Photo Credit: Robert Tuck || Of course, in half a cycle here, the moon will look the same

Photo Credit: Robert Tuck || Of course, in half a cycle here, the moon will look the same

 

Financial markets are trendy and noisy in the short-run, sensible in the long-run, and perverse in the intermediate-term.

What do I mean?

Something like this: short-run movements are news-driven, and driven by people trying to catch up with the latest data.  Many people imitate the behavior of others, and over the intermediate-term, some stock prices get out of whack.  Some subset of industries, factors, and/or companies gets out of alignment, and are mispriced.  In the long run, those pricing errors get corrected, but it takes years to get there.

Here’s an example. to make this tangible and understandable.  As a factor, value has been bad for eight years or so, and as evidence I quote Rob Arnott, from his article entitled, ‘How Can “Smart Beta” Go Horribly Wrong?

The value effect was first identified in the late 1970s, notably by Basu (1977), in the aftermath of the Nifty Fifty bubble, a period when value stocks were becoming increasingly expensive, priced at an ever-skinnier discount relative to growth stocks. More recently, for the past eight years, value investing has been a disaster with the Russell 1000 Value Index underperforming the S&P 500 by 1.6% a year, and the Fama–French value factor in large-cap stocks returning −4.8% annually over the same period. But, the value effect is far from dead! In fact, it’s in its cheapest decile in history.

And then later he says:

How many practitioners who rely on the value factor take the time to gauge whether the factor is expensive or cheap relative to historical norms? If they took the time to do so today, they would find value is currently cheaper than at any time other than the height of the Nifty Fifty (1972–73), the tech bubble (1998–2003), and the global financial crisis (2008–09).

The underlining is mine, to give emphasis. Now I would like to quote from a very old article of mine, The Fundamentals of Market Tops that was originally published at RealMoney.com back in 2004:

You’ll know a market top is probably coming when:

a) The shorts already have been killed. You don’t hear about them anymore. There is general embarrassment over investments in short-only funds.

b) Long-only managers are getting butchered for conservatism. In early 2000, we saw many eminent value investors give up around the same time. Julian Robertson, George Vanderheiden, Robert Sanborn, Gary Brinson and Stanley Druckenmiller all stepped down shortly before the market top.

Point (b) is what I want to highlight… not that we have had many value managers forced into retirement recently, but value funds of all kinds have been losing clients. It’s like being fired fractionally, a sliver at a time, but it adds up to a lot.

Combine that with Arnott’s insight that the valuations of value stocks are at exceptionally low levels – this gives me some hope that we are in the seventh inning or later in this market cycle regarding value investing.

Going Back a Step

Value isn’t the only cheap area presently — European stocks and emerging market stocks look cheap as well.  When areas of the market with bad relative performance have a lot of people giving up on them to pursue recently successful strategies, that helps to put in the bottom on the underperformers, and the top on the outperformers.

You can’t tell exactly when the process will end, but those jumping from one strategy to another, chasing performance, will just add a new set of losses to the old ones.  The trick is to try to anticipate when the cycle will turn for a given market strategy, factor or industry.  No one can do it perfectly, but it makes sense to act when relative valuations are in your favor.

Minimally, those that stick with a valid strategy through thick and thin can benefit from the strategy over the long-term… and that takes some courage, because there are times when your strategy will be out of favor.  That’s what I do with value investing.

Maximally, you would sell a strategy that you were invested in that was topping out in relative terms to buy a strategy that has been trashed for a while, and might be ready to outperform.  That’s even more difficult than sticking with one strategy through thick and thin.  Everyone wants to buy a past winner, and nobody wants to buy a past loser. but that is what would offer large returns if the timing could be right.  Another way of phrasing it, is to always look half a cycle ahead, to where a strategy will be when the excesses correct, or as is more likely, overcorrect, and take the appropriate action now.

Doing that is beyond me.  I’m just grateful that the period of relative underperformance of value may be nearing its end.

In general, I tend not to go in for macro themes.  Why?  I tend to get them wrong, and I think most investors also get them wrong, or at least, don’t get them right consistently.

I do have one macro theme, and it has served me well for a long time, though not over the past two years.  I was using the theme as early as 2000, but finally articulated it in 2006.

