I’d say this is getting boring, but it’s pretty fascinating watching the rally run.  Now, this is the seventh time I have done this quarterly analysis.  The first one was for December 2015.  Over that time period, the expected annualized 10-year return went like this, quarter by quarter: 6.10%, 6.74%, 6.30%, 6.01%, 5.02%, 4.79%, and 4.30%.  At the end of June 2017, the figure would have been 4.58%, but the rally since the end of the quarter shaves future returns down to 4.30%.

We are now in the 93rd percentile of valuations.

Wow.

This era will ultimately be remembered as a hot time in the markets, much like 1965-9, 1972, and 1997-2001.

The Internal Logic of this Model

I promised on of my readers that I would provide the equation for this model.  Here it is:

10-year annualized total return = 32.77% – (70.11% * Percentage of total assets held in stocks for the US as a whole)

Now, the logic of this formula stems from the idea that the return on total assets varies linearly with the height of the stock market, and the return on debt (everything else aside from stocks) does not.  After that, the formula is derived from the same formula that we use for the weighted average cost of capital [WACC].  Under those conditions, the total returns of the stock market can be approximated by a linear function of the weight the stocks have in the WACC formula.

Anyway, that’s one way to think of the logic behind this.

The Future?

Now, what are some of the possibilities for the future?

Above you see the nineteen scenarios for where the S&P 500 will be in 10 years, assuming a 2% dividend yield, and looking at the total returns that happen when the model forecasts returns between 3.30% and 5.30%.  The total returns vary from 2.31%/year to 6.50%, and average out to 3.97% total returns.  The bold line above is the 4.30% estimate.

As I have said before, this bodes ill for all collective security schemes that rely on the returns of risky assets to power the payments.  There is no conventional way to achieve returns higher than 5%/year for the next ten years, unless you go for value and foreign markets (maybe both!).

Then again, the simple solution is just to lighten up and let cash build.  Now if we all did that, we couldn’t.  Who would be buying?  But if enough of us did it such that equity valuations declined, there could be a more orderly market retreat.

The attitude of the market on a qualitative basis doesn’t seem nuts to me yet, so I am at maximum cash for ordinary conditions, but I haven’t hedged.  When expected 10-year market returns get to 3%/year, I will likely do that, but for now I hold my stocks.

PS — the first article of this series has been translated into Chinese.  The same website has 48 of my best articles in Chinese, which I find pretty amazing.  Hope you smile at the cartoon version of me. 😉

Joel Tillinghast, one of the best mutual fund managers, runs the money in Fidelity’s Low-Priced Stock Fund.  It has one of the best long-term records among stock funds over the 28 years that he has managed it.

The author gives you a recipe for how to pick good stocks, but he doesn’t give you a machine that produces them.  In a style that is clever and discursive, he summarizes his main ideas at the beginning and end of the book, and explains the ideas in the middle of the book.  The ideas are simple, but learning to apply them will take a lifetime.

Here are the five ideas as written in the beginning (page 3):

  1. Make decisions rationally

  2. Invest in what we know (did I mention Peter Lynch wrote the foreword to the book?)

  3. Worth with honest and trustworthy managers

  4. Avoid businesses prone to obsolescence and financial ruin, and 

  5. Value stocks properly

At this point, some will say “You haven’t really given us anything!  These ideas are too big to be useful!”  I was surprised, though, to see that the same five points at the end of the book said more (page 276).  Ready?

  1. Be clear about your motives, and don’t allow emotions to guide your financial decisions

  2. Recognize that some things can’t be understood and that you don’t understand others.  Focus on those that you understand best.

  3. Invest with people who are honest and trustworthy, and are doing something unique and valuable.

  4. Favor businesses that will not be destroyed by changing times, commoditization, or excessive debt.

  5. Above all, always look for investments that are worth a great deal more than you are paying for them.

That says more, and I think the reason they are different is that when you read through the five sections of the book, he unpacks his initial statements and becomes more definite.

Much of the book can be summarized under the idea of “margin of safety.”  This is a type of value investing.  When he analyzes value, it is like a simplified version of reverse discounted cash flows.  He tries to figure out in a broad way what an investment might return in terms price paid for the investment and what “owner earnings,” that is, free cash flow, it will generate on a conservative basis.

One aspect of the conservatism that I found insightful is that he assumes that the terminal value of an investment is zero. (page 150)  In my opinion, that is very smart, because that is the area where most discounted cash flow analyses go wrong.  When the difference between the weighted average growth rate of free cash flow and the discount rate is small, the terminal value gets really big relative to the value of the cash lows prior to the terminal value.  In short, assumptions like that say that the distant future is all that matters.  That’s a tough assumption in a world where companies and industries can become obsolete.

Even though I described aspects of a mathematical calculation here, what I did was very much like the book.  There are no equations; everything is described verbally, even the math.  Note: that is a good exercise to see whether you understand what the math really means.  (If more people on Wall Street did that, we might not have had the financial crisis.  Just sayin’.)

One more fun thing about the book is that he goes trough his own experiences with a wide variety of controversial stocks from the past and his experiences with them.  His conservatism kept him a great number of errors that tripped up other celebrated managers.

