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.

Vault Series: Bob Greer, CoreCommodity Management LLC

The why and how of commodity investing–especially when considered as a core position in a well-balanced portfolio–was the topic of the latest CFA Society Chicago Vault Series event held on November 28th, 2017. The presenter was Bob Greer, Senior Advisor at CoreCommodity Management LLC, and Scholar in Residence at the JP Morgan Center for Commodities at the Denver School of Business of the University of Colorado.

Commodities as a Hedge Against Inflation

Greer began by presenting a ten year chart of the Bloomberg Commodity Spot Index (slide 2) which showed considerable swings from highs to lows, but not an impressive net average annual gain. However, for comparison he pointed to other periods when large cap stocks (measured by the S&P 500 Index) provided similarly bland returns—for example, the decades ending in 1974 and 2008 (slide 3). Rather, it’s when one looks at commodities in a portfolio reaching across asset classes that the benefits show up in diversification and the contribution to risk-adjusted returns. This has been especially true during periods of rising inflation when commodities have provided returns that vastly exceed those of bonds and global equities–and even beat natural resource equities by several hundred basis points (slide 4).  This performance, in turn, stems from the high correlation commodities have to inflation—especially unexpected inflation (slides 5 & 6). Unexpected inflation is the investor’s worst enemy in that it has been a major factor in extremely poor, highly correlated returns for both equities and fixed income. Conversely, periods of high unexpected inflation are precisely when commodities have been at their best. Because inflation has been low for a long time, unexpected inflation may have faded from investors’ memories, but Bob offered a list of reasons why that could change soon:

  • Slow growth in the supply of labor in developed countries, with demographic trends showing no sign of reversal, will eventually lead to wage inflation,
  • The rise of populists governments makes trade restrictions increasingly likely,
  • An infrastructure build-out will increase demand for commodities,
  • Large, and growing, government budget deficits are more likely to lead governments to choose a monetary solution (i.e., inflation).

Slide 2

Slide 3

Slide 4

Slide 5

Slide 6


Commodities as a Diversifying Element

Besides performing as a good inflation hedge, commodities have also performed well as a diversifying element. Greer presented a chart (slide 8) of three year correlations between commodities, stocks, and bonds that showed, at least until the 2008 financial crisis, that pairing commodities with stocks and bonds, diversified as well as the more common stock/bond pairing. During the crisis, this benefit broke down as the unprecedented need for liquidity among all types of investors, raised correlations for many asset classes far beyond anything measured in the past.

Slide 8

Successful commodity investing calls for active management in Greer’s view.  He compared the returns of the Bloomberg indices of spot and futures commodity prices from 2001-17 (slide 9).  While both were volatile, the spot prices generated a cumulative return of about 150%, but the futures prices ended with a small negative cumulative return.  Because the price curve of most futures contracts exhibits a positive slope, rolling out of an expiring contract and extending into a new, longer contract, usually creates a loss. This “negative roll yield” causes the persistent return lag in commodity futures portfolios, and is a primary reason Bob advocates for an active strategy in commodity investing. Commodity futures are less subject to the forces of “irrational exuberance” because there is no limitation on the number of contracts that may trade, and futures prices must converge with cash market prices eventually. This makes analysis of commodity futures prices more effective than for other asset classes. Among the tools managers use to beat the index are:

  • Timing of the roll into new contracts
  • Curve positioning
  • Mis-weighting the constituents versus the index
  • Management of collateral away from passive T-Bills
  • Selective use of commodity equities in place of futures.

Slide 9


One metric managers use in applying these tools is a comparison of commodity prices relative to the underlying cost of production (slides 11-12). Over long periods, prices have averaged 30-35% above the cost of production but with significant variability (and including occasional periods of a discount relationship). This applies not only in the aggregate, but also among the various commodities within the Bloomberg Commodity Index. Recent data for the prices of the index members showed a range from a discount of 29% below the cost of production (for Kansas City Board of Trade Wheat) to a premium of 71% (for London Metals Exchange Zinc).

Slide 11

Slide 12


Commodities as an Asset Class

After laying out his reasoning for including commodities in a well-diversified asset allocation model, Greer explained why the timing is good now for an initial investment into commodity futures. The basic reason? They are cheap relative to the more common asset classes (slide 13). Of the twenty-two constituents in the Bloomberg index, only zinc currently trades above 50% if its long term value. By comparison, stocks, bonds, and REITs are all currently above the 95% mark. Global demographic and economic developments indicate a long term rising trend in the demand for all manner of commodities.  World population continues to grow (slide 19), with a concentration in developing countries. Economic growth in these countries will engender an increasing demand for commodities broadly. This is already reflected in changing dietary habits in developing countries where the consumption of meat in all forms is increasing (while it declines in the U.S.). This has knock-on effects on the prices of grains needed to produce the meat (slides 20 & 21).  Growth in developing economies also increases demand for energy (mainly oil) and metals and industrial goods (to build out infrastructure). Graphs displaying the consumption of corn, wheat, copper, coffee, and oil all show persistent, long term rising trends (slide 22).

