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Riley: Buffett, Stock Market, and Bitcoin

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett is the master and recently amidst Bitcoin and stock market mania he has been asked to opine on the activity. Sadly Mr. Buffett is currently talking out of both sides of his mouth. While his advice is delivered in the usual humble homespun style he is famous for, the message is confusing and potentially dangerous to vulnerable investors.

Mr. Buffett has long advised average individuals to invest for the long term using low-cost index funds or ETFs. Saving money and investing in America is key. That remains Buffett’s advice today. But aren’t there points in time when “Mr. Market” is behaving irrationally?  Of course, there are! Buffett has opined on several occasions about market valuation and the odds of prospective above or below average returns.

In 1987, Warren referred to the crash of 30% in a few days as a “seizure” and an opportunity. In the late 1990s Buffett became vocally bearish delivering several public warnings.

Buffett has repeatedly focused attention on his favorite indicator known as “The Buffett Indicator” The indicator compares Total Stock Market Capitalization relative to US GDP. That indicator spooked him in the late 1990s early 2000s.

This Time is Different

As can be seen from this chart, we are now at a level in this indicator that has many followers very concerned. But Buffett has for some time explained that the low-interest rate environment has existed far beyond his predictions and expectations. Admitting he does not understand why rates are so low and so persistent he now values stocks using a much lower discount rate thus increasing the present value of earnings and the present value of the stock market.

He sees the current market as rationale and may be undervalued. 

What is the discount rate he uses? What was it? We know that he has repeatedly warned that public pension plans are severely underfunded and are inappropriately using projected compounded returns as high as Providence’s 8% when they should use something closer to 5 %. 

So, how does that square with his current expectations of a low-interest rate environment? What kind of return does Buffett expect going forward? Is he telling us to invest?

It can be very confusing to understand why Buffett thinks stocks are fair valued now and were also fair value 11 months ago with the market 20% lower? Recently Jeremy Graham predicted a “melt-up” at the same time he is advising his clients that over the next 7 years his clients will be lucky to earn anything in US stocks. What gives? 

Both Buffett and Graham clearly think that this time is different and now suddenly neither expert can estimate the current value of the Dow within tens of thousandths of points. Is it worth 26,000 today or 50,000? Sounds a bit like Bitcoin, doesn’t it?  People are greedy and will obviously prefer Jeremy Grahams melt-up scenario to his “official” seven years of losses scenario.

In Buffett’s new low-interest rate paradigm, valuations based on a discounted cash flow model, as his mentor Ben Graham (no relation to Jeremy) might have done become wildly variable as risk-free interest rates go towards zero. How should we value future earnings and dividends in a negative interest rate environment? Is it possible that the fair value could be infinite, if earnings continue to grow at double digits and rates go negative?

Stock Market performance is now front-page news and investors are right to question, “Is the stock market too high?  Should we expect more 20% annual returns?"

Similar to the Bitcoin frenzy, the more we listen to the so-called experts, the more confusing it all becomes. Are there really any experts? Does anyone know what the stock market will do over any given period of time? The answer is a flat out ….NO!

My Two Cents

As a professional trader, hedge fund manager and investment advisor for the last 40 years I have learned quite a few things and I have a few rules.

  • Know what you don’t know.
  • Be humble and don’t overcommit.
  • Understand and manage your own risk


These rules apply to trading and investing for the longer term. The rules apply to everyone regardless of knowledge, intelligence or experience. This does not mean for investors to ignore experienced advice or academic theory. Be humble, realize that there are points in time where the odds are in your favor, or that you have a unique understanding of an investment and its probability of being profitable. There are also times to take money off the table and reduce risk.

Michael G. Riley is vice chair at Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity and is managing member and founder of Coastal Management Group, LLC. Riley has 35 years of experience in the financial industry, having managed divisions of PaineWebber, LETCO, and TD Securities (TD Bank). He has been quoted in Barron’s, Wall Street Transcript, NY Post, and various other print media and also appeared on NBC News, Yahoo TV, and CNBC. 


Related Slideshow: GoLocal: Benchmark Poll, October 2017

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Sponsor: GoLocalProv

Sample: N=403

Rhode Island General Election Voters Margin of Error: +/- 4.9% at 95% Confidence Level

Interviewing Period: October 9-11, 2017

Mode: Landline (61%) and Mobile (39%)

Telephone Directed by: John Della Volpe, SocialSphere, Inc.