I learned a lot from this book, and I enjoyed the writing style as well.  He clearly put a lot of effort into it; many people will benefit from his insights.

Quibbles

His methods are a lot like mine, and he clearly put a lot of thought into this book.  That said, he doesn’t understand insurance companies as well as he thinks (I’m an actuary by training).  There are a number of small errors there, but not enough to ruin a really good book.

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

I highly recommend this book.  This is a book that will benefit investors with moderate to high experience most. For those with less experience, it may help you, but some of the concepts require background knowledge.  If you want to buy it, you can buy it here: Big Money Thinks Small: Biases, Blind Spots, and Smarter Investing.

Full disclosure: The publisher asked me if I wanted a free copy and I assented.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, including books, I get a small commission. This is my main source of blog revenue. I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip. Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book. Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website. Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites. Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

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It is often a wise thing to look around and see where people are doing that is nuts.  Often it is obvious in advance.  In the past, the two most obvious were the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble.  Today, we have two unrelated pockets of nuttiness, neither of which is as big: cryptocurrencies and shorting volatility.

I have often said that that lure of free money brings out the worst economic behavior in people.  That goes double when people see others who they deem less competent than themselves seemingly making lots of money when they are not.

I’ve written about Bitcoin before.  It has three main weaknesses:

  • No intrinsic value — can’t be used of themselves to produce something else.
  • Cannot be used to settle all debts, public and private
  • Less secure than insured bank deposits

In an economic world where everything is relative in a sense — things only have value because people want them, some might argue that cryptocurrencies have value because some people want them.  That’s fine, sort of.  But how many people, and are there alternative uses that transcend exchange?  Even in exchange, how legally broad is the economic net for required exchangability?  Only legal tender satisfies that.

That there may be some scarcity value for some cryptocurrencies puts them in the same class as some Beanie Babies.  At least the Beanie Babies have the alternative use for kids to play with, even though it ruins the collectibility.  (We actually had a moderately rare one, but didn’t know it and our kids happily played with it.  Isn’t that wonderful?  How much is the happiness of a kid worth?)

I commented in my Bitcoin article that it was like Penny Stocks, and that’s even more true with all of the promoters touting their own little cryptocurrencies.  The promoters get the benefit, and those who speculate early in the boom, and the losers are those fools who get there late.

There’s a decent public policy argument for delisting penny stocks with no real business behind them; things that are worth nothing are the easiest things to spin tales about.  Remember that absurd is like infinity.  If any positive value is absurd, so is the value at two, five, ten, and one hundred times that level.

The same idea applies to cryptocurrencies; a good argument could be made that they all should be made illegal.  (Give China a little credit for starting to limit them.)  It’s almost like we let any promoter set up his own Madoff-like scheme, and sell them to speculators.  Remember, Madoff never raked off that much… but it was a negative-sum game.  Those that exited early did well at the expense of those that bought in later.

Ultimately, most of the cryptocurrencies will go out at zero.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Shorting Volatility

This one is not as bad, at least if you don’t apply leverage.  Many people don’t get volatility, both applied and actual.  It spikes during panics, and reverts to a low level when things are calm.  It seems to mean-revert, but the mean is unknown, and varies considerably across different time periods.

It is like the credit cycle in many ways.  There are two ways to get killed playing credit.  One is to speculate that defaults are going to happen and overdo going short credit during the bull phase.  The other is to be a foolish yield-seeker going into the bear phase.

So it is for people waiting for volatility to spike — they die the death of one thousand cuts.  Then there are those that are short volatility because it pays off when volatility is low.  When the spike happens, many will skinned; most won’t recover what they put in.

It is tough to time the market, whether it is equity, equity volatility, or credit.  Doesn’t matter much if you are a professional or amateur.  That said, it is far better to play with simpler and cleaner investments, and adjust your risk posture between 0-100% equities, rather than cross-hedge with equity volatility products.

Again, this is one where people are very used to selling every spike in volatility.  It has been a winning strategy so far.  Remember that when enough people do that, the system changes, and it means in a real crisis, volatility will go higher than ever before, and stay higher longer.  The markets abhor free riders, and disasters tend to occur in such a way that the most dumb money gets gored.

Again, when the big volatility spike hits, remember, I warned you.  Also, for those playing long on volatility and buying protection on credit default — this has been a long credit cycle, and may go longer.  Do you have enough wherewithal to survive a longer bull phase?

To all, I wish you well in investing.  Just remember that new asset classes that have never been through a “failure cycle” tend to produce the greatest amounts of panic when they finally fail.  And, all asset classes eventually go through failure.

 

Photo Credit: Fabio Tinelli Roncalli || Alas, there were so many signs that the avalanche was coming…

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Ten years ago, things were mostly quiet.  The crisis was staring us in the face, with a little more than a year before the effects of growing leverage and sloppy credit underwriting would hit in full.  But when there is a boom, almost no one wants to spoil the party.  Yes a few bears and financial writers may do so, but they get ignored by the broader media, the politicians, the regulators, the bulls, etc.

It’s not as if there weren’t some hints before this.  There were losses from subprime mortgages at HSBC.  New Century was bankrupt.  Two hedge funds at Bear Stearns, filled with some of the worst exposures to CDOs and subprime lending were wiped out.

