Category Archives: Quarterly

Infatuation – Bubble Spotters are Obsessed with Another Debt Crisis


Oh no not again
It hurts so good
I don’t understand

Rod Stewart

Key Takeaways

  • Total student debt, credit card debt and auto loans have each passed the $1 trillion mark in the U.S.
  • Eventually we will have a good old fashioned cyclical recession with a secular bull market—a crash or bubble burst is not likely.
  • Don’t let the headlines or recency bias cloud your thinking. Stick to your long-term plan.

Oh No, Not Again.
It Hurts So Good.
I Don’t Understand.

American Investors Have a New Obsession with Bubble Spotting.

In classic Wall Street storytelling, a Master of the Universe makes a fortune for himself and a small group of investors through an unpredictable cocktail of IQ, testosterone and hubris. This strategy is usually executed through huge bets placed on certain companies, bonds, real estate, etc. that work in exponential fashion, thus catapulting the Master to celebrity status in American culture. Remember “Greed is good”? Remember Michael Lewis’s novel about Wall Street traders that wagered $1 million as a side bet on a game of “liar’s poker” during the work day while tens of millions worth of bonds were traded around them? Americans love to hear how down-to-earth stock pickers like Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch choose their winners. Americans also love the Wall St. antiheros like “Predators Ball” junk bond raiders, or Jim Cramer, host of the frenetic CNBC show “Mad Money,” that is part vaudeville part, mad scientist act.

During the 2008 financial crisis, the titans of The Street were no longer bold traders, but a group of unknown hedge fund managers that made a fortune betting against the market. Books and movies would follow about how those savvy contrarians who predicted a short circuit to the American Dream—a disaster that took the mightiest country in the world to the brink of complete financial chaos.

Most citizens have no idea how close we came to the temporary collapse of the banking system and world capitalism. This terrifying scenario was driven by an enormous mountain of debt attached to a pillar of the American Dream—people’s homes. The crisis also led to a new financial super sport called “bubble spotting.”  After the crisis, every young MBA/CFA/hedge fund manager wanted to be the next Michael Berry or Steve Eisman who could find the next “Big Short.” Meanwhile, the second biggest bull market in history emerged from the crisis, and passed half of the nation’s investors by as they remained shell-shocked from the near-meltdown of 2008-2009.

I just finished reading Roger Lowenstein’s fabulous biography of Warren Buffet (Buffet – The Making of an American Capitalist) featuring thought-provoking descriptions of Buffet’s personal life that formed his controlled temperament for investing. One part of the book made me muse over today’s market—did you know that that it took Wall Street veterans 25 years to become bullish again after the 1929 crash. That’s right. Twenty-five years! The scars were so deep from the Great Depression that even Buffet’s hero, Benjamin Graham, the scion of value investing, questioned his entire thesis about putting one’s money into low-cost value stocks. Echoes of 1929 have followed the most hated bull market in history as it roars through its eighth consecutive year. Yes, valuations are on the high end of the spectrum and a correction may be due. But a bubble-like crash is another story.

Most of “today’s crash” predictions revolve around debt implosions that are due to a simple behavioral finance ailment called “recency bias.”  Recency bias is a phenomenon in which people are significantly more affected by recent events in their lives than they are about past events. The 2008 financial crisis left people’s homes, stock portfolios and work lives at half-mast. The debt bubble in housing is still so fresh in the minds of American citizens that they are acutely sensitive to anything that seems like excessive debt.

Our firm is working with a consultant to help us tell our story. It may surprise you that the consultant wants us to share negative (not positive) stories about our clients’ lives. The idea is to tug at heart strings and to find a connection through negative events. Human psychology (and the news media) dictates that “if it bleeds it leads.” Just look at the recent July 4th holiday. We live in the greatest country in world, and even on our nation’s Independence Day, the news was full of negative stories. As always, people can’t turn their eyes away from a car crash. Our financial car crash is now bubble spotting: Muni debt, Japan debt, China debt, student loan debt, car loan debt, credit card debt, etc.

Today I want to tackle three current bubble spotting myths.

A Trillion Here a Trillion There. Pretty Soon We Are Talking Real Money.

Student debt, credit card debt and car loan debt have each crossed the $1 trillion mark in the U.S. Not that long ago, one billion dollars was considered a lot of money. But, that’s like comparing Magic Johnson’s $2 million a year NBA salary from the 1980s and 1990s to Steph Curry’s $80 million annual pay today.

Let’s tackle each bubble myth one at a time and apply some second level thinking. Big numbers like $1 trillion grab headlines, but the truth lies in the details.

