Growth Prospects So Good We'll Cut Our Payouts to Investors

Thursday saw another example of tone-deaf decision making by the management of an MLP. Teekay LNG Partners (TGP) is an operator of ships that transport Liquified natural gas, petroleum gas and crude oil. Shipping is a horrible business; unlike pipelines, ships are highly mobile and so you’re never the only transport solution from A to B. On top of that, when industry overcapacity drives a ship owner out of business the ships live on, still contributing to the pressure on rates. Bankrupt shipping companies could provide a service to their competitors by scuttling their ships, but unfortunately they never do.

TGP cut their distribution by 80% on Thursday, claiming that they would fund their growth plans with internally generated cashflow since the equity markets are effectively closed to them.  In other words, the opportunities to reinvest cash in their business are so good they’re taking the decision out of their investors’ hands and redirecting the cash for them. Even though TGP was yielding 15% prior to the announcement, this implausibly high distribution yield evidently wasn’t reflective of widespread expectation of a cut since the stock promptly sank 50%. This may be due to the fact that although TGP’s press release claimed that “cash flows remain stable and growing” the company declined to provide any guidance for 2016 EBITDA. So it’s hard to know if they’re telling the truth. MLP investors value their regular distributions, and the persistent high yields on MLPs indicate that investors would prefer growth plans to be cut. A management that ignores this is looking for a new set of investors, a betrayal of the trust placed in them by the original ones. In fact, there’s something bordering on dishonesty about what TGP has done. If your operating results aren’t good enough to cover the quarterly payout, well that’s a risk that investors accepted. But TGP claims that business is good, cashflows “stable and growing.” Deciding to stop making payments to investors in order to reinvest the cash in new projects is to deny the message that the already high yield communicates. Investors don’t value those growth opportunities very highly, which is why TGP had already fallen 50% this year before the cut. There’s not much difference between TGP’s behavior and a hedge fund manager who prevents withdrawals by claiming unreasonably low prices on the securities he’d have to sell to meet the redemption. If they’re telling the truth about operating performance then they’re taking investors’ money to invest as they see fit, simply because they can, in spite of the fact that investors would clearly prefer that they did not. Or, operating performance is not as good as they say. Either way, it’s hard to see how management can regain trust after such  betrayal.

The other day one MLP investor was reeling off to me a list of tickers of MLPs that he owns, including well-known names such as EPD, ETP and PAA. He noted his portfolio also included regrettable overweights to OMG and WTF. It’s been that kind of year.

While we’ve wrestled with understanding operating performance, it’s increasingly clear to us that investor psychology is far more important in explaining returns on MLPs this year. U.S. K-1 tolerant high net worth investors remain the chief source of capital for MLPs. Crossover buying by U.S. and foreign institutions is impeded by significant tax barriers, so the sales made by ’40 Act MLP funds as their investors flee have a limited set of potential buyers. We’ll be exploring this more in our 2015 letter.

We are invested in EPD.

Bond Yields Reach Another Milestone

Recently, an important threshold was breached in terms of relative valuation between stocks and bonds. The yield on ten year U.S. treasuries drifted below the dividend yield on the S&P 500. It’s happened a couple of times in recent years but only because of a flight to quality and never for very long. This time looks different.

It’s worth examining  this relationship over a very long period of time. The chart below goes back to 1871 and reminds us that for decades stock dividends were regarded as risky and uncertain. Little attention was paid to the possibility of dividend growth, and investors clearly placed greater value on the security of coupon payments from bonds.

This spread began to reverse in the late 1950s and since then, during the careers of a substantial percentage of today’s investors, bond yields have remained the higher of the two. Dividend growth (defined as the trailing five year annualized growth rate) was more variable prior to the 1950s with several periods when it was negative, so it’s understandable that investors of the day regarded dividends as quite uncertain. However, since the S&P500 dividend yield dipped below treasury yields, dividend growth has never been negative. The five year annualized growth rate since 1960 is 5.8%. Assessing a long term return target for equities is inevitably a combination of art and science, but adding a 5% growth rate to today’s 2% dividend yield suggests 7% is a defensible assumed return.S&P Yield Minus 10 Yr Treasury Oct 23 2015

