committees. Prior to Mercantile, Ed practiced law. A native of Peabody, Massachusetts, he received his A.B. in history (magna cum laude) from Boston College, where he was a Scholar of the College. He has a J.D. from Duke University and an M.B.A. in marketing from Northwestern University. A Chartered Financial Analyst, Ed belongs to the Investment Analyst Societies of both Boston and Chicago. He is admitted to the Bar in Illinois, the District of Columbia, and North Carolina.