1. Student Debt

Many believe these lazy generation Y kids (born in the 1980s or early 1990s) will never move out of their parents’ basements because they are so sacked with student debt and useless undergrad degrees in philosophy. Personally I think philosophy is a great major, but that is beside the point. We are graduating the highest percentage of college students in U.S. history and we have a majority of women not only graduating from college, but doing so at the top of their class. This isn’t a just good thing; it’s an awe-inspiring movement to a more educated society. It also means we are preparing a work force for an increasingly complex, tech-driven service economy. While this progress could make the class divides in our society even greater, that is a topic for a different paper.

Most articles written about the dangers of student debt start with a scary chart like the one below. You’re supposed to think to yourself: “Oh no. Another crash is coming!” My favorite is when the media overlays the student debt chart with the NASDAQ 1999 chart.
Instead, this chart below is a reflection of the largest generation in American history coming into its prime college years. It also shows the democratization of education in America. But, the media will paint the picture more negatively, inevitably describing a tale of woe about a 20-smething waiter who has no career path and $200,000 in student debt. But, how many of these extreme examples exist? Again, the devil is in the details.

Underneath the daunting $1 trillion chart is a much more manageable number–two thirds of student loans (66%) are smaller than $25,000. What’s more, the average monthly payment on a $25,000 student loan is a manageable $280. And, the current unemployment rate for college graduates is a stunning 2.5 percent. Even more salient is the fact that 85 percent of student borrowers owe less than $50,000 on their loans.

Unemployment for college grads 25 and over 2.5 percent and the first wave of Boomers turns 70 this year, so Millennials will be replacing their parents in the workforce for the foreseeable future.


Is student loan debt an issue? Yes. It will delay homeownership and household formation for many young graduates. But, calling student debt a bubble that’s big enough to threaten the U.S. economy is a stretch. Comparing student debt to the 2008 housing bubble or the 1999 dot-com bubble is an absurdity.

2. Credit Card Debt

Credit card debt also hit the $1 trillion threshold this year, but consumer debt service is at all-time lows while sub-prime mortgage debt has disappeared from the landscape. Americans’ finances are actually in the best shape they have been in years. As a group, the debt-to-income and debt-to-asset ratios of American households in the first quarter fell to their lowest levels since the early 2000s. A prolonged period of low interest rates has made that debt easier to bear. The Federal Reserve reported recently that households’ overall debt-service ratio—the share of after-tax income going toward debt payments—is near historic lows.

Yes, we have more credit card debt than ever. Just remember that 70 percent of GDP is consumer spending and the economy is still humming along with personal balance sheets that are not yet stretched. At some point, we will have a recession, but until then, credit is helping to drive consumption. It’s true that charge-offs from credit card companies have ticked up. But, calling today’s credit card situation a threat to the economy is tough to fathom as charts like the one below demonstrate.

Low interest rates and the re-set from mortgage crisis leaves consumers debt service at historical lows.

3. Car Loans

Americans have had a love affair with their cars ever since President Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act in 1956. That’s what many say opened the suburbs to the urban masses and sparked commuting across the U.S. via family sedans. Car sales have ebbed and flowed with the economy ever since they became a big part of our free market system. Today’s consumers aren’t much different from those in the 1950s. But, here we are at $1 trillion mark in auto debt and a recent uptick in sub-prime auto delinquencies has sparked a spate of bubble headlines.

Those stories usually include misleading bubble charts like the one below.

There is a major problem with the sub-prime auto bubble thesis, however. Although borrowers with lower credit ratings make up 20 percent of the auto market today, they are a pimple on the rear end of the U.S. economic elephant. In 2014, roughly 14 percent of mortgage debt was delinquent or in foreclosure. In other words, around $1.5 trillion of debt was considered “troubled.” By comparison, lenders reported that about $23.7 billion in auto loan debt was delinquent at the end of 2016. That’s 1.4 percent of the sub-prime mortgage debt crisis and less than the total NBA salary cap. Warren Buffet alone is sitting on $100 billion in cash, so he could take down an implosion of sub-prime car debt all by himself in just one hour.

The growth of subprime auto loans is significant, but not a threat to larger economy.


