Distinguished Speaker Series: Morton Schapiro, Northwestern University

How is your earnings trajectory impacted if you attend a top private versus a top public institution? How many students pay the full ticket price of tuition and what is the average tuition payment post-financial aid?  Should we be concerned about the levels of student loan debt in this country?

These questions and more were the topics of discussion at The Chicago Club where approximately 150 investment professionals gathered to hear Morton Schapiro, economist and the current president of Northwestern University, opine on the state of funding for higher education. For background, Morton Schapiro is currently the 16th president of Northwestern University for which his term began in September of 2009. He is a Professor of Economics at Northwestern and also holds appointments in the Kellogg School of Management and the School of Education and Social Policy. He previously served as the president of Williams College. Schapiro is among the nation’s leading experts on the economics of higher education, with particular expertise in the area of college financing and affordability and on trends in educational costs and student aid. He has written more than 100 articles, and he has written or edited nine books, his most recent Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities (Amazon). His most recent book challenges modern day economics and discusses how economics can be improved through reading great literature, and even taking a step further, how one can improve investment performance through being immersed in great literature.

The industry of higher education is a fascinating one in that it is unlike any other industry in the world. In fact, some economists do not even consider it as an industry at all, however Shapiro argues the industry can be viewed with many similarities to a traditional business sector. Dissecting the industry of higher education, nationwide there are 4,400 colleges and universities that can be bifurcated into public and private, and for-profit and non-for-profit. As for students, or “customers” of the industry, there are 17 million undergraduate students and 3 million graduate or professional students. If you were to combine all the operating budgets of these 4,400 institutions, you would reach $600 billion dollars, or roughly 3% of this country’s GDP. Now this figure may seem large to some, but what one must also take into consideration is the multiplier effect of this 3%—the present value of future cash flows from the individuals that are bestowed with a great education and their respective spending impacts on other sectors of the economy.

Let’s dig in to take a closer look at the composition of these 4,400 institutions. Of these higher level education institutions, only about 350 schools (or 8%) have any admission standards whatsoever. Said another way, 92% of these higher education institutions accept anyone who applies. On the other end of the spectrum, for every twelve students who apply at Northwestern, only one is accepted equating to a less than 8% acceptance rate. Stanford, Harvard and Yale have even lower acceptance rates closer to ~5%. The reality is, the vast majority of students at higher education institutions are enrolled at schools that take everyone who applies. Further, of the 350 schools that do have admission standards, only about the top 150 schools get much publicity with the overwhelming attention going to the top 60 accredited research universities comprised of 26 private institutions including Stanford and Northwestern, and 34 of the public institutions including University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Michigan and Wisconsin.

This begs the question, how important is it to go attend to one of the top 60 accredited research universities? As most financial minded people would conjure, it ultimately comes down to a simple rate of return equation. Shapiro points out that we are at record rates of return for higher level education. The New York Fed looked at the direct costs of room and board and tuition plus the opportunity costs of entering the labor force immediately after high school. It took 23 years to cover the direct and indirect costs of a college education 25 years ago. Today, it takes less than 10 years to cover the direct and indirect costs—despite the rising cost of tuition that we’ve seen over the last 10 years. The return on higher education has increased much more rapidly than the rising cost of tuition. Simply put, higher level education is more important today than ever to maximize a student’s future expected earnings potential.

Let’s bring demographics into the analysis. Statistics show if you grew up in a household in the bottom 20% income range and you earned a degree from a higher level education institution, you had a 21% chance of jumping to the top 20% of income earners in the United States. The national average of a child growing up in the bottom 20% income earning household jumping to the top quintile is ~8%, leaving the non-attending high level education student in the low-mid-single digit percent range. This means that a lower-income student has roughly a four-times better chance at making the transition to the top quintile of household earners if he/she attends a higher level education institution versus if he/she does not attend. Further, if you went to one of the accredited public universities, the chances of moving from the bottom bracket to the top actually increased to 42%, roughly eight-times a child who does not attend any college or university. Taking it one step further, if a student attends one of the top private institutions, their chances of success (measured financially) moves to over 50%. Higher education matters.

This then begs the question, “Do the benefits of this higher education outweigh the costs?” Currently there is ~$1.4 trillion dollars of student loan debt outstanding in the United States. However, less than 1% of students have loan balances over $100,000. In fact, only 60% of college graduates have student loan debt (40% graduate debt free) and the average student loan balance for those that have loans is only $30,000. If you look at the rate of return on higher level education, particularly if you are attending a top 60 school, you cover the costs of your education very quickly. One area of concern is attendance at a less accredited “for-profit” school where we find the vast majority of student loan defaults.

What scares people from pursuing higher level education most often is the quoted “sticker price”. Although the sticker price of higher level education is what garners the most attention, the majority of students do not pay the full sticker price. In fact, only 25% of students attending four-year public universities pay the full sticker price. The average sticker price for in-state tuition is $10,000.  In fact, 75% of students receive some form of financial aid lowering the average student cost of attendance to ~$4,000/year for a public university. At the top private institutions, only 15% of students pay the full sticker price. The average tuition at these higher-level educations is $35,000/year and with the help of financial aid, the average student pays only $15,000 per year.   At Northwestern, roughly 40% of students pay the full $72,000/year sticker price and the remaining 60% of students pay on average $28,000/year. With the average student paying $28,000/year, Shapiro points out it is rather deceptive to only focus on the full $72,000 sticker price.

