Thinking Through Cryptocurrencies | Part 2

Thinking Through Cryptocurrencies | Part 2

 

It seems like everyone nowadays is talking about cryptocurrencies. Whether it’s the proselytizers on CNBC or the techie next door, it feels as if everyone is either talking about or buying into this next big thing.

Trying to adequately explain an emerging technology and it’s economic impact in less then a few thousand words is bound to neglect certain facets of the subject. This series attempts to cover the technical specification of cryptocurrencies, how they can be viewed in an investment environment, the narratives that accompany this new technology, and the future impact, applications, and risk of the cryptocurrency universe.

 

Recent Market Conditions

Economist Robert Shiller, the 2013 Economics Nobel Prize co-recipient, noted a similarity between the current Bitcoin movement and the bimetallism movement of the late 1800s. Shiller’s recent book Narrative Economics focuses on the stories or ideas that we tell ourselves that influence our economic decisions.

The narrative of Bitcoin is a fascinating story to tell. It starts with intrigue as the founder (or founders) of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, has never been identified or even confirmed to exist. This creates a great human-interest story and helps to grab the attention of individuals.

We follow the human-interest story by delving into the complexity of cryptographic hash functions and network protocols that few understand. This complexity and need for experts to understand presents the next draw of Bitcoin.

Similar to young people of the late 1800s and their enthusiasm with the abstruse monetary economics of bimetallism, Bitcoin advocates take pleasure in the fact that it is only a select few (including themselves) that understand this complicated subject.

Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies have also caught the eye of various pop culture icons. In January of 2020, Bitcoin rose 20% in a matter of hours after Elon Musk famously changed his Twitter Bio to #bitcoin. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter and Square, has been a vocal supporter of Bitcoin and even sold his very first tweet in the form of a Non-Fungible Token (NFT) for 1,630 Ethereum (or $2.9 million). This allure of seeing individuals with household names using cryptocurrencies provides yet another boost in the awareness and interest created by the narrative of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.

Add to this the fact that in the past eight years (11/5/15 – 4/26/21) Bitcoin has had an annualized return of 82%. This has led to many sites and brokerages promoting advertisements showing these high levels of returns without mentioning the fact that Bitcoin has also suffered three 75% corrections in the 10+ years of its existence. Unfortunately, our human brains were wired millions of years ago and tend to value recent information over past information. Throughout history, this wiring has led to commodity fads. One of the earliest and most spectacular was “tulip mania,” a three-year period in the mid-1600s when tulip bulbs appreciated at an annualized rate of 200% per year.

While we have seen many of these types of narratives before, the combination of them in Bitcoin provides something attractive and seemingly new; and the ease and accessibility has never been higher, facilitating high demand. Financial applications such as PayPal can give just about anyone with a few bucks access to buying this exciting new asset class.

 

Stay tuned for the last installment where we discuss the future of cryptocurrencies. And if you missed our first installment, you can find it here

 

Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.

It is not intended to serve as a substitute for personalized investment advice or as a recommendation or solicitation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Opinions expressed by Merriman are based on economic or market conditions at the time this material was written.  Economies and markets fluctuate.  Actual economic or market events may turn out differently than anticipated.  Any reference to an index is included for illustrative purposes only, as an index is not a security in which an investment can be made.  Indices are unmanaged vehicles that serve as market indicators and do not account for the deduction of management fees and/or transaction costs generally associated with investable products. As always please remember investing involves risk and possible loss of principal capital and past performance does not guarantee future returns; please seek advice from a licensed professional.  Advisory services are only offered to clients or prospective clients where Merriman and its representatives are properly licensed or exempt from licensure. No advice may be rendered by Merriman unless a client service agreement is in place. All composite data and corresponding calculations are available upon request.

An Interview With Dennis Tilley

An Interview With Dennis Tilley

 

 

Our very own Director of Alternative Investments, Dennis Tilley, was interviewed by Technical Analysis of Stocks and Commodities. Read his interview about portfolio management and the benefits of market timing vs buy-and-hold strategies here.

If you would like to read more detailed thoughts from Dennis, you can find more at his blog Asset Class Trading.

