“If you were going to turn to only one economist to understand the problems facing the economy, there is little doubt that the economist would be John Maynard Keynes. Although Keynes died more than a half-century ago, his diagnosis of recessions and depressions remains the foundation of modern macroeconomics. His insights go a long way toward explaining the challenges we now confront.” – Gregory Mankiw.
The economy is in recession, and some question if the Federal Reserve Board can use monetary policy to avoid a steep decline. Therefore, I think we will all need to reacquaint ourselves with Keynesian economics.
Gregory Mankiw is a professor of economics at Harvard University. His op-ed piece What Would Keynes Have Done? in today’s New York Times is a good summary and review of Keynesian economics and how it applies today.
According to Keynes, the root cause of economic downturns is insufficient aggregate demand. When the total demand for goods and services declines, businesses throughout the economy see their sales fall off. Lower sales induce firms to cut back production and to lay off workers. Rising unemployment and declining profits further depress demand, leading to a feedback loop with a very unhappy ending.
The situation reverses, Keynesian theory says, only when some event or policy increases aggregate demand. The problem right now is that it is hard to see where that demand might come from.
To read more, click here.
Milo Benningfield, a fee-only Certified Financial Planner in San Francisco, asks a very good question – Are we closer to the stock market bottom, now that some well-known pundits have turned bearish?
Huh? Market “experts” are worried, so we should get ready to BUY stocks?
To the novice, this may seem perverse, but some stock market observers believe that when “everyone” has become bearish, there is no one left to sell “at any price.” Therefore when “everyone” is fearful, the stock market is likely to go up. So “negative sentiment” is bullish, and vice versa, at least at the extremes (at turning points).
I am obviously delving into the dangerous area of technical analysis by even considering whether stock market sentiment can be an indicator of the future direction of prices. As far as I know, there is no independent academic research showing that this approach results in improved investors’ returns.
For most people, at most times, a buy-and-hold strategy works just fine. And when you think, “this time is different” you are just as likely to be wrong.
On the other hand, I can’t resist. I simply find this line of thinking fascinating, so here is Benningfield’s post, Pundits Capitulating — Are We Nearer To A Market Bottom?
After months of good-faith efforts to bolster investors’ spirits, several prominent financial journalists threw in the towel this week and turned gloomy. The pundits, at least, are capitulating. Could this mean we’re closer to a market bottom?
Example 1 — Ben Stein
Back in the summer of 2007, after the first wave of the credit crisis hit, New York Times columnist Ben Stein told us the market sell-offs were “nutty,” since “This economy is extremely strong. Profits are superb. The world economy is exploding with growth.”
Over ensuing months, while acknowledging the steady stream of poor economic news, Mr. Stein continued to maintain an upbeat attitude, encouraging investors not to panic and telling them “this big, strong economy will sail on through.” That changed this week. Mr. Stein asks, “What if a slowdown is a never-ending story?” His column raises the specter of a depression, telling us, “This time it’s different . . . The problem now, as in 1929 to 1940, is that the economy is not functioning normally.”
Example 2 — Jason Zweig
Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig has done a valiant job these past several months urging investors to avoid panic and to see the silver lining that has emerged with cheaper stock prices and higher expected returns.
But this week, he, too, turned to the Great Depression in his Wall Street Journal column, “1931 and 2008: Will Market History Repeat Itself?” In the gloomiest terms I’ve ever read from him, Mr. Zweig warned us:
“It is vital to realize that markets are never under some obligation to stop falling merely because they have already fallen by an ungodly amount. It also is vital to explore how bad the worst-case scenario can get and to think about how you would respond if it comes to pass.”
Example 3 — Floyd Norris
The chief financial correspondent for the New York Times, Mr. Norris has done a great job reporting on the credit crisis and, unlike many shyer souls, has been willing to stand up and be counted with his predictions for where a market bottom will likely be found. Not this week. As Mr. Norris put it in his blog, “P.S. I am following the suggestion of several commentators on this blog. I am giving up on trying to identify a market bottom.”
Market bottoms typically require a “capitulation” where the vast majority of investors finally sell most of their assets and walk away in disgust. By many measures, we’re not there yet (and may not be for months). But pundits capitulating is at least a good start.
Nice job, Milo. I have added your blog Margin of Safety to my list of recommended blogs.
“It has always been said that annuities are ‘sold,’ not bought by investors. Over 90% of all annuity sales are through brokers or life agents… Why are so many people sold annuities? The answer is simple…. high commissions and great sounding stories.” – Scott Dauenhauer.
In a previous post, I outlined some of the disadvantages of variable annuities. Today’s post goes into this a bit more deeply.
A colleague of mine, Scott Dauenhauer of Meridian Wealth Management, is a former stockbroker and someone who is quite critical of the “so-called” advantages of variable annuities that are usually touted by salespeople. The following quotes from Secrets of the Wirehouse and How to Protect Your Best Interests emphasize the high (hidden) costs and lack of real benefits.
Annuities, Hazardous to Your Wealth?
Variable annuities performance is based on an underlying “sub-account,” basically a mutual fund. The major benefit to an annuity is the ability to defer taxes until the money is withdrawn. Another highly touted benefit is that an annuity can pay an income stream for life. Let me lay out a case for why variable annuities may be hazardous to your wealth.
The expenses inside an annuity are one of the main problems. There are several expenses involved. Today most annuities do not charge you an upfront commission, the fee is charged as an annual fee (which you don’t see). This fee is deducted daily from your balance, there are five possible costs. The costs are: The policy charge, Mortality & Expense, Rider charges, underlying sub-account expenses, & transaction costs associated with those sub-accounts. Below is a range of what these cost can add up to:
Policy Charges $ 30-50
Mortality & Expense 1.00 – 2.00%
Riders .25 – 1.25%
Sub-Accounts .25 – 1.50%
Turnover Costs .06 – 1.00%
Total Costs 1.56 – 5.75% Annually
These expenses take a toll on the ability of the portfolio to match, or even beat the market. The annuity has to earn 2.5-5% before it breaks even for the year.
Add the fact that gains in an annuity are taxed as ordinary income when withdrawn and the chances of your annuity beating your taxable account come close to zero. In addition, if you die with an annuity you do not receive any favorable tax consequences. You lose what the tax code refers to as the “step-up” in basis, meaning that if you die with a taxable account the entire account gets passed on to your heirs with no income or capital gains tax, not so with an annuity.
You may ask “what about the guaranteed death benefit?”
It is basically worthless in most circumstance. Annuities are long-term investments, they are not meant for periods of less than 10 years. If you end up being one of those poor unfortunate souls that bought at the top of the stock market and still have less money than you started with 10 years ago (extremely unlikely, but it happens, though usually due to idiot broker advice) then your loss exposure is likely minimal. An amount that will be less than what you probably paid for the insurance over that period. In any event, the death benefit is not a logical reason to purchase an annuity.
