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January 2021 Performance Review

February 7, 2021

In a month in which individual stocks entered what can only be described as a crazed bubble fueled by chat room manipulators, it was a calm month for bonds and stocks as a whole.

Our Conservative portfolio gained 0.36% and our Aggressive portfolio gained 0.20%. Benchmark Vanguard fund performances in January 2021 were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), down 1.01%; Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX), down 0.80%; Vanguard Developed Mkts Index (VTMGX), down 1.18%; Vanguard Emerging Mkts Index (VEIEX), up 2.93%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, up 0.00%. That is not a typo. The fund had a freakish zero return, correct to two decimal places. Maybe it was up or down .0001%.

In previous months we've seen big swings up and down in various fund categories, but recently things have calmed down somewhat. In January the biggest gainers were funds investing in energy or stocks in China, which were both up only around 5%. The worst category was Latin American funds, down just over 7%. We own funds in all three categories but were approximately flat for the month in our portfolios, which was a solid result relative to benchmarks. We hope it sets the tone for 2021.

It appears that all of the investment areas that have been lagging big-cap technology and growth are starting to catch up, while bigger U.S. stocks plateau at high levels. This has helped us in recent weeks, but it is leading to high valuations in many areas and might warrant a cut to our overall stock allocation. We've benefited from cutting way back on non-inflation adjusted bonds, as inflation-adjusted bonds are doing well now due to investors' fears of future inflation growth. This may lead us back to regular bond funds, which have had a lousy last few months and are becoming attractively priced (or relatively so, in a world in which nothing is particularly attractively priced).

You can't help but notice the massive speculative frenzy that seems to have moved from cryptocurrencies — now a bubble of over one trillion dollars — into businesses with questionable futures, such as mall-based video game retailer GameStop (GME) and movie chain operator AMC Entertainment (AMC). These stocks have been pumped but supposedly not dumped (at least, not by the new day traders as a group) in a likely ill-fated attempt to 'squeeze' professional short-sellers (and probably some ordinary gamblers) who have taken out massive short positions (selling stock they don't own and planning to buy back later at a lower price).

This is all mildly amusing; who doesn't want to see a small investor steal from a billionaire hedge fund manager? The scheme seems to be to profit by causing massive losses to the shorts having to cover their positions (buying shares back at a much higher price), allowing the day trader chat room mob to exit at higher prices. This last part is foggy.

While all this has made the shorting of likely business failures (the future Blockbusters and RadioShacks) a dangerous game, the mob's path to the exit seems questionable. New hedge funds may enter the trade, leaving the total short position unchanged as weaker hands exit (if funds exit at all, as some seem to be raising money to fight the chat roomers). There have also been reports of other hedge funds making hundreds of millions on the way up. Most recently, many of these so-called meme stocks (or stonks as they are known in chat room stock slang) have crashed back to earth. This raises the question — did hedge funds as a group make money on moves up and down, and were the actual manipulators crushed?

This new casinofication of investing (which frankly always had a casino element) is some sort of perfect storm brewing. Its causes include COVID-19 lockdowns, reduced opportunities for sports betting, and the increasing popularity of pocket casino investing at Robinhood, the millennials' app that encourages speculation by delivering 'free' trading with very unfree margin to small investor-gamblers.

Nothing is entirely new here, of course; just more, much more. In the late 1990s the SEC went after teenagers for pumping worthless penny stocks in chat rooms (on Yahoo and Raging Bull in those days, not Reddit) while Wall Street did its own questionable manipulating of hot dot-com IPOs.

The media and politicians seem to be siding with and promoting a David vs. Goliath story, while ignoring the probability of collapse when a company's prospects don't grow with its inflated stock price. (This is one problem Bitcoin gamblers don't have.) Then there is the possibility that illegal stock manipulation, long the preserve of big-time stock crooks, may have been carried out by other individuals who are finally getting their turn. While many large hedge funds are at least semi-crooked, such Ivan Boesky grade stock schemes are not the source of much of the gains.

The same media and politicians have largely ignored how Robinhood, the new day traders' favorite brokerage firm, chose a name for itself that implies the opposite of what it does, which is taking from the poor and giving to the rich. This includes profiting from bad price execution with kickbacks on 'free' trades (something all brokers do, but generally to a lesser extent), high margin costs, and lending short-sellers the very shares its customers want to boost, for sometimes huge lending fees (not shared with customers).

The media attention and the pending investigations seem to be about mysterious dark forces supposedly asking Robinhood to freeze trading in order to help the shorts. This is about as likely to be true as all the other mysterious global big-money conspiracies to be found on the internet. To be fair to Robinhood, they are responsible for the new zero commission world we all live in, which is a good thing, if you are mindful of the pitfalls.

If it seems to you that investing has become more about dodging conspiracy theories and investment bubbles, that's because it has. The last major boom in chat room stock bubbles didn't end well for the stock market in general. It fell just over 50%, while the hot stocks fell 80% or more, and the penny stocks went to zero, as all penny stocks eventually do.

There are two problems now. Unlike in 1999, you can't get 5% in safe bonds as an alternative to stocks. You have to make do with what will likely turn out to be a negative inflation-adjusted return. And while the biggest gains during a bubble are made just before it pops, we don't know if we are in the equivalent of early 1999 or late 1999. There is a fairly feasible story that we may be in for a post WW2-grade boom when COVID-19 restrictions dissipate that could drive stocks even higher.

Stock Funds1mo %
Franklin FTSE China (FLCH)8.43%
Vanguard Energy (VDE)4.96%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX)2.93%
VanEck Vectors Pharma. (PPH)2.92%
Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR)2.18%
Vanguard Small-Cap Value (VBR)2.04%
Vanguard FTSE Developed Mkts. (VEA)-0.72%
ProShares Short QQQ (PSQ)-0.76%
Vanguard Value Index (VTV)-0.79%
Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK)-0.90%
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)-1.01%
Vanguard Utilities (VPU)-1.04%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)-1.06%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX)-1.18%
Franklin FTSE Germany (FLGR)-1.18%
Franklin FTSE Brazil (FLBR)-7.46%
ProShares Decline of Retail (EMTY)-12.48%
Bond Funds1mo %
Vanguard S/T Infl. Protect. (VTIP)0.47%
Schwab US TIPS (SCHP)0.29%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)-0.80%
iShares JP Morgan Em. Bond (LEMB)-1.06%

December 2020 Performance Review

January 6, 2021

What a year. The market doesn't typically (as in basically never) drop as far as it did early this year only to gain back the losses and end the year with gains.

In one of few months of the year we were proud of, in December our Conservative portfolio gained 3.34% and our Aggressive portfolio gained 3.86%. Benchmark Vanguard funds for December 2020 were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), up 3.85%; Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX), up 0.15%; Vanguard Developed Mkts Index (VTMGX), up 5.81%; Vanguard Emerging Mkts Index (VEIEX), up 5.89%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total globally balanced portfolio, up 3.62%.

Usually such slides take longer to drop and even longer to fully recover. This is the fastest recovery to new highs since the 1990 slide, which was only down 20%—not the nearly 40% we just saw. The closest parallel was the 1987 market with a short 30%+ bear market featuring a one day crash of 20% but with a positive year overall for stocks — though new highs took more than a year.

But then usually the Federal Reserve doesn't create trillions of dollars of new money to support panicked debt markets and the government doesn't send checks out to basically every American and incur trillions in deficit spending. It almost seems that Great Depressions are a thing of the past, like high inflation, or even short-term interest rates above 2%. All in, the total US market actually picked up about $6 trillion in total value for the year to a record of roughly 185% of the US GDP of $22 trillion, or $40 trillion.

How did we create $6 trillion in market value in a Covid economy? Well, 10% of that figure is basically due to the performance of Tesla (TSLA) alone—a bubble in a bubble. Beyond that, the Federal Reserve created around $3.2 trillion in new money and the federal government incurred about the same amount in pure deficit spending, largely financed by said Fed and global investors. We're not alone — other major economies are doing basically the same thing.

