MONEY financial crisis

S&P to Pay Billions for Being the Watchdog That Didn’t Bark

Standard & Poor's building
Justin Lane—EPA

Standard & Poor's settlement is a reminder that the industry's safeguards failed in the lead-up to the financial crisis.

On Tuesday, Standard & Poor’s (S&P), agreed to pay $1.375 billion to settle claims by the Department of Justice and multiple state governments that the ratings agency defrauded investors in the lead up to the financial crisis.

As a bond-rating agency, S&P was responsible for keeping banks and other major financial institutions honest. Its apparently intentional failure to do so shows how one of the guard dogs of the financial system was co-opted by the very people it was meant to police.

Perverse incentives

Standard & Poors is one of three companies designated by the Securities and Exchange Commission as Nationally Recognized Statistical and Ratings Organizations (NRSROs). Their job is to rate the safety of bonds and thereby provide a kind of warning label for investors. The safest bonds—those issued by companies deemed most credit-worthy and best able to meet their financial commitments—are designated AAA; debt rated BB or lower is considered below investment grade, or “junk” in common parlance.

While companies like S&P theoretically exist to protect investors, much of their revenue comes from the lenders whose securities they were rating. As Kathleen Engel and Patricia McCoy describe in their book The Subprime Virus, ratings agencies generally bring in 1% of any debt deal they rate. Between 2000 and 2007, the three agencies underwrote $2.1 trillion in subprime mortgage-backed securities.

With that kind of money at stake, there was an obvious incentive for these firms to issue ratings that are favorable to the interests of their paying clients.

S&P and the financial crisis

According to a statement of facts released by the Justice Department and “agreed” to by S&P, that seems to be exactly what the company did. Contrary to the company’s Code of Practices and Procedures—which promises that its ratings “shall not be affected by an existing or a potential business relationship”—S&P “toned down and slowed down” the roll out of a new rating model for so-called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) after an unnamed investment bank suggested the system could jeopardize “potential business opportunities.”

The statement also shows S&P delayed for months ratings revisions on securities it knew to be failing. As far back as November 2006 the head of S&P’s residential mortgage-backed securities group sent two senior executives a spreadsheet—revealingly entitled “Subprime_Trouble.XLS”—warning that many S&P-rated loans were in serious trouble and should be downgraded.

Multiple sources told the Justice Department investigators that the group’s head frequently complained that her concerns were ignored because downgrades would hurt S&P’s rating business. A public warning that major downgrades were imminent was delayed until July, 2007.

Aftermath

The rest, as they say, is history. The housing crash brought to light the incestuous relationship between rating agencies and bond issuers, and eventually resulted in lawsuits like this one. Though S&P was not forced to admit wrong-doing, the case and subsequent settlement revealed a trove of information about the inner workings of the agency and wiped away a full year of the company’s profits.

Dodd-Frank imposed a number of additional regulations on ratings agencies, including new rules regarding conflicts of interest. But S&P’s payout is a reminder that it wasn’t just crooked banks and lenders that tanked the financial sector. The supposed watchdogs were involved as well.

MONEY Food & Drink

Why Shake Shack’s IPO Is Too Rich for My Blood

Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer (3rd R) and Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti (2nd R) ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate their company's IPO January 30, 2015. Shares of gourmet hamburger chain Shake Shack Inc soared 150 percent in their first few minutes of trading on Friday, valuing the company that grew out of a hotdog cart in New York's Madison Square Park at nearly $2 billion.
Brendan McDermid—Reuters Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer CEO Randy Garutti ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

I used to think Shake Shack might be undervalued. Not anymore.

Last week, I wrote a positive article on burger chain Shake Shack’s SHAKE SHACK INC SHAK -4.46% IPO on the basis that, “in [the indicative $14 to $16] price range, the shares could significantly undervalue Shake Shack’s growth potential.” The shares began trading today, and I’m much less excited about the offering. In fact, I think investors ought to avoid the stock entirely. What’s changed?

Is no price too high?

It’s not unreasonable to think a stock that is attractive at $15 may well be repulsive at more than three times that price — which is where Shake Shack shares are now trading. (The stock was at $48.62 at 12:30 p.m. EST.) Indeed, the underwriters raised the price range to $17 to $19 — and the number of shares being sold — before finally pricing the shares at $21.

Apparently, that did nothing to deter investors once shares began trading in the second market this morning – they opened at $47, for a 124% pop! Despite solid or even outstanding fundamentals, a business will not support any valuation. Price matters.

Last week, I compared Shake Shack to Chipotle Mexican Grill CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL INC. CMG 0.95% . Let’s see how the share valuations of the two companies on their first day of trading now compare:

Number of restaurants operated by the company at the time of the public offering Price / TTM Sales
(based on closing price on first day of trading)*
Chipotle 453 4.4
Shake Shack 26 16.1

*Shake Shack’s price-to-sales multiple is based on the $48.62 price at 12:30 p.m. EST. Source: Company documents.

That’s a huge gap between the two price-to-sales multiples! Given the massive appreciation in Chipotle’s stock price since the close of its first day of trading — a more than fifteenfold increase in just more than nine years! — there’s a good argument to be made that the shares were undervalued at that time.

However, had Chipotle closed at $160 instead of $44 on its first day of trading — which would equalize the price-to-sales multiples — subsequent gains would have been significantly less impressive.

