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On Investment Ideas, Redux

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Would I disclose proprietary ideas of mine?  I’ve done it before.  Why would I do it?  Because it would take a lot to make the ideas usable.  Remember my commentary from when I was a bond manager: I was far more open with my brokers than most managers, but I never gave them the critical bits.

So a reader asked me:

Any chance you could expand on what quantitative metrics you are using to compare potential investments? Could you also name a few of the 77 13fs you track? Thanks

I will go above and beyond here.  You will get the names of all 78 — here they are:

  • Abrams
  • Akre
  • Altai
  • Ancient Art
  • Appaloosa
  • Atlantic
  • Bares
  • Baupost
  • Blue Ridge
  • Brave Warrior
  • Bridgewater
  • BRK
  • Capital Growth
  • Centaur
  • Centerbridge
  • Chieftain
  • Chou
  • Coatue
  • Dodge & Cox
  • Dreman
  • Eagle Capital
  • Eagle Value
  • Edinburgh
  • Fairfax
  • Farallon
  • Fiduciary
  • Force
  • FPA
  • Gates
  • Glenview
  • Goldentree
  • Greenhaven
  • Greenlight
  • H Partners
  • Hawkshaw
  • Hayman
  • Hodges
  • Hound
  • Hovde
  • Icahn
  • Intl Value
  • Invesco
  • Jana
  • JAT
  • Jensen
  • Joho
  • Lane Five
  • Leucadia
  • Lone Pine
  • M3F
  • Markel
  • Matrix
  • Maverick
  • MHR
  • Montag
  • MSD
  • Pabrai
  • Parnassus
  • Passport
  • Pennant
  • Perry
  • Pershing Square
  • Pickens
  • Price
  • Sageview
  • Scout
  • Soros
  • Southeastern
  • SQ Advisors
  • Third Point
  • Tiger Global
  • Tweedy Browne
  • ValueAct
  • Viking Global
  • Weitz
  • West Coast
  • Wintergreen
  • Yacktman

What I won’t tell you is what I do with their data, because it is different from what most do.  But you can play with it.

Then you asked about factors.  Here are my factors:

  • Price change over the last year
  • Price change over the last three years
  • Insider buying
  • Price-to-earnings, both current and forward
  • Price-to-book
  • Price-to-sales
  • Price-to-free cash flow
  • Price-to-sales
  • Dividend yield
  • Neglect (Market cap / Trading volume)
  • Net Operating Assets
  • Stock price volatility over the last three years
  • Asset growth over the last three years
  • Sales growth over the last three years
  • Quality (gross margins / assets)

Now that I have “bared all,” I haven’t really bared all, because there is a lot that goes into the preparation and analysis of the data that can’t be grasped from what I have revealed here.  To go into that would take more time than I can spend.  That’s one reason why as a corporate bond manager, I would share more data with my brokers than most would do, because I knew that the last 20% that I reserved was the real gold.  That I would not share.

Beyond that, there are my industry rotation models, which I share 4-6x per year, and then my qualitative reasoning, which makes me reject a lot of ideas that pass my quantitative screens.

That’s what I do.  It’s not perfect, and my qualitative reasoning has its faults as well.  I encourage you to develop your own theories of value, as Ken Fisher encouraged me to do back in early 2000.  Develop your edge, with knowledge that you have that few others do.  I’ll give you an example.

I understand most areas in insurance.  I don’t get everything right, but it does give me an edge, because insurance accounting and competition is a “black box” to most investors.  Insurance has been one of the best performing industries over time, but many avoid it because of its complexity and stodginess.

Behind the hard to understand earnings volatility, there is sometimes a generally profitable franchise that will make decent money in the long run.  But few get that, and that is an “edge” of mine.  Develop your own edge.

That’s all for now.  Invest wisely, and be wary, because the market for risk assets is high, and what if the Fed stops supporting it?  Make sure your portfolio has a margin of safety.