And, for those watching the subprime lending markets the losses had been rising since late 2006.  I was following it for a firm that was considering doing the “big short” but could not figure out an effective way to do it in a way consistent with the culture and personnel of the firm.  We had discussions with a number of investment banks, and it seemed obvious that those on the short side of the trade would eventually win.  I even wrote an article on it at RealMoney in November 2006, but it is lost in the bowels of theStreet.com’s file system.

Some of the building blocks of the crisis were evident then:

  • European banks in search of any AAA-rated structured product bonds that had spreads over LIBOR.  They were even engaged in a variety of leverage schemes including leveraged AAA CMBS, and CPDOs.  When you don’t have to put up any capital against AAA assets, it is astounding the lengths that market players will go through to create and swallow such assets.  The European bank yield hogs were a main facilitator of the crisis that was to come, followed by the investment banks, and bullish mortgage hedge funds.  As Gary Gorton would later point out, real disasters happen when safe assets fail.
  • Speculation was rampant almost everywhere. (not just subprime)
  • Regulators were unwilling to clamp down on bad underwriting, and they had the power to do so, but were unwilling, as banks could choose their regulators, and the Fed didn’t care, and may have actively inhibited scrutiny.
  • Not only were subprime loans low in credit quality, but they had a second embedded risk in them, as they had a reset date where the interest rate would rise dramatically, that made the loans far shorter than the houses that they financed, meaning that the loans would disproportionately default near their reset dates.
  • The illiquidity of the securitized Subprime Residential Mortgage ABS highlighted the slowness of pricing signals, as matrix pricing was slow to pick up the decay in value, given the sparseness of trades.
  • By August 2007, it was obvious that residential real estate prices were falling across the US.  (I flagged the peak at RealMoney in October 2005, but this also is lost…)
  • Amid all of this, the “big short” was not a sure thing as those that entered into it had to feed the trade before it succeeded.  For many, if the crisis had delayed one more year, many taking on the “big short” would have lost.
  • A variety of levered market-neutral equity hedge funds were running into trouble in August 2007 as they all pursued similar Value plus Momentum strategies, and as some fund liquidated, a self reinforcing panic ensued.
  • Fannie and Freddie were too levered, and could not survive a continued fall in housing prices.  Same for AIG, and most investment banks.
  • Jumbo lending, Alt-A lending and traditional mortgage lending had the same problems as subprime, just in a smaller way — but there was so much more of them.
  • Oh, and don’t forget hidden leverage at the banks through ABCP conduits that were off balance sheet.
  • Dare we mention the Fed inverting the yield curve?

So by the time that BNP Paribas announced that three of their funds that bought Subprime Residential Mortgage ABS had pricing issues, and briefly closed off redemptions, and Countrywide announced that it had to “shore up its funding,” there were many things in play that would eventually lead to the crisis that happened.

Some of us saw it in part, and hoped that things would be better.  Fewer of us saw a lot of it, and took modest actions for protection.  I was in that bucket; I never thought it would be as large as it turned out.  Almost no one saw the whole thing coming, and those that did could not dream of the response of the central banks that would take much of the losses out of the pockets of savers, leaving bad lending institutions intact.

All in all, the crisis had a lot of red lights flashing in advance of its occurrence.  Though many things have been repaired, there are a lot of people whose lives were practically ruined by their own greed, and the greed of others.  It’s a sad story, but one that will hopefully make us more careful in the future when private leverage rises, creating an asset bubble.

But if I know mankind, the lesson will not be learned.

PS — this is what I wrote one decade ago.  You can see what I knew at the time — a lot of the above, but could not see how bad it would be.

Picture Credit: Denise Krebs || What RFK said is not applicable to investing.  Safety First!  Don’t lose money!

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Investment entities, both people and institutions, often say one thing and mean another with respect to risk.  They can keep a straight face with respect to minor market gyrations.  But major market changes leading to the possible or actual questioning of whether they will have enough money to meet stated goals is what really matters to them.

There are six factors that go into any true risk analysis (I will handle them in order):

  1. Net Wealth Relative to Liabilities
  2. Time
  3. Liquidity
  4. Flexibility
  5. Investment-specific Factors
  6. Character of the Entity’s Decision-makers and their Incentives

Net Wealth Relative to Liabilities

The larger the surplus of assets over liabilities, the more relaxed and long-term focused an entity can be.  For the individual, that attempts to measure the amount needed to meet future obligations where future investment earnings are calculated at a conservative level — my initial rule of thumb is no more than 1% above the 10-year Treasury yield.

That said, for entities with well defined liabilities, like a defined benefit pension plan, a bank, or an insurance company, using 1% above the yield curve should be a maximum for investment earnings, even for existing fixed income assets.  Risk premiums will get taken into net wealth as they are earned.  They should not be planned as if they are guaranteed to occur.

Time

The longer it is before payments need to be made, the more aggressive the investment posture can be.  Now, that can swing two ways — with a larger surplus, or more time before payments need to be made, there is more freedom to tactically overweight or underweight risky assets versus your normal investment posture.

That means that someone like Buffett is almost unconstrained, aside from paying off insurance claims and indebtedness.  Not so for most investment entities, which often learn that their estimates of when they need the money are overestimates, and in a crisis, may need liquidity sooner than they ever thought.