Buy potential performance at a discount, not a premium

Furthermore, with Chipotle, we are looking back at performance that has already been achieved, both in terms of the stock and the company’s operations. The Mexican chain has executed superbly well during that period.

With regard to Shake Shack — however likely you think a similar business performance is — it remains in the realm of possibility instead of certainty. I don’t know about you, but when I buy possibility, I like to buy it at a discount to the price of certainty.

Although I think Shake Shack’s brand positioning is comparable, and possibly even superior, to that of Chipotle, I’m not convinced the business fundamentals are as attractive.

For one thing, Shake Shack faces stiffer competition in its segment than Chipotle did (or does) in the likes of Five Guys and In-N-Out Burger. For another, Shake Shack’s same-store sales growth is significantly lower than Chipotle’s was, at just 3% for the 39 weeks ended Sep. 24 versus 10.2% for Chipotle in 2005, which was followed by 13.7% in 2006.

Don’t swallow these shares

Shake Shack may produce a premium burger — founder Danny Meyer refers to this segment as “fine casual dining” — but the stock is currently selling at a super-premium price. Paying that price is the equivalent of eating “empty calories” — it could end up being detrimental to your financial health.

Alex Dumortier, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

 

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MONEY Tech

Why Apple Needs Its New Watch to Be a Huge Success

Apple Watch
Stephen Lam—Reuters

The pressure is on.

The market may have loved Apple’s APPLE INC. AAPL -1.66% blowout quarterly report on Tuesday afternoon, but this doesn’t take any of the pressure off of April’s highly anticipated Apple Watch. If anything, the report actually places even more weight on the tech giant’s initial foray into wearable computing.

Let’s go over some of the reasons why Apple needs its new watch to be a smashing success.

1. There is too much riding on the iPhone

Apple’s revenue during the holiday quarter may have soared 30%, but back out the iPhone and sales actually slipped 7%. The iPhone is hot — and that’s awesome — but it’s also 68.6% of the revenue mix at Apple.

Apple needs to earn its innovator wings again. With iPad sales plummeting and the iPod no longer even worthy of being its own line item in Apple’s quarterly summary data table it’s time for something new to take the weight off of the iPhone.

2. The iOS newbies are ripe for the picking

The only thing better than Apple selling a record 74.5 million iPhones is that a record number of them are also new to the tech giant’s mobile platform.

“We had the highest number of customers new to iPhone last quarter than in any prior launch,” CEO Tim Cook boasted on Tuesday night. “The current iPhone lineup experienced the highest Android switcher rate in any of the last three launches.”

In other words, there are a lot of people making their initial investments in Apple products. The long overdue move to introduce larger screens to keep up with the competition is predictably paying off by eliminating their objections to going Apple. This leaves them ripe to to absorb other Apple products, and it’s not iPads or iPods. Mac sales should benefit, but the no-brainer is an accessory that works in cahoots with the phone itself. Yes, we’re talking about the smart watch.

3. Let’s bring back the halo effect

It’s not a coincidence that the Mac experienced a resurgence shortly after the 2001 introduction of the iPod. The media player worked with Macs and PCs, but it made Apple desktops and laptops cool again. Don’t be surprised if we see this happen with the Apple Watch.

Ultimately the purchase of an Apple Watch is a commitment to iOS. It’s unlikely to work with Android or other devices, cementing an iPhone user in place. Wireless carriers make it brutally easy to switch sides every two years, but someone buying an Apple Watch is that much more invested to sticking to the iPhone at the next upgrade cycle.

4. Show Google how wearable computing is done

It’s not a surprise to see Google GOOGLE INC. GOOG 0.22% backpedalling from Google Glass. The search giant suspended sales of its high-tech specs to developers. They cost too much. They were too creepy. They weren’t fashionable enough.

However, this also opens the door for Apple to make a splash by showing how wearable computing can be fashionable and useful. Skeptics will argue that rival smart watches have failed, but that hasn’t deterred Apple in the past. There’s always time to get it right.

5. Apple can use a new winner

The only two product lines posting improving sales this holiday season were iPhones and Macs. We’re talking about the smartphone that it introduced nearly eight years ago and its legacy computer business that’s obviously even older.

The iPad has been shrinking for a year, joining the iPod that’s been diminishing in popularity for years. Apple TV seems to be holding its own, but it’s not substantial enough to merit being singled out as a category. It’s lumped together with the iPod in the “other products” catchall that posted an overall decline.

Apple can use another winner. The Apple Watch won’t lend itself to the same upgrade cycle as the iPhone. There won’t be too many people buying a new one every two years. However, if it succeeds it will give Apple a more recent product introduction to brag about.

MONEY Greece

What the Turmoil in Greece Means for Your Money

The head of radical leftist Syriza party Alexis Tsipras waves to supporters after winning the elections in Athens January 25, 2015. Tsipras promised on Sunday that five years of austerity, "humiliation and suffering" imposed by international creditors were over after his Syriza party swept to victory in a snap election on Sunday.
Marko Djurica—Reuters The head of radical leftist Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras.

Expect lower stock prices.

Faced with an apocalyptic unemployment rate of 28%, voters in Greece have drawn the line on austerity measures that have mired the country in a crisis rivaling that of the Great Depression. In the worst case, the move could lead to Greece’s exit from the European monetary union. In the best case, it will produce much-needed debt relief for the country’s ailing economy. But either way, it’s prudent to assume the turmoil will roil equity markets both here and abroad.

