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How [Physician] Investors Should Deal With The Overwhelming Problem Of Understanding The World Economy

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“What the —- do I do now?”

By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA

vitaly This was the actual subject line of an e-mail I received that really summed up most of the correspondence I got in response to an article I published recently. To be fair, I painted a fairly negative macro picture of the world, throwing around a lot of fancy words, like “fragile” and “constrained system.” I guess I finally figured out the three keys to successful storytelling: One, never say more than is necessary; two, leave the audience wanting more; and three … Well, never mind No. 3, but here is more.

Domestic / Global Economy

Before I go further, if you believe the global economy is doing great and stocks are cheap, stop reading now; this column is not for you. I promise to write one for you at some point when stocks are cheap and the global economy is breathing well on its own — I just don’t know when that will be. But if you believe that stocks are expensive — even after the recent sell-off — and that a global economic time bomb is ticking because of unprecedented intervention by governments and central banks, then keep reading.

Today, after the stock market has gone straight up for five years, investors are faced with two extremes: Go into cash and wait for the market crash or a correction and then go all in at the bottom, or else ride this bull with both feet in the stirrups, but try to jump off before it rolls over on you, no matter how quickly that happens.

Of course, both options are really nonoptions. Tops and bottoms are only obvious in the rearview mirror. You may feel you can time the market, but I honestly don’t know anyone who has done it more than once and turned it into a process.





Those little gears spinning but not quite meshing in your so-called mind — will drive you insane. It is incredibly difficult to sit on cash while everyone around you is making money. After all, no one knows how much energy this steroid-maddened bull has left in him. This is not a naturally raised farm animal but a by-product of a Frankenstein-like experiment by the Fed. This cyclical market (note: not secular; short-term, not long-term) may end tomorrow or in five years. Riding this bull is difficult because if you believe the market is overvalued and if you own a lot of overpriced stocks, then you are just hoping that greater fools will keep hopping on the bull, driving stock prices higher. More important, you have to believe that you are smarter than the other fools and will be able to hop off before them (very few manage this). Good luck with that — after all, the one looking for a greater fool will eventually find that fool by looking in the mirror.

As I wrote in an article last spring, “As an investor you want to pay serious attention to ‘climate change’ — significant shifts in the global economy that can impact your portfolio.” There are plenty of climate-changing risks around us — starting with the prospect of higher, maybe even much higher, interest rates — which might be triggered in any number of ways: the Fed withdrawing quantitative easing, the Fed losing control of interest rates and seeing them rise without its permission, Japanese debt blowing up. Then we have the mother of all bubbles: the Chinese overconsumption of natural and financial resources bubble.

Of course, Europe is relatively calm right now, but its structural problems are far from fixed. One way or another, the confluence of these factors will likely lead to slower economic growth and lower stock prices. So “what the —-” is our strategy? Read on to find out. I’ll explain what we’re doing with our portfolio, but first let me tell you a story.

My Story

When I was a sophomore in college, I was taking five or six classes and had a full-time job and a full-time (more like overtime) girlfriend. I was approaching finals, I had to study for lots of tests and turn in assignments, and to make matters worse, I had procrastinated until the last minute. I felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. I whined to my father about my predicament. His answer was simple: Break up my big problems into smaller ones and then figure out how to tackle each of those separately. It worked. I listed every assignment and exam, prioritizing them by due date and importance. Suddenly, my problems, which together looked insurmountable, one by one started to look conquerable. I endured a few sleepless nights, but I turned in every assignment, studied for every test and got decent grades.

[Physician] investors need to break up the seemingly overwhelming problem of understanding the global economy and markets into a series of small ones, and that is exactly what we do with our research. The appreciation or depreciation of any stock (or stock market) can be explained mathematically by two variables: earnings and price-earnings ratio. We take all the financial-climate-changing risks — rising interest rates, Japanese debt, the Chinese bubble, European structural problems — and analyze the impact they have on the Es and P/Es of every stock in our portfolio and any candidate we are considering. Let me walk you through some practical applications of how we tackle climate-changing risks at my firm.