 

 

 

Disclosure: All opinions expressed in this article are for general informational purposes and constitute the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of the report. These opinions are subject to change without notice and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or on any specific security. The material has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.

Thinking Through Cryptocurrencies | Part 1

Thinking Through Cryptocurrencies | Part 1

 

It seems like everyone nowadays is talking about cryptocurrencies. Whether it’s the proselytizers on CNBC or the techie next door, it feels as if everyone is either talking about or buying into this next big thing.

Trying to adequately explain an emerging technology and it’s economic impact in less then a few thousand words is bound to neglect certain facets of the subject. This series attempts to cover the technical specification of cryptocurrencies, how they can be viewed in an investment environment, the narratives that accompany this new technology, and the future impact, applications, and risk of the cryptocurrency universe.

 

What Is a Cryptocurrency?

The first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was originally imagined as a system of value exchange that could bypass institutions and instead allow users to make transactions on a peer-to-peer basis. For such a network to succeed, there had to be a way to verify the veracity of the transaction for both parties.

This is where the revolutionary technology called the blockchain comes in. The blockchain can be visualized as its name suggests: a chain made up of individual blocks of transactions. At its heart, this is what Bitcoin is: a series of transactions leading up to the current moment. When an individual buys Bitcoin, they are simply adding their name to the transaction list (or ledger), saying, “I have bought x number of Bitcoins.” Of course, it’s not as simple as adding a line.

Bitcoin works by having computers (or nodes) confirm and document transfers. When a transaction between Person A and Person B occurs, this transaction is sent out over the Bitcoin network. These nodes then verify that Person A has the right amount of Bitcoin to transfer to Person B by looking at the blocks of historical transactions on the chain. Once the majority of nodes on the network (50%) verify that a transaction can take place, it is added to the blockchain transaction log.

This verification process is where Bitcoin miners come into the picture. Miners provide the computers and computer power needed to verify transactions. They provide this service and get “paid” for it by having the opportunity to mint a new Bitcoin. To mint a new Bitcoin, a miner must verify 1MB worth of transactions and find a solution to a cryptographic hash function, which is the difficult part. The Bitcoin miner who verifies the transactions and is the first one to determine the target hash is the one who gets to include a new transaction for themselves, essentially minting a Bitcoin. While cryptocurrencies differ in the exact way that they go about transactions and the minting of new coins, the Bitcoin method is a solid enough base to understand cryptocurrencies at their base level.

 

Where Do Cryptocurrencies Fit in the Investment Landscape?

Cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoin, are sometimes referred to as digital gold. Like gold and other currencies, they are something that derives their value from the belief that they can be exchanged in the future for something else of value and that the future value will be greater than the present value. The term that is frequently used is “a store of value.” Perceptions of value can change much more quickly than physical objects, which leads to the volatility that has always been present in currency markets, digital and fiat.

One of the advantages of cryptocurrencies, unlike gold or silver, is the ability to store value in an even more concentrated physical form. A 100-gram gold bullion cost about $6,000 dollars in 2020. This gold bullion could be slipped into your pocket or placed in a safe. A small flash drive, smaller than the gold bullion, could essentially hold billions of dollars in Bitcoin.

As with gold, there is a physical limit to the number of Bitcoins that can be produced. There can only be 21 million Bitcoins in the current Bitcoin network. So far, almost 19 million have been mined. Many believe this commodity-like supply will result in the value of Bitcoin rising with inflation—or possibly even faster.

Cryptocurrency advocates have discussed how this feature also makes digital currencies immune to the hyperinflation that can result from governments printing money. On the one hand, that is true. However, on the other side of the coin, the creation of a new Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency via mining injects new money into the supply. And as has been seen with gold historically, short-term, localized abundance of even a limited supply commodity can result in hyperinflation. The famous 1849 Gold Rush in California is a perfect example of the phenomenon. The prices for various goods like eggs, bread, and boots in the local area rose to more than three times the original price. Allowing for the lower accuracy of CPI data from the late 1800s, there is general consensus that the various gold rushes of the era from the U.S., Australia, and South Africa all resulted in increased inflation rates. So, while cryptocurrencies may be more immune from government influence, it is unlikely that they are immune to supply and demand shocks.