The issue came to a head earlier this week when Greece’s “radical left” Syriza party won a plurality of votes in the latest election. Led by 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, Syriza campaigned on a platform to ease the “humiliation and suffering” caused by austerity. This includes debt relief and rolling back steep spending cuts enacted by Greece’s former government in exchange for financing from the International Monetary Union and other members of the European Union.

To say Greece has paid dearly for these cuts would be an understatement. The consensus among mainstream economists is that austerity during a time of crisis exacerbates the underlying issues. We saw this in Germany after World War I when France and Great Britain demanded it pay colossal war reparations. We saw it throughout Latin America following the IMF’s structural adjustments of the 1980s and 1990s. And we’re seeing it now in Greece and Spain, where unemployment has reached levels not seen in the developed world since the Great Depression.

The problem for Greece is that Germany and other fiscally conservative European countries aren’t sympathetic to its predicament. They see Greece’s travails as its just deserts. They see a fiscally irresponsible country that exploited its membership in the continent’s monetary union in order to borrow cheaply and spend extravagantly. And they see an electorate that isn’t willing to accept the consequences of its government’s actions.

To a certain extent, Greece’s critics are right. Over the last decade, its debt has ballooned. In 2004, the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio was 97%. Today, it is 175%. This is the heaviest debt load of any European country relative to output.

It accordingly follows that the European Union stands once again at the precipice of fracturing. If the Syriza party sticks to its demands and Greece’s neighbors won’t agree to relief, then one of the few options left on the table will be for Greece to exit the monetary union and abandon the euro. Doing so would free the country to pursue its own fiscal and monetary policies. It would also almost inevitably trigger a period of sharp inflation in a reinstituted drachma.

This isn’t to say global investors should be petrified at the prospect of even the most extreme scenario — that of Greece abandoning the euro. In essence, the euro is nothing more than a currency peg that fossilized the exchange rates between the continent’s currencies in 2001. By going off it, Greece would essentially be following in the footsteps of the Swiss National Bank, which recently unpegged the Swiss franc from the euro after a drop in the latter’s value made maintaining the peg prohibitively expensive.

A more complicated question revolves around the fate of Greece’s sovereign debt. Seceding from the monetary union won’t eliminate its obligations to creditors. It likely also won’t change the fact that the country’s debt is denominated in euros. Thus, if Greece were to exit the euro and experience rapid inflation, the burden of its interest payments would get worse, not better. This would make the prospect of default increasingly attractive if not necessary in order to reignite economic growth.

But investors have shouldered sovereign debt repeatedly since the birth of international bond markets. Just last year, Standard & Poor’s declared that Argentina had defaulted after missing a $539 million payment on $13 billion in restructured bonds — restructured, that is, following the nation’s 2002 default. Yet stocks ended the year up by 11.5%. The same thing happened when Russia defaulted in 1998. Despite triggering the failure of Long Term Capital Management, a highly leveraged hedge fund that was ultimately rescued by a consortium of Wall Street banks, stocks soared by 26.7% that year.

Given all this, the biggest impact on investors, particularly in the United States, is likely to make its way through the currency markets. When fear envelopes the globe, investors flee to safety. And in the currency markets, safety is synonymous with the U.S. dollar. Over the last year, for instance, speculation about quantitative easing by the European Central Bank, coupled with the scourge of low oil prices on energy-dependent economies such as Russia and Mexico, has increased the strength of the dollar. This will only grow more pronounced if the U.S. Federal Reserve raises short-term interest rates later this year.

The net result is that American companies with significant international operations will struggle to grow their top and bottom lines. This is because a strong dollar makes American goods more expensive relative to competitors elsewhere. Consumer products giant Procter & Gamble PROCTER & GAMBLE COMPANY PG 0.33% serves as a case in point. In the final three months of last year, P&G’s sales suffered a negative five percentage point impact from foreign exchange. As Chairman and CEO A.G. Lafley noted in Tuesday’s earnings release:

The October [to] December 2014 quarter was a challenging one with unprecedented currency devaluations. Virtually every currency in the world devalued versus the U.S. dollar, with the Russian Ruble leading the way. While we continue to make steady progress on the strategic transformation of the company — which focuses P&G on about a dozen core categories and 70 to 80 brands, on leading brand growth, on accelerating meaningful product innovation and increasing productivity savings — the considerable business portfolio, product innovation, and productivity progress was not enough to overcome foreign exchange.

With this in mind, it seems best to assume revenue and earnings at American companies will take a hit while Europe works toward a solution to Greece’s problems. In addition, as we’ve already started to see, the hit to earnings will be reflected in lower stock prices. There’s no way around this. But keep in mind that we’ve been through countless crises like this is in the past, and the stock market continues to reward long-term investors for their patience and perseverance.

MONEY Oil

Why Oil Prices May Not Recover Anytime Soon

A worker waits to connect a drill bit on Endeavor Energy Resources LP's Big Dog Drilling Rig 22 in the Permian basin outside of Midland, Texas, U.S., on Friday, Dec. 12, 2014.
Brittany Sowacke—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Things could get worse for the oil industry before they get better.

Oil prices have collapsed in stunning fashion in the past few months. The spot price of Brent crude reached $115 a barrel in June, and was above $100 a barrel as recently as September. Since then, it has plummeted to less than $50 a barrel.

