March 3, 2008

All the problems with Municipal Auction Rate Securities lead one to the not terribly difficult conclusion that the issuers, where possible, will redeem them and replace them with fixed-rate debt … unfortunately, that highway looks gridlocked:

U.S. states and local governments may extend the worst slump in municipal bonds on record as they replace as much as $166 billion of auction-rate securities.

California, Boston’s biggest hospital and Duke Energy Corp. are converting their bonds to other types of tax-exempt debt after auction failures drove rates as high as 20 percent. The potential supply equals almost 40 percent of the municipal securities sold last year, overwhelming a market that tumbled 4.9 percent last month, according to indexes maintained by Merrill Lynch & Co., which began compiling market data in 1989.

This prompted Naked Capitalism to launch another vitriolic attack on the Credit Rating Agencies:

Now the New York Times piece, on page one, is no doubt intended for a broad audience, so it explains (without giving comparative default rates, which would have been useful), that rating agencies grade muni bonds more harshly than corporates:

At every rating, municipal bonds default less often than similarly rated corporate bonds, according to Moody’s. In fact, since 1970, A-rated municipal bonds have defaulted far less frequently than corporate bonds with top triple-A ratings. Furthermore, when municipalities do default, investors usually receive some — or even all — of their money back, unlike in most corporate bankruptcies….. Moody’s estimates that more than half of the market would be rated triple A or double A using the corporate scale. Triple-A securities are considered nearly as safe as Treasury bonds issued by the federal government.

However, the piece notes rather blandly the central conflict of interest: that rating agencies have good reason to have established and perpetuated this double standard. When less than AAA municipalities go to buy bond insurance, they are paid again to issue the second rating.

Naked Capitalism does not explain why all fault lies with the Credit Rating Agencies and not with the issuers and investors; nor does he speculate why Moody’s, for instance, would choose to publish explanations of their municipal rating scale if it’s such a big secret.

There’s a thread on Financial Webring Forum discussing long-term equity premia. It is clear that the long term equity premium will vary, moving marginally up and down in response to transient mispricing – this was discussed in a paper by Campbell, Diamond & Shoven, presented to the (American) Social Security Advisory Board in August 2001 (quoted with a different author for each paragraph):

The yield on long-term inflation-indexed Treasury securities (TIPS) is about 3.5%, while shortterm real interest rates have recently averaged about 3%. Thus 3% to 3.5% would be a reasonable guess for safe real interest rates in the future, implying a long-run average equity premium of 1.5% to 2.5% in geometric terms or about 3% to 4% in arithmetic terms.

In evaluating proposals for reforming Social Security that involve stock investments, the Office of the Chief Actuary (OCACT) has generally used a 7.0 percent real return for stocks. The 1994-96 Advisory Council specified that OCACT should use that return in making its 75-year projections of investment-based reform proposals. The assumed ultimate real return on Treasury bonds of 3.0 percent implies a long-run equity premium of 4.0 percent. There are two equitypremium concepts: the realized equity premium, which is measured by the actual rates of return; and the required equity premium, which investors expect to receive for being willing to hold available stocks and bonds. Over the past two centuries, the realized premium was 3.5 percent on average, but 5.2 percent for 1926 to 1998.

My own estimate for the long-run real return to equities looking forward is 6 to 6.5 percent. I come to that using roughly the parameters chosen above. If the P-E ratio fluctuates around 20, the cash payouts to shareholders should range from 3 to 3.5 percent. I am relatively optimistic about the possible steady-state growth rate of GDP and would choose 3 percent for that number.

Note that the paper was written near the height of the tech-bubble; the authors agreed that the market was over-valued at time of writing. 

However, there seems to be a belief by some that long-term GDP growth caps the equity premium, which is nonsense. Long-term GDP growth may well cap corporate revenue, but not equity returns. A corporation that has grown (at 10% p.a., say) until it has reached the limits to growth (revenue of some percentage of GDP) can then pay dividends comprised of the earnings it doesn’t need to retain. Alternatively but almost equivalently, it may choose to buy back stock – presumably, the choice would be made according to whether the market price of the stock was considered cheap or expensive on a long-term basis.