Liquidity

High quality assets that can easily be turned into spendable cash helps make net wealth more secure.  Unexpected cash outflows happen, and how do you meet those needs, particularly in a crisis?  If you’ve got more than enough cash-like assets, the rest of the portfolio can be more aggressive.  Remember, Buffett view cash as an option, because of what he can buy with it during a crisis.  The question is whether the low returns from holding cash will get more than compensated for by capital gains and income on the rest of the portfolio across a full market cycle.  Do the opportunistic purchases get made when the crisis comes?  Do they pay off?

Also, if net new assets are coming in, aggressiveness can increase somewhat, but it matters whether the assets have promises attached to them, or are additional surplus.  The former money must be invested coservatively, while surplus can be invested aggressively.

Flexibility

Some liabilities, or spending needs, can be deferred, at some level of cost or discomfort.  As an example, if retirement assets are not sufficient, then maybe discretionary expenses can be reduced.  Dreams often have to give way to reality.

Even in corporate situations, some payments can be stretched out with some increase in the cost of financing.  One has to be careful here, because the time you are forced to conserve liquidity is often the same time that everyone else must do it as well, which means the cost of doing so could be high.  That said, projects can be put on hold, realizing that growth will suffer; this can be a “choose your poison” type of situation, because it might cause the stock price to fall, with unpredictable second order effects.

Investment-specific Factors

Making good long term investments will enable a higher return over time, but concentration of ideas can in the short-run lead to underperformance.  So long as you don’t need cash soon, or you have a large surplus of net assets, such a posture can be maintained over the long haul.

The same thing applies to the need for income from investments.  investments can shoot less for income and more for capital gains if the need for spendable cash is low.  Or, less liquid investments can be purchased if they offer a significant return for giving up the liquidity.

Character of the Entity’s Decision-makers and their Incentives

The last issue, which many take first, but I think is last, is how skilled the investors are in dealing with panic/greed situations.  What is your subjective “risk tolerance?”  The reason I put this last, is that if you have done your job right, and properly sized the first five factors above, there will be enough surplus and liquidity that does not easily run away in a crisis.  When portfolios are constructed so that they are prepared for crises and manias, the subjective reactions are minimized because the call on cash during a crisis never gets great enough to force them to move.

A: “Are we adequate?”

B: “More than adequate.  We might even be able to take advantage of the crisis…”

The only “trouble” comes when almost everyone is prepared.  Then no significant crises come.  That theoretical problem is very high quality, but I don’t think the nature of mankind ever changes that much.

Closing

Pay attention to the risk factors of investing relative to your spending needs (or, liabilities).  Then you will be prepared for the inevitable storms that will come.

Well, this market is nothing if not special.  The S&P 500 has gone 84 trading days without a loss of 1% or more.  As you can see in the table below, that ranks it #17 of all streaks since 1950.  If it can last through February 27th, it will be the longest streak since 1995.  If it can last through March 23rd, it will be the longest streak since 1966.  The all-time record (since 1950) would take us all the way to June.

Here’s another way to think about this — look at the VIX.  It closed today at 10.85.  Sleepy, sleepy… no risk to be found.  When you don’t have any significant falls in the market, the VIX tends to sag.  Aside from the election, which is an exception to the rule, the last two peaks of the VIX over the last six months were after 1%+ drops in the S&P 500.

The same would apply to credit spreads, which are also tight.  No one expects a change in liquidity, a credit event, a national security incident, etc.  But as I commented on Friday:

This is an awkward time when you have a lot of people arguing that the market CAN’T GO HIGHER!  Let me tell you, it can go higher.

Will it go higher?  Who knows?

Should it go higher?  That’s the better question, and may help with the prior question.  If you’re thinking strictly about absolute valuation, it shouldn’t go higher — we’re in the mid-80s on a percentile basis.  On a relative valuation basis, where are you going to go?  On a momentum basis, it should go higher.  It’s not a rip-roarer in terms of angle of ascent, which bodes well for it.  The rallies that fail tend to be more violent, and this one is kinda timid.

We sometimes ask in investing “who has the most to lose?”  As in my tweet above, that very well could be asset allocators with low stock allocations that conclude that they need to chase the rally.  Or, retail waking up to how great this bull market has been, concluding that they have been missing out on “free money.”

Truth, I’m not hearing many people at all banging the drum for this rally.  There is a lot of skepticism.

As for me, I don’t care much.  It’s not a core skill of mine, nor is it a part of my business.  I am finding cheap stocks still, and I will keep investing through thick and thin, unless the 10-year forecast model that I use says future returns are below 3%/year.  Then I will hedge, and encourage my clients to do so as well.

Until then, the game is on.  Let’s see how far this streak goes.