Brent Crude Oil Spot Price Chart

There is a sharp split among energy experts about the future direction of oil prices. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal recently stated that oil prices could keep falling for quite a while and opined that $100 a barrel oil will never come back. Earlier this month, investment bank Goldman Sachs weighed in by slashing its short-term oil price target from $80 a barrel all the way to $42 a barrel.

But there are still plenty of optimists like billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who has vocally argued that oil will bounce back to $100 a barrel within 12 months-18 months. Pickens thinks that Saudi Arabia will eventually give in and cut production. However, this may be wishful thinking. Supply and demand fundamentals point to more lean times ahead for oil producers.

Oil supply is comfortably ahead of demand

The International Energy Agency assesses the state of the global oil market each month. Lately, it has been sounding the alarm about the continuing supply demand imbalance.

The IEA currently projects that supply will outstrip demand by more than 1 million barrels per day, or bpd, this quarter, and by nearly 1.5 million bpd in Q2 before falling in line with demand in the second half of the year, when oil demand is seasonally stronger.

That said, these projections are built on the assumption that OPEC production will total 30 million bpd: its official quota. However, OPEC production was 480,000 bpd above the quota in December. At that rate, the supply-and-demand gap could reach nearly 2 million bpd in Q2.

Theoretically, this gap between supply and demand could be closed either through reduced supply or increased demand. However, at the moment economic growth is slowing across much of the world. For oil demand to grow significantly, global GDP growth will have to speed up.

It would take several years for the process of lower energy prices helping economic growth and thereby stimulating higher oil demand to play out. Thus, supply cuts will be necessary if oil prices are to rebound in the next two years-three years.

Will OPEC cut production?

There are two potential ways that global oil production can be reduced. One possibility is that OPEC will cut production to prop up oil prices. The other possibility is that supply will fall into line with demand through market forces, with lower oil prices driving reductions in drilling activity in high-cost areas, leading to lower production.

OPEC is a wild card. A few individuals effectively control OPEC’s production activity, particularly because Saudi Arabia has historically borne the brunt of OPEC production cuts. Right now, the powers that be favor letting market forces work.

There’s always a chance that they will reconsider in the future. However, the strategic argument for Saudi Arabia maintaining its production level is fairly compelling. In fact, Saudi Arabia has already tried the opposite approach.

In the 1980s, as a surge in oil prices drove a similar uptick in non-OPEC drilling and a decline in oil consumption, Saudi Arabia tried to prop up oil prices. The results were disastrous. Saudi Arabia cut its production from more than 10 million bpd in 1980 to less than 2.5 million bpd by 1985 and still couldn’t keep prices up.

Other countries in OPEC could try to chip in with their own production cuts to take the burden off Saudi Arabia. However, the other members of OPEC have historically been unreliable when it comes to following production quotas. It’s unlikely that they would be more successful today.

The problem is that these countries face a “prisoner’s dilemma” situation. Collectively, it might be in their interest to cut production. But each individual country is better off cheating on the agreement in order to sell more oil at the prevailing price, no matter what the other countries do. With no good enforcement mechanisms, these agreements regularly break down.

Market forces: moving slowly

The other way that supply can be brought back into balance with demand is through market forces. Indeed, at least some shale oil production has a breakeven price of $70 a barrel-$80 a barrel or more.

This might make it seem that balance will be reasserted within a short time. However, there’s an important difference between accounting profit and cash earnings. Oil projects take time to execute, involving a significant amount of up-front capital spending. Only a portion of the total cost of a project is incurred at the time that a well is producing oil.

Capital spending that has already been incurred is a “sunk cost.” The cost of producing crude at a particular well might be $60 a barrel, but if the company spent half that money upfront, it might as well spend the other $30 a barrel to recover the oil if it can sell it for $45 a barrel-$50 a barrel.

Thus, investment in new projects drops off quickly when oil prices fall, but there is a significant lag before production starts to fall. Indeed, many drillers are desperate for cash flow and want to squeeze every ounce of oil out of their existing fields. Rail operator CSX recently confirmed that it expects crude-by-rail shipments from North Dakota to remain steady or even rise in 2015.

Indeed, during the week ending Jan. 9, U.S. oil production hit a new multi-decade high of 9.19 million bpd. By contrast, last June — when the price of crude was more than twice as high — U.S. oil production was less than 8.5 million bpd.

One final collapse?

In the long run — barring an unexpected intervention by OPEC — oil prices will stabilize around the marginal long-run cost of production (including the cost of capital spending). This level is almost certainly higher than the current price, but well below the $100 a barrel level that’s been common since 2011.

However, things could get worse for the oil industry before they get better. U.S. inventories of oil and refined products have been rising by about 10 million barrels a week recently. The global supply demand balance isn’t expected to improve until Q3, and it could worsen again in the first half of 2016 due to the typical seasonal drop in demand.

As a result, global oil storage capacity could become tight. Last month, the IEA found that U.S. petroleum storage capacity was only 60% full, but commercial crude oil inventory was at 75% of storage capacity.

This percentage could rise quickly when refiners begin to cut output in Q2 for the seasonal switch to summer gasoline blends. Traders have even begun booking supertankers as floating oil storage facilities, aiming to buy crude on the cheap today and sell it at a higher price this summer or next year.

If oil storage capacity becomes scarce later this year, oil prices will have to fall even further so that some existing oil fields become cash flow negative. That’s the only way to ensure an immediate drop in production (as opposed to a reduction in investment, which gradually impacts production).