As much new money was created from the 2008 crash to last year in only about four months this year. This isn't an anti-Fed rant—if they can stop a depression and not cause massive inflation they are doing yeoman's work even if the end game is looking more and more like MMT or Modern Monetary Theory, in which the Fed basically says, "F it, we're never shrinking this balance sheet; in fact, the government doesn't owe us any interest either on these bonds we purchased with new money—we waive it." The bigger worry is how we pay for the stimulus spending: the $3.2 trillion in deficit spending this year is about 10 times last year's (pre-Covid) corporate tax take by the US Treasury. The government only takes in about $1.8 billion in income taxes per year, which means that we're not paying it off with tax revenues. Perversely, nobody seems to be as angry like they were in 2009 when the US borrowed half as much to fight the last economic crisis.

For the year our Conservative portfolio was up a pretty solid 10.4%. Because bonds were hit hard in the slide, we were down just over 20% peak to bottom, which can be compared to the S&P 500 sliding around 34% (the Dow and many foreign markets where down more). The S&P 500 with dividends as measured by VFINX was up an amazing 18.36% for 2020 (thanks mostly to tech and growth stocks). Our Vanguard Value Index was up just 2.28% for the year. That is a growth-to-value stock gap of 1999 proportions. We know where that went for growth stocks in 2000 of course—it was eventually over 50% down. We moved our Vanguard Growth ETF Vanguard Growth ETF (VUG) too soon—the fund delivered 40.22% for the year. Amazing. Our Aggressive portfolio had a terrible year, up only 4.9%, which of course seems good in a recession year until you look at the stock market. We didn't even miss as much downside as we did in all the past bear markets because bonds tanked as well (briefly) and the quick rebound in stocks wiped out our shorts, which were in the wrong areas to boot. Our 25% slide top to bottom in our Aggressive Portfolio wasn't enough downside protection in the absence of big upside here, frankly.

Until the end of the year we were lagging with a too low-risk portfolio that was too light on US growth stocks. We were prepared for the recession and a 50% stock slide that never came, but certainly not for a recession with record stock highs. Near the end of the year, our holdings picked up as investors starting piling into laggards and the US dollar started to slide harder. Ideally for our portfolios vs the S&P 500, we'll get some sort of 2000 crash 2.0 in which tech slides and foreign and value does relatively alright. This is likely wishful thinking in a Covid- stimulus-driven zero rate market.

In December, momentum was building in some areas that have way underperformed but are now leading—this is largely why our returns are coming back. Latin American funds, still down over 15% for the year, were up 11.29% for the month. Small cap value funds , barely positive on the year with a 4% return, were up 7.41% for the month. Foreign stocks and energy stocks also led the charge. The weakest areas were safer bonds with little to no credit risk, up around a half of a percent in December. Inflation-protected bonds did well as inflation fears continued to boost their price, which means that if inflation comes in lower than 2% in coming years, returns will be worse than the already-likely-to-be-poor returners because of low rates on regular treasury bonds. We may have to exit or cut back here but—and this is the dilemma that is pushing stocks ever higher—what to buy? Certainly not tech stocks, which just did a 56% year and a 7%+ month. It is mesmerizing how this area went from completely dominant in the late 2000s to a crash to mostly lagging after the value boom of the mid 2000s fizzled—now, they are once again at the top of the long-term charts.

Our hottest funds last month were Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR), up 13.58%, and Franklin FTSE Brazil (FLBR), up 12.33%. South Korea is clearly doing well fighting Covid, but the other, out of favor after a terrible decade (which followed an amazing decade), not so much. It almost had to go up. In bonds, all of our funds beat the bond index last month because rising risk tolerance lifted iShares JP Morgan Em. Bond (LEMB) 3.59%, while our safe inflation-protected bonds benefited from rising inflation fears, which boosts prices even with no change in actual interest rates. Our bond portfolio is now at risk of declines should there be another slide in the economy typically causing renewed fears of deflation.

Falling inflation expectations would hit our inflation indexed bond funds harder than regular government bond funds which benefit from falling rates and inflation. Our emerging market bond fund has credit risk and performs poorly in a downturn, though had the potential to do well as it has with renewed hunting for yield by investors.

There are two main possible future scenarios from here, each of which has wildly differing outcomes.

One is a return to normalcy, in which is that the virus is kicked out the door by vaccines and by an increasing percentage of people who receive immunity the risky and old fashioned way—by catching it. Under this scenario, everybody will be so gaga to get out and do stuff with trillions of stimulus dollars floating around and negative interest rates, and we will be off to the races (until the bills come due years later). A boom and an even bigger bubble!

Another is that we don't get a handle on the virus because we don't get to high levels of immunity fast enough, and we never fully get out of semi-shutdown mode, and those with previous immunity from vaccines or infection lose slowly lose immunity.. In this world, bailouts will eventually no longer be affordable, as the lack of proper targeting, waste, and outright fraud from previous spending catches up with us. Crash! 50%+ down!

Then there is sort of the default, in which nothing changes and we earn pretty paltry dividends. The alternative is negative inflation-adjusted returns from cash and bonds…


Stock Funds1mo %
Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR)13.58%
Franklin FTSE Brazil (FLBR)12.33%
Vanguard Small-Cap Value (VBR)6.80%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX)5.89%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX)5.81%
Vanguard FTSE Developed Mkts. (VEA)5.63%
Vanguard Energy (VDE)5.30%
Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK)5.02%
Franklin FTSE Germany (FLGR)3.98%
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)3.85%
Vanguard Value Index (VTV)3.50%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)2.77%
VanEck Vectors Pharma. (PPH)2.20%
Franklin FTSE China (FLCH)2.01%
Vanguard Utilities (VPU)0.91%
ProShares Decline of Retail (EMTY)-3.44%
ProShares Short QQQ (PSQ)-4.88%
Bond Funds1mo %
iShares JP Morgan Em. Bond (LEMB)3.59%
Schwab US TIPS (SCHP)1.25%
Vanguard S/T Infl. Protect. (VTIP)0.97%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)0.15%

November 2020 Performance Review

December 4, 2020

So much for the election causing trouble for the market. It was a good month all around for basically everything, with over a 10% rise in the S&P 500—and that was on the low end of global stocks. The news of multiple COVID vaccines saving us from perpetual shutdowns is likely a big part of the excitement. As discussed here recently, the stock market is in some form of a bubble, and perhaps investors just wanted to get this election hysteria out of the way to get back to the business of growth stock, speculating on the (reverse) Robinhood app, which ultimately will facilitate stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. Easy margin gambling from a phone is probably not going to create a world of millennial millionaires any more than day trading in the late 1990s did.

In such a can't-lose market, our Conservative portfolio gained 7.58% and our Aggressive portfolio gained 9.42%. Benchmark Vanguard funds for November 2020 were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), up 10.95%; Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX), up 1.11%; Vanguard Developed Mkts Index (VTMGX), up 14.78%; Vanguard Emerging Mkts Index (VEIEX), up 8.22%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, up 9.72%.

Considering our Conservative portfolio in real money is currently only around 46% stock funds and our Aggressive portfolio about 68% stocks before deducting inverse ETFs in the Aggressive portfolio that take it down to effectively 62%-ish, this was a pretty good month relatively. The shift away from US big-cap tech to other areas abroad and to smaller-cap value stocks may be here in much the way the 2000 peak was really the end of a tech and growth stock bubble.

One area boosting our returns last month was energy, with Vanguard Energy (VDE) up 28% (yet still down from our purchase) as investors in this sector flip-flop between peak oil fears and a permanent reduction in air travel and the idea that the economy is going to boom from a stimulus and low rates driving up energy consumption. One thing is for sure: if Tesla really does deserve the recent $565 billion market cap, then oil companies, as well as many auto companies, need to start going out of business soon because everybody can't be worth their current valuations together.

Perversely, if Tesla is successful, boring old utilities companies could be the new energy companies. Fortunately, we own Vanguard Utilities (VPU) as well, though it was our least impressive stock fund last month—up an anemic 1.43% (after a decent run). Perhaps that is the seesaw—oil companies vs. electric utilities.