As Howard Marks, my favorite Wall Street second level thinker says, “Most things will prove to be cyclical.”  American pundits have a new obsession with bubble spotting that’s reminiscent of the post 1929 crash. Although we are closer to the end of the economic and bull market cycle than the beginning, be wary of the soothsayers selling crash theories. Exponentially more people lose money by missing the 100 percent gain that typically follows a correction than who avoid the 20 percent loss that accompanies a correction. Over the past 70 years the S&P 500 index has experienced 12 corrections of 20 percent or more and the index is still up 15,000 percent over that period. Yes you read that correctly—UP 15,000 PERCENT!

The market has had corrections of at least 5 percent in 88 out of the past 89 years and has had 10-percent corrections in 67 out of the past 89 years. So, statistical probabilities favor a pullback in the near future. But, instead of worrying about tiny bubbles, just understand that our next crisis will be a good old-fashioned cyclical recession in a secular bull market.

At Fortis, we are closely watching the yield curve for signs of a recession, as well as accelerating inflation, rising initial jobless claims and rising inventory-to-sales ratios. We are ignoring all bubble oracles as they have swept MBA schools with tales of 2008 short-selling glory and have created a thundering herd of financial asset blimp astrologers.

One thing does scare me, however. I don’t know anyone who is bullish right now.

Caught me down like a killer shark
It’s like a railroad running right through my heart
Jekyll and Hyde the way I behave
Feel like I’m running on an empty gauge

Oh no not again
It hurts so good
I don’t understand

Tiny Bubbles – July 2017

Key Takeaways

  • Politics change, management teams change and taxes change, but human nature never changes.
  • The U.S. will see another 1999-type bubble, but those conditions do not exist in today’s tech market.
  • Only one thing scares me right now about the stock market: Everyone I know is bearish or waiting for a pullback rather than seeking out opportunities.

“Tiny Bubbles”

Tiny bubbles (tiny bubbles)
In the wine (in the wine
Make me happy (make me happy)
Make me feel fine (make me feel fine)

Don Ho


This long-running hot streak in the tech sector has led to forecasts of another 1999 bubble. It has sparked future doom from a host of soothsayers, who have been waiting for their gloomy predictions to come true since the global financial crisis ended in 2009. Since the crisis, today’s Wall Street Masters of the Universe are not the traders popularized in Michael Lewis’s original book “Liars Poker.” Nor are they the superstar investment bankers of the Internet boom. Instead, they’re a bunch of unknown hedge fund managers that predicted a crash in 2008 and made a fortune in its aftermath.  Since that event, headline grabbers on Wall Street have shifted from tireless cheerleaders of the rising bull market to pessimists predicting the next crash.

I just finished a fabulous Warren Buffet biography by Roger Lowenstein titled Buffet-The Making of an American Capitalist that provided many thought-provoking descriptions of Buffet’s personal life which help explain his controlled temperament for investing. One part of the book that made me muse over today’s market was the observation that Wall Street veterans took 25 years to become bullish again after the 1929 crash. The scars were so deep then that even Benjamin Graham, the scion of value investing and Buffet hero questioned his entire thesis about value investing. Echoes of 1929 have followed the most hated bull market in history as it roars through its eighth year. Valuations are indeed on the high end and a correction may be due in the near future, but a bubble crash is another story.

I started my career on the trading desk in 1997 during the height of the Internet bubble. My firm was a small cap tech-oriented shop, so my trading introduction was baptism by (technology stock) fire. I will deviate from my mantra of not making predictions right now and just say that today’s market is absolutely nothing like the market we had during the 1999 bubble. In 1998, I remember one day waiting patiently for my car to be serviced and the mechanics kept running on and off the shop floor to check the computers in the main office. They weren’t looking at diagnostics for my car. They were day trading stocks and landscapers were leaving their jobs back then to be day traders at 100-1 intraday leverage. Today these same citizens, hopefully wiser, have moved all their money to Vanguard and now swear by passive indexing.

Today’s tech sector valuations are certainly not cheap, but it’s a tough argument to say they fit the bubble label.  The P/E ratio for technology stocks is now 19-times next year’s earnings, vs. 17.7x for the S&P 500. Compare those ratios to a 54 PE during the March 2000 bubble. Even after the torrid start to 2017, tech stocks trade on par with their 20-year price-to-book ratio relative to the S&P 500. But, based on price-to-earnings, they carry a relative valuation that is 22 percent below their 20-year historical average relative to the S&P 500.

In 1999, the Nasdaq doubled in value as investors bought tech stocks at the expense of every other sector and the index dropped at least 2 percent on 40 different days that year. That’s a very different environment from the record low volatility we have today. In 1999, people were cruising around my parking lot at work with personalized license plates boasting ticker symbols like QCOM (Qualcomm). Do you really see that today?