The trend of bond yields to decline towards dividend yields began a long time ago – back in 1981 when interest rates and inflation were peaking. It’s taken over 30 years, but the relationship is now back where it was during the Korean War. The investment outlook is, as always, uncertain with multiple areas of concern. However, the Federal Open Market Committee has made it abundantly clear that rates will rise slowly; recent earnings reports from Coke (KO), Dow Chemical (DOW), Microsoft (MSFT) and Amazon (AMZN) have all been good. These and many other stocks are near 52-week highs and in some cases all-time highs. FactSet projects earnings and dividends to grow mid to high single digits over the next year. These considerations are once again highlighting the inadequacy of fixed return securities as a source of after-tax real returns, and with one major asset class devoid of any value investors are again turning to stocks. The tumultuous markets of late August and September are receding; rather than portending a coming economic collapse, they simply represent additional evidence that far too much capital employs leverage.

S&P Dividend Growth Rate October 23 2015

The long term trend suggests that treasury yields will remain below dividend yields for the foreseeable future. We’re not forecasting such, simply noting that a 2% yield that is likely to grow on a diversified portfolio of stocks looks a whole lot more attractive than a 2% yield that’s fixed. It didn’t look so smart in recent weeks, but if you don’t use leverage and restrict yourself to companies with strong balance sheets you can watch such shenanigans from the sidelines.

Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) have begun reporting earnings. Kinder Morgan (KMI) disappointed investors by trimming their 2016 dividend growth from 10% to 6-10%. KMI isn’t technically an MLP any more since they reorganized into a C-corp last year. However, they are squarely in the energy infrastructure business like midstream MLPs. Rather than issue equity to fund their growth projects, they plan to access an alternate, not yet disclosed source of capital through the middle of next year. Their free cashflow covers their distribution, and they access the capital markets to finance growth.

MLPs have had a torrid year, with the sector down far more (in our view) than lower crude oil would justify. As Rich Kinder said, “…we are insulated from the direct and indirect impacts of very low commodity environment, but we are not immune.” KMI owns pipelines and terminals; 54% of their cashflows come from natural gas pipelines; 11% come from a CO2 business that supports oil production; they transport about a third of the natural gas consumed in the U.S. 96% of their cashflows are fee-based or hedged: “insulated…but not immune”.

Selling energy infrastructure stocks is fashionable, and owning them is not. While bond yields are dipping below the S&P’s 2% dividend yield, KMI yields more than three times as much (7.25% on its 2016 dividend assuming the low end of the 6-10% growth range) and its dividend will grow at least as fast. Owning such securities will once more be fashionable.

We are invested in KO, DOW and KMI.

A Hedge Fund Manager Trading At A High Yield

Many years ago, in a different investing climate and a different decade, a cut in interest rates was usually regarded as a stimulative move by the Federal Reserve. Lower financing costs were regarded as helping the economy more than hurting it. They certainly help the U.S. Federal Government, as the world’s biggest borrower. The amount of treasury bills issued at a 0% interest rate recently reached a cumulative $1 trillion. Although declining interest rates adjust the return on lending in favor of the borrower and at the expense of the lender, a lower cost of capital stimulates more borrowing for more investment and consequently boosts demand. However, the intoxicating nectar of ultra-low rates is gradually losing its potency, and while it’s overstating the case to say that markets would cheer higher rates, certain sectors would and the confirmation of an economy robust enough to prosper without “extraordinary accommodation” as the Fed puts it would be novel to say the least.

Several major banks released their quarterly earnings over the past week. Balance sheets continue to strengthen, but another less welcome trend was the continued pressure low interest rates are imposing on income statements. Deutsche Bank expects most major banks to report declining Net Interest Margins (NIMs) as older, higher yielding investments mature and are replaced with securities at lower, current rates. JPMorgan expects to make further operating expense reductions since quarterly earnings were lower than expected.

It’s a problem facing millions of investors. The timing of a normalization of interest rates, which is to say an increase, is both closely watched and yet seemingly never closer. If you look hard enough you can always find a reason to delay a hike, and the Yellen Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) looks everywhere. Recent speeches by two FOMC members suggest a December decision to hike may not receive unanimous support. The FOMC’s long run rate forecasts continue to drop, as shown in this chart (source: FOMC).FOMC Rate Forecast Sept 2015

Income seeking investors are unlikely to find much solace in the bond market. As I wrote in Bonds Are Not Forever, when rates are punitively low, discerning investors take their money elsewhere.

