Tag Archives: switzerland

Buckle Up: Monetary Events Are Speeding

Just when you thought the world could not spin much faster, global monetary events in 2015 have picked up speed. Buckle up.

A key macro theme of ours for some time now has been the increasing importance of relative global currency movements in financial market outcomes. And what have we experienced in this very short year-to-date period so far? After years of jawboning, the European Central Bank has finally announced a $60 billion monthly quantitative easing exercise to begin in March. Switzerland “de- linked” its currency from the euro. China has lowered the official renminbi/U.S. dollar trading band (devalued the currency). China lowered its banking system required reserve ratio. The Turkish and Ukrainian currencies saw double-digit declines. And interest-rate cuts have been announced in Canada, Singapore, Denmark (four times in three weeks), India, Australia and Russia (after raising rates meaningfully in December to defend the ruble). All of the above occurred within five weeks.

What do all of these actions have in common? They are meant to influence relative global currency values. The common denominator under all of these actions was a desire to lower the relative value of each country’s or area’s currency against global competitors. As a result, foreign currency volatility has risen more than noticeably in 2015, necessarily begetting heightened volatility in global equity and fixed income markets.

If we step back and think about how individual central banks and country-specific economies responded to changes in the real global economy historically, it was through the interest-rate mechanism. Individual central banks could raise and lower short-term interest rates to stimulate or cool specific economies as they experienced the positive or negative influence of global economic change. Country-specific interest-rate differentials acted as pressure relief valves. Global short-term interest-rate differentials acted as a supposed relative equalization mechanism. But in today’s world of largely 0% interest rates, the interest-rate “pressure relief valve” is gone. The new pressure relief valve has become relative currency movements. This is just one reality of the historically unprecedented global grand central banking monetary experiments of the last six years. At this point, the experiment is neither good nor bad; it is simply the environment in which we find ourselves. And so we deal with this reality in investment decision making.

There has been one other event of note in early 2015 that directly relates to the potential for further heightened currency volatility. That event is the recent Greek elections. We all know that Greece has been in trouble for some time. Quite simply, the country has borrowed more money than it is able to pay back under current debt-repayment schedules. The New York consulting/ banking firm Lazard recently put out a report suggesting Greek debt requires a 50% “haircut” (default) for Greece to remain fiscally viable. The European Central Bank (ECB), largely prompted by Germany, is demanding 100% payback. Herein lies the key tension that must be resolved in some manner by the end of February, when a meaningful Greek debt payment is due.

Of course, the problem with a needed “haircut” in Greek debt is that major Euro banks holding Greek debt have not yet marked this debt to “market value” on their balance sheets. In one sense, saving Greece is as much about saving the Euro banks as anything. If there is a “haircut” agreement, a number of Euro banks will feel the immediate pain of asset write-offs. Moreover, if Greece receives favorable debt restructuring/haircut treatment, then what about Italy? What about Spain, etc? This is the dilemma of the European Central Bank, and ultimately the euro itself as a currency. This forced choice is exactly what the ECB has been trying to avoid for years. Politicians in the new Greek government have so far been committing a key sin in the eyes of the ECB – they have been telling the truth about fiscal/financial realities.

So, to the point: What does this set of uncharted waters mean for investment decision making? It means we need to be very open and flexible. We need to be prepared for possible financial market outcomes that in no way fit within the confines of a historical or academic playbook experience.

Having said this, a unique occurrence took place in Euro debt markets in early February: Nestle ́ shorter-term corporate debt actually traded with a negative yield. Think about this. Investors were willing to lose a little bit of money (-20 basis points, or -.2%) for the “safety” of essentially being able to park their capital in Nestle’s balance sheet. This is a very loud statement. Academically, we all know that corporate debt is “riskier” than government debt (which is considered “risk-free”). But the markets are telling us that may not be the case at the current time, when looking at Nestle ́ bonds as a proxy for top-quality corporate balance sheets. Could it be that the balance sheets of global sovereigns (governments) are actually riskier? If so, is global capital finally starting to recognize and price in this fact? After all, negative Nestle ́ corporate yields were seen right alongside Greece’s raising its hand, suggesting Euro area bank and government balance sheets may not be the pristine repositories for capital many have come to blindly accept. This Nestle ́ bond trade may be one of the most important market signals in years.