When China eventually blows up, companies that have exposure to hard commodities, directly or indirectly (think Caterpillar), will see their sales, margins and earnings severely impaired. Their P/Es will deflate as well, as the commodity supercycle that started in the early 2000s comes to an end. Countries that export a lot of hard commodities to China will feel the aftershock of the Chinese bubble bursting. The obvious ones are the ABCs: Australia, Brazil and Canada.

However, if China takes oil prices down with it, then Russia and the Middle East petroleum-exporting mono-economies that have little to offer but oil will suffer. Local and foreign banks that have exposure to those countries and companies that derive significant profits from those markets will likely see their earnings pressured. (German automakers that sell lots of cars to China are a good example.) Japan is the most indebted first-world nation, but it borrows at rates that would make you think it was the least indebted country. As this party ends, we’ll probably see skyrocketing interest rates in Japan, a depreciating yen, significant Japanese inflation and, most likely, higher interest rates globally. Japan may end up being a wake-up call for debt investors. The depreciating yen will further stress the Japan-China relationship as it undermines the Chinese low-cost advantage.

So paradoxically, on top of inflation, Japan brings a risk of deflation as well. If you own companies that make trinkets, their earnings will be under assault. Fixed-income investors running from Japanese bonds may find a temporary refuge in U.S. paper (driving our yields lower, at least at first) and in U.S. stocks. But it is hard to look at the future and not bet on significantly higher inflation and rising interest rates down the road.



[Inflation / Deflation Paradox]


A Side Note

Economic instability will likely lead to political instability. We are already seeing some manifestations of this in Russia. Waltzing into Ukraine is Vladimir Putin’s way of redirecting attention from the gradually faltering Russian economy to another shiny object — Ukraine. Just imagine how stable Russia and the Middle East will be if the recent decline in oil prices continues much further. Defense industry stocks may prove to be a good hedge against future global economic weakness. Inflation and higher interest rates are two different risks, but both cause eventual deflation of P/Es. The impact on high-P/E stocks will be the most pronounced.

I am generalizing, but high-P/E growth stocks are trading on expectations of future earnings that are years and years away. Those future earnings brought to the present (discounted) are a lot more valuable in a near-zero interest rate environment than when interest rates are high. Think of high-P/E stocks as long-duration bonds: They get slaughtered when interest rates rise (yes, long-term bonds are not a place to be either). If you are paying for growth, you want to be really sure it comes, because that earnings growth will have to overcome eventual P/E compression. Higher interest rates will have a significant linear impact on stocks that became bond substitutes. High-quality stocks that were bought indiscriminately for their dividend yield will go through substantial P/E compression.

These stocks are purchased today out of desperation. Desperate people are not rational, and the herd mentality runs away with itself. When the herd heads for the exits, you don’t want to be standing in the doorway. Real estate investment trusts (REITs) and master limited partnerships (MLPs) have a double-linear relationship with interest rates: Their P/Es were inflated because of an insatiable thirst for yield, and their earnings were inflated by low borrowing costs. These companies’ balance sheets consume a lot of debt, and though many of them were able to lock in low borrowing costs for a while, they can’t do so forever. Their earnings will be at risk.

As I write this, I keep thinking about Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger’s remark at the company’s annual meeting in 2014, commenting on the then-current state of the global economy: “If you’re not confused, you don’t understand things very well.” A year later the state of the world is no clearer. This confusion Munger talked about means that we have very little clarity about the future and that as an investor you should position your portfolio for very different future economies. Inflation? Deflation? Maybe both? Or maybe deflation first and inflation second? I keep coming back to Japan because it is further along in this experiment than the rest of the world.

