Advices for your money

Is My Money Safе—part 4

To elaborate on the last two points:

A bank can borrow cheap money from the Central Bank (or pay low interest to its depositors and savers) and invest it in secure government bonds, earning a much higher interest income from the bonds' coupon payments. The end result: a rise in the bank's income and profitability due to a non-productive, non-lasting arbitrage operation. Otherwise, the bank's management can understate the amounts of bad loans carried on the bank's books, thus decreasing the necessary set-asides and increasing profitability. The financial statements of banks largely reflect the management's appraisal of the business. This has proven to be a poor guide.

In the main financial results page of a bank's books, special attention should be paid to provisions for the devaluation of securities and to the unrealized difference in the currency position. This is especially true if the bank is holding a major part of the assets (in the form of financial investments or of loans) and the equity is invested in securities or in foreign exchange denominated instruments.

Separately, a bank can be trading for its own position (the Nostro), either as a market maker or as a trader. The profit (or loss) on securities trading has to be discounted because it is conjectural and incidental to the bank's main activities: deposit taking and loan making.

Most banks deposit some of their assets with other banks. This is normally considered to be a way of spreading the risk. But in highly volatile economies with sickly, underdeveloped financial sectors, all the institutions in the sector are likely to move in tandem (a highly correlated market). Cross deposits among banks only serve to increase the risk of the depositing bank (as the recent affair with Toko Bank in Russia and the banking crisis in South Korea have demonstrated).

Further closer to the bottom line are the bank's operating expenses: salaries, depreciation, fixed or capital assets (real estate and equipment) and administrative expenses. The rule of thumb is: the higher these expenses, the weaker the bank. The great historian Toynbee once said that great civilizations collapse immediately after they bequeath to us the most impressive buildings. This is doubly true with banks. If you see a bank fervently engaged in the construction of palatial branches – stay away from it.

Banks are risk arbitrageurs. They live off the mismatch between assets and liabilities. To the best of their ability, they try to second guess the markets and reduce such a mismatch by assuming part of the risks and by engaging in portfolio management. For this they charge fees and commissions, interest and profits – which constitute their sources of income.

If any expertise is imputed to the banking system, it is risk management. Banks are supposed to adequately assess, control and minimize credit risks. They are required to implement credit rating mechanisms (credit analysis and value at risk – VAR - models), efficient and exclusive information-gathering systems, and to put in place the right lending policies and procedures.

Just in case they misread the market risks and these turned into credit risks (which happens only too often), banks are supposed to put aside amounts of money which could realistically offset loans gone sour or future non-performing assets. These are the loan loss reserves and provisions. Loans are supposed to be constantly monitored, reclassified and charges made against them as applicable. If you see a bank with zero reclassifications, charge offs and recoveries – either the bank is lying through its teeth, or it is not taking the business of banking too seriously, or its management is no less than divine in its prescience. What is important to look at is the rate of provision for loan losses as a percentage of the loans outstanding. Then it should be compared to the percentage of non-performing loans out of the loans outstanding. If the two figures are out of kilter, either someone is pulling your leg – or the management is incompetent or lying to you. The first thing new owners of a bank do is, usually, improve the placed asset quality (a polite way of saying that they get rid of bad, non-performing loans, whether declared as such or not). They do this by classifying the loans. Most central banks in the world have in place regulations for loan classification and if acted upon, these yield rather more reliable results than any management's "appraisal", no matter how well intentioned.

In some countries the Central Bank (or the Supervision of the Banks) forces banks to set aside provisions against loans at the highest risk categories, even if they are performing. This, by far, should be the preferable method.

Of the two sides of the balance sheet, the assets side is the more critical. Within it, the interest earning assets deserve the greatest attention. What percentage of the loans is commercial and what percentage given to individuals? How many borrowers are there (risk diversification is inversely proportional to exposure to single or large borrowers)? How many of the transactions are with "related parties"? How much is in local currency and how much in foreign currencies (and in which)? A large exposure to foreign currency lending is not necessarily healthy. A sharp, unexpected devaluation could move a lot of the borrowers into non-performance and default and, thus, adversely affect the quality of the asset base. In which financial vehicles and instruments is the bank invested? How risky are they? And so on.

No less important is the maturity structure of the assets. It is an integral part of the liquidity (risk) management of the bank. The crucial question is: what are the cash flows projected from the maturity dates of the different assets and liabilities – and how likely are they to materialize. A rough matching has to exist between the various maturities of the assets and the liabilities. The cash flows generated by the assets of the bank must be used to finance the cash flows resulting from the banks' liabilities. A distinction has to be made between stable and hot funds (the latter in constant pursuit of higher yields). Liquidity indicators and alerts have to be set in place and calculated a few times daily.