Other types of cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum or Cardano, offer different use cases by allowing the creation of new cryptocurrency assets or non-proof-of-work methods. The full effect of these other types of cryptocurrencies remains to be seen. One Ethereum-based crypto asset that has seen a lot of recent attention is the rise of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). These tokens represent a unique digital item and are not interchangeable. This has created a marketplace for artists to sell digital items with the authenticity guaranteed by the blockchain. Many of the applications of varying alternative cryptocurrencies are still being figured out at this time. It has yet to be seen whether these become alternate stores of value or simply new, more efficient ways to transact.

 

Watch for the next installment where we discuss cryptocurrencies and recent market conditions.

Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.

It is not intended to serve as a substitute for personalized investment advice or as a recommendation or solicitation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Opinions expressed by Merriman are based on economic or market conditions at the time this material was written.  Economies and markets fluctuate.  Actual economic or market events may turn out differently than anticipated.  Any reference to an index is included for illustrative purposes only, as an index is not a security in which an investment can be made.  Indices are unmanaged vehicles that serve as market indicators and do not account for the deduction of management fees and/or transaction costs generally associated with investable products. As always please remember investing involves risk and possible loss of principal capital and past performance does not guarantee future returns; please seek advice from a licensed professional.  Advisory services are only offered to clients or prospective clients where Merriman and its representatives are properly licensed or exempt from licensure. No advice may be rendered by Merriman unless a client service agreement is in place. All composite data and corresponding calculations are available upon request.

The Role of Bonds

The Role of Bonds

 

In Berkshire Hathaway’s most recent annual shareholder letter, Warren Buffett shared his dire forecast for bond investors:

 

And bonds are not the place to be these days. Can you believe that the income recently available from a 10-year U.S. Treasury bond – the yield was 0.93% at yearend – had fallen 94% from the 15.8% yield available in September 1981? In certain large and important countries, such as Germany and Japan, investors earn a negative return on trillions of dollars of sovereign debt. Fixed-income investors worldwide – whether pension funds, insurance companies or retirees – face a bleak future.

Thus far, Warren’s negative outlook has proven correct with the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond rising to 1.74% through the first quarter, leaving bond investors with a negative (3.4%) return.* And with inflation expectations heating up, it is certainly difficult to build a bullish case for bonds. However, most individual investors do not have all their investable assets in bonds. Buffett only considers the investment merits as a standalone investment. Given that most of our clients own bonds within a diversified mix of equities, real estate, and other asset classes, we thought this would be an opportune time to revisit the role bonds play within the portfolio.  

In its most basic form, a bond is a loan to a government entity, corporation, or individual consumer. The investor in a bond is the lender and expects to receive back the original principal along with interest over the life of the loan. Bonds have two main characteristics: quality and maturity.

Quality is a measure of credit risk or the likelihood that the entity will repay the loan. High-quality bonds carry lower interest rates to reflect the low risk of default. In Buffett’s example above, he discusses the U.S. Treasury bond, which has the highest quality and thus a lower interest rate. On the other end of the spectrum, a corporation with a “junk” credit rating will have a much higher interest rate to compensate investors for the additional risk of default. 

Maturity is a measure of interest rate risk. Using bond terms, duration provides an estimate of how sensitive a portfolio of bonds is to changes in interest rates. As an example, if interest rates rise across all maturities by 1%, a bond portfolio with a duration of 10 years can expect to lose 10% in value without including interest payments. The interest rate risk increases with duration and vice versa.

Now that we have the basics in place, let’s discuss more specifically the role bonds play in a diversified portfolio. MarketWise is designed to produce the highest risk-adjusted returns, taking into consideration the long-term expected returns, volatility, and correlations produced by the different asset classes. Bonds play a critical role in that mix. We invest in high-quality U.S. government bonds with short to intermediate (two to five year) maturities with the sole purpose of mitigating risk and providing stability. For taxable accounts, we invest in municipal bonds, which play a similar role while producing tax-free interest. We also own Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), which provide protection during inflationary environments. 