The Japanese real estate bubble burst, the government leveraged up as the corporate sector deleveraged, interest rates fell to near zero, and the economy stagnated for two decades. Now debt servicing requires a quarter of Japan’s tax receipts, while its interest rates are likely a small fraction of what they are going to be in the future; thus Japan is on the brink of massive inflation. The U.S. could be on a similar trajectory. Let me explain why. Government deleveraging follows one of three paths. The most blatant option is outright default, but because the U.S. borrows in its own currency, that will never happen here. (However, in Europe, where individual countries gave the keys to the printing press to the collective, the answer is less clear.) The second choice, austerity, is destimulating and deflationary to the economy in the short run and is unlikely to happen to any significant degree because cost-cutting will cost politicians their jobs.


Japan and world markets tumbling - dollar stronger

[Nikkei Index]


Last, we have the only true weapon government can and will use to deleverage: printing money. Money printing cheapens a currency — in other words, it brings on inflation. In case of either inflation or deflation, you want to own companies that have pricing power — it will protect their earnings. Those companies will be able to pass higher costs to their customers during a time of inflation and maintain their prices during deflation. On the one hand, inflation benefits companies with leveraged balance sheets because they’ll be paying off debt with inflated (cheaper) dollars.


However, that benefit is offset by the likely higher interest rates these companies will have to pay on newly issued debt. Leverage is extremely dangerous during deflation because debt creates another fixed cost. Costs don’t shrink as fast as nominal revenues, so earnings decline. Therefore, unless your crystal ball is very clear and you have 100 percent certainty that inflation lies ahead, I’d err on the side of owning underleveraged companies rather than ones with significant debt. A lot of growth that happened since 2000 has taken place at the expense of government balance sheets. It is borrowed, unsustainable growth that will have to be repaid through higher interest rates and rising tax rates, which in turn will work as growth decelerators. This will have several consequences:

First, it’s another reason for P/Es to shrink. Second, a lot of companies that are making their forecasts with normal GDP growth as the base for their revenue and earnings projections will likely be disappointed. And last, investors will need to look for companies whose revenues march to their own drummers and are not significantly linked to the health of the global or local economy. The definition of “dogma” by irrefutable Wikipedia is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” On the surface this is the most dogmatic columns I have ever written, but that was not my intention. I just laid out an analytical framework, a checklist against which we stress test stocks in our portfolio. Despite my speaking ill of MLPs, we own an MLP. But unlike its comrades, it has a sustainable yield north of 10 percent and, more important, very little debt. Even if economic growth slows down or interest rates go up, the stock will still be undervalued — in other words, it has a significant margin of safety even if the future is less pleasant than the present.

There are five final bits of advice I want to leave you

First, step out of your comfort zone and expand your fishing pool to include companies outside the U.S. That will allow you to increase the quality of your portfolio without sacrificing growth characteristics or valuation. It will also provide currency diversification as an added bonus.

Second, disintermediate your buy and sell decisions. The difficulty of investing in an expensive market that is making new highs is that you’ll be selling stocks that hit your price targets. (If you don’t, you should.) Of course, selling stocks comes with a gift — cash. As this gift keeps on giving, your cash balance starts building up and creates pressure to buy. As parents tell their teenage kids, you don’t want to be pressured into decisions. In an overvalued market you don’t want to be pressured to buy; if you do, you’ll be making compromises and end up owning stocks that you’ll eventually regret.


Margin of safety, margin of safety, margin of safety — those are my last three bits of advice. In an environment in which the future of Es and P/Es is uncertain, you want to cure some of that uncertainty by demanding an extra margin of safety from stocks in your portfolio.


Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Active Value Investing (Wiley 2007) and The Little Book of Sideways Markets (Wiley, 2010).  His books were translated into eight languages.  Forbes Magazine called him “The new Benjamin Graham”.  


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8 Responses

  1. ME-P
    Very erudite ME-P; and timely too! Thanks.


  2. Ups … and Downs!

    As the markets have been experiencing a series of ups and downs over the past week or so, you might be wondering what it all means for you.

