Managing Risk in an upside-down world

Another week of craziness in the world, politics, and financial markets. A president steps down in Bolivia, soldiers on the street in Hong Kong, and of course, new all-time highs in some US equity markets. I try not to watch too much TV, but I couldn’t help but check in on a notable financial channel on Friday. I like to do this occasionally just to check in on sentiment and the prevailing narrative. The narrative was exactly as I expected. Basically that stocks will never go down and that NOW is the time to get in. Some things never change. What was particularly hilarious was a money manager saying that one needs to focus on the data rather than politics. It is funny when people opportunistically use extreme price action to rationalize a thesis, or as I like to say, simply “talk their book.” The other irony of the “data” narrative is the only data that really matters is the size of the Fed’s balance sheet and more importantly, how much that balance sheet is increasing due to QE operations.

To me, it feels like we are living in a version of Orwell’s 1984.

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

In other words, up is down, right is wrong, yes means no. I may sound overly pessimistic in this sense, so to be clear I am actually optimistic about the long term health of the economy. My concern rather is in the short to medium term (6 months to 2 years). Economic policy risk is near all-time highs. Investor complacency is at the most extreme level, ever. Some banks are so starved for liquidity that the Fed actually just increased its newest QE operation, again. I am not here to give you the full “gloom and doom” narrative, however. My preference is to be pragmatic and constructive in the face of uncertainty. Therefore how do we manage these risks? It is not to “sell everything” like many did in 2008/2009. To that point, and to the point of my previous post, it is prudent to “hedge” against a significant downturn. A tool that I recently discovered which is suitable for my needs is the Micro futures contract. This is after using multiple other methods to hedge over the years, all of which have various deficiencies. Options? You deal with time decay unless you are heavily in the money. Sell something short? You run the risk that the shares are called back by the exchange due to scarcity, forcing you to cover at a loss. Leveraged Inverse ETF’s? You lose money every day due to daily rebalancing that has the effect of a permanent time decay. How about regular futures contracts, or minis? Well, the leverage is enormous. One e-mini contract on the S&P 500, for example, has 50x leverage! This means that every point is worth $50 per contract purchased. Wow.

The broader point is that managing risk is not just hedging or identifying the correct thesis, it is also the size of the hedge as a percentage of your liquid assets. Therefore the micro futures contract offers the huge benefit of trading only a slice (1/10th) of the most liquid equity index futures. For example, one point in the S&P 500 equals $5 per contract rather than $50. Below is a snapshot of the most current contracts (December):

I hope this helps alleviate some of the fears and “exoticness” of using futures as an investment tool. It does for me, and I can still sleep well at night!

Disclaimer: This is NOT investment advice, but rather an idea that works for me and my own risk tolerance.

Treasury Direct – Front run the Fed and QE4

Will QE ever end?

The Fed recently announced the restart of permanent open market operations or QE4, but amusingly said not to call it QE (quantitative easing). There is a question as to exactly what securities the Fed will be purchasing, but current speculation revolves around Treasury Bills to start. Whatever the case may be, the Fed will begin to expand its balance sheet again after a short stint of reducing it followed by leveling. What does this mean? For starters, it means the Fed is concerned about liquidity conditions in the market. “Liquidity” for our purpose means selling an asset for available short term cash without substantively affecting its price. In this case, the assets are US Treasury bills, notes, and bonds. When large banks are starved for cash, they are reluctant to buy other assets such as US Treasurys. Enter the Fed as the buyer of last resort, an entity that waves its magic wand to create digital ones and zeros to add to its balance sheet. It is kind of like a game of three-card Monte between the US Treasury, large banks, and the Fed.

Look for banks to get very stingy about the interest it pays to its customers. Of course, this is nothing new. One way banks make money is by “net interest margin”, where they lend out money at a higher interest then they pay on deposits. Below are examples of savings and CD rates for a large bank who will not be named.