Foreign stocks were where the real action was, even though COVID and its resulting economic problems are fast becoming global again. Foreign stocks in general where up about 14% last month, with our newish holding Franklin FTSE Brazil (FLBR) up 24.06%, followed by Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR) up 18.38%. Our Vanguard Small-Cap Value (VBR) holding was up 17.42%, even more than larger-cap value stocks, which lifted Vanguard Value Index (VTV) up 12.76%.

To get an idea of how strong this growth-over-value boom has been recently, the 3-year annualized return on current holding Vanguard Value Index (VTV) is just 6.63% while the growth version Vanguard Growth ETF (VUG), a formerly popular ETF with us, is up 22.08% annualized. We clearly got out of growth (back in 2016-ish) too soon and missed the most exciting part of the bubble—the end. We bought Vanguard Growth ETF (VUG) in 2007 and owned several large-cap growth funds for years, but bailed for value too soon. We used to own the XLK tech ETF if you really want to cry about leaving a party too soon…

Bonds are a dangerous area with little room for capital gains and minimal yield, though significantly higher rates for long periods of time are almost equally unlikely as the world is now priced for low rates. The only real question is just how negative the returns will be adjusting for inflation—do we get 2% inflation on a 1% yield bond or 4% inflation on a 2% bond? Without much yield available, our only risky bond fund iShares JP Morgan Em. Bond (LEMB) had a good month, with a 4.82% gain, though much of this was just our dollar sinking relative to foreign currencies, a situation which appears to be accelerating. Much of the early 2000s' outperformance of foreign funds was based on a falling dollar as well.

It is really hard to just say stocks are overpriced because with negative inflation-adjusted low rates the moon is almost the limit. If you could borrow for 10 years at around 1%-3% (and many can) you can pretty much finance the debt cost with the cash flow from most successful corporations; in other words, if you borrowed a few billion dollars and bought a company, the chances of that not working out is slim. This is sort of like saying home prices are high now, but if you can get a loan at 2.75% and a tenant can cover all the costs of ownership including debt payments, is real estate expensive?

Playing the three bubbles works like this: imagine you had a $1M house with no loan that you plan on living in for 30+ years—you could borrow, say, $700k at maybe 2.75% and just buy a stock index fund and use the (low tax) dividends of 1.65%-ish plus some sales of maybe 3.25% of capital each year (until stock dividends grow to exceed the entire fixed mortgage payment) to finance the entire (often deductible) mortgage payment.

The only way you won't own a large portfolio worth millions in 30 years, paid for by a bank, is if you have to move or sell stocks after a drop or we get deflation in everything but your fixed mortgage payments. No wonder the Fed is printing money like a drunken sailor who somehow got a job printing money without a solid background in monetary policy in practice and theory.

How it all goes down from this very rational stock, bond, and real estate bubble is either rates go higher (not very likely) or simply the fear of losing 25%-75% fast in stocks takes over and everybody wants out (more likely) or the earnings (or rent in the real estate example) start to go down over time or deflate—the real depression scenario we've thus far avoided in 2008 and 2020.

So far the Fed seems ready to create as much money as possible to prevent that from happening. Maybe it will work with stocks and bonds, but how do you create enough money to rationalize paying ever-higher rents in a city with falling wages and occupancy levels without massive inflation? Stocks and bonds are easy to sell fast, so the panic button crash is more likely than in real estate, but real estate earnings are more at risk than stock earnings in this pandemic economic reshuffle.

Perhaps this bubble is really just money going places to not get watered down by the new money being created. Are we that far off from a (perhaps utopian) future where the government just creates money each month and distributes it to everyone to spend from their homes on goods and services from perpetually profitable companies that are so efficient we never get inflation, even with most workers on their sofas? If not now, perhaps with a robot workforce that can always produce more to meet demand. If all we buy is digital content, do old theories about supply and demand and prices even matter?

Stock Funds1mo %
Vanguard Energy (VDE)28.04%
Franklin FTSE Brazil (FLBR)24.06%
Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR)18.38%
Vanguard Small-Cap Value (VBR)17.42%
Franklin FTSE Germany (FLGR)16.74%
Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK)16.39%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX)14.78%
Vanguard FTSE Developed Mkts. (VEA)14.30%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)13.10%
Vanguard Value Index (VTV)12.76%
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)10.95%
VanEck Vectors Pharma. (PPH)10.41%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX)8.22%
Franklin FTSE China (FLCH)2.89%
Vanguard Utilities (VPU)1.43%
ProShares Short QQQ (PSQ)-10.57%
ProShares Decline of Retail (EMTY)-15.18%
Bond Funds1mo %
iShares JP Morgan Em. Bond (LEMB)4.82%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)1.11%
Schwab US TIPS (SCHP)1.10%
Vanguard S/T Infl. Protect. (VTIP)0.59%

October 2020 Performance Review

November 6, 2020

In the three months to the end of October, the market was slightly down. Historically (almost 9 times out of 10), this correlates very well with the incumbent party losing the White House. This sort of makes gut sense: if stocks are dropping, there may be issues in the economy, and voters seek change when the economy is weak. With Biden on the edge of a win, you can chalk up another success for stocks predicting the outcome of elections. While not scientific, it's probably a better indicator than any number of expert predictions or even polling, in some cases. For the record, Hillary Clinton was leading in the polls in 2016, but the stock market was down before the election—and we all know about that surprise turnout. October was weak for both stocks and bonds.

Our Conservative portfolio declined 1.71% , and our Aggressive portfolio declined 1.19%. Benchmark Vanguard funds for October 2020 were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), down 2.66%; Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX), down 0.61%; Vanguard Developed Mkts Index (VTMGX), down 3.73%; Vanguard Emerging Mkts Index (VEIEX), up 1.94%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, down 0.96%.

We don't want to over-analyze political correlations with stocks, but some goings-on are worth noting, especially since the stock market took a strange turn to the upside in early November, even given the oddities of this election developing results.

As for the three-month market indicator being right again, if any year would have made this indicator worthless, this was it, given the wild gyrations from pandemic shutdowns and massive stimulus programs by the White House and Federal Reserve. The recent huge climb from the abyss to new records (at least for larger cap growth stocks) was probably due for a fall back anyway.

In the days right before the election and during the election on November 3, the market started to take off—presumably on the assumption that Biden would win and that with Congress and the Senate going blue all sorts of massive stimulus programs would be passed. On top of massive Federal reserve support, stocks seem to like that. Note that the market doesn't really care much about 10 to 20 years down the road when such programs have to be paid for, or maybe the market figures we'll be inflating our way out of this mess and that could also be good for stocks, especially companies with debt.

It appears Biden is winning by only a squeaker and the Democrats seemed to have lost the chance to gain real power though the Senate, even losing seats in the House. Remarkably, the stock market took this as a great thing because it basically means all Trump-era policy is locked in place and we won't see a truly massive stimulus (just a massive one by, say, 2009 standards). This means low corporate taxes as well as low income taxes for all brackets are here to stay, at least until some expire years from now. It doesn't seem to bother anyone that this is a long-term disaster, financially speaking, with no major spending cuts or offsetting tax increases. Interest rates are heading back down, perhaps because without the truly massive spending plan that was being hatched by Democrats there is ample demand to buy just a few trillion a year in extra borrowing.

But if the market likes a Biden win, with our without full power, then it would have liked a Trump win losing power in the Senate as well. What about a Trump win with full control of both houses? Maybe the market just wanted to go up because really we are in a speculative bubble now, and without major riots in the streets or double-digit unemployment the drift is up, up, and away. This is how crashes happen.

In our portfolios, our only upside (not including short funds) last month was in small cap stocks, utilities with newly added Vanguard Utilities (VPU) up 4.89%, and—of all places—China, with Franklin FTSE China (FLCH) up 5.01%. Vanguard Small-Cap Value (VBR) gained 3.14%. Perhaps the great turnaround after years of large cap growth outperformance is upon us. With all the momentum and Covid economic benefits to big tech, this could be too soon, but then stocks tend to move before reality catches up.