Any such drop in oil prices will be a short-term phenomenon. At today’s prices, oil investment will not be sufficient to keep output up in 2016. Thus, T. Boone Pickens is probably right that oil prices will recover in the next 12 months-18 months, even if his prediction of $100 oil is too aggressive. But with oil storage capacity becoming scarcer by the day, it’s still too early to call a bottom for oil.

MONEY #financialfail

“I Made $6 Million at Age 26—and Lost It by 28″

Dave Asprey
Dave Asprey

Dave Asprey, bestselling author of The Bulletproof Diet, confesses his greatest #financialfail: Not walking away from a losing investment

Not only is Dave Asprey the author of the recent New York Times bestselling book The Bulletproof Diet, he’s also a Silicon Valley investor and tech entrepreneur. His biggest financial fail, he admits, was being too greedy in his 20s and failing to get professional help with investment decisions. “I made $6 million when I was 26,” he says, “And I lost it when I was 28.”

Here’s how it happened, as told to me on my new podcast, So Money:

My career accelerated quite a lot at that time. I was the youngest guy at Exodus Communications, a $36 billion company.

I was in charge of due diligence for our mergers and acquisitions department. So, when we wanted to buy a company, I was the guy who’d go in and say, ‘Is this technology going to work for us? Yes or no?’

I attended board meetings. And because of that, I knew all of the upcoming acquisitions. So, I was blacked out [of trading stock he had received as part of his compensation]; it was illegal.

When those stocks started to teeter, what I should have done was quit my job, sell all of my shares and retire. Instead, I said, ‘I can’t do that. I might lose an additional $4 million in uninvested equity or something.’

So I stayed at the company. And the stock dropped from $60 a share to $5 a share.

In retrospect, I should have thought, ‘I have enough money. I can do whatever I want. I should just walk away today.’ I could have done that. But for six months, I didn’t walk away.

Every day, I was worth less and less in the bank account. And that was a grinding down, horrible feeling.

And there’s another thing. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this: I was with some online broker—going back 15 years. It was a very cutting edge broker that let me do options and all this stuff.

Based on the reports it seemed like I had a couple hundred thousand grand in the account, at least enough to take care of my basic expenses. But there was a margin on that account that I didn’t even know about because I wasn’t managing the stuff tightly. I was too stubborn and fearful to hire someone to help me manage it. The margin ended up consuming most of the account before I even noticed.

Today, the advice translates to: Hire a professional to pay attention to the stuff that you’re not paying attention to.”

Every day, MONEY contributing editor Farnoosh Torabi interviews entrepreneurs, authors and financial luminaries about their money philosophies, successes, failures and habits for her podcast, So Money—which is a “New and Noteworthy” podcast on iTunes.

More by Farnoosh Torabi:

MONEY stocks

Here Are Ways to Tell If Stocks Are Overvalued

Different metrics can show polar opposite views of market valuation.

The S&P 500 has more than tripled in value since early 2009.

It’s one of the best five-year periods in market history, roughly matching the 1995-2000 bull market that created one of the largest bubbles ever.

What’s that mean for market values today?

Depends who you ask.

James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, noted last week that the median S&P 500 company now trades at the highest price-to-earnings ratio since his records began in 1950.

The only reason the market as a whole doesn’t look as overvalued as the median component is because some of the S&P 500’s largest companies that carry the most weight in the index, like ExxonMobil EXXONMOBIL CORPORATION XOM -0.5% and Apple APPLE INC. AAPL -1.66% , are still fairly cheap.

The median company is also near a record high measured on price-to-book value and price-to-cash flow.

These are eye-opening statistics that show how much the rally of the last five years may have borrowed from future returns.

But then again…

There are all kinds of ways to value the market. None is necessarily right or wrong, because what matters — what moves markets — is whatever investors care about at a given moment.

And what do people care about right now? Dividends, for one.

With interest rates at rock-bottom levels, dividends have become wildly popular as one of the last remaining places you can earn a yield above the rate of inflation. They became viewed as bond substitutes for income-starved investors. Boring, low-growth sectors that emphasize dividends, like utilities, trade at a higher valuation than high-growth technology stocks. The clamor for dividends in the last five years has been insatiable.

Two things happened recently to help that trend:

  • Interest rates on Treasury bonds have plunged. Ten-year Treasuries now yield 1.8%, from 2.9% a year ago.
  • Dividend payouts have surged. The S&P 500 is up 72% since 2010, but S&P 500 dividends are up 84%.

Combine the two, and 51% of S&P 500 companies now have a dividend yield above the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds. That’s the highest going back 15 years, above even the levels of early 2009, when the market bottomed:

 

Relative to bonds, S&P 500 companies may be about as cheap as they’ve ever been.

The S&P 500 as a whole now yields more than Treasury bonds. That doesn’t happen very often, but history says stocks tend to do extraordinary well when it does.

Is this a better measure of market value than Paulsen’s metric? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does.

But it may be more relevant to the average investor today — right now — who is deciding how to allocate his or her money. You can increasingly find more yield in the stock market than you can the bond market. As long as that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine flocks of investors giving up on stocks and running to the “safety” of bonds.

The big point here is that different metrics, both of which seem reasonable, can show polar opposite views of market valuation. That’s dangerous, because no matter how you feel about stocks you can find data to back yourself up. This is as true for Paulsen’s metric as it is my own.

Depending on what metrics you want to use, today’s market looks somewhere between dirt cheap and bloody expensive. I really don’t think it’s obvious which side is right. My feeling is dividends are one of the biggest forces driving stocks right now, but someday that will change. Maybe people will start caring about Paulsen’s metric — or something else entirely.

