A few days ago, I was trying to buy a little bit of a defense company that I own for myself and clients.  It was relatively inexpensive, and had fallen out of favor.  Now, it’s not the most liquid beastie on the US market, so I put in an order to buy 2000 shares, while showing 100 shares, offering to buy at the current bid of $25.50 while allowing purchases at up to $25.57, while the ask was at $25.65.  I then shifted away from my trading application, and went to do other work.

After an hour, I went back to my trading screen, and saw that 1200 shares had executed between $25.50 and 25.57, but now the price was much higher, and by the end of the day, higher still.  It is even higher now.

At the time, I took a look, and lo and behold: I got the bottom tick — the lowest price on that stock ever (for now).  I also noted that I had almost all of the volume when it went down to the low price.  But 1200 shares is small compared to the total trading in the name, and $30,000 is also a small amount of money.  I concluded that it was a happy accident that I got the bottom tick.

I’ve had the same experience working at a hedge fund.  I would occasionally get the bottom tick when buying, or the top tick when selling, and most of the time I ended up saying that it had to happen to someone — it was us that day.  That said, the total amount of volume was almost always low near the top or bottom, so getting that versus a trade nearby was not worth that much.

To have a lot of volume near a top or bottom, you need two or more determined and anxious traders with large capacity to trade, a need for speed, and opposite opinions.  That happens sometimes, but in experience, not that often.  Near a peak, you would need a buyer anxious to buy a lot more NOW.  Near a trough, a seller wanting to sell it all NOW.

Most of the time, large institutional investors are cautious, and try to minimize their impact on market prices — being too aggressive will likely give them a worse result than being patient.  The exception would be someone who thinks he knows a lot more than the market, but feels that edge will erode soon, and therefore has to do the trade in full NOW.

That doesn’t happen often.  Practically, that means to not be so picky about levels in buying and selling.  If you are getting the trade off and there is decent volume at a price near where you want to do the trade, do the trade, and don’t worry much about the small amount of profit that you might be giving up.  Better to focus on ideas that you think have long term potential for profit, than to waste time trying to squeeze the last bit of profit out of a trade where incremental returns will be minuscule.

I’m not going to argue for any particular strategy here. My main point is this: every valid strategy is going to have some periods of underperformance.  Don’t give up on your strategy because of that; you are likely to give up near the point of maximum pain, and miss the great returns in the bull phase of the strategy.

Here are three simple bits of advice that I hand out to average people regarding asset allocation:

  1. Figure out what the maximum loss is that you are willing to take in a year, and then size your allocation to risky assets such that the likelihood of exceeding that loss level is remote.
  2. If you have any doubts on bit of advice #1, reduce the amount of risky assets a bit more.  You’d be surprised how little you give up in performance from doing so.  The loss from not allocating to risky assets that return better on average is partly mitigated by a bigger payoff from rebalancing from risky assets to safe, and back again.
  3. Use additional money slated for investing to rebalance the portfolio.  Feed your losers.

The first rule is most important, because the most important thing here is avoiding panic, leading to selling risky assets when prices are depressed.  That is the number one cause of underperformance for average investors.  The second rule is important, because it is better to earn less and be able to avoid panic than to risk losing your nerve.  Rule three just makes it easier to maintain your portfolio; it may not be applicable if you follow a momentum strategy.

Now, about momentum strategies — if you’re going to pursue strategies where you are always buying the assets that are presently behaving strong, well, keep doing it.  Don’t give up during the periods where it doesn’t seem to work, or when it occasionally blows up.  The best time for any strategy typically come after a lot of marginal players give up because losses exceed their pain point.

That brings me back to rule #1 above — even for a momentum strategy, maybe it would be nice to have some safe assets on the side to turn down the total level of risk.  It would also give you some money to toss into the strategy after the bad times.

If you want to try a new strategy, consider doing it when your present strategy has been doing well for a while, and you see new players entering the strategy who think it is magic.  No strategy is magic; none work all the time.  But if you “harvest” your strategy when it is mature, that would be the time to do it.  It would be similar to a bond manager reducing exposure to risky bonds when the additional yield over safe bonds is thin, and waiting for a better opportunity to take risk.

But if you do things like that, be disciplined in how you do it.  I’ve seen people violate their strategies, and reinvest in the hot asset when the bull phase lasts too long, just in time for the cycle to turn.  Greed got the better of them.

Markets are perverse.  They deliver surprises to all, and you can be prepared to react to volatility by having some safe assets to tone things down, or, you can roll with the volatility fully invested and hopefully not panic.  When too many unprepared people are fully invested in risky assets, there’s a nasty tendency for the market to have a significant decline.  Similarly, when people swear off investing in risky assets, markets tend to perform really well.

It all looks like a conspiracy, and so you get a variety of wags in comment streams alleging that the markets are rigged.  The markets aren’t rigged.  If you are a soldier heading off for war, you have to mentally prepare for it.  The same applies to investors, because investing isn’t perfectly easy, but a lot of players say that it is easy.

