Eye On The Market

Income CEF Price Volatility... Is There A Problem?

Wall Street wants you to believe that higher prices and lower yields are better

by Steve Selengut

Mr. Selengut is a private investor and a contributing editor to LIFE&Health Advisor. He is the author of the book ‘The Brainwashing of the American Investor: The book that Wall Street does not want you to read.’ He can be reached at [email protected]

Market Cycle Investment Management (MCIM) portfolios are different from any others you may be analyzing, and all investors analyze their portfolios most intently when their "bottom line" market values begin to crumble. This focus on market value is part of Wall Street's Brainwashing of the American Investor. 

MCIM investing is more realistic. It recognizes that investment markets (both equity and income) are cyclical. Rarely do portfolio market values trend upward as long as they have since March of 2009, and most equity investors have forgotten the five month, 22%, mini-correction that ran from May through September 2011. When will we experience the real deal?

MCIM focuses on "working capital", a measure of the total cost basis of the securities and cash contained in an investment portfolio. Managed properly, this measure should grow in all market, economic, and interest rate environments, irrespective of changes in "market value"… really.

MCIM portfolios include 30% Income Purpose securities (based on Working Capital), and never own non Investment Grade Value Stock equities. This translates into portfolios of high quality securities, each contributing to higher realized base income than that contained in market averages and blended Mutual Funds.

Embracing the cycles…

Embracing the cycles, MCIM portfolios strive to grow both total Working Capital and portfolio "Base Income"steadily, regardless of what is going on in the investment markets, in either direction. MCIM portfolio "Working Capital" will be higher now than on January 1st; and "base income" will have risen in every individual portfolio where cash flow has remained positive… in spite of the change in CEF market values. Long term, this is the single most important of all portfolio management issues.

Income Closed End Fund (CEF) prices have been moving lower since November 2012; the decline accelerated in May — but with barely any change in total income generated. In November 2012, you'll recall, many CEFs were selling at premiums to NAV. The premiums are now gone, taking a whole lot of market value with them… but with no change in income. Stock market numbers have weakened, and this divergence between equity and income security prices is quite normal; weakness in income security prices often signal upcoming stock market corrections, as they did in 2007.

The vast majority of income CEFs are now selling at significant discounts to the Net Asset Value of the security portfolios inside. The vast majority of income CEFs are selling at significant discounts to the market value of the securities they contain. (repetition intended). Wall Street wants you to believe that higher prices and lower yields are better… how does that make any sense with no change in portfolio securities?

A selection universe of about one hundred taxable income CEFs and seventy tax free income CEFs is used in constructing MCIM portfolios. In the six plus years since the depths of the financial crisis, and in spite of the lowest interest rate environment in history, the vast majority of these CEFs have maintained their regular payouts to shareholders.

Keep in mind that no actual interest rate change has yet occurred. After six years of artificially low interest rates, many have been forced to reduce their payouts

Lower prices now are as much a result of FED tinkering as threatened rate hikes.

Coping with low interest rates

Historically, in more "normal" interest rate environments, income increases have been more prevalent than income reductions. Overall, income CEF managers coped well with the lowest interest rates ever…. how have they been dealing with the specter of higher rates?

Keep in mind that no actual interest rate change has yet occurred. After six years of artificially low interest rates, many have been forced to reduce their payouts… very few have made significant dividend cuts. Now the interesting part: at current prices, the average dividend yield on 57 taxable CEFs paying over 7.0% is approximately 8.5%; the average on 53 tax free CEFs paying over 6% is about 6.7% The vast majority of all CEFs made their regular scheduled distributions throughout the financial crisis; more actually raised their payouts than reduced them; after six years of close-to-zero rates, higher "coupons" will eventually increase CEF dividend payouts to normal, pre-financial crisis, levels.

The current yield on the MCIM CEF Universe is well above 6% for tax free income and above 8% for taxable. Why is this bad news? Only, yes only, because professional bond traders have to realize losses when they trade… income investors do not have to sell at all…. they can take advantage of "discounts" to increase their spending money.

What's lnside the CEFs:

• Each CEF portfolio contains hundreds of individual issues with varying qualities, maturities, call provisions, etc. The average duration is between 7 and 8 years

• Managers use short term borrowing to purchase additional securities; nothing forces them to borrow at higher rates if they can't still invest profitably

• Managers capitalize on profit-taking opportunities; and are not forced to sell at losses.

• CEF share prices are completely "uncoupled" from NAV; shareholders are investing in the investment company as opposed to owning a piece of the investment portfolio itself.

As I see it, and this is no prediction or recommendation of any specific course of action, CEFs provide investors with the opportunity to take advantage of irrational price dislocations in the income securities market — an opportunity that is difficult for the average investor to capitalize upon using individual securities.

By adding to existing CEF positions, investors increase overall portfolio yield, increase yield on specific holdings, and reduce per share cost basis. Thus, even if some reduced payouts are experienced, the overall level of income is likely to be at least stable, and possibly higher.

Right now, the expectation of higher interest rates is probably the main force driving Closed End Fund prices lower. BUT, particularly if the stock market corrects, higher interest rates and higher demand for safety may cause investors to seek out higher yielding and safer investments.

Never forget, all companies must pay their bond, note, and preferred stock investors BEFORE a penny goes to their Equity investors… income CEFs contain no equities, even though your (purposely) confusing Wall Street account statement tells you that they are equities…. hmmm