The event wrapped up with a Q&A session, where the focus was on top public schools vs. top private schools, financial aid, online education, and best advice for future students.

  • Top private school vs. top public schools. Penn State did a study that showed if a student could graduate through Penn State in four years and you paid full sticker price at both Penn State and University of Pennsylvania, your earnings potential was not dependent on which school you attended. However, if you attend a public school, graduation rates tend to be closer to 4.5 to 5 years, whereas the private universities are closer to 4 years. Demographically, the study showed that if you are a Caucasian coming from a wealthy family, you are just as better off at a top public school as you are at a top private institution. If you are a female, it tips marginally in favor of going to the top private. If you are a minority, you are much better off at a top private institution. There is a lot of debate on why these results are the way they are.
  • Financial aid and the rise of merit-based aid. Many schools have made a move towards merit-based aid versus needs-based aid; however Northwestern has not made this transition. Shapiro’s position is needs-based aid provides more value—the merit is being accepted into one of these prestigious institutions that changes the trajectory of your future earnings stream in a dramatic way. Shapiro doesn’t believe we should discount school for students who come from well-off households.
  • Online education. Despite a rise in popularity, it is impossible to disrupt the control the top 60 institutions have on the marketplace. Technology has made all higher level education better in terms of greater efficiencies, but Shapiro doesn’t envision the online degrees disrupting the premier institutions. Generally speaking, the higher institutions do not accept credit from online institutions.
  • Best advice for future students: Apply early. Northwestern takes 50% of their students through early admission. The school wants those students who would do anything to be able to attend their university. Find a school where your child will really thrive and not find himself/herself in over his/her head and apply early.

Factor-Based Investing

The CFA Women’s Network hosted a lively and vibrant event featuring Patricia Halper, CFA, partner and co-chief investment officer at Chicago Equity Partners. Halper spoke to a room full of engaged members on the topic of factor-based investing which coincides with the popular topic “Smart Beta” investing. The subject is more relevant than ever as investors question the worth of fundamental active stock-pickers in search of both better performance and lower expenses. As a brief introduction, Halper has been working at Chicago Equity Partners for over twenty years as both a member of the quantitative research team and a portfolio manager.  Prior to CEP, she worked at Paine Webber on the institutional futures sales desk. Halper holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Loyola University Chicago, a master’s degree in financial mathematics from the University of Chicago, and is also a CFA charterholder. Currently at Chicago Equity Partners, Halper utilizes factor-based investing strategies to support the firm’s equity decision making processes.

Simply stated, a “factor” is a characteristic of a security that explains its investment return. Factor investing in its most simplistic form can be described by the traditional CAPM equation: E(r) = rf * B(Rp-rf) where beta represents the single factor. In examining how a factor can be used towards making investment decisions, the question an investor must then ask is twofold: “Is this factor a good predictor of future price movements?” and then secondly “Which side of the factor (high beta or low beta in this case) will outperform the index?” Expanding upon a tradition single-factor model, Fama and French introduced the three-factor model in the 1990s which included beta, size and value.  In the late 1990s, quality factors came into light such as balance sheet quality, earnings quality, and quality of the management team. Today, there are hundreds of factors that investment professionals analyze to explain investment returns. Bottom line: factor investing is a known proven strategy that has been around for many years.  If you get the direction of correlated factors correct, you will likely outperform your benchmark.

Some of the most common factors used today include:

  • Value:  Low price/earnings, low price/sales, low price/book value
  • Quality: Strong management team, high earnings quality with lack of one-time items, low balance sheet leverage
  • Momentum: Both price momentum and earnings momentum generally provide outsized returns.
  • Size:  Smaller companies have outperformed larger companies over a long period of time
  • Volatility: Less volatile stocks provide higher expected return over the long term.

There is a key asterisks to the factors noted above. High value, high quality, positive momentum, small market cap, and low volatility have all shown to be positive factors of price performance…  over a 20 YEAR period. Often times, clients don’t have the investment horizon (or patience) to stick with a strategy that doesn’t work over several years, or even more commonly over several quarters.  In fact, the opposite of what is true in the long term (20 years) can be true in the short term (several quarters to even years). The key to understanding which factor is the most relevant to excess return is to understand what cycle of the market we are in. Halper described three market cycles:

  • Expansion: Most often markets are in expansion mode as markets generally trend higher. Momentum factor outperforms the most in expansionary periods (5%+ excess returns) and tends to work because investors tend to chase winners.
  • Downturn: At the end of the expansion period, you see a shift to Low Volatility and High Quality names with strong balance sheets that provide the best excess returns. This period can be considered recessionary with negative GDP growth.
  • Rebound: Finally, the rebound period doesn’t last long between when the downturn ends and when the expansion cycle begins—typically 2-3 quarters.  During this short time period, Value outperforms best.

Taking our single-factor observations above one step further, there is empirical evidence that If you know how to combine multiple factors into a model, a multi-factor portfolio will outperform a single-factor portfolio with less risk. There is a cyclicality in any one factor  and the cyclicality of factors increased during the global financial crisis.  It is best as an investment manager to pick at least two factors to structure your portfolio. That being said, you have to use two factors that are moderately correlated, otherwise one factor will tell you to buy and another to sell and you will naturally be holding the indexed market.. or cash!  How you combine factors, how you weight them, and how you allocate each factor is the name of the game for outsized returns. It is also critical to highlight that another key to successful factor based investing is having high quality data. High quality data has both a wide breadth and a long time horizon and without high quality data, your model will give false signals into which assets to buy and sell.