As we have stated in our writings many a time, one of the most important disciplines in the investment management process is to remain flexible and open in thinking. Dogmatic adherence to preconceived notions can be very dangerous, especially in the current cycle. As such, we cannot look at global capital flows and investment asset class price reactions in isolation. This may indeed be one of the greatest investment challenges of the moment, but one whose understanding is crucial to successful navigation ahead. In isolation, who would be crazy enough to buy short-term Nestle ́ debt where the result is a guaranteed loss of capital in a bond held to maturity? No one. But within the context of deteriorating global government balance sheets, all of a sudden it is not so crazy an occurrence. It makes complete sense within the context of global capital seeking out investment venues of safety beyond what may have been considered “risk-free” government balance sheets, all within the context of a negative yield environment. Certainly for the buyer of Nestle ́ debt with a negative yield, motivation is not the return on capital, but the return of capital.

This leads us to equities and, again, this very important concept of being flexible in thinking and behavior. Historically, valuation metrics have been very important in stock investing. Not just levels of earnings and cash-flow growth, but the multiple of earnings and cash-flow growth that investors have been willing to pay to own individual stocks. This has been expressed in valuation metrics such as price-to-earnings, price relative to book value, cash flow, etc. To the point, in the current market environment, common stock valuation metrics are stretched relative to historical context.

In the past, we have looked at indicators like total stock market capitalization relative to GDP. The market capitalization of a stock is nothing more than its shares outstanding multiplied by its current price. The indicator essentially shows us the value of stock market assets relative to the real economy. Warren Buffett has called this his favorite stock market indicator.

Untitled

The message is clear. By this valuation metric, only the year 2000 saw a higher valuation than the current. For a while now, a number of market pundits have suggested the U.S. stock market is at risk of a crash based on these numbers.

Wells Capital Management recently developed data for the median historical price-to-earnings multiple of the NYSE (using the data for only those New York Stock Exchange companies with positive earnings). What this data tells us is that the current NYSE median PE multiple is the highest ever seen. Not exactly wildly heartwarming for anyone with a sense of stock market valuation history.

Untitled

It is data like this that has prompted a number of market commentators to issue warnings: The big bad stock market wolf isn’t coming; he’s here!

In thinking about these numbers and these dire warnings from a number on Wall Street, we again need to step back and put the current cycle into context. We need to put individual asset class movements into context.

In isolation, current stock market valuations should be very concerning (and they are). In isolation, these types of valuation metrics do not make a lot of sense set against historical precedent. But the negative yield on Nestle corporate debt make littles to no common sense, either…unless it is looked at as an alternative to deteriorating government balance sheets and government debt markets.

Trust us, the LAST thing we are trying to do is be stock market cheerleaders. We’ll leave that to the carnival barkers at CNBC, with its historically low viewer ratings. What we are trying to do is “see” where the current set of global financial market, economic and currency circumstances will lead global capital as we move throughout 2015.

Heightened global currency volatility means an increasing amount of global capital at the margin is seeking principal safety. The recent Greek election results are now forcing into the mainstream commentary the issue of Euro bank and government fiscal integrity, let alone solvency. We believe the negative yield on the Nestle ́ corporate bond is an important marker that global capital is now looking at the private (corporate) sector as a potential repository for safety. The Nestle ́ bond is an investment that has nothing to do with yield and everything to do with capital preservation. Nestle ́ has one of the more pristine corporate balance sheets on Earth. We need to remember that equities represent a claim on not only future cash flows of a corporation but also on its real assets and balance sheet wherewithal.

