Potent Portfolio Diversifier: Managed Futures Funds Go Up When Both Stocks and Bonds Go Down

This post is to share some observations that may be helpful to readers who, like me, were rudely surprised by the simultaneous steep decline in both bonds and stocks in the past year.

Bonds and Stocks Are No Longer Inversely Correlated

Back in the day before routine, massive Federal Reserve interventions, say before the 2008 Great Recession, there was a more or less routine business cycle. In an expansionary phase, GDP would increase, there was greater demand for loans, company profits would rise and so would stock prices and interest rates. When interest rates go up, bond prices go down. When the cycle rotated to the recessionary downside, all this would reverse. Stocks would go down, interest rates would decline and investors would flee to bonds, raising their prices.

Thus, bonds served as a good portfolio diversifier, since their prices tended to move inversely to stocks. Hence, the traditional 60/40 portfolio: 60% stocks, 40% bonds, with periodic rebalancing between the two classes.

This approach still worked sort of OK from 2008-2021 or so. The Fed kept beating interest rates lower and lower, and so bond prices kept (fitfully) rising. But at last we hit the “zero bound”. Short- and long-term interest rates went to essentially zero in the U.S. (and actually slightly negative in some other developed countries). Rates had nowhere to go but up, and so bond prices had no place go but down, no matter how stocks performed.

Trillions of dollars of federal deficit spending to pay out various COVID-related benefits in 2020-2021, along with supply chain interruptions, ignited raging inflation in 2022, which the Fed belated addressed with a series of rapid rate hikes and reductions in its bond holdings. The end of easy (nearly no-interest) money and the prospect of a recession knocked stock prices down severely in 2022. However, the rise in both short term and long term interest rates also cratered bond prices. The traditional 60/40 portfolio was decimated. Thus, in an inflationary environment with active Fed intervention, bonds are much less useful as a portfolio diversifier.

Both the stock and bond markets seem to be now driven less by real-world considerations and more by expectations of Fed (and federal government) reactions to real-world occurrences. Pundits have noted the “bad news is good news” effect on stock prices: if GDP dips or unemployment rises (which used to be considered recessionary bad news), the markets cheer, assuming that if any real economic pain occurs, the federal government will flood us with benefits and the Fed will lower rates and buy bonds and otherwise facilitate the renewed deficit spending.   (See  The Kalecki Profit Equation: Why Government Deficit Spending (Typically) MUST Boost Corporate Earnings for an explanation of why deficit spending normally causes a rise in corporate profits, and hence in stock prices.)

In 2022, there was practically no place to hide from investment losses. Petroleum-related stocks furnished one of the few bright spots, but that was partly a function of economies recovering that year from COVID lockdowns. There is no particular reason to believe that petroleum stocks will rise in the next market downturn. Oil and gas stocks, along with gold and other commodities, might offer a certain degree of diversification, but none of these can be assumed to normally rise (or even stay steady) when the general stock market falls.

Managed Futures Funds as Portfolio Diversifiers

It turns out that there is one class of investable assets that does tend to rise during an extended market downturn, while typically rising slowly or at least staying level during stock bull markets. That is managed futures funds. These funds observe pricing trends across a wide range of commodities and currencies and bond markets, and buy or sell futures to try to profit. If they (or their algorithms) guess right, they make steady, small gains. If there is a new, strong trend that they can buy into, they can make a lot of money quickly. Such was the case for most of 2022. It was obvious that the Fed was going to raise rates heavily that year, which would drive up interest rates and the value of the dollar versus other currencies, and would crush bond prices. The managed futures funds shorted the Euro and bonds, and made a ton of money January-November last year. Investors who held these funds were glad they did. Charts to follow.

The first chart here shows the total returns for the S&P 500 stock index (blue) and a general bond fund, BND (purple), for the past three years, ending Feb 13, 2023. (Ignore the orange curve for the moment). This chart captures the short but very sharp drop in stock prices in early 2020, as COVID lockdowns hit, but government aid was promised.  Bonds did not greatly rise as stocks fell then, although after a bit of wobble they stayed fairly steady in early 2020.  However, when stocks slid down and down during most of 2022, bonds went right down with them (purple drawn-in arrow), giving no effective diversification. Both stocks and bonds rose in early 2023, showing what is now a positive correlation between these two asset classes.