The analysis of factor based investing begs the question how is it related to the popular term in the industry right now “Smart Beta” investing.  Smart Beta strategies have shown tremendous AUM growth largely due to a general dissatisfaction with traditional equity asset managers. Asset allocators ask of Smart Beta products, “Can you perform better than a traditional passive index at a rate that is cheaper than active equity managers?” To put figures around the growth, in 2008, there was $100mm invested in Smart Beta strategies. Today, there is over $1 Trillion, a ten-fold increase in the last 10 years.  The largest smart beta funds, largely run by Vanguard and Blackrock, trade based on growth and/or value, what is otherwise a very traditional style-based factor investing that has been around for 20 years. When you take a closer look under the hood, even though these products are called “Smart Beta”, it is really the same principles just repackaged with a sexier word for the times. It’s not quant analysis, and if the product is only focused on a single factor, it’s not multi-factor investing either. If the Smart Beta product is only using a single-factor approach, it is simply “Quant 101” that has been around for over 20 years. Multi-factor Smart Beta products are a very small portion of the market which undoubtedly will grow over time. Investors should note that if they plan on buying a smart beta product, be aware of the sector exposures, as some have very high sector exposures which can overwhelm your factor exposure if you are overinvested in an industry that has sector specific issues.

What does the next 10 years look like? What factors will outperform in this current market environment? The Fed is now raising interest rates and ending its 10-year quantitative easing program.  How will turmoil in foreign markets and currencies impact our domestic equity and bond markets here at home? Only time will tell, but what is clear is that factor-based investing should be in every investment manager’s tool chest as they evaluate market trends and the price movements of its underlying securities.

Annual Business Meeting and Networking Reception 2018

Shannon Curley, CFA, chief executive office of CFA Society Chicago, said it best during cocktails following the Annual Business Meeting, “This was by far the most engaged audience we’ve had in years with several great questions from our audience.”  Held on June 21st, the Annual Business Meeting was attended by approximately 60 members and took place at The Library, an old law-library feel conference room at the top of 190 S. LaSalle.

After a welcoming from Shannon Curley, the event started with Marie Winters, chair (2017-2018 of CFA Society Chicago, who gave an overview of the successes over the past year. To level set the scale of the Society, CFA Society Chicago continues its climb towards 5,000 members, with 4,800 members at the end of May making Chicago the sixth largest society in the world. Perhaps even more importantly, 367 members, or 7.5% of the membership base, was actively engaged on various Advisory Groups, a testament to the involvement amongst the Chicago Society members.

Over the last fiscal year ending June 30, the Society hosted over 130 events. Major highlights include the CFA Annual Dinner with over 1,000 registered attendees and 64 sponsors all actively engaged by the keynote speaker David Rubenstein, CEO and founder of the Carlyle Group after the recognition of 163 new charterholders. The Advisory Groups, or sub-committees functioning through volunteer members, also had a number of successes. The Education Advisory Group introduced a new fin-tech series with a special well-attended event discussing blockchain technologies. The Professional Development Advisory Group hosted a Starting your own RIA series and continues to grow its mentorship program.  The CFA Women’s Network hosted two events – Patricia Halper, CFA, on Factor Investing and a second event on taking control of your career.  The Social Advisory Group hosted a sold-out golf outing in Kohler, Wisconsin in partnership with the CFA Societies of Madison and Milwaukee. The Distinguished Speaker Series hosted several sold out lunches including prominent speakers such as Don Wilson, Myron Scholes, and Jeremy Grantham to name a few. Finally to wrap up the past years’ successes, the Society launched its new, mobile friendly, website used to distribute news announcements, host webinars and podcasts, and offer new ways to engage the membership base.

Tanya Williams, CFA, the secretary treasurer of CFA Society Chicago (2017-2018), shared with us the financial position of the Society over the prior fiscal year.  Overall the Society’s operating results were positive with a small operating gain primarily attributable to higher than anticipated proceeds from the Annual Dinner as a result of higher corporate sponsorship and minimal speaker fees. Alan Meder, CFA, chief risk officer at Duff and Phelps Investment Management also received an award for his dedication to the Society, which included a monetary portion of the award that he generously donated back to the Society. We then turned to Q&A where statistics surrounding female involvement in the Society was the most topical.

Currently, female membership has gone from 20% ten years ago to 12.5% today. Part of the reason of the decrease is due to the decline of women in the investment professional pipeline. With fewer women taking finance courses in their undergraduate and graduate programs, it is making it more difficult to have a more balanced gender base in the Society. To target the issue, CFA Society Chicago is actively working on making a commitment to increase female membership starting by working with the academic institutions to educate women on careers in finance. The CFA Women’s Network has also strengthened its events specifically geared towards women in the society. After Q&A, the current board introduced the new directors for the next upcoming year and recognized the outgoing leadership for all of their efforts and dedication over their prior term.