IPO Market Comparison

Let’s start by comparing IPO markets of the dot-com era to today. In 1999, we had 446 tech IPOs and in 2000 we had 333 tech IPOs. By contrast, we had just 98 IPOs in 2016.

The average first-day returns for the 1999-2000 IPO market were 64 percent compared to 14% between 2001 and 2015.  In 1999 and -2000   three out of four (75%) new offerings were tech stocks compared to just one in four (27%) today. Also the small company IPO market (for companies with under $50 million in sales) has almost disappeared from the marketplace as private equity has filled the gap. In 1999 and 2000, three out of five IPOs (60%), were for companies with under $50 million in sales. Today that number is closer to one in twenty (5%) of deals.

Average First Day Returns IPO Market


Average First Day IPO Returns

 Top 1-Day “Pops” in 1999.  When was the last opening day IPO that looked like this table below?

Here is the latest 2017 tech IPO that came with no profits- Blue Apron (APRN). Expected price $15-$17…Opened at $10, sold off to $7.50


Tech Versus the Market

Tech just overcame the defensive consumer staples sector on a 5 year basis at the end of 2016.  In 1999 and 2000, money stopped flowing to any sector but tech. Every other asset class was undervalued except technology stocks: Bonds, housing, value stocks, dividend stocks, international equities etc.  Today, you could make a sound argument that defensive areas of market are the most overvalued–U.S bonds, dividend payers and low volatility stocks are trading at record valuations.

On a 5-Year basis….Tech just exceeded the performance of consumer staples this year.

XLP Consumer Staples ETF vs. XLK Technology Sector ETF-Tech just took the lead at the end of 2016.

What did tech look like in 1999 vs. consumer staples? Try a 5x valuation. 

Tech vs. Consumer Staples 1999        

Tech: End of the Bubble or Start of the Secular Recovery?

Tech bubble predictions begin with the FANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) which are driving a large part of the sector’s outperformance. But, they are also growing revenues and (in some cases) earnings at double digit rates.

Could FANG stocks suffer a 20-percent correction at any moment? Of course, I would expect tech to correct more than broader market would in the next sell off. But, a short-term correction of an overheated sector is certainly not the same as a secular technology bear market. What does the big picture look like for tech today compared to conditions that lead up to the 1999 bubble?

1984-2000 Nasdaq +1800% versus 2000-2017 +24%

Picture 1 (1983-2000).  Picture 2 (2000-2017).

Tech is just Breaking Out of a 20 Year Consolidation.


Most of my readers have heard me repeat that the crisis of 2008 left the biggest investing hangover in the U.S. since the crash of 1929. Plus, it created a new cottage industry of bubble spotters including fresh MBAs who want to devote their time to finding the next crash instead of recommending the next AAPL. Behavioral finance will tell you that both paths are equally difficult to follow, if not impossible. So as investors, we are better off staying focused on a disciplined strategy.

Politics change, management teams change and taxes change, but human nature never changes. In my lifetime, the U.S. will see another 1999-type bubble, but those conditions do not exist in today’s tech market. Expect a correction in technology stocks especially FANG names, but put that in perspective of the NASDAQ’s 78 percent drop from peak to bottom in 2000.

You might be interested to know that in 88 out of the last 89 years, we have seen a market correction of at least 5 percent, and in 67 out of the past 89 years, we have experienced a 10 percent correction or more. I don’t lose sleep worrying about the next pullback. Only one thing scares me right now about the stock market–everyone I know is bearish or waiting for a pullback. On another note, until Vanguard stops buying $3 billion per day of FANG stocks, I’m don’t see how they will go down in value.

So, grab a cocktail at the beach and stick with Don Ho–leave the bubble pushers in the hot city.


So here’s to the golden moon
And here’s to the silver sea
And mostly here’s a toast
To you and me

Don Ho Tiny Bubbles

If It Looks Like a Top, Feels Like a Top, and Sounds Like a Top then It’s Probably a Top….Nah! It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over.


Key Takeaways

  • Statistically speaking, the market is overdue for a correction—but skipping out too early can cost you plenty.
  • We constantly watch for five indicators of a recession–none is flashing red yet.
  • There are 3 phases of a bull market and 4 stages in a bubble. Read on to see where we are.