Industry Ranks November 2013

Friday, November 1st, 2013

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 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 Financials; be wary of those. I have been paring back my insurers, but I have been adding to P&C reinsurers.  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 loosened my criteria a little because the market is so high, but I figure I will toss out lot when I do my quarterly evaluation of the companies that I hold for clients and me.

Industry Ranks 6_19997_image002

Full Disclosure: Long SYMC, DOX

A Different Look at Industry Attractiveness

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

While doing some work today, I ran across this resource from Morningstar. Morningstar values stocks by projecting the free cash flows of the companies, and discounting those free cash at a rate that reflects the riskiness of the company.  Free cash flows are the amount of cash you can take from a corporation over a period, an leave it equally well off as it was at the beginning of the period.  Some analysts summarize it as:

  • Earnings then add back
  • Interest, Taxation, Depreciation, Amortization, and subtract
  • Maintenance Capital Expenditure

When you see firms talk about their non-GAAP earnings, this is what some are trying to approximate, showing the true earnings power of the assets.

They project the free cash flows in three phases:

  • Phase 1, the analyst projects the next five years
  • Phase 3, every company is the same, growing at the same rate with no competitive advantage
  • Phase 2 grades from Phase 1 to Phase 3, with wide moat companies having a transition period of 20 years, narrow moat companies 15 years, and “no moat” companies a lesser amount.

What does Morningstar use for its free cash flow discount rates?  They started with CAPM, and moved to something more simple, where companies are divided into four buckets, with rates of 8, 10, 12, and 14%.  I’m no fan of CAPM, but it would be a lot smarter to have a system that reflected:

  • the bond yields of the companies, if any, and
  • the relative riskiness of the enterprise without reference to the market as a whole.  The implied volatility of the stock could play a role.

At the end, Morningstar calculates the ratio of the current market price to the discounted value of the free cash flows per share.  If it is greater than one, is is overvalued.  If it less than one, undervalued.

Morningstar does the calculation company by company, but then aggregates the results by super sector, sector, industry, aize of moat, fair value uncertainty, and equity index.

What I particularly found interesting were the aggregations by industry.  I decided to look at the industries that  were overvalued and undervalued by at least 15%.  Here they are:

Undervalued

  • Aluminum
  • Asian Banks
  • Coal
  • Gold
  • Latin American Banks
  • Pollution & Treatment Controls
  • Steel

Overvalued

  • Auto & Truck Dealerships
  • Auto Parts
  • Broadcasting – Radio
  • Business Services
  • Computer Systems
  • Electronics Distribution
  • Financial Exchanges
  • Footwear & Accessories
  • Home Furnishings & Fixtures
  • Insurance Brokers
  • Internet Content & Information
  • Long-Term Care Facilities
  • Luxury Goods
  • Marketing Services
  • Medical Distribution
  • Regional US Banks
  • Regulated Gas Utilities
  • REIT – Hotel & Motel
  • Scientific & Technical Instruments
  • Semiconductor Memory
  • Solar
  • Trucking

Morningstar as 147 industries, of which only two did not have fair value estimates.  Seven industries were undervalued (5%), 22 industries were undervalued (15%).  The undervalued industries were mostly cyclical in nature, while the overvalued industries were not, supporting the idea of this Wall Street Journal article, which argues that cyclical stocks are looking relatively cheap.  It is possible to overpay for certainty, just as it is possible to overlever companies with reliable cash flow.

At this point you might be asking, “Okay, this is nice, but what companies does this imply I should buy or sell?”  Can’t tell you for sure, but I can show you this.  This table is interesting enough, but what you can get are the companies behind each industry group if you click on them.  Note that Morningstar is global in its orientation, so many of the companies that it uses are not US-domiciled.  Some may have nonsponsored ADRs that trade infrequently.

My main point is that you can look at the underlying companies of each industry for buy or sell ideas of of their own discount or premium to fair value.  Morningstar’s fair value analysis is not perfect, but it is a straw blowing in the  wind, and is adequate for some relative value judgments.

Industry Ranks August 2013

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

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 this time, 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 names here, some telecom related, some basic materials names, 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’m considering paring back my insurers.