We had some fairly large losses abroad as a resurgence in Covid cases leads to new lockdowns. Franklin FTSE Germany (FLGR) was down 10.28% as the formerly reasonably successful Covid fighter slipped. Europe in general was weak, with Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK) down 5.42%. It is possible our political stalemate and slow grind to economic disaster will start hurting the dollar again and boosting foreign holdings, but with trouble abroad this may not materialize. All of our bond funds were down, but by less than 1%.

Bottom line: stocks seem to love low interest rates (actually negative adjusting for recent inflation in many cases) and huge deficit spending and couldn't care less about the longer-term problems we're creating. This could all be very wishful thinking by investors not considering the risks of political gridlock going into what could be a very dicey winter with the economy and Covid. Perhaps we did stumble into the best possible situation. Historically, stocks do best with a Democrat in the White House and 10 of the last 11 recessions happened with a Republican as president. You have to go to the 1800s to find a Republican who didn't have a recession in their first term. These patterns could be coincidences and don't seem to match the generally pro-business policies from Republicans.

Stock Funds1mo %
Franklin FTSE China (FLCH)5.01%
Vanguard Utilities (VPU)4.89%
Vanguard Small-Cap Value (VBR)3.14%
ProShares Short QQQ (PSQ)2.36%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX)1.94%
Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR)-0.62%
ProShares Decline of Retail (EMTY)-1.12%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)-1.25%
Vanguard Value Index (VTV)-1.82%
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)-2.66%
Franklin FTSE Brazil (FLBR)-3.25%
Vanguard Energy (VDE)-3.47%
Vanguard FTSE Developed Mkts. (VEA)-3.55%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX)-3.73%
VanEck Vectors Pharma. (PPH)-4.86%
Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK)-5.42%
Franklin FTSE Germany (FLGR)-10.28%
Bond Funds1mo %
Vanguard S/T Infl. Protect. (VTIP)-0.20%
iShares JP Morgan Em. Bond (LEMB)-0.38%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)-0.61%
Schwab US TIPS (SCHP)-0.65%

September 2020 Performance Review

October 2, 2020

Recurring COVID economic fears on top of political uncertainly started to weigh on markets again. Until recently, markets had been acting as if the worst was well behind us, and it was just a question of how fast the recovery was going to be.

Our Conservative portfolio declined 2.12% and our Aggressive portfolio declined 3.29%. Benchmark Vanguard fund performances for September 2020 were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), down 3.80%; Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBMFX), up 0.08%; Vanguard Developed Markets Index Fund (VTMGX), down 2.01%; Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index (VEIEX), down 1.67%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, down 1.88%.

Our recent trades didn't help much as there was real weakness in many areas that have had the worst returns of the last decade or so, relative to US larger cap stocks. This includes small cap value, energy funds, and many emerging markets, notably newly-added Brazil Franklin FTSE Brazil ETF (FLBR). Basically, anything that was popular with investors about 10—15 years ago has had a terrible 10—15 years.

We've been adding these long-term underperformers recently and getting out of any remaining larger cap growth or tech-oriented funds. In hindsight we started this transition way too early. Energy was the only fund category down by double digits last month as oil prices weakened, as did expectations for any sort of demand recovery in the future. Our new 2020 pick Vanguard Energy (VDE) was down a whopping 14.77% in this environment. Even the dollar started to edge back, dragging on most foreign markets priced here in dollars.

The only real shining area in our portfolios is South Korea, which is booming, with a 45% return since we added it in April and a 2.42% rise last month. It wasn't enough to help our otherwise lackluster returns in this strange COVID market, where mostly U.S. tech stocks lead the way and are benefiting from the losses in the less digital economy. This issue is global, as most countries don't have our country's dominance in digital. In many ways they are more exposed to falling earnings due to COVID, even though many countries are doing a better job than us of managing the outbreak and the shutdowns.

There is a sad zero-sum game going on because of COVID. Entire industries, particularly those related to travel, are losing most of their revenues to the COVID winners. It is not even a zero-sum game, as the entire economy is smaller than it was at the beginning of the year. This is why some of these stock moves up, even with the winners, are overblown. The entire market cap should be down, along with GDP. The winners' stock prices are gaining more than the losers are losing, and it can't go on forever.

Stock Funds1mo %
Franklin FTSE South Korea ETF (FLKR)2.42%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX)-1.67%
Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets (VEA)-1.78%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX)-2.01%
Franklin FTSE China ETF (FLCH)-2.09%
Vanguard Value ETF (VTV)-2.24%
Franklin FTSE Germany ETF (FLGR)-2.82%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)-2.87%
Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK)-3.09%
VanEck Vectors Pharmaceutical (PPH)-3.66%
Vanguard Small-Cap Value (VBR)-3.73%
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)-3.80%
Vanguard Energy (VDE)-14.77%
Bond Funds1mo %
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)0.08%
Vanguard Short Term Inflation Prote (VTIP)-0.18%
Schwab US TIPS (SCHP)-0.31%
iShares JP Morgan Em. Bond (LEMB)-1.09%


September 16, 2020

We placed a few trades in both our model portfolios late on Friday, September 11th. The relatively minor changes were primarily to shift us out of some areas that had been hot and to add some lagging stock categories.

The rebound in stocks from the crash levels earlier this year has been a little too fast and furious, even adjusting for the low interest rates—if you can ever really adjust for low interest rates! This issue is particularly a problem with U.S. technology stocks, which are rapidly getting expensive, even beyond what incredibly successful near monopolies can be worth with near zero interest rates.

In our Conservative portfolio, we added a 5% stake in Vanguard Utilities ETF (VPU), a previous holding that has lagged recently relative to the tech-fueled stock market and is now worth buying again given its yield of around 3.4%, which should be inflatable over time and is very attractive compared to bonds today. You could get a higher yield in energy stocks (which we still own), but these represent a riskier yield. Real estate fund dividends aren't as attractive either and are possibly the most at risk of serious trouble as we possibly approach a once-in-a-generation downward adjustment to rents—at least in cities. We also dumped our 5% stake in iShares Edge Quality Factor (QUAL) after a roughly 31% gain since April. Cash-rich and low-debt companies benefit from being well positioned to manage best in a Covid-troubled economy. This positioning also means lots of tech holdings, but we don't want that exposure right now.

Specifically, in the Aggressive portfolio, we added a Brazil ETF, Franklin FTSE Brazil ETF (FLBR) to be exact, for a 6% allocation and purchased an "oldie but goodie" Utility ETF Vanguard Utilities ETF (VPU) for a 5% stake. We cut back our BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) ETF iShares MSCI BRIC (BKF) from 6% to 0%, because it is now cheaper to own the countries we want to be in directly, partially thanks to the newish, very low fee, single-country ETFs from Franklin.

We also cut back our stake in Schwab US TIPS (SCHP) from 14% to 9%, because inflation expectations are rising and inflation-adjusted bonds now need pretty high inflation just to break even with regular treasury bonds. Typically, these bonds are purchased when investors are not worried about inflation, as was the case a few months ago. In fact, too high an inflation expectation can accelerate losses in a stock market crash as investors start to think that deflation is more likely. Overall, the bond market is becoming increasingly dangerous with so much money being put in by investors despite corporate bonds barely yielding more than Government debt, even with a high default risk from Covid-related economic disruptions.

We also sold our now almost nonexistent stakes (from massive declines) in an inverse leveraged Nasdaq ETF and an inverse gold mining stock ETF. Basically, we only made money by shorting oil in recent years. The Nasdaq deserved some of the increase as the world moved even more toward a plugged in Internet-based world (sadly) thanks to Covid, but it could still fall from these high levels. We need a new fresh position (which will also decline if Tesla and the other big names climb to even more ridiculous levels) with less leverage, in case we get big rebounds on the way down.

Gold mining stocks should do what they have done over the last 30 years—which is to go nowhere—and gold itself is only going up because holding money and short-term bonds is a loser position now. Covid has sent the demand for jewelry down by almost half—all the excess production has been picked up by ETFs that own gold and other speculations (future supply …). The short-term risk here is too high, especially with negative inflation-adjusted interest rates and a new gold bubble forming. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway just bought a stake in a gold mine—even though Buffett has been a long-time critic of gold as an investment—after selling off an airline at a loss that he had only recently added to—that is how weird a world we are in at the moment.

