October 2019 Newsletter

The markets were relatively calm in the third quarter, even though a lot took place in the world.  We attempt to review the main events from global to personal.

Global

Two major topics monopolized the press on the international front for the past several months:  Brexit and Trade Wars.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson has threatened to leave the European Union without a deal.  The UK is scheduled to exit the European Union on October 31.  Ideally, the UK and the EU will negotiate and finalize an exit strategy that doesn’t undermine the economy on the continent before that time.  PM Johnson has attempted to use the prospect of a disorderly exit as leverage in their upcoming negotiations.  However, Parliament passed a law requiring him to ask for an extension if no deal is reached.  A no-deal Brexit would have short-term negative consequences for the economy and the markets.  However, in the long-run, a new equilibrium will be established and growth should resume.

Meanwhile, President Trump upped the ante in the ongoing trade war with China.  In addition to the numerous tariffs he has implemented, he is now considering limiting investment in China.  The President is playing a dangerous game.  Congress has started to consider taking back control of international commerce if things get too out of hand.  Given that next year is an election year, tensions would typically begin to moderate as we enter the new year;  however, this is not shaping up to be a normal election cycle.

National

While our President survived a two-year investigation into his alleged dealings with Russia and its influence on the 2016 elections, he is now allegedly trying to use the Ukraine and Australian governments to influence the 2020 elections according to new reports.  While the odds of impeachment in the house have certainly risen in the past few weeks, predicting what would happen in the senate is more difficult.  One Republican senator bluntly explained the President will not be removed unless public opinion turns on him.  In other words, the Senate trial will not be a trial of facts, but rather perception (assuming it gets that far, which is not a sure thing).  President Trump’s troubling patterns of behavior recall those of the Nixon administration, and a look at that period might be informative.  When the Watergate hearings began, only 19% of American adults thought he should be removed from office.  Over a year later, after impeachment inquiries and after the Supreme Court’s decision that he must submit the tapes, did 57% believe Nixon should be removed.

What are the market implications?  There aren’t a lot of precedents to learn from, but I’d imagine the initial reaction to an impeachment would be negative for the markets.  Attempting to forcefully remove a sitting president is, to say the least, disruptive.  In the mid- to long-term, it probably won’t matter as much as we do have a presidential election next year.  If President Trump is not impeached, or he is but remains in office, then the question becomes: How much did the process damage the Republican and/or Democratic parties?

While all of this might seem overwhelming to figure out from an investment perspective, it is really quite simple.  Making investment decisions based on the party in charge is a fool’s errand.  There has never been a time in my career where I have consciously picked a stock or changed my asset allocation because of how I thought an election would go.  Our system of checks and balances have effectively limited the impact of campaign promises since the days of George Washington.  Also, I would argue that external forces have far more influence on the direction of the markets than almost anything any president might attempt to do.  That isn’t to say they have no influence.  It is just more limited than perceived.  A case in point, our economy has been remarkably resilient despite recent national turmoil.

Local

White Pine’s news events from the last quarter have been much more straightforward and positive.  First, along with several of our clients, we participated in this year’s Life Remodeled volunteer week.  A quick write-up of the event can be found on our website at Life Remodeled which includes a picture of those who participated.  While on the website, you might notice a “client login” button.  This web portal is a convenient way for our clients to view their portfolio as well as receive secure documents.  If you would like a login ID, please let us know.

On the staffing front, we’d like to introduce Irene Lind, our new part-time office assistant.  The growth of our company over the past several years warrants the added help.  She’ll be assisting Amy with administrative duties.  Irene has a background in digital design, so she’ll also be looking for ways to improve our website and printed material.  Our future staffing plans include adding a research assistant as well as another relationship manager.  We hope to make announcements on these positions in the coming quarters.  As many of you know, Russ has been cutting back his hours by taking most Fridays off.  We believe hiring three people should just about do the trick to fill Russ’ shoes on Fridays. 😊

Personal

On a personal note, this past quarter I had the opportunity to participate in a camp for saxophone players.  I used to play quite a bit in my teenage to young adult years, but I stopped playing to raise a family and start a career.  In the last several years, I’ve picked it up again with a local band made up of my friends and fellow water polo parents.  At camp, I found myself in a very unfamiliar position.  As we all find ourselves in uncomfortable situations from time to time, I thought it would be fun to write up the story.  You’ll find it below the Life Remodeled article at: August 2019.