Slide 13

Slide 19

Slide 20

Slide 21

Slide 22


Greer provided greater detail regarding the supply and demand for oil. The two most populous countries in the world, China and India consume significantly less energy per capita in the form of oil than developed, slow growing, Japan and the United States (slides 24-26). So, as their economies develop and grow faster than the developed world, China and India will drive global oil demand. Meanwhile the spare productive capacity of OPEC countries has been declining since 2009 (slide 27) and shale oil production in the U.S. is still a small contributor to global supply–just 5% (slide 28).  Thus the long term trend in global economic growth, driven by the developing world, argues for an allocation to commodities as a contributor to both returns and diversification in a well-balanced portfolio.

Slide 24

Slide 25

Slide 26

Slide 27

Slide 28

Vault Series: Gautam Dhingra, CFA, High Pointe Capital Management, LLC

On September 7th, the CFA Society Chicago welcomed Gautam Dhingra, CFA, the CEO and a portfolio manager at High Pointe Capital Management, LLC to discuss incorporating intangible assets and ESG factors into stock selection.


According to Mr. Dhingra, there are multiple examples of intangible assets; patents in the case of Qualcomm, brands like Pepsi and Apple, difficult to replicate assets like Union Pacific railroad, or sanctioned oligopolies like Moody’s, to name a few. When looking to use these intangible assets one should look beyond accounting data and focus on ‘what really matters’, or historical financials versus future economic profits. Much of the value derived from intangible assets, like the ones mentioned, cannot be found on a balance sheet, rather derived through future pricing power or lack of competition, for example. In the growing information based economy, traditional accounting won’t be as useful going forward and stock selection models must be adapted to incorporate intangible assets to find an edge and outperform. An increasing proportion of companies’ values are being derived by intangible assets, which poses a question; should one view Procter and Gamble and Qualcomm as peers, both benefiting substantially from intangible assets?  The answer is yes.


The speaker discussed another form of intangibles, Environment, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG), which can be described as putting your money to work into companies that follow good practices, e.g. treat their employees and other stakeholders well. With employee satisfaction having shown a strong correlation to stock performance by one study, some 3.5% per year above its benchmark, adjusted for characteristics, which found that it could be a leading indicator to predicting earnings surprises.


High Pointe conducts its research into ESG and other intangible factors and inputs it into its model that combines ‘franchise quality’ and ‘expected growth’ in an effort to find great stocks. The company seeks to find a business’s ‘franchise quality’ by ranking stocks on a variety of factors, including ‘how good is the business’ (using barriers to entry, degree of competition, pricing power vs. customers, pricing power vs. suppliers, and suitability of advantage) and ‘how well is this being managed,’ which includes management, employees, and governance.


Vault Series: Doug Ramsey, CFA, CMT, The Leuthold Group, LLC

Playing the Market Melt-Up


The CFA Society Chicago gathered in the Vault Room at 33 North LaSalle to hear Doug Ramsey, CFA of Leuthold Weeden Capital Management discuss the likely future direction of the equity market. Ramsey is the CIO of The Leuthold Group and co-portfolio manager of the Leuthold Core Investment Fund and Leuthold Global Fund. .

Ramsey is both a CFA charterholder and a Chartered Market Technician (“CMT”). Holders of the CMT have demonstrated expertise in the theory, practice and application of technical analysis. He maintains Leuthold’s proprietary Major Trend Index, a multi-factor model that utilizes mainly technical data. The model contains a long history of market data going back to 1930. The data and subsequent market behavior discussed in the Vault Room included data up to May 12th of this year.

The Major Trend Index is comprised of 130 indicators that roll-up into 5 categories. The categories are comprised of quantitative and qualitative factors that influence the direction of markets. A plus and minus figure is computed for each category and a ratio that includes all the data is computed. The Major Trend Index yielded a ratio of 1.14 as of May 12th,  a ratio over 1.00 is considered bullish.

The age of the current bull equity market has many speculating that the bull market is nearing an end. Ramsey spoke at length as to how his model can be used to forecast a market top. The Major Trend Index concludes that the current bull market has more room to run. He believes that the equity market sell-off in early 2016 has set the stage for another leg-up in the current bull market.