The most hated bull market in history is trying to keep the love alive. When I started my career on the trading desk in 1998, believe it or not, everyone on Wall Street watched a PBS show called “Wall Street Week.” For 32 years, the show was hosted by Louis Rukeyser, an eternal bull and one of the first Wall Street media celebrities. Rukeyser’s guests considered it a badge of honor to be interviewed by Rukeyser, who was a combination of Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman–with hair like Donald Trump’s.
Rukeyser kept a dozen or so Wall Street soothsayers (aka his “elves”) in his stable. But the elves started going bearish in 1996 before the “rip your face off” rally during the final phase of internet bubble that ended in 2000. Rukeyser sent the elves back to the North Pole but his show lasted another six years before cable and the internet rendered “Wall Street Week” a footnote in capitalistic history. Sadly, Rukeyser died not a few years after going off the air. If nothing else, he learned a valuable lesson about Wall Street: Timing the market can make you rich or send you to the gulag. Over the years the gulag has become an overcrowded prison.

Louis Rukeyser

The three stages of a bull market.

  1. Accumulation stage: The start of the uptrend when informed investors enter the market.
  2. Public participation phase (the longest phase): An improving economy and better earnings create more participation from the investing public.
  3. Excess Phase: When it seems-only good times ahead, the last of the buyers enter the market.


Are we in the Mania Phase?

There is sound evidence that the U.S. stock market has hit the higher levels of fundamental valuations. For example, the forward P/E of the S&P 500 index is now higher than its 5-year, 10-year and 20-year averages. What’s more, the Shiller CAPE (Cyclically Adjusted P/E) ratio is above 30, and the Buffet Indicator (market cap divided by GDP) is two standard deviations above the mean. I have attached explanations of all three with this article. It’s safe to say fundamentals are not cheap, but fundamentals are not market timing devices.

At market tops, bullish sentiment is nearly unanimous. Wall Street analysts, company CEOs and the investment public tend to adopt a new euphoric view of the future with the belief there will be a perpetually rising stock market.

This level of blind optimism is best monitored by money flows and sentiment. In times like these, the investing public pours into stocks, leaving bonds, commodities and real estate by the wayside as exhilaration about the equity markets becomes the topic of all conversations. If that’s the case, then all I can say is, “Houston we have a problem!”

However, recent surveys show that bearish sentiment among retail investors is at the highest level in over a year. Further, money managers are holding high levels of cash, and flows are still going into bonds. So, it appears the great migration out of bonds and into stocks has not unfolded yet.

Source: J.P. Morgan Asset Management

Taxable Bond Flows Highest Since 2010. Stock Market Bubble?

How about Wall Street? Has euphoria set in?

On Wall Street, the so-called “sell side” is represented by people in the financial industry who sell products such as stocks and bonds. The “buy side” is made up of institutional investors including pension funds and insurance firms.

Based on data like the chart below, it appears Wall Street is still in a “Barely Bullish” phase–hardly “Exhilarated.” Compare today to the levels of extreme bullishness in 2000 and 2007. It’s not even close.

How about IPO Elation? Surely if we are in a bubble, then the IPO market should be going gangbusters. Yikes! Here is a list of big name IPOs with performance.

The table below lists the first-day performance and subsequent performance of high profile IPOs from recent years.


How about retail investor sentiment? At Fortis, we believe the markets are a psychology game, not an IQ game. According to the CNN Fear and Greed Index of investor emotion, the retail public remains fearful, not euphoric. Sentiment drives flows, hence we expect continued consumption of bonds which are in the midst of a 35 year bull market.

Correction or Bear Market?

Normally, the S&P 500 has at least three corrections per year of at least 5 percent. In 88 out the past 89 years, there has been at least one 5-percent correction and in 67 of the past 89 years there has been at least one 10-percent correction. Based on this evidence, the market is overdue for a correction and we are heading into the traditional “Sell in May” seasonal months in which the probability of a pullback increases. Sure, a correction is possible, but a recession or credit crisis is much less likely.

Yes, we have pockets of credit risk in the form of sub-prime car loans, student loans and emerging market debt, but it’s nothing like 2008. Per capita household debt levels have essentially moved sideways for a decade, because of the substantial reduction in mortgage debt. Regarding a recession, none of the five indicators that we monitor at Fortis is flashing red yet, but when conditions change, we will change, too. That’s because real damage is done to unprotected portfolios during recessions–when stock market corrections average 30 percent.

If a recession is not imminent, being early may be quite painful. My friend Josh Brown at Reformed Broker summarizes the dangers of sitting out the end of a bull market (see below).

Table 3 shows the performance of stocks 24-months prior to a historic bull market peak, as well as 12 months and 6 months prior. It’s painful to miss the end of these things. If you sat out the markets12 months prior to a historic peak, you would miss out, on average, of a 25% gain. Even missing out the last 6 months prior to a peak would cost you, on average, a 26% gain.

