Month: November 2017

Japan Travel – Nagatoro, Saitama Pref

 

Nagatoro in Saitama Prefecture. During Autumn, the rapids make for a tranquil setting. You can ride a boat down stream and catch a bus back to the starting point. Located at the far end of Saitama, a car is most convenient but public transport connects it all. Other sights ainclude the Hodoya Shrine and the Funadama festival,  dedicated to the God of Water as a prayer for the safety of boatmen on water going downstream the Arakawa river is held on August 15th.  Nagatoro is doable in a day but worth setting off from Tokyo early to get the best out of a day.

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Gold Coin vs Bitcoin – just go on a crypto blog and invite a fatwah by criticizing it

The Bitcoin debate rages again. I’ve been asked more times by friends about whether to buy Bitcoin in the last 3 months than I care to remember. This video is about as telling as it gets about understanding raw value. At the moment Bitcoin pricing is as random as a Lotto ball dispenser although only higher numbers are being drawn for now (despite the 20% flash crash yesterday, shows panic is a server outage away). My answer to them is I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole but everyone’s risk is their own. I answered along the lines below.

As a contrarian investor, this video warms my heart. When everyone seems to love something it tends to be a sign that ‘greater fool theory’ is alive and kicking. The video shows a woman unwilling to trade a stick of gum for a 1oz gold coin. If there was ever a better example of mean reversion, this must be it. Mark Dice did a similar video with people asking if they wanted a Hershey’s chocolate bar or a silver bar. Everyone chose the Hershey’s! While I am sure the response on Wall Street would elicit a different response it shows how few people understand the value of barbarous old relics.

The biggest issue with Bitcoin or any other crypto is that it is mined in cyber space. Do you ever wonder why you need to update your Norton anti-virus software every other day? Yes because some criminals are phishing/hacking your data trying to rob you blind. That’s just the amateur cowboy stuff by the way.

Gold needs to be dug out of the ground with considerable effort. The thing that spooks me about crypto (without trying to sound conspiracy theorist) is that state actors (most top end computer science grads in China end up working in the country’s cyber warfare teams), hackers or criminal minds (did you know 70% of top end computer science grads in Russia end up working for the mob (directly or indirectly) the value of coins in the system could be instantaneously wiped out at the stroke of a key. We’ve had small hiccups ($280m) only last week. So as much as the ‘security’ of these crypto currencies is often sold as bulletproof, none of them are ‘cyberproof’. Just like your home software, crypto at every stage has to constantly update its protection to prevent vulnerabilities and it is naive to think it can keep a 100% safety record.

It only takes one serious hack to bring most if not all the crypto down as vulnerable. In order for Auric Goldfinger to crush prices in Gold he’d need to smelt lead bars and paint them, were any left over from the pail and brush used on Jill Masterson. Gold is one currency that governments often threaten to confiscate (India springs to mind). Imagine if North Korea turns Bitcoin into the state currency?

I have just been on a Bitcoin forum and the insults being hurled at disbelievers has all the hallmarks of Tesla share ownership. It is a religion. Not an investment. I was accused of having no idea on crypto to which I argued 90%+ of those that own it probably don’t either. So having owners in Bitcoin or other cryptos knowing a tiny fraction of the risks means they’ll stampede faster than the servers can process data should ‘bit hit the fan’. One crypto ‘expert’ tried to tell me that artwork has no value as it is not tradable. It is tradable, just illiquid. I argued that the latest sale of DaVinci’s artwork fetched $450mn or 45,000 bitcoin. Storage costs aside over the long run I’ll have a Leonardo thank you!

As Mark Twain said, ”It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

My assessment is that the fascination of those around me about Bitcoin suggests that many of the fan base are punters trading on the greed of others. It has no underlying core value other than those prepared to pay more for it. That indeed is the tenet of all investment but like most manias, the risk/reward ratio can turn on a dime (no pun intended). At some stage the fall out from crypto will be ugly. As financial pundits know

the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”

Japan Travel – Otaguro Park in Ogikubo

Otaguro Park in Nishi Ogikubo. Go!! It is the former residence of Motoh Otaguro, a music critic, whose dying wish was his house (and grounds) would be open to the public. While I hope I am some way off leaving this world, it is an amazingly beautiful and tranquil place to visit and may I be in a position where I could give something back to the community which all could enjoy. The evening lights will only be available til December 3rd. It is honestly worth it. I am too much of a Phillistine to list all of the different types of trees inside the gardens but you won’t regret it.