We need to be open to the possibility that, despite very high-valuation metrics, a weak global economy and accelerating global currency movements that are sure to play a bit of havoc with reported corporate earnings, the equity asset class may increasingly be seen as a global capital repository for safety in a world where global government balance sheets have become ever more precarious over the last half decade. The investor who survives long-term is the one with a plan of action for all potential market outcomes. Avoid the tendency to cry wolf, but, of course, also keep in mind that even the boy who cried wolf was ultimately correct.

It’s all in the rhythm and pacing of each unique financial and economic cycle. Having a disciplined risk management process is the key to being able to remain flexible in investment thinking and action.

3 Ways to Protect Sensitive Messages

“Delete this email if you are not the intended recipient.”

That and similar language theoretically sounds imposing but essentially does nothing to protect sensitive data from any nefarious actors who view it (though they may get a good chuckle before reading the email).

Yet almost 90% of attorneys surveyed by LexisNexis for a study it published in May 2014 on law firm security acknowledged using email to communicate with clients and privileged third parties. The vast majority of attorneys surveyed also acknowledged the increasingly important role of various file sharing services and the inherent risk that someone other than a client or privileged third party could gain access to shared documents. Yet only 22% use encrypted email, and 13% use secure file sharing sites, while 77% of firms rely on the effectively worthless “confidentiality statements” within the body of emails.

Technology Basics

To explain the right approach, I need to start with some technology basics.

How does email actually work?

By its nature, email is not a terribly secure way to share information. When you send an email, it goes through a powerful, centralized computer called a server on its way to a corresponding email server associated with the recipient’s computer or mobile device. The email passes through any number of servers along the way, like a flat stone skipping across a pond. If that email isn’t encrypted, anyone with access to any one of those servers can read it.

What is encryption?

Encryption is the use of an algorithm to scramble normal data into an indecipherable mishmash of letters, numbers and symbols (referred to as “ciphertext”). An encryption key (essentially a long string of characters) is used to scramble the text, pictures, videos, etc. into the ciphertext. Depending on how the encryption is set up, either the same key (symmetrical encryption) or a different key (asymmetrical encryption) is used to decrypt the data back into its original state (called “plaintext”). Under most privacy and data breach notification laws, encrypted data is considered secure and typically doesn’t have to be reported as a data breach if it’s lost or stolen (so long as the decryption key isn’t taken, as well).

Three Methods to Secure Email

1) Encrypted email. Properly encrypted email messages should be converted to ciphertext before leaving the sender’s computer or mobile device and stay encrypted until they are delivered to the recipient (remaining indecipherable as they pass through each server along the way). This approach is referred to as end-to-end encryption.

Until fairly recently, email encryption has been a somewhat technical and cumbersome process, often requiring both sender and recipient to use matching encryption programs and carefully manage their own encryption keys. Now, there are plenty of encrypted email offerings from larger commercial companies, as well as a number of new and interesting email encryption services that have become available in the wake of disclosures made by Edward Snowden.

When choosing one, be mindful of where the service you use is located (including where the servers handling the emails on the system actually are). Snowden used a well-regarded U.S.-based encrypted email provider called Lavabit. Not long after Snowden’s revelations came to light, federal law enforcement forced Lavabit to secretly turn over the encryption keys safeguarding its users’ private communications. Lavabit’s founder tried to resist but was overwhelmed in federal court.  As a result, he shut down the service. Another well-regarded service called Silent Mail followed suit shortly thereafter as it felt it could no longer ensure its customers’ privacy. Both have since relocated to Switzerland and are planning to introduce a new encrypted email service called Dark Mail.

Larger companies offering encrypted email services typically control the encryption keys and will decrypt data before turning it over in response to a warrant or subpoena (including one coupled with a gag order). In addition, email service providers can legally read any email using their systems under Title II of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, referred to as the Stored Communications Act. Moreover, emails remaining on a third-party server for more than 180 days are considered abandoned. Any American law enforcement agency can gain access to them with a simple subpoena.