We added an inverse offline retailers ETF as a possible good hedge against a second slide in stocks brought on by a potential fall in Covid cases. The concept is a little strange as all the retailers in the fund sell online as well has have big retail footprints, but then they could be hit with the double whammy of lost retail traffic and trouble competing with the ever-growing Amazon and other online tech giants squeezing the smaller retailers selling online.

As ETF trading is now free at TD Ameritrade (where these model portfolios are traded with real money) and basically all the other major brokers, we did some small rebalancing trades just to get our allocations back to where we want in some positions, but avoided cutting back in other areas that are up in order to avoid having too much in short-term capital gains (relative to the losses in inverse funds realized with this trade). This includes Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR), up around 50% since bought in our Conservative portfolio in April. In general, you almost never want to realize short-term taxable gains as no trade is worth the extra tax bite unless you have losses or could have losses elsewhere to offset the gains. Use your own tax situation and account type (IRA or taxable) to judge how much rebalancing you should do or to decide if you should hold off on some sales until short-term gains become long-term gains.

One area with a risk of future underperformance for us here is if U.S. stocks keep going up and up, notably tech stocks. By having larger foreign stock allocations we are basically avoiding tech stocks as most foreign countries have few top tech companies. In the longer run, it really depends on how much of the global economies' profits are going to be sucked up by a handful of tech giants that are increasingly in the middle of everything (so much for disintermediation) before regulations or taxes change the game significantly for these giants.

The main case for increased stock prices is almost guaranteed negative real (inflation adjusted) interest rates for years. This means Central Bankers are targeting say 2% inflation yet manipulating interest rates to around zero (some of this is just massive bond buying by the public). Losing 1%—2% of your money every year with the potential for 10%—30% hits if rates go up fast is not an appealing investment and makes even the most expensive stock make sense over time. Imagine if we had a 10% guaranteed negative real interest rate, say 0% interest rates and 10% inflation, is there any price that Apple stock would lose money over 10 years relative to bonds? Apple can just charge 10% more each year for iPhones and their cut of app sales will inflate with everything else and they could increase their dividends by 10% a year with no real change in their business. Deflation is far worse for business, and the Fed knows it.

In targeting 2% inflation with negative interest rates, the Fed creates almost limitless upside to inflatable asset prices—yet still will have trouble getting real world inflation to 2% when considering things like rents and energy and food. It would be much safer for the markets and economy to just create money and give it to people to spend and slow the Fed debt buying with newly created money or 'quantitative easing', but as creating money to spend directly is the historical recipe for rampant inflation in various countries, Central Banks are naturally scared of that strategy, but creating money that flows into investment speculation could be even more dangerous. Does it really make sense for companies to borrow their way out of the Covid mess because rates are low instead of issuing stock?

In closing, any market that pushes up a Tesla wannabe (Nikola...are you kidding me with this name?) that smells like a penny stock scam on steroids to a market value greater than Ford with no real path to profitability is a sign of a dangerous market distorted by low rates and a Robinhood-trading-app-stock-gambling culture.

August 2020 Performance Review

September 8, 2020

The bubble forming in fast-growing tech stocks — notably the handful of tech near-monopolies increasingly driving the entire stock market's returns — started to burst in September, but for August it was smooth sailing for the trillion dollar-ish market cap crew. Most stocks are still below the pre-pandemic all-time highs, but some are way, way up, driving the indexes to new highs. Interest rates crept up, hurting bonds and foreign markets benefiting from a weakening U.S. dollar.

Our Conservative portfolio gained 2.60%, and our Aggressive portfolio gained 2.71%. Benchmark Vanguard funds for August 2020 were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), up 7.18%; Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBMFX), down 1.02%; Vanguard Developed Markets Index Fund (VTMGX), up 5.07%; Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index (VEIEX), up 2.26%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, up 3.72%.

With basically no larger cap tech stocks except for iShares Edge Quality Factor (QUAL) up 6.86% last month, our returns were supported by foreign stocks, which in general had a decent month largely thanks to a weak U.S. dollar. Inflation-adjusted TIPs bond funds did well relative to the bond market as inflation expectations picked up. If this keeps up, we may have to move to Utility stocks as a big expectation for inflation can lead to problems in the next crash and falling inflation expectations. iShares Edge Quality Factor  (QUAL) is on the short list to get sold here.

Much as they did in the late 1990s, larger cap growth stocks are dominating the market. Unlike the 1990s, other areas like value stocks and bonds are no real bargain. The S&P 500 was up 7.19% with dividends last month. This gain beat basically 100+ global fund categories except for Japan, U.S. large cap growth, and U.S. technology stocks, and consumer cyclical stocks. Of course, large cap growth and tech stocks are what is driving the S&P 500, so this is just more of the same.

The tech action is even pushing up funds you wouldn't expect to see on the tops for the month — like Convertible bond funds, enjoying a 28% one-year return. These funds often own lots of Tesla convertible bonds, which are basically trading like the stock, now that the stock price is well above the conversion price on the bond. Tesla stock recently did a 1-for-5 stock split and was worth about as much as all the other auto stocks combined — not bad for less than a 1% global market share of sales. One head scratcher among many is why the other auto stocks haven't tanked — if Tesla is the future, are we just going to be selling more high margin cars in the future such that the old car companies can keep their market caps? Somebody is going to lose big time.

While parallels can be drawn to early 2000 (which ended very badly for tech stock investors and the S&P 500 in general), there are several important differences:

  1.  Interest rates are just above 1%, not over 5%. It is not hard to finance this debt cost with earnings from a company if you did a company buyout with debt — or just took out a 30-year mortgage and used the cash to buy stocks.
  2. The earnings are largely real. Tesla and some others aside, the bulk of the big tech companies are big earners on today's eyeballs. They don't even need to grow users or come up with a revenue model.
  3. The margins are monopoly grade. Companies like Apple and Google can take a third of all money going to apps. A few weeks after a Congressional shakedown, both Apple and Google kicked off a game maker for billing consumers directly and not cutting in the two phone operating system giants for their usual cut . Amazon is not far off from having a piece of most online sales. Facebook is selling ads off everybody's social media content and not cutting in content creators.
  4. There may not be competition for many moons because possible competitors will get bought out or crushed. Google couldn't beat YouTube, so they bought it. Facebook bought Instagram. Somebody is probably going to buy TikTok.
  5. The Covid pandemic is creating a tech dystopia where we all live in our houses and live off the internet. This has been building slowly since the 1990s and accelerated with smart phones, but this could be the last breath of the bricks-and-mortar economy. Sad!


It is a golden era of tech, but this is not a 'this time it's different' point to rationalize trillion dollar market caps. The boom can still collapse just out of fear in investors who recently bought in with leverage, but also longer term because there is only so much profit a handful of companies can squeeze out of the economy before global governments start turning up the heat. This regulatory shakedown could take many forms, but higher taxes to help pay for the trillions in Covid economic support on top of already lofty government debt piles seems probable.

Stock Funds1mo %
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)7.18%
FTSE Germany (FLGR)7.04%
iShares Edge Quality Factor (QUAL)6.86%
Franklin FTSE China (FLCH)6.46%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)6.37%
Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR)5.61%
Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets (VEA)5.17%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl. Adm. (VTMGX)5.07%
Vanguard Small-Cap ETF (VBR)4.63%
Vanguard FTSE Europe (VGK)4.31%
Vanguard Value ETF (VTV)4.18%
iShares MSCI BRIC Index (BKF)4.18%
VanEck Vectors Pharmaceutical (PPH)2.40%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts (VEIEX)2.26%
Vanguard Energy (VDE)-0.62%
Direxion Gold Miners Bear 3X (JDST)-6.67%
Proshares Ultrashort QQQ (SQQQ)-28.21%
Bond Funds1mo %
Vanguard ST Inflation Protected (VTIP)1.11%
Schwab US TIPS (SCHP)0.91%
iSHARES JP Morgan Em Bond (LEMB)-0.07%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)-1.02%

July 2020 Performance Review

August 4, 2020

With interest rates near zero and property owners facing potentially massive problems with occupancy and rent collection, stocks are becoming the only game in town. But it is an increasingly expensive game to play. The U.S. economy shrank by around 10% this past quarter, taking us back to the GDP levels of about five years ago after adjusting for inflation, but the stock market continues to rise to almost record highs. While it is common for stocks to move ahead of the economy, both down and up, there are no previous cases of GDP being this far below its all-time high but stocks near all-time highs.