    For example, global equity markets experienced a significant increase in volatility during the month of August with dramatic intra-session swings not experienced since the 2008 Financial Crisis. For the S&P 500 Index, August marked the worst month since May 2012. Equity returns across the globe were also severely pressured during the month, as China unexpectedly devalued its currency; oil (i.e. WTI) briefly fell below $40, and concerns about low inflation across the globe weighed on stock prices. According to Bloomberg, $5.3 trillion in worldwide equity value was erased this month. In the U.S., more than $2 trillion in share value was lost in August—the sum equal to roughly two years of S&P 500 earnings.

    During this period of volatility, my clients rely on me to watch the markets closely and keep them posted on the latest developments. So, here are four things to keep in mind at times like this:

    1. Don’t let your emotions affect your financial decisions.
    2. Diversify your portfolio to make sure you have an appropriate investment mix.
    3. Be disciplined; invest in the market at regular intervals and stay the course.
    4. Create a financial plan for your short and long-term goals.

    Daniel J. Antokal MBA
    [Financial Advisor]


  3. How Economists Can Be Just as Irrational as the Rest of Us

    A research group discovered that more people read working papers that were listed first in its weekly email.


    But, it found a solution.



  4. More on Russia

    I grew up hating America. I lived in the Soviet Union and was a child of the cold war. That hate went away in 1989, though, when the Berlin Wall fell and the cold war ended. By the time I left Russia in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed, America was a country that Russians looked up to and wanted to emulate.

    Twenty-three years later, a new version of cold war is back, though we Americans haven’t realized it yet. But I am getting ahead of myself.

    After Russia invaded Crimea and staged its referendum, I thought Vladimir Putin’s foreign excursions were over. Taking back Crimea violated plenty of international laws, but let’s be honest. Though major powers like the U.S. and Russia write the international laws, they are not really expected to abide by those laws if they find them not to be in their best interests. Those laws are for everyone else. I am not condoning such behavior, but I can clearly see how Russians could justify taking Crimea back – after all, it used to belong to Russia.

    I was perplexed by how the Russian people could possibly support and not be outraged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But I live in Denver, and I read mostly U.S. and European newspapers. I wanted to see what was going on in Russia and Ukraine from the Russian perspective, so I went on a seven-day news diet: I watched only Russian TV – Channel One Russia, the state-owned broadcaster, which I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years – and read Pravda, the Russian newspaper whose name means “Truth.” Here is what I learned:

    · If Russia did not reclaim Crimea, once the new, illegitimate government came to power in Ukraine, the Russian navy would have been kicked out and the U.S. navy would have started using Crimean ports as navy bases.

    · There are no Russian troops in Ukraine, nor were there ever any there. If any Russian soldiers were found there (and there were), those soldiers were on leave. They went to Ukraine to support their Russian brothers and sisters who are being abused by Ukrainian nationalists. (They may have borrowed a tank or two, or a highly specialized Russian-made missile system that is capable of shooting down planes, but for some reason those details are not mentioned much in the Russian media.) On November 12, NATO reported that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine. The Russian government vehemently denied it, blaming NATO for being anti-Russian.

    · Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was not downed by Russia or separatists. It was shot down by an air-to-air missile fired by Ukraine or a NATO plane engaged in military exercises in Ukraine at the time. The U.S. has the satellite imagery but is afraid of the truth and chooses not to share it with the world.

    · Ukraine was destabilized by the U.S., which spent $5 billion on this project. As proof, TV news showed a video of Senator John McCain giving a speech to antigovernment protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square. It was followed by a video of Vice President Joe Biden visiting Ukraine during the tumult. I wasn’t sure what his role was, but it was implied that he had something to do with the unrest.

    · Speaking of Joe Biden, I learned that his son just joined the board of Ukraine’s largest natural gas company, which will benefit significantly from a destabilized Ukraine.

    · Ukraine is a zoo of a country, deeply corrupt and overrun by Russian-haters and neo-Nazis (Banderovtsi – Ukrainian nationalists who were responsible for killing Russians and Jews during World War II).