Accordingly, if you choose to use a service based in the U.S. or another jurisdiction with similar privacy protections, be mindful of who controls the encryption keys.

2) Secure cloud storage. Another way to securely communicate or share files with a client or privileged third party is to place communication and files in encrypted cloud storage and allow the client or third party to have password-protected access to them. Rather than a direct email with possible attachments, the client or third party would receive a link to the securely stored data. The cloud service you select should be designed for security. Before you ask: DropBox and Google Drive would not be suitable options. There are a number of services offering well-protected cloud storage, and it’s important to do your due diligence before selecting one. If it all seems a bit much to figure out, two services I would recommend looking into are Cubby and Porticor.

3) Secure Web portal. A third approach is to place communications and files in a secure portion of your firm’s network that selected clients and privileged third parties can access. As with the secure cloud storage option, the email sent to the client or third party would have a link back to the secure Web portal’s log-in page. An advantage to this approach is that the communications and files do not actually leave your computer network and should be easier to protect.

An additional consideration: A government snoop or competent hacker doesn’t necessarily have to target a message while it’s encrypted. A message that is protected by strong encryption when it’s sent or held in secure cloud storage can still be intercepted and read once it has been opened or accessed using a mobile device or computer that has been compromised. The same holds true for intercepting a message before it’s encrypted initially. What steps can you take to protect yourself? The software on any computer or other device that can potentially access confidential data should be kept as up-to-date as possible. Devices should be protected against possible data loss if they are lost or stolen. And all firm personnel should have regular security awareness training with respect to social engineering and other threats.

At the end of the day, there is no single silver bullet to provide perfect security. But there are genuinely helpful steps that you can take to better protect your electronic communications and keep your sensitive data confidential.

$1.2 Trillion Disruption in Personal Insurance

Most of us don't think much about insurance. That's by design, of course. Insurance is supposed to be a safety net that affords us the leisure of not thinking about it. Unless of course, we have to. That generally happens about once a year when we're reacquainted with our premium. Ouch. According to statisticians, most of us will also have to think about our insurance about once every seven to eight years when we'll encounter a loss of some sort. Another ouch.

My insurance is pretty confusing. I pay for coverage of my house – a fairly precise calculation based on its quality, size, age, materials, etc. I get a guarantee that, if I keep paying my premium, my home will be covered for its replacement costs. That's pretty reassuring. But then it gets a little weird. I get a “blanket” (insurance-speak is very comforting), which is really a formula that assumes that all the stuff I own is worth, um, somewhere around 50% to 70% of the value of my home. Huh? Maybe there's a bit of science to this, but surely there's a lot of guess…and, according to research, about 39% of the time the formula is just wrong. (As one insurance CEO recently confessed to me, most folks are probably 50% underinsured). The complications go on: If I own something really valuable, some bauble or collectible, well, that has to go on a list of things that are really valuable, and those things get their own coverage. Then, so my stuff continues to be well-protected, I have to re-estimate the value of those things from time to time, or employ an appraiser. What's more, if I buy something or donate something I own, or if any of my things goes down or up in value for whatever reason, my insurance doesn't change — because my provider doesn't know about these changes. And, if you've ever had a claim to file, the process starts with the assumption of fraud, with the burden of proof borne by the policyholder, because most people don't have an accurate accounting of their possessions and their value. Still another ouch.

So while I'm not supposed to be thinking about insurance, maybe I should be paying closer attention.  

Change is coming like a freight train, and its impact has the potential to shake one of the world's largest industries to its core. For a little perspective: The property and casualty insurance industry collected some $1.2 trillion (!) in premiums in 2012, (or about twice the annual GDP of Switzerland). 