Sincerely,

Anthony J. DiGiovanni, CFA

Life Remodeled Recap

This August the White Pine team joined forces with our clients and friends to once again serve the city of Detroit by participating in the Life Remodeled 2019 volunteer week.  In past years we have battled weeds and overgrown properties, trash and blight removal, and of course the weather.  This year was a different challenge…125 children attending a summer camp! 

We were fortunate to spend the day interacting with kids ages 5-13 and partaking in a wide variety of games and activities that kept us all full of joy and laughter.  Part of the camp’s emphasis is a daily discussion around a variety of topics.  On Monday they started the week talking about friendships.  It was great to hear virtues like companionship, kindness, trust and love being discussed in our small groups.  We followed that up with a game of caterpillar which had everyone laughing hysterically.  There is nothing like a preschool game to bring out the competitiveness of adults and kids alike!  Overall it was a wonderful day partnering with Life Remodeled and seeing the impact that has been made over the years.  We look forward to volunteering with them again next year and hope more of you will be able to join us.

Some 2019 Life Remodeled Highlights:

*9,713 volunteers from the city and suburbs

*Cleared 257 heavily blighted alleyways

*Hosted a summer camp for 125 children and a basketball camp for 37 youth

*Family Fun Day drew in more than 3,000 Detroit kids and their families

* Recap Video


August 2019 Inside Out

Tony recently took part in a week long Jazz camp….read about his experience below!

Inside Out

We arrived at the Inside: Outside Retreat outside of Nashville, Tennessee on Tuesday evening. Our first gathering after a long day of travel was in the barn. We were told to bring our saxophones. As a way of introduction, we were to come up to the stage ten at a time. Each of us would then state our name, where we came from, and play a 30 second improv solo. Yikes! I came to this camp to learn how to improvise. I don’t exactly know how to improvise, yet. We got to pick from six different songs. I had heard of only the Stevie Wonder song, but I had no idea how to play it, nor what key it was in.

I’m Tony from Ann Arbor. I’ll play Bb Blues, please. I’m thinking, the key signature is right there in the name, so I got this. The beat starts, and off I go. When I say off, I mean I was way off. Who knew you could play wrong notes in improv? Aren’t we allowed to play whatever notes we want? Apparently the major scale doesn’t work too well in blues, and chord changes? Well, they happened, but I plowed through them like a member of a marching band mesmerized by the stadium crowd missing the sharp turn when the rest of the band shifts right. (That only happened to me once during my four years in the Michigan Marching Band.)

I was one of the first ones to (mis)play my solo. I then sat back and watched as the other 50 plus horns introduced themselves. These fellow campers came from literally all over the world. One from Toronto, another Vancouver. A German who moved to the UK. Someone from the UK who moved to Jersey. Another German who moved to Ames, Iowa because his profession was so specialized there were only a handful of places he could work. The furthest participant came from Melbourne, Australia. He’s skipping out on his winter to enjoy 90 muggy degrees here in Tennessee (where, oddly, very few people in our group were from). This is a big time camp! And the way they played their intros… Oh my. They’re here to fine tune a fantastic product. I’m here to figure out what product I’m trying to sell.

My musical ego took a very big punch in the stomach that evening. Ironically, or perhaps on purpose, I stared up at the rafters and noticed a sign encouraging us to leave the ego at the door. My ego couldn’t have escaped that barn faster if it had been on fire. I came to this camp remembering how I used to play. I was classically trained some 30 odd years ago, and in my humble opinion was pretty decent back then. Never in improv, but I figured I knew my way around the horn. How hard could it be? It turns out 30 years of my horn collecting dust didn’t help my situation. I have been back at it for a couple of years, but I’ve been playing in a basement in a classic rock band with friends – not jazz. Our only gigs were my daughter’s wedding (one well prepared song) and two band members’ kids’ graduation parties (and I was out of town for one of them).