What I find fascinating about the red momentum zone now, is that it is loaded with noncyclical companies. That said, it has been recently noted in a few places how cyclicals are trading at a discount to noncyclicals at present.

In the green zone, I picked most 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.

That said, it is tough when noncyclical companies are relatively expensive to cyclicals in a weak economy. Choose your poison: high valuations, or growth that may disappoint.

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, an with returns estimated over 15%/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 loosened my criteria a little because the market is so high, but I figure I will toss out  lot when i do my quarterly evaluation of the companies that I hold for clients and me.

 

 

 

Industry Ranks 6_19997_image002

The Rules, Part XLV

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Market rents are typically fixed in size.  When a strategy to exploit a particular market inefficiency gets too big, returns to the rent disappear, or even go negative prospectively, even if they appear exceedingly productive retrospectively.

If you have read me for any decent amount of time, you know I am big on economic and financial cycles, and how they can’t be eliminated.  There are two groups that think the cycles can be eliminated:

  • Politicians and Central Bankers who think they can create permanent prosperity, when all they really create is an increase in overall debt.
  • Efficient market theorists who think there are no strategies that beat the market.

It is the second group that I am dealing with this evening.  Market strategies trend.  If we have had outperformance from value investing this year,  the odds are good that we will have it next year, unless it has gone on for too many years (5+).

Ideas in investing tend to streak, get overinvested, then die.  This is one reason why I don’t believe articles about the death of various investment concepts.  We need to think about investment ecologically.  There are no permanently valid investment factors to beat the market.  There are many investment factors that beat the market over time, but not while many are pursuing them.  Imitation drives returns, and then over-imitation kills them.

That means we should be wary when a strategy has been working too well for too long.  It also means we should be skeptical when any strategy with a strong thesis behind it is declared “dead.”  That may be the very time to consider it, or maybe wait a year or two.  Many strategies are forgotten; after a time of failure it is time to remember them.

Part of this stems from the biases of institutional investors.  They think that their winnowing down of the investable universe through screening will always produce a good crop of candidates in which to invest.  But that’s not true.  Talented investors think more broadly, and are willing to consider investments that don’t fit within common screens.

The thing is: strategies go in cycles.  They are born at a time when no one loves them.  They gain currency from the good returns of those who adopt them, leading to a frenzy where many adopt the strategy, and returns are great, but now companies that fit the strategy are overvalued.  The process goes into the reverse gear where the strategy is garbage, until enough parties abandon it and the prices of stocks that would be a part of the strategy are attractive.

So when you hear:

  • Value is dead
  • Growth is dead
  • Large caps are dead
  • Small caps are dead (rare)
  • Momentum is dead
  • Low volatility is dead.
  • Quality is dead.
  • Low Quality is dead.
  • XXX industry or sector is dead.

Be skeptical, and begin edging into companies that you like in the “doomed” strategy.  Make sure they have strong balance sheets and competitive positions.  That will protect you if the trend persists.

One more note: this doesn’t work in reverse.  A strategy that has been working for a little while will likely streak.  Resist the trend when it is old, not when it is young.

Finally, remember: there are only tendencies, not laws: markets exist to surprise you.  There are theories that work in the market over time, but they do not work year after year, the results come in lumps, unlike the projections of the financial planners.

And I close by saying to all of my readers — is this not how the market works?  There is momentum, but it sometimes fails dramatically.  Ideas streak, and then collapse far faster.  I say be aware of what has been rewarded and what has not.  Sell stuff that has been rewarded too long, and that which has been recently trashed.  Buy the stuff that has come into favor, and strong companies that have been unduly trashed.

Distinguishing Alpha from Noise

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

I read a paper today that I thought was pretty interesting — A Consultant’s Perspective on Distinguishing Alpha from Noise. [8 pages PDF]  I have been on both sides of the table in my life.  I have hired managers, and I have tried to sell my equity management services.