Source: Seeking Alpha

The next chart (below) omits the bonds line, showing just the blue stocks curve and the orange curve, which is for a managed futures fund, DBMF. The drawn-in red arrows show how DBMF only dipped a little during the COVID crash in early 2020, and it rose greatly in 2022, as stocks (blue arrow) collapsed. This shows the power of managed futures for portfolio diversification.

Source: Seeking Alpha

There was a surprising break in futures trends in November, 2022, as markets suddenly started pricing in an early Fed pivot towards easing in 2023, and so interest rates rose, and bonds and the U.S. dollar tumbled. All the managed futures funds took a sharp hit Nov-Dec 2022; some of them recovered better than DBMF, which kept drifting down for the next few months. Without getting too deep in the weeds, DBMF is an exchange-traded fund (ETF) with favorable fees and taxation aspects for the average investor. However, its holdings are chosen by observing the recent (past few weeks) behavior of other, primary managed futures funds, and trying to match the average performance of these funds. Some of these other, similar funds are EBSIX, PQTNX, GIFMX and AMFNX. These are mutual funds, rather than ETFs, with somewhat higher fees and higher minimum purchases, depending on which “class” of these funds you go with (A, C, or I).

This average matching technique is good, because the performance of any single one of the major managed futures funds can be really good or really any particular year. Some of these individual funds have done consistently horribly, so you’d be in bad shape if you happened to pick one of those. But the average of all those funds, as quantified by a relevant index, does OK and so does DBMF. However, as observed by Seeking Alpha author Macrotips Trading, because of its backwards-looking matching methodology, DBMF can be appreciably slower than other funds to adjust its positions when trends change. KMLM is another managed futures ETF, which tends to be more volatile than DBMF; higher volatility may be desirable for this asset class.

One Fund to Rule Them All

A recommended application of these managed futures funds is to replace maybe a third of your 40% bond holdings with them. Back testing shows good results for say a 15 managed futures/25 bonds/ 60 stocks portfolio, which is periodically rebalanced.

What if there was a fund which combined stocks and managed futures under one wrapper? There is one I have found, called REMIX. It has an “institutional” class, BLNDX, with higher minimum purchase and slightly lower fees, which I have bought into. The chart below shows the past three years of performance for the hybrid REMIX (orange) compared to stocks (blue) and the managed futures-only fund DBMF. We can see that REMIX stayed fairly flat during the COVID blowout in 2020, and it rose along with stocks in 2021, and went roughly flat in 2022 instead of dropping with stocks (see thick drawn-in yellow arrows). The performance of REMIX is actually better than a plain average of stocks (blue curve) and DBMF (purple), so this is an attractive “all-weather” fund.  A similar hybrid (multi-asset) fund is MAFCX, which has higher fees but perhaps slightly higher returns to date. MAFCX buys stock (S&P500) futures rather than the stocks themselves, which is a leveraged play – – so for $100 investment in MAFCX you get effectively $100 worth of managed futures plus $50 worth of stock investment.

Source: Seeking Alpha

Caveat on Managed Futures

Managed futures put in an outstanding performance in 2022 because there was a well-telegraphed trend (Fed raising interest rates) in place for many months, which allowed them to make easy profits at the same time that stocks were crashing. But we cannot assume that managed futures will always go up when stocks go down. That said, managed futures will likely be reasonable diversifiers, since they should at least stay roughly level when stocks go down. The trick is to not grow impatient and dump them if their prices stagnate during a long bull stock market phase.  Holding them in the form of a multi-asset fund like REMIX may help investors hang in there, since it should go up in a bull market (due to its stock component), while offering protection in a bear.

For instance, below is a five-year chart of a managed futures fund ( EBSIX, purple line ), the S&P 500 stock index (blue line), and a multi-asset fund that combines stocks and managed futures ( MAFIX, orange line. This is the institutional version of MAFCX).    The charting program did not account properly for the Dec 2022 dividend of MAFIX, so I extended its curve with a short red line at the right-hand side to show what it should look like if plotted on a consistent total return basis.