Our Conservative portfolio gained 2.05% and our Aggressive portfolio gained 2.72%. Benchmark Vanguard funds performed as follows in July 2020: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), up 5.64%; Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBMFX), up 1.55%; Vanguard Developed Markets Index Fund (VTMGX), up 2.64%; Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index (VEIEX), up 8.38%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, up 4.39%.

Our strongest areas were emerging markets, notably China, with FRANKLIN FTSE CHINA (FLCH) up 9.46%. The now large-cap-tech-dominated S&P 500 did better than almost everything else worldwide, with particular weakness in energy stocks in our portfolios, as VANGUARD ENERGY (VDE) fell 4.19%. As for bonds, a falling dollar and a continued rebound in risky debt helped iSHARES JP MORGAN EM BOND (LEMB) climb 3.78%, while our safer bond fund VANGUARD ST INFLATION PROTECTED (VTIP) gained just 0.76%, which was only half the return of the overall bond market last month.

The stock market's total value is about double the new lower annual GDP of $19.4 trillion. This is a record level, in what is one of Warren Buffett's snapshot measures of valuation of a national stock market. This ratio of market value to GDP is lower in every other country.

The previous high for this ratio was about 150%, in 2000, followed by around 140% in 2007. In both cases, slides of roughly 50% in stock prices followed. The 2007—09 slide took the stock market down to around 90% of GDP, which would equate to maybe a 55% slide in the market from current levels — if the economy stops shrinking. But such a slide in stocks is a long shot, because during the last two crashes you could still earn a decent return in bonds, whereas today stocks are likely your only chance of positive inflation-adjusted returns. Such a drop would be more likely if rates were to climb fast hitting bond prices hard.

At this point the Federal Reserve isn't so much creating long-term future earnings growth so much as removing short-term downside. We saw this explicitly a few months ago when it started supporting bond prices across the board as investor panic selling began. This support is the main reason to own bonds at all, with the risk of a slide due either to interest rates going back up or corporate (and maybe state) defaults rising in a weak economy. The Fed has your back and will support prices, directly. It is doing much the same thing with stocks, indirectly for now, which is why a 1.75% yield in the S&P 500 — which could be cut in half or more at this rate of economic trouble — is not shabby at all, if you remove the risk of losing more than maybe 25% in the short run.

Imagine if the Fed said it would print money and buy stocks if they go down 25%, take them back to their old highs, then slowly sell. What would the correct price for stocks be? With 1% interest rates, perhaps double their current levels, as stock dividends grow (most of the time) and are taxed favorably.

The only reason NOT to own stocks, with the Fed covering your losses and downside risk, is opportunity cost: what could you have earned elsewhere? To do better somewhere else would require interest rates to rise, but the Fed has already said in essence that it will not let rates go up either. So you are back to stocks again. The Fed's behavior could cause inflation, which is bad for bonds and maybe for the U.S. dollar, but not necessarily bad for stocks or real estate. But other major countries are in this same boat unless they can avoid longer-term lockdowns and continuing monetary support. The real risk is still deflation, such as Japan experienced after its 1980s bubble. But with aggressive money creation, is that possible? Stagflation is more likely: higher inflation with slow economic growth.

Investors aren't buying into this market recovery, and really haven't since the 20% drop in stock prices in late 2018, which also rebounded quickly. Over the last couple of years, around $400 billion has departed stocks for bonds. These days investors are putting tens of billions into bonds each week, with near guaranteed low returns, and pulling as much out of stock funds. Normally this is a huge positive for future stock prices and a huge negative for bonds, but these are not normal times. Much of this is likely just rebalancing because stocks are climbing faster than bonds, and much of it is on autopilot in index funds these days. But there were signs of panic selling of stocks on the way down, and huge outflows from bonds (the highest on record, it seems) when they briefly tanked in March. True rebalancing would have seen money go into stocks and probably into bonds, and out of cash.

For reference, in 2000 everybody was gaga about U.S. stocks. There was about 20% more investor money in stocks relative to bonds and cash, and all the new money was going into U.S. stocks. This was the beginning of poor returns in stocks and very good returns in bonds. In fact stocks still haven't caught up with long-term Treasury bonds purchased in 2000, and might need another decade or more to do so. This highlights the problem with buying stocks at valuations near all-time highs.

The 20-year annualized return on the Vanguard 500 stock fund Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX) is around 5.8%, but it is a whopping 7.7% for the Vanguard Long Term Treasury fund (VUSTX) — a huge difference over 20 years. The chance of stocks underperforming long-term Treasuries over the next 20 years is about zero, unless we go into a Japan-style bubble deflation period, which is possible. But for stocks to catch up will require a big spread over bond returns for years to come.

At this point, at best, sluggish earnings growth (inflation-adjusted, after tax) is pretty much going to be here for years. Even with a relatively fast return to semi-normalcy in the global economy, paying down the trillions of borrowed money will require some mix of tax increases and less borrowing by governments worldwide, which by itself should wipe out much of the already slow growth rates in recent years.

The bottom line is that stocks are not a good deal at these levels, but cash, bonds, and real estate are worse. Sharp drops in stock prices, even if not to historically good valuations, are opportunities to buy, but from all-time highs, future returns will be low.

Stock Funds1mo %
Bond Funds1mo %

June 2020 Performance Review

July 2, 2020

The V-shaped recovery is here—long live the V-shaped recovery! The main problem is that the actual economy and COVID-19 pandemic are not on a V-shaped recovery path—just the stock market. Even with its very brief but significant slide from the top (almost 40% for the Dow, top to bottom) we did not approach the valuations seen at the bottom of the last two major slides in stocks, in 2002 and 2009—not even close. But then, we have 0.7% interest rates and far more money sloshing around.

Our Conservative portfolio gained 1.64% and our Aggressive portfolio gained 1.16%. Benchmark Vanguard funds for June 2020 were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), up 1.99%; Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBMFX), up 0.70%; Vanguard Developed Markets Index Fund (VTMGX), up 3.40%; Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index (VEIEX), up 7.16%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, up 3.01%.

The three-legged stool of this sharp market rebound is: 1) low interest rates; 2) massive government support, and; 3) a "this too will pass" mentality. All three are actually pretty solid reasons for stocks to rebound, until something goes wrong and one or more of them goes away. If stocks weren't risky in the short run, the Dow would have hit 50,000 years ago.

You almost can't overestimate how much of a boost low interest rates are to stocks. If government bonds pay less than 1% per year over 10 years it is almost impossible to underperform that low benchmark with stocks, from almost any starting valuation. The danger is some sort of change; either a rise in rates or a serious drop in stock valuations or a long-term move down in economic growth, or even deflation. If low rates alone guaranteed stock returns, Japan would have had better stock market performance for much of the last couple of decades.

The current support from the Federal Reserve and actual fiscal spending in a few short months is far beyond the levels we saw during the years of financial crisis over a decade ago. Paying it all back, if we pay it back, should be a serious drag for years to come. Adding insult is the clearly half-baked nature of the support and the likely widespread economic waste and abuse of massive stimulus programs being thrown together.

Issues such as those already in retirement collecting Social Security receiving $1,200 stimulus checks, collectively totaling more than the GM bailout (before most of it was paid back), that seemingly angered much of the country, are getting no attention. It is probably because the alternative—mass bankruptcies and a 1930s-style Great Depression—is so scary that erring on the side of excess spending is comforting.

