Sunday, July 15, 2007

Destroy Your Retirement Nestegg with Happy Thoughts

Magic Numbers:
Pick One . . . Whichever One Makes You Happy

My recent article about investing vs. paying off your mortgage, Never Prepay Mortgage? Housing Myths Part 1, has a bigger lesson for the subprime mortgage and Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) mess.

“Prove” anything by picking the magic number.

My article noted how a 2001 article predicted a 12% annual return on investment (ROI) for an S&P500 fund but in early 2007 the 10-year average was only 7.7% (even using "Bull's Math" (optimistic Wall Street math)).

The second mistake is forgetting what an average is.

The problem for your retirement nest-egg is that a return to 12% annually does not fix the predicament. To average 12% after a decade of 8%, you need the next decade to provide over 16%. However, we are coming due for a recession (cycles are inevitable) and a steady 16% for a decade seems unlikely. Moreover, if a coming particular year does “only” 12%, you need another year at 20% to average a 16% decade to make up for the first decade’s 8%. If the S&P500 returns a modest 8% in a future recession, we might need the S&P500 later to return 25% simply to average 12% in the 21st Century.

“Experts” apparently made this mistake in financing the housing bubble.

Experts at an early-2006 conference on home-equity-loan securitization assumed a worst-case scenario of +3% asset (home) appreciation per year. It seems as if they assumed the worst stress-test condition to be the long-term trend rate of residential real estate appreciation, barely treading water with inflation (if we continue 2-3% core inflation).

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

The glaring error is assuming that the price basement will be the historic average, rather than the lower numbers that created the average. +1 and -1 average to 0. It is mathematically impossible for every year to be either average (0) or above average (+1). Some years must be below average (-1) to make the average. If you then had a few years at +10 (far above average), you cannot assume that your future floor will be 0 (the average) because now you need a few years at -10 (far below average) to return the average to 0.

The big problem ahead

Standard & Poor's (S&P) and Moody's are reducing the ratings of mortgage securities, which is like telling a new owner, after the purchase, that his/her "6-pack" of soda only has 5 cans, his/her "30mpg" car only gets 20mpg, or his/her "3-bedroom" house only has 2 bedrooms.

The valuation errors contributed to the housing bubble by (1) overestimating the profit in home-mortgage sales, (2) thus overselling the financing product, (3) thus causing the inflation of too many dollars chasing too few assets (the home, necessary to cash the profit on the home-mortgage product), (4) thus contributing to the asset bubble, (5) but also underestimating the risk, (6) thus underdiscounting/overpricing securitized debt/CDOs, (7) thus sticking buyers/investors with insolvent lemons, (8) and the double whammy of evaporating home equity and evaporating securities equity creates yet to be seen ripples in pension/retirements funds, consumer spending, employment, Federal Reserve monetary policy, stock market performance (+25% or -10% for the S&P500?), and the economy writ large.

See also: Beware Vanguard 500 Faulty Logic & False Performance Measures for Investments

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