With perfect hindsight, I chose a managed futures fund (EBSIX) which has performed among the best over the years; many other such funds would have looked far worse. There was a period of nearly two years (mid-2020 -early 2022) when this fund lagged far behind stocks.  It was only when the 2022 catastrophe arrived that the managed future fund EBSIX proved its worth and shot up. The multi-asset fund MAFIX, which is similar to REMIX but with higher fees, basically kept up with stocks in their bull phase, then held more or less steady for 2022, and ended much higher over five years than either SP500 or the plain EBSIX.

Source: Seeking Alpha

High Yield Investing, 2: Types of Funds; Loan Funds; Preferred Stocks

Types of Funds: Exchange-Traded, Open End, and Closed End

Some investors like to pick individual stocks, while others would rather own funds that own many stocks.  For bonds, investors usually own funds of bonds rather than taking possession of individual bonds.

A straightforward type of fund is the exchange-traded fund (ETF). This holds a basket of securities such as stocks or bonds, and its price is constantly updated to reflect the price of the underlying securities. You can trade an ETF throughout trading hours, just like a stock. If you simply hold it, there will be no taxable capital gains events. Many ETFs passively track some index (e.g. the S&P 500 index of large company stocks) and have low management fees.

An open end mutual fund also trades close to the value of the baskets of securities it holds, but not as tightly as with an ETF. You can place an order to buy or sell an open end fund throughout the day, but it will only actually trade at the end of the day, when the share price of the fund is updated to the most recent value of the net asset value. A quirk of open end funds is that buying and selling by other customers can generate capital gains for the fund, which get distributed to all shareholders. Thus, even if you are simply holding fund shares without selling any, you may still get credited with, and taxed on, capital gains. Also, if a lot of shareholders sell their shares at the bottom of a big dip in prices, the fund must sell the underlying securities at a low price to redeem those shares. This hurts the overall value of the fund, even for customers who held on to their shares through the panic.

Some open end mutual funds offer skilled active management which may meet your needs better than an index fund. For instance, the actively-managed Vanguard VWEHX fund seems to give a better risk/reward balance than the indexed junk bond funds.

Closed-end funds (CEFs) are more complicated. A closed-end fund has typically has a fixed number of shares outstanding. When you sell your shares, the fund does not sell securities to redeem the shares. Rather, you sell to someone else in the market who is willing to buy them from you. Thus, the fund is protected from having to sell stocks or bonds at low prices. The fund’s share price is determined by what other people are currently willing to pay for it, not by the value of its holdings. Shares typically trade at some discount or premium to the net asset value (NAV). The astute investor can take advantage of temporary fluctuations in share prices, in order to buy the underlying assets at a discount and then sell them at a premium. CEFs are typically actively managed, and employ a wider range of investment strategies than open-end funds or ETFs do. CEFs can raise extra money for buying interest-yielding securities by borrowing money. This leverage enhances returns when market conditions are favorable, but can also enhance losses.

Bank Loan Funds

One type of debt security is a loan. Banks can make loans to businesses, with various conditions (“covenants”) associated with the loans. Banks can then sell these loans out into the general investment market.

Most commercial loans are floating-rate, so the interest received by the loan holder will increase if the general short-term commercial interest rate increases. Thus, the loan holder is largely protected against inflation. Loans typically rank higher than bonds in order of payment in case the company goes bankrupt, and some loans are secured by liens on particular company-owned assets like vehicles or oil wells. For these reasons, in the event of bankruptcy, the recovery on loans is higher (around 70%) than for bonds (average around 40%).

Various funds are available which hold baskets of these bank loans, also called senior loans or leveraged loans. One of the largest loan funds is the PowerShares Senior Loan ETF (BKLN), which currently yields about 4.5%. Most of its loans are rated BB and B, i.e. just below investment grade.   There are also closed end funds which hold bank loans, which yield nearly twice as much as the plain vanilla BKLN ETF, by virtue of employing leverage, selling at a discount to the actual asset value of the fund, and expertly selecting higher yielding loans.  For instance,  the Invesco Senior Income Trust (VVR), which I hold,  currently yields 8% , which is enough to keep up with inflation.      