The main function of bonds in a portfolio is downside protection. If stocks always went up, there would be little need for bonds or any other asset class. But as we were recently reminded last March, stocks do go down, and when they do, bonds provide that counterbalance, as they typically rise in value during equity bear markets or economic recessions. In fact, since 1976, there have been eight years in which stocks were lower. In each of those years, bonds finished higher to help cushion the blow. This allows us to rebalance during those periods and sell bonds when they are up and buy stocks when they are down in value.

Bonds also have very low overall correlation to stocks. During negative months for stocks, that correlation drops even further. But that also does not mean bonds always have negative returns when stocks are up. In fact, bonds are slightly positively correlated to stocks during up periods. We recently saw this in 2020 with both stocks and bonds finishing with positive total returns for the year. 

So, despite the lower expected returns for bonds going forward, it is important to understand the characteristics of bonds and why we own them. That said, our team continues to research ways to improve the fixed income slice of the portfolio. Over the past several years, we added two specialized asset classes in Alternative Lending and Reinsurance to increase returns that are uncorrelated to both equities and bonds. Going forward, we will continue to investigate ways to enhance the role that bonds play within the portfolio.

 

 

Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.  Any reference to an index is included for illustrative purposes only, as an index is not a security in which an investment can be made. Indices are unmanaged vehicles that serve as market indicators and do not account for the deduction of management fees and/or transaction costs generally associated with investable products.  The Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index is a broad-based flagship benchmark that measures the investment grade, US dollar-denominated, fixed-rate taxable bond market.  All composite data and corresponding calculations are available upon request.

 

Incorporating Environmental and Social Values into Your Merriman Portfolio

Incorporating Environmental and Social Values into Your Merriman Portfolio

 

Investors like you are, by definition, actively planning for your financial future. At Merriman, we understand that you also want to make sure the world is bright for future generations.

To help align your investments with your values, we offer our Values-Based Investing portfolios. These portfolios are built in a manner consistent with our overall investment philosophy and designed to deliver similar after-fee, after-tax returns while offering you the ability to have an impact through your investment choices. One of these values-based options is our Sustainability portfolio. The UCLA Sustainability Committee defines sustainability as “the physical development and institutional operating practices that meet the needs of present users without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, particularly with regard to use and waste of natural resources.”

Our Sustainability portfolio focuses on including and overweighting companies that score high on sustainability measures. By choosing this portfolio, clients have the ability to shift money away from companies that have negative environmental impacts and into companies that rank better than their peers.

For the equity allocation in our Sustainability portfolio, we have selected funds managed by Dimensional Fund Advisors. When it comes to determining environmental impact, Dimensional’s approach to sustainability investing stands out. While many asset managers offer binary screening to exclude certain securities, Dimensional tilts toward companies that rank high on its sustainability framework while reducing the weight of companies with negative scores. This approach ensures a company doing better than its peers is rewarded even if it lags behind other companies in different sectors. This process is important because while a software company won’t have a very large environmental impact, investing in an energy company that has better environmental business practices than its peers can end up being more impactful on reducing carbon emissions in the future.

Incorporating sustainability considerations is a complex task. The sustainability funds we have selected use a Sustainability Scoring Framework on an industry level. The table on the right shows how the sustainability scores are determined, taking into account both the greenhouse gas emissions the company reports as well as potential future emissions from their fossil fuel reserves. This process penalizes companies that enable others to emit more or will themselves emit more in the future.

Dimensional also screens out companies with particularly negative practices around factory farming, cluster munitions, tobacco, and child labor.

Equities aren’t the only asset class where our portfolio includes sustainability considerations. Real estate has a high environmental impact and is an asset class where we are able to successfully incorporate sustainability considerations with minimal impact on investment returns.

Per the UN Enviroment Programme (UNEP), “The construction and operations of buildings account for 40% of global energy use, 30% of energy-related GHG emissions, approximately 12% of water use, nearly 40% of waste, and employs 10% of the workforce.”

As shown in the graph below using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, buildings have the lowest cost to reduce emissions. A great example of this comes from the iconic New York Empire State Building, which in 2010 underwent a retrofit. Windows were rebuilt, HVAC was replaced, and reflective insulation was installed. These changes resulted in the building having an annual energy reduction of 38% which translates to a cost saving of $4.4 million per year. This type of cost saving is also beneficial to the investment as profits from these endeavors are passed through to the investors.