We can make investing easier by restricting the choices that you have to make to a few key ones.  Index funds.  Allocation funds that use index funds that give people a single fund to buy that are continually rebalanced.  But you would still have to exercise discipline to avoid fear and greed — and thus my three example rules above.

If you need more confirmation on this, re-read my articles on dollar-weighted returns versus time-weighted returns.  Most trading that average people do loses money versus buying and holding.  As a result, the best thing to do with any strategy is to structure it so that you never take actions out of a sense of regret for past performance.

That’s easy to say, but hard to do.  I’m subject to the same difficulties that everyone else is, but I worked to create rules to limit my behavior during times of investment pain.

Your personality, your strategy may differ from mine, but the successful meta-strategy is that you should be disciplined in your investing, and not give into greed or panic.  Pursue that, whether you invest like me or not.

From a friend who is a client:

Here are a couple of things I have been pondering.

  • Market capitalization is pretty fictitious. It assumes that all the shares of a company are worth the price at which the last block sold. However, if you tried to sell all of the shares of a large company (hypothetically), the price would drop to almost zero.
  • It seems to me the primary reason the stock market goes up over time is because the money supply increases. To put it another way, if the money supply did not increase the stock market could only increase in value by increasing the % percentage of the money supply spent on stocks, which is obviously limited.

My views here might be somewhat naive. Comments/criticism/feedback welcome.

Dear Friend,

Ben Graham used to talk about the stock market being a cross between a voting machine and a weighing machine.  On any given day, economic actors vote by buying and selling shares, and in the short run, the trades happen at the levels dictated by whether the buyers or sellers are more aggressive.  That is the voting machine of the market.  In the short run, values can be pretty senseless if one side or the other decides to be aggressive in their buying or selling.

What arrests the behavior of the voting machine is the weighing machine.  The price of a stock can’t get too low, or it will get taken over by a competitor, a private equity firm, a conglomerate, etc.  The price of a stock can’t get too high, or valuation-sensitive investors will sell to buy cheaper shares of firms with better prospects.  Also, corporate management will begin thinking of how they could buy up other firms, using their stock as a currency.

I’ve written more on this topic at the article The Stock Price Matters, Regardless.  Within a certain range, the market capitalization of a company is arbitrary.  Outside the range of reasonableness, financial forces take over to push the valuation to be more in line with the fundamentals of the company.

Macro Stock Market Measures

Every now and then, someone comes along and suggests a new way to value the stock market as a whole.  I’ve run across the idea that the stock market is driven by the money supply before.  The last time I saw someone propose that was in the late 1980s.  I think people were dissuaded from the idea because money supply changes in the short run did not correlate that well with the movements in stock indexes over the next 25 years.

Now, in the long run, most sufficiently broad macroeconomic variables will correlate with levels of the stock market.  Buffett likes to cite GDP as his favorite measure.  It’s hard to imagine how over the long haul the stock market wouldn’t be correlated with GDP growth.  (Why do I hear someone invoking Kalecki in the background?  Begone! 😉 )

There are other popular measures that get trotted out as well, like the Q-ratio, which compares the stock market to its replacement cost, or the Shiller Cyclically Adjusted P/E ratio [CAPE]. All of these have their merits, but none of them really capture what drives the markets perfectly.  After all:, various market players note that the market varies considerably with respect to each measure, and they try to use them to time the market.

The best measure I have run into is a little more complicated, but boils down to estimating the amount that Americans have invested in the stock market as a fraction of their total net worth.  You can find more on it here. (Credit @Jesse_Livermore)  Even that can be used to try to time the market, and it is very good, but not perfect.

But in short, the reason why any of the macro measures of the market don’t move in lockstep with the market is that market economies are dynamic.  For short periods of time, our attention can fixate on one item or group of items.  In my lifetime, I can think of periods where we focused on:

  • Monetary aggregates
  • Inflation
  • Unemployment
  • Housing prices
  • Commercial Mortgage defaults
  • Japan
  • China
  • High interest rates
  • Low interest rates
  • Bank solvency

Profit margins rise and fall.  Credit spreads rise and fall.  Interest rates rise and fall.  Sectors of the economy go in and out of favor.  The boom/bust cycle never gets repealed, and economists that think they can do so eventually get embarrassed.

That’s what keeps this game interesting on a macro level.  You can’t tell what the true limits are for market valuation.  We can have guesses, but they are subject to considerable error.  It is best to be conservative in our judgments here, in order to maintain a margin of safety, realizing that we will look a little foolish when the market runs too hot, and when we seem to be catching a falling knife in the bear phase of the market.  Take that as my best advice on what is otherwise a cloudy topic, and thanks for asking — you made me think.

One of the constants in investing is that average investors show up late to the party or to the crisis.  Unlike many gatherings where it may be cool to be fashionably late, in investing it tends to mean you earn less and lose more, which is definitely not cool.

