Distinguished Speaker Series: Jeremy Grantham, GMO

Few encapsulate the time-honored principles of value investing as Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and chief investment strategist of Grantham, Mayo, & van Otterloo (GMO). On January 23, close to 400 attendees gathered at the Standard Club for CFA Society Chicago’s January Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon where Grantham gave CFA charterholders and guests alike the tools needed to spot bubbles before they burst, as well as some food for thought on the environment and renewable energy. Several hundred others watched the presentation via webcast.

“I put this talk together on Halloween which is very suitable for this topic,” Grantham said before going through some ways to determine if the market has reached a stage of irrational exuberance. He thinks that the market is racing towards a near term melt up. But first, Grantham wanted to talk about cryptocurrencies.

In a talk in 2017, he said that he expected Bitcoin to crash before the real crash of equities prices. Since then, Bitcoin has retreated from a high of nearly $20,000 down to just over $10,000, giving the first part of Grantham’s prediction some credibility. “I know nothing about Bitcoin, I just look at it as a historian would look at it,” admitted Grantham.

The question “Are we near a melt up?” kicked off Grantham’s presentation. The expression “melt up” is becoming a frequently searched term on Google, which is another sign Grantham identified as a possible sign of a bubble. The term refers to a sudden flow of cash that drives stock prices higher, often related more closely to momentum and sentiment than underlying market fundamentals. Melt ups tend to lead to their dreaded cousin, the meltdown, and are a key concern for allocators such as Grantham’s firm GMO.

Some other classic bubbles from history include the South Sea Stock bubble, the 1929 S&P 500 bubble and the Dotcom bubble of the late 90s. The 2007 housing bubble was “the best looking bubble I’ve seen,” said Grantham, admiring the chart’s perfect conical shape.

Comparing today’s price chart with prior bubbles gives Grantham some relief. Right now, the S&P 500 doesn’t resemble a classic bubble. Prices would need to accelerate by 60% in the final bull phase over 21 months for it to rank in the same league as some of history’s more noteworthy bubbles.

While markets appear to be frothy yet not quite a true bubble, it’s important to watch out for clues that can help identify a bubbly market. First we can look at the advance/decline ratio. As the ratio declines, that can be seen as anearly warning sign for the broader market, with fewer stocks carrying the market higher.

Valuation is another clue investors often look at to determine if we’re in a bubble. Grantham agrees that markets are very expensive. Looking at a modified Shiller CAPE ratio, there was only one time in history where equities were this pricey. That year was 1929, and it led to a precipitous fall and the largest stock market decline in history. While expensive, looking at price-to-earnings ratios tells you very little about the likelihood and timing of a bubble bursting, opined Grantham. He gave the example of exploding PE ratios in 1990s Japan as one example where a very high ratio led to an even higher ratio.

So if looking at valuation doesn’t work for spotting bubbles, what does? Grantham said that using indicators of market participants’ euphoria is a much better route. Margin buying of equities and outperformance of quality stocks vs high beta stocks are a couple items to explore. The US housing market also is showing some signs of bubbliness. Nobody is talking about housing looking like a bubble right now but there are definitely some signs, according to Grantham.

One absolute requirement for a bursting bubble is a Republican Presidency, Grantham said, pointing to Hoover, Nixon and G.W. Bush as some Republicans who’ve presided over bursting bubbles. Grantham said that he believes that there is a greater than 50% chance of a melt up that would bring the S&P 500 to 3200 – 3800. If so, then he thinks that there will be a 90% probability of a meltdown from there.

Climate change and renewable energy was Grantham’s second topic. “The good news is that technology is accelerating along with the damage [being done to the environment],” said Grantham. Wind and solar power are quickly becoming cheaper than coal and nuclear power. Those developments are forcing investors to consider how they are positioning their portfolios in light of climate change. Alternative energy represents “the biggest transformation since the introduction of oil”.

Oil consumption is set to peak in 2020. With many shale companies remaining unprofitable, Grantham thinks that capital will flow towards renewable energy. His firm GMO has a climate change fund that offers opportunities in this space as do a number of other investment managers. “We live in a world where chemical poisons are deeply penetrating everything, “Grantham said, highlighting reduced sperm count among men, deep declines in flying insect populations and reduced grain production as some of the many troubling signs he sees with the environment today.

Right now GMO favors Emerging Markets and EAFE stocks over US stocks and has positioned its portfolio for foreign outperformance over the next few years. Capitalism has produced its benefits, but fails to account for the tragedy of the commons, with pollution, rampant use of fossil fuels and marketing of opioids still taking place despite the harm caused to human life.

Grantham’s talk was indeed as spooky as advertised, and gave attendees plenty to mull over while considering how to position their portfolios against the backdrop of high asset prices and troubling environmental issues.

 

Distinguished Speaker Series Webcast – Jeremy Grantham, GMO

Recorded January 23, 2018

 

Volunteer of the Month: February 2018

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This month’s Volunteer of the Month is recognized for her efforts on both the Communications and Education Seminars Advisory Groups. Rida Iqbal is a Level III Candidate in the CFA Program. She holds a bachelor’s degree in applied accounting from Oxford Brooks University and is an analyst, consultant, and auditor for firms including Big 4 member Ernst & Young.

