The Independent Market Observer

3/31/14 – The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan

March 31, 2014

I haven’t done a book review for a while, as I’ve been reading outside the usual investing and economics areas. With Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the continuing low-grade conflicts in Asia as China expands its footprint, I thought it was time to discuss one of the more interesting books on geopolitics I’ve read recently, The Revenge of Geography by Robert Kaplan.

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3/28/14 – How to Evaluate Investment Track Records

March 28, 2014

At Commonwealth, we evaluate managers of all sorts on many criteria, statistical and qualitative. We never know, really, whether the analysis will work—which is why we constantly review and manage our recommended list—but we know, from experience, most of what to look for in most types of funds.

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3/28/14 - Interview on Bloomberg Radio

March 28, 2014


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3/27/14 – Quick Hits

March 27, 2014

Signs of Concern for the Stock Market

As I start to put together my commentary for the month of March, one thing that’s become apparent is that the market has weakened significantly. In February, we saw a dip at the start and then a strong recovery, but this month we’re pretty much flat, which conceals several significant ups and downs.

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3/26/14 – Europe Is Still There, Americans

March 26, 2014

After writing yesterday’s post on the reversal of globalization, I spent some more time thinking about the rest of the world. Like most Americans, that’s pretty much how I think of it: the U.S. plus the rest of world. I fully recognize just how inadequate this is, but it remains my default mode of thinking, as it does for most of the U.S. population.

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3/25/14 – What Russia Tells Us About the Global Economy

March 25, 2014

Russia is the new poster child for a deglobalizing world, which will result in less economic efficiency and a lower standard of living in many countries. Fortunately, the U.S. will be positioned to benefit from this.

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3/24/14 – Is the Stock Market a Herd of Cows?

March 24, 2014

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3/21/14 – Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

March 21, 2014

One of the biggest problems most investors have—heck, that most people have—is seeing the big picture. A key finding of behavioral finance is that we weight more recent, more personal experience much more heavily than we should, and it costs us.

I’m thinking of this as I head out to speak in Columbus, Ohio. I give talks around the country for Commonwealth advisors and their clients, and it is invariably a great experience. The advisors are wonderful, the clients are interested and interesting, and I always learn a great deal talking with people.

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3/20/14 – Janet Yellen Is Not a Loose Woman

March 20, 2014

The story coming into the Yellen Fed was that Janet was a monetary dove, that she wasn’t up to the task of pulling back the stimulus, that she was going to keep pushing money into the system until things collapsed, that she was a loose woman who would lead the monetary system to perdition. All very 19th century—and, as it turns out, all wrong.

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3/19/14 – Crash Warnings: They Do Exist, But Aren’t Infallible

March 19, 2014

Part of my talk on investing at Commonwealth’s Chairman’s Retreat in Las Vegas was about looking for indicators that could help investors improve their odds. One of the best ways to do so, in my opinion, is to have some idea of when really bad times are coming, so that you can plan for them.

The received wisdom is that you can’t time the market—and that is absolutely correct—but you can get a better idea of what might lie ahead and modify your strategy accordingly. I used the poker hand example the other day, and the question with the stock market is whether there are similar indicators that suggest you should change your strategy. I would argue there are and that, in fact, they’re largely pretty simple.

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3/18/14 – Service Insights from the Wynn GM

March 18, 2014

Yesterday, Erin Payton wrote in, saying she would have liked to hear more about the talk from the Wynn GM, which I mentioned the other day in a post from Commonwealth’s Chairman’s Retreat. This one’s for you, Erin!

Brian Gullbrants is the general manager of both the Wynn and Encore properties in Las Vegas, which employ more than 12,000 people. Essentially, he runs a small city within a city, with thousands of residents, more thousands of customers, multiple restaurants, a casino, spas, a golf course—the list goes on and on. Not only does he have to run it all, but he has to do so at a very high service level, for a very demanding clientele. This is a tough job.

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3/17/14 – Changing the Odds on Investing

March 17, 2014

I wrote last week about how investing is, or should be, significantly different from gambling. Despite those differences, though, there are many things we as investors can take away from the gambling perspective. One of the most valuable is the concept of edge, which is closely related to the notion of odds.

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3/14/14 – Short Post from Las Vegas

March 14, 2014

One of the distinctive features of the places we stay at Chairman’s conferences is that there’s invariably a focus on service. We just had a talk from the general manager of the Wynn property here that was probably one of the best I’ve ever heard on running a service business. Once again, I’m very grateful to be here for this wonderful experience.

I should probably comment on yesterday’s drop in the market, but I don’t really have much to say other than that volatility is normal, and after the recent run-up, some degree of decline is normal and expected.

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3/13/14 – Some Thoughts on Las Vegas, Gambling, and Investing

March 13, 2014

Las Vegas is a remarkable place. I haven’t been here for 15 years or so, and there’s been a tremendous amount of development in the interim, but as far as I can tell through faded memories, the place remains substantially the same: buildings you’d never see anywhere else, miniature replicas of other parts of the world, and a commitment to spectacle that’s hard to imagine if you’re not actually here.

From my window, I can see the Treasure Island pirate ship, the Venetian with its indoor canal, the Trump casino rising from what appears to be a surrounding wasteland, and the appropriately named Mirage, all set in front of a mountain range that looks like it cuts off the bottom end of the sky.

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3/12/14 – Free Market?

March 12, 2014

This will be a short post as I’m on my way to Commonwealth’s Chairman’s Retreat, an annual conference with an amazing lineup of speakers (and me), along with a fantastic location (this year, Las Vegas) and events. I look forward to it every year, and this one promises to be just as good as expected.

