Uncertainty and prediction

The world economy is an infinitely complicated web of interconnections. We each experience a series of direct economic interrelationships: the stores we buy from, the employer that pays us our salary, the bank that gives us a home loan, etc. But once we are two or three levels degrees separated, it’s impossible to really know with any confidence how the connections are working. That, in turn, shows what is unnerving about the economic calamity potentially accompanying the coronavirus.

In the years ahead we will learn what happens when that web is torn apart when millions of those links are destroyed all at once. It opens the possibility of a global economy quite different from the one that has prevailed in recent decades. Or, as John Kenneth Galbraith has said, “we have two classes of forecasters: those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know. “The bottom line is establishing and maintaining an unconventional investment profile requires acceptance of uncomfortably idiosyncratic portfolios, which frequently appear imprudent in the eyes of conventional wisdom. We are entering a new world and must think differently.

Building a Portfolio

Investments are typically analyzed singularly, and collection is considered a “portfolio.” This is a mistake because, while each investment has its own risk and return profile, the combination represents one single combined investment. In other words, a portfolio should be thought of as one investment with its own risk-adjusted return profile. That is, an investment with its own risk-adjusted return. It has dynamic components which consist of each investment within the portfolio. But a portfolio should not be viewed as a collection of investments with different risks.In thinking about where to invest, one of the most important components is to first think about the industry or sector where the company competes. It is important to target specific industries that are worth the investment. A great company within a mediocre sector is not worth the time. As an example, GE, once one of the world’s most valuable companies, has lost most of its market value because it competed in sectors, such as large turbines for energy generation, that were no longer attractive. It doesn’t matter if, according to GE’s standards, it was the number one or number two competitor in that sector. The sector is not worth the time. As it has now been shown, that matters more than how successfully one competes.Of course, it does matter how well a company competes once you chosen an attractive sector. An example here is Nvidia, a company that not only participated in an extremely attractive sector – specialized integrated circuits for intense processing, initially focused on gaining and then artificial intelligence – it competed effectively to become an industry sector leader. As a result, its value has increased almost 10 X in the last seven years.Different sectors have different risk components, and different companies competing within the sectors also have different risk profiles. It is appropriate to combine securities with different risk profiles, in both its sector and competitive position. Each of these companies can be thought of as a growth, defensive, cyclical, or stable investment, for example, depending on these different profiles.Fundamentally, a successful investment strategy combines companies competing successfully in attractive sectors offering unique risk-adjusted return when combined into a single portfolio. It is this investment strategy where the risk-adjusted return is superior. What do we mean by risk-adjusted return? A simple way to explain this is through an “S” curve, as demonstrated below. There is a relatively flat bottom increasing in degree and slope. Sometimes, the slope will increase at an increasing rate, a phenomenon known as “convexity.” We will discuss this later, but convexity is one of the key attributes to an attractive investment. But, as we can see, those returns begin to diminish as we approach a changing slope in the curve.There is a relative flattening at the top of the curve. This is true for every investment. The timescale may be different (attractive returns might be earned for a short time or, potentially, for decades, but, returns eventually flattened). There is no escape from this phenomenon.

Portfolio Strategy

The government is providing a backstop for all government-backed securities. The Fed is also going to be extremely active in the markets, buying not only fixed-income securities but also stock index funds. They are working very hard to keep the market aloft and preventing it from cratering (they still may not be successful). This is an election year and this administration will do everything it can to make sure things look as good as possible through November.
I understand there is riskiness, but I expect economic activity and fed support to continue to increase. Even if we have an increase in coronavirus cases, people will remain optimistic – justifiably or not.
There will be extreme volatility. Economic activity will waiver, increase suddenly, pull back, and the pattern will continue for some time to come.
Market volatility is our friend because we have a stable source of cash flow that protects our capital base. On top of that, the speculative strategy will profit from volatility while the equity investment strategy will play for the long term – it is a multi-year long-term perspective.

Although there are a handful of investments where confidence in the five-year curve is justified, and now is a great time to make these long-term investments, it is still very unpredictable.
The short- and long-term state of the economy, how this massive amount of debt gets repaid, how we reopen businesses, etc. is unknown, volatile, and any attempt to predict seems fruitless. But, understanding how to adjust for risk, accept, and ultimately take advantage of volatility, will be powerful. Along with a long-term perspective, this will be the most effective investment strategy. The Fed is printing more money. We’re going to see a lot of capital injected into the global economy. But the presence of money is not the important factor. It’s the velocity of money – how people are spending it and is that money chasing after other goods. That will drive inflation. We didn’t see it in the past even though we had a massive capital injection. Deflation and recession are much bigger concerns. Inflation is not on the horizon. The Fed’s enhanced bond-buying, which includes high-yield bonds and other fixed-income securities is unprecedented and has boosted the value of debt portfolios. However, these portfolios (mostly just above or just below investment grade) still yield attractive disproportionate risk-adjusted returns.