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Are you registered to vote at this address?

Yes: 100%

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When it comes to voting, do you consider yourself to be affiliated with the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Moderate, or Unaffiliated with a major party?

Unaffiliated: 49%

Democrat: 32%

Republican: 15%

Moderate: .4%

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Next year, in November of 2018, there will be a statewide general election for Governor and many other state offices. How likely is it that you will vote in this election?

Will you definitely be voting, will you probably be voting, are you 50-50...

Definitely be voting: 78%

Probably be voting: 13%

50-50: 9%

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In general, would you say things in Rhode Island are headed in the right direction or are they off on the wrong track?

Right track: 39%

Wrong track: 45%

Mixed: 10%

Don't know/Refused: .6%

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What would you say is the number one problem facing Rhode Island that you would like the Governor to address?

Jobs and economy:  21%

Education: 12%

Taxes: 12%

Roads: 12%

State budget: 9%

Corruption/Public integrity: .8%

Healthcare: 3%

Governor: 3%

Homelessness: 2%

Immigration: 2%

Other: 7%

Don’t know: .9%

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Over the past three years or so, would you say the economy in Rhode Island has improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 35%

Changed for the worse: 16%

Not changed at all: 43%

Don't know/Refused: 5%

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Over the same time, has your family's financial situation improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 26%

Changed for the worse: 19%

Not changed at all: 54%

Don't know/Refused: 1%

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Recently, a proposal has been made to permit the issuance of $81 million in bonds by the State to build a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox. If there was an election today on this issue, would you vote to approve or reject issuing $81 million in financing supported moral obligation bonds to build the stadium?

Net: Approve: 28%

Definitely approve: 15%

Probably approve: 14%

Net: Reject: 67%

Probably reject: 19%

Definitely reject: 48%

Don't know: 4%

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Could you please tell me your age?

18-24: 7%

25-34: 15%

35-44: 15%

45-54: 20%

55-64: 17%

65+: 25%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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What was the last grade you completed in school?

0-11: 2%

High school grad: 16%

Technical/Vocational school: 1%

Some college: 23%

College grad: 34%

Graduate degree: 24%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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The next question is about the total income of YOUR HOUSEHOLD for the PAST 12 MONTHS. Please include your income PLUS the income of all members living in your household (including cohabiting partners and armed forces members living at home).

$50,000 or less: 27%

More $50,000 but less than $75,000: 13%

More $75,000 but less than $100,000: 13%

More $100,000 but less than $150,000: 17%

$150,000 or more: 13%

Don't know/refused: 17%

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What particular ethnic group or nationality - such as English, French, Italian, Irish, Latino, Jewish, African American, and so forth - do you consider yourself a part of or feel closest to?

American/None: 21%

English: 13%

Italian: 13%

Irish: 12%

Black or African American: 6%

Latino/Hispanic: 6%

French: 6%

Portuguese: 3%

Jewish: 3%

German: 1%

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Would you say that Donald Trump has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as President?

Excellent: 13%
Good: 12%
Fair: 14%
Poor: 57%
Never heard of:  0%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Jack Reed has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 22%
Good: 29%
Fair: 23%
Poor: 15%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 6%

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Would you say that Sheldon Whitehouse has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 17%
Good: 22%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 28%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 7%

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Would you say that David Cicilline has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 9%
Good: 29%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 27%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate:  8%

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Would you say that James Langevin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 7%
Good: 30%
Fair: 20%
Poor: 18%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 11%

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Would you say that Gina Raimondo has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Governor?

Excellent: 6%
Good: 28%
Fair: 30%
Poor: 31%
Never heard of: 1%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Daniel McKee has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Lieutenant Governor?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 16%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 8%
Never heard of: 26%
Cannot rate: 25%

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Would you say that Peter Kilmartin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Attorney General?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 20%
Fair: 28%
Poor: 17%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 19%

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Would you say that Seth Magaziner has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as General Treasurer?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 18%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 13%
Never heard of: 21%
Cannot rate: 21%

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Would you say that Nellie Gorbea has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Secretary of State?

Excellent: 5%
Good: 21%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 10%
Never heard of: 20%
Cannot rate: 23%

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Would you say that Jorge Elorza has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Mayor of Providence?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 24%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 22%
Never heard of: 9%
Cannot rate: 15%


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