The event concluded with commentary from the incoming chair of the Society, Tom Digenan, CFA, who has served on the board for the prior two years and currently heads the US Intrinsic Value Team at UBS Asset Management. Tom shared his vision that with nearly 5,000 members and the best programs of any CFA Society in the world, it is our responsibility to carry our past successes forward and expand to an even brighter future. Tom recollected while he was studying for the CFA exam, “Make no small plans, they have no magic in them to stir men’s blood.  Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”  CFA Society Chicago, he assured us, has no small plans. Continuing to improve membership involvement, providing the best programs and engaging with industry leaders, regulators, civil, political and local academic leaders will take the Society to the next level. An actively involved Society will make its CFA members indispensable to their employers and attract the best of the best talent to our organization.

 

CFA Society Chicago Executive Committee (2018-2019):

Chair: Thomas Digenan, CFA

Vice Chair: Dan Kastholm, CFA

Secretary/Treasurer: Kristan Rowland, CFA

Immediate Past Chair: Marie Winters, CFA

CEO: Shannon Curley, CFA

 

CFA Society Chicago Directors (2018-2019):

Jenifer Aronson, CFA Doug Laskowski, CFA Dave Smith, CFA
Michelle Beck Cosmin Lucaci, CFA Mark Toledo, CFA
William Fitzpatrick, CFA Levoyd Robinson, CFA Tanya Williams, CFA
Garrett Glawe, CFA Linda Ruegsegger, CFA
Michael Holt, CFA Dhvani Shah, CFA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don Wilson, DRW Founder, on Why Cryptocurrencies Will Change

Over 200 professionals joined CFA Society Chicago for the February Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon at the W in Downtown Chicago to hear Don Wilson opine on one of the most popular topics in the financial industry today—the $450 billion cryptocurrency marketplace. The mood was focused and inquisitive, as Wilson, the founder of DRW Trading, doesn’t make public appearances often and rarely talks about the relatively new financial asset class of cryptocurrencies. Wilson’s vast knowledge in the relatively lesser known field can be attributable to researching the marketplace since early 2012 and eventually forming Cumberland in 2014, a subsidiary of DRW Trading, to provide market making services as well as hold principal positions in crypto coins and tokens. Today, Cumberland is one of the largest OTC liquidity providers in the cryptocurrency market.  I believe it is safe to say that Mr. Wilson was one of the earliest to have a vision of what a world of cryptocurrencies could look like, which makes his view on the future of this space very interesting.

Wilson echoed that in 2017, an inflection point was reached in the cryptocurrency market.  Bitcoin rose from $963 at the beginning of 2017 to close the year at $14,679—a roughly 1,500% increase that largely took off in the final quarter of 2017. In September of 2017, the CBOE and CME launched futures contracts for Bitcoin giving the asset a much larger and more sophisticated institutional audience. Even the most novice cryptocurrency investors – including those family members talking about it over the holidays —were talking about the price of bitcoin and the hottest new cryptocurrency they got wind of. Although we should pay close attention to the price of bitcoin because it was the first pioneering technology and currently is the largest coin by market cap, Wilson argued that by only doing so we would be missing the bigger picture of cryptocurrencies. The marketplace would also agree with his point.  For reference, in 2013, bitcoin made up 95% of the overall market cap of the cryptocurrency market. Today that number is closer to 40% of total crypto assets.

The technology behind Bitcoin known as the blockchain is predicated upon a framework that enables the transferring of value to anyone in the world without having to go through a centralized agent, today, most commonly known as a bank. Cryptocurrencies instead operate on a decentralized and/or a distributed platform. Benefits of switching form a centralized environment to a decentralized/distributed environment is it removes the need to trust a single organization to both hold your assets and control transfers in and out of your account. The decentralized system creates a much more resilient network that could operate even if one node of the structure went dormant. In a centralized system, if for example a bank is hacked or loses data, the entire system falls apart. In a decentralized/distributed system, there are thousands of independent “verifiers of the truth”, also called “bitcoin miners” who validate transactions for the price of small transaction fees.

 

Beyond bitcoin, there are other types of cryptocurrencies called utility tokens that are the result of ICO’s (Initial Coin Offerings) which raise money with a particular purpose or intent. Wilson believes it is the utility tokens that will have the most meaningful impact on the world going forward. Some examples he noted were Iota (MIOTA) and Civic (CVC). Iota is controversial because the underlying technology of the blockchain is different from Bitcoin. The Iota token was created in an attempt to solve the problem of how machines connected to the internet communicate to one another. For example, your household appliances will eventually all have the functionality internet connection and Iota embarks on how these appliances can communicate to one another in one language. The Civic (CVC) token is another example that in intended to facilitate identity validation. For example, Civic sets out to validate the presence of someone who lives in a remote country that may not have a birth certificate let alone a bank account, but they potentially have an internet connection that can confirm identity and allow for a financial transaction to occur.

There was ample time left for questions and as expected, most questions were in regard to what we should expect for the future. Wilson said we will continue to see great institutionalization of not only Bitcoin but all utility tokens. Investors are finally coming to the realization that the blockchain technology is here to stay and can be beneficial to societies in meaningful ways. When asked if we’ll be handing in our greenbacks for electro crypto tokens, the answer was that we probably shouldn’t expect that anytime soon as they are “unlikely” to replace standard government-issued currencies. Further, we can expect greater regulatory overview going forward which may have initial negative price implications in the very near term but should be positive longer term to strengthen the element of trust in the market place. Greater regulation, further institutionalization, and a nice near-term pull back might be all I need to buy my first (or likely only partial) bitcoin.