Source: The Reformed Broker


There is a new thesis in play that argues with so much money flowing into passive indexes and ETFs, the investing world has changed forever. Sure, the number of retail investors buying individual stocks has fallen to the single digits and even institutional investors are starting to invest in a passive manner. But, is this market cycle really different from all the ones before it? Politicians change, management teams change and tax rules change, but human emotion never changes. When we invest, we are not playing an IQ game; we are playing a psychology game. The new passive paradigm is indeed real, but to believe this changes euphoric bubble tops is to adopt the most dangerous sentence in investing -“This time is different.” The bubble investor doesn’t enter the market until they feel so much pain inside that they finish with many tears to cry.

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over.

Did we give up
But we always worked things out
And all my doubts and fear
Kept me wondering
If I’d always, always be in love
So many tears I’ve cried
So much pain inside
But baby it ain’t over ’til it’s over


To learn more, see below:

Forward P/E definition

 Buffet indicator Market Cap to GDP discussion

 Shiller Cape Ratio Definition


God May Have Blessed America, But Investing Only in the U.S. May be an “American Prayer”

American Prayer-U2

“I want to know healing An American prayer I want to know the meaning Of American prayer I want to believe in  American prayer But I can hear children screaming American prayer”


Is Money Moving Again to More Expensive Markets?

It looks like investors are buying expensive markets and selling cheap markets again. In my August post “Gimme Shelter,” I pointed out that money was flowing into an expensive fixed income market and out of a reasonably priced equity market. At the time, I observed that recency bias and negativity bias were leading investors to shift money “under the mattress” into traditionally safe bonds or cash. I cited a Wall Street Journal article reporting that investor demand for bond funds relative to stocks was at the highest level on record. According to the article, investors had poured $202 billion into global bond funds and withdrawn $57 billion from stocks. In just the U.S., China and Japan alone, a stunning $55 trillion was sitting idle in bank deposit accounts that were yielding essentially zero interest. “Never before in history have individual investors been so bearish on stocks when the stock market is at a record high,” I wrote.

 Since my August 2016 “Gimme Shelter” article The S&P +6.38% vs. AGG (bond index) -3.69%


Continue reading

Trump May Feel “Urgent” to Copy Reagan, but It’s a Much Different World

Key Takeaways

  • Trump, like Reagan is passionate about change, but he inherits a completely different America from an economic, military and globalization perspective.
  • Not sure if today’s stock market is overvalued? Warren Buffet uses a handy ratio that we’ll share.
  • Once the elections are over, root for whichever party is in office to make America thrive based on our underlying principles.

 You’re not shy, you get around You want to fly, don’t want your feet on the ground You stay up, you won’t come down You want to live, you want to move to the sound Got fire in your veins, burning hot, but you don’t feel the pain Your desire is insane, you can’t stop until you do it again

— 1981 hit song, “Urgent” by Foreigner


It is neither my job nor my desire to comment on politics and elections. But, with our President- elect’s proposed policies being compared to Ronald Reagan’s, I feel the need to step up. As a financial and investment commentator, I thought it would be important to reflect upon the backdrop of Reagan’s America (1981) versus President-elect Donald Trump’s America today. This is not an opinion piece about whether or not Trump’s policies will work–I always root for America no matter which political party is in office. Whether or not I agree with Presidential policy rates is far less important than being a patriot who believes that America will thrive based on our underlying principles. It shouldn’t matter which party is in charge.

The world economic backdrop that Trump is walking into looks vastly different than the one Reagan inherited. Here we’ll discuss the many differences between 1981 and 2017 in terms of U.S. military spending, stock market valuation, interest rates, globalization and immigration.

Military spending

When many people think of Reagan, the first thing that comes to mind is his legendary “tear down these walls ” speech and the collapse of the Soviet empire. Some would say the Soviet collapse was accelerated by Reagan’s military buildup, including the Star Wars program. But, remember, Reagan stepped into office during a post-Vietnam military drawdown that began with the Carter administration. By the time Reagan completed his second term, he had expanded the U.S. military budget by a staggering 43 percent over what the country had spent during the height of the Vietnam War!

Today, coming out of the post-9/11 war on terror, it’s a very different story. President Bush II ramped up military spending to $700 billion from $400 billion during his term and it was not until President Obama’s second term that we started to see a decline in military spending. Now it looks we’re going the other way (again). Trump wants more military personnel, more ships, more aircraft and enough Marines to fight two wars. But, he wants the money to come from “cuts in waste.”  When it comes to government spending, cutting waste is much easier said than done.

