The Independent Investor: The Apple of Our Eyes
Go into just about any supermarket right now and what do you see? Bins and bins of gorgeous red, green, and golden apples. The harvest is overwhelming, but some apples are worth more than others.
If you are like me, an average consumer, it takes about 23 minutes to do my grocery shopping, according to Proctor and Gamble. During that spate of time, I buy an average of 18 items out of maybe 30,000 to 40,000 choices. I have little time to browse and, most of the time, I don't even check the prices, which brings me back to the apple cart.
You see, I value my fruits and vegetables. The more local, the better, because to me, the taste is everything. Until recently, I was partial to certain kinds of apples depending on whether I was baking, cooking, or just chomping down on one freshly picked from a local orchard. That's until I encountered the honeycrisp.
If you have sampled one, you know what I mean. They are everything an apple should be: crisp, with an electrifying mix of acidity and tangy sweetness. It is an apple worth buying, even if the price is two or three times the cost of the next best thing.
Why is the honeycrisp worth so much more than the Fuji or Gala? Is the taste really that different, or is it all a clever marketing gimmick? To understand the difference, let's look at the apple business in general. This year the industry expects a nationwide apple crop of 256.2 million, 42-pound bushels of apples. That is about 6 percent lower than last year's crop. Washington State accounts for about 61 percent of that total. The Midwest produces 31 million bushels. The harvest there, thanks to better weather, is up 35 percent from last year. The East Coast will be about flat from last year totaling 58.4 million bushels.
In this era of changing consumer tastes, foreign competition (think tangerines and kiwis), and the overwhelming dominance of a hand-full of supermarket chains, in order to survive in the apple business, you need to be close to the ground and light on your feet when it comes to consumer preferences.
There was a great article in Bloomberg this week that illustrates the need to be all the above. Evidently, my preference for the honeycrisp is shared. It is taking the nation by storm and leaving orchards in the Northeast flatfooted, according to them. The origins of this apple would, on the surface, contradict everything an apple farmer might have learned about America's modern commercial environment. The honeycrisp was never bred to be grown, stored, or shipped. Here's why.
It takes much more pruning than its lesser brethren so that the apples on the lower branches receive enough sunlight. It is also lacking calcium, which will result in brown spots, unless you feed them a vitamin supplement — in this case spraying them with a form of calcium. They are also difficult to store. While most apples can go from the tree right into the refrigerator, honeycrisps need 5-10 days to get acclimated at a mild temperature before they can be put into cold storage.
The negatives go on and on: birds love them, so protective fencing and nets are mandatory. They also get sunburned since they are so thin-skinned that the stems need to be clipped off lest they tear into the adjacent fruit.
Transportation, as you can imagine, is a challenge at the best of times. Some of these apples grow big. That causes a packaging problem when some of your apples might be the size of a grapefruit. Since preserving and bruising are important factors, there is a high attrition rate with no more than 55-60 percent of these apples surviving to the supermarket produce stalls.
And yet, production has doubled in the last four years. It now ranks as the fifth most popular apple grown, according to the U.S. Apple Association. Even so, the demand for the honeycrisp, outstrips supply by a mile. As such, those growers that have moderate weather and huge operations, like California and parts of Washington, have benefited at the expense of the Northeast where orchards are smaller, and weather is "iffy."
But don't think that the farmer's bottom line has exploded as a result of the honeycrisp. For most producers, the higher price somewhat off-sets the additional cost of growing and transporting these apples. However, in the end, it is the large supermarket chains that will dictate how much they will buy and sell and at what prices.
Bottom line: we are light years beyond Adam and Eve when it comes to the apple and everyone is on the lookout for the next honeycrisp, me included.
The Independent Investor: Mid-Term Results Take Investor Focus Off Washington
True to form, the opposition party regained control of the House, while the ruling party, in this case the GOP, retained control of the Senate. If history is any guide, this means that little in the way of legislation will be coming out of Congress for the next two years.
In the past, investors and the stock market alike did better than you might expect under this kind of political paralysis. That's because financial markets abhor the unknown. Given the unpredictability of politics and legislation, investors are far more content with inaction than action, unless of course, those actions are favorable to the markets or the economy.