CFA Society Chicago 31st Annual Dinner

The Chicago Cubs didn’t win the World Series like they did during last year’s Annual Dinner but the 31st CFA Society Chicago Annual Dinner was yet another terrific evening honoring 163 new CFA charterholders and two recipients for the Hortense Friedman, CFA, Award for Excellence. We also had fantastic keynote speaker, David Rubenstein, founder of The Carlyle Group.

During the evening, our newest charterholders were acknowledged for making substantial investments in their careers by passing all three levels of the CFA exam as well as completing the four years of relevant work experience required.  Earning the CFA designation requires a significant investment of time, energy, and tenacity demanding for most nearly 1,000 hours of study.  The new charterholders are joining an exclusive club of investment professionals that possess both a high level of investment aptitude and a commitment to uphold the highest ethical standards.

Congratulations to all the new charterholders!

CFA Society Chicago Chairman Marie Winters, CFA

On behalf of the Society, congratulations to all those who met the rigorous requirements to become a CFA charterholder. After acknowledging the new charterholders, two individuals were honored for the Hortense Friedman, CFA, Award for Excellence.  This award is presented annually to individuals who have demonstrated initiative, leadership, and a commitment to professional excellence.

Larry Lonis, CFA, and Marie Winters, CFA

Larry Lonis, CFA

The first award recipient was Larry Lonis, CFA, who has worked in the industry since 1989, first for JP Morgan and more recently for Bank of America’s US Trust wealth management group where he served as the lead portfolio manager for a REIT equity strategy. Currently, he serves as the COO for the specialty asset management unit specializing in direct investments in oil and gas, farm, commercial real estate, timber, and private business assets.  In Larry’s speech, he was most thankful for being able to have a career where he is paid to learn every day as well as work alongside the incredibly bright people that he has had the opportunity to work.  As his father would always remind him, the most valuable asset each of us own is our name, which we must uphold to the highest standard along with the industry and the CFA designation.

Robert Harper’s son, Blake Harper, accepts the award on his behalf.

The second award went to Robert Harper, CFA, (posthumous) who grew up on the north side of Chicago, attended the University of Illinois where he studied Finance, and earned his MBA from Northwestern University.  He started his career at Stein Roe & Farnham where he became a senior analyst and Partner.  He later spent 22 years at Harris Associates, where he was the first director of research and the first institutional portfolio manager.  Mr. Harper was known for his contrarian views and was actively involved with the Investment Analysts Society of Chicago, known today as the CFA Society Chicago.

As the Friedman awards concluded, David Rubenstein took the stage and captivated the audience with a collection of videos of himself, including commercials, one in which he was running a young girls lemonade stand in which he suggesting bringing in LP’s and taking the company public or an outright sale through an LBO, in another video he was out-lifting bodybuilders in the weight room and another, showcasing his rapping ability while promoting his firm, The Carlyle Group.  After several laughs, Mr. Rubenstein talked about how he started his private equity firm, The Carlyle Group, which led to a review of how his success at Carlyle lead him to contribute philanthropically to our society, and finally a list of predictions for the economy over the next 12-18 months.

Rubenstein grew up in Baltimore, the son of a blue collar Jewish family whose father worked at the post office and never made more than $7,000/year.  In hindsight, it was a great advantage to have the unconditional love of two parents that didn’t have a lot of wealth – you know you’re going to have to do something on your own to create your own success.  Rubenstein attended Duke, where his initial calling was into politics after being captivated by John F. Kennedy’s first inaugural address given on January 20th, 1961.  This is the speech when JFK famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  Continuing with his passion for politics, Rubenstein subsequently pursued law school at the University of Chicago where he graduated from in 1973.  After law school, he went to work for the man who wrote JFK’s speech, Ted Sorensen, who saw Rubenstein was interested in politics, but that he didn’t have the skills to be a terrific lawyer.  From there, he worked as chief council for Birch Bayh, a former US Senator from Indiana, who dropped out of a political race 30 days after David joined leaving him without a job.  Rubenstein then found a job working for Jimmy Carter at a time when Carter was a 33 point favorite to beat our Gerald Ford.  President Carter later won by only one point.  One of Rubenstein’s jobs while working for President Carter was to fight inflation, and if you remember back to this time inflation rose as high as 19%!  Quite the contrast from several economists today more worried about about deflation in today’s environment.  President Carter later ran against a much older Ronald Reagan and lost, putting Rubenstein yet again out of a job.  Without your party in power in Washington, it’s safe to say it’s very hard to find a job.  “If you want a friend in Washington, go buy a dog.”

Reconsidering his path in politics, Rubenstein read a blurb in the newspaper that changed his life.  The article highlighted Bill Simon whom started an investment firm which performed a “leveraged buyout” in which it bought Gibson’s Greeting Cards from RCA for $1 million and made $80mm in two-and a half year period.  He had the ambition and entrepreneurial spirit to start the first private equity firm in Washington DC and recruited the CFO of MCI and an executive from Marriott to be his partners.  They named their firm “The Carlyle Group” after a hotel in New York, for which ironically none of them had ever stayed.  The first four investors in their fund collectively contributed $5 million, or $1.25 million each.  The first deal was Chi Chi’s, a fast food Mexican food company that was looking to go private after being a public company.  The investment turned out successfully and today Carlyle Group has grown to one of the largest private equity firms in the world.  Rubenstein attributes the tremendous success to the creation of numerous styles of funds: a small buyout fund, a growth fund, a mezzanine fund, a debt fund, an institutional fund, and last but not least a family of funds among others.  He and his partners then took this idea of a multi-faceted fund structure and globalized it.