At that time, I was running my equity strategy for my employer, as well as in my personal account.  They used it for their profit sharing plan and endowment.  They liked it because it was different from what the firm did to make money, which was mostly off of financial companies, both public and private.  They didn’t want employees to worry that their accrued profit sharing bonuses would be in jeopardy if the firm’s ordinary businesses got into trouble.  In general, a good idea.

At the end of the year, I needed to give a presentation to all of the employees on how I had been managing their money.  Because my strategies had been working well, it would be an easy presentation to make… but as I looked at the prior year presentation, I felt that I needed to say more.  It was at that moment that the macro theme that i had been working with became clear to me, and I called it: Our Growing World.

The idea is this: in a post-Cold War world where most economies have accepted the basic idea of Capitalism to varying degrees, there should be growth, and that growth should create a growing middle class globally.  This middle class would be less well-off than what we presently see in America and Western Europe, at least not initially, but would manifest itself in a lot of demand for food, energy, and a variety of commodities and machinery as the middle class grew.

Now, I never committed everything to this theme, ever.  Maybe one-third of the portfolio was influenced by it, on averaged.  Most of what I do was and still is more influenced by my industry models, and by bottom-up stock-picking.

That said, the theme has a cyclical bias, and cyclicals have been kicked lately.  I still think the theme is valid, but will have to wait for overinvestment and overproduction in certain industries to get rationalized globally.  Were this only a US problem, it might be easier to deal with because we’re far more willing to let things fail, and let the bankruptcy process sort these matters out.  Governments in the rest of the world tend to interfere more, particularly if it is to protect a company that is a “national champion.”

But the rationalization will take place, and so until then in cyclical industries I try to own financially strong companies that are cheap.  They will survive until the cycle turns, and make good money after that.  That said, the billion dollar question remains — when will the cycle turn?

More next time, when I write about my industry model.

Photo Credit: Paul Saad

Photo Credit: Paul Saad || What’s more cyclical than a mine in South Africa?

This is the first of a series of related posts.  I took a one month break from blogging because of business challenges.  As this series progresses, I will divulge a little more about that.

When I look at stocks at present, I don’t find a lot that is cheap outside of the stocks of companies that will do well if the global economy starts growing more quickly in nominal terms.  As it is, those companies have been taken through the shredder, and trade near their 52-week lows, if not their decade lows.

Unless an industry can be done away with in entire, some of the stocks an economically sensitive industry will survive and even soar on the other side of the economic cycle.  At least, that was my experience in 2003, but you have to own the companies with balance sheets that are strong enough to survive the through of the cycle.  (In some cases, you might need to own the debt, and not the common equity.)

The hard question is when the cycle will turn.  My guess is that government policy will have little to do with the turn, because the various developed countries are doing nothing to clear away the abundance of debt, which lowers the marginal productivity of capital.  Monetary policy seems to be pursuing a closed loop where little incremental lending gets to lower quality borrowers, and a lot goes to governments.

But economies are greater than the governments that try to milk them.  There is a growing middle class around the world, and along with that, a growing need for food, energy, and basic consumer goods.  That is the long run, absent war, plague, resurgent socialism, etc.

To give an example of how markets can decouple from government policy, consider the corporate bond market, and lending options for consumers.  The Fed can keep the Fed funds rate low, but aside from the strongest borrowers, the yields that lesser borrowers borrow at are high, and reflect the intrinsic risk of loss, not the temporary provision of cheap capital to banks and other strong borrowers.

It’s more difficult to sort through when accumulated organic demand will eventually well up and drive industries that are more economically sensitive.  Over-indebted governments can not and will not be the driver here.  (Maybe monetary policy like the 1970s could do it… what a thought.)

So, what to do when the economic outlook for a wide number of industries that look seemingly cheap are poor?  My answer is buy one of the strongest names in each industry, and then focus the rest of the portfolio on industries with better current prospects that are relatively cheap.

Anyway, this is the first of a few articles on this topic.  My next one should be on industry valuation and price momentum.  Fasten your seatbelts and don your peril-sensitive sunglasses.  It will be an ugly trip.