Now, of course, if you have loved ones that you want to provide for a death benefit may offer you some peace of mind. Keep in mind what you pay for that peace of mind and the likelihood of it ever being collected on. If you are insurable, purchase insurance; if you are not, perhaps a variable annuity with a death benefit makes sense (though I still highly doubt it). If in the extremely rare circumstance that a death benefit makes sense in a variable annuity my choice would be to purchase a variable annuity from the Vanguard Group, as they offer a low cost account with a death benefit.
Let’s recap the problems with Variable Annuities. High expense, high marketing costs, tax penalties if under 59 ½, loss of capital gains status, loss of step-up, limited choice of investment vehicles, & worthless death benefits. So why do people continue to be sold these products? High commissions and high profitability to the companies involved. Profit is the bottom line, not your interests. Variable annuities have become such a problem that the SEC (regulator) has issued a booklet available online through its website that lists the pros and cons of annuities.
Variable Annuity providers knew that the death benefit just wasn’t enough to keep the sale of variable annuities going, so they came up with a whole new generation of benefits for variable annuity products dubbed Living Benefits. The four major living benefits that are offered are as follows:
Guaranteed Minimum Withdrawal Benefit (GMWB)
Guaranteed Minimum Withdrawal Benefit For Life
Guaranteed Minimum Income Benefit
Guaranteed Minimum Accumulation Benefit
These living benefits are sold with some really great stories and too good to be true promises. I can’t even begin to get into the inner workings of each of these so called benefits because it would bore you and take up a lot of space. Suffice it to say that these living benefits are expensive (despite what your broker will tell you) and are not all they are cracked up to be. If you are being told that you will be guaranteed 7% on your money, beware and read the small print. If you are being told that regardless of stock market performance you can withdraw 7% of your account annually, beware.
The stories that are used to sell these products are wonderful, they sound like an investors dream, but reality is much different. These products are costly and in most cases fixed against the possibility of a claim being made. Always read the fine print and hire a professional who has nothing to gain to review any variable annuities recommended to you.
The “Bonus” Annuity Scam
If you are an annuity holder, chances are you have been approached by an insurance agent trying to sell you an annuity that pays you an ‘upfront’ bonus. Whatever you do, do not succumb to the sales pitch for the new “bonus” annuities. This is a new and highly aggressive tactic of the industry, to keep investors “imprisoned” in a high cost product, and generate new and even larger commissions for the sales force. Annuity holders with a few years left in their surrender charge period are approached with the following “typical” story:
“I understand that you are unhappy with your current variable annuity because of poor performance, lack of investment choices & a fading death benefit. I also understand that you have a surrender charge left. We are going to “help” by giving you an up-front ‘bonus’ of 3-6% to cover the surrender charge. It will not cost you anything to switch.”
Unfortunately, the only “bonus” is to the salesperson. The new sale starts the surrender period all over again and the salesperson gets another commission. It is a great deal for the agents, they get two commissions from you.
To pay for the bonus and the commission and any extras, the insurance company raises the expenses on your investments. Since these expenses are buried in the prospectus and hidden from you on your statements, you never know that you are being taken advantage of. When all is said and done, everybody is making money except you! I have actually been in meetings and heard brokers laugh at how they duped another person into a “bonus” annuity.
They refer to the extra commission internally as the “Yield to Broker.” It appears that the SEC is coming down hard on this practice. On June 5th, 2000, they issued an “investor alert” and placed a brochure on its website to help investors understand the benefits, costs, and risks of variable annuities, which combine features of mutual funds and insurance.
Insurance companies have been hit with rounds of lawsuits stemming from churning and suitability. It seems that the real “bonus” will be new business for trial lawyers!!!
When someone, specifically a salesperson who is compensated by commissions, recommends a variable annuity or a “bonus” variable annuity, you should seriously question whether the recommendation is in your best interest (or his). Take it from an ex-stock broker; that recommendation may very well be prompted by the promise of a very high commission.
“Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.” – Warren Buffett.
In previous posts, I wrote about the poor job some investment banks did in risk management and how they ended up “owning exotic securities, derivatives, pieces of paper backed by pools of assets. They did not understand these securities any better than the people they sold them to.
An article in today’s New York Times, The Reckoning – Citigroup Pays for a Rush to Risk, by Eric Dash and Julie Creswell goes behind the scenes to explain just how bad things were. What is fascinating is that the article names names, i.e. the people who were trading the securities and the risk managers, who failed to rein them in.
Of course, top management was ultimately responsible for the debacle. Looking back, one question comes to mind, “What were they thinking?” The authors answer that question.
Here are extensive quotes from the article.
In September 2007, with Wall Street confronting a crisis caused by too many souring mortgages, Citigroup executives gathered in a wood-paneled library to assess their own well-being.
There, Citigroup’s chief executive, Charles O. Prince III, learned for the first time that the bank owned about $43 billion in mortgage-related assets. He asked Thomas G. Maheras, who oversaw trading at the bank, whether everything was O.K.
Mr. Maheras told his boss that no big losses were looming, according to people briefed on the meeting who would speak only on the condition that they not be named.
For months, Mr. Maheras’s reassurances to others at Citigroup had quieted internal concerns about the bank’s vulnerabilities. But this time, a risk-management team was dispatched to more rigorously examine Citigroup’s huge mortgage-related holdings. They were too late, however: within several weeks, Citigroup would announce billions of dollars in losses.
Normally, a big bank would never allow the word of just one executive to carry so much weight. Instead, it would have its risk managers aggressively look over any shoulder and guard against trading or lending excesses.
But many Citigroup insiders say the bank’s risk managers never investigated deeply enough. Because of longstanding ties that clouded their judgment, the very people charged with overseeing deal makers eager to increase short-term earnings — and executives’ multimillion-dollar bonuses — failed to rein them in, these insiders say.
Today, Citigroup, once the nation’s largest and mightiest financial institution, has been brought to its knees by more than $65 billion in losses, write-downs for troubled assets and charges to account for future losses. More than half of that amount stems from mortgage-related securities created by Mr. Maheras’s team — the same products Mr. Prince was briefed on during that 2007 meeting.
Citigroup’s stock has plummeted to its lowest price in more than a decade, closing Friday at $3.77. At that price the company is worth just $20.5 billion, down from $244 billion two years ago. Waves of layoffs have accompanied that slide, with about 75,000 jobs already gone or set to disappear from a work force that numbered about 375,000 a year ago.
While much of the damage inflicted on Citigroup and the broader economy was caused by errant, high-octane trading and lax oversight, critics say, blame also reaches into the highest levels at the bank. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve took the bank to task for poor oversight and risk controls in a report it sent to Citigroup.