At 54 years old, Rubenstein came across a second newspaper article that also had a significant impact on his life.  This time it was an article of the wealthiest men in the world according to Forbes magazine, where he was featured for creating a very large fortune.  After living two-thirds of his actuarial life, Rubenstein signed a pledge to give away nearly all of his net worth—donating his fortune to educational institutions, medical research firms, and volunteering his time by serving as Chairman of Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and The Smithsonian.  A few years later, a THIRD article changed his life, this time coming in the form of an advertisement.  Flying home from London to New York, he read an invitation that an official copy of the Magna Carta was being auctioned off, of which there are currently 17 copies of around the world.  Ross Perot had bought one in 1981 and had since decided to sell it.  Rubenstein prevailed in the auction and has now donated it to the United States National Archives.  He continued purchasing historical documents that had significant to our country’s founding including the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, rare copies of the constitution, and the first map of the United States.  After acquiring these meaningful documents, he has put them in places where Americans can see them so Americans can be inspired to learn more about the history of our country.

Rubenstein left us with quick yet informative bullets on his forecast for the economy and private equity industry:

  1. We are not going to have a recession anytime soon.  We are likely to have the longest growth cycle in the post WWII era
  2. New Fed Chair Jerome Powell will continue the Federal Reserve’s rate increase trajectory. Expect a 25bps rate increase in December
  3. US unemployment rate will hold steady and we will stay near full employment for the near-medium term
  4. Core inflation will stay below 1.5%
  5. NAFTA will be renegotiated but we will not withdraw
  6. We will have a tax cut bill.  Corp tax rate will go to 20%.  AMT / Estate tax will go away and repatriation will occur.  401k, SALT taxes will be preserved.  Expect tax cuts to pass early next year
  7. US Dollar will strengthen as the US economy continues to strengthen
  8. Europe will grow GDP nearer 2%; China will slow down to 5.5% – 6%
  9. Middle East conflicts won’t get resolved anytime soon.  Expect us to still be in Afghanistan 5-10 years from now
  10. Don’t expect a military confrontation North Korea
  11. Brexit will occur, however it won’t unduly kill the British economy
  12. Global climate change regulation will stay in place and actually will be enhanced
  13. Cyber warfare will continue to be the most important issue, and threat, to our country today
  14. Life expectancy will continue to rise globally as emerging markets catch up to developed world
  15. Private equity returns will drift down, but still beat index returns; United States private equity will outperform globally
  16. Sovereign wealth funds will continue to be increasingly important to the industry
  17. Government will allow retail investors to invest in private equity
  18. The largest private equity firms will continue to increase market share and grow globally

Concluding on Rubenstein’s philanthropic effort, he left us with “If you can make your mother proud, that’s where you’ll find real happiness is in life.”  For all the great deals that Carlyle had done and even after going public, he never received a congratulatory call from his mother.  He did however receive a call every time he donated his money and time to a worthy cause.  Even though many of us in the room won’t have the wealth that Rubenstein has created, you can still dedicate your time and skills to help make the world a better place.  Go out there and “Do something that will make your mother proud!”

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

To view additional pictures please visit https://edwardfox.pixieset.com/cfa/.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Gary P. Brinson, CFA, The Brinson Foundation

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On May 24th, a packed hall gathered for lunch at The Standard Club in Downtown Chicago to listen to renowned value investor Gary P. Brinson, CFA, while he shared his latest thoughts on the markets. Brinson founded Brinson Partners, a Chicago-based asset management firm that was acquired in 1994 by Swiss Bank, the predecessor of UBS, for $750 million. After the sale to Swiss bank, Brinson ran the asset management division of Swiss Bank to what later became known UBS Global Asset Management. Many consider Brinson to be one of the investment industries greatest thought leaders, although likely by design, he left the audience lots to ponder in his Investment Market Conundrums presentation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using mean reversion with a 90-year historical lens. Brinson started off his presentation with a simple question: “What perplexes you?” and undoubtedly we moved on to what perplexes the investing legend himself. Despite volatility being at stubbornly low levels, the securities market today presents some very unique challenges and opportunities with macroeconomic datapoints that currently have meaningful deltas to their long-run mean. To start, real interest rates on long duration assets have turned negative in some countries across the world. Notably Germany (-0.9%), the United Kingdom (-2.0%), and Sweden (-1.2%) all have 10-year real interest rates that are in negatively territory and Switzerland, even further down the curve, with a negative -0.2% nominal 10-year interest rate. Theoretically it is an investment conundrum to hold capital to invest and to consider where you loan money to a government that inherently isn’t a risk free investment for a return that would leave you with less capital than when you started—and that is without a default!  Theoretically, it is very hard to compute the existence of long term negative nominal rates.