We were to self-select our group level. Instructor, Bob F. gave us some guidelines to follow. Considering I didn’t understand half the terms he used to describe the groups, I easily selected level one wishing there were a remedial class instead. That wrapped up day one. I got in my car to check-in at the hotel. (Though I had planned to stay on site in a cabin, getting through a forest inhabited by three of the country’s four types of poisonous snakes in order to arrive at a small cabin shared by five people an arm’s length away from each other in small cots dissuaded me.) Most of the campers did stay on the premises, but, by 11:30 pm each night, I was happy to get off campus for a few hours. In fact, when I got back to civilization and saw I-40 towards home that first night…it was tempting.

Day two began with a fantastic meal. The meals, prepared by Chef Adam, were some of the highlights of my days at camp. I expected hot dogs and sloppy joes. Instead, we had lobster tail in a Florentine sauce and stuffed shells. Adam also had a comedic flare. He cracked us up before every meal. Throughout day one, our cell phones kept going off with the national emergency alarm whenever service was available to let us know there was an escaped prisoner in the area. Naturally, Adam came to lunch dressed in an orange jumpsuit. Classic.

My first sectional was with Bob R., an excellent teacher. (There were four main teachers at camp-three Bobs and Juan.) I, on the other hand, was that student who didn’t get the homework assignment done. He asked what song we’d like to play. Someone threw out an idea, and 80% of us nodded in agreement. My head was shaking the other way. We start playing, and I’m shrinking in my seat as I do not know the song. To be fair, it could have been any song, and that would have been the case. When it ends, Bob starts writing down the chord progressions using numbers. What do the numbers mean? Then he writes the name of the chords. Gm7, Cm, D triangle symbol. Apparently triangle means major scale. I know my major scales. I have forgotten my minor scales, but that’s okay. He starts talking about his friend Dorian. Who’s Dorian? Wrong question! What is dorian? Oh, just play the pentatonic. Apparently, this is not the group that harmonizes so well and plays a great rendition of Hallelujah. This is a five note scale. My head is spinning

I start to get the feeling of someone just transported to a foreign country. My eyes grew as large as saucers. My mind, taking everything in, responded by putting my body in full-blown panic mode. I needed to learn this language rapidly…like today…now!

We move on to the Moon room for session two. Juan and Russ were there with their horns. Again, we are asked, what would you like to jam to? The group picks, and off we play. Juan and Russ were more interested in having us play than the theory we picked up in session one. This makes sense. Theory only takes you so far. You can’t learn without playing. Juan could very well be the happiest person I have ever met. He always had an enormous smile on his face, and as we played, he rocked his head as if jamming to Sonny Rollins. Yet as I played, I could detect in his eyes a different reaction than his happy face suggested – especially when a note that was out of the chord range sounded. I play poker. I pick up on these tells. Outwardly, both Russ and Juan were nothing but encouraging. My ego, apparently it was still with me, wasn’t buying it though. By “it,” I mean both the encouraging words and the strained sounds coming from my horn.

On the second day of my horn making cow sounds during their jam lessons, I stopped and mentioned I just couldn’t hear the chord changes, nor could I hear how I fit with the rhythm section. Bob R. happened to be in the room at the time and suggested we sing our solos. Ha! That’s hysterical, I’m thinking. As bad as my horn may sound relative to this group, it is infinitely more melodious than anything coming from my vocal chords. Juan demonstrated a wonderful skat sound. Skat singing is apparently what it’s called when you ‘skatadee doo dop’ sing. He was fantastic and then played his horn to match the style of the skat. Amazing. Bob R. laughed and mentioned that might not have been very helpful as the brilliance of the performance would only be intimidating to us level one students. Bob R. performed a more scaled-down version. Of course, he had me do it next. I was tempted to take off my clothes at this point. It might distract them from my singing. But here’s the amazing thing. As I skatadee doo dopped through that song, I could hear the chord changes. I could see how it worked. I then tried to play it on my horn. We all did. It was an incredibly useful exercise. We all sounded better.