The bank’s downfall was years in the making and involved many in its hierarchy, particularly Mr. Prince and Robert E. Rubin, an influential director and senior adviser.
Citigroup insiders and analysts say that Mr. Prince and Mr. Rubin played pivotal roles in the bank’s current woes, by drafting and blessing a strategy that involved taking greater trading risks to expand its business and reap higher profits. Mr. Prince and Mr. Rubin both declined to comment for this article.
For a time, Citigroup’s megabank model paid off handsomely, as it rang up billions in earnings each quarter from credit cards, mortgages, merger advice and trading.
But when Citigroup’s trading machine began churning out billions of dollars in mortgage-related securities, it courted disaster. As it built up that business, it used accounting maneuvers to move billions of dollars of the troubled assets off its books, freeing capital so the bank could grow even larger. Because of pending accounting changes, Citigroup and other banks have been bringing those assets back in-house, raising concerns about a new round of potential losses.
To some, the misery at Citigroup is no surprise. Lynn Turner, a former chief accountant with the Securities and Exchange Commission, said the bank’s balkanized culture and pell-mell management made problems inevitable.
“If you’re an entity of this size,” he said, “if you don’t have controls, if you don’t have the right culture and you don’t have people accountable for the risks that they are taking, you’re Citigroup.”
Questions on Oversight
Though they carry less prestige and are paid less than Wall Street traders and bankers, risk managers can wield significant clout. Their job is to monitor trading floors and inquire about how a bank’s money is being invested, so they can head off potential problems before blow-ups occur. Though risk managers and traders work side by side, they can have an uncomfortable coexistence because the monitors can put a brake on trading.
That is the way it works in theory. But at Citigroup, many say, it was a bit different.
David C. Bushnell was the senior risk officer who, with help from his staff, was supposed to keep an eye on the bank’s bond trading business and its multibillion-dollar portfolio of mortgage-backed securities. Those activities were part of what the bank called its fixed-income business, which Mr. Maheras supervised.
One of Mr. Maheras’s trusted deputies, Randolph H. Barker, helped oversee the huge build-up in mortgage-related securities at Citigroup. But Mr. Bushnell, Mr. Maheras and Mr. Barker were all old friends, having climbed the bank’s corporate ladder together.
Because Mr. Bushnell had to monitor traders working for Mr. Barker’s bond desk, their friendship raised eyebrows inside the company among those concerned about its controls.
After all, traders’ livelihoods depended on finding new ways to make money, sometimes using methods that might not be in the bank’s long-term interests. But insufficient boundaries were established in the bank’s fixed-income unit to limit potential conflicts of interest involving Mr. Bushnell and Mr. Barker, people inside the bank say.
Indeed, some at Citigroup say that if traders or bankers wanted to complete a potentially profitable deal, they could sometimes rely on Mr. Barker to convince Mr. Bushnell that it was a risk worth taking.
Risk management “has to be independent, and it wasn’t independent at Citigroup, at least when it came to fixed income,” said one former executive in Mr. Barker’s group who, like many other people interviewed for this article, insisted on anonymity because of pending litigation against the bank or to retain close ties to their colleagues. “We used to say that if we wanted to get a deal done, we needed to convince Randy first because he could get it through.”
Others say that Mr. Bushnell’s friendship with Mr. Maheras may have presented a similar blind spot.
“Because he has such trust and faith in these guys he has worked with for years, he didn’t ask the right questions,” a former senior Citigroup executive said, referring to Mr. Bushnell.”
According to a former Citigroup executive, Mr. Prince started putting pressure on Mr. Maheras and others to increase earnings in the bank’s trading operations, particularly in the creation of collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s — securities that packaged mortgages and other forms of debt into bundles for resale to investors.
Because C.D.O.’s included so many forms of bundled debt, gauging their risk was particularly tricky; some parts of the bundle could be sound, while others were vulnerable to default.
“Chuck Prince going down to the corporate investment bank in late 2002 was the start of that process,” a former Citigroup executive said of the bank’s big C.D.O. push. “Chuck was totally new to the job. He didn’t know a C.D.O. from a grocery list, so he looked for someone for advice and support. That person was Rubin. And Rubin had always been an advocate of being more aggressive in the capital markets arena. He would say, ‘You have to take more risk if you want to earn more.’ “
It appeared to be a good time for building up Citigroup’s C.D.O. business. As the housing market around the country took flight, the C.D.O. market also grew apace as more and more mortgages were pooled together into newfangled securities.
From 2003 to 2005, Citigroup more than tripled its issuing of C.D.O.’s, to more than $20 billion from $6.28 billion, and Mr. Maheras, Mr. Barker and others on the C.D.O. team helped transform Citigroup into one of the industry’s biggest players. Firms issuing the C.D.O.’s generated fees of 0.4 percent to 2.5 percent of the amount sold — meaning Citigroup made up to $500 million in fees from the business in 2005 alone.
Even as Citigroup’s C.D.O. stake was expanding, its top executives wanted more profits from that business. Yet they were not running a bank that was up to all the challenges it faced, including properly overseeing billions of dollars’ worth of exotic products, according to Citigroup insiders and regulators who later criticized the bank.
In 2005, as Citigroup began its effort to expand from within, Mr. Rubin peppered his colleagues with questions as they formulated the plan. According to current and former colleagues, he believed that Citigroup was falling behind rivals like Morgan Stanley and Goldman, and he pushed to bulk up the bank’s high-growth fixed-income trading, including the C.D.O. business.
Former colleagues said Mr. Rubin also encouraged Mr. Prince to broaden the bank’s appetite for risk, provided that it also upgraded oversight — though the Federal Reserve later would conclude that the bank’s oversight remained inadequate.
Once the strategy was outlined, Mr. Rubin helped Mr. Prince gain the board’s confidence that it would work.
After that, the bank moved even more aggressively into C.D.O.’s. It added to its trading operations and snagged crucial people from competitors. Bonuses doubled and tripled for C.D.O. traders. Mr. Barker drew pay totaling $15 million to $20 million a year, according to former colleagues, and Mr. Maheras became one of Citigroup’s most highly compensated employees, earning as much as $30 million at the peak — far more than top executives like Mr. Bushnell in the risk-management department.
In December 2005, with Citigroup diving into the C.D.O. business, Mr. Prince assured analysts that all was well at his bank.
“Anything based on human endeavor and certainly any business that involves risk-taking, you’re going to have problems from time to time,” he said. “We will run our business in a way where our credibility and our reputation as an institution with the public and with our regulators will be an asset of the company and not a liability.”