Source: VERT Asset Management

We are partnering with some of the most informed individuals in the field of sustainable real estate investing by using the groundbreaking Global Sustainable Real Estate Fund from VERT Asset Management. This fund targets companies that meet a threefold criteria of environment, social, and governance factors. These include both positive and negative screening and tilts. The fund overweights REITs with energy, GHG, and water reductions and also screens out prisons, businesses, or companies with environmental fines. The Venn diagram below shows how VERT incorporates a multi-dimensional scoring methodology. VERT focuses on companies that exhibit “Comprehensive Excellence,” those that fall in the middle of the Venn diagram. After this, VERT targets “Focused Excellence” REITs which fall into two of the Venn diagram categories. In this way, VERT builds a portfolio targeting the best of the best first.

Source: VERT Asset Management

 

 

There is more than one way to invest in line with your values. Whether by using sustainable funds like those from Dimensional and VERT, or one of our other investment offerings, Merriman is by your side. We want to make sure your investments not only fulfill your financial goals but also allow you to live fully, knowing that you are making a difference for future generations.

 

The Coronavirus & Market Movements

The Coronavirus & Market Movements

 

 

Global equity markets have moved down sharply over the past couple of days. The immediate cause has been the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVD-19). Capital markets react in real time to aggregate predictions of the future and, on average, price in an overly pessimistic view compared to the ultimate outcome. Currently, there is growing fear of a large drop off in global business activity due to the spread of COVD-19 outside of China.

When we look at the most recent response of the S&P 500 to epidemics over the past 20 years, we see that the market generally has fallen sharply during outbreaks and then rebounded within 6 months. This response follows a pretty typical market pattern where there is overreaction due to uncertainty in the outcome and then a strong bounce back.

The more uncertain the scope of an event, the higher the volatility. The scope and impact of disease outbreaks on economic activity is incredibly difficult to predict. First, there is the uncertainty associated with how the disease will spread and how severely it will impact global citizens. COVD-19 is different than several of the most recent disease outbreaks (SARS, MERS, Zika Virus) in that most patients do not experience severe symptoms and recent data suggests that some people may be infected without showing any symptoms. These characteristics make the probability of a tragic outcome much less but also make it much more challenging to control the spread. Technology and communication have also advanced and are being leveraged to extents not previously possible. How these factors will influence the spread of disease is truly unknowable.

Even if we did know exactly who would be affected and how, the tie between the human cost and the economic cost is indirect at best. Government and business response will vary and may have profound or very little effect.

When there is a very limited data set, it is important not to jump to the conclusion that the past predicts the future. Just because markets have rebounded quickly in the past does not mark this as a buying opportunity. As discussed above, each epidemic is unique, and the ultimate impact is uncertain.

We are well into an economic expansion that is long, by historical standards. Bear markets typically have a trigger that is not necessarily the underlying cause, but more like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The divide between the performance of US growth stocks and the rest of the global equity markets (US small and value stocks, international and emerging stocks) has reached levels not seen since the late 1990s. At some point, these large divergences have always closed. Whether a decade from now we will look back on COVD-19 as the triggering event for a major shift, no one knows.

Our investment approach, during market pullbacks and always, is to stay true to our disciplined rebalancing strategy. We don’t predict the future direction of the market or specifically buy or sell based on recent market movements. Rather, we consistently monitor your portfolio for under or overweight positions and execute trades to bring the portfolio back to target. Because of the continued relative outperformance of US growth stocks, many clients have reached the point where they are overweight in this asset class, which has resulted in sells in these positions and buys of underweight asset classes in the portfolio, typically bonds.

As the market has swooned, we have also been selling partial or full positions to capture unrealized losses which are used to offset taxable gains and reduce your overall tax bill. The cash generated from the sells is reinvested in a substitute position in the same asset class. Entering a substitute position maintains the target investment objective of the portfolio, keeping you positioned to achieve your long-term financial goals while locking in the tax savings.

We hope that through these times, you can find peace of mind in knowing that we are constantly monitoring your portfolio to ensure the best chance of success in achieving your goals. If you have any questions about activity in your portfolio, please don’t hesitate to reach out.