I had the fun today of taping a segment with Ameera David on RT Boom/Bust. The above video covers the first half of the session, and lasts about seven minutes. We covered the following topics (with links to articles of mine, if any are applicable):

The second half, should it make it onto the show, deals mostly with international issues.  Enjoy the video, if you want to.

At Abnormal Returns, over the weekend, Tadas Viskanta featured a free article from Credit Suisse called the Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook 2015.  It featured articles on whether the returns on industries as a whole mean-revert or have momentum, whether there is a valuation effect on industry returns, “social responsibility” in investing, and the existence of equity discount rate for the market as a whole.

There are no surprises in the articles — it is all “dog bites man.”  They find that:

  • Industry returns exhibit momentum
  • There is a valuation component in industry returns
  • Socially responsible investing doesn’t necessarily produce or miss excess returns
  • There is an overall equity discount rate, which is levered about 20-25 times, i.e., a 1% increase in the rate lowers valuations by 20-25%.

The first two are well-known for individual stocks, so it isn’t surprising that it happens at the industry level.  The third one has been written about ad nauseam, with many conflicting opinions, so that there is little effect is no big surprise.  The last one resembles research I saw in the mid-90s, where the effect of changes in real interest rates has about that impact on stocks.  Again, nothing new — which is as it should be.

But now some more on industry returns.  They found that industry return momentum was significant.  Industries that did well one year were likely to do well in the next year.  The second finding was that industries with cheap valuations also tended to do well, but it was a smaller effect.

So, using one-year price returns as my momentum variable and book-to-market as a valuation variable (both suggested in the article), I divided industries for companies trading in the US into quintiles (also suggested in the article) for momentum and valuation.  (Each quintile has roughly 20% of the total market cap.)  Here is the result:

IMVC

 

Low valuations are at the right, high at the left.  Low momentum at the top, high momentum at the bottom.  Ideally by this method, you would look for industries in the southeast corner.

To me, Agriculture, Information Technology, Security, Waste, Some Retail, and Some Transportation look interesting.  One in the far southeast that is not so interesting for me is P&C Insurance.  Yes, it has done well, and compared to other industries, it is cheap.  But industry surplus has grown significantly, leading to more competition, and sagging premium rates.  Probably not a great time to make new commitments there.

Anyway, the above table should print out nicely on two sheets of letter-sized paper.  Not that it would be a substitute for your own due diligence, but perhaps it could start a few ideas going.  All for now.

Media Credit: Terence Wright

Media Credit: Terence Wright

This will be a short post. If we get a significant updraft in the price of oil, and Saudi production policy has not changed, you might want to sell crude oil price-sensitive assets. The marginal cost of production for a lot of crude oil that is shale related is around $50/barrel, and that is where I think the market “equilibrium” will bounce around for a few years, until global growth picks up.

I hold my positions for longer periods of time, so I may not do much off of this, but I would expect crude oil prices to be range-bound for a few years, with all of the volatility which a global commodity can have.

That’s all folks.

As part of a continuing quest to turn up stock ideas in the midst of a market hitting new highs, I wanted to trot out a less commonly used statistic called “range.”  Range is the distance that a company’s stock price is between its 52-week low and 52-week high.  0% means the current price is at the 52-week low, and 100% means the current price is at the 52-week  high.  So far, simple, right?  How might industries look if their weighted average range statistics were calculated, weighted by market cap?

RANGE_16247_image002The top zone, which is shaded light red, are industries that are above the median range statistic in the market which is around 78.5% (average is around 72.2%).  The industries shaded yellow represent industries where the stocks are closer to their 52-week high than their 52-week low, but are have average range statistics lower than the median of the market.  Finally, the industries shaded green, what few there are, their current prices are closer to their 52-week low on average.

Personally, I would be inclined to look through the industries toward the bottom of the list, looking for misunderstood companies that have good potential of future outperformance.  That said, someone thinking that this rally would have a long way to go would be incented to look for companies at the top of the list who have trends that are underdiscounted.

As it is, this is where the industries are priced in terms of the past 52 weeks.  You could look at the industries with the view of finding things that are out of place, and prices could shift in the future to reflect it.

If nothing else, this is food for thought.  Technology, Utilities and Healthcare look strong.  Basic materials, Capital Goods, and Consumer Durables look weaker.