Yet as the bank’s C.D.O. machine accelerated, its risk controls fell further behind, according to former Citigroup traders, and risk managers lacked clear lines of reporting. At one point, for instance, risk managers in the fixed-income division reported to both Mr. Maheras and Mr. Bushnell — setting up a potential conflict because that gave Mr. Maheras influence over employees who were supposed to keep an eye on his traders.
C.D.O.’s were complex, and even experienced managers like Mr. Maheras and Mr. Barker underestimated the risks they posed, according to people with direct knowledge of Citigroup’s business. Because of that, they put blind faith in the passing grades that major credit-rating agencies bestowed on the debt.
While the sheer size of Citigroup’s C.D.O. position caused concern among some around the trading desk, most say they kept their concerns to themselves.
“I just think senior managers got addicted to the revenues and arrogant about the risks they were running,” said one person who worked in the C.D.O. group. “As long as you could grow revenues, you could keep your bonus growing.”
To make matters worse, Citigroup’s risk models never accounted for the possibility of a national housing downturn, this person said, and the prospect that millions of homeowners could default on their mortgages. Such a downturn did come, of course, with disastrous consequences for Citigroup and its rivals on Wall Street.
Even as the first shock waves of the subprime mortgage crisis hit Bear Stearns in June 2007, Citigroup’s top executives expressed few concerns about their bank’s exposure to mortgage-linked securities.
In fact, when examiners from the Securities and Exchange Commission began scrutinizing Citigroup’s subprime mortgage holdings after Bear Stearns’s problems surfaced, the bank told them that the probability of those mortgages defaulting was so tiny that they excluded them from their risk analysis, according to a person briefed on the discussion who would speak only without being named.
Meanwhile, regulators have criticized the banking industry as a whole for relying on outsiders — in particular the ratings agencies — to help them gauge the risk of their investments.
“There is really no excuse for institutions that specialize in credit risk assessment, like large commercial banks, to rely solely on credit ratings in assessing credit risk,” John C. Dugan, the head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the chief federal bank regulator, said in a speech earlier this year.
But he noted that what caused the largest problem for some banks was that they retained dangerously big positions in certain securities — like C.D.O.’s — rather than selling them off to other investors.
“What most differentiated the companies sustaining the biggest losses from the rest was their willingness to hold exceptionally large positions on their balance sheets which, in turn, led to exceptionally large losses,” he said.
In fact, some analysts say they believe that the $25 billion that the federal government invested in Citigroup this fall might not be enough to stabilize it.
Others say the fact that such huge amounts have yet to steady the bank is a reflection of the severe damage caused by Citigroup’s appetites.
“They pushed to get earnings, but in doing so, they took on more risk than they probably should have if they are going to be, in the end, a bank subject to regulatory controls,” said Roy Smith, a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University. “Safe and soundness has to be no less important than growth and profits but that was subordinated by these guys.”
“Technically, a bear market is when stocks fall 20% or more from their highs. But there’s a saying that a bear’s true signature is making a fool out of everyone. Based on that, we’re all laughingstocks, because there has been virtually no way to avoid this bear market’s claws.” – Matt Krantz.
An article in today’s edition of USA Today, Bear Market Swipes at More Than Just Stocks by Matt Krantz, spells out just how bad the markets have been this year. Here is a summary:
Following a 445-point slide to 7552 Thursday, the Dow Jones industrial average is down more than 6,600 points from its high. The broad stock market is at it lowest level in 11½ years, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 index off 52% from its high in October 2007 and on pace for its worst year ever, S&P says. Only 13 of its 500 stocks are not down for the year, and more than 100 trade for less than $10 a share.
The pain extends far beyond stocks. Oil has crashed 66% from its record close in early July. Even the so-called safe harbor of gold is down 25.5% from its high in March.
This bear has trashed nearly every investment strategy and asset class. It has humbled some of the most powerful names in the stock market and blown holes through long-held tenets in investing. Market historians strain to think of previous bear markets that have disproved so many investing philosophies at the same time.
“There is nowhere to run and hide,” says Ken Winans of investment management firm Winans International. “You have gotten bludgeoned in every direction.”
The extent of the earth that’s been scorched is breathtaking. Brand-name investors such as Warren Buffett, Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens have suffered massive losses. Do-no-wrong mutual fund managers, such as Legg Mason’s Bill Miller, are down big. Hedge funds run by managers once thought to be infallible are having their worst years ever.
Even investors who saw the bear coming have been mauled. Those that rushed into commodities or foreign currencies to sit out problems with the U.S. economy have suffered massive losses.
The pros are struggling
Even investors who’ve sought professional help have been stung. Money poured into mutual funds, hedge funds and private-equity firms run by experts known for out-foxing markets in good times and bad. The bear has proved to be smarter than the fox.
Legg Mason’s Value fund (LMVTX), famous for the longest streak beating the S&P 500 under the leadership of portfolio manager Miller, is struggling. It is down more than 65% this year, the third year in a row that it has lagged behind the market. It now has just a one-star rating, out of a possible five, from Morningstar.
Eddie Lampert, the hedge fund manager for celebrities such as David Geffen and Michael Dell who was routinely compared with Warren Buffett just a few years ago, has seen his investments sour. His personal worth has fallen to $2 billion from $4.5 billion just two years ago, Forbes says. His hedge funds’ biggest investment, Sears Holdings (SHLD), has collapsed 70.5% this year.
Speaking of Buffett, the bear snagged the Oracle of Omaha, too. … Buffett’s personal worth is getting mauled, too. Forbes estimated his net worth at $62 billion in February, but that is based mostly on his large holdings of Berkshire Hathaway stock, which is now down $74,150, or 49%, from its high of $151,650 a share.
Commodities aren’t shelter
Investors who thought they saw the stock crash coming figured they had the answer: commodities. Fears of inflation and economic problems pushed many investors into gold. An ounce of gold soared 53.6% in the year leading up to its peak on March 18 as investors poured in. But investors who piled into gold in March have been dealt a 25.5% loss.
A similar story with oil. The price of crude was soaring earlier this year, and gas prices were a national fixation. At the closing peak of $145.29 a barrel on July 3, crude was up 51% for the year. With predictions of it hitting $200 or more, it seemed like a can’t-lose proposition. Speculators lost and lost big as the price crashed nearly $100 a barrel to about $49 now.
The Reuters/Jefferies CRB index of 19 raw materials dropped more than 4% Thursday, hitting its lowest level since April 29, 2003, according to Bloomberg News.
Global diversification is making things worse
We’ve heard it before. Own both U.S. and foreign stocks, and your portfolio’s ups and downs will be moderated. When domestic stocks zig, foreign stocks are supposed to zag.
But that hasn’t worked either. The iShares MSCI EAFE index fund (EFA), which tracks stocks in developed nations in Europe, Asia and the Far East is down 54.5% this year. That’s worse than U.S. stocks’ decline.