The model used by Ramsey uses seven (7) stock market indices to monitor the health of the equity market.  They are as follows:

  • Dow 65 Composite
  • Dow Transports
  • Dow Utilities
  • Russell 2000
  • S&P 500 Financials
  • S&P 500 Cyclicals
  • NYSE Advance/Decline Line

Negative performance in at least 5 of these 7 categories has foretold a market top. Ramsey characterizes a market top as a “lonely” one. The bull market is propelled at its end by only one or two sectors before a bear market begins.

DSC_3744Ramsey then spoke at some length about the market sell-off that occurred at the beginning of 2016 and its effect on the current bull market. In May of 2015 six (6) of the seven (7) categories were in negative territory which is a strong indication of a market top. The equity market was essentially flat in 2015 and the beginning of 2016 a market correction occurred. A bear market did not occur as the index only fell 14%, by definition a bear market does not begin before a 20% sell-off.

The fact that a bear market did not occur after the 2015 signal does not necessarily negate the usefulness of the model. The year 2015 coincided with a trough in corporate earnings and the market reflected that. Ramsey believes that the 14% pullback that occurred in early 2016 has given new life to the current bull market which in his opinion does not look to have reached its top.

Following his presentation Ramsey spoke with a group of attendees on a number of topics including:

  • Momentum investing works, investing in sectors or companies that have already experienced price appreciation can still yield profit.
  • Tech valuations are not in bubble territory. Several slides in his presentation illustrated the strong earnings that are now being realized by tech companies.
  • You can make an argument that low volatility (higher dividend)  stocks may have reached bubble territory since investors appear to be drawn to these.

Vault Series: David Ranson, HCWE & Co.

David Ranson provided an enlightening presentation during the second part of CFA Society Chicago’s new Vault Series held on March 15 in the Vault Room of 33 N. LaSalle. Ranson is President and Director of Research at HCWE & Co., an independent investment research firm that was formerly a division of H.C. Wainright & Co. Ranson presented a simple, but effective model–based on his extensive research into capital market returns and correlations–that his firm uses to advise clients on tactical asset allocation. Their process uses historical market price movements to uncover predictive relationships between leading indicators and, highly-correlated, consistent outcomes.

The model’s simplicity derives from viewing the investment universe as comprising just four primary asset classes (exhibit 1):

  • Domestic bonds
  • Gold
  • Domestic equities
  • Foreign assets and physical assets (commodities, real estate, etc.)

Ranson 1_Page_02

(It’s important to note that the model considers gold as uniquely different from all other commodities.)

Ranson began by describing the role of capital migration in investment performance (exhibit 2). Capital migrates away from countries or markets characterized by economic stagnation, lower asset returns, declining new investment, and rising unemployment, and will flow to areas where the opposite conditions apply. Causes of the poor performance can be excessive government spending, taxation, and regulation, and “regime uncertainty” stemming from secretive or unpredictable policies.  These are difficult to quantify, but are usually accompanied by two more easily measured indicators: currency weakness, and rising economic anxiety (i.e., market stress).  These two indicators are the primary market signals the model relies on.  The price of gold serves to measure a currency’s value, and credit spreads measure economic anxiety.Ranson 1_Page_03

Ranson described four economic scenarios arrayed in quadrants defined by the change in the rates of economic growth and inflation (exhibit 3). Accelerating growth occupies the two lower quadrants and declining growth the top two, while accelerating inflation resides in the two right-hand quadrants and decelerating inflation on the left side. The scenarios (quadrants) determine the best performing assets.  Haven assets (bonds and gold) do best in the two upper scenarios when economic growth declines.  Risk assets (equities and commodities) stand out in the lower half of the array when economies accelerate.  When viewed laterally, financial assets (Ranson called them “soft” assets) that struggle against inflation reside on the left side of the array and those that do better against rising inflation (“hard” assets) reside on the right side.  Hard assets include gold, other commodities, real estate, and foreign equities.  (All foreign equities fit into this category because the model assumes they would perform comparatively well when an investor’s home currency is weak.) Putting the model together, shows gold as the preferred asset in the upper right quadrant (decelerating growth with rising inflation) and bonds preferred in the upper left quadrant (both growth and inflation decelerating). Domestic equities shine in the lower left quadrant (rising growth and decelerating inflation) while commodities and real estate are best in the lower right quadrant when both growth and inflation rise.Ranson 1_Page_04

Ranson presented statistics to support his model (exhibit 4). Separating the past 45 years of available data for the United States, he showed that when the rate of GDP growth accelerated from the prior year, the returns on equities and commodities always improved, while returns on treasury bonds and gold worsened.  When the rate of GDP growth slowed from the prior year, the reverse relationships held: returns on equities and commodities fell, and those for bonds and gold improved.Ranson 1_Page_05

Looking at inflation rates revealed similarly intuitive results (exhibit 6). When the CPI accelerated in a year, financial assets (both stocks and bonds) exhibited weaker returns, and gold and commodities did better than in the prior year.  When the CPI decelerated, financial assets enjoyed improved returns, while gold and commodities worsened.