    · Candidates for the recent parliamentary election in Ukraine included Darth Vader (not kidding), as well as a gay ex-prostitute who claims to be a working man’s man but lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion.

    I have to confess, it is hard not to develop a lot of self-doubt about your previously held views when you watch Russian TV for a week. But then you have to remind yourself that Putin’s Russia doesn’t have a free press. The free press that briefly existed after the Soviet Union collapsed is gone – Putin killed it. The government controls most TV channels, radio and newspapers. What Russians see on TV, read in print and listen to on the radio is direct propaganda from the Kremlin.

    Before I go further, let’s visit the definition of propaganda with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary: “The systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view.”

    I always thought of the Internet as an unstoppable democratic force that would always let the truth slip out through the cracks in even the most determined wall of propaganda. I was wrong. After watching Russian TV, you would not want to read the Western press, because you’d be convinced it was lying. More important, Russian TV is so potent that you would not even want to watch anything else, because you would be convinced that you were in possession of indisputable facts.

    Russian’s propaganda works by forcing your right brain (the emotional one) to overpower your left brain (the logical one), while clogging all your logical filters. Here is an example: Russian TV shows footage of schools in eastern Ukraine bombed by the Ukrainian army. Anyone’s heart would bleed, seeing these gruesome images. It is impossible not to feel hatred toward people who would perpetrate such an atrocity on their own population. It was explained to viewers that the Ukrainian army continued its offensive despite a cease-fire agreement.

    Of course if you watched Ukrainian TV, you would have seen similar images of death and despair on the other side. In fact, if you read Ukrainian newspapers, you will learn that the Ukrainian army is fighting a well-armed army, not rebels with Molotovs and handguns, but an organized force fully armed by the Russian army.

    What viewers were not shown was that the cease-fire had been broken before the fighting resumed. The fact that Putin helped to instigate this war was never mentioned. Facts are not something Russian TV is concerned about. As emotional images and a lot of disinformation pump up your right brain, it overpowers the left, which capitulates and stops questioning the information presented.

    What I also learned is that you don’t have to lie to lie. Let me give you an example. I could not figure out how the Russian media came up with the $5 billion that “America spent destabilizing Ukraine.” But then I found a video of a U.S. undersecretary of State giving an 8.5-minute speech; at the 7.5-minute mark, she said, “Since Ukrainian independence in 1991 … [the U.S. has] invested more than $5 billion to help Ukraine.” The $5 billion figure was correct. However, it was not given to Ukraine in three months to destabilize a democratically elected, corrupt pro-Russian government but over the course of 23 years. Yes, you don’t have to lie to lie; you just have to omit important facts – something Russian TV is very good at.

    Another example of a right-brain attack on the left brain is “the rise of neo-Nazism in Ukraine.” Most lies are built around kernels of truth, and this one is no different. Ukraine was home to the Banderovtsi, Ukrainian nationalists who were responsible for killing tens of thousands of Jews and Russians during World War II.

    Putin justified the invasion of Crimea by claiming that he was protecting the Russian population from neo-Nazis. Russian TV creates the impression that the whole of Ukraine is overrun by Nazis. As my father puts it, “Ukrainians who lived side by side with Russians did not just become Nazis overnight.”

    Though there may be some neo-Nazis in Ukraine, the current government is liberal and pro-Western. Svoboda – the party whose members are known for their neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic rhetoric – did not get even 5 percent of the votes in the October election, the minimum needed to gain a significant presence in parliament. Meanwhile the TV goes on showing images of Nazis killing Russians and Jews during World War II and drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and Ukraine today.

    What also makes things more difficult in Russia is that, unlike Americans, who by default don’t trust their politicians – yes, even their presidents – Russians still have the czarist mentality that idolizes its leaders. Stalin was able to cultivate this to an enormous degree – most Russians thought of him as a father figure. My father was 20 when Stalin died in 1953, and he told me that he, like everyone around him, cried.