Take for example, the tax cut of 2018. That sent the markets higher because most investors expected the cut would fuel additional growth in the economy. In turn, that would generate higher earnings for public companies and provide a reason to bid the stock market up even higher.
While expectations for any additional tax cuts over the next two years are remote, there could be some surprises. There is some conjecture that the Federal government could undo parts of the tax cut. They could reinstate, for example, the federal tax deductibility of those states with an income tax. In exchange, the corporate tax rate might be raised a few percentage points. Of course, it's early days and any quid pro quo negotiation on taxes between the two houses and the president could drag out until 2020.
The unfolding disaster that is the Affordable Care Act (ACA) over the first two years of Republican rule was not lost on voters. Health care was identified as one of the greatest concerns among voters in exit polls across the nation. That doesn't mean that the legislatures will suddenly be able to come together and fix a health care system that has run amuck.
If the GOP, which had control of the executive branch and both Houses of Congress, could not come up with a plan to replace the AFC, why would we expect a divided Congress to do any better? At most, we may see drug pricing initiatives, but the passage of even that effort is doubtful.
The common wisdom of most political pundits is that the Democrats will launch investigation after investigation into the perceived wrong-doings of the president, his cabinet members, and anyone else they can target among the GOP. As a result, no one in power will have the time or energy to contemplate any new legislation. Most of their efforts will be tied up in defending themselves.
One area that might see the light of day might be infrastructure spending. Both parties have been talking about that since the early days of the Obama Administration. At that time, Republicans considered themselves deficit hawks and did not want to spend the money necessary to fund a multi-trillion-dollar spending program.
Today, however, Republicans, with few exceptions, have taken on the mantle of big government spenders. Democrats, at least since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, have always been saddled with that reputation. It is conceivable that enough elements of both parties could see their way into a compromise infrastructure spending bill. The caveat here is that the deficit itself could become an explosive issue next year as interest rates (and debt payments) continue to rise. In which case, neither party may be willing to add to the nation's debt for any reason.
In my opinion, the direction of the stock market will be far more dependent on how fast and how high-interest rates will rise. The outcome depends on the Federal Reserve Bank and not politicians in Washington, D.C.
There is one worry, however, that does continue to haunt the markets. President Trump's on-going trade war could ultimately sink both the economy and the stock market. The Democrats in the past, having been no friend of free trade, believe strongly that America has not been treated fairly by our trading partners. Given that the president and the Democrats may see eye-to-eye on this issue, it may embolden Trump to escalate his tariffs and other demands on our trading partners.
The Independent Investor: Time to Check Your Risk Tolerance
It is a good time to take a reality check on how aggressively you are invested. The 6.9 percent decline in the S&P 500 Index over October was gut-wrenching. But entirely within the realm of probability given the historical data. Here are some questions to ask.
Did you find yourself checking your investment portfolios every day? How about every hour? Did you have trouble focusing on other, possibly more important, things like your job, or your family and friends? Was it more difficult to sleep at night, or did you lay awake worrying about the markets?
How much time did you spend checking the averages and listening to the talking heads on television or in the print media? Did you call your broker or investment advisor and, if so, how many times? Did you want to blame someone for the market's decline? Did you need that money for something immediate?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you have probably invested too aggressively. That's not to say that a sell-off is in any way pleasant. Everyone feels the disappointment, the pain of losing money, and the fear that tomorrow will bring more of the same. And even though your losses are only on paper, you still feel some anxiety. The question is how you handle it.
By now, most of my readers understand that the stock market is not a one-way street. Investors should expect at least three declines of around 5 percent and one decline of 10 percent per year in the stock market. That's on average. There have been plenty of times when the averages have declined more than that. Over the course of the last several years that has occurred consistently, and it will continue to do so for the next several decades into the future.
And one's risk tolerance is both personal and financial. Only you can tell yourself what it is or should be. And the risk is not static. It changes over time. How much risk you are willing to take depends on many things; some, such as your health or your job are different than when you will need the money in your investment accounts.