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Streaks of over 50 days since 1950

RankDateStreakYear
110/8/19631541963
22/28/19661541966
36/7/19541421954
46/3/19641311964
54/17/19611191961
67/26/19571151957
76/12/19851121985
85/17/19951101995
912/15/19951051995
1010/30/19671031967
115/13/19581021958
1211/2/1993951993
1311/24/2006942006
142/12/1993871993
158/15/1952861952
1612/20/1968851968
172/10/2017842017
188/31/1979821979
1911/30/1964811964
206/2/1950751950
216/1/1965751965
228/23/1972741972
235/8/1972731972
242/4/1953701953
254/24/1962671962
267/16/2014662014
2710/14/1958651958
286/10/1969651969
2912/2/1996651996
301/27/2004652004
312/3/1994631994
321/4/1962601962
338/18/1976601976
3412/20/1985601985
359/18/1961581961
365/14/1971581971
372/9/1989581989
387/19/1968571968
391/19/2006562006
4010/18/1951551951
419/13/1978551978
422/27/1963541963
433/29/1977541977
446/23/2016542016
458/21/1953531953
467/11/1960531960
4711/19/1969521969
489/8/1994521994
499/8/2016512016

Photo Credit: D.C.Atty || Scrawled in 2008, AFTER the crash started

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Comments are always appreciated from readers, if they are polite.  Here’s a recent one from the piece Distrust Forecasts.

You made one statement that I don’t really understand. “Most forecasters only think about income statements. Most of the limits stem from balance sheets proving insufficient, or cash flows inverting, and staying that way for a while.”

What is the danger of balance sheets proving insufficient? Does that mean that the company doesn’t have enough cash to cover their ‘burn rate’?

Not having enough cash to cover the burn rate can be an example of this.  Let me back up a bit, and speak generally before focusing.

Whether economists, quantitative analysts, chartists or guys who pull numbers out of the air, most people do not consider balance sheets when making predictions.  (Counterexample: analysts at the ratings agencies.)  It is much easier to assume a world where there are no limits to borrowing.  Practical example #1 would be home owners and buyers during the last financial crisis, together with the banks, shadow banks, and government sponsored enterprises that financed them.

In economies that have significant private debts, growth is limited, because of higher default probabilities/severity, and less capability of borrowing more should defaults tarry.  Most firms don’t like issuing equity, except as a last resort, so restricted ability to borrow limits growth. High debt among consumers limits growth in another way — they have less borrowing capacity and many feel less comfortable borrowing anyway.

Figuring out when there is “too much debt” is a squishy concept at any level — household, company, government, economy, etc.  It’s not as if you get to a magic number and things go haywire.  People have a hard time dealing with the idea that as leverage rises, so does the probability of default and the severity of default should it happen.  You can get to really high amounts of leverage and things still hold together for a while — there may be extenuating circumstances allowing it to work longer — just as in other cases, a failure in one area triggers a lot more failures as lenders stop lending, and those with inadequate liquidity can refinance and then fail.

Three More Reasons to Distrust Predictions

1) Media Effects — the media does not get the best people on the tube — they get those that are the most entertaining.  This encourages extreme predictions.  The same applies to people who make predictions in books — those that make extreme predictions sell more books.  As an example, consider this post from Ben Carlson on Harry Dent.  Harry Dent hasn’t been right in a long time, but it doesn’t stop him from making more extreme predictions.

For more on why you should ignore the media, you can read this ancient article that I wrote for RealMoney in 2005, and updated in 2013.

2) Momentum Effects — this one is two-sided.  There are momentum effects in the market, so it’s not bogus to shade near term estimates based off of what has happened recently.  There are two problems though — the longer and more severe the rise or fall, the more you should start downplaying momentum, and increasingly think mean-reversion.  Don’t argue for a high returning year when valuations are stretched, and vice-versa for large market falls when valuations are compressed.

The second thing is kind of a media effect when you begin seeing articles like “Everyone Ought to be Rich,” etc.  “Dow 36,000”-type predictions come near the end of bull markets, just as “The Death of Equities’ comes at the end of Bear Markets.  The media always shows up late; retail shows up late; the nuttiest books show up late.  Occasionally it will fell like books and pundits are playing “Can you top this?” near the end of a cycle.

3) Spurious Math — Whether it is the geometry of charts or the statistical optimization of regression, it is easy to argue for trends persisting longer than they should.  We should always try to think beyond the math to the human processes that the math is describing.  What levels of valuation or indebtedness are implied?  Setting new records in either is always possible, but it is not the most likely occurrence.

With that, be skeptical of forecasts.

 

Photo Credit: Jessica Lucia

Photo Credit: Jessica Lucia || That kid was like me… always carrying and reading a lot of books.

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If you knew me when I was young, you might not have liked me much.  I was the know-it-all who talked a lot in the classroom, but was quieter outside of it.  I loved learning.  I mostly liked my teachers.  I liked and I didn’t like my fellow students.  If the option of being home schooled had been offered to me, I would have jumped at it in an instant, because then I could learn with no one slowing me down, and no kids picking on me.

I read a lot. A LOT.  Even when young I spent my time on the adult side of the library.  The librarians typically liked me, and helped me find stuff.

I became curious about investing for two reasons. 1) my mother did it, and it was difficult not to bump into it.  She would watch Wall Street Week, and often, I would watch it with her.  2) Relatives gave me gifts of stock, and my Mom taught me where to look up the price in the newspaper.