After these morning sessions ended, we could put our kazoos back in their cases for lunch. Our first section after lunch was with Bob H. His purpose was to get us to slow the heck down and notice our environment. Everyone should spend an hour with Bob H. Not just campers. Everyone! The world would be a better place. Barefoot and blindfolded, we walked around the forest using string as our guide. It was a fascinating exercise, and, for at least this one 75 minute period, I felt I was on equal footing with my peers. I was able to take it down a notch, but I was so revved up, I was still racing above the speed limit.

Our final group session of the day was with Bob F. The exercises and techniques he taught us were really neat. Overtones. Very cool! I had no idea that you could play an infinite amount of octaves from one key fingering on the horn as well as the fifth note of the scale above the key you’re fingering. I could actually get my horn to play two overtones. A brief moment of pride. Bob demonstrated the next seven levels on his horn, and my jaw dropped. This is one of those concepts that you can’t exactly teach. You just do. As Yoda says, “There is no try. Do, or do not!” We also learned multi-phonics. That’s right, you can play two notes at once. Just finger an A and an Eb, and two other notes join together (neither A, nor Eb). Bizzare. Ultimately, these exercises were meant to improve our sound when we played normal notes.

We got a 60 minute break before dinner. I used this time to call my wife. She could tell from the tone of my voice I was excited. Excitement is perhaps the wrong word. In an extreme mode of agitation, anxiety, and wonderment is more accurate. As I was trying to explain the day’s events, I noticed myself getting extremely emotional. I remembered my children had this reaction after their first day of preschool. They held themselves together well enough at school, but when they got home, they became psychological wrecks. I found this reaction in myself to be surprising and slightly amusing.

Bob R. wrapped up the teaching after dinner with a 90 minutes session on how to practice. That may sound silly, but it was perhaps the most important lesson of the week. I mean, don’t we all know how to practice? It turns out we do not. I took copious notes.

The day ended with jam sessions complete with a live rhythm section accompaniment. I was so unbelievably and totally exhausted to my core, I skipped out on day one, but I vowed to try it on day two, though I wasn’t sure how I’d muster the courage. Jon, from upstate New York, was instrumental (no pun intended) in pushing me past that fear. He assured me he went through the same self-doubt his first time (and still does – though he shouldn’t). He thought I’d regret it if I didn’t and reminded me that no matter how awful it is, I won’t die from it. This struck the right chord with me (pun intended). My wife and I frequently set the simple daily goal of breathing during the more difficult times of raising six children. As in, did we get through the day while still breathing? Check! Success! So, on day two, I went for it. I was awful, but I didn’t die. I was so frustrated, I decided to try again. I’m glad I did as it was the one time during the entire camp when I felt I sounded okay. I went into a weird Zen state. It just came out, and I didn’t cringe.

During the first evening back at the hotel, I got phone calls from two of my children. Both encouraged me to keep at it. They each gave an example of something similar they went through and all the wonderful things that occurred as a result. It was satisfying to hear my own advice echoing back at me through my children. This was a good moment for me. My parenting skills have improved after 25 years of dedicated effort and thought; perhaps I could also move from my novice status to a higher level of competency if I made a strong commitment to learning improv.

The next day, I had one of my favorite moments of camp. I was chilling in the Woodshed during one of our breaks. One of the bari-sax players, Jeremy, brought his guitar and started playing. Eventually, Barb, Jim, and Peter joined in with their saxes. Then, Jeremy went to the drum set and started playing both the guitar and the drums at the same time. This impromptu jam session blew me away. These folks are talented!

I spent my days trying to absorb as much as possible from everyone I encountered. I believe I learned something new from just about every camper I sat down with throughout the week. My fellow campers were super talented and had an incredible collective knowledge base. One camper was in a prestigious military band. The younger campers all seemed to be either on their way to a fantastic music school or already attending one. Props to the young man in Clemson’s marching band. (I threw a shrimp shell at him out of jealousy because while my Michigan Marching Band days took me to two Rose Bowls, there was no national championship game to march in back then.) Some of the older campers were ex-professionals.