Suppose you could buy equity in a hedge fund manager, a fanciful suggestion because they’re virtually all privately held. But suppose just for a moment that such a security existed. The question is, how should you value this investment? What multiple of fees to the manager would you be willing to pay or in other words what yield would entice you into this investment?

Hedge fund managers don’t need much in assets beyond working capital and office equipment; the assets they care about sit in the hedge fund they control. So let’s consider a hedge fund manager’s balance sheet which consists mostly of a small investment in its hedge fund, representing a portion of the hedge fund’s total assets, and a bit of cash. It has virtually no debt. Our hedge fund manager earns income from its hedge fund investment, as well as a payment for managing all of the other assets that sit in the hedge fund. These two revenue streams are roughly equal today and constitute 100% of the hedge fund manager’s revenue. The fees charged by the hedge fund manager for overseeing the hedge fund aren’t the familiar “2 & 20”, but are instead are currently 13% of the free cash flow generated by those assets and 25% of all incremental cash flows going forward. Moreover, the equity capital in the hedge fund is permanent capital, which is to say that investors can exit by selling their interests to someone else but cannot expect to redeem from the hedge fund. Meanwhile, our hedge fund manager can decide to grow his hedge fund and thereby his fee stream for managing its assets by directing the hedge fund to raise new capital from investors. This represents substantial optionality to grow when it suits the manager by using Other People’s Money (OPM). This hedge fund’s assets are not other securities but physical assets such as crude oil terminals, storage facilities and pipelines. The hedge fund is returning 9% and is expected to grow its returns by 4+% annually over the next few years.

The hedge fund manager in this example is publicly traded NuStar GP Holdings, LLC (symblol: NSH), the General Partner (GP) for NuStar Energy, LP (symbol: NS). NSH, by virtue of being the GP of NS and receiving Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs) equal to roughly 25% of NS’s incremental free cash flow, is compensated like a hedge fund manager. NS, a midstream MLP,  is like a hedge fund, albeit the good kind with far more reliable prospects and greater visibility than the more prosaic kind, whose returns have generally remained poor since I predicted as much in The Hedge Fund Mirage four years ago. To return to our question: at what yield would you buy this hedge fund manager’s “fees”, given its option to increase the size of its hedge fund, the hedge fund’s respectable and growing return, the permanence of its capital and the perpetual nature of its substantial claim to the hedge fund’s free cash flow? NSH currently yields 7.6% which should increase ~10% annually over the next several years based on the company’s capex guidance at NS.

We are invested in NSH.

Bonds Are Dead Money

If you aspire to achieve acceptable returns from bond investments, the Fed is in no hurry to help you. They have other objectives than ensuring a preservation of purchasing power for buyers of taxable fixed income securities. Their failure to raise rates on Thursday is not that important — what’s more significant is the steadily ratcheting down of their own forecasts for the long term equilibrium Fed Funds rate.

For nearly four years the Fed has published rate forecasts from individual FOMC members (never explicitly identified) via their chart of “blue dots”. They now produce a table of values so there’s little ambiguity about its interpretation. Traders care mightily about whether they’ll hike now or in three months. It’s all CNBC can talk about. For investors, the Fed’s expectation for rates over the long run is far more interesting.

Since you might expect long run expectations about many things to shift quite slowly, by this standard the Fed’s long run forecast has plunged. The steady downward drift accelerated in recent meetings and it’s now fallen more than 0.5% since last year, to 3.35% (see chart). What this means is that their definition of the “neutral” fed Funds rate (i.e. that which is neither stimulative nor constraining to economic output) is lower. They don’t have to raise rates quite as far to get back to neutral.

Their inflation target remains at 2%, although inflation, at least as measured, is clearly not today’s problem. So the real rate (i.e. the difference between the nominal rate and inflation) has now come down to less than 1.5%. Since bond yields are in theory a reflection of the average short term rate that will prevail over the life of a bond, the Fed believes investors in investment grade debt with negligible default risk should expect this kind of real return. For a taxable investor, this will result in more or less a zero real return after taxes.