Now, if you knew the stocks that they gave me, you would wonder at how I still retained interest.  The two were the conglomerate Litton Industries, and the home electronics company Magnavox.  Magnavox was bought out by Philips in 1974 for a price that was 25% of the original cost basis of my shares.  We did worse on Litton.  Bought in the mid-to-late ’60s and sold in the mid-’70s for a 80%+ loss.  Don’t blame my mother for any of this, though.  She rarely bought highfliers, and told me that she would have picked different stocks.  Gifts are gifts, and I didn’t need the money as a kid, so it didn’t bother me much.

At the library, sometimes I would look through some of the research volumes that were there for stocks.  There are a few things that stuck with me from that era.

1) All bonds traded at discounts.  It’s not that I understood it well, but I remember looking at bond guides, and noted that none of the bonds traded over $100 — and not surprisingly, they all had low coupons.

In those days, some people owned individual bonds for income.  I remember my Grandma on my mother’s side talking about how little one of her bonds paid in interest, given that inflation was perking up in the 1970s.  Though I didn’t hear it in that era, bonds were sometimes called “certificates of confiscation” by professionals  in the mid-to-late ’70s.  My Grandpa on my father’s side thought he was clever investing in short-term CDs, but he never changed on that, and forever missed the rally in stocks and long bonds that kicked off in 1982.

When I became a professional bond investor at the ripe old age of 38 in 1998, it was the opposite — almost all bonds traded at premiums, and had relatively high coupons.  Now, at that time I knew a few firms that were choking because they had a rule that said you can never buy premium bonds, because in a bankruptcy, the premium will be automatically lost.  Any recoveries will be off the par value of the bond, which is usually $100.

2) Many stocks paid dividends that were higher than their earnings.  I first noticed that while reading through Value Line, and wondered how that could be maintained.  The phrase “borrowing the dividend” was bandied about.

Today as a professional I know that we should look at free cash flow as a limit for dividends (and today, buybacks, which were unusual to unheard of when I was a boy), but earnings still aren’t a bad initial proxy for dividend viability.  Even if you don’t have a cash flow statement nearby, if debt is expanding and earnings don’t cover the dividend, I would be concerned enough to analyze the situation.

3) A lot of people were down on stocks and bonds — there was a kind of malaise, and it did not just emanate from Jimmy Carter’s mind. [Cue the sad Country Music] Some concluded that inflation hedges like homes, short CDs, and gold/silver were the only way to go.  I remember meeting some goldbugs in 1982 just as the market was starting to take off, and they disdained the idea of stocks, saying that history was their proof.

The “Death of Equities” came and went, but that reminds me of one more thing:

4) There was a decent amount of pessimism about defined benefit plan pension funding levels and life insurer solvency.  Inflation and high interest rates made life insurers look shaky if you marked the assets alone to market (the idea of marking liabilities to market was at least 10 years off in concept, and still hasn’t really arrived, though cash flow testing accomplishes most of the same things).  Low stock and bond prices made pension plans look shaky.  A few insurance companies experimented with buying gold and other commodities, just in time for the grand shift that started in 1982.

Takeaways

The biggest takeaway is to remember that as a fish you don’t notice the water that you swim in.  We are so absorbed in the zeitgeist (Spirit of the Times) that we usually miss that other eras are different.  We miss the possibility of turning points.  We miss the possibility of things that we would have not thought possible, like negative interest rates.

In the mid-2000s, few thought about the possibility of debt deflation having a serious impact on the US economy.  Many still feared the return of inflation, though the peacetime inflation of the late ’60s through mid-’80s was historically unusual.

The Soviet Union will bury us.

Japan will bury us.  (I’m listening to some Japanese rock as I write this.) 😉

China will bury us.

Few people can see past the zeitgeist.  Many can’t remember the past.

Should we be concerned about companies not being able pay their dividends and fulfill their buybacks?  Yes, it’s worth analyzing.

Should we be concerned about defined benefit plan funding levels? Yes, even if interest rates rise, and percentage deficits narrow.  Stocks will likely fall with bonds if real interest rates rise.  And, interest rates may not rise much soon.  Are you ready for both possibilities?

Average people don’t seem that excited about any asset class today.  The stock market is at new highs, and there isn’t really a mania feel now.  That said, the ’60s had their highfliers, and the P/Es eventually collapsed amid inflation and higher real interest rates.  Those that held onto the Nifty Fifty may not have lost money, but few had the courage.  Will there be a correction for the highfliers of this era, or, is it different this time?

It’s never different.

It’s always different.

Separating the transitory from the permanent is tough.  I would be lying to you if I said I could do it consistently or easily, but I spend time thinking about it.  As Buffett has said, (something like) “We’re paid to think about things that can’t happen.

Ending Thoughts

Now, lest the above seem airy-fairy, here are my biases at present as I try to separate the transitory from the permanent:

  • The US is in better shape than most of the rest of the world, but its securities are relatively priced for that reality.
  • Before the US has problems, Japan, China, OPEC, and the EU will have problems, in about that order.  Sovereign default used to be a large problem.  It is a problem that is returning.  As I have said before — this era reminds me of the 1840s — huge debts and deficits, with continued currency debasement.  Hopefully we don’t get a lot of wars as they did in that decade.
  • I am treating long duration bonds as a place to speculate — I’m dubious as to how much Trump can truly change things.  I’m flat there now.  I think you almost have to be a trend follower there.
  • The yield curve will probably flatten quickly if the Fed tightens more than once more.
  • The internet and global demographics are both forces for deflationary pressure.  That said, virtually the whole world has overpromised to their older populations.  How that gets solved without inflation or defaults is a tough problem.
  • Stocks are somewhat overvalued, but the attitude isn’t frothy.
  • DIvidend stocks are kind of a cult right now, and will suffer some significant setback, particularly if interest rates rise.
  • Eventually emerging markets and their stocks will dominate over developed markets.
  • Value investing will do relatively better than growth investing for a while.