All for now.  Be careful.

Industry Ranks 6_1521_image002My main industry model is illustrated in the graphic. Green industries are cold. Red industries are hot. If you like to play momentum, look at the red zone, and ask the question, “Where are trends under-discounted?” Price momentum tends to persist, but look for areas where it might be even better in the near term.

If you are a value player, look at the green zone, and ask where trends are over-discounted. Yes, things are bad, but are they all that bad? Perhaps the is room for mean reversion.

My candidates from both categories are in the column labeled “Dig through.”

You might notice that I have no industries from the red zone. That is because the market is so high. I only want to play in cold industries. They won’t get so badly hit in a decline, and they might have some positive surprises.

If you use any of this, choose what you use off of your own trading style. If you trade frequently, stay in the red zone. Trading infrequently, play in the green zone — don’t look for momentum, look for mean reversion. I generally play in the green zone because I hold stocks for 3 years on average.

Whatever you do, be consistent in your methods regarding momentum/mean-reversion, and only change methods if your current method is working well.

Huh? Why change if things are working well? I’m not saying to change if things are working well. I’m saying don’t change if things are working badly. Price momentum and mean-reversion are cyclical, and we tend to make changes at the worst possible moments, just before the pattern changes. Maximum pain drives changes for most people, which is why average investors don’t make much money.

Maximum pleasure when things are going right leaves investors fat, dumb, and happy — no one thinks of changing then. This is why a disciplined approach that forces changes on a portfolio is useful, as I do 3-4 times a year. It forces me to be bloodless and sell stocks with less potential for those with more potential over the next 1-5 years.

I like some technology stocks here, some industrials, some healthcare and consumer stocks, particularly those that are strongly capitalized.

I’m looking for undervalued industries. I’m not saying that there is always a bull market out there, and I will find it for you. But there are places that are relatively better, and I have done relatively well in finding them.

At present, I am trying to be defensive. I don’t have a lot of faith in the market as a whole, so I am biased toward the green zone, looking for mean-reversion, rather than momentum persisting. The red zone is pretty cyclical at present. I will be very happy hanging out in dull stocks for a while.

That said, some dull companies are fetching some pricey valuations these days, particularly those with above average dividends. This is an overbought area of the market, and it is just a matter of time before the flight to relative safety reverses.

The Red Zone has a Lot of utilities and other dividend-paying industries; as I said, be wary.  What I find fascinating about the red momentum zone now, is that it is loaded with cyclical companies.

In the green zone, I picked almost all of the industries. If the companies are sufficiently well-capitalized, and the valuation is low, it can still be an rewarding place to do due diligence.

Will cyclical companies continue to do well? Will the economy continue to limp along, or might it be better or worse?

But what would the stock screening model suggest that I have displayed the last few times I have done this post?

Wish I could tell you.  In an “upgrade” Value Line’s stock screener can’t do the Value Line subscription that it used to, because its 3-5 Year Projected Annual Total Return field is blank for the screening software.

Maybe next time, but until then, play it conservative in your industry and stock selections — look for companies that can easily survive if industry conditions worsen.  Once weaker players are marginalized, they will do well.

I received a survey in the mail on Trading/Investing.  I felt that if I was going to answer it, I may as well do it for my readers.  Here goes:

 

1) How long have you been trading?

I’ve been investing for my own account for 25 years.  During that time, I’ve done a lot of different things:

  • Played around with closed-end funds, and shorted overvalued companies 1989-1993
  • Value investing for myself 1993-98, with a lot of microcap value thrown in.  (Weird stuff, and very illiquid.)
  • Created multiple manager funds for group pension business 1995-1998 — got to interview many of the best managers at that time.
  • Set investment policies for a some major life insurers 1993-2003
  • For major life insurers — Mortgage bond manager 1998-2001, Corporate bond manager 2001-2003, Investment risk manager 1993-2003.
  • Small deal arbitrage for myself 1998-2000
  • Settled on my current value investing strategy, as expressed by my eight rules 2000-2014
  • Buy side analyst for a financials only hedge fund 2003-2007.  Managed the firm’s profit sharing and endowment monies using my value investing strategy.
  • Started my RIA in 2011, to offer clients my value strategy — they get a clone of what I own in my value strategy.  I am my largest client, and I eat my own cooking.