FOMC Rate Forecast Sept 2015The Fed’s communication strategy has  not been that helpful over the short run. Although we are provided with far more information about their thinking, it simply reveals that they don’t know much more than private sector economists and like them are always waiting for more information. The FOMC doesn’t want to provide firm guidance, since that requires a commitment which results in lost flexibility (see Advice for the Fed). The evenly split expectations for last Thursday show that forward guidance hasn’t helped traders much. But that doesn’t matter for investors; the insight into their long term thinking, presented as it is in a quantitative form, really is useful.

Hawkish is not an adjective that will be applied to this Fed anytime soon. In fact, one FOMC member included a forecast for a negative Fed Funds rate by year-end, a no doubt aspirational forecast but probably the first time an FOMC member has advocated such a thing. The Fed chair is clearly among ideological friends. Janet Yellen’s deeply held feelings for the unemployed inform her past writings and those of her husband George Akerlof. These are admirable personal qualities and not bad public policy concerns. Given that inflation remains below the Fed’s target, monetary policy can remain focused on doing all it can to promote growth, thus raising both employment AND inflation. Wgat some perceive as the Fed’s short run trade-off between maximizing employment and controlling inflation is unlikely to be tested anytime soon. Rates will rise slowly, because the future is always uncertain and because the neutral policy rate is in any case steadily falling towards the current one.

The low real rate contemplated by the Fed reflects their lower estimate of the economy’s growth potential. This is not a contentious view, it’s just that we’re seeing it play out through their rate forecasts.

The clear implication for bond investors though is that it’ll be a very long time before they make any money. The Barclays AGG is +0.64% YTD. This is the type of return bond investors can expect. Taxable investors are losing money in real terms and the Fed hasn’t even begun raising rates yet. Moreover, it’ll be years before this Fed gets bond yields to levels where a decent return is possible. It’s as I said two years ago in Bonds Are Not Forever; The Crisis Facing Fixed Income Investors. Bond holders are in for years of mediocre results or worse. It’s not going to be worth the effort. Take your money elsewhere.


Advice for the Fed

There must be more words written about the Federal Reserve and tightening of interest rates than any other issue that affects financial markets. A Google search throws up an imprecise “about 750,000” results! If each one is 250 words (less than your blogger’s typical post) that is 239 versions of the King James Version of the Bible. Although this most secular of topics is clearly not short of coverage, I’ll try and offer a different perspective.

An estimated 187 million words or so reflects the importance of a move in rates. Since the last rate hike was nine years ago, the Fed is spending much effort trying to make the eventual move anti-climactic. If their announcement is greeted with a financial yawn, that will represent a successful communication strategy. It’s not just that we’re out of practice in dealing with rising rates; it’s that the announcement and implementation both happen together. The Fed announces a hike in the Fed Funds rate, and implements it right away. The result is that we head into the day of an FOMC meeting with countless market participants and unfathomable amounts of borrowed money not knowing if their cost of borrowing overnight money will be instantly higher than it was yesterday. The uncertainty about how others will react to an immediate change in their cost of financing is why there is so much angst surrounding the “normalization” of monetary policy.

It occurred to me that the Fed could separate the two. Instead of offering various shades of certainty around when they will raise rates, why not say that any hike will take effect with a three month delay? Term money market rates would immediately adjust, but if the Fed announced a hike with effect at a certain future date the knowledge of higher financing would not coincide with the actual impact on financing over three months and less. Trading strategies that rely on a certain level of financing will have some time to adjust. Market participants will know for certain that rates will be higher in three months’ time, as opposed to having to make informed judgments based on public statements and economic data. And while the clear expectation will be that the pre-announced tightening will take place on schedule, the Fed does retain the flexibility to undo it in extraordinary circumstances.  It would take some of the guesswork out of getting the timing right.

It’s seems such a simple fix to the problem. I haven’t read all of the 750,000 Google results to see if they include this suggestion, but I’ve never seen it myself. Maybe someone at the Fed will read this. They may conclude it’s worth what they paid for it, like any free advice. We’ll see.



A New Approach to Bonds

Countless investors and financial advisors wrestle today with the conundrum of how to approach bonds. We are reminded constantly of the likelihood of rising interest rates; most recently Fed chair Janet Yellen reiterated the case for a hike in short term rates later this year. She argued that uncertainty over Greece was likely to be merely a near term concern, and equity market turmoil in China did not deserve even a mention. It has been well forecast, if not overly forecast, for some years now. The Fed has consistently been too early in their expectations of timing, but it’s looking increasingly as if 2015 really is it.

