29th June 2021
We have written a great deal over the last few years on the wealth polarising effect of monetisation. Given the significant increase in the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet through the COVID19 lockdowns, therefore, it should come as no surprise that the portion of net worth owned by America’s wealthy has increased again – nearly a third of all net worth in the US is in the hands of the Top 1% (see figure 1).
The most often cited cause of this is the Fed’s impact (although they largely deny this) on the price of assets held mainly by the well-off. There are, however, more subtle drivers too. The swings seen in asset markets, due to both COVID in 2020, and the longer-term effect rising leverage has on market volatility, has made it more difficult for the less-well off to hold on. In a bear market, as John Pierpont Morgan somewhat cynically pointed out, “stocks return to their rightful owners” and so if bear markets come more often and more sharply, then the rate of repatriation will only accelerate.
This might explain why, as shown in figure 2, the ownership of corporate equities and mutual funds in the US has become even more concentrated than for other forms of wealth. More than a half of all business equity, held either directly or indirectly, is held by the top one per cent of all owners. A trend that looks set to accelerate.
It may not only come down to the capacity to sustain losses, however. As in all western countries, good advice comes at a price. At Equitile we are not financial advisers but we talk to many advisers through the course of our business. As we see it, the crucial value of a good adviser is support and encouragement when the market has a set-back. A good adviser is in the best position to help investors overcome their natural behavioural aversion to loss, and to help plan their broader finances to make this easier. With good personal advice now scarce and expensive for those of lesser means, the ability to sustain losses floats ever upwards.
One intriguing move by the top 1% is their move away from bonds. Their holdings of debt assets (figure 3) has fallen from more than 60% to 40% of all debt assets in the last two decade - they sold aggressively throughout the COVID crisis.
With real interest rates in the US the most negative since the 1970’s, the potential for capital destruction through financial repression, for bond holders at least, is rising sharply. Perhaps the top 1% know this instinctively, or perhaps they are just better advised.
9th March 2021
It’s five years since we wrote our inaugural investment letter, Eternal Adaptation. In it, we cited the corporate mantra of one of our first investments, a packaging company called Sonoco, “Change is an immutable law: eternal adaptation is the price of survival”. While many in the investment management industry consider a “buy and hold” investment philosophy to be a badge of honour, we believe it neglects the reality of economies and markets. As this thirty-year history of the US market shows, industries wax and wane, some arrive afresh and others disappear for good.
Moreover, as we wrote in Revival of the Fittest (2016), companies are living faster and dying younger. The average tenure in the S&P500 in 1960 was more than sixty years, today it’s closer to ten. Moreover, the concentration of cash flow amongst just a few companies is stark and the companies earning that cash flow are changing ever-more quickly. Between 2000 and 2015 less than 60% of companies in the top fifty by cash flow managed to stay there the following year. The odds, on that basis, of staying in the top-fifty cash earners for the whole fifteen years was 2,700:1 against. One should be more attentive than ever to a rapid change in fundamentals.
The lesson is simple but often neglected. Buy-and-hold is a comforting mantra, adapt-to-survive is more realistic.
As the chart shows, technology has been the biggest show in town for many years. In recent weeks, there’s been some reversal – the “old economy” heavy Dow Jones Industrial index has outperformed the tech-heavy Nasdaq by 11% in the last month for example. Does this mark a long-term change in market leadership? Possibly. If it does persist then we, at least, will adapt to the new regime.
21st August 2020
“He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters
Most media I read and hear these days talk about these “unprecedented times” as if none of what we witness today has been seen before.
I wonder if its more to do with language than reality though. Some words just work well in pairs when it comes to describing events - unforeseen circumstances, unchartered waters - but precedented times, for some reason, doesn’t have the same ring.
As George wrote a couple of years back in The Anxiety Machine – The end of the world isn’t nigh, the tendency of the press to report news in an overly dramatic fashion, generally with a strong negative bias, is natural. As humans, we suffer a powerful cognitive bias towards overly dramatic, overly negative narratives. We have evolved to survive and so will always be more attentive to threats than good news. It is only natural, therefore, for the attention hungry media to focus on negative stories during these “unprecedented times”.
Although the combination of events in 2020 is unique, none of them on their own are materially different from anything we have witnessed in the last 100 years. A browse through the history behind our long-range US stock market chart (just scroll over the lines) reveals the never-ending barrage of fear which investors face. War, natural disasters, pandemics, mass unemployment, trade wars, debt fears, political crises, military coups, despots, and obsoletion all feature. So, however, does human endeavour, enterprise, new technology, global collaboration and the economic enfranchisement of huge swathes of the fast-growing global population.
The lessons from this simple chart are clear. Despite the news, stay invested for the long term and, whenever possible, re-invest dividends (click on the Linear button for the full effect).
None of what we see today is without precedent. For sure, we are witnessing an unusual cocktail of economic and political phenomena but perhaps they would be better described, in the spirit of P.G. Wodhouse, as merely a little less than precedented.