What about emerging markets stocks? Up-and-coming nations such as China, Brazil and India were supposed to be growing fast independent of the U.S. Well, the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets (EEM) index has fared worse, tanking 64%. Every major nation’s stock market is down this year, says S&P’s Capital IQ.
Buy-and-hold investors are getting hurt
Buy-and-hold investors know short-term swings are normal. They hold through tough times, knowing returns come to those who wait. But investors who invested in the S&P 500 10 years ago have seen the value of their stocks decline 35%. Even investors who used dollar-cost averaging and invested $500 a month starting Dec. 31, 1996, and reinvested dividends lost $13,225, or 17%, as of Oct. 31, says Winans.
Bonds are eating away at portfolios
Rather than buffering losses on stocks, corporate bonds are falling apart. The iShares iBoxx Investment Grade Corporate Bond fund (LQD), which invests in bonds with high credit ratings, has a negative return of 14.4% this year. That may not sound that bad, except investors buy bonds because they want very little volatility.
Sam Stovall of S&P says that it’s usually not wise to give up on investing in the depths of a bear market. While it takes five years on average for investors to get their money back after a 40%-plus decline, those who keep investing when stocks are cheaper are made whole faster.
A small point: The article overstates the damage to bond investments. Not all have suffered. In fact, Treasury securities have done quite well this year, as investors have fled to these very safe investments. (As the yield of a bond goes down, the price of the bond goes up.)
But the article is generally correct. Unless the stock market recovers from these low levels, which certainly could still happen, 2008 will go down in history as the worst year ever, as measured by the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index. I believe, though, that this is not the time to get discouraged and abandon your well thought out portfolio. In this instance, doing nothing is preferable to selling everything.
There are some opportunities out there. If you can do it, this is a good time to convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. It might also be a good time to rebalance your portfolio. For more information on these two issues, you should consult your financial advisor.
Going forward, we all must re-examine our actual risk tolerance. When times are good, it’s easy to tell yourself that you can weather the (hopefully) temporary storms of declining stock markets. This year certainly proves that living through a substantial bear market, in real time, is another matter entirely.
Finally, if you are so worried about the stock market that you are having trouble sleeping, consider scaling back your equity allocation. That way you will still maintain some exposure to stocks, rather than making an emotional decision to “sell everything.”
“One of the fallacies about the recent financial turbulence is that the markets are in ‘uncharted territory’ and that there are no historical precedents for the volatility, panic, or economic uncertainty that we’ve observed. To make statements like this is to admit that one has not examined historical evidence prior to the 1990′s. The fact is that we’ve observed similar panics throughout market history. – John P. Hussman.
I tend to read market commentaries with a jaundiced eye. That’s because the authors generally restate the obvious, i.e. what has already happened, or they attempt to predict the future, which is simply impossible.
The Stock Market is Not in “Uncharted Territory,” the November 17th Market Commentary by John P. Hussman is an exception. Rather than make definitive predictions, he outlines his strategy by putting the stock market and the economy in historical perspective. Here are some quotes I like:
Investors can get a good understanding of market history by examining a great deal of data, or by living through a lot of market cycles and learning something along the way. Only investors who have done neither believe that current conditions are “uncharted territory.” Veterans like Warren Buffett and Jeremy Grantham have a good handle on both historical data, and on the concept that stocks are a claim to a very long-term stream of future cash flows. They recognize that even wiping out a year or two of earnings does no major damage to the intrinsic value of companies with good balance sheets and strong competitive positions.
Most importantly, these guys never changed their standards of value even when other investors were bubbling and gurgling about a new era of productivity where knowledge-based companies would make the business cycle obsolete, and where profit margins would never mean-revert. They knew to ignore the reckless optimism then, because they understood that stocks were claims on a very long-term stream of cash flows. They know to ignore the paralyzing fear now, because they still understand that stocks are a claim on a very long-term stream of cash flows.
No thoughtful investor “calls a bottom” in the markets. Stocks are undervalued here, but they could decline further. Economic conditions are poor, but may be over or under-reflected in stock prices. Investors will find out over time, and the ebb-and-flow of information is slow enough to allow very large market fluctuations in the meantime.
Recent market conditions seem like they have no precedent only because so many investment professionals know only the data they’ve lived through. If one actually examines market data from the Great Depression, 1907, and other less extreme panics, one realizes how much the recent decline has already discounted potential economic negatives. At this point, further declines in stock prices simply increase the long-term returns that investors can expect over time. We can’t rule out the possibility that investors could get more frightened, or that they might abandon their stocks at prices that would offer extremely high long-term returns to the buyers. It is important to establish exposure slowly, but long-term investors who ignore attractive valuations are not investors at all.
The main damage that investors can do to their financial security at this point would come from selling into steep but impermanent declines.
As a side note, do your best to filter out comments like “investors are moving out of stocks and into …” or “investors are selling into this decline” or “investors are buying into this rally.” On balance, investors do not sell shares, and they don’t buy shares. Every share purchased is a share sold. The only question is what price movement is required to prompt a buyer and a seller to trade with each other. No money will come off the sidelines into stocks. No money will come out of stocks and onto the sidelines. All such talk is non-equilibrium idiocy. Keep in mind that the “market” consists of different traders with a variety of time-horizons, risk-tolerances, and analytical methods (e.g. technical, report-driven, value-conscious). It is helpful to think in terms of which group of individuals is likely to do what, and when. It is equally important to know which group of investors you belong to. As the old saying goes, if you’re at a poker table and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.
No one knows or can accurately predict where stock prices are heading in the short term. It is true that if we have another Great Depression, stock prices will decline further. It is also true that after the steep decline (which we have already experienced, and which is not unprecedented) future returns are likely to be higher, not lower.
In the long term, investors are compensated for taking risks. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that, over the long term, safe investments will have higher returns than equities.
Timing the “market bottom” is impossible, but selling stocks now will most likely result in regrets later.
Annuities may come in more flavors than Baskin Robbins ice cream, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that they are as simple as choosing between chocolate and vanilla. In truth, they are very complicated products. A variable annuity is an insurance contract that allows you to invest your premium in various mutual fund-like investments. If you are considering buying an annuity, you must do your homework before making a final decision. CNN.com’s annuity guide is a good on-line primer
SmartMoney.com summarizes as follows.
A variable annuity is basically a tax-deferred investment vehicle that comes with an insurance contract, usually designed to protect you from a loss in capital. Thanks to the insurance wrapper, earnings inside the annuity grow tax-deferred, and the account isn’t subject to annual contribution limits like those on other tax-favored vehicles like IRAs and 401(k)s. Typically you can choose from a menu of mutual funds, which in the variable annuity world are known as “subaccounts.” Withdrawals made after age 59 1/2 are taxed as income. Earlier withdrawals are subject to tax and a 10% penalty.