“There are no rules about what a stock, bond, currency, commodity, house, car, dog, cat, diamond, bicycle, soap dish, refrigerator, concert ticket, plane ride or glass of wine are worth,” James Osborne, president of Bason Asset Management, wrote recently. “They are worth what people are willing to pay for them, which is what markets are all about. That’s the value.”

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel’s columns.

MONEY retirement planning

4 Tips to Plan for Retirement in an Upside-Down World

upside down rollercoaster
GeoStills—Alamy

The economic outlook appears a lot dicier these days. These moves will keep your retirement portfolio on course.

Gyrating stock values, slumping oil prices, turmoil in foreign currency markets, predictions of slow growth or even deflation abroad…Suddenly, the outlook for the global economy and financial markets looks far different—and much dicier—than just a few months ago. So how do you plan for retirement in a world turned upside down? Read on.

The roller coaster dips and dives of stock prices have dominated the headlines lately. But the bigger issue is this: If we are indeed entering a low-yield slow-growth global economy, how should you fine-tune your retirement planning to adapt to the anemic investment returns that may lie ahead?

We’re talking about a significant adjustment. For example, Vanguard’s most recent economic and investing outlook projects that U.S. stocks will gain an annualized 7% or so over the next 10 years, while bonds will average about 2.5%. That’s a long way from the long-term average of 10% or so for stocks and roughly 5% for bonds.

Granted, projections aren’t certainties. And returns in some years will beat the average. But it still makes sense to bring your retirement planning in line with the new realities we may face. Below are four ways to do just that.

1. Resist the impulse to load up on stocks. This may not be much of a challenge now because the market’s been so scary lately. But once stocks settle down, a larger equity stake may seem like a plausible way to boost the size of your nest egg or the retirement income it throws off, especially if more stable alternatives like bonds and CDs continue to pay paltry yields.

That would be a mistake. Although stock returns are expected to be lower, they’ll still come with gut-wrenching volatility. So you don’t want to ratchet up your stock allocation, only to end up selling in a panic during a financial-crisis-style meltdown. Nor do you want to lard your portfolio with arcane investments that may offer the prospect of outsize returns but come with latent pitfalls.

Fact is, aside from taking more risk, there’s really not much you can do to pump up gains, especially in a slow-growth environment. Trying to do so can cause more harm than good. The right move: Set a mix of stocks and bonds that’s in synch with your risk tolerance and that’s reasonable given how long you intend to keep your money invested and, except for periodic rebalancing, stick to it.

2. Get creative about saving. Saving has always been key to building a nest egg. But it’s even more crucial in a low-return world where you can’t count as much on compounding returns to snowball your retirement account balances. So whether it’s increasing the percentage of salary you devote to your 401(k), contributing to a traditional or Roth IRA in addition to your company’s plan, signing up for a mutual fund’s automatic investing plan or setting up a commitment device to force yourself to save more, it’s crucial that you find ways to save as much as you can.

The payoff can be substantial. A 35-year-old who earns $50,000 a year, gets 2% annual raises and contributes 10% of salary to a 401(k) that earns 6% a year would have about $505,000 at 65. Increase that savings rate to 12%, and the age-65 balance grows to roughly $606,000. Up the savings rate to 15%—the level generally recommended by retirement experts—and the balance swells to $757,000.

3. Carefully monitor retirement spending. In more generous investment environments, many retirees relied on the 4% rule to fund their spending needs—that is, they withdrew 4% of their nest egg’s value the first year of retirement and increased that draw by inflation each year to maintain purchasing power. Following that regimen provided reasonable assurance that one’s savings would last at least 30 years. Given lower anticipated returns in the future, however, many pros warn that retirees may have to scale back that initial withdrawal to 3%—and even then there’s no guarantee of not running short.

No system is perfect. Start with too high a withdrawal rate, and you may run through your savings too soon. Too low a rate may leave you with a big stash of cash late in life, which means you might have unnecessarily stinted earlier in retirement.

A better strategy: Start with a realistic withdrawal rate—say, somewhere between 3% and 4%—and then monitor your progress every year or so by plugging your current account balances and spending into a good retirement income calculator that will estimate the probability that your money will last throughout retirement. If the chances start falling, you can cut back spending a bit. If they’re on the rise, you can loosen the purse strings. By making small adjustments periodically, you’ll be able to avoid wrenching changes in your retirement lifestyle, and avoid running out of dough too soon or ending up with more than you need late in life when you may not be able to enjoy it.

4. Put the squeeze on fees. You can’t control the returns the market delivers. But if returns are depressed in the years ahead, paying less in investment fees will at least increase the portion of those gains you pocket.

Fortunately, reducing investment costs is fairly simple. By sticking to broad index funds and ETFs, you can easily cut expenses to less than 1% a year. And without too much effort you can get fees down to 0.5% a year or less. If you prefer to have an adviser manage your portfolio, you may even be able to find one who’ll do so for about 0.5% a year or less. Over the course of a long career and retirement, such savings can dramatically improve your post-career prospects. For example, reducing annual expenses from 1.5% to 0.5% could increase your sustainable income in retirement by upwards of 40%.