As if walking a tightrope, today’s investors are forced to balance the impact of changed Fed monetary policy on bonds with their faith that holding an allocation to bonds must remain part of their portfolio construction. It’s a radical thought to reject bonds entirely — and yet that’s what we’ve done at SL Advisors since its formation in 2009. Reasoning that the government really doesn’t want you to own bonds (else why set rates at such unattractive levels) I wrote in Bonds Are Not Forever that  when public policy is to transfer real wealth from savers to borrowers, thoughtful investors take their money elsewhere. Not only are bond investors routinely subjected to insults to their intelligence by bond yields that fail to cover inflation plus taxes, but rowdy borrowers are increasingly announcing that they can’t repay what was owed, as I noted in our recent newsletter. Greece is seeking debt forgiveness (since winning independence from Turkey in 1822 the country has been in default 50% of the time); Puerto Rico’s governor announced they cannot repay their debt. Reaching for yield can mean sharing in the problems of the profligate. Consequently, we haven’t invested our clients’ capital in bonds for many years, and don’t see that changing until yields are more attractive (perhaps double current levels on ten year treasuries).

In this weekend’s Barron’s the cover story makes the case for abandoning bonds altogether.The article makes the case (as we have for years) against low fixed interest rates. It will probably attract the attention of many individual investors although I believe a serious omission has been to overlook Master Limited Partnerships, one of the most attractive income generating investments around with a current yield of around 6.45% on the Alerian Index and a long history of steady distribution growth.

A few years ago we sought to articulate the case for stocks over bonds by illustrating the relatively small amount of capital one needed to allocate to stocks in order to achieve the same cash return as with bonds. The crucial point is that coupon payments from bonds are fixStocks vs Bonds July 11 2015 (Stocks)ed while stock dividends grow. The S&P500 currently yields around 2%. Historically, dividends have grown at around 5% annually. So if you invested $100 in stocks today you’d receive a $2 dividend after the first year but if past dividend growth of 5% annually continued, in ten years your $2 dividend would have grown to $3.26. Put another way, if dividend yields are still 2% in ten years time, your $100 will have grown to $162.89 (that’s the price at which a $3.26 dividend yields 2%).  Since returns on stocks come from dividends plus their growth, a 2% dividend plus 5% growth equals a 7% return. Naturally, the two imponderables are (1) will dividends grow at 5%, and (2) will stocks yield 2% in 10 years (or put another way, where will stocks be?). These are the not unreasonable questions of the bond investor as he contemplates a larger holding of risky stocks in place of bonds with their confiscatory interest rates.

The thing is, while nobody knows the answer to these two questions, it doesn’t take much of your capital in stocks to replicate the cash return you might achieve with bonds in the scenario just outlined. The Treasury Bond Interest chart (Source: SL Advisors) shows the annual interest on a 2.3% yielding bond (the current level on ten year treasury notes)  if you invested $100 (assuming a 40% tax rate, approximately the top margin Federal income tax rate, so $2.30 annually falls to $1.38). The Stocks Total Return chart (Source: SL Advisors) shows the return from investing just $25 in stocks, so the $0.50 dividend (2% on $25) is, after 24% taStocks vs Bonds July 11 2015 (Bonds)xes, around $0.38. This assumes the Federal dividend tax rate and the ObamaCare surcharge but excludes state taxes.

The intent is to show visually what the Math does, which is that given the assumptions described you only need use 25% of your bond money invested in stocks to achieve the same cash return that you might expect from bonds. While switching out of bonds into stocks might sound imprudent to many, the real choice is between $100 in bonds or $25 in stocks with the other $75 in Cash. The 25/75 barbell portfolio of stocks and cash can quite plausibly replace the bond portfolio. If stocks fall 50%, your barbell would lose a quarter of that, or 12.5%. Whereas, a move in ten year yields from, 2.3% to 4% would cause the same loss of value. Consider for a moment which is more likely.