In general, managers that thought would offer value would venture off the beaten path.  They might own some well-known names, but they would own far more that would make me say, “Who is that?”  The companies would be less known because they are smaller, foreign, have a control investor, etc.

Those portfolios would look a lot different than an index fund.  They would be more concentrated by sector, industry and company.  They would have a process that analyzes what the market is misvaluing, whether by sector, industry, or company.  They would stick to their discipline through thick and thin, realizing that all anomalies in the market go in and out of favor.

The process would specify what anomalies of the market, or what information advantages the fund would attempt to exploit.  But once you specify that, you stick to that as your strategy.  There is no room for tossing an asset in “because it looks good.”

There is a balance in good strategies that allows for minor modifications around core principles.  All good strategies have to adapt, but there has to be a strategic core from which the strategy will never vary.  Absent that core, the strategy will give in to fear and greed — buying high and selling low.

Quoting from the paper:

I am amazed at all the managers that make an assertion of the type “In the long run X always wins”, where X could be dividend yield, earnings growth, quality of management, a quantitative factor or mix of factors, etc., yet are unable cite a reason why X should be systematically under-priced by the market.

My view is twofold.  There are some ugly situations involving financial stress that most investors don’t want to take on.  There are also less glamorous companies that few want to buy.  Those can be excellent investments.  My second point is tougher to make, but industries go in and out of favor.  So do market factors.  Buy that which is safe, and out-of-favor.

Now, for managers, I would recommend keeping a trading journal, where you record why you think your investment hypothesis will succeed.  If your investments succeed for reasons that you specified in advance, that is an indication of skill.  There is a lot of what is called “luck” in investing.  If you are beating the market, and it is not for reasons that you specified in advance, you do not have skill, you have luck, and luck strongly tends to mean revert.

My view comes down to this: I like to see a long track record of outperformance, an unusual portfolio, and a strategy that convinces me that you have discipline, and a constructive way of finding undervalued assets.   Absent that, I will probably think that you are a pretender than an outperformer.  There are always some that outperform for a short time, and then underperform as the underlying economics shift.  Markets are volatile enough that there are always some with three-year track records that are stunning, and very lucky.

Separating luck from skill — that is the toughest aspect of investing.  But it is needed because there are so many investment managers touting skill, and what do they really offer?

On Researching Industries

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

From a reader:

Hi David,

I’ve been a classic “bottom-up” investment advisor for a few years now, but I agree with your assessment that industries, in general, are under-analyzed by the masses.

What is the best way to learn about a particular industry? Are you aware of any comprehensive publication that sheds light on both the qualitative characteristics of an industry and the appropriate valuation methods?

Thanks!

There are several ways to learn industries.  I’ll try to explain:

1) You can choose a bunch of companies in an industry, email the investor relations area, and ask for packet equivalent to what they send buy-side analysts.  I’ve done that at various points in time for industries I wanted to learn.  Compare and contrast.  Who is doing well, badly and why?  In the mid-90s, I did this for the trucking industry, and learned a ton of information.  I also talked with some trucker friends of mine who gave me on the ground data.

2) You can read industry publications.  When I was a buy-side analyst for the insurance industry, I read those regularly.  They exist for almost every significant industry.

3) You can go to industry meetings.  Almost every industry has meetings where they discuss industry conditions.  Just don’t be too pushy in trying to get information.  Be interested in the industry as a whole, and don’t try to gain material nonpublic information.

4) Value Line & Morningstar both provide industry analyses.  So do most major investment banks.  You can review those and compare and contrast.

5) You can use the quality screen to look at what industries have a rising ratio of gross profits from operations, versus a falling ratio of gross profits from operations.  Here is a chart from the last seven years:

PRICINGPOWER_8574_image002

The colored field reading “Chg” is the difference between the average of years 1-3 and years 5-7.  Profits are noisy, that’s why I did an average.

Gross profits from operations as a fraction of assets [GP/A] is a good measure of the quality of an industry, and whether their sustainable competitive advantage is is improving or declining.