Savings rates
CD rates

The savings rates are self-explanatory and laughable. I mean, 0.08% IF you have a relationship (other accounts or loans) on $100,000-$249,999? LOL. CD’s (certificates of deposit) are equally as miserable if not more so. Lock up your money for 3-5 months and we will give you a whopping 0.02% interest IF you have a relationship. A CD at 9-11 months is where things get interesting with an offered rate of 1.75% for an amount between $10,000-$99,999. Sounds great, right? Wrong, which brings us to the point of this post. Why invest with banks when you can invest directly with the Treasury at much better terms? For the moment I am ignoring “online” banks and credit unions that offer special promotional rates on small balances up to 10-15K (Beware of the fine print in such cases, AND the ability to get your money back in a liquidity crunch). What I am referring to is directly investing in US Treasury Bills, Notes, or Bonds via

Using the example of the 9-11 month CD at 1.73%, you can get a similar rate by investing in a 1 month T-bill!! Meaning you only have to tie up your money for 1 month instead of 9 months to get the same return. Additionally, you get the ultimate safety of investing directly in US securities, bypassing banks, and you get the buy the exact same thing the Fed will buy before the Fed buys it.

Recent Treasury Bill Rates, from 1 month to 1 year

Investing directly with the Treasury is quite simple and much less intimidating than one might think. First, set up an account profile and link a bank account. Then, click on “Buy Direct”.

You will then come to a screen with options in which you can invest. Treasurys, Savings bonds, and a Zero-Percent Certificate of Indebtedness (basically a checking account with the Treasury that pays no interest). In this case, we are selecting Treasury Bills which are short term securities with a term of 1 year or less.

I will not include all of the remaining screens, but from there you will be shown a list of upcoming auctions when you can buy, and confirm the amount of purchase. There is also an option to reinvest repeatedly after the term expires. For example, you can re-invest in 1-month bills automatically for 6 months or longer if you so desire.

The benefits of using Treasury Direct are numerous:

  • Bypass banks to get better rates and terms
  • Ultimate safety of the US Treasury
  • A zero-interest C of I option (will become very, very valuable if and when US banks start charging customers interest like in the EU)
  • Invest alongside the biggest financial institutions in the world

Comment or email with questions. Thank you and have a great day!

Wealth vs. Income

Another source of confusion amongst the media and the general population is equating income with wealth. This includes politicians, who often espouse rhetoric that defines “rich” as a family who makes above a certain income level. As we have discussed previously, when you go to a job to earn income, you are simply trading your time and energy for currency. The currency can then be saved, invested, or spent. Wealth refers to the total accumulated assets held by a person or household at a single point in time.

The mindset that income represents wealth has distilled down to normal transactions that occur in our lives. When you purchase a house, a realtor asks “What is your price range”? A home lender then wants to know your income to determine what debt payment you can afford. Disturbingly, people often want to know the maximum debt payment for which they qualify. Instead, they should be asking what they require in a house, i.e. the number of bedrooms, stories, acreage, amenities, etc. This backward thought process has also consumed vehicle purchases. It was recently reported that about a third of auto loans taken out on new vehicles in the first half of 2019 were for terms of 6 years or longer! In other words, people have decided to stretch out loan terms to have a payment they can “afford” to create the illusion of being wealthy by virtue of a nice car. Basically, one will still be making payments on a rapidly depreciating asset while they are making necessary maintenance repairs well after the warranty expires. In short, peak insanity.

We have an entire generation of people that have grown up with this mindset, and worse, think that it is normal and acceptable. It is not. The foundation of building wealth has been and will continue to be living within your means. What I describe above is the antithesis of that. Some questions to ponder when shopping for your next house or car. In the case of a house, can you make a 30-50% down payment instead of the normal 20% or less? Have you considered that the total cost of homeownership is 30-40% more than just your mortgage payment and taxes? When buying a car, have you considering buying used rather than new? Can you pay cash for the entire purchase? If the answer to any of the above questions is no, you may want to reconsider.

2nd Day of school and flat yield curve

Today is my older son’s second day of school, and I am just starting to reap the rewards of the extra time available. Don’t get me wrong, I love hanging out with him and enjoyed our summer immensely, but it is nice to have 6-8 hours to myself again.

I want to comment on the markets today, and more specifically yesterday and the drop we experienced in the equity market as it relates to the “inverted yield curve”. The yield curve is simply a curve showing several yields at various lengths of time for a similar debt instrument. It “normally” looks something like this:

“normal yield curve”

Yesterday, however, the yield on 2 year treasury was higher than the yield on the 30 year. In other words the curve has “inverted”. What this means, generally, is that investors have low growth expectations for the future. The news outlets seem to attribute yesterday’s inversion to the 800 point drop on the Dow, however it is my contention that this was merely semantical as the curve has been “flattish” or nearly inverted for some time now. The Fed plays a huge part in this of course and where we are at now which I will explain in another post.

The point of this post is simply that the “bond market” has been screaming recession for a while now, and the equity market is just slower to react.