Of course, an investor may prefer the certainty of a loss of real value after inflation and taxes that bonds offer, compared with the uncertainty of stocks. In effect, that is what every bond investor is choosing by virtue of owning bonds. But in the 25/75 barbell portfolio we’ve assumed that there’s no return to the cash portion, and while that is more or less true today it will change over ten years; in fact, cash will probably begin earning a return (albeit still small) later this  year if Janet Yellen does as expected. The Math of stocks over bonds is compelling. It’s this analysis that has informed our rejection of bonds for years. This is the unspoken logic behind Barrons and their article, A New Approach to Bonds. It’s not quite as new as they think.

Prognosticating the Effect of Higher Interest Rates

People often ask me how I think equity markets, including Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs), will perform when interest rates are rising. It’s a timely question, since bond yields have been moving higher for the past couple of months. The yield on the ten year U.S. treasury recently touched 2.5% as markets look ahead to a tightening by the Fed later this year. Of course, the Fed has been steadily pushing back the first rate hike, since it turns out they’re not any better at forecasting rates than the private sector, as I wrote a couple of months ago in Preparing for Higher Rates. Nonetheless, they will be right eventually and financial advisors would like to be prepared.

The relationship between interest rates and most asset classes is not simple. Bond prices mathematically fall with rising yields since their payouts are fixed, but equity securities whose return comes from both dividends and dividend growth have a more complicated relationship with rates.

Stronger economic activity can be expected to translate into faster profit growth and higher dividends, in which case higher rates represent confirmation of a more robust economy and need not be negative. Conversely, if rates rise while inflation is unchanged, it results in higher real rates (i.e. after inflation) and this in theory reduces the value of all assets.

But we know rates will rise, and the yield curve is pricing in the expectation of a higher Fed Funds rate in the next 6-12 months. So part of the question comes down to what the market will do if the market’s own forecast of the timing of rising rates turns out to be correct. In this respect, it boils down to a question of market psychology; if rates rise following the path already reflected in the yield curve, it ought not to surprise. In fact, the prices of treasury bonds ought not to change, in theory, since their prices already reflect that path. They obviously will move, but where will they, and equity markets, settle?

I have a friend who has an exceptionally acute sense of such things. Through seemingly logical analysis, he often arrives at an insight that sometimes seems so obvious but wasn’t at all clear until he pointed it out. On this topic, he recently noted to me that if he was considering buying stocks but planned to sell upon a Fed rate hike later this year, he wouldn’t invest. It seems so blindingly obvious, but if something unsurprising will happen that would cause you to sell, you would avoid putting yourself in that position.

Therefore, if you put yourself in the mind of this mythical yet rational investor; if this participant isn’t going to sell stocks at that time, who is? And the answer is, people with a short term horizon who expect selling by others and wish to avoid a near-term drop in their portfolios, or hope to buy back shortly afterwards. And from whom exactly will they buy back their shares, if our mythical yet rational investor (perhaps with many like-minded folk) is not then a seller?

This is exactly the kind of set-up that can cause equity markets to reach higher prices than existed prior to the “news”, as the participants expecting to buy from other more hasty investors find far fewer such impulsive folk exist than they might have expected. We don’t forecast equity markets, but don’t be shocked if stocks rally on the first rate hike.

The analysis of market psychology is of course an endless game that never ends. Events big and small are anticipated, happen and are reacted to along with big and small surprises too. As soon as the aftermath of one event reveals the true disposition of willing buyers and sellers through their subsequent actions, the build-up to another event begins. It’s very hard to be good at figuring this out, and in my experience the supply of people with opinions far and away exceeds the number whose views result in profitable outcomes. But I know just a very few who have turned astute observation into market profitability.

For our part, while this type of prognostication can be fascinating, there isn’t a plausible move in interest rates that would cause us to sell investments which are, by definition, held for the long run. Several months at least lie between today and the resolution of that particular event. When it happens, if equity markets fall, we shall be among those whose portfolios suffer a loss in value. However, we shall not be a seller in response to something not surprising. Ben Graham is believed to have said that in the short run the market is a voting machine while in the long run it’s a weighing machine. We’ll weigh things up down the road.