High-Dividend Common Stocks

Most “stocks” you read about are so-called  common stocks. Most company common stocks are valued for their potential to grow in share price or to steadily keep increasing the size of their dividend. The average dividend yield for the S&P 500 stocks is about 1.6%, which is lower than the current yield of the (risk-free) 2-year Treasury bond.

There are some regular (C-corporation) stocks which are not expected to grow much, but which pay relatively high, stable dividends. These include some telecommunication companies like AT&T (T; 6.5%) and Verizon (VZ; 5.9%), electric utilities like Southern (SO; 3.5%) and Duke (DUK; 3.7%), and petroleum companies like ExxonMobil (XOM; 3.6%). Investors might want to buy and hold some of these individual stocks, since these are among the highest yielding, high quality stocks. Broader funds which focus on large high-quality, high-yielding stocks tend to have lower average yields than the stocks mentioned above. For instance the Vanguard High Dividend Yield Index Fund (VHYAX) currently yields only about 3.2 % .  

Preferred Stocks

Companies, including many banks, issue preferred stocks, which behave more like bonds. They  often yield more than either bonds or common stock. Like bonds, most preferreds have a fixed yield; some convert from fixed to floating rate after a certain number of years. Unlike bonds, most preferreds have no fixed redemption date. Fixed-rate preferreds are vulnerable to a large loss in value if interest rates rise, since the shareholder is stuck essentially forever with the original, low rate. On the other hand, if interest rates drop, a company typically can, after a few years, redeem (“call”) the preferred for its face value (typically $25) and then issue a new, lower-yielding preferred stock.

Preferred shares sit above common stock but below bonds in the capital structure. Companies have the option of suspending payment of the dividends on preferred stock if financial trouble strikes. However, a company is typically not permitted to pay dividends on the common stock if it does not pay all the dividends on the preferred stock.

The largest preferred ETF is iShares US Preferred Stock (PFF). It yields about 5.8%, but holds mainly fixed-rate shares. The PowerShares Variable Rate Preferred ETF (VRP; 5.9%  yield) holds variable or floating rate shares, which helps insulate investors from the effects of interest rate raises. The First Trust Intermediate Duration Preferred & Income Fund (FPF) is a closed end fund with more than half its holdings as floating rate. Due to use of leverage and selling at a discount, the fund yield is a juicy 7.9%.

Happy investing…

High Yield Investments, 1: Some Benefits of High Yield Stocks and Funds

A Case for High-Yield Investments

The data I have seen indicates that if you don’t need to draw down your investment for twenty years or more, you may do well to put it all in stock funds and just leave it alone. For reasons discussed here  the average investor will likely do better to buy an index fund like the S&P 500 rather than trying to pick individual stocks. The long term average return (including reinvested dividends) in the U.S. stock market has been about 10 %  before adjusting for the effects of inflation. (All my remarks here pertain to U.S. investments; hopefully some aspects may be applicable to other countries).

However, particularly as you age, financial advisors typically counsel investors to allocate some portion of their portfolio to more-stable fixed-income securities that generate cash to spend and keep you from having to sell stocks during a market downturn. Historically, long-term investment grade bonds have been used to provide steady cash, and to serve as an asset which often went up if stock went down. Thus, a 60/40 stock/bond portfolio was considered prudent. That model has been less useful in recent years, since bond yields have been so low, and since long-term bonds sometimes fall along with stocks, e.g. if long-term interest rates rise.

Another driver now for allocating some savings into non-stock investments is that after the large run-up in stocks last few years, which has far exceeded gains in actual earnings, the market may well muddle along flatter in the coming decade. In regular stock investing, you are banking primarily on stock price appreciation – you are counting on someone else paying you (much) more for your shares some years hence than you paid for them. But what if the “greater fools” don’t materialize to buy your shares?

Also, the inflation genie has been let out of the bottle, and it may be tough to get inflation back under say 4%; investment grade bonds are yielding appreciably less than inflation these days, so you are losing money to buy regular bonds.