Geopolitical events such as Brexit, the Trump election, North Korean conflict, stock market valuations, and the next recession will also impact your attitude about risk. None of the above remain static. What was a negative development last year (like the Trump vs. Kim double dog dare) may be a positive this year, such as North Korean nuclear disarmament.
We can try to break risk down into two concepts: risk tolerance and your capacity for risks. Capacity for risk is how much you can afford to lose. That is measurable and involves time and finances. If you are saving for retirement, which is decades away, you can afford to lose more in the short-term, because you won't need the money anytime soon. Over time, the stock market has been shown to be a good investment and will make up your losses and then some if you remain patient and don't panic.
For example, the pain and fear are real for someone in their forties or fifties, who holds a $5 million portfolio, which loses $500,000 in a 10 percent correction, over the course of two months. Yet, if that person plans to retire 20 years from now and has a good paying job that is secure, then they have the capacity to hang in there, even buy more, because they won't be needing to tap those funds for decades.
On the other hand, if that money were needed to pay next month's mortgage or car payment, the purchase of a house in two weeks, the first semester's payment on their kid's college education, then that capacity for risk is far lower.
Risk tolerance is far more connected with your emotions; fear and greed among the most prevalent. It is greed that drives an investor's desire to "beat the market," something that is as hopeless as winning consistently at the slot machines. Fear is what drives you to sell at the top (fairly easy) but also destroys your ability to buy at the bottom (almost impossible).
So how do you determine these risks and when they change? It's not easy. Start with the questions I asked, and if you answered yes to any of them, review your risk appetite, preferably with someone like an advisor or financial planner. I found that it is far easier to examine your risk tolerance after a market sell-off when the pain is still fresh than when the markets are roaring.
The Independent Investor: Textbooks Worth Their Weight in Gold
Forget the stock market, internet, and whatever you might think is worth investing in. The good old college textbook beats them all.
That boring first-semester hardcover and similar books have risen over 1,000 percent in price since 1977. Textbooks are a big business. Estimates for the total value of the textbook industry range from $7 billion to $9 billion. And just a handful of companies sell them. The five largest publishers are: Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill Education, Scholastic, Cengage Learning and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. They have been around a long time, carry deep pockets and usually acquire any startups or smaller competitors in quick order. Some analysts compare them to drug companies because they have similar economics.
In the pharmaceutical sales model, for example, drugs are marketed to the decision makers — doctors, hospital pharmacies and the like. The patient, at least those with health insurance, end up paying the price, but much of those costs are paid for by the insurance company or Medicare. Medical decision makers' criteria are usually not how cheap or expensive a drug might be; instead, they select those drugs that are the most efficacious with the least number of side effects for their patients.
In the textbook industry, teachers (mostly professors), are the decision makers at colleges, and like doctors, could care less about the costs of a textbook to the student. They demand the most up-to-date educational information possible since they strive for academic excellence in the classroom.
It doesn’t help that today the information advances occur at such a rapid pace that most books are out of date by the time they are printed and in the hands of students.
There is another wrinkle that boosts the price of textbooks. Today, one in four colleges bundle their textbooks with an access code, which expires at the end of each semester. All the materials that a given student needs to participate in the classroom are put behind this access code paywall. Once you pay for the access code, you get your login ID. In return, the student gains access to workbooks and tests, in addition to the new textbook. It becomes essential to have this access in order to pass the course.
Fast forward to the next semester. For a new student beginning that same course, all the materials will have changed again, along with a new access code. The student looking to resell their old course material is out of luck. There is no re-sale market. It is simply useless. Many of the introductory courses that are part of the general education requirements for all students function in this way. These codes force students to buy books at retail prices at campus bookstores while walling off any chance to recoup part of the costs through resale.
Textbook prices have increased four times faster than the rate of inflation since 2006. At least 30 percent of post-secondary students buy their textbooks with financial aid money. Community college students are twice as likely to buy textbooks in the same manner.