Variable annuities can be immediate or deferred. With a deferred annuity the account grows until you decide it’s time to make withdrawals. And when that time comes (which should be after age 59 1/2, or you owe an early withdrawal penalty) you can either annuitize your payments (which will provide regular payments over a set amount of time) or you can withdraw money as you see fit.
Since the person recommending the annuity will (no doubt) tell you how “great” this product is, this article will temper that by focusing on the disadvantages of a variable annuity.
Sold not Bought
In financial circles, it has often been said that annuities “are sold, not bought.” And sold they certainly have been — there is more than $1 trillion invested in variable annuities, and new sales total well over $100 billion every year.
However, the popularity of an annuity as an investment does not necessarily suggest that it is wise for you to invest your hard-earned money in it.
So are variable annuities good for investors?
Liz Pulliam Weston, who writes a column for MSN Money, gives away the answer in her article’s title The Worst Retirement Investment You Can Make.
Calling it the “worst” investment may, perhaps, be a slight exaggeration. Let’s look at her main points.
Tax treatment. Your gains in an annuity grow tax-deferred, but they are taxed as income when you withdraw the money. That contrasts with other investments such as stocks and mutual funds, which can qualify for lower capital gains treatments.
Penalties for early withdrawal. Variable annuities are designed as retirement savings vehicles. So, you pay a 10% federal-tax penalty if you withdraw money before age 59½. Insurance companies typically levy surrender charges of their own if you withdraw more than 10% of your balance in the first few years. Surrender charges usually start at 7% of your investment and decline to zero over the next six to eight years. They can range, however, up to 16% and last for as long as 15 years.
Death benefit. Variable annuities typically come with a death benefit that ensures your heirs get back at least as much as you invested if you’re unlucky enough to die while your investments are down. Your heirs will have other problems if you die owning an annuity, however. While most other investments get favorable tax treatment — a so-called “step-up in basis” that eliminates or drastically reduces the taxes heirs must pay when they sell — withdrawals from an annuity are taxed at regular income-tax rates.
Living benefits. Death benefits aren’t the only insurance feature you can get with a variable annuity. Increasingly, insurers are pushing so-called “living benefits” or “life benefits,” which guarantee that you can get back at least your original investment, usually compounded by a certain amount, when you withdraw the money in retirement. Investors stung by the bear market are greatly attracted to these guarantees, Carey said. That’s helped fuel annuities’ rise. Living benefits were available on 20 of the 25 top-selling variable-annuity contracts last year.
Costs. The insurance features of an annuity aren’t free, of course. The typical annuity with just a death benefit costs 50% to 100% more in annual fees than comparable mutual funds. Life benefits can add 20% or more to that cost.
Those extra expenses can seriously eat into your returns. Consider what would happen if you invested $5,000 a year in mutual funds with annual expenses of 1.5%, versus the same investment in an annuity with a 2.5% expense ratio.
If the underlying investments returned 8% a year, after 30 years:
Your variable annuity would be worth $362,177.
Your mutual funds would be worth $431,874 — a difference of nearly $70,000, or 14 years’ worth of contributions.
The gap just widens if you consider the tax implications. In both scenarios, you won’t have to pay tax on your original contributions when you withdraw the money. But the mutual fund gains would in most cases qualify for capital gains tax rates, which range from 5% to 15%, while the annuity’s payments would be taxed at income tax rates — currently 10% to 35%.
Are the life benefits worth it?
Meanwhile, the chances of your actually using the insurance benefits are slim. Relatively few people will die with their annuities worth less than what they paid. The living benefits typically come with a 10-year holding period, and there have been few 10-year periods where investors have actually lost money.
Insurers argue that the life benefits serve as “guard rails,” allowing investors to take more risk with the knowledge that their basic investment is protected. Many financial planners respond that a more appropriate response to risk is to construct a balanced, diversified portfolio with bonds and cash to cushion stock market swings.
Of course, most variable annuities aren’t bought — they’re sold. Only about 2% of variable annuities are purchased directly by consumers; the rest are sold through brokers, insurance agents and bank employees who are paid often-hefty commissions on their sales.
The math is lousy
“When you take the commissions out of the equation, the allure of a variable annuity disappears,” said Miami fee-only financial planner Frank Armstrong, a former insurance agent and author of “The Informed Investor: A Hype-Free Guide to Constructing a Sound Financial Portfolio.” “They cost a bundle,” he added. “And the tax treatment (upon withdrawal) is horrendous.”
“Nobody who’s in the fee-only (planning) business is going to recommend them,” said Armstrong. “Why do you think that is? You think we just have a blind spot that we can’t do the math?”
Some of most vociferous critics of variable annuities are those who, like Armstrong, spent some time in the brokerage firms or insurance companies that push them. Before he became a fee-only planner, Rob Pool of Portland, Ore., worked for a major brokerage firm, and the experience made him wary of the way annuities are sold.
“They’d get recommended even if it wasn’t in the client’s best interest all the time,” Pool said. “I can’t say there’s never a place for a variable annuity in a portfolio, but I haven’t found it yet.”
Personally, I do not recommend variable annuities for my clients, because they are not in my clients’ best interest, and there are much better alternatives. Variable annuities have very high expenses, unfavorable tax ramifications, and they lack flexibility. Before buying one you should understand the surrender charges, early withdrawal penalties and the annual fees. It bears repeating, do your homework before you consider buying an annuity.
Larry Swedroe and Jared Kizer in their new book The Only Guide to Alternative Investments You’ll Ever Need say this:
Some investment products are so complex in design that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for the average investor to fully understand the risks entailed and the costs incurred. Make no mistake about it, the complexity is intentional. After all, if the investor fully understood the product, it is likely that he or she would never purchase it. That is why many of such products are truly “tourist traps” – designed to be sold, but never bought.
Education – or a good fee-only adviser who is not influenced by commission-based compensation – can be the armor that protects investors. The overwhelming evidence from academic studies on Variable Annuities is clear: In general, these investments fall into the category of products that are meant to be sold, not bought.
“Not infrequently, brokers become disenchanted and leave the business. Occasionally, they will even become fee-only advisors, whose compensation is not tied to trading.” – William J. Bernstein.
In a previous post, I asked the rhetorical question, “Why would you even consider working with a financial advisor who warns you in writing that ‘Our interests may not always be the same as yours’ and ‘Our profits, and our salespersons’ compensation, may vary by product and over time.’”
Friday’s post quoted exclusively from William Bernstein on the subject of stock brokers’ competence and compensation.
Today’s post quotes a former stockbroker on the incentives and pressures he observed. Scott Dauenhauer, of Meridian Wealth Management, is a colleague who spent five years working for the “big three” brokerage firms. He has written a vivid expose called Secrets of the Wirehouse and How to Protect Your Best Interests.