Insider trading as a politician is ok?

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Watching a session of Canadian Parliament yesterday, the opposition Conservative party asked for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to a question to Trudeau’s Finance Minister Bill Morneau on whether he sold $10m in shares in Morneau-Shepell a week before a new capital gains tax on securities was introduced in parliament. The accusation was that Morneau made $500,000 by insider trading in full knowledge of the tax change that was to be introduced. Morneau spent the entire 20 minutes talking of how his party is defending the middle class with tax cuts. If he was not the person that sold, how easy to openly admit so. So far he’s said nothing.

Insider trading is a punishable offense in the private sector. Yet are politicIans free to make half a million by trading ahead of the event? How can Morneau not resign? Even worse was  Speaker of the House Greg Regan was asking why the question from Paul Pollievre was relevant in question time? Are you kidding me?

Clearly ethics training for Trudeau’s cabinet seems far more pertinent than reintegration of returning ISIS tourists. Then again we shouldn’t forget that Trudeau was actually involved in the appointment of the Ethics Commissioner (without consulting the opposition) indeed at a time when his own ethics had been openly called into question.

Business meme for the day

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There was also a famous saying about adveristing that suggests 50% of the money spent is wasted. The question is which 50%?

Is this another sign of the top of the asset bubble?

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Is this sign of the top? Normally Japanese banks are more risk averse than a politician speaking after a scandal has leaked. So what is the connection of Rolls-Royce using the foyer of the HQ of one of Japan’s megabanks (SMBC)? To promote high net worth banking customers to take out negative interest car loans? To give a luxury element to their brand? Do we need to remind ourselves the last time Japanese corporates shunned conservative values and splashed out on Van Gogh and Monet artworks? It was before the bubble collapsed.

At least the expensive artworks can be theoretically smuggled out of the building in style! We shouldn’t worry about security either as the SMBC foyer has robot security.  They have a “game function” on the touch panels meaning that would be robbers need only distract the robots with video game junky children.

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The “bigger” point about the FANG sell off

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While the press is waxing lyrical about the unprecedented loss caused by a sell off in FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix & Google) we should note that it overlooks one factor. Before getting to that, to start with the sell off in gross dollar terms it is unsurprising given the already highly inflated value of the base stocks. So if A $500bn market cap Facebook loses 4% it is equivalent to $20bn. On one day FB lost a Fiat Chrysler. It’s math. Let’s not forget that Bitcoin is now worth $165bn but let’s not let that bubble spoil the party.

The problem that faces financial markets is the advent of ETFs. While stupefyingly simple to understand as an investor it is that same simplicity that breeds complacency. ETFs are simple products that enable investors to pay much lower fund management fees to buy easy to understand baskets- whether coal, gold, oil or FANGs. There are 106 ETF products that own Facebook as a Top 15 holding with that averaging between 5% and 10% of the entire fund.

Yet on the way up things are rosy. It is what happens on the downside that has yet to be fully tested. Around two years ago, CM wrote a report which warned of the risk of ETFs on the downside, especially levered ETFs (i.e. you buy a 2x levered FANG fund which means if FANG stocks go up 5% you theoretically get 2x the return for any given move up or down.

However in times of uncertainty (i.e. heightened risk) the options markets that price risk move magnitudes on the downside vs the upside. Meaning for an ETF to replicate what it proclaims on the brochure becomes much more difficult meaning the fund may under or overshoot the promises. Also in certain markets (e.g. US & Japan) where stocks on the exchange have limit up/down rules on the physical stock, should a market crash ensue, the ETF prices on the theoretical values of stocks that may not have opened for trading. What that means is that the ETF may reflect a market that is 10-15% below where it actually eventually opens. Meaning poor ETF buyers get gouged. However the computer algorithms in the ETF end up chasing, not leading the market which in and of itself creates more panic selling further reducing market confidence. Where a market might have traditionally fallen  3% on a given piece of bad news, ETFs tend to react in ways that might cause a market to retreat 6%. Indeed market volatility is amplified by ETFs.

At the moment market behavior is exceedingly complacent about risk. Before GFC highly complex products like CDOs and CDSs were the rage. 99% had next to no clue how they operated but they found their way into the local government investment portfolios of even small country towns in Australia.

ETFs on the other hand are strikingly simple to grasp but that also means we pay far less attention to the risk that goes with them. That is the bigger worry. People complacently thinking their portfolios are safe as houses may wake up one morning wondering why some flash crash has caused Joe and Joanne Public’s retirement nest egg to get decimated.