At the core of the P/C insurance enterprise is (and I know I am simplifying here) the insurance-to-value ratio, which estimates whether there's enough capital reserved to insure the value of items insured —  if values go up, there'd better be enough money around in case of a loss. All good, right? Except that for as long as actuaries have been actuarying, the value side of that ratio has been a guess — especially for personal property (the stuff I own other than my home). So, if I forget to tell my insurer about something I bought, or if I no longer own that painting, watch, collectible, antique; or if the precious metal in my jewelry has increased…then what? Am I paying too much, or am I underinsured for the current value of the things I own? Of course, these massive companies make calculated allowances for the opacity…but these allowances also cost us policyholders indirectly in increased premiums, and the inefficiency costs the insurer in potential returns on capital. 

The coming changes can be summarized in terms of three trends. First is the expectation of the connected generations, now entering their most acquisitive years and set to inherit $30 trillion of personal wealth. Second is the connected availability of current data about the value of things. Third is the emergence of the personal digital locker for things.

Data, data! I want my data! — the expectation of the connected generations.

If they're anything, the connected generations are data-savvy and mobile. If you’ve shopped for just about anything with a Millennial recently, you’re familiar with their reliance on real-time data about products, local deals, on-line values and even local inventories. (I was with one of Google's brains, and he showed me how retailers are now sending Google local inventory data so now it can post availability and price of a searched-for item at a local store). Smartphone usage is nearly 90% for Gen Xers and Millennials, and data is mother's milk to the children of the connected generations who are being weaned on a diet rich with direct (disintermediated) access to comparisons, descriptions, opinions, crowd-sourced knowledge and even current values. The emerging generations rarely rely on the intermediation of experts (unless validated on a popular blog with a mass following) and are not likely to be satisfied with an indirect relationship with those affecting their financial health. Smartphones in hand, depending on data in the cloud, they will demand and receive visibility into the data shaping all their risk decisions.    

And here's where the insurance revolution will begin: A connected generation that is apt to disintermediate and has access to real-time info on just about any thing will demand that they insure only what they own (bye bye, blanket); that their insurance should track to real values, not formulaic guesses; and that they have the ability to reprice more frequently than once a year. 

The time is coming for variable-rate insurance that reflects changes in the values of items insured and is offered on a real-time basis for any item that the owner deems valuable. 

The price is wrong — the real-time valuation of everything.

Over the past few years, several data services have sprung up whose charters are similar: something like developing the world's largest collection of data about products — their descriptions, suggested retail price, current resale value, user manuals, photos and the like. No one has yet dominated, but it's early yet, and someone (or probably a few) will conquer the objective. Similarly, there are a few excellent companies that are collecting and indexing for speedy retrieval the information about every collectible that has been sold at auction for the past 15 years. I know something of these endeavors because our core product relies on the availability and accuracy of these data providers to collect the values (and other attributes) of the items people are putting into their Trovs (our moniker for the personal cloud for things). It is only a matter of time before we will be able to accurately assign a fair market value to most every thing — in real-time and without human intervention. This real-time value transparency will transform the way that insurance is priced, and how financial institutions view total wealth.

My stuff in the clouds — the automated collection and secure storage for the information about my things.

Within 12 to 24 months, connected consumers will embrace applications that will automatically (as much as possible) collect the information about all they own and store it in a secure, personal cloud-hosted locker. These “personal data lockers” will proliferate because of their convenience, because of real financial incentives from insurers and other service providers and because data-equipped consumers will have powerful new tools with which to drive bargains based on the data about everything they own. These new tools will pour fuel on the re-invention of insurance because all the information needed to provide new types of insurance products will be in the personal cloud-hosted data locker.

Progressively (pun noted, not intended) engineered insurance products that account for the connected generations' expectation of access to data, the abundance of data about products and collectibles and the active collection and accurate valuation of the things people own may turn the 300-year-old insurance industry on its head. Doubtless, the disruption will leave some carriers grappling for handholds and wondering how they could have insured against a different outcome.

This article first appeared in JetSet magazine.