20170524_123647Europe has all sorts of problems; what about the U.S.? The U.S. has a 30 year nominal rate of 2.9% and after backing out a 2.0% inflation target a 0.9% real rate of return. Historically, from 1926-2016, the real return on a 30-year bond in the U.S. was 2.6% vs. 0.9% where it stands today. Mean reversion would call for this 0.9% real rate of return to increase 70bps closer to 1.6%. Turning to inflation, historically, inflation as averaged 2.9% from 1926-2016 and today stands at 2.0% as the difference between TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) and the nominal yield. Semi-mean reversion says the likely inflation rate should be somewhere around 2.4%.  Inflation is largely governed by the velocity of money which beginning since the start of the financial crisis has plunged. This may or may not be permanent. If permanent, that estimate of inflation at 2.4% is woefully too low.  No economist seems to know why the velocity of money has slowed so meaningfully. Combining the mean reversion estimations, we should be observing a 30 year treasury rate closer to 4.0% real rate of return (1.6% nominal return + 2.4% inflation).  If the 30 year today (at 2.69% at the time of this publication) were to re-price to 4.0%, the value of that bond trading at a par value of $100 would fall to $81 market value.

Market expectations assuming mean reversion.  Now taking these mean reversion theme and looking at the equity market—one can estimate a nominal return for the S&P 500 at 10.0% with 5.8% in capital appreciation including inflation and 4.0% in income including dividends and share buybacks from operating cash flow (Note: ((1 + 5.8%) * (1 + 4.0%) – 1) = 10.0%). One can expect bonds to offer a 5.5% return, and net of a 2.7% inflation assumption a 2.6% real return compared to a 6.9% real return for US stocks. Comparing where we are today to 1926, P/E ratios are much higher, and dividend yields are much lower. There are a number of factors for this, but if one were to only consider mean reversion, one would expect a 2.2% real growth in earnings, leading to a lower market P/E ratio and a higher market dividend yield. If we consider the path were are on as a new investment equilibrium level and ignore the trends of the early 1900s, one could consider stocks to be fairly valued in this environment. Elevated P/E ratios shouldn’t be of concern and real growth rates of 4.8% (6.8% nominal) with real interest rate debt at 0.9%. However, if we believe real interest rates will increase to the long-term average of 1.6% and inflation to 2.6%, we should model returns on stocks to equal 8.0% (3.2% income and 4.6% capital appreciation) and the return on long term government bonds to be 4.0%. What is rather frightening is the market reaction we would see for the 30-year to trade at 4.0%– long term bonds would fall 19% in principal value and stocks would fall 25% in creating these forward desired return objectives.

20170524_130958Volatility expectations assuming mean reversion.  Standard deviation of large cap stocks was 19.9% from 1926 to 2016.  Over the past year, the markets have average 13.3%. Again if we assume semi-mean reversion, volatility should increase to 16.8%. The risk premiums have also been subdued across all asset classes and in a similar manner these should also increase. The conundrum is what we are now finding is both volatility and correlations are remarkably unstable. These lead financial analysts and portfolio managers with a very tough question – what should we use as the input for volatility? The correlations of returns between the S&P and the 10-year has declined meaningfully and recently went negative.

Share buybacks – A return “on” or “of” investment? Share buybacks should be viewed just as a dividend – a return on investment for shareholders. Today the companies that make up the S&P 500 offer a 2.1% dividend yield, and if we add share buybacks as an additional return on capital this figure increases 40bps to 2.5%. However, how much of these share buy-backs are being financed with debt? Brinson pointed out that using debt to subsidize share buy-backs is a return “of investment, not a return “on investment.

Active vs. Passive Management. To conclude, Brinson switched gears and discussed the hotly debated topic of active versus passive management that left many wondering if he and his firm was either an “expert” or “lucky” coin flipper. He gave the example of 10,000 people in a room where each person was tasked to call their coin flip correctly ten times in a row. Out of the 10,000 people in the room, only nine would be able to accomplish the feat of calling heads or tails correctly ten times in a row. Now these nine coin flippers were clearly one of the 10,000 that got lucky – randomness makes one think you’re looking at something meaningful when you’re really only lucky. Randomness is pervasive in the securities marketplace, and if you make the wrong assumptions thinking data has statistical significance is can lead investors to make very poor decisions.

Tying it all together – A Book Recommendation. Brinson concluded with a book recommendation – The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow written in 2008. The book dissects statistical concepts such as regression toward the mean and the law of large numbers, while using examples from wine ratings and school grades to political polls.

May 2017 Investment Exchange Forum: Investing in Asia

The Investment Exchange Forum was held on May 10th at the CFA Society Chicago office at 33 N LaSalle St. The group had lively discussions on the topic at hand surrounding Investments in Asia and broader stock pitches we were considering making investments in or currently held positions in.

David W. of Morningstar started us off with pitching Albemarle Corporation (NYSE: ALB)–a global developer, manufacturer, and marketer of highly-engineered specialty chemicals including lithium, a key component of David’s thesis. Lithium is used in the batteries of electric cars and David believes the market is underestimating the long term potential for electric vehicle adoption. While the market may view the developers of the electric car market such as Tesla at full value (or some would argue over-valued), the way to play the trend is by betting on the suppliers and miners of the components that make up the electric car battery. As adoption grows and as fuel standards continue to increase, all auto manufacturers will have to adjust and likely move into the either fully electric or hybrid vehicles. These secular changes will ultimately drive an increased need for electricity (positive for utilities), lower demand for gas-focused energy (negative for energy) and higher demand for materials used in battery components such as lithium and cobalt (positive for chemical/mining companies). Risks include the phase out of current federal/state incentive programs, lower oil prices making gasoline cheaper, and the still relatively high costs of implementing a fully electric vehicle versus a gas combustion engine.