Finally, if your stock is cranking out say 8% cash dividends, and you are holding it for those dividends rather than for price appreciation, when the market crashes (and this particular stock goes down in price, along with everything), you can be blithe and unruffled. In fact, you can be mildly pleased if the price goes down since, if you are reinvesting the dividends, you can now buy more shares at the lower price. Trust me, this psychological benefit is important.

Some High Yielding Alternative Investments

In this blog over the coming weeks/months we will identify several classes of securities which generate stock-like returns (around 7-10 % returns, if the dividends are continually reinvested) via dividend distributions rather than through share price appreciation. These securities often have short-term volatility similar to stocks, so they should be treated in the portfolio as partly as stock-substitutes rather than as substitutes for stable high-quality bonds. However, the better classes of high yield investments maintain their share prices over a long (e.g. 5-year) period, similar to bonds, but with much higher yields.

We will discuss High-yield (“junk”) bonds , senior bank loans, preferred stocks, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), Business Development Companies, Master Limited Partnerships,   and selling options (put/calls) on stocks.  

I’ll close today with three examples of these high yield securities, which I have happily held for many years. They yield 8-9%, and their share prices have held relatively steady over the past five years:

Cohen&Steers Total Return Realty Fund (RFI). Current yield: 8.0 %

Ares Capital   (ARCC)   Current yield:  8.1%

Eaton Vance Tax-Managed Buy-Write Opportunities Fund (ETV). Current yield: 8.8%                    

(Charts from Seeking Alpha)

Raging Inflation, Spiking Rates, Plunging Stocks, Oh, My!

It has been such a volatile couple of days in the markets that you hardly know where to focus.  Friday’s inflation print was 8.6% (year/year), higher than expected and the highest in forty years, showing (yet again) that the Fed’s “transitory inflation” line was always just fantasy. Despite its glacial, foot-dragging pace of response to date, the Fed will need to raise short-rates (which they directly control) faster and farther than earlier planned. The Fed does not directly control long-term rates, but they influence them by buying and selling bonds on the open markets. For years, they have been buying bonds (driving interest rates lower), but they will have to stop that and maybe go the other way, being net sellers of bonds.  This will make financing government deficits much more difficult.

Anyway, both short and long term rates have gone vertical in the past few days as markets price in all this, reaching levels not seen since the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis:

Rates of U. S. 1-Year Bills. From Wolf Richter.

Rates of U. S. 10-Year Notes. From Wolf Richter.


Mortgage rates will likely march even further upward, increasing the monthly payments for most homeowners. At some point, this will deflate the housing market. Some of today’s eager new homebuyers who paid over asking price, assuming that housing only goes up, may be in for a rude awakening.

It seems like the only way to tamp down inflation is old-fashioned demand destruction. Stock market participants are starting to price in the dreaded R-word (recession). The plunging stock market has been in the news the last few days. Yes, it has dropped a lot, but shown on a five-year chart below it may not be so apocalyptic. It is dropping from ridiculously over-optimistic market highs at the end of 2021.  We are still slightly above the pre-COVID peak:

S&P 500 Index. From Seeking Alpha.

If you are young and working, you should see lower prices as a buying opportunity. If you are making regular contributions to a savings plan in stocks (dollar cost averaging), your dollars are buying you more stocks. If you feel you must DO something, you could always rebalance your portfolio, shifting some funds into stocks from something else, to maintain a say 70/30 stock/bond portfolio. Peace…

Though the Market Is a Winner, Most Stocks Are Losers

The U.S. “stock market” is represented by various collections of stocks, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average (30 stocks), the NASDAQ Composite (securities listed on the NASDAQ; weighted towards information technology), and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index. The S&P 500 is an index of the largest 500 companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ, weighted by capitalization. The version of the S&P usually cited just takes into account stock prices. History shows that, over a reasonably long-time frame, the U.S. stock market rises. Here is a chart, using a logarithmic axis, of the S&P from January, 1950 to February, 2016. It shows a rise in value by a factor of about 65 between 1950 and 2016.