    I keep thinking about what Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Putin we scorn today was not always like this; he did a lot of good things during his first term. The two that stand out the most are getting rid of the organized crime that was killing Russia and instituting a pro-business flat tax system. The amount of power Russians give their presidents, however, will, with time, change the blood flow to anyone’s head. Come to think of it, even Mother Teresa would not have stood a chance in Russia.

    A few weeks ago Putin turned 62, and thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate his birthday. (Most Americans, including this one, don’t even know the month of Barack Obama’s birthday.)

    In my misspent youth, I took a marketing class at the University of Colorado. I remember very little from that class except this: For your message to be remembered, a consumer has to hear it at least six times. Putin’s propaganda folks must have taken the same class, because Russian citizens get to hear how great their president is at least six times a day.

    We Americans look at Putin and see an evil KGB guy who roams around the country without a shirt on. Russians are shown a very different picture. They see a hard-working president who cares deeply about them. Every news program dedicates at least one fifth of its airtime to showcasing Putin’s greatness, not in your face but in subtle ways. A typical clip would have him meeting with a cabinet minister. The minister would give his report, and Putin, looking very serious indeed, would lecture the minister on what needed to be done. Putin is always candid, direct and tough with his ministers.

    I’ve listened to a few of Putin’s speeches, and I have to admit that his oratory skills are excellent, of a J.F.K. or Reagan caliber. He doesn’t give a speech; he talks. His language is accessible and full of zingers. He is very calm and logical.

    Russians look at the Putin presidency and ask themselves a very pragmatic question: Am I better off now, with him, than I was before he came into power? For most the answer is yes. What most Russians don’t see is that oil prices over the past 14 years went from $14 to more than $100 a barrel. They are completely responsible for the revival of Russia’s one-trick petrochemical economy. In other words, they should consider why their economy has done better the past decade, and why it may not do as well going forward. Unless Putin was the one who jump-started China’s insatiable demand for oil and other commodities that drove prices higher, he has had very little to do with Russia’s recent “prosperity.”

    I place prosperity in quotes because if you take oil and gas riches away from Russia (lower prices can do that with ease), it is in a worse place today than it was 14 years ago. High oil prices have ruined Russia. They have driven its currency up, making its other products less competitive in international markets. Also, capital gravitates toward higher returns; thus oil has sucked capital from other industries, hollowing out the economy. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia had a chance to broaden its economy; it had one of the most educated workforces in the world. Sadly, it squandered that opportunity. Name one noncommodity product that is exported from Russia. There aren’t many; I can think only of vodka and military equipment.

    But most Russians don’t look at things that way. For most of them, their lives are better now: No more lines for toilet paper, and the stores are full of food. Their personal liberties (such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press) have been taken away from them, but many have so much trust in their president that they don’t mind, whereas others are simply complacent.

    Today we see three factors that influence oil prices and are working against Russia: Supply is going up with U.S. shale drilling; demand growth will likely decline if the Chinese economy continues to cool; and the dollar is getting stronger, not because the U.S. doing great but just because the rest of the world is doing worse. If oil prices continue to decline, this will expose the true state of the Russian economy.

    When I visited Russia in 2008, I sensed an anti-American sentiment. NATO – which in Russia is perceived as a predominantly American entity – had expanded too close to Russian borders. Georgia tried to join NATO, but Russia put a quick end to that. Russians felt they extended a friendly hand to the U.S. after 9/11, but in response America was arraying missiles around its borders. (The U.S. says they are defensive, not offensive; Russians don’t see the distinction. They are probably right.)

    The true colors of this new cold war came to light recently. In August 2008, according to Henry Paulson, the U.S. Treasury secretary at the time, “top level” Russian officials approached the Chinese during the Olympics in Beijing and proposed “that together they might sell big chunks of their GSE [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] holdings to force the U.S. to use its emergency authorities to prop up these companies.”