Rida is a longtime volunteer and contributor to the Education Advisory Group (EAG). She has served the advisory group by taking meeting minutes and offering assistance with several of the group’s programs. Most notably, she served as research assistant and helped with the Practitioner Demand Driven Academic Research Initiative (PDDARI). Rida also has a commitment to keeping CFA Society Chicago members informed by serving as an event reporter. She has written several articles for the CFA Society Chicago Blog.

Thank you Rida for everything that you do!

Vault Series: Philip Bartow, RiverNorth Capital Management

 

The new asset class of marketplace lending (MPL) was the topic of discussion at CFA Society Chicago’s Vault Series presentation on January 11, 2018. Presenting was Philip Bartow, lead portfolio manager for MPL at RiverNorth Capital Management. What was once a peer-to-peer market for consumer and small business loans has blossomed into a new institutional asset class totaling $27 billion as of 2016.  RiverNorth is a Chicago-based investment manager founded in 2000 with $3.8 billion under management. The firm specializes in opportunistic strategies with a focus on niche markets that offer opportunities to exploit valuation inefficiencies. Marketplace lending is the firm’s newest strategy.

The Environment for Marketplace Lending

Bartow began with a review of market and economic conditions that support the case for investing in MPL, starting with the interest rate environment. Although the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee forecasts three increases in short term rates in 2018, projections from the Fed Funds futures market are less aggressive. The market is saying “lower for longer” still rules the day. In addition, past increases in the Fed Funds rate have caused the yield curve to flatten, making shorter duration instruments relatively more attractive compared to longer investments.

Consumer financial health has improved greatly since the crisis of 2008-09. After a lengthy down trend, the unemployment rate has reached a level consistent with full employment, consumer sentiment gauges are at high levels and are moving in an upward trend. Growth rates of GDP and average hourly wages are finally showing some acceleration. Loan losses on consumer lending (residential mortgages and credit card loans) have fallen from crisis highs to, or below, long term averages.  In addition, corporate credit metrics are strong. Default rates on high yield bonds and leveraged loans have been running below long term averages for several years, and corporate earnings (based on the S&P 500 Index) are strong and expected to rise higher. The household debt service ratio, at just under 10%, sits at a 30 year low, and household debt/GDP at 80%, is at a level not seen since long before the last crisis. In short, the picture of economic fundamentals for both consumers and corporations is a rosy one. A slight rise in consumer delinquencies in 2016 is attributable to borrowers with low FICO scores, under 660 at origination.

The persistence of low interest rates, and the “risk-on” sentiment in financial markets, has pushed valuations to extreme levels. Credit spreads on high yield bonds sit more than a full standard deviation below average levels, and the VIX index of equity market volatility remains very low.

The Case for Marketplace Lending

At its essence, MPL loans involve the use of online platforms to provide secured lending to consumers and small businesses funded by institutional investors. Between borrower and lender sits an innovative loan originator that relies on technology to gather the data to support extending the original loan, servicing it, and monitoring the credit quality. There are 125-150 originators of loans but Lending Club, dating back to 2007, is the largest and most experienced in the market. Established “brick and mortar” banks are only just beginning to get involved.

Bartow began his case for investing in MPL by pointing out the huge spread between the average credit card loan (almost 21%) and the long term average yield in the bond market (measured by the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index) of 4.52%. MPL offer a potential benefit to both borrowers and investors inside this wide difference. The long term average coupon rate on MPL loans is just over 13%, while investors have earned an average of 8.13%.

Several characteristics of MPL loans are instrumental in providing better risk-adjusted returns going forward than direct consumer lending in the past.

  • In particular, originators focus on the higher end of the credit spectrum, lending only to borrowers with FICO scores of 640 to 850 (with an average of 705). This puts them in the higher end of the “near prime” category or better. Borrowers considered subprime and even prime are excluded.
  • In addition, MPL loans are always amortizing installment loans, in contrast to the typical credit card or consumer loan that comes in the form of a revolving credit line. MPL loans thus exhibit a constant rate of repayment, a predictable cash flow, and a lower duration, all of which reduce credit risk. In contrast, revolving credit loans don’t decline. In fact, they often increase ahead of a default as the borrowers tend to draw on their lines more as their financial health slips (slide 16).

An efficient frontier plot of the Orchard U.S. Consumer MPL Index covering January 2014 through September 2017 shows a superior risk-adjusted return versus a variety of relevant Barclays fixed income indices including the 1-3 Year Treasury Index, ABS Credit Card index, Aggregate Index, and High Yield Index, as well as the S&P 500 Index.

Bartow provided further information on the market for investing in MPL loans in general as well as some standards that RiverNorth follows. Although often compared to credit cards loans, MPL loans come in various types and are made to differing borrowers. The most common are consumer loans which are usually used to pay off or consolidate credit card debt. Originators may use a lower loan rate to induce borrowers to allow the originator to pay the credit card directly with the loan proceeds. Doing so has proved to lead to a better record of payment. Student loans and franchisee loans are other common types.

The secondary market for MPL loans is not a liquid one. Trades occur literally “by appointment” when originators announce dates in advance when they will bring supply to market. RiverNorth’s registered mutual fund that invests in MPL loans is an “interval fund”, meaning that it accepts new investments daily, but distributes withdrawals only quarterly, with a limit on the amount. Although many loans go into securitized products, RiverNorth prefers to invest in whole loans directly to improve gross returns. They also buy the entire balance of loans which gives them more control in the case of deteriorating credits or defaults. Loan originators, however, usually retain servicing rights on loans they sell.