Now, when I look at a measure like that, I do one of two things:

  1. I buy cheap companies with strong balance sheets among those industries where GP/A has fallen hard, and buy them, knowing that they are survivors, and will rebound.
  2. I buy moderately strong companies in industries where GP/A has been improving, and after research, the trend is not well understood.  It helps if the industry is dull, and few people follow it.

That’s what I do.  Whatever you do, size it to your own abilities, or the abilities of your firm.  Beyond that, look at cheapness of a company relative to normalized earnings, i.e., average earnings over a full market cycle.

The Rules, Part XXXVIII

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

There is probably money to be made in analyzing the foibles of money managers, to create new strategies by taking on the opposite of what they are doing.

What errors do most money managers make today?

  • Chasing performance
  • Over-diversification
  • Benchmarking / Hugging the index
  • Over-trading
  • Relying too heavily on earnings growth
  • Analyzing the income statement only
  • Refusing to analyze industries
  • Buy newsy companies
  • Relying on the sell-side
  • Trusting management too much

 

Let me handle these one-by-one:

Chasing performance

In writing this, I am not against using momentum.  I am against regret.  Don’t buy something after you have missed most of the move, as if future stock price movement is magically up.  Unless you can identify why the stock is underappreciated after a strong move up, don’t touch it.

Over-diversification

Most managers hold too many stocks.  There is no way that a team of individuals can follow so many stocks.  Indeed, I am tested with 36 holdings in my portfolio, which is mirrored for clients.  Leaving aside tax reasons, it would be far better to manage fewer companies with more concentrated positions.  You will make sharper judgments, and earn better returns.

Benchmarking / Hugging the index

It is far better to ignore the indexes and invest in what you think will yield the best returns over the next 3-5 years.  Aim for a large active share, differing from the benchmark index.  Make some real nonconsensus investments.     Show real moxie; don’t be like the crowd.

Yes, it may bring in more assets if you are never in the fourth quartile, but is that doing your best for clients?  More volatility in search of better overall returns is what investors need.  If they can’t bear short-term volatility, they should not be invested in stocks.

Over-trading

We don’t make money when we trade.  We make money while we wait.  Ideas take time to work out, and there are frequently disappointments that will recover.  If you are turning over your portfolio at faster than a 50% rate, you are not giving your companies adequate time to grow, turn around, etc.  For me, I have rules in place to keep from over-trading.

Relying too heavily on earnings growth

Earnings growth is far less predictable than most imagine.  Companies with high profit margins tend to attract competitors, substitutes, etc.

When growth companies miss estimates, the reaction is severe.  For value companies, far less so.  Disappointments happen; your portfolio strategy should reflect that.

Analyzing the income statement only

Every earnings report comes four, not just one, major accounting statements, and a bevy of footnotes.  In many regulated industries, there are other financial statements and metrics filed with the government that further flesh out the business.  Often an earnings figure is less than the highest quality because accrual entries are overstated.

Also, a business may be more or less valuable than the earnings indicate because of the relative ability to convert the resources of the company to higher and better uses, or the relative amount to reinvest in capex to maintain the earnings stream.

Finally, companies that employ a lot of leverage to achieve their earnings will not do well when financing is not available on favorable terms during a recession.

Refusing to analyze industries

There are two ways to ignore industry effects.  One is to be totally top-down, and let your view of macroeconomics guide portfolio management decisions.  Macroeconomics rarely translates into useful portfolio decisions in the short run.  Even when you are right, it may take years for it to play out, as in the global financial crisis – the firm I was with at the time was five years early on when they thought the crisis would happen, which was almost as good as being wrong, though they were able to see it through to the end and profit.

Then there is being purely “bottoms up,” and not gaining the broader context of the industry.  As a young investor that was a fault of mine.  As a result, I fell into a wide variety of “value traps” where I didn’t see that the company was “cheap for a reason.”