    This incident took place just weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The U.S. economy was inches from revisiting the Stone Age. The proposed Russian-Chinese maneuver could have made such an outcome more likely. The Federal Reserve would have had to step in and buy Fannie’s and Freddie’s debt, and the dollar would have taken a dive, worsening the plunge in the U.S. economy. Our friend Putin wanted to bring the U.S. economy down without firing a single shot, just as he annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

    Today anti-American sentiment is much greater in Russia. European sanctions are seen as entirely unjustified. Here is why: Crimea had a “democratic referendum,” and the Ukrainian conflict is believed to be not of Russia’s doing but rather an American attempt to destabilize Russia and bring Ukraine into NATO. In his annual speech at the Valdai conference last month, Putin said America had pushed an unwilling Europe into imposing sanctions on Russia. America is perceived as an imperialistic bully that, because of its economic and military power, puts its own self-interest above everyone else’s, and international law.

    Putin uses anti-Americanism as a shiny object to detract attention from the weak Russian economy and other internal problems. In the short run, sanctions provide a convenient excuse for the weakening Russian economy and declining ruble. They have boosted Putin’s popularity (at least so far). As the Russian economy gets worse, anti-American sentiment will only rise.

    This new version of the cold war has little in common with the one I grew up in. There are no ideological differences, and there is no arms race (at least not yet, and let’s be honest: Today neither country can afford one, especially Russia). At the core of it, we don’t like what Russia is doing to its neighbors, and Russia doesn’t like what we do to the rest of the (non-EU) world.

    The criticisms of U.S. foreign policy voiced by Putin in his latest Valdai speech are shared by many Americans: The U.S. is culpable in the unresolved, open-ended Afghanistan adventure; the Iraq War; the almost-bombing of Syria, which may have destabilized the region further; and the creation of the Islamic State, which is in large part a by-product of all of the above. Yet Putin’s abominable Ukrainian excursion and the thousands of lives lost were never mentioned.

    But there is also something less tangible that is influencing Russia’s behavior: a bruised ego. During the good old Soviet Union days, Russia was a superpower. It mattered. When it spoke, the world listened. The Russian people had a great sense of pride in their Rodina (Mother Russia). Today, if Russia did not have nuclear weapons, we’d pay much less attention to it than we do. Pick a developing country without oil whose president you can name. (Okay, we Americans can’t name the president of almost any other country, but you get the point.)

    Anti-Americanism and Putin’s popularity will both rise as the Russian economy weakens. For instance, Putin took his own people hostage when he imposed sanctions on imports of European food. The impact on Europe will not be significant (the Russian economy is not very large in comparison to the European Union), but Russia is very dependent on these imports. In the U.S. consumers spend about 13 percent of their earnings on food, but in Russia that number is almost three times larger. Therefore, food inflation hurts Russians much more. Yet as food inflation spiked, so did Putin’s popularity and anti-Americanism. Even declining oil prices will be explained as a anti-Russian manipulation by the U.S.

    Unfortunately, the only thing Russia has going for it today is its nuclear weapons. Russia has started to remind us of its military recently. According to NATO, the alliance “has conducted over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft in 2014 to date, which is about three times more than were conducted in 2013.”

    Every article needs a conclusion, but this one doesn’t have one. I am not sure what this new cold war means for the world. Will Russia start invading other neighboring countries? Will it test NATO resolve by invading Baltic countries that are part of NATO? I don’t know. Economic instability will eventually lead to political crises. We have plenty of economic instability going on around the world.

    I’ll leave you with this thought: On March 7, 1936, the German army violated the Treaty of Versailles and entered into the Rhineland. Here is what Hitler later said:

    “The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.”

    Those two days determined what Germany would do next – build out its army and start World War II.

    Comparing Putin with Hitler, as one of my Russian friends put it, is “absolutely abominable” because it diminishes Hitler’s atrocities and overstates by a mile what Putin has accomplished to date. Yet it feels as if we are at a Putin-of-1936 moment. Will he turn into a Putin of 1939 and invade other countries? I don’t know. But the events of the past nine months have shown Putin’s willingness to defy international law and seize the advantage on the ground, betting – correctly so far – that the West won’t call his bluff.