Putting it all together (exhibit 11), Ranson presented an Asset-Allocation Compass with north pointing to heightened business risk, increasing investment anxiety, weakening economic growth and widening credit spreads. South points to the exact opposite conditions. East points to a weakening, or unstable, currency (measured by the price of gold) and west to a strengthening currency. He then filled in the best asset classes for eight points around the compass. His four primary asset classes occupied the diagonal compass points, corresponding to their positioning in the quadrant array:

  • Gold in the northeast
  • High quality bonds in the northwest
  • Domestic equities in the southwest
  • Hard assets in the southeast

Ranson 1_Page_12

Ranson assigned the primary points of the compass to sub-groups of the primary classes. The most intuitive one was Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) pointing west (declining inflation, strengthening currency). Pointing south toward strengthening growth were risk assets: B-rated junk bonds, MLPs, and developed market foreign equities. Pointing east (rising inflation and a falling currency) were commercial real estate and C-rated junk bonds, assets exhibiting little influence from changing spreads and more from the price of gold. The distinction between B and C-rated junk bonds may be surprising but Ranson’s research has shown that while they are correlated to each other, C’s are much better correlated to the gold price while B’s correlate more to credit spreads.

The compass had nothing listed for north (weakening growth and heightened risk perceptions). Ranson noted that he was not aware of an asset class that would fit well in this slot but, like a gap in the periodic table of the elements, he could describe the attributes he expected it to exhibit. It would have to respond positively to widening credit spreads, and be little effected by the price of gold (or value of the dollar).

In response to a question following his presentation, Ranson pointed out that the correlations his model depends on often take several years to manifest themselves, so the model works best for patient investors with very long investment horizons.

Vault Series: Melissa Brown, CFA, Axioma


Managing risk, specifically equity market risk, was the topic of CFA Society Chicago’s new Vault Series on January 11. The series brings noted investment experts to Chicago on a bi-monthly basis to share their thoughts and insights on the investment scene. The name comes from the common-area conference room in the Society’s new home at 33 North LaSalle Street, a space that was, indeed, once the safe deposit vault for a bank. The latest flat screen video monitors hang over the bare steel safe deposit boxes still line the walls. The day’s speaker was Melissa Brown, CFA, Senior Director of Applied Research at Axioma, a provider of risk management and portfolio analysis models and tools serving asset managers and institutional investors. Brown provides perspective and insight on market risks as measured and quantified by Axioma’s data and analytics.

Brown began by noting there are many types and measures of risks (e.g., Value at Risk, standard deviation, credit risk, liquidity risk, etc.) but Axioma defines it as the expected volatility of a market (they focus on equity markets) over a defined investment horizon. It is a function of volatility and correlations, both of which they see as being persistent over time, and therefore possible to forecast from the past. Currently, Axioma sees benchmark risks as low, but volatility is unlikely to decline further. In 2016, volatility declined in most equity markets around the world, despite a jump in mid-year following the “Brexit” vote. This was more pronounced in U. S. markets than other countries, and also in developed markets more than emerging markets. The level of volatility at the end of the year was not materially different from levels in 2000.

Axioma decomposes risk by looking at five components:

  • Portfolio holdings (generally are they more or less risky?)
  • Characteristics of the holdings (sector, industry, cap size, etc.)
  • Security-specific risks (which rose in 2016)
  • Factor volatility (an important component in Q4)
  • Correlations

The last one, correlations, is very low now and is the reason market volatility is low despite the relatively high volatility of individual securities.  Sector also plays an important role here. In the U. S. in 2016 there was a wide dispersion of risks and returns by sector. Consumer discretionary, Technology, Energy, and Materials all did well with declining risk. Finance, real estate, telecom, and utilities had very mixed results, but also with generally lower risk (except for finance). The dispersion of sector returns peaked in November at levels near records for Axioma’s database. Brown pointed out that the low correlations could provide an opportunity for active management to outperform passive.

Taking an international view, Brown noted that as of the end of the year, risk in developed markets is highly concentrated (see Italy, Greece, and Iceland) while in emerging markets, risk is more widely (and evenly) scattered. This situation developed during the fourth quarter and reflects the strength of the dollar, which is more of a challenge for emerging markets than for developed. Switzerland just nudged out the U. S. for the lowest risk by country at year end. Mexico holds the distinction as the riskiest country, again reflecting the weakness of the peso since the U. S. election.