The Problems with Reported Inflation

The CFA’s bi-monthly magazine includes an article on the gradual mis-reporting of inflation that’s taken place over the years (“Double, Double Toil and Trouble”). Criticism of how the government calculates inflation is not new, and I included a chapter on this in my latest book Bonds Are Not Forever. For a start, it’s hard to take seriously an index which assigns a 24% weighting to Owners Equivalent Rent (OER), a wholly unsatisfactory solution to the problem that owned housing represents an investment that happens to provide a service (which is shelter) whereas the CPI seeks to measure the consumption of goods and services (including shelter) but not the return on investments (such as real estate). OER relies on estimates of what owned housing would rent for if rented, a concept with which very few homeowners have any familiarity. It’s just one example of the white-coated statisticians in their inflation laboratory concocting mathematical potions that have no relevance to the outside world.

John Williams runs, and he’s probably one of the better known critics of current practice. One has to acknowledge that the inflation critics are something of a fringe group, and at their most extreme mutter about a widespread conspiracy to cover up the Federal government’s impending bankruptcy. I can’t say I align myself with such extreme views, but nonetheless I do believe that beating inflation as reported is a dangerously low hurdle for an investor to set when planning their retirement.

In the 1990s the calculations were altered to allow for substitution and quality improvements. Both of these can make sense and need not be controversial as long as the user understands what the resulting altered figures mean. Substitution recognizes that the basket of goods and services from whose fluctuating price the CPI is derived changes in real life, and therefore allows that the CPI should reflect these changes. Consumers shift from, say, steak to chicken when relative prices change but also bought fewer vinyl LP records when CDs became available. Clearly, not changing the weights to account for this would mean that the cost of horseshoes would still be a component.

Quality improvements are more subjective in my opinion and rarely seem to include quality deterioration. Commercial flying is a perfect example. When I describe some of the subtleties of calculating inflation in presentations and note that the inflation statistics have incorporated a modest quality improvement in flying in recent years (due to easier cancellation terms) the audience typically laughs at the absurdity of the notion. Longer security lines, poorer food and sometimes surly flight attendants may not resonate with the statisticians who measure such things but are assuredly part of the flying experience for most users of inflation figures.

John Williams gets to the heart of the matter when he argues that in combination, substitution and quality improvements have altered the CPI from measuring the cost of a constant standard of living to the cost of a constant level of satisfaction (constant utility is the economic term). Although the difference may seem trivial don’t be fooled; since living standards generally rise over the time you care more about the cost of maintaining a constant standard relative to your peers and the larger economy. If your lifestyle includes buying the latest ipad you want to maintain that standard, and falling ipad prices (which don’t occur in reality but do occur for inflation statisticians once new model quality improvements are factored in) may give you more utility, but utility isn’t always fungible and you may not have asked for it.

It also occurred to me that in the debates among academicians and government departments about how to calculate inflation, the beneficiaries of the lower inflation camp are invariably well represented. Lower inflation flatters the government’s finances through reduced cost of living adjustments on entitlements as well as tax-bracket creep (since the income bands at which higher tax rates kick in are adjusted up more slowly than they would be otherwise). The tangible and political benefits no doubt invigorate those arguing for a lower-resulting methodology while the benefits to those sincerely advocating a higher-resulting methodology would seem to be far more prosaic.

It’s one more contributing factor to increasing income inequality (since those most exposed to the vicissitudes of inflation calculations rely disproportionately on entitlements and welfare) but it will be no surprise that different inflation calculation methodology has never been much of a hot-button political issue. For investors, you take the world as you find it. Fixed return securities such as bonds provide scant compensation for inflation risk. Someone asked me just the other day what I thought was the best protection against a steady increase in inflation (whether it’s inflation as measured by the government or simply the higher version as experienced). The best answer we have is to invest in equity securities whose underlying businesses possess built-in protection in the form of pricing power. Stable companies with consistently high operating margins; midstream Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) who often own fee-generating assets whose pricing is inflation linked. These are two of the best forms of defense an investor can adopt. While it’s probably a stretch to assume a government conspiracy, it’s hard to identify participants in the debate whose interest is to err on the side of higher (i.e. more conservative) inflation calculations.

Bonds Are Not Forever Book Review

Laurence B. Siegel, Research Director at the CFA’s Research Foundation, has written a generous, largely positive review. He has evidently read the book quite carefully and has written one of the more extensive reviews I’ve seen. I am flattered by his kind attention.