Corporations will pay dividends and buy back stock in order to maximize returns on equity while at the same time providing themselves with enough cushion to survive a downturn. Investors will demand a premium to compensate for the chance they’ll have to sell during one of those downturns. There is no mathematical limit to the size of the equity premium; the practical limit historically has been about 5%.

Taxation muddles matters, of course, but this debate has implications for preferred share investors, since the equity premium should set a cap on preferred spreads. How much of the equity premium can be captured, vs. how much equity risk is inherent in prefs? Now, me, I don’t think this is a topic doing a LOT of work on with respect to asset allocation, given standard market chaos, but is something to keep an eye on!

The big preferred share news today was the long-anticipated (by me, anyway!) new issue – an issuer finally looked at the recent improvement in the market and decided to test the market. It was TD 5.60% perps – and I understand the offering of $200-million went very well.

This knocked the market down considerably, but volume was nothing special … the rest of the week will be interesting … will other issuers attempt to jam in their own issues while the window’s open? Regardless of whether they do or not, is today’s price action an automatic and transient response to a new issue, or a sign of saturation? Stay tuned!

Note that these indices are experimental; the absolute and relative daily values are expected to change in the final version. In this version, index values are based at 1,000.0 on 2006-6-30
Index Mean Current Yield (at bid) Mean YTW Mean Average Trading Value Mean Mod Dur (YTW) Issues Day’s Perf. Index Value
Ratchet 5.55% 5.57% 34,657 14.5 2 -0.0206% 1,080.5
Fixed-Floater 4.81% 5.57% 64,302 14.80 8 +0.0000% 1,033.1
Floater 5.19% 5.27% 90,515 14.96 2 +0.7531% 865.3
Op. Retract 4.82% 3.49% 75,341 2.39 15 -0.1389% 1,046.9
Split-Share 5.24% 5.31% 99,094 4.09 14 -0.1007% 1,049.3
Interest Bearing 6.16% 6.47% 66,987 4.26 4 -0.2346% 1,087.7
Perpetual-Premium 5.73% 5.27% 310,320 5.45 17 -0.4942% 1,028.3
Perpetual-Discount 5.38% 5.42% 274,751 14.78 51 -0.2874% 957.4
Major Price Changes
Issue Index Change Notes
ELF.PR.G PerpetualDiscount -2.9126% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 6.04% based on a bid of 20.00 and a limitMaturity.
POW.PR.C PerpetualPremium -1.9223% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.47% based on a bid of 25.51 and a call 2012-1-5 at 25.00.
BCE.PR.I FixFloat -1.8750%  
TD.PR.P PerpetualDiscount -1.8072% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.42% based on a bid of 24.45 and limitMaturity.
TD.PR.Q PerpetualPremium -1.6803% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.62% based on a bid of 25.16 and a call 2017-3-2 at 25.00.
MFC.PR.A OpRet -1.5830% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 3.80% based on a bid of 25.49 and a softMaturity 2015-12-18 at 25.00.
BNS.PR.O PerpetualPremium -1.5246% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.60% based on a bid of 25.19 and a call 2017-5-26 at 25.00.
SLF.PR.B PerpetualDiscount -1.5106% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.26% based on a bid of 22.82 and a limitMaturity.
RY.PR.F PerpetualDiscount -1.4339% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.27% based on a bid of 21.31 and a limitMaturity.
FFN.PR.A SplitShare -1.1639% Asset coverage of 2.0+:1 as of February 15, according to the company. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 4.95% based on a bid of 10.19 and a hardMaturity 2014-12-1 at 10.00. 
RY.PR.B PerpetualDiscount -1.1038% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.28% based on a bid of 22.40 and limitMaturity.
BAM.PR.M PerpetualDiscount +1.4455% Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 6.17% based on a bid of 19.65 and a limitMaturity.
BCE.PR.A FixFloat +1.4675%  
FBS.PR.B SplitShare +1.5385% Asset coverage of 1.6+:1 as of February 28, according to TD Securities. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.03% based on a bid of 9.90 and a hardMaturity 2011-12-15 at 10.00.
Volume Highlights
Issue Index Volume Notes
MFC.PR.C PerpetualDiscount 100,610 RBC bought 17,400 from Nesbitt at 22.25 in two tranches to close the day. Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.09% based on a bid of 22.16 and a limitMaturity.
TD.PR.Q PerpetualPremium 57,481 Bailing out of the old issue into the new one? Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.62% based on a bid of 25.16 and a call 2017-3-2 at 25.00.
BNS.PR.O PerpetualPremium 48,272 Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.60% based on a bid of 25.19 and a call 2017-5-26 at 25.00.
RY.PR.W PerpetualDiscount 34,813 Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW of 5.24% based on a bid of 23.51 and a limitMaturity.
BMO.PR.H PerpetualDiscount 19,900 Now with a pre-tax bid-YTW 5.38% based on a bid of 24.46 and a limitMaturity.

