Thursday, January 21, 2016

Ultimate Lessons From JP Morgan Healthcare Conference 2016

The end of the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference invites reflection on lessons for investing. The legions of investors populating the Union Square hotels - almost all white, male, and wearing pale blue neckties - will face challenges finding value in the health care sector's long bull market. Bears have already come out of hibernation in the larger US stock market's first two weeks of 2016. They wait to pounce on the health care sector.

Investors could have thrown a dart at the universe of stocks and funds in the large-cap health care sector after 2010 and come away winners. The bull case made sense up until mid-2015. Consider the price trajectory of one very broad health care ETF, iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF (ticker IBB).

iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF (IBB) from Yahoo Finance

Here we see the 5-year price chart for IBB from Yahoo Finance as of January 19, 2016. Its valuation peaked in July 2015. Note that Amgen (ticker AMGN) is one of the top ten holdings. That one stock is off its 52-week high by about 17% even though Motley Fool reports that Amgen had phenomenal things to say about itself at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. Of course, a sector's performance is more than the financial health (pun intended) of one of its widely-held leaders.

The health care sector's long-term performance is very much dependent on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). FactCheck noted in 2014 that the ACA may be contributing to a moderation in the growth rate of per-capita health care spending. The per-capita growth since at least the 1990s has driven the profitability of drug makers and insurers, so any moderation means the sector's companies must seek more customers (i.e., plan enrollees) to sustain their earnings growth. The Economist noted in 2015 that more people are enrolled in health insurance plans even as costs per patient decline. The tradeoff of more customers for less costly coverage was always the grand bargain that the health care sector expected from the ACA to maintain its financial success.

Several CBO reports note that federal health spending continues to grow. We can find one cause for this hidden in FactCheck's 2012 discussion of cuts to growth in Medicare spending. The estimated $716B in growth savings designed to prolong the Medicare trust fund's life covers the issuance of Treasury bonds the trust fund will own. The Treasury's borrowing through such bond issuance will subsidize the ACA health plan exchanges for years. The CBO's March 2015 baseline update on the ACA's fiscal effects shows just how expensive those subsidies will become. The estimated net cost of ACA coverage, including exchange subsidies, totals over $1.2T by 2025. That total more than overtakes the original estimate of $716B Medicare savings. The ACA's effects on health care affordability are an unsustainable burden on the federal government's finances.

The ACA exchanges themselves are facing financial trouble. Premiums from healthier people are not offsetting the tax credits for poorer and sicker people. Twelve of the ACA cooperative health plans have now closed. Insolvent entities cannot continue to operate, and their closure means the surviving eleven co-ops will face more financial stress as sicker people enter their risk pools. The ACA risk corridors are underfunded. Insurers' premiums did not keep up with cost increases for those risk corridors, so either a federal bailout replenishes them or insurers raise their premiums even more. Insurers participating in ACA exchanges are facing unprofitable growth. The ACA's rules and structures force every participant in the health care sector's revenue chain - individual plan subscribers, insurers, and government transfer payment programs - to participate in an increasingly insolvent regime. The financial implications of a collapse in support for the health care sector's revenues would be disastrous for investors.

Watching The Big Short before the JP Morgan conference began offered an indirect lesson in the warning signs of an overheated sector. Only a handful of major investors anticipated the housing market's crash through 2008 by watching how adjustable-rate mortgage rates destroyed the value of pooled securities. The canary in the coal mine to watch is always whether a payment stream is sufficient to support asset valuations. Health care payments are a convoluted jumble of insurance premiums and government reimbursements. Collapsing intermediaries will obstruct such payment streams and endanger the valuation of any security tied to the health care sector. Investors will eventually have an opportunity to make their own big short in health care, much like the home mortgage big short. Analysts can someday decide which short is bigger.

Full disclosure: No positions in any securities mentioned.