Don’t be trapped in the past

Williams 150x150Dan Williams, CFA, CFPInvestment Analyst

Just over 10 years ago on September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy shocking the global financial markets. In retrospect, the collapse trajectory was there for all to see with the shock being more attributed to people’s reliance on things staying the same than any new data. This clinging to the past was so strong that a postmortem analysis showed that Lehman Brothers employees, the very people who were the insiders to see the company’s problems, were shown to have kept buying stock. Many believed, both insiders and the public, that the stock was a compelling value as they anchored their valuation toward the stock high of $86.18 in February 2007. When the end finally did come for Lehman it was a long time coming based on the data stream but felt abrupt based on our ability to process the new reality. When a character in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises” was asked how he went bankrupt he said, “Two ways, gradually and then suddenly.”

Not all individual stock downturns lead to a rapid collapse or even a permanent lower price range. Still, this anchoring to past prices is prevalent enough for investors to frequently be told to fear “value traps.” A value trap is a stock which looks cheap based on previous stock prices, but an analysis of future prospects show that the underlying stock’s fortunes have significantly and potentially permanently changed for the worse.

The fact that companies’ future prospects are always changing is a sign of a dynamic economy that through creative destruction increasingly improves the products for the consumers of an economy. Much has been made of the disruptive Amazon effect that through making the purchasing of products easier as the one-stop shop for online shopping has crushed traditional brick and mortar businesses and other smaller online retailers. It is bad for those businesses left behind but the consumers win.

This lesson of unreasonably expecting things to remain the same holds meaning outside of just the financial markets. In George Friedman’s 2009 book “The Next 100 Years” he opens by taking a quick survey of the way of things at 20-year intervals starting at 1900. He notes that in 1900, London was the capital of the world and Europe was at peace with great prosperity, in 1920 Europe was torn apart by an agonizing war, in 1940 Germany had reemerged to dominate Europe, in 1960 Germany was crushed and the United States and the Soviet Union were the superpowers, in 1980 the United States had been defeated in war by tiny communist nation North Vietnam showing communism was on the rise, and finally in 2000 the Soviet Union had collapsed with a United States hegemony being the state of the world. If I would take license to write his 2020 view, it would talk of the global uneasiness of a China on the rise to legitimately challenge the United States as an economic and political power.

What is clear is that things change and failing to try to at least look around the next corner is akin to walking backward. Just because you have not walked into a wall yet is a poor reason to expect an unending clear path. Our role as the investors of capital attributes special importance to forward thinking but it is a lesson for all to learn.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor.

The Impact of Student Loans on Your Own Retirement

Roddy MarinoRoddy Marino, CIMA, Executive Vice President
National Accounts & Distribution

An education is one of the greatest gifts a parent or grandparent can give to the next generation. The problem for many, however, is that it comes at the cost of their own retirement.

People over the age of 60 represent the fastest-growing segment of individuals taking out loans for education. Over the past decade, student loans taken out by individuals over the age of 60 grew from $6 billion in 2004 to $58 billion in 2014. To put the dollars into perspective, consider another staggering statistic—the numbers of senior citizens with student debt exceed 760,000. Some have co-signed loans or taken Parent PLUS loans to help children or grandchildren get an education. Other seniors carry old debt from when they returned to school to get advanced degrees or in the pursuit of new skills needed for a career change.

A mistake some retirees make is they incorrectly assume that they will never have to repay their student debt. Only two things can make federal college debt go away: satisfaction or death of the borrower.

shutterstock_44454148Federal student loans aren’t forgiven at retirement or any age after. Bankruptcy won’t even discharge a federal student loan, and the consequences to a senior who defaults on a federal loan are severe. The government can garnish Social Security benefits and other wages. Recent reports indicate over 150,000 retirees have at least one Social Security payment reduced to offset federal student loans. This number represents a drastic increase from the 31,000 impacted in the year 2002.

The government can withhold up to 15% of a borrower’s retirement benefits and can also withhold tax refunds in the event the borrower defaults on a college loan.

If repayment is not possible, you may want to explore a few options to minimize the impact on cash flow once you are on a fixed income. You could stretch out the term of the loan as long as possible through extended payments, or enter into an income-driven repayment plan. Typically, borrowers must pay 10-20% of discretionary income in an income-contingent scenario.

Both strategies could reduce your monthly payments; however, ultimately either strategy will result in higher total payments. To put it simply, debt of any kind is best retired before you retire.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

Detroit Files for Bankruptcy

Magnotta@AmyMagnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

On July 18, the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, becoming the largest American city to seek bankruptcy in court.  This course of action was anticipated by many market participants as Detroit’s fiscal situation has been deteriorating for some time. The city has accumulated more than $18 billion in debt, including $12 billion in unsecured obligations to lenders and retirees, over $6 billion in bonds secured by revenues, and has run operating deficits for a number of years. Detroit has suffered from a confluence of demographic and economic factors, including a significant loss of population and declining tax revenues, as described in the bankruptcy court declaration filed by Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency financial manager (via Zero Hedge).

7.19.13_Magnotta_DetroitThis situation will be contentious as there are a number of parties involved, including bondholders, retirees, and other creditors that will seek recovery through the bankruptcy process.  Revenue bonds, which represent $6 billion of Detroit’s outstanding debt, have historically had high recovery values in bankruptcies.  The case will be watched very closely as the outcome could determine whether this type of restructuring becomes a model for other municipalities under significant fiscal pressure.