This stock market has been through many, many crises worse than COVID-19, including worse pandemics. One thing that has become apparent is that if you wait too long, you will miss out. Stocks move up well before the troubles are gone, so you basically have to take on that risk that things won't get better. It is possible this has gone a little too far, because things might not be getting better soon enough to prevent the next Great Depression, or at least to stop the trillions of dollars in support from being wound down anytime soon.

This whole stock market rebound seems to be riding on the death rate from the recent resurgence in cases and hospitalizations. Sharply rising daily case numbers has already slowed the reopening of many states and the global economy. If the death rate takes off next, we'll be back to costly full shutdowns for months to come. On the other hand, if the death rate more or less plateaus or even continues to decline while cases continue to rise or remain high, then from an economic perspective this is a win of sorts, as we could have business as semi-usual. This assumes there is a benefit in herd immunity, which hasn't been proven yet.

Even the worst case—no immunity gained from catching and surviving the virus and no vaccine—will lead to a new economy in the long run, with different companies selling different goods and services with a different kind of workforce. It could be a long, painful path to get to point B, but investing in stocks will still work out. But it could be a very long W-shaped recovery. Nobody wants to be in 0% cash but nobody wants to lose 50% fast because over 10 years stocks should beat bonds.

Perhaps the only reason not to be heavy in stocks is the chance something doesn't work out and we have more of a W (or even a VW) recovery with opportunities to get more for less. This can be a tough game to time, with lots of investors looking to move the trillions sitting in cash and bonds back into stocks and a high opportunity cost of not being in stocks. This is unlike the last two 50% drops in stocks, where bonds offered good alternative returns. The likelihood of getting anywhere near the valuations of the last crash bottom is slim to none, in the absence of a full bore multiyear depression.

In our own portfolios and the global markets, riskier investments performed well, or at least those areas that have been weaker on the way down. Our biggest winner was Franklin FTSE China ETF (FLCH), up 7.81%, slightly ahead of a generally strong month for emerging markets in general, which took Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR) and iShares MSCI BRIC (BKF) up 7.12% and 6.99% respectively. Europe did well. Besides shorting, there was weakness in value-oriented or lower risk U.S. stocks. We saw flat to negative returns in several holdings, such as iShares Edge Quality Factor (QUAL), Homestead Value (HOVLX), and VanEck Vectors Pharmaceutical (PPH).

There was surprising continuing strength in larger cap tech stocks, most of them at new highs and really the driving force in the U.S. market for this rebound. Most tech companies are benefiting from this stage of COVID-19 as the stay at home, work and live lifestyle some people are begrudgingly enjoying is conducive to consuming the services of the top tech giants. It could be the final nail in the coffin of those bricks and mortar businesses not finished off by the Internet thus far.

Or we could have a backlash against the homebound life when COVID-19 eventually goes away. People may decide they have had enough of staring at phones, tweeting, and ordering delivery, and want to return in droves to breathing that sweat aerosol-filled air in stores, restaurants, and airplanes.

The bond market was only slightly higher as rates remained low. But there was strange strength in high-yield muni bond funds, which seem to be at risk of disaster as the sheer cost and economic impact to state and local governments is incalculable.

Stock Funds1mo %
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX)7.16%
Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR)7.12%
iShares MSCI BRIC Index (BKF)6.99%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX)3.40%
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)1.99%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)-0.39%
VanEck Vectors Pharmaceutical (PPH)-1.64%
Vanguard Value ETF (VTV)-1.78%
Bond Funds1mo %
Schwab US TIPS (SCHP)1.11%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)0.70%

May 2020 Performance Review

June 3, 2020

If your only news was stock prices, you'd never suspect that America was slowly and not very carefully emerging from one crisis only to quickly slide into another. Another headscratcher is how our stock market is currently down less for the year than other countries that have fared better during the health pandemic and economic shutdown.

In May our Conservative portfolio gained 3.03% and our Aggressive portfolio gained 2.65%. Benchmark Vanguard funds ended the month as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), up 4.76%; Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBMFX), up 0.54%; Vanguard Developed Markets Index Fund (VTMGX), up 5.56%; Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index (VEIEX), up 2.33%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, up 4.18%.

Much of the rebound has been in the same giant tech companies that have dominated the markets in recent years. This makes some sense, since between the COVID crisis and the riots, staying home Livin' la Vida Aburrido (living the boring life…sorry, Ricky Martin, especially because I'm unsure of my Spanish here) seems to be the new normal. And what better way to spend the time than using the internet and various tech companies to deliver every form of good and service we could possibly imagine?

It makes one wonder if artificial intelligence, or AI, is already here and already taking over the world, with the first major attack on humanity being to figure out a way to keep us in our homes using more technology and destroying the physical world so the robots don't have to do it.

The main explanation for the positive stock action is optimism. The alternatives in bonds and cash are very bleak, with essentially guaranteed negative inflation-adjusted returns for years ahead. The trillions of dollars that have accumulated globally have to earn a return, even if it turns out to be a high-risk, low return. It is possible that this is the darkest period just before the dawn, and this all goes away fast, leading to strong earnings growth with the support of low interest rates and a trillion in new spending. The world's shortest depression then disappears as quickly as it appeared. Poof.

It hasn't helped so far, but it is possible that this was the month foreign markets started to outperform our market, if our economy remains in a semi-shutdown induced by COVID-19 and rioting while others reboot. Even if we have the best tech companies to plug in to, there could still be a drop in our dollar as our low interest rates, scary economy, and sloppy government pandemic spending catches up to us. So far, this move could be merely that these foreign markets have more to go to return to old highs than a sea change in investor sentiment.

These two crises are probably related. A depression — even a temporary depression created to fight a health crisis — creates a fertile environment for revolution or worse. One side effect of the response which makes it unsustainable even if it leads to better health outcomes is that society has deemed some workers (mostly on lower wages) to be doing essential work, while others get to stay safe at home, having food delivered and Netflixing.

A problem that catches your attention in the moment can then blow up. The media thrives on your attention and on sensationalism. It isn't concerned with actual probabilities and boring long-term problems so much as interesting anecdotes.

Both sides are guilty of focusing on individual examples. It leads to the belief that drugs with side effects that won't help cure a disease are worth trying, as well as the belief many healthy young people are dying from a virus. This is because readers are more interested in such stories than in news about a new drug flop or another death of a 95-year-old. The media has a way of making some problems seem worse than they are and making other, larger problems seem ordinary. Airline crashes versus drunk driving. This is a troubling area, as it is often the large, dull, long-term problems that are easier to fix for better outcomes for more people.

As foreign non-emerging markets did well last month, many of our stock funds had a good run, but the drag of emerging markets and sub-1% return bonds kept our returns at the so-so level. At the top of the heap was our new German stock ETF Franklin FTSE German (FLGR), up 9.64%, with a big performance spread over the rest of Europe. Germany seems to be managing its economy and health crisis well, relative to the rest of Europe.

There are still serious dangers in European markets stemming from the problems of having a single currency during a crisis. It may require magical thinking by central banks in the form of money creation policies looser than we have ever seen, at least on this side of broken economies with 1,000% inflation.

Call it MMT light, after the 'modern monetary theory' that claims you can just print money to pay bills until you have inflation, and need not worry much about borrowing and taxing (don't worry about it, sweetheart). Whatever is done, it will be harder to pull off in a region that shares a currency. Only a single country can get away with such an adventure into the monetary unknown.

All this fear and money mischief is boosting gold and killing our gold stock short, but if we actually get inflation we're protected somewhat with our new TIPS bonds funds. The possibility of real deflation is what investors should worry about.

At the bottom of our non-short fund heap was Vanguard Energy (VDE), up just 1.66% after a strong rebound previously, as oil prices seem to have been boosted artificially back up to levels that can prevent a massive extinction event in the U.S. oil business. If oil prices go any higher we may short crude oil again, while keeping this stock fund that owns actual oil companies.

In bonds, only our riskier bond fund iShares JP Morgan Emerging Bond (LEMB) delivered returns over 1%, with a 5.81% pop, though it is still down since purchase this year. Elsewhere in funds almost nothing was way up or down this month, with the best fund categories up around 10% and the worst down just under 2%. That near 2% drop was in long-term government bonds, so we're glad we're out of that category for now.