Who knows, maybe the prognosticators will be wrong and the financial markets will deliver higher-than-anticipated returns. But if you adopt the four moves I’ve outlined above, you’ll do better either way.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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What This 20-Year Study on Marijuana Use Means for the Pot Market

Marijuana plant
Pablo Porciuncula—AFP/Getty Images

There's reason for cautious optimism—but it's not time to invest yet.

Marijuana laws and public perception have come a long, long way over the past 20 years.

In 1996, we witnessed the first approval for marijuana on a medical basis by a state, and in 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first two states to approve marijuana use on a recreational, adult-use basis. As I write today, there are 23 states that have legalized medical marijuana and four states that now allow marijuana to be used on a recreational basis.

Public perception has been a major motivator in this shift. According to Gallup, which polls Americans every so often on whether or not they believe marijuana should be legal, just one in four respondents 20 years ago were in favor of legalization. That figure stood at 58% as of 2013. Between the need for additional revenue at the state level to help reduce or close budget gaps and providing solutions to people with serious medical conditions, marijuana’s momentum is undeniable.

I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t also state that many questions remain, such as whether or not the government will change its stance on marijuana being a schedule 1 drug, and if marijuana’s benefits outweigh its risks. The last question is particularly hard to answer as we have very limited long-term data, and what we do have was primarily focused on the risks of marijuana rather than the benefits.

Five intriguing marijuana finds

However, a recently released study from Dr. Wayne Hall, a the director of the Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research at the University of Queensland, sheds new light, both good and bad, on long-term marijuana use.

Hall’s study examined the effect of marijuana over a 20-year period (1993-2013), and was made possible by the fact that recreational cannabis use has risen, and stronger cannabis has become available in recent years. Hall’s review notes that between 1980 and 2006, the amount of THC found in marijuana increased more than fourfold to 8.5% from less than 2%.

Specifically, Hall’s review led to five intriguing findings about marijuana.

1. It’s essentially impossible to overdose on marijuana

One of the most common comments I’ve received in my research into medical marijuana from readers is that “no one has ever overdosed from smoking marijuana.” This turns to out to practically be true, according to Hall’s review. The study points out that it would take between 15 grams and 70 grams of marijuana to cause someone to overdose, which is an amount higher than even a heavy user could consume in a day.

By comparison, opioid analgesics, which are commonly used to treat pain, one of the indications for which marijuana is typically prescribed, led to 16,007 deaths in 2012 based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, the implication is that marijuana might be a solution to dramatically reducing opioid-related overdose deaths.

2. Marijuana use and driving don’t mix

We know that drinking and driving don’t mix, but Dr. Hall’s study, which included a meta-analysis of drivers who smoked and a control group that didn’t, definitively showed that smoking marijuana nearly doubles your risk of an accident.

Why does this matter? A number of states are beginning to legalize marijuana for recreational use, so there’s concern we could see an increase in accidents caused by marijuana. Further, the review in Australia notes that public education about the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana may not be enough to deter drivers. There would have to be a real fear of their cannabis use being detected by law enforcement in order to get drivers to give up their keys.

3. Cannabis addiction exists, especially in adolescents

A good chunk of negative marijuana studies focus on the drugs’ effect in adolescents. It turns out that those fears may be on target. Per Dr. Hall’s review, cannabis addiction does exist, and it’s more prevalent in adolescents than adults. One in 10 adults who use marijuana on a regular basis become addicted to it compared to one in six adolescents.

4. Marijuana can negatively impact your IQ

It turns out that marijuana can actually lower your IQ as well, but according to the review, only if you’re a heavy marijuana user. The study notes that “these effects on IQ were only found in the small proportion of cannabis users who initiated in adolescence and persisted in daily use throughout their 20s and into their 30s.” This news mirrors a recent abstract we examined that showed marijuana users on average had a slightly lower IQ than non-users.

In addition to potentially lower IQs, the review also suggests that cannabis use is strongly associated with the use of other illicit drugs.

5. Marijuana’s long-term effect on respiratory health is inconclusive

Lastly, Dr. Hall’s study also brought up one glaring inconclusive finding: that being whether smoking marijuana had a negative effect on the users’ respiratory function. Previous studies have gone both ways on this question, and this review notes that there’s no conclusive evidence that smoking marijuana will lead to reduced respiratory function or respiratory cancer. The primary reason this turned out inconclusive is because most marijuana users were also smoking tobacco products, making it impossible to differentiate the effect on the body of one from the other.

Bifurcated results for marijuana

Based on the study’s findings, the outlook for medical marijuana and recreational marijuana is widely bifurcated.

With inconclusive data on the long-term respiratory effects of marijuana, and given the fact that a person’s chances of overdosing from marijuana are extremely slim, it potentially strengthens the case for exploring marijuana’s medical benefit profile. Let’s remember that marijuana can be absorbed a number of ways beyond smoking, so the respiratory concern can possibly be eliminated.

This would be good news for GW Pharmaceuticals GW PHARMACEUTICALS PLC GWPH 1.68% , a predominantly clinical-stage company focused on creating drugs using the more than five dozen cannabinoid compounds it’s discovered to date. Currently, it has just one drug approvedoutside the U.S. (Sativex), which is absorbed as an oramucosal spray to treat spasticity associated with multiple scleorsis, but is working on a range of additional studies, including cancer pain, type 2 diabetes, and adult and pediatric epilepsy. As long as marijuana studies continue to point toward the drug being safe to use, it’ll only further strengthen the need for GW and its peers to conduct more research into its potential uses.