Near the end of the week, we had the pleasure of learning from Chris Cheek and Jeff Coffin (of Dave Matthews Band fame). Both are world-renowned saxophonists. Both were surprisingly good, patient teachers considering they’re professional musicians, not educators. Chris had us playing practice exercises. This was one of the more comical moments of camp for me. He demonstrated a chromatic scale exercise at the speed of a Ferrari on the Autobahn. He then wanted us to do it. It sounded something like blah, blah, blat, splat, plunk. He waved us to stop and wondered out loud to himself what just happened. He asked just three of us to try it to see if he could figure out what went wrong. Blah, blah, blat, splatt, plunk. He then asked each of us to try alone with a metronome. Then he slowed down the metronome. I think the fastest of us was clocked at a horse and buggy pace on a dirt road in rural Tennessee.

We had a somewhat similar experience with Jeff. He had us try something well beyond our ability and then quickly adjusted his lesson plan to what we needed. Obviously, he knows how to improvise! I photographed the lesson he put up on the whiteboard and will practice daily. He showed us graphically how chord progressions could work and gave us a key to feeling the flow of the music through this exercise. It was brilliant in its simplicity.

On the last full day of camp, our groups were charged with learning two songs of our choice to perform at a concert in the evening. Two songs in four hours of practice time. Our level one group was called Atlantic. (Each group had the name of a record company.) We weren’t particularly great at this – though most of our group did have some experience. As an aside, I loved my group. We embraced where we were at and supported the heck out of each other.

Cecil, a member of our group who had previously attended camp, brought a full score for us to play complete with multiple parts for altos, tenors, and baritones. I can read music. Back in my comfort zone a bit! Then he says the name of the song is Sugar. I start belting out, in my best falsetto voice, the Maroon 5’s version of “Sugar.” “Sugar….You’re sweet!” Of course that’s not the song we played. It was a catchy jazz tune by Stanley Turrentine, and it has been stuck in my head since we left camp.

My solo would not be on this song, but rather the other tune we picked. Our very own Bob R.’s “Blues for Charlie.” We had to transcribe that music and get the chord breakdown which seemed overwhelming to do in the time we had. “Blues for Charlie” wasn’t a particularly difficult piece, but the solo part was because there wasn’t much happening behind the horn part. I spent most of my breaks that day listening to it over and over again trying to understand the beat, the rhythm, the way Bob R. played the solo himself. I wrote out the chords and figured out which notes might sound okay. I skat sang it. I did whatever I could to learn this song in the short amount of time I had.

We were the sixth group to go. The groups ahead of us were darn entertaining, and I really forgot about having to play myself. When it was finally our turn, I became terribly nervous. I mean, I have to admit, our last run through the songs without the solos sounded pretty good. I was impressed with Atlantic! The solo section started, and the first few soloists played. I stood in line waiting for my turn. The lights were on us, and we couldn’t really see the audience – which I suppose helped a bit. Finally, I had to step up to the mic and play.

This is the part of the story where everything is supposed to come together. Alas, all I can say is I didn’t die. The concepts I wanted to play never came out. Something did. I hit a few wrong notes. It was awkward. It wasn’t me. The first instruction given at the start of camp was to find your voice. Be yourself. I didn’t find it out there that day. I don’t think I have enough mastery of the fundamental building blocks to truly be myself yet. It’s a good goal though.

When our performance was over, I felt numb. I wasn’t depressed, but I may have looked that way. Perhaps somber is a better word. I don’t know. I’m having a difficult time understanding what exactly I was feeling. In some ways, I felt I failed. But not really. Not completely. This was difficult, and I was proud I stuck it out. Relief had to be one of my emotions. At least it was over. The solo was by no means good. I knew that. But the reality was I hadn’t earned it yet. The talent that my fellow campers had came from thousands of hours of training their ears. I sounded like a second grader learning a new language because that’s where I was in this journey. That’s okay. I now have the tools and the direction. I love jamming with my friends, and now I know what to work on and how to improve when I play with our group. That’s exciting. That’s what this camp was all about for me, so it was worthwhile and meaningful. I hope to return some day with more of the building blocks in my arsenal. Until then….

As Easy as Predicting the Weather

Originally published on July 10th, 2019 by Tony DiGiovanni via LinkedIn.