2) What style of trading / investing do you practice (technically driven, fundamental, systematic, a combination etc)?

Mostly fundamental.  Most of my trading is governed by these rules:

Rebalance the portfolio whenever a stock gets more than 20% away from its target weight. Run a largely equal-weighted portfolio because it is genuinely difficult to tell what idea is the best. Keep about 30-40 names for diversification purposes.

I tend to resist momentum in the intermediate term.  From my era of hiring managers, those that used this technique said it added 1-3% to performance.  I think that’s about right.

Make changes to the portfolio 3-4 times per year. Evaluate the replacement candidates as a group against the current portfolio. New additions must be better than the median idea currently in the portfolio. Companies leaving the portfolio must be below the median idea currently in the portfolio.

I limit changes to the portfolio, because it takes time for investment ideas to play out.  I turn over the portfolio at a ~30% rate.  I try to be as businesslike as possible when I sell a company and buy another.  Investors can be very good at evaluating whether a company or group of companies, is better than another company or group of companies.  What is harder is asking, “Would I rather hold cash than this company?”

3) How do you feel when a trade goes against you?

Good.  I get to buy a little more at a lower price, after I check my investment thesis, which if it does not check out, I sell the whole thing.  For the few trades that do badly for a long time — 20 of them over the last 25 years, of course it hurts, but the gains far outweigh the losses, so I ignore those, except to memorialize why the failure happened, and feed that back into my investing processes.  Every time I have lost badly, it was because I violated at least one of my rules.

4) How do you feel when a trade goes for you?

I like it, but I let my rules govern my trading.  Everything is done by rules; there is almost no discretion in my trading.

5) How have these feelings changed over your trading career?  (Can you recall how you originally used to feel and elaborate on how this has changed over time?)

When I was 20-25 years younger, every move in the markets would make me excited.  By the mid-90s, I got my emotions under control.  I learned to focus on eliminating risk on the front end, so that I would have fewer problems on the back end.

6) Do you have any practices that you do away from the trading screen to help you mentally and emotionally handle trading? (e.g. meditation, yoga, running, Tai Chi, kicking the dog, hitting the bottle etc)

I pray to Jesus Christ every day, but that is not a means to handle trading.  I ask Him to guide my decisions, and that I would do my investing to glorify Him.

Because I use my rules, there is little, if any, stress over trading.  My processes are designed to take my emotion out of my infrequent buying and selling.

7) Have you always done this? 

I’ve done this for the last 14 years.  Prior to that, I was experimenting and developing my methods.

My time managing bond assets for life insurers taught me a lot about trading 1998-2003.  I traded over $10 Billion in bonds over that short window of time.  I was far more active as a bond manager, because it was simpler to ascertain when value-enhancing trades could be done.  That fed into my value investing processes, which are designed to mimic the way a bond trader would look at stocks.

8) If not, how have you learnt to deal with the feelings that come up when trading?

Look, first, it’s only money.  If you don’t take some significant losses during your life, you probably aren’t taking enough risk.

Second, investing takes time.  I hold my positions three years on average, and the longest positions have been there for 5-10 years.  A tree in my backyard won’t grow any faster if I worry about it.  The same is true of my stocks.  I review them quarterly.  Between those times, I try to muffle the nose, aside from rebalancing trades which resist the market.

9) Can you describe a time in your trading life which really rammed home the point that so much of trading comes down to psychological factors?

As a value investor, I don’t worry much about trading.  In 2000 & 2008, I did detailed studies of my trading.  In 2000, I found that many of my best trades stemmed from getting the industry right.  In 2008, I found that my top 11 gains paid for all of my losses, 2000-2008.  That was with a 70/30 win/loss ratio, and 180-190 stocks held over the period.

10) If you could give aspiring traders one piece of advice about emotionally handling the market what would it be?

If we are talking traders, it would be this: start out each morning looking at the disasters of the day, and then wait for volume to climax, and price to nadir.  Wait about 5-10 minutes, and then buy.  Close out the trade within a week, maybe at the end of that day.