Today, the average costs of textbooks per year, per student is $1,168. It is a pinch shared by public, primary and secondary education as well. Books have begun to be a major expense for every grade level. The costs are even worse for low-income school districts since standardized test requirements are based on these private-label, high-priced textbooks.
How does that work? It is a vicious circle: the school can’t afford the newest books, so students don’t get the information needed to pass standardized tests. As a result, the school gets lower funding because of poor test scores, keeping the new textbooks unaffordable. And on goes the cycle. It would be hilarious if we, the taxpayers, were not paying the bills.
Some say the system needs to be changed. As it is, the end user remains the student who bears the brunt of the cost. But since the buyer is the institution or instructor, all the book publishers need to do is maintain a good reputation, a cozy relationship with the teacher, and comparatively up-to-date new textbook editions.
Textbook companies, therefore, can continue to act as a quasi-cartel, if the formula of higher textbook prices is based on expanding college attendance and thus increasing demand for textbooks. Price really doesn’t come into it.
The Independent Investor: The Student Loan Crisis
Student loans have now become the second-largest pile of consumer borrowing, after home mortgages. What's worse, it is the fastest growing slice of American household debt and shows no sign of slowing down.
Young Americans are going to college in droves. At the same time, the costs of higher education are at historical highs. That combination has become a lethal cocktail that could hamstring young workers over their entire life and along the way damage the overall economy.
Since the financial crisis and Great Recession over a decade ago, student loans have grown by almost 157 percent. Compare that to auto loans, which have risen 52 percent. In the case of mortgage and credit card debt, we have seen a decrease by about 1 percent.
At this point, the total loans outstanding amounts to $1.5 trillion, almost the same as this year's tax cut. If students graduate and land a good-paying job, so the theory goes, they should be able to service that debt and ultimately pay it off, even if it takes half their lifetime to do so. But, if you ask the 44 million Americans with student debt, that is not what's happening.
Many graduating students can only blame themselves for their predicament. During the financial crisis and its aftermath, many students figured going to college would provide the skills that have now become the minimum requirement to land a well-paying job. What's worse, their parents -- who should have known better -- allowed their kids to pick and choose what they wanted to study. It turned out that many of those degrees (in liberal arts, for example), failed to provide enough money to even service their student debt load. Degrees that did, like post-graduate law and medicine, required much more study, money and effort to attain.
More alarming still is the rate of loan delinquencies. It is higher than all other household debt, if we measure it by failure to pay. Over 10 percent of student borrowers have now failed to make their payments in the last 90 days or more. To put that in perspective, the delinquency rate on home mortgages stands at 1.1 percent.
Another problem with student debt is rising interest rates, which makes the cost of borrowing increase. Since the Fed started raising interest rates two years ago, undergrads have seen loan interest rates rise to 5 percent. It is even more (6.6 percent) for those who are working on graduate degrees.
Even the Fed is worried about the problem. Jerome Powell, the Chairman of The Federal Reserve Bank, explained it back in March when he testified before Congress. He pointed out that failing to pay your bills under the student loan program damages your credit. As a young person starting out, your credit rating is already shaky. Delinquencies could put you in a credit hole for a large part of your working life.
As it is, 85 percent of college students work at paying jobs just to afford what their student loans don't cover. Many of them need to live with their parents because the costs of college are simply too high to manage on their own. As this debt mounts (and it will), it ultimately starts to crimp the overall economy.
Homeownership, for example, has declined because of student debt. "Household formations," as economists like to call it, among workers between 25 and 35 years old is stagnant, thanks to overwhelming debt payments. The entire generation of Millennials and beyond are loaded down with student debt, and it is limiting how much they can spend on goods and services.
The only good news is that, unlike the mortgage debt crisis, student loans do not present a risk to the entire financial system. However, that may be small comfort to those who face a mountain of student debt repayments. My advice to parents, as well as their children, is to think long and hard before making a college decision.
If, for example, your child is not willing or capable of graduating with a degree in the hard sciences that have great job prospects (triple digit salaries), it may be much better to attend a vocational school. At least that way, the costs and debt load will be much lower and prospects for a good-paying job are somewhat brighter.