Managing the Income Portfolio—part 1

The reason people assume the risks of investing in the first place is the prospect of achieving a higher rate of return than is attainable in a risk free environment…i.e., an FDIC insured bank account. Risk comes in various forms, but the average investor’s primary concerns are “credit” and “market” risk… particularly when it comes to investing for income. Credit risk involves the ability of corporations, government entities, and even individuals, to make good on their financial commitments; market risk refers to the certainty that there will be changes in the Market Value of the selected securities. We can minimize the former by selecting only high quality (investment grade) securities and the latter by diversifying properly, understanding that Market Value changes are normal, and by having a plan of action for dealing with such fluctuations. (What does the bank do to get the amount of interest it guarantees to depositors? What does it do in response to higher or lower market interest rate expectations?)

You don’t have to be a professional Investment Manager to professionally manage your investment portfolio, but you do need to have a long term plan and know something about Asset Allocation… a portfolio organization tool that is often misunderstood and almost always improperly used within the financial community. It’s important to recognize, as well, that you do not need a fancy computer program or a glossy presentation with economic scenarios, inflation estimators, and stock market projections to get yourself lined up properly with your target. You need common sense, reasonable expectations, patience, discipline, soft hands, and an oversized driver. The K. I. S. S. Principle needs to be at the foundation of your Investment Plan; an emphasis on Working Capital will help you Organize, and Control your investment portfolio.

Planning for Retirement should focus on the additional income needed from the investment portfolio, and the Asset Allocation formula [relax, 8th grade math is plenty] needed for goal achievement will depend on just three variables: (1) the amount of liquid investment assets you are starting with, (2) the amount of time until retirement, and (3) the range of interest rates currently available from Investment Grade Securities. If you don’t allow the “engineer” gene to take control, this can be a fairly simple process. Even if you are young, you need to stop smoking heavily and to develop a growing stream of income… if you keep the income growing, the Market Value growth (that you are expected to worship) will take care of itself. Remember, higher Market Value may increase hat size, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

First deduct any guaranteed pension income from your retirement income goal to estimate the amount needed just from the investment portfolio. Don’t worry about inflation at this stage. Next, determine the total Market Value of your investment portfolios, including company plans, IRAs, H-Bonds… everything, except the house, boat, jewelry, etc. Liquid personal and retirement plan assets only. This total is then multiplied by a range of reasonable interest rates (6%, to 8% right now) and, hopefully, one of the resulting numbers will be close to the target amount you came up with a moment ago. If you are within a few years of retirement age, they better be! For certain, this process will give you a clear idea of where you stand, and that, in and of itself, is worth the effort.

Organizing the Portfolio involves deciding upon an appropriate Asset Allocation… and that requires some discussion. Asset Allocation is the most important and most frequently misunderstood concept in the investment lexicon. The most basic of the confusions is the idea that diversification and Asset Allocation are one and the same. Asset Allocation divides the investment portfolio into the two basic classes of investment securities: Stocks/Equities and Bonds/Income Securities. Most Investment Grade securities fit comfortably into one of these two classes. Diversification is a risk reduction technique that strictly controls the size of individual holdings as a percent of total assets. A second misconception describes Asset Allocation as a sophisticated technique used to soften the bottom line impact of movements in stock and bond prices, and/or a process that automatically (and foolishly) moves investment dollars from a weakening asset classification to a stronger one… a subtle "market timing" device.

Finally, the Asset Allocation Formula is often misused in an effort to superimpose a valid investment planning tool on speculative strategies that have no real merits of their own, for example: annual portfolio repositioning, market timing adjustments, and Mutual Fund shifting. The Asset Allocation formula itself is sacred, and if constructed properly, should never be altered due to conditions in either Equity or Fixed Income markets. Changes in the personal situation, goals, and objectives of the investor are the only issues that can be allowed into the Asset Allocation decision-making process.

Here are a few basic Asset Allocation Guidelines: (1) All Asset Allocation decisions are based on the Cost Basis of the securities involved. The current Market Value may be more or less and it just doesn’t matter. (2) Any investment portfolio with a Cost Basis of $100,000 or more should have a minimum of 30% invested in Income Securities, either taxable or tax free, depending on the nature of the portfolio. Tax deferred entities (all varieties of retirement programs) should house the bulk of the Equity Investments. This rule applies from age 0 to Retirement Age – 5 years. Under age 30, it is a mistake to have too much of your portfolio in Income Securities. (3) There are only two Asset Allocation Categories, and neither is ever described with a decimal point. All cash in the portfolio is destined for one category or the other. (4) From Retirement Age – 5 on, the Income Allocation needs to be adjusted upward until the “reasonable interest rate test” says that you are on target or at least in range. (5) At retirement, between 60% and 100% of your portfolio may have to be in Income Generating Securities.