National defense spending: Carter to Obama Administrations

Source: Third Way

Now let’s  take a look at the financial markets of three decades ago compared to today.

Stock market valuation: 1981 vs. today

In 1981, Reagan’s inaugural year in office, the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of the S&P 500 Index was a historically low 9. By contrast, the market’s P/E ratio is about 26 today. Reagan entered office during the final phase of a secular bear market that began in 1966. By August 1982, the Dow had closed at its secular low of 776. Following a 1981-1982 recession, Reagan’s economy grew at a real rate of 16 percent. Compare that to today when real U.S. growth is plodding along at a paltry 2 percent almost a decade after the Great Recession.

With the stock market at its all-time high and the economy in slow-growth mode, is there still a relationship between the economy and the markets? Well, investing guru, Warren Buffet, uses a ratio comparing the economy (as measured by GDP) to the stock market capitalization to determine whether or not the stock market is overvalued . A ratio used to determine if a stock market is overvalued or undervalued. It is equal to stock market capitalization divided by gross domestic product times 100. The result of this calculation is the percent of GDP represented by stock market capitalization. A result of over 100 percent is a sign the market is overvalued. A result of 50 percent or less is a sign the market is undervalued. This shows the drastically different valuation during the two Presidents inaugural years.

Read more:

In 1981 Market Cap to GDP was 32%…Today it’s 120%.

Interest rates

When Reagan was elected, we were coming out of the 1970s when interest rates were a sky-high 20 percent and the big hammer Paul Volcker  was just running out of ammo on the upside. Fast forward to today with rates bottoming near 2 percent. This is especially important because the overall debt in the U.S. economy was on a 30 year downtrend since the end of World War II when Reagan took office.

U.S. Treasury Bond interest rate comparison: Reagan vs. Trump

Debt as a portion of the U.S. economy: Reagan vs. Trump

According to Stephanie Pomboy of Macromavens, non-financial obligations now total 251 percent of our nation’s GDP. Compare that to a level of just 135 percent when Reagan came to office with $2 trillion of corporate debt coming due in the next two years . National debt in the chart below is over 100 percent of U.S. economy compared to 35 percent when Reagan kicked off his tax cuts.

Source: Just Facts

Immigration and the U.S. workforce.

Reagan took office at the end of an 80 year sideways move in immigration, while Trump takes over during a 25-year boom in foreign workers coming to our country. This boom means different things to different social classes. To some, the boom is a positive driver in terms of more educated talent, entrerprenurship and low-cost labor all in one. To others, the boom means competition for American jobs needed by our own long-time citizens. Reagan didn’t even have the immigration debate on his economic plate while Trump made it a key focus of his campaign.


Although both Trump and Reagan have burning hot fire in their veins for change , the economies they inherited have different urgencies. The major economic factors such as debt, interest rates and stock market valuations the two Presidents faced are not just different, they are polar opposites. It could be argued that Reagan kicked off globalization, but Trump is now dealing with a world economy that has added over a one billion people to the workforce, thus driving down wages and upending job safety in developed countries like the U.S. Again, I root for whoever is President to enact postive change for our country, but the economic canvas you start with is not blank. If Trump’s goal is to paint an economic masterpiece, then his vision will have to look very different from Reagans.

You say it’s urgent, make it fast, make it urgent Do it quick, do it urgent, got to run, make it urgent Wait it quick, want it urgent, urgent, emergency, urgent, urgent, emergency Urgent, urgent, emergency, urgent, urgent, emergency So urgent, emergency

— 1981 hit song, “Urgent” by Foreigner

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Did Homeland’s Brody Just Signal “The End” for Hedge Fund Boom?

The End

The Doors

This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes, again


It Could be The End of not just Bobby Axelrod in 2017


Picture from Showtime Series “Billions” based on New York hedge fund world.


Truth be told, I liked actor Damian Lewis much better in the movie Homeland than in Billions. Although as a costume drama, Billions should win an Emmy. The film really nailed Wall Street wardrobes–fleeces for everyone.
After spending 18 years on a trading desk, of course I watched Billions. What red blooded American doesn’t love greed, envy, sex, manipulation and testosterone sprinkled with a heavy dose of Machiavellianism? Plus, Billions stars my favorite actor, Paul Giamatti, in a fabulous role that will leave you feeling “Sideways.”

