How an Ex-Teacher Turned a Tiny Pension Into a Giant-Killer - Kanebridge News
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How an Ex-Teacher Turned a Tiny Pension Into a Giant-Killer

A bold bet on rising rates lifted a small Massachusetts fund near the top of the performance rankings

By MATT WIRZ
Mon, May 27, 2024 11:40amGrey Clock 5 min

Plymouth County is known for Pilgrims, cranberries—and a top-performing pension fund run by a 65-year-old former schoolteacher.

After a decade of mostly ho-hum performance, the $1.4 billion Plymouth County Retirement Association ranked in the top 10% of U.S. pensions over the past three years. Key to that success was an early—and prescient—bet that interest rates would rise. That buoyed the fund through big chunks of the past two years, when climbing rates hammered both stocks and bonds.

Now markets of all kinds have posted a six-month rally , stocks are hitting records and Plymouth risks falling behind again. But Peter Manning, the fund’s director of investments, is sticking to his guns. The hope that rates will fall soon is misplaced, he said. Another downturn could be coming for Wall Street.

And so, to Manning, the best way to enlarge the pension long term is by avoiding big losses, rather than chasing high returns.

“It ain’t about what you make. It’s about what you keep,” he said.

Beating the big guys

The fund, which manages savings for the county’s firefighters, bus drivers and custodians, delivered average annual net returns of 5.7% in the three years ending Dec. 31. That put it ahead of 92% of pensions nationally. The median U.S. public retirement fund returned 3.7% over the same period, according to Investment Metrics, a portfolio analysis provider.

Plymouth County surpassed bigger peers by slashing exposure to Treasurys and public stocks before they tanked in 2022. The fund then reinvested the money in infrastructure, private equity and inflation-protected debt.

While many other public plans have followed suit , the trades were also unusually quick for pension funds, which often change investments incrementally rather than in bold strokes.

“A lot of our clients made moves on the margin,” said Daniel Dynan, a managing principal at Meketa Investment Group, Plymouth County’s investment consultant. “The difference in Plymouth is the magnitude of the change.”

An unlikely trendsetter

With only 10,500 members, the fund is an unlikely trendsetter. U.S. public pensions guarantee retirement and benefit payments to 34 million members nationally, according to data from the Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank. Plymouth County, which lies south of Boston, encompasses mostly middle-class suburbs, but also some wealthy enclaves and gritty urban areas. It is split between Democratic and Republican voters.

A decade ago, Plymouth County had only about half of the money it needed to make expected payments for its retirees. An accounting change in 2012 drastically widened shortfalls for most public pensions across the country.

At the same time, the board overseeing the fund, which had spent years relying solely on an outside consultant, was dissatisfied with its investment performance. The approach resembled the classic mix of 60% stocks and 40% bonds popular with ordinary investors.

“We were doing what everyone else was doing, running a 60-40 portfolio and hoping for the best,” said Tom O’Brien, Plymouth County’s treasurer and chairman of the pension board.

From teacher to investor

The county hired Manning to advise the board on investment strategy in 2012. He had never managed a pension fund before.

“I was a schoolteacher [in the 1980s] in a suburb of Boston and one day, after staring at 20 vacuous stares, I had a talk with my Uncle Bill, a currency trader,” Manning said.

He spent two decades trading commodity futures at his uncle’s brokerage in Boston and stocks at brokerages in Chicago. Then he became a financial adviser to wealthy individuals and families at Merrill Lynch on Cape Cod.

The job at Plymouth County involved a small pay cut, but offered the opportunity to run a nine-figure portfolio for public employees. He got a taste of how painful rising rates could be in May 2013, when comments by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke sent bond prices tumbling in what became known as the “taper tantrum.”

“We lost $20 million in three trading days and it took us 36 months of clipping coupons to make that back,” Manning said. Coupons are the interest payments bondholders receive.

Initially, Manning and O’Brien focused on boosting alternative investments such as private equity and infrastructure, which made up less than 5% of the fund. They were part of a flock of pension funds seeking alternative investments for higher returns .

Plymouth County hired Meketa as a consultant in 2015, and private-equity and infrastructure investments climbed to nearly 15% by 2020, according to fund financial reports. Returns improved.

“They have a level of comfort being different,” said Dynan.

A contrarian call

Markets were on a tear the following year, lifted by the economy’s reopening from the pandemic. But Manning grew concerned in the summer about inflation. While many on Wall Street were calling price increases transitory, he worried inflation would persist, triggering rate increases and declines in stocks and bonds.

“We were going to conferences and being told that inflation was a paper tiger, or ‘this is not your father’s inflation,’” O’Brien said.

Manning consulted Bob Sydow, a high-yield bond fund manager at Mesirow who manages part of the pension’s money. Like Manning, he has worked on Wall Street since the 1980s.

“The money supply grew 43% over 26 months during Covid,” Sydow said. “I called it ‘free-range’ money and I thought it would generate a lot of inflation.”

From October 2021 to February 2022, Plymouth County pension sold about $80 million of its public stocks, or 6% of the fund’s assets, according to an email viewed by The Wall Street Journal. It shifted into real estate and infrastructure as well as short-term and floating-rate debt that is less sensitive to rising rates than traditional bonds, Manning said.

