The period from 1999 to 2008 is becoming known as a lost decade for stocks, due to the far below average returns achieved by the major stock indexes. My last article here in the Sun a couple weeks ago, titled Chicken Little and the Facts of Life, took a reasonably optimistic view that the U.S. economy and system have survived other past crises and that this one, too, shall pass.
More importantly, I believe the investment returns for beaten down, sub-par returning asset classes have the best chance of providing above average returns in the next segment of time. But, since many investors won’t be willing to get into stocks until they feel good again, which will most likely be after several good years of performance from the market they are now shunning, I thought it might be valuable to explore some options for trying to earn more return than offered on bank CDs and government bonds, but not take the full risk of the short-term volatility of investing in the stock market.
Fortunately, there are alternatives, not surprisingly being categorized as alternative investments. There are several forms, but most have a goal of providing 50 to 70 percent of the expected long-term stock market return of 10 percent annualized, but with limited volatility. These vehicles fall into several categories, but today are available for investors with $1,000 to several hundred thousand or more to dedicate to these investment vehicles.
These alternative investments are too detailed to completely describe here, but we can review some basic categories to get you started.
Market neutral funds: These are also sometimes called long-short funds, meaning that the manager of the fund owns some investments which will benefit from rising price trends and, simultaneously, some which he expects to decline in price and will profit because he has sold them short. Short selling is a technique of borrowing a security, selling it, hopefully to buy it back after a price decline, then returning it to the lender. Instead of a buy low- sell high, the order of the transaction is reversed.
Some market neutral funds use a formula-based approach for maximum discipline, and others rely on a manager’s intuition and skill. Either can be successful. However, most of the best market neutral funds tend to exhibit long-term results in the 4 to 7 percent range for annualized return. Not bad, but it you should not anticipate these funds providing higher returns than equities over most 10-year periods of time or longer – this last 10 years notwithstanding.
Structured products: Not to be confused with the exotic, leveraged structured investment vehicles currently turning many financial institutions into sinking ships, structured products are a bond or note issued by a major institution. Rather than a traditional bond structure, which pays a flat rate of interest on the principal value, structured products typically offer a part of the upside of a particular index, say the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and limit the downside risk over a particular period of time.
There are countless combinations of the up/down relationship, but it may well be something along the lines of providing 50 percent of the profit of a particular index over the next 12 months, while promising no downside risk and ,at a minimum, a return of the principal amount invested.
The characteristics available at any moment have a lot to do with recent market trends and the pricing in the options markets, since the issue will be creating an options strategy to provide the guarantees indicated in the bond. Of course, a guarantee is only as good as the company making it, and the investor should be confident in the credit quality of the issuing institution. Interestingly, some of these structured products are available with FDIC insurance, as I recently learned.
Alternative investment pools: Most of our readers have heard of hedge funds and private equity funds, vehicles which generally require very large investments to access. More recently, funds have been established which take the pool of money from many investors and hire many managers in the different types of vehicles we have reviewed today, plus others like real estate, venture capital and perhaps even timberland. Funds like these allow the investors to access 8 to 10 different strategies from one investment vehicle, when perhaps they might have only had enough money to invest in one or two directly.
I find myself thinking about how attractive these alternative investments sound, especially right now, and wonder if that is a sign that perhaps traditional equity investments are about to do much better than the alternatives because everyone is attracted to the alternatives and ignoring basic common stock investing. After all, the investment most sought after today is rarely the best performer over the next few years.
But, I do believe that these instruments of investing can reduce volatility and that if that fact keeps an investor from abandoning his plan when the stock market goes through it’s rough times, then that’s not such a bad thing.
Tom Breiter is president of Breiter Capital Management, Inc., an Anna Maria based investment advisor. He can be reached at 778-1900. Some of the investment concepts highlighted in this column may carry the risk of loss of principal, and investors should determine appropriateness for their personal situation before investing.