 

April showers bring May showers bring June….more showers? If you had to predict the weather in Michigan this Spring, it would have been pretty simple: 65-75 degrees with rain. You would have been correct about two-thirds of the time. The investment world has had a similarly persistent trend for the past six years: stocks up with growth stocks beating value stocks. The following table shows the returns for stock indices highlighting this trend from June 30, 2013 through June 30, 2019:

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Generically speaking, growth stocks are companies that are experiencing high growth in earnings.  They generally trade at higher multiples of those earnings (and thus are more expensive) than their value stock counterparts. Value stocks don’t have the same earnings growth expectations, but they are usually less expensive and pay higher dividends. In the long-run, their total returns should theoretically be similar, though some studies suggest value stocks outperform.

This kind of discrepancy happens from time to time (in both directions). I believe it is happening today because we have been in a prolonged, relatively slow growth recovery. There are a handful of stocks that have been able to show earnings growth in this environment; this has made them very attractive. They’re being labeled as sure things with growth rates that will surely continue for the foreseeable future. They are being touted as a lock if ever there was one — even more of a sure thing than rain next Tuesday.

Alas, investing is never that clear cut. It is important to understand the dangers of falling into this trap, especially in today’s world. When President Trump uses tariffs as the preferred tool of choice to punish foreign governments for misdeeds, he creates an environment of chaos and uncertainty. Companies dependent on a free flow of supplies amongst different countries have to rethink their global supply chain. This kind of environment causes growth to slow even further and drastically increases the odds of a recession. The sure thing growth stocks will probably still be able to grow their earnings through this, but that won’t be enough to sustain their price levels.

A good example of this occurred in the not-too-distant past. Microsoft during the 1990s was a classic growth story. If you recall, the internet was kind of new and Microsoft created an operating system that made it easy to connect. It also took over the word processing and spreadsheet world, and an entire network of consultants built their businesses around Microsoft products. The company enjoyed tremendous growth: 37% earnings growth per year! It was as much of a sure thing as many of the growth stocks today. The stock price climbed even higher than earnings did forcing the Price/Earnings ratio (a measure of value) up to 72 from 20 at the beginning of the decade. As in interesting aside, Amazon’s PE ratio is 70 today.

During the next decade, the US economy suffered two recessions. Perhaps not surprisingly, Microsoft continued to grow its earnings throughout this difficult period, though at a much more pedestrian 8% clip. Despite the growth in earnings, the stock fell nearly 50% as the PE ratio fell from 72 down to 10!

Bringing things back to today’s environment, the following table adds more information to the return table listed above.

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What we have seen over the past six years is a pretty good growth environment for all companies as all of the indices listed have had decent earnings growth. The stock price for each has risen even faster than earnings growth, and thus the PE ratio expands. However, this multiple expansion has been somewhat concentrated in the growth names. Thus, the outperformance in these names is almost completely attributed to this multiple expansion.

There is an industry expression that highlights the dangers of multiple expansion. It is called the greater fool theory. The Greater Fool Theory suggests you can continue to make money in stocks even if the stocks are expensive if you can find at least one fool to buy it for a higher price. This works until there are no more fools. The last fool holding the bag loses. This is what happened to many of the tech names (Microsoft included) during the 1990s. While we are not quite at those extremes, the signs are pointing in that direction.

Timing markets is notoriously difficult, and some would say futile. Markets can continue to rise much longer than seems plausible. The NASDAQ in 1999 doubled despite the high valuations at the beginning of the year. However, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself if we are indeed heading toward another Y2K climax. First, it doesn’t hurt to have some cash on hand. Second, reduce exposure to cyclical names; and particularly in this environment, companies that rely on a global supply chain will minimize your risk. Finally, tilting the equity portion of your portfolio towards the value spectrum would be prudent. We’re not expecting a 2008 disaster even if our economy does fall into recession. Perhaps a little rain and a couple of thunderstorms. We’re used to that by now. Eventually, the sun will rise, and we may even one day this summer need to use the sprinklers again.

Anthony J. DiGiovanni, CFA

Chief Investment Officer