That’s all for now.  You may conclude very differently than I have, but I would encourage you to try to think about the hard problems of our world today in a systematic way.  The past teaches us some things, but not enough, which should tell all of us to do risk control first, because you don’t know the future, and neither do I. 🙂

 

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I’ve thought about this problem before, but always thought it was more of a curiosity until I read this on page 66 of Jeff Gramm’s very good book, Dear Chairman: Boardroom Battles and the Rise of Shareholder Activism.  (Note: anyone entering through this link and buying something at Amazon, I get a small commission.)

I saw Eddie Lampert, a hedge fund manager who is chairman of Sears Holdings, make some interesting points at a New York Public Library event in 2006. When he was discussing the challenges of managing a public company, he raised a question few people in the room had considered. How do you run a company well when the stock is overvalued? What happens when management can’t meet investors’ unrealistic expectations without taking more risk? And what happens to employee morale if everyone does a good job but the stock declines? Lampert, of course, knew what he was talking about. Sears closed that day at $175 per share versus today’s price of around $35. In an efficient market, it’s easy to develop tidy theories about optimal corporate governance. Once you realize stock prices can be totally crazy, the dogma needs to go out the window.

The price of Sears Holding is around $13 now, though there have been a lot of spinoffs.  Could Eddie have done better for shareholders?  Before answering that, let’s take a simpler example: what should a the managers/board of a closed end fund do if it persistently trades at a large premium to its net asset value [NAV]?  I can think of three ideas:

1) Conclude that the best course of action is to minimize the eventual price crash that will happen.  Therefore issue stock as near the current price level as possible, and use it to buy non-inflated assets, bringing down the discount.  What’s that, you say?  The act of announcing a stock offering will crater the price?  Okay, good point, which brings us to:

2) Merge with another closed end fund, trading at a discount, but offering them a premium to their NAV, hopefully a closed end fund related to the type of closed end fund that you are.  What’s that, you say?  Those that manage other closed end funds are financial experts, and would never agree to that?  Uhh, maybe.  Let me say that not all financial experts are equal, and who knows what you might be able to do.  Also, they do have a duty to their investors to maximize value, and for those that sell above net asset value this is a big win.  In the meantime, you have reduced your effective economic discount for those that continue to hold your fund.

3) Issue bonds or preferred stock convertible into common stock at a level that virtually guarantees conversion.  Use the proceeds to invest in your ordinary investment strategy, bringing down the effective discount as dilution slowly takes place.

Of all the ideas, I think 3 might work best, because it would have the best chance of allowing you to issue equity near the overvalued level.  If the overvaluation was 50%, maybe you could get it down to 25% by doubling the asset base, in which case you did your holders a big favor.  If it works, maybe repeat it in two years if the premium persists.

A closed end fund is simple compared to a company — but that added complexity may allow strategies one or two to work better.  Before we go there, let’s take one more detour — PENNY STOCKS!

Okay, I haven’t written about those in a while, but what do penny stock managements with no revenues do to keep their firm alive?  They trade stock at discount levels in order to source goods and services.  This creates dilution, but they don’t care, they are waiting for the day when they can exit, possibly after a promotion.  Also, they could issue their stock to buy up a small firm, adding some value behind the worthless shares.  One guy wrote me after my penny stock articles, telling me of how he foolishly did that, with the stock being restricted, and he watched in horror as the  price sank 60% before he was allowed to sell any shares.  He lost most of what he worked for in life, took the company to court, and I suspect that he lost… it was his responsibility to do “due diligence.”

So with that, strategy one can be to issue as much stock as possible as quietly as possible.  Offer your employees stock in order to reduce wages.  Give them options.  Where possible, pay for real assets and services with stock.  Issue stock, saying that you have big plans for organic growth, then, try to grow the company.  In this case, strategy three can make more sense, as the set of buyers taking the convertible stock and bonds don’t see the dilution.  That said, the hard critical element is the organic growth strategy — what great thing can you do?  Maybe this strategy would apply to a cash hungry firm like Tesla.

In strategy two, merge with other companies either to achieve diversification or vertical integration.  Issue stock at a premium to the value received, but not not as great as the premium underlying your current stock price.  Ordinarily, I would argue against dilutive acquisitions, but this is a special case where you are trying to reduce the premium valuation without reducing the share price.

This brings us to another set of examples: conglomerates and roll-ups.  Think of the go-go years in the ’60s where conglomerates bought up low P/E stocks using their high P/E stocks as currency.  Initially, the process produces earnings growth.  It works until the eventual bloat of the businesses is difficult to manage, and the P/Es fall.  Final acquisitions are sometimes ugly, leading to failure.  The law of decreasing returns to scale eventually catches up.