We do not view the actions of Detroit to signify broader credit weakness for U.S. municipalities.  Overall, municipal credit has been improving as revenues have rebounded.  The recent sell off in municipal bonds can be more attributed to the concern surrounding the Fed’s tapering of asset purchases and some technical pressures, not to underlying fundamentals.

At Brinker Capital, we favor active municipal bond strategies that draw on the resources of strong credit research teams and emphasize high quality issues and structures.  We have not felt it prudent to reach for yield in the current environment and will maintain our high quality bias.  With yields moving slightly higher, some value can be found in municipal bonds at the long end of the curve with yields at close to 5%.  Our municipal bond separate account strategies have no exposure to Detroit paper.  The mutual funds used within our discretionary products have very limited exposure to Detroit, the vast majority in bonds backed by revenues of the Detroit Water and Sewer Department.

Additional Links:

Municipal Market Update from RNC Genter

7.2.13_RNC_Muni_UpdateCity of Detroit Halts Payments on Outstanding Debt

The city of Detroit has been in a deteriorating situation for decades and unfortunately only received a limited benefit from the resurgence of the auto industry since the financial crisis. Although the initial home of the auto industry, it experienced its heyday back in the 1960’s.

Therefore, this course of action, which may or may not eventually lead to filing for protection under Chapter 9 of the bankruptcy act, has been expected by many market participants for well over two years. As a result, we have avoided the city’s outstanding bond issues. We do own a $1.14 million block of pre-refunded bonds that are defeased and secured by U.S. Treasury Securities (SLGS) that are held in escrow. Those bonds will mature on July 1, 2013 and are not affected by the action of the city.

The problem that bears close scrutiny with this situation concerns its present negotiations with bondholders, wherein they have proposed placing $369 million of full faith & credit “general obligation” bondholders on equal setting with $161 million of “limited general obligations”, $1.4 billion in “pension obligation bonds,” and the unfunded pension liability of $3.5 billion and OPEB (other post-employment benefits).

7.2.13_RNC_Muni_Update_2Depending upon the ultimate outcome from the negotiations, it is possible that concerns will be raised that not all GO bonds are created equal. So, just like the approach that Stockton, CA applied to their weak-linked lease type COP’s (certificates of participation) debt, this action is unprecedented. Essentially, Detroit is attempting to dissolve its capital structure.

It is too soon to determine an outcome from the action. However, we are hopeful that logical reasoning prevails. If not, this could potentially have a negative impact on the municipal bond market. Presently high-grade muni yields are ranging from 106% to 127% of taxable US Treasury benchmark securities.

In our view, there is a 50-50 chance that Detroit may use the bankruptcy option. However, we do not think that is the best plan of action. Based on other muni entities that have tried that approach, the only thing that is certain is that legal costs will escalate and must be paid. Vallejo, CA, the poster child for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy, certainly regrets their decision to go that route, while bemoaning the $12 million in legal costs that have accrued so far.

Overall, the situation reaffirms that some municipal entities continue to be under stress and that clients should be very cautious in stretching for yield. We will continue to be diligent and maintain our focus to add value through utilizing stronger credits with broad taxing and revenue sources. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any specific questions about this issue or other general questions about the municipal bond market.

The content above was provided with the consent of RNC Genter Capital Management. Information contained herein has been derived from sources that we believe to be reliable but has not been independently verified by us. This report does not purport to be a complete statement of all data relevant to any security mentioned, and additional information is available on request. The information contained herein shall not constitute an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase any security.

The State of Municipal Bonds

 Amy Magnotta, Brinker Capital

In December 2010, analyst Meredith Whitney made a prediction of hundreds of billions of defaults in the municipal bond market. While we have experienced defaults, we have not yet seen anything close to the magnitude of that statement. Prior to that statement, in October of that same year, Brinker Capital released a paper that discussed our positive view on the municipal bond market due to technical factors and improving municipal credit. Because we invest in municipal bond managers with strong, deep credit research teams and a focus on high quality issues and structures, we encouraged our investors to remain invested in municipal bonds. Investors have been handsomely rewarded with close to 20% cumulative returns in municipal bonds since they bottomed in January 2011.

The financial health of municipalities is again hitting the headlines. Moody’s has warned of more problems for California cities after San Bernardino, Mammoth Lakes and Stockton have each sought bankruptcy protection. Scranton, Pennsylvania, which made the news after the mayor cut the pay of all city employees to minimum wage this July, is now seeking help from hedge funds in an effort to delay a bankruptcy. Even Puerto Rico municipal bonds, widely held by municipal bond strategies because of their attractive yields, are being seen as a greater credit risk.

We don’t believe the headlines are representative of the broader municipal bond market. There are more than 50,000 municipalities across the country, each with their individual issues. This makes municipal credit research in this environment extremely important, especially without the fallback of bond insurance. A positive corollary of these types of headlines is that it forces change. Many state and local governments have made the necessary changes to their budgets to set them on a sustainable path, but many still have more to go. Often, the largest owners of a municipality’s bonds are their own constituents – they need to maintain a good relationship with these investors in order to access financing in the future.

We feel the technical factors in the municipal bond market remain positive. Demand is very strong. While supply has been higher in recent years, most of it is refinancing, so net new supply remains at low levels. The budgets of state governments continue to improve while local governments remain under pressure. Rates are low, offering the opportunity for refinancing. The fights over pension and healthcare benefits for public workers will continue, but these issues do not present an immediate cash flow problem. However, this is a broad characterization of the municipal bond market. We will continue to invest with managers that have deep credit research teams and focus on high quality issues, seeking to avoid the problem issues as a result.