    As Garry Kasparov put it, while the West is playing chess, responding tactically to each turn of events, Putin is playing high-stakes poker. We ignore Putin at our own peril.

    Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA


  5. On China

    A Fund Manager Who Beat The’08 Crash Thinks The China Trouble Is Just Beginning.


    Lily Pan


  6. Why Americans Still Think the Economy Is Terrible

    According to NEIL IRWIN, a middle-income family is making less money in inflation-adjusted terms than 15 years ago, and new census numbers show no sign of progress.





    The Euro, yen, and pound, when added to the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) basket – a supplementary foreign exchange reserve asset that is defined and maintained by the IMF.

    It will become the third weightiest currency in the basket. After the renminbi is added, the U.S. dollar will comprise 42 percent of the basket (unchanged from 2010). The euro will be 31 percent (down from 37 percent in 2010). The renminbi will be 11 percent. The Japanese yen will be 8 percent (down from 9 percent in 2010). The British pound will be 8 percent (down from 11 percent).

    Managing Director of the IMF Christine Lagarde said:

    “The Executive Board’s decision to include the RMB in the SDR basket is an important milestone in the integration of the Chinese economy into the global financial system. It is also a recognition of the progress that the Chinese authorities have made in the past years in reforming China’s monetary and financial systems. The continuation and deepening of these efforts will bring about a more robust international monetary and financial system, which in turn will support the growth and stability of China and the global economy.”

    So, is the renminbi likely to give the U.S. dollar a run for its money? Not any time soon, according to economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal. Over the next 50 years, they gave China about a 34 percent chance of challenging the dollar.

    One said, “To match the dollar’s appeal, China will need markets as deep as those in the U.S. and to produce economic indicators that are trustworthy.”

    Arthur Chalekian GEPC
    [Financial Consultant]


  8. Bubbles

    In markets, the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other. And that pendulum has swung so far towards passive indexing that there is likely a bubble in it.

    Consider a few facts here. The clearest beneficiary of the move towards passive investing through indexed strategies is Vanguard. According to Ceruilli Associates, through the end of November last year, Vanguard got more net inflows in their funds than the next nine fund companies combined. In 2015, Vanguard set a record on an annual basis for fund flows. Active ETFs? Please – they rarely get anywhere near the same kind of assets as passive ones. The world became a believer in passive vehicles in a hurry.

    This is a bubble, and one few seem to be realizing or appreciating is happening in their own portfolios. By definition, if everyone is moving towards passive investment strategies, more active anomalies must be popping up because there are fewer people looking for them. There are fewer players attempting to arbitrage those anomalies away.

    The reason passive investing works is because active investors are forcing that “market efficiency,” a key idea which relates to the Grossman-Stiglitz Paradox. Markets are efficient only when there are active anomalies which many attempt to arbitrage away, forcing markets to their true “informational” value. We are at a non-equilibrium point now such that so much money has rushed into passive strategies that they simply cannot be efficient because new anomalies are popping up which few are actually looking for.

    Selfishly of course I want this to be true. Our investment strategies are the extreme of active tactical rotational management, focusing heavily on leading indicators of volatility to help answer the question of when to play offense, and when to play defense. Year to date, we’ve managed that quite well through either our Treasury or defensive sector rotations. I suspect the cycle for active strategies is on the cusp of a new multi-year cycle. But because flows act with a lag, this will only be realized long after the trend has already occurred.

    As to current markets, defense remains warranted. This is an odd juncture in the sense that stocks have not fallen, yet there is an unusual amount of hedging and defensive posturing. A contrarian would argue this is bullish. However, it could very well be that this time, the active crowd which does hedge actually will be right. After all, it’s a much smaller sample, and perhaps more elite group of active players than ever before.

    Michael A. Gayed CFA
    [Portfolio Manager]


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