On the other hand, the case for recreational expansion continues to take a hit based on these studies. Although the four states that have approved marijuana for purchase have strict age requirements in place, it’s clear from a number of other statistics and studies that adolescents are still getting their hands on this drug — and that adolescents are the most susceptible to negative effects from its use.

As an investor, I continue to view the space with cautious optimism. I’d be thrilled to see marijuana or marijuana-based compounds help patients control serious diseases. But, I’m also a realist who understands that the federal government is unlikely to change its stance on marijuana anytime soon. Also, a vast majority of marijuana-based companies simply don’t have viable business models, so you might as well be throwing your nest egg at the roulette table and hoping for the best. I’ll continue to closely follow marijuana studies moving forward, but I have no intention of investing in the space anytime soon.

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3 Companies That May Not Last Through 2015

RadioShack consumers electronics store, Falls Church, Virginia.
Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images RadioShack consumers electronics store, Falls Church, Virginia.

Watch these companies closely this year.

For more than six years now, the stock market has defied naysayers in a bull-market run that has pushed major-market benchmarks to record levels. Yet no matter how strong the stock market is, you can always find pockets of weakness among certain companies that simply haven’t lived up to expectations. Indeed, in extreme cases, some companies find that it no longer makes sense to stay in business, either breaking themselves up in major asset sales or declaring bankruptcy. The result is often a plunging stock price that leaves shareholders with major losses.

To help you identify some potential danger areas, three Motley Fool contributors picked companies that they believe might not live to see the end of 2015. Their views certainly aren’t a guarantee of failure for these stocks, but they nevertheless believe that you should watch these companies closely before you put your investing dollars at risk.

Jeremy Bowman (Radio Shack)

Radio Shack has been a fixture in electronics retail for over a generation with over 4,000 stores nationwide, but this year could be its last. A combination of declining sales, steep losses, and pressure from its creditors may force it into bankruptcy and liquidation.

The company still brings in substantial sales at more than $3 billion over the last twelve months, but its share price has fallen all the way to $0.39 as of Monday’s close, valuing the company at $39 million, or slightly more than a penny for every dollar in sales.

Radio Shack was already in trouble this time last year with same-store sales falling by double digits, but the company’s hopes for a turnaround took a sudden turn for the worse when creditors rejected a plan to close 1,100 stores last spring, claiming that doing so would violate debt covenants. Since then, cash has evaporated, and the Shack was left with just $62 million in liquidity as of its third quarter earnings report when it turned in an operating loss of $114 million.

Since then, Radio Shack has resorted to what seem to be desperate moves, suspending employee 401(k) contributions and, in December, bringing in its third CFO in just four months. Its marketing chief also quit in December, during the crucial holiday selling season, a further sign that the company’s demise could come even sooner than expected.

The retailer’s moment of truth should come this Thursday, when the deadline it has with lender Standard General arrives. Radio Shack must prove it has $100 million in liquidity in order to implement a financing package with Standard General agreed on in October. If Radio Shack is unable to secure additional funding, the company’s prospects look essentially dead. Moreover, even if it shows up with the $100 million, that’s no guarantee it will remain viable through the end of the year.

Bob Ciura (Aeropostale)

Aeropostale AEROPOSTALE ARO 0.25% might not make it out of 2015 alive, even though shares of the teen retailer jumped more than 20% on January 8 after better-than-expected holiday sales. Aeropostale said comparable holiday sales fell 9%, better than last year’s 15% decline. But the results still signify this is a company in severe decline. Shares of Aeropostale lost nearly three-quarters of their value last year due to collapsing sales, and management’s plan to turn the company around mostly involves shuttering stores. The company plans to close as many as 240 Aeropostale stores and all of its P.S. children’s concept. Not only are total sales falling, but sales per square foot are falling as well, which means store closings are not likely to restore growth

Aeropostale announced a smaller-than-expected loss for the fourth quarter. Management expects the company will lose $18 million-$23 million in the quarter, down from a prior forecast of $28 million-$34 million. Still, this hardly seems reason to celebrate. Over the past three quarters, Aeropostale lost nearly $200 million, approximately double the loss from the same period one year ago.

The teen fashion landscape changes very quickly, and companies that fall out of favor find it hard to catch up. While Aeropostale suffers the effects, investors shouldn’t touch this company that might not survive through 2015

Dan Caplinger (Sears Holdings)

One of the most often-chosen stocks for a potential implosion is retailer Sears Holdings SEARS HOLDINGS CORP. SHLD 0.99% , which has struggled for years to navigate difficult conditions in its niche of the big-box retail segment. The company is on pace to lose money for the fourth year in a row, and restructuring charges and asset sales that for most companies are extraordinary events have become commonplace for the operator of Sears and KMart stores.

Sears is infamous for its long string of spinoffs, with last year’s Lands’ End LANDS END INC COM USD0.01 LE -0.75% IPO having been one of the more successful of its former parent’s corporate moves. Many believe that CEO Eddie Lampert’s primary strategy has been to unlock the value of Sears Holdings’ assets through such moves, with the eventual goal of leaving the money-losing retail business as a used-up husk. Yet many have been surprised at just how long Sears has managed to stay in business, and a recent hacker-attack against the company’s KMart division was just another problem that the company will have to face in trying to attract shoppers.

It’s entirely possible that Sears Holdings shareholders could receive further valuable distributions on their stock through spinoffs or other corporate moves. Yet the odds of Sears Holdings continuing in anything like its current form grow smaller every day.

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