Browsing the papers this morning, I had one clear thought: do we really live in a free market? New Jersey has decided that Tesla cannot sell its cars there directly; it has to go through existing dealers. Talk about a government-protected business! This is a pretty blatant example, but it hit me right between the eyes (and prepped me for the next couple of points).

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3/12/14 - Recent Interviews on Fox Business Network

March 12, 2014

Check out Brad’s recent interviews on Fox Business Network:

What will drive the markets higher, Thursday, March 6

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3/11/14 – My Definition of a Bubble: Debt and Asset Prices

March 11, 2014

One of the major topics of discussion about the stock market is whether we are in, or at least at the start of, a bubble. “Yes, look at the valuations!” cry some. “No, look at the valuations!” cry others. How could we tell?

The first thing we need is a definition of a bubble. The classic one is for values to increase well beyond what the fundamentals justify, but this runs into a problem with the terms “fundamentals” and “justify.” Wall Street (or any business, really) has a nasty habit of asserting, like Dr. Pangloss, that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and of inventing reasons why current prices, whatever they may be, are actually reasonable, if not cheap. So let’s sidestep that discussion.

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3/10/14 – Five Years of the Bull Market

March 10, 2014

Everyone loves a birthday. Jackson’s fifth birthday party last spring was at a candlepin bowling alley and pizza shop, and a wonderful time was had by all. This has nothing to do with the fact that we just reached the fifth anniversary of the start of the current bull market, but I like to remember it. Jackson, hopefully, will have an equally fun sixth birthday party (although Minecraft now seems to have replaced the Ninja Turtles), and the question is whether the current bull market will also make it to six.

At this point, there is no reason to believe that it won’t. The market trend continues strongly up, market expectations are strong, and retail investors are moving into the stock market. Recent pullbacks have ended quickly, with the market bouncing back to new highs.

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3/7/14 – The Right Measure of Risk (It Depends on the Time Frame)

March 7, 2014

We live in an instant-gratification society, especially if you are five years old. “But I need it now!” is a phrase I’m becoming increasingly familiar with as Jackson becomes ever more able to express himself. The substitution of “need” for “want” is a wrinkle that initially surprised me, but clearly it comes from parental questions about whether he really “needs” that new toy. The adventure continues.

I was thinking of this, now versus later and need versus want, in light of the recent employment data. I wrote yesterday about ”snowdown” versus slowdown, and today’s stats emphasize my points. Employment gains were up, despite a snowstorm in early February, and this time, the establishment survey did better than the household, narrowing that gap. The unemployment rate rose slightly because more people were looking for work, which is a good thing. The slowdown fears arose from an excessive focus on short-term data.

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3/6/14 – U.S. Economy: More of a “Snowdown” than a Slowdown

March 6, 2014

This has been a terrible winter—long and brutal, with lots of snow and gray days. I don’t do winter well, but I normally don’t break until around February, which means I only have to tough it out for a little longer. This year, I broke in December. It’s been a long January and February, and it looks like it may be a long March as well.

This is not to announce that I’m moving to Florida (although the subject has come up at home), but to provide some context for the slowdown we’ve seen in many of the economic statistics. Employment has been the worst hit, but retail sales, housing, and durable goods sales (cars) have also shown some damage. The question has been, as we looked at the data, whether this is an actual slowdown in the recovery, and potentially the prelude to a recession, or just a short-term dip caused by the weather.

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3/5/14 – Pop/Drop/Pop: Is the Market Rational Vs. Is the Market Right

March 5, 2014

Over the past couple of days, we’ve seen the market pop (on Friday), drop (on Monday), and pop again (yesterday). Admittedly, there was some news there—the Russian invasion of the Crimea over the weekend—but still, pop/drop/pop seems a bit strange.

I was talking with a reporter the other day who asked me a very reasonable question: “Is there a rational reason for all this activity?” He clearly didn’t think so, and while I certainly saw his point, I took the side of a rational market: given the Russian invasion, it clearly made sense to take risk off the table, and then (in theory) to move back in when it seemed the invasion was over. In the short term, you can make a reasonable case that the market response was rational.

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Market Thoughts for March 2014 Video

March 4, 2014 

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3/4/14 – Back to the U.S. Budget

March 4, 2014

The Ukraine crisis appears to be stalled for now, with Putin—having made his point and essentially occupied the Crimea—deciding to hold there, while the Europeans determine how to proceed. This is probably where we will be for some time, and the markets seem to concur, as they have bounced right back. Move along, nothing to see here.

I don’t necessarily think this story is over, but for the moment, let’s return to a longer-term issue that I discussed on Friday, the U.S. budget deficit. The Congressional Budget Office’s projections are below.

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3/3/14 - Ukraine, Uncertainty, and the Financial Markets

March 3, 2014

Over the weekend, as you no doubt have heard, Russia reportedly executed a military takeover of the Crimea region of Ukraine in response to last week’s pro-Western revolution. Markets are reacting this morning to the immediate fact of Russia’s action. As investors, we need to think about the context and likely outcome of the immediate situation before we respond.

First, let’s consider whether this is a short- or long-term action. For all the talk of bringing pressure on Russia to reverse the situation, the reality is that the West’s ability to exert any kind of meaningful pressure is limited or nonexistent. Without actually committing military force, we cannot effect change. Europe depends on Russian natural gas to heat its homes and operate its economy; Russia remains a major oil supplier to world markets. It’s impossible to cut Russia off economically, since Europe and world markets depend on it too greatly. From a military perspective, it’s the area’s strongest power. There’s no clear course of action for the West.

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