( “Wirehouse” is an industry term for a large national broker/dealer. Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns are all examples of wirehouses.)
Scott’s article covers many topics including broker training, compensation, and the various investment products you should avoid. Here is what he says about broker competency, compensation and the conflicts of interest endemic in the financial community.
How much training do brokers actually have in financial planning? Major brokerage firms tout intensive training programs almost as much as the stocks they peddle. They brag about the high level of education their “consultants” receive. The truth is the only requirements are that individuals pass the Series 7, and a state insurance exam. The Series 7 is an industry test that requires memorization of facts about the markets and represents a minimum standard of knowledge.
The Series 7 does not teach an individual how to manage personal finances, let alone create a comprehensive financial plan. The Series 7 doesn’t even teach about how to properly diversify a portfolio. The insurance exam is an even bigger farce. While the Series 7 actually requires a bit of studying the state insurance exams only require minimal memorization.
Anyway, once a “recruit” passes the Series 7, he/she is sent to company headquarters to go through “intensive training.” The training is definitely intensive, though not in financial planning or investment management. The programs focus solely on sales & product training and lasts anywhere from 1-4 weeks. I attended one such program and 95% of the training focused on cold-calling sales and learning proprietary product. Proprietary products are ones that are sold directly (and typically only) by the brokerage firm and typically have much higher profit margins, though mainly benefit the firm, not the person they are sold too. Brokerage firms want “salespeople,” not highly skilled financial planners.
If the firms hired highly skilled financial planners, the firm wouldn’t be able to sell proprietary products. This is because the planners would know better. When the firm hires somebody with no previous industry knowledge, or experience, they have the opportunity to fill that person’s mind with fairy tales, not fact. The firms’ way of doing business is to focus on proprietary products, high & hidden fees, cold calling, and quotas. The truth is that very few new recruits have any experience in handling another family’s wealth. You end up paying high fees for a service that puts you directly on a recruit’s learning curve. Even brokers who have been at the firm for years may not have any training in financial planning; they are stockbrokers, not trusted advisors.
When dealing with brokerage firm, conflicts of interest abound and for the most part are not disclosed. The following is a few conflicts that you should watch out for.
First, please understand to whom a public company owes their loyalty; it is to their public shareholders. The people who own stock in a company must have their interests protected. A public brokerage firm’s loyalty cannot be 100% to you.
Let’s take a further look at where other strings are attached. A broker gets paid a percentage of the revenues that he/she brings to the firm, typically 25-40%. It is not, however, that simple. Brokerage firms determine the payout percentage for each individual “product.” They control product flow by paying higher amounts to brokers for product they want sold (typically products with higher margins). While this makes sense from a business stand point and from a shareholder standpoint (why wouldn’t you want to incentivize your staff to sell the most profitable products?) it doesn’t work out so well for the end user, the client. Each firm works differently but depending on the product a firm wants to emphasize, they will pay a broker a higher percentage of the revenue to induce him to sell what the company wants him to sell. For example, if the company wants a broker to sell a Separate Account Platform product (individual money managers, more to come on this), they may tell the broker that they will receive a higher percentage of the fees they generate from that particular product and that product may generate more fees than other products.
Let me give you a real life example so that you understand.
Imagine that you had only two products to choose from to sell your client; one is a mutual fund that costs the client 2.25% annually and pays the firm 1% annually. Of the 1% paid to the firm the broker collects 35% of it or .35% annually. On a $1,000,000 account the firm generates $10,000 in revenue and pays the broker $3,500 (you the client pay $22,500). The other product is a Separate Account where you have an individual money manager. This product is sold as the latest, greatest way to have your money managed and costs 2.5% annually. However, this product pays the firm 1.5% annually and the firm will pay the broker 40% of that revenue or .60% annually. On the same $1,000,000 account the firm generates $15,000 in revenue and pays the broker $6,000 (you pay $25,000 annually). Now, in all likelihood both accounts will have similar returns over time and will probably under-perform the market. You the client in either situation are stuck in a lousy product that is expensive; however the firm has an incentive to sell one over the other, even if the other isn’t in your best interest. The separate account sale earns the firm 50% more revenue and the broker 70% more revenue – which product do you think will be presented? Each firm has their own system and they are all different, but the mechanisms are in place to manipulate the broker into selling what makes the firm and/or the broker more money.
In addition to higher revenue on proprietary products, the broker many times is under tremendous pressure from management to sell you the latest mutual fund offering from that brokerage. Branch manager compensation is determined in part by the amount of proprietary products his branch sells. His interest is in getting the highest bonus possible, so he in turn puts the pressure on the brokers to “pound the phones,” and sell their “latest offering.” The brokers are enticed by management with trips, dinners, and a host of other items. It goes unspoken that if a broker does not participate in selling the new offering then things will not be easy for him/her. I know of one broker who was told, “I don’t think this firm is the right place for you,” after the broker refused to sell the new fund offering. It turned out that he was the only one to not succumb to the pressure, he eventually left that firm. I can’t begin to tell you how many voice mails & e-mails I received from management to ‘sell’ the “new” offerings, I never succumbed because it was not in my client’s best interest. Be aware that the pressure is on your broker to sell certain products or else he/she risks losing their job.
Brokerage firms (wirehouses) train (brainwash) recruits in sales techniques and product knowledge, not portfolio management and financial planning. They use carrots and sticks to influence brokers to recommend investment products that are profitable to the firm.
According to William Bernstein, brokerage firms target how much they are going to earn from clients’ accounts.
At the end of the day, most wirehouses operate on the “2% rule” – collect 2% in fees and commissions, overt or hidden, on your clients’ assets, or you’re out.
My experience is that the 2% figure is extremely conservative – it is not unusual to see accounts from which as much as 5% annually is extracted.
You will not see these fees and expenses outlined, because they are not easy to discern. Unless you are a detective, they will be hidden from your view.
Is there a better way? Certainly. It is choosing a fee-only financial advisor, who acts in your best interest, as a fiduciary.
“Make no mistake about it, you are engaged in a brutal zero-sum contest with the financial industry — every penny of commissions, fees, and transactional cost they extract is irretrievably lost to you.” – William Bernstein.
Yesterday’s post was about Wall Street’s habit of designing complex financial products that are difficult to understand. They promise high returns with less risk, but often fail to deliver. They entail high fees, which are profitable for the producer of these instruments, but not for investors.
It is well worth delving into the issue of brokers’ conflicts of interest. Your success as an investor depends on knowing how Wall Street really works and in not accepting the client-friendly face it portrays on TV.
William Bernstein, the author of The Four Pillars of Investing, has a lot to say about the competency and compensation of brokers in a chapter called Your Broker is not Your Buddy.