Buying newsy companies

Often managers think they have to have an investable opinion on companies that are in the news frequently.  I think most of those companies are overanalyzed, and as such, don’t offer a lot of investment potential unless one thinks the news coverage is wrong.  I actually like owning companies that don’t attract a lot of attention.  Management teams do better when they are not distracted by the spotlight.

Relying on the sell-side for analysis

Analysts and portfolio managers need to build up their own industry knowledge to the point where they are able to independently articulate how an industry makes money.  What are the key drivers to watch?  What management teams seem to be building value the best?  This is too important to outsource.

Trusting management too much

I think there is a healthy balance to be had in talking with management.  Once you have a decent understanding of how an industry works, talking with management teams can help reveal who are at the top of the game, and who aren’t.  Who is honest, and who bluffs?  This very long set of articles of mine goes through the details.

You can do a document-driven approach, read the relevant SEC filings and industry periodicals, and not talk with management ever – you might lose some advantage doing that, but you won’t be tricked by a slick-talking management team.  Trusting management implicitly is the big problem to avoid.  They are paid to speak favorably regarding their own firm.

Summary

This isn’t an exhaustive list.  I’m sure my readers can think of more foibles.  I can think of more, but I have to end somewhere.  My view is that one does best in investing when you can think like a businessman, and exclude many of the distractions that large money managers fall into.

The Rules, Part XXXVII

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

The foolish do the best in a strong market

“The trend is your friend, until the bend at the end.”  So the saying goes for those that blindly follow momentum.  The same is true for some amateur investors that run concentrated portfolios, and happen to get it right for a while, until the cycle plays out and they didn’t have a second idea to jump to.

In a strong bull market, if you knew it was a strong bull market, you would want to take as much risk as you can, assuming you can escape the next bear market which is usually faster and more vicious.  (That post deserves updating.)

Here are four examples, two each from stocks and bonds:

  1. In 1998-2000, tech and internet stocks were the only place to be.  Even my cousins invested in them and lost their shirts.  People looked at me as an idiot as I criticized the mania.  Buffett looked like a dope as well because he could not see how the enterprises could generate free cash reliably at any intermediate time span.
  2. In 2003-2007, there were 3 places to be — owning homebuilders, owning depositary financials or shadow banks, and buying residential real estate directly.  This was not, “Buy what you know,” but “Buy what you assume.”
  3. In 1994 many took Mexican credit risk through Cetes, Mexican short-term government debt.  A number of other clever investors thought they had “cracked the code” regarding residential mortgage prepayment, and using their models, invested in some of the most volatile mortgage securities, thinking that they had eliminated all risk, but gained a high yield.  Both trades went badly.  Mexico devalued the peso, and mortgage prepayments did not behave as expected, slowing down far more than anticipated, leading the most levered players to  blow up, and the least levered to suffer considerable losses.
  4. 2008 was not the only year that CDOs [Collateralized Debt Obligations] blew up.  There were earlier shocks around 2002, and the late ’90s.  Those buying them in 2008 and crying foul neglected the lessons of history.  The underlying collateral possessed no significant diversification.  Put a bunch of junk debt in a trust, and guess what?  When the credit cycle turns, most of those bonds will be under stress, and an above average amount will default, because the originators tend to pick the worst bonds with a rating class to maximize the yield, which allows the originator to make more.  Yes, they had a nice yield in a bull market, when every yield hog was scrambling, but in the bear market, alas, no downside protection.

I could go on about:

  • The go-go years of the ’60s or the ’20s
  • The various times the REIT market has crashed
  • The various times that technology stocks have wiped out
  • And more, like railroads in the late 1800s, or the money lost on aviation stocks, if you leave out Southwest, but you get the point, I hope.

People get beguiled by hot sectors in the stock market, and seemingly safe high yields that aren’t truly safe.  But recently, there has been some discussion of a possible “safety bubble.”  The typical idea is that investors are paying up too much for:

  • Dividend-paying stocks
  • Low-volatility stocks
  • Stable sectors as opposed to cyclical sectors.