There were eleven other index-included $25-pv-equivalent issues trading over 10,000 shares today.

3 Responses to “March 3, 2008”

  1. prefhound says:

    Actuaries of both US Social Security and Canadian CPP both like to assume overly generous future gains to investments in stocks: 6-7% real return after inflation. Unfortunately, actuaries don’t have training in investing, so it appears they succumb to a simplistic analysis of the backward looking returns for the S&P-500, which were boosted by two factors that are unlikely to operate in the future:
    1. Dividend yields were more than twice as high as they are now.
    2. Past returns include a non-trivial amount for increases in P/E (valuation changes).

    I’m using the same rear view mirror (past S&P-500 returns) but getting a totally different picture of what the future looks like. Consider the following data on the S&P-500 total return updated from Robert Shiller:
    20th Century 1980-2007 Future
    Total Real Return 6.8% 8.8% 4.5%?
    Made up of
    Dividends 4.6% 2.9% 2.1% currently
    Real EPS Growth 1.5% 2.5% 2.5%?
    Changes in Valuation (P/E) 0.7% 3.4% 0% at const P/E

    I have been generous by assuming real EPS growth in the future might be closer to past three decades (2.5%) than the whole 20th century (1.5%) by supposing that recent strategies of share buybacks replace dividends to some extent.

    However, I suspect that 2.5% real EPS growth 1980-2007 came from unsustainable increases in corporate profits to GDP (from 5% after-tax in 1980 to 8% in 2007; vs an average of 6% post-1950) — which account for 2/3 of this 2.5% number. Replacing 2.5% real EPS growth with 1-1.3% reduces the forecast for future real total returns from the stock market to slightly over 3%. If I’m right, DB pensions, CPP and Social Security better watch out!

    The current P/E based on S&P estimated 2008 EPS is about 18.7. The median P/E since 1950 was about 14.1 (similar to the level in 1900). Actuaries who use the past 6.8% real returns for the long run future implicitly forecast ongoing 0.7% annual increase in P/E (to 36 by 2100).

    For the theoreticians, this line of thinking suggests the future equity premium is going to be closer to 1-2%, not 4, 6 or 8% like we are taught in school using a distorted rearview mirror — unless bond yields and/or inflation drop substantially.

    Why is this relevant?
    First and foremost: who can afford to pay mutual fund MERs of 2-3%?
    Second: if I can get 3% real from prefs, without taking all this equity risk, they look mighty attractive.

    Like James, I’ll have to wait another decade to see whether this forecast is useful.

    P.S. none of this has anything to do with expected GDP growth. The supply of capital, dividends and ROE trade off one another to compensate for GDP in an open global economy.

  2. jiHymas says:

    Thanks, prefhound.

    I will note that in the States, dividends to individuals have always been taxed as income (until the Bush tax reduction) and that while 3% real from prefs might look pretty good, there is inflation risk in this number and investors should not be over-exposed. Equities will hedge inflation risk; some equities better than others, of course.

    One thing that puzzles me, I admit, is why the substitution of share buy-backs for dividends only came in vogue in the ’90’s (or, at least, such is my understanding). Was the desire for actual cash dividends prior to then simply a cultural thing, or were there legal/taxation changes that made possible a long-awaited dream?

  3. prefhound says:

    My understanding is the different taxation of dividends and capital gains (which may arise again in the US, and in Canada seems to have lasted for about 2 years!) prompts companies to buy back shares rather than pay dividends. Also, a share buy back is a one-time thing whereas announcing a dividend increase is a longer-term, less reversible, commitment in many respects. A lot of share buybacks were to fund option exercises (which were not historically entered as expenses), so not all stock buy backs are “equivalent” to dividends.

    P.S. I am sorry my attempt at a table did not translate from what I entered to what I see posted (which is a narrower frame).

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