With roll-ups an aggressive management team buys up peers.  The acquirer is a faster growing company, and so its stock trades at a premium.  If the acquirer is clever, it can shed costs in the target, and continue to show earnings growth for some time until it finally slows down and has to rationalize the mess of peer companies that have been bought.

This brings up one more area for overvalued companies: frauds.  This past evening, my wife and I watched The Billion Dollar Bubble, which was the largest financial fraud up until Madoff.  One thing Equity Funding did was use the funds that they had generated to buy other insurers. (That’s not in the movie, which kept things simple, and compressed the time it took for the fraud to take place.)

Enron is another example of a fraudulent company that used its inflated share price to buy up other companies.  Not everything Enron did was fraudulent, but having a highly valued stock allowed it to buy up companies with assets which reduced some of its valuation premium, though not enough for the stock to go out at a positive figure.

Summary

It is an unusual situation, but the best strategy for a company with an overvalued stock is to try to grow their way out of it, usually through mergers and acquisitions.   The twist I offer you at the end of my piece is this: thus, watch highly acquisitive firms. Not all of them are overvalued or fraudulent, but some will be. Avoid the shares of those firms.

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I have sometimes said that it is common for many people to imitate the behavior of others, rather than think for themselves.  There are several reasons for that:

  • It”s simple.
  • It’s fast.
  • And so long as you don’t run into a resource constraint it works well.

People generally have a decent idea who their smartest friends are, and who seems to give good advice on simple issues.  If your neighbor says that the new Chinese food place is excellent, and you know he knows his food, there is a very good chance that when you go there that you will get excellent Chinese food as well.

You might even tell your friends about it; after all, you want to look bright as well, and its neighborly to share good information.  That works quite well until the day that Yogi Berra’s dictum kicks in:

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

The information indeed was free, but space inside the restaurant was not, even if patrons weren’t paying to get in.  And even if they have carryout, the line could go around the block… a hardship for many even if you are getting the famous Ocean Broccoli Beef.  (Warning: Hot in every way.)

Readers of my blog know that the same thing happens in markets.  Imitation was a large part of the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble.  When a less knowledgeable friend is making what is seemingly free money, it is very difficult for many people to resist the temptation to imitate, because if it works for him, it ought to work better for the more knowledgeable.

As such, prices can get overbid, and the overshoot above the intrinsic value of the assets can be considerable.  It all ends when the cost of capital to finance the asset is considerably higher than the cash flow that the asset throws off.  And as with all bubbles, the end is pretty ugly and rapid.

But what if you had a really big and liquid strategy, one that threw off decent cash flow.  Could that ever be a bubble?  The odds are low but the answer is yes.  It is possible for any strategy to distort relative prices such that the assets inside a strategy get significantly above intrinsic value — to the point where they discount negative future returns over a 5-10 year horizon.  (As an aside, negative interest rates are by definition a bubble, and the instruments traded there are in big liquid markets.  The severity of that bubble collapsing is likely to be limited, though, unless there is some sort of payments crisis.  The relative amount of overvaluation is small, and has to be small.)

Indexing as Imitation

Today, indexing is a form of imitation in two ways.  The first way is not new — it is a way of saying “I want the average result, and very low fees.”  It’s a powerful idea and generally a good idea.  If used for long-term investment, and not short-term speculation, it allows capital to compound over long periods of time, and keeps people from making subpar investment decisions through panic and greed.

Then there is the second way of imitation: indexing because it is now the received wisdom — all your friends are doing it.  This is a momentum effect, and at some point even indexing through a large index like the S&P 500 or Wilshire 5000 could become overdone.  The effects could vary, though.

  • You could see more larger private corporations go public because the advantage of cheap capital overwhelms the informational and other advantages of remaining private.
  • You could see corporations reverse financial engineering, and issue more cheap stock to retire expensive debt.  On the other hand, it would be more likely that credit spreads would tighten significantly, leaving debt and equity balanced.
  • You would see pressure on corporations with odd capital structures like multiple share classes to simplify, so that all of the equity would trade at high multiples.
  • Corporations could dilute their stock to pay for resources — labor, land, intellectual capital and physical capital.  Or, buy up competitors.  If you think that is farfetched, I remember the late ’90s where it was cool for executives to say, “Let the stock market pay your employees.”
  • People could borrow against their homes to buy more stock, or just margin up.

If you see what I am doing — I’m trying to show what a distorted price for publicly traded stocks in an big index could do — and I haven’t even suggested the obvious — that an unsustainable price will correct eventually, and maybe, in a dramatic way.

I’m not saying that indexing is a bubble presently.  I’m only saying it could be one day.  Like the imitation illustrations given above, when a lot of people want to do the same thing without bringing additional information to the process, shortages develop, and in some cases prices rise as a result.

One final note: active management would get more punch at some point, because informationless index investing would lead to some degree of mispricing that active managers would take advantage of.  At the rate money is currently exiting active management and going into indexing, that could be five years from now (just a guess).

As with all things in investing, the proof will be seen only in hindsight, so take this with a saltshaker of salt.  As for me, I will continue to pick stocks.  It has worked well for me.