A “safety bubble” sound like an oxymoron.  It is possible to have one?  Yes.  Is it likely?  No.  Are we in one now?  Gotta do more research; this would be a lot easier if I were back to being an institutional bond manager, and had a better sense of the bond market pulse.  But I’ll try to explain:

After 9/11/2001, institutional bond investors did a purge of many risky sectors of the bond market; there was a sense that the world had changed dramatically.  At my shop, we didn’t think there would be much change, and we had a monster of a life insurer sending us money, so we started the biggest down-in-credit trade that we ever did.  Within six months, yield starved investors were begging for bonds that we had picked up during the crisis.  They had overpaid for safety — they sold when yield spreads were wide, and bought when they were narrow.

But does this sort of thing translate to stocks?  Tenuously, but yes.  Almost any equity strategy can be overplayed, even the largest and most robust strategies like momentum, value, quality, and low volatility.  In August of 2007, we saw the wipeout of hedge funds playing with quantitative momentum and value strategies, particularly those that were levered.

Those with some knowledge of market  history may remember in the ’60s and ’70s, there was an affinity for dividends, with many companies borrowing to pay the dividend, and others neglecting necessary capital expenditure to pay the dividend.  When some of those companies ran out of tricks, they would cut or eliminate the dividend, and the stock would fall.  Now, earnings coverage of dividends and buybacks seems pretty good today, but watch out if one of the companies you own has a particularly high dividend.  You might even want to look at some of their revenue recognition and other accounting policies to see if the earnings are perhaps somewhat liberal.  You also compare the dividend to what the cash flow from operations is, less cash needed for maintenance capital expenditure.

I don’t know whether we are in a “safety bubble” now for stocks.  I do think there is a “yield craze” in bonds, and I think it will end badly when the credit cycle turns.  But with stocks, I would simply say look forward.  Analyze:

  • Margin of safety
  • Valuation, absolute & relative
  • Return on equity
  • Likely and worst case earnings growth

And then balance margin of safety versus where you have the best opportunities for compounding capital.  If relative valuations have tipped favorably to less common areas for stock investing that considers safety, then you might have to consider investing in industries that are not typically on the “safe list.”  Just don’t  compromise margin of safety in the process.

Industry Ranks May 2013

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

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 this time, 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 names here, some telecom related, some basic materials names, 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’m considering paring back my insurers.

What I find fascinating about the red momentum zone now, is that it is loaded with noncyclical companies. That said, it has been recently noted in a few places how cyclicals are trading at a discount to noncyclicals at present.

In the green zone, I picked most 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.

That said, it is tough when noncyclical companies are relatively expensive to cyclicals in a weak economy. Choose your poison: high valuations, or growth that may disappoint.

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 3 of 5 safety categories, an with returns estimated over 18%/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.

Industry Ranks 6_19997_image002

Full disclosure: Long APOL IM

Disclaimer


David Merkel is an investment professional, and like every investment professional, he makes mistakes. David encourages you to do your own independent "due diligence" on any idea that he talks about, because he could be wrong. Nothing written here, at RealMoney, Wall Street All-Stars, or anywhere else David may write is an invitation to buy or sell any particular security; at most, David is handing out educated guesses as to what the markets may do. David is fond of saying, "The markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you," and so he encourages caution in investing. Risk control wins the game in the long run, not bold moves. Even the best strategies of the past fail, sometimes spectacularly, when you least expect it. David is not immune to that, so please understand that any past success of his will be probably be followed by failures.


Also, though David runs Aleph Investments, LLC, this blog is not a part of that business. This blog exists to educate investors, and give something back. It is not intended as advertisement for Aleph Investments; David is not soliciting business through it. When David, or a client of David's has an interest in a security mentioned, full disclosure will be given, as has been past practice for all that David does on the web. Disclosure is the breakfast of champions.


Additionally, David may occasionally write about accounting, actuarial, insurance, and tax topics, but nothing written here, at RealMoney, or anywhere else is meant to be formal "advice" in those areas. Consult a reputable professional in those areas to get personal, tailored advice that meets the specialized needs that David can have no knowledge of.

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