There are no educational requirements for brokers (or, as they’re known in the business, registered reps). No mandatory courses in finance, economics, law, or even a high-school diploma are necessary to enter the field. Simply pass the pathetically simple Series 7 exam, and you’re on your way to a profitable career.
It is a sad fact that you can pass the Series 7 exam and begin to manage other people’s accumulated life savings faster than you can get a manicurist’s license in most states.
The most shocking aspect of the brokerage business is that brokers almost never actually calculate the investment results of their clients, let alone reflect on methods for improving them.
Brokers are not trained by the brokerage houses to invest – they are trained to sell.
Brokers pay almost no attention to the returns their clients earn. It is rare to come across one who routinely calculates his clients’ annual returns, let alone considers what these data might mean.
Brokers do undergo rigorous training, sometimes lasting months – in sales techniques.
What do brokers think about almost every minute of the day? Selling. Selling. And Selling.
Because if they do not sell, they’re on the next train home to Peoria. The focus on sales breeds a curious kind of ethical anesthesia. Like all human beings placed in morally dubious positions, brokers are capable of rationalizing the damage to their clients’ portfolios in a multitude of ways. They provide valuable advice and discipline. They are able to beat the market. They provide moral comfort and personal advice during difficult times in the market. Anything but face the awful truth: that their clients would be far better off without them. This is not to say that honest brokers who can understand and manage the conflicts of interest inherent in the job do not exist. But in my experience, they are few and far between. After all, what is best for the client is to keep investment costs and turnover as low as possible, which also minimizes a broker’s income.
Brokers will protest that in order to keep their clients for the long haul, they must do right by them. This is much less than half true. It’s a sad fact that in one year a broker can make more money exploiting a client than in ten years of treating them honestly. The temptation to take the wrong road is more than most can resist.
Under no circumstances should you have anything to do with a “full service” brokerage firm.
You do not want anyone near your money – advisor or broker – whose compensation is tied in any way to his choice of investment vehicles.
“Wall Street’s sales and marketing machine is continuously pumping out fairy tales: fanciful fables filled with legendary deeds and winning exploits. The only differences between many of the Street’s product ‘innovations’ and other types of fairy tales are that the stories are designed for adults, and they rarely have happy endings.
Like the apple given to Snow White by the Evil Queen, these products offer enticing features designed to lure investors, but almost all have one thing in common: Despite their seeming appeal, they have attributes that make them more attractive to the seller than the buyer. These products typically fall into the category called structured products. ” – Larry E. Swedroe and Jared Kizer.
Another “Safe” Bet Leaves Many Burned is a good overview article by Eleanor Laise on several “structured products”. It appeared in the November 11, 2008 edition of The Wall Street Journal.
The gist of the story is that Wall Street firms sold complicated products which promised high returns with little risks. The risks were understated; the returns never materialized.
To see how complicated structures products are, read this article.
How many brokers or investors really understood the mechanics behind such whiz bang inventions such as the following?
- Principal-protected notes
- Reverse convertibles
- Return-enhanced notes
The projections (a.k.a. promises) for these products were based on hypothetical scenarios best viewed through rose-colored glasses. Naturally, disappointment followed when the outcome proved otherwise.
All of this brings to mind the old oft-told advice, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Here are some choice quotes from the article:
In recent years, Wall Street firms raced to sell small investors “structured products” linked to everything from stock indexes to currencies. They were often marketed as a relatively safe way to get a slice of market gains.
Now, in the midst of the market turmoil, many investors holding these complex products are getting burned.
With structured products, which are issued by big Wall Street firms, investors can get exposure to commodities, stocks or other investments without actually owning those assets. The products may promise to give investors a portion of any gains in, say, U.S. stocks or Asian currencies while offering some protection from market losses. They typically behave like packages of bonds and options, but what investors are actually buying with most of these products is the unsecured debt of the issuer.
With Wall Street in turmoil, many of the risks of structured products are now coming to light. “Reverse convertibles,” for example, offer fat yields but leave investors exposed to steep losses if a stock price collapses. “Principal-protected notes” typically are designed to return the principal investment at maturity, along with some portion of the gains in an underlying benchmark, such as the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Yet investors selling before maturity may not recoup their full investment, and the principal protection depends on the issuer’s ability to meet its obligations. Many “return-enhanced notes,” meanwhile, offer some multiple of an index’s gains but provide no protection against stock-market declines.
When an issuer goes belly up, as Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. did in September, structured-product investors are generally left standing in line with other creditors and may face a long wait to determine how much, if anything, they’ll be able to recover. Some Lehman structured products now are trading for less than 10 cents on the dollar, according to SecondMarket Inc., a marketplace specializing in illiquid assets, which says it has heard from investors holding more than $2 billion worth of Lehman structured products.
The problems are coming at a time when small investors have been on a structured-product buying binge. This year through early November, nearly $34 billion worth of structured products were sold to small U.S. investors, surpassing the $33.5 billion sold in all of 2007, according to StructuredRetailProducts.com, an independent research firm.
The recent upheaval is particularly painful for investors because structured products are often sold to people who are in or near retirement and seek relatively secure or high-yielding investments. Principal-protected notes, which were offered by Lehman and other issuers, were generally designed to at least give investors their original investment back at maturity, and were often touted as safer than direct investments in, say, a stock-market index. The double-digit yields commonly offered by reverse convertibles, meanwhile, may be enticing to people living on a fixed income.
The current problems come on top of longer-standing concerns about these investments. They can be difficult to sell for a decent price before maturity and often carry embedded fees that are tough for individual investors to decipher. Regulators in recent years have raised alarm bells about structured products, voicing concerns about the marketing and sales practices of brokers who sell them.
While it is nice that “regulators in recent years have raised alarm bells about structured products,” that hardly seems enough to protect investors. Transparency is missing for these products, because they “often carry embedded fees that are tough for individual investors to decipher.”
This year has been particularly difficult for all investors, as most strategies have failed, at least in the short term. Even so, in investing, some things are constant. To wit:
- Risk and reward are inextricably related. (There is no such thing as a free lunch.)
- A straightforward approach is usually the best. Keep it simple: Diversification via low-cost mutual funds.
- Avoid hyped synthetic, “enhanced” products, which typically have high fees and hidden risks. Complex structured products benefit Wall Street much more than they do investors.
Forgive me for being cynical, but it comes from listening to fee-only financial advisors who used to be stockbrokers. They have, in essence, come over from the “dark side.”
One thing I am quite confident of is that the brokers were compensated handsomely for selling these “safe” investments. Rick Ferri (a former stockbroker) is quoted in The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing, “Wall Street wants you to believe they are there to make money for you, but their true purpose is to make money from you.”