S&P 500 daily closing values from January 3, 1950 to February 19, 2016
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%26P_500_Index

Below is a chart of S&P values from 1980 to 2021 on a linear scale, which compresses the earlier data and magnifies more recent variations. This shows the Covid-related dip in early 2020, which was followed by a meteoric rise as Fed and federal money flooded the financial system:

Source: Yahoo Finance

A lab technician I knew in my company in the 1990s took every bit of savings he had (about $50,000) and plowed it all into the stock of America Online (AOL). This was when the internet was just taking off, and AOL was a leading company in that field. My friend held on while his investment doubled, then had the conviction to hang on until it doubled again. He then cashed out with around $200,000, quit his job, got an MBA in finance, and ended up managing money on Wall Street.

With these sorts of success stories, and the (so far) reliable performance of the stock market, how hard can it be for the average small investor to pick a winning basket of stocks? Surprisingly hard, it turns out.

A study of the returns of U.S. stocks from 1926 to 2015 was published by Hendrik Bessembinder, a business professor at Arizona State University. A draft copy is here . He worked with total returns (stock price plus dividends). He found that the rise of the S&P is entirely due to huge gains by a tiny subset of stocks. The average stock actually loses money over both short and long time periods. In statistical terms, this is an extremely skewed data set; the mean return is greater than the median. There is a sort of Darwinian selection that occurs in a market index like the S&P 500. The companies that are doing well tend to get more represented in the index as their stock prices rises relative to other companies, while the relative weighting of losers automatically diminishes.

This asymmetry between winners and losers is partly a result of the following math: If you invest $1000 in a company that then tanks, the most you can lose is $1000. But if that company is one of the rare firms that really takes off, you could make many times your initial investment. If you had put $1000 into Microsoft (MSFT) in 1986, your shares would now be worth nearly  five million dollars.

According to Bessembinder’s study, half of the U.S. stock market wealth creation had come from a mere 0.33% of the listed companies. The top five companies (ExxonMobil, Apple, GE, Microsoft, and IBM, at that point) accounted for a full 10% of the market gain. Each of these companies had created half a trillion dollars or more for their shareholders. ( A similar list of the top five or ten value-creating companies drawn up in 2021 would have a different set of names, obviously, but a similar principal has held in recent years – a huge portion of the rise in “stocks” in the past five years has been due to a handful of internet superstars, the FAANGM stocks).

Out of some 26,000 listed companies, 86 of them (0.33%) provided 50% of the aggregate wealth creation, and the top 983 companies (4%) accounted for the full 100%. That means the other 25,000 companies netted out to zero return. Some gave positive returns, while most were net losers.

The average stock which you might pick by throwing darts at the Wall Street Journal listings lost money 52% of the time in any given month, and 51% of the time over the life of the company. The lifetime of the average company was only seven years, with only 10% of companies lasting more than 27 years.

This helps explain why actively managed stock funds, where diligent experts analyze and select some subset of stocks in an attempt to beat the market, typically underperform the broad market indices. (The fees charged by these funds also drags down their performance relative to the market indices). This also explains why about half the small-cap stocks I have bought over the years in my little recreational brokerage account have lost money. I had thought I was particularly inept at stock-picking. Turns out I was just about average.

QE, Stock Prices, and TINA

The U.S. economy as quantified by GDP has been sputtering along in slow growth mode for a number of years. It took a huge hit in 2020 due to covid shutdowns and has not nearly recovered. But stock prices have been rocketing upwards, and this past year is no exception. Markets took a cliff-dive in March, but have since way overshot to the upside.

Here is a plot of the past five decades of U.S. GDP and of the Wilshire 5000 index, which approximates the total stock market capitalization in the U.S.:

Chart Source: St. Louis Fed, as plotted by Lyn Alden Schwartzer

These two curves have crisscrossed each other over the past five decades, but in recent years the stock market has roared to the upside. One of Warren Buffet’s favorite metrics as to whether stock are overvalued is to consider the ratio of these two quantities, i.e. the market-capitalization-to-GDP (Cap/GDP) ratio:

Source: Lyn Alden Schwartzer

The ratio is much higher than it has even been. The last time it got this high was in 2000, and that did not end well.

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