Matt C. of US Bank also proposed an investment in Asia and two in the US REIT market, New York REIT (NYSE:NYRT), iStar (NYSE:STAR), and Hunter Douglas (AMS:HDG). We started off looking at New York REIT as a liquidation arbitrage play with the perceived liquidation value well in excess of its share price of $9.69/sh as of 5/10/17. New York REIT is an owner operator of 19 properties, which aggregate 3.3 million rentable square feet in primarily office assets in New York City. On January 3rd, 2017, NYRT shareholders approved a plan to liquidate the company. The investment thesis is supported by a number of factors including private market transactions for New York City Class A office rents in the low 4% cap rat rate range. A 4.5% cap rate on last quarters reported NOI equates to a $12.50/sh share price for NYRT. Winthrop Realty Advisors was appointed as the liquidation manager for the assets in March 2017. An incentive plan is in place where Winthrop would participate in added upside bonuses if the liquidation amount totals over $11/sh. We believe Winthrop’s management team would be hesitant to accept the terms of the agreement if they didn’t believe they could achieve over $11/sh in liquidation value. Winthrop Realty Trust, a diversified REIT run by NYRT’s existing management team, excluding CEO Wendy Silverstein, announced its liquidation in April 2014. The initial liquidation estimate was “at least $13.80/share”; to date, $9.25 of dividends have been paid, and the 2016 10-K suggested the remaining assets are estimated to be valued at $9/share, taking the total liquidation estimate to  $18.25, or 32% in excess of the original estimate. As stated in a proxy filing dated September 26, 2016, the company received an offer from a publicly traded REIT for $11.25/share in December 2015, excluding the Viceroy hotel.  With fundamentals in New York City office stable, we fail to see why a 20% discount to this prior offer should exist in the marketplace today.

After our meeting, NYRT reported first quarter results under the liquidation basis of accounting after the close on 5/10/17. The liquidation basis of accounting requires that management estimate the net sales proceeds on an undiscounted basis as well as the undiscounted estimate of future revenues and expenses of the company the through the end of liquidation. The net assets in liquidation at quarter-end were valued at $9.25/sh—disappointing investors in after-market hours sending the shares down 9% after hours. The earnings call provided further clarity around the management team’s liquidation strategy. No assets can be sold until debt assumption has been reached on World-Wide Plaza ($875mm) which includes mezzanine lenders. The debt should be assumed in the near term and there are currently no other assets on the market other than WWP which is expected to close by the end of 3Q17. Liquidation expected to be completed by the 1Q18, however company is not under distress. The company has 2 years to liquidate the holdings (until 4Q18). NYRT is open to someone acquiring NYRT as portfolio, however will continue to proceeding with liquidation efforts.

Two other companies discussed included iStar (STAR), a US mortgage REIT that turned into a landlord after the recession of 2008. Matt likes investing in REITs, particularly smaller cap mortgage REITs because he believes there is a lot of mispricing in the market. The background is that the company hasn’t paid a dividend since 2010 and they have been soaking up their NOL’s as they sell off properties they have foreclosed on. Matt said the company believes that shares could be worth two to three times current trading levels if the assets are broken up and sold separately in the private market. Finally, Matt presented Hunter Douglas (AMS:HDG) which is an overseas company operating in two business segments—window coverings and architectural products—both which provide the company with remarkable cash flows. The company is based in the Netherlands and is 70% family owned leaving float at only 30%, a key risk for the investment. There is ample cash on balance sheet, however we discussed examples including Nokia and Emerson Radio where you can burn cash by investing in unprofitable ventures in your own business.

Nick R. of Oculus Asset Management proposed a number of investments in Asia including Cross-Harbour Holdings Ltd (HKG:0032), Methanex Corporation (NASDAQ:MEOH), and Swire Pacific Ltd (HKG:0019). Cross-Harbour Holdings is a $4.3B Honk Kong investment holding company that owns toll roads for tunnels that go into Hong Kong and owns subsidiaries that operate driver training centers. The company maintains 61% gross margins and has ample cash on the balance sheet creating a natural floor for shares. Share price performance has been astounding—since 2014 the stock has delivered an over 100% return doubling from near $5.50/sh to $12/sh where it trades today. Methanex is a China spread business that sells Methanol made out of coal in China, in which they possess a dominant monopoly. The Company operates production sites in Canada, Chile, Egypt, New Zealand. Finally, Swire Pacific Ltd, is a Hong Kong based company that is the Holdco of five diversified well-run businesses in Hong Kong. The business operates as a diversified conglomerate controlling an aviation manufacturer, a Coke bottler, tugboats and steamboats, and other subsidiaries. The company maintains 25% operating margins, however the largest risk to this investment is its lack of float with the private owners owning the majority of outstanding shares. Because of this, the company trades at a discount for both the lack of control and its conglomerate structure. Risks to these investments include currency risk, unique rules on the exchanges, poor corporate governance, and lack of float outstanding.

The Investment Exchange Forum is held every other month. Please check the CFA Society Chicago website to register for the next event.