Monday, September 19, 2011

Deja vu

The market these days is reminiscent of the pre-Lehman/Bear Stearns market.  The markets were hyper-reactive---with maniacal swings up and down. As I had done so much research and understood the factual underpinnings of the events (before they unfolded so dramatically), I was able to evaluate statements made by various talking heads.   I was not assured by assurances.

Rather, I understood clearly the systemic risk potential before anyone was talking about it. I had invested hundreds of hours of personal research to understand the unfolding risks.  I read financial statements (of mortgage insurers, insurance companies, mortgage companies and the investment banks) and saw the loan loss reserve and derivative language which told me that using historical methodologies in the sans-sane underwriting environment was going to lead to sharp losses.  I read the S&P, Fitch and Moody's reports which FGIC published on their site.  They no longer do. Most importantly, I understood that systemic risk would collapse all asset classes--there is no basket of diversification that would be safe.   And as we soon found out, even some safe classes--money markets--were not safe.

This research made my head hurt.  The only industry I had a passing acquaintance with was the mortgage industry and that was from audit experience very long ago.  I found the investment bank financial footnotes overwhelming.  But I read them. I thought the insurance companies would be at risk because of the amount of fixed income securities they bought.  Turns out that I was right.  I saw no analyst or talking head suggest that this was a sector that would suffer.
Sure, many were talking about the dangers of derivatives and agressive lending, but all of the doom and gloom centered on a symptom of the problem, subprime.  Rather the entire housing industry that was in a bubble due to easy money for all--just not subprimers.  A few hours at the OFEO site and reviewing their statistical reports for average earnings of households to average home prices and a 2 minute calculation  indicated to me that the problem was sorely underestimated.

The new designer mortgages were not to get undocumented folks into homes, but to get "normal" households into homes where the home values as a multiple of household income had increased markedly (39%).    From 2000 to 2006 housing values increased 76% while household income increased 27%.  It is worth noting that home values increased even more post 2006--but my research was in 2007, and there is no need to update it.

Now, fast forward.  We are awaiting another clown-sized shoe to drop in the form of the European 'stuff' and in the form of no new jobs creation for the US and the threat of a a continuing (or new) recession.    Hard to know if it has dropped already or if we are just cowering in its shadow as it hovers above. My only surprise is that it has taken this long for the giant festering pustule of the Euro-centric economic mess to finally pop.  Similar to our own issues in 2007.  The demise of the banking industry was long foretold in 2006 and so. It takes a while for these whispered, muted fears to take on gut grabbing terror. However, today, I do not feel buoyed by the certainty of my research.  I do not profess to understand the intricacies of what is going on in Europe. 

There is a great paper called Irrational Optimism (Dimson, Elroy, Marsh, Paul and Staunton, Mike, Irrational Optimism (December 2003). LBS Institute of Finance and Accounting Working Paper No. IFA397. Available at SSRN: or doi:10.2139/ssrn.476981).  It is worth your taking time to read.  Here is the first paragraph from the abstract:

We address the tendency of many investors to overestimate the rewards and underestimate the risks of investing in stocks over the long term - that is, investors' irrational optimism. In particular, we examine the widely held belief that stocks are a "safe" investment for the long run. The probability of experiencing a real loss on equities depends on the expected real return and standard deviation of stocks. Judgments about the future magnitude of these two parameters typically involve extrapolating from history. We use a global database of real equity returns from 16 countries during the 103-year period from 1900 through 2002 to confront the optimism of investors with the reality of history
While I feel somewhat ill-equipped to know with any certainty of what is down the road,  I do know that ultimately we have to rely on our own judgments of the risks. Dimson etal's paper is one that helps illuminate perceptions, and I try to keep the valuable perspectives in that paper at hand.   If we could learn anything from the last bout of certitudes where the eventualities of the collapse of the dollar and treasuries were 'no-brainers', we should learn this:  conventional wisdom in unconventional times is not worth much.