Stock Funds1mo %
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX)5.56%
Franklin FTSE South Korea (FLKR)4.96%
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)4.76%
VanEck Vectors Pharmaceutical (PPH)4.52%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)4.48%
Vanguard Value ETF (VTV)2.88%
iShares MSCI BRIC Index (BKF)2.72%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX)2.33%
Bond Funds1mo %
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)0.54%
Schwab US TIPS (SCHP)0.49%

April 2020 Performance Review

May 3, 2020

Stock and bond prices rebounded sharply as the trillions in Federal Reserve monetary and government fiscal spending cannons hit the market. If throwing money at the fast weakening economy turns out to be a great solution, we will win this war. If not, unfortunately we'll just have a short-term boost and a long-term mess of massive debt on top of a semi-permanently Coronavirus-slowed economy. Either way, April was a great month to pretend nothing was wrong and just own riskier assets, notably the same handful of mega cap growth stocks that have been increasingly driving stock prices recently.

Our Conservative portfolio gained 5.75% , and our Aggressive portfolio gained 5.61%. Benchmark Vanguard funds for April 2020 were as follows: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), up 12.82%; Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBMFX), up 1.69%; Vanguard Developed Markets Index Fund (VTMGX), up 7.67%; Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index (VEIEX), up 9.29%; and Vanguard Star Fund (VGSTX), a total global balanced portfolio, up 8.75%.

US growth stocks were the best place to be globally last month, with the S&P 500 beating around 85% of fund categories. In our own portfolios, only our new energy fund Vanguard Energy (VDE) and our new small cap value pick Vanguard Small Cap ETF (VBR) beat the S&P 500 last month, with a 32.21% and 13.11% return respectively. Many hard-hit areas rebounded the sharpest, perhaps foolishly, from the depths of the crash. Our shorts were a disaster, and all our new foreign stock funds did well in general, only not compared to US stocks. Our portfolios would benefit from the US dollar weakening, which would push up foreign stock returns to US investors.

Our more recent trade this year largely took us out of longer-term and corporate bonds except for inflation-adjusted government bonds. We do have a riskier allocation to iShares JP Morgan Emerging Bond (LEMB) that was up 2.48% last month, though it was still down since first purchased at the end of February. Unfortunately, the Federal Reserve's massive support of the debt markets didn't extend directly to foreign risky bonds, just US bonds. US corporations seem to have the substantial backing of the government, but you can't say the same for emerging market debt right now.

How substantial? A few days ago you could barely see any damage to investment-grade corporate US bonds for the year after a 5% up month — a far cry from a few weeks ago, when even some municipal money market funds were on the edge of collapse. Considering trillions in investment-grade corporate debt could, realistically, default if this economic situation doesn't go away soon, current pricing in bonds is very optimistic about either continued unlimited support or a quick return to normal.

Considering our Depression-level unemployment numbers, a thing of wonder is the fact that the S&P 500 (as of May 1) is now down just over 11% for the year (and about 16% from the peak). It could simply be that investors remember the 2008 crisis, when slower-moving and relatively small (comparatively) double-barreled Federal Reserve and government spending eventually worked, and it was a heck of a buying opportunity (from the 50% down mark at least).

Under this lens of "been there, done that," we won't see a 50% drop from the top like the last crisis as too much money wants to catch the buying opportunity. It could just be the realization that bonds and cash are going to yield very little or negative for a long, long time — yet with crisis-era default risks — and stocks are the only game in town for the massive amount of money in the global economy (less massive now) that needs to invest. Basically, you are being forced into the risk game whether you like it or not because the alternative is less-than-zero returns after inflation. Do you want some upside with a high likelihood of a 25—50% drop in the short run, or no upside and a high likelihood of a 30% drop over 5—10 years adjusting for inflation?

Warning signs that more trouble is coming soon include what seems to be a credit crunch building for tapped-out consumers. Banks are fast getting out of the HELOC or home equity line of credit business, and credit card companies are cutting available credit. You can't blame them — they don't want to see epic defaults from those living off credit as incomes have plunged.

As for the various government support programs — notably the PPP loans — poor execution and bad design are leading to delays and apparent or borderline fraud. Publicly traded companies that could sell more stock (among other options) for money are borrowing through this small business facility because of the favorable partial grant and low-rate nature of the financing. This could anger lower-wage workers already nearing the end of their collective rope as society has deemed their (now risky) work essential. If this situation doesn't start going away fast, the only way stock prices are going to be down just 11% for the year is if we get inflation, which is a possibility if we keep losing production capacity and sending checks in the mail to seniors already on a guaranteed income stream, rather than the actual increasingly desperate workforce. If entry level workers voted in the numbers of Social Security recipients, this would likely not be the case.

Stock Funds1mo %
[Benchmark] Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX)12.82%
Homestead Value Fund (HOVLX)11.74%
Vanguard Value ETF (VTV)11.65%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Emerging Mkts Stock Idx (VEIEX)9.29%
[Benchmark] Vanguard Tax-Managed Intl Adm (VTMGX)7.67%
iShares MSCI BRIC Index (BKF)6.62%
Bond Funds1mo %
[Benchmark] Vanguard Total Bond Index (VBMFX)1.69%

Trade Alert

April 7, 2020

We executed trades in both portfolios on April 3 (just over one month after our previous trades on February 28th) to cut way back on corporate bonds and deal with the cash from a liquidated inverse 3x oil ETF that the fund company shut down on March 27. This ETF returned around 90% since our buy at the end of February and at least offset huge losses in our inverse gold miners ETF (which declined significantly even though gold mining stocks were down in March). So wild were the oil swings in March that at one point when the Dow was in freefall on March 19, we were up about 379% from our buy, which did briefly offer a performance offset to our declining stock funds.

Right now, corporate bonds have far more downside than upside. If we're going to take double-digit decline risk, we want more upside. While it is possible that the Fed can make this debt problem go away (or at least get lucky if we can reopen the economy sooner rather than later), there is also a chance of either serious corporate defaults or inflation resulting from distributing trillions to everyone in desperate need yet allowing production to drop. More demand, less supply is not a good mix.

The safe move with bonds is inflation-adjustable government debt or Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS). In general, we don't like this innovation because the government invented these bonds to save the treasury money, not to reward investors. Bond investors have historically required an irrational premium to own regular government debt because of the risk of inflation, a hangover from the 1970s. As we have said for years, there is not much risk of inflation above 2%, and your real danger is deflation, like in the Great Depression.

This is why regular government bonds have beat TIPS for years. That said, TIPS won't get stung much if we get depression-grade deflation from these levels (they don't pay a negative inflation adjustment, although they should). They have already underperformed as inflation expectations (correctly) have come down in this crisis, as they did in 2008. We still have some significant credit risk with our recently added emerging market bonds in case we walk away from this crisis—and the returns should be better than U.S. corporate debt in that situation.

The bulk of the trades are getting out of bond funds and into two TIPS ETFs: Vanguard Short-Term Infl-Prot Secs ETF (VTIP) and Schwab US TIPS ETF (SCHP). We are also adding a pharmaceutical ETF, mostly because they have underperformed for years and should do well in a coronavirus-slowed economy, and generally won't have trouble making debt payments (though many drug companies have lots of debt). There are some risks the government could crack down on pricing.

In our Conservative portfolio, we are adding iShares Edge MSCI USA Quality Factor ETF (QUAL), which hasn't done any better than the S&P 500 but in theory may be positioned to benefit as riskier competitors fail and are acquired by stronger players, sort of like what happened in banking in 2009. That said, these types of ETFs that try to screen for success—so-called smart beta funds—are generally bad ideas compared to the S&P 500. We also added tiny Franklin FTSE South Korea ETF (FLKR) in our continued effort to shift to countries that seem to be managing the crisis better or have more financial resources available to stimulate the economy. Somebody is going to come back online fully and fill orders, and it isn't looking like that will be us, for a variety of reasons.

In summary, we are increasing our stock risk (as we typically do during big drops), yet decreasing some of our bond credit and duration risk, and shifting more to foreign stocks that could recover faster.