The fund lost 6.5% in 2022 while the median U.S. pension plan lost 14%. That outperformance has helped it stay ahead of other funds, even after it lagged behind the average in 2023.

Now, inflation remains above the Fed’s targets , and analysts’ forecasts for multiple rate cuts this year seem less certain. Plymouth County is keeping its strategy relatively unchanged, betting that rates will remain steady—or even climb.

Many investors are buying back into bonds because yields are at multiyear highs and they expect cuts by the Fed to trigger a rally. Manning takes a different tack. He thinks rates could stay high far longer than the Wall Street consensus, so he is using infrastructure funds to deliver income rather than bonds.

“Why do you have to own bonds at all in 2024?” Manning said. “It’s a legitimate question.”



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These stocks are getting hit for a reason. Instead, focus on stocks that show ‘relative strength.’ Here’s how.

By KEN SHREVE
Wed, Jun 12, 2024 4 min

A lot of investors get stock-picking wrong before they even get started: Instead of targeting the top-performing stocks in the market, they focus on the laggards—widely known companies that look as if they are on sale after a period of stock-price weakness.

But these weak performers usually are going down for good reasons, such as for deteriorating sales and earnings, market-share losses or mutual-fund managers who are unwinding positions.

Decades of Investor’s Business Daily research shows these aren’t the stocks that tend to become stock-market leaders. The stocks that reward investors with handsome gains for months or years are more often  already  the strongest price performers, usually because of outstanding earnings and sales growth and increasing fund ownership.

Of course, many investors already chase performance and pour money into winning stocks. So how can a discerning investor find the winning stocks that have more room to run?

Enter “relative strength”—the notion that strength begets more strength. Relative strength measures stocks’ recent performance relative to the overall market. Investing in stocks with high relative strength means going with the winners, rather than picking stocks in hopes of a rebound. Why bet on a last-place team when you can wager on the leader?

One of the easiest ways to identify the strongest price performers is with IBD’s Relative Strength Rating. Ranked on a scale of 1-99, a stock with an RS rating of 99 has outperformed 99% of all stocks based on 12-month price performance.

How to use the metric

To capitalise on relative strength, an investor’s search should be focused on stocks with RS ratings of at least 80.

But beware: While the goal is to buy stocks that are performing better than the overall market, stocks with the highest RS ratings aren’t  always  the best to buy. No doubt, some stocks extend rallies for years. But others will be too far into their price run-up and ready to start a longer-term price decline.

Thus, there is a limit to chasing performance. To avoid this pitfall, investors should focus on stocks that have strong relative strength but have seen a moderate price decline and are just coming out of weeks or months of trading within a limited range. This range will vary by stock, but IBD research shows that most good trading patterns can show declines of up to one-third.

Here, a relative strength line on a chart may be helpful for confirming an RS rating’s buy signal. Offered on some stock-charting tools, including IBD’s, the line is a way to visualise relative strength by comparing a stock’s price performance relative to the movement of the S&P 500 or other benchmark.

When the line is sloping upward, it means the stock is outperforming the benchmark. When it is sloping downward, the stock is lagging behind the benchmark. One reason the RS line is helpful is that the line can rise even when a stock price is falling, meaning its value is falling at a slower pace than the benchmark.

A case study

The value of relative strength could be seen in Google parent Alphabet in January 2020, when its RS rating was 89 before it started a 10-month run when the stock rose 64%. Meta Platforms ’ RS rating was 96 before the Facebook parent hit new highs in March 2023 and ran up 65% in four months. Abercrombie & Fitch , one of 2023’s best-performing stocks, had a 94 rating before it soared 342% in nine months starting in June 2023.

Those stocks weren’t flukes. In a study of the biggest stock-market winners from the early 1950s through 2008, the average RS rating of the best performers before they began their major price runs was 87.

To see relative strength in action, consider Nvidia . The chip stock was an established leader, having shot up 365% from its October 2022 low to its high of $504.48 in late August 2023.

But then it spent the next four months rangebound—giving up some ground, then gaining some back. Through this period, shares held between $392.30 and the August peak, declining no more than 22% from top to bottom.

On Jan. 8, Nvidia broke out of its trading range to new highs. The previous session, Nvidia’s RS rating was 97. And that week, the stock’s relative strength line hit new highs. The catalyst: Investors cheered the company’s update on its latest advancements in artificial intelligence.

Nvidia then rose 16% on Feb. 22 after the company said earnings for the January-ended quarter soared 486% year over year to $5.16 a share. Revenue more than tripled to $22.1 billion. It also significantly raised its earnings and revenue guidance for the quarter that was to end in April. In all, Nvidia climbed 89% from Jan. 5 to its March 7 close.

And the stock has continued to run up, surging past $1,000 a share in late May after the company exceeded that guidance for the April-ended quarter and delivered record revenue of $26 billion and record net profit of $14.88 billion.

Ken Shreve  is a senior markets writer at Investor’s Business Daily. Follow him on X  @IBD_KShreve  for more stock-market analysis and insights, or contact him at  ken.shreve@investors.com .