That said, I would encourage traders become investors.  There is too much competition at the short time horizons of the market, and not so much over 3+ year periods.  Study the greats: Graham, Buffett, Munger, Klarman, Price, Heine, Neff, Soros, Dalio, and many others.  Learn to recognize long-term value, and wait for it to be realized.  There are no barriers of entry to trading.  Long-term value investing has natural barriers to entry, because it is work, and as such, few do it.

I don’t worry about my stock portfolio.  Because my time horizon is long, day-to-day fluctuations don’t mean much.  That makes me free to research ideas that can benefit me and my investors in the future.  That’s a great place to be.

Closing

“Richard Chignell of Embrace The Trend asked me to take part in his Pro’s Process series.  Here are the first couple of answers and for the whole thing please read it here: www.embracethetrend.com“.

Industry Ranks 6_1521_image002

My main industry model is illustrated in the graphic. Green industries are cold. Red industries are hot. If you like to play momentum, look at the red zone, and ask the question, “Where are trends under-discounted?” Price momentum tends to persist, but look for areas where it might be even better in the near term.

If you are a value player, look at the green zone, and ask where trends are over-discounted. Yes, things are bad, but are they all that bad? Perhaps the is room for mean reversion.

My candidates from both categories are in the column labeled “Dig through.”

You might notice that I have no industries from the red zone. That is because the market is so high. I only want to play in cold industries. They won’t get so badly hit in a decline, and they might have some positive surprises.

If you use any of this, choose what you use off of your own trading style. If you trade frequently, stay in the red zone. Trading infrequently, play in the green zone — don’t look for momentum, look for mean reversion. I generally play in the green zone because I hold stocks for 3 years on average.

Whatever you do, be consistent in your methods regarding momentum/mean-reversion, and only change methods if your current method is working well.

Huh? Why change if things are working well? I’m not saying to change if things are working well. I’m saying don’t change if things are working badly. Price momentum and mean-reversion are cyclical, and we tend to make changes at the worst possible moments, just before the pattern changes. Maximum pain drives changes for most people, which is why average investors don’t make much money.

Maximum pleasure when things are going right leaves investors fat, dumb, and happy — no one thinks of changing then. This is why a disciplined approach that forces changes on a portfolio is useful, as I do 3-4 times a year. It forces me to be bloodless and sell stocks with less potential for those with more potential over the next 1-5 years.

I like some technology stocks here, some industrials, some retail stocks, particularly those that are strongly capitalized.

I’m looking for undervalued industries. I’m not saying that there is always a bull market out there, and I will find it for you. But there are places that are relatively better, and I have done relatively well in finding them.

At present, I am trying to be defensive. I don’t have a lot of faith in the market as a whole, so I am biased toward the green zone, looking for mean-reversion, rather than momentum persisting. The red zone is pretty cyclical at present. I will be very happy hanging out in dull stocks for a while.

That said, some dull companies are fetching some pricey valuations these days, particularly those with above average dividends. This is an overbought area of the market, and it is just a matter of time before the flight to relative safety reverses.

The Red Zone has a Lot of Financials; be wary of those. I have been paring back my reinsurers, but I have been adding to P&C insurers. What I find fascinating about the red momentum zone now, is that it is loaded with cyclical companies.

In the green zone, I picked almost all of the industries. If the companies are sufficiently well-capitalized, and the valuation is low, it can still be an rewarding place to do due diligence.

Will cyclical companies continue to do well? Will the economy continue to limp along, or might it be better or worse?

But what would the model suggest?

Ah, there I have something for you, and so long as Value Line does not object, I will provide that for you. I looked for companies in the industries listed, but in the top 5 of 9 balance sheet safety categories, and with returns estimated over 12%/year over the next 3-5 years. The latter category does the value/growth tradeoff automatically. I don’t care if returns come from mean reversion or growth.

But anyway, as a bonus here are the names that are candidates for purchase given this screen. Remember, this is a launching pad for due diligence, not hot names to buy.

I’ve tightened my criteria a little because the number of stocks passing last quarter’s screen was much higher, which was likely an artifact of earnings expectations rolling forward another year.

Anyway, enjoy the list of purchase candidates — I know that I will:

Industry Ranks 6_19997_image002

Full Disclosure: long SYMC