When I first started in the financial advisory business, there were several well-known, albeit abstract market indicators such as “The Tallest Building Signal” or the “Magazine Cover Indicator.” If you don’t remember those gauges, the Tallest Building Indicator referred to the phenomenon in which the country boasting the world’s tallest building at the time would inevitably see its economy collapse not long after construction was completed on that massive edifice. The Magazine Cover Index was based on the theory that a person or subject featured on the cover of a major business magazine would experience a reversal of fortune soon after publication—kind of like the Sports Illustrated cover jinx for athletes.

For instance, if the top of a market–or a high flying money manager–graced the cover of a widely read business publication, then performance would soon start to go south. Or, once a major business publication signaled the end of market cycle, the opposite would happen. The most famous example of the Magazine Cover Index was Business Week’s infamous ‘Death of Equities’ cover, published on August 13, 1979, right before a multi-decade generational bull market ensued.
In the 1990s, bombastic TV personality Jim Cramer and CNBC exploded the stock picker savant image before the 1999 bubble burst. It was similar to the deluge of house flipping shows that invaded cable TV in 2007 before the world economic order nearly imploded in 2008 due to risky financing of U.S. homes. That leads us to wonder if actors Damien Lewis and Paul Giammatti have just “top ticked” the hedge fund boom?


Did Billions star Bobby Axelrod top tick hedge fund assets? “Billions” launched Jan 1, 2016

Let’s rewind for a second. The hedge fund industry has grown from a niche sector for the ultra-wealthy to a nearly mainstream financial asset class today. Less than 500 funds with $250 million under management existed in the 1990s. Today, there are roughly 12,000 hedge funds with over $3 trillion in AUM. Three out of four hedge funds (75%) are located in the U.S. God Bless America and all of our risk-taking glory. After the 2008 financial crisis, the world was primed for a “hedged” product and U.S. financial entrepreneurs gave the public everything it could handle. The problem is that if you dine with cannibals, sooner or later, you can be eaten. And right now, we have some financial vegetarians who are dining with cannibals. That’s not a good combination.

Some of the most successful hedge fund managers in history have recently lamented that there are “too many hedge funds” out there. The surge of American intellectual talent that’s piling into hedge funds to chase the same few ideas has resulted in a “lack of alpha” generation. As many of you know, alpha refers to the excess return that a fund generates relative to its benchmark index. Here are the recent hedge fund performance stats:


Hedge Funds Alpha

1998-2002  +8.0%

2003-2007  -0.7%

2008-2016  -4.5%

: “Incredible Shrinking Alpha,” by Larry Swedroe


Hedge Fund managers and traders do not come into the office at 6 am, fire up their Bloomberg terminals and try to underperform with your money. They are trying desperately to make you outsized returns, but there are just too damn many managers chasing the same ideas. California’s, New York’s and Nevada’s state pension funds are just a few of the institutional accounts that have removed hedge funds from their asset allocations.

In the last eight years, New York State’s pension fund paid $3.8 billion in fees to poorly performing hedge funds, according to a report published by the state’s financial regulator. According to the report, hedge funds were the worst performing of the six asset classes making up the state’s pension allocation—kind of ironic considering New York’s proximity to the hedge fund epicenter. It is true that pension funds are traditionally horrific market timers, but this latest trend feels more like a secular move than poor timing by institutional investors.

Hedge funds were once reserved only for the super-rich. Now, thanks to liquid alternatives, the mass affluent can theoretically gain access to the same “Masters of the Universe” who run hedge funds.  “Liquid alts” is an industry term for hedge funds that are offered through mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs). They allow the average investor to access hedge funds through his or her retirement accounts. It seems Bobby Axelrod also managed to top tick the growth of liquid alternatives.


“Billions” Launched January 1, 2016 on the First Downtick for Alternatives Growth in 10 Years


Alternative Assets Go “Sideways” into launch of Showtime’s hit show “Billions” after a decade of exponential growth.



The free markets have a messy way of delivering progress–it’s called “creative destruction” which leads to lost jobs, ruined companies and vanished industries. This is the paradox of progress, but 100 million people died trying out Communism, the closest competitor to creative destruction. The pain and gain of capitalism are inextricably linked. America has always been built on creative destruction. In 15 years, we have seen the rise and fall of tech bankers, mortgage brokers and natural gas drillers. Some hedge funds will survive and thrive, while others will face the end. But, America will move forward either way.


This is the end, my only friend, the end
It hurts to set you free


But you’ll never follow me
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
This is the end

Read more: The Doors – The End Lyrics | MetroLyrics