One reason why this happens is that information gets distributed in lumps.  We don’t notice things in real time, partly because we’re not paying attention to the small changes that are happening.  But after enough time passes, a few people notice a trend.  After a while longer, still more people notice the trend, and it might get mentioned in some special purpose publications, blogs, etc.  More time elapses and it becomes a topic of conversation, and articles make it into the broad financial press.  The final phase is when general interest magazines put it onto the cover, and get rich quick articles and books point at how great fortunes have been made, and you can do it too!

That slow dissemination and gathering of information is paralleled by a similar flow of money, and just as the audience gets wider, the flow of money gets bigger.  As the flow of money in or out gets bigger, prices tend to overshoot fair value, leaving those who arrived last with subpar returns.

There is another aspect to this, and that stems from the way that people commonly evaluate managers.  We use past returns as a prologue to what is assumed to be still greater returns in the future.  This not only applies to retail investors but also many institutional investors.  Somme institutional investors will balk at this conclusion, but my experience in talking with institutional investors has been that though they look at many of the right forward looking indicators of manager quality, almost none of them will hire a manager that has the right people, process, etc., and has below average returns relative to peers or indexes.  (This also happens with hedge funds… there is nothing special in fund analysis there.)

For the retail crowd it is worse, because most investors look at past returns when evaluating managers.  Much as Morningstar is trying to do the right thing, and have forward looking analyst ratings (gold, silver, bronze, neutral and negative), yet much of the investing public will not touch a fund unless it has four or five stars from Morningstar, which is a backward looking rating.  This not only applies to individuals, but also committees that choose funds for defined contribution plans.  If they don’t choose the funds with four or five stars, they get complaints, or participants don’t use the funds.

Another Exercise in Dollar-Weighted Returns

One of the ways this investing shortfall gets expressed is looking at the difference between time-weighted (buy-and-hold) and dollar-weighted (weighted geometric average/IRR) returns.  The first reveals what an investor who bought and held from the beginning earned, versus what the average dollar invested earned.  Since money tends to come after good returns have been achieved, and money tends to leave after bad returns have been realized, the time-weighted returns are typically higher then the dollar-weighted returns.  Generally, the more volatile the performance of the investment vehicle the larger the difference between time- and dollar-weighted returns gets.  The greed and fear cycle is bigger when there is more volatility, and people buy and sell at the wrong times to a greater degree.

(An aside: much as some pooh-pooh buy-and-hold investing, it generally beats those who trade.  There may be intelligent ways to trade, but they are always a minority among market actors.)

HSGFX Dollar Weighted Returns

HSGFX Dollar and Time Weighted Returns

That brings me to tonight’s fund for analysis: Hussman Strategic Growth [HSGFX]. John Hussman, a very bright guy, has been trying to do something very difficult — time the markets.  The results started out promising, attracting assets in the process, and then didn’t do so well, and assets have slowly left.  For my calculation this evening, I run the calculation on his fund with the longest track record from inception to 30 June 2014.  The fund’s fiscal years end on June 30th, and so I assume cash flows occur at mid-year as a simplifying assumption.  At the end of the scenario, 30 June 2014, I assume that all of the funds remaining get paid out.

To run this calculation, I do what I have always done, gone to the SEC EDGAR website and look at the annual reports, particularly the section called “Statements of Changes in Net Assets.”  The cash flow for each fiscal year is equal to the net increase in net assets from capital share transactions plus the net decrease in net assets from distributions to shareholders.  Once I have the amount of money moving in or out of the fund in each fiscal year, I can then run an internal rate of return calculation to get the dollar-weighted rate of return.

In my table, the cash flows into/(out of) the fund are in millions of dollars, and the column titled Accumulated PV is the accumulated present value calculated at an annualized rate of -2.56% per year, which is the dollar-weighted rate of return.  The zero figure at the top shows that a discount rate -2.56% makes the cash inflows and outflows net to zero.

From the beginning of the Annual Report for the fiscal year ended in June 2014, they helpfully provide the buy-and-hold return since inception, which was +3.68%.  That gives a difference of 6.24% of how much average investors earned less than the buy-and-hold investors.  This is not meant to be a criticism of Hussman’s performance or methods, but simply a demonstration that a lot of people invested money after the fund’s good years, and then removed money after years of underperformance.  They timed their investment in a market-timing fund poorly.

Now, Hussman’s fund may do better when the boom/bust cycle turns if his system makes the right move somewhere near the bottom of the cycle.  That didn’t happen in 2009, and thus the present state of affairs.  I am reluctant to criticize, though, because I tried running a strategy like this for some of my own clients and did not do well at it.  But when I realized that I did not have the personal ability/willingness to buy when valuations were high even though the model said to do so because of momentum, rather than compound an error, I shut down the product, and refunded some fees.

One thing I can say with reasonable confidence, though: the low returns of the past by themselves are not a reason to not invest in Mr. Hussman’s funds.  Past returns by themselves tell you almost nothing about future returns.  The hard questions with a fund like this are: when will the cycle turn from bullish to bearish?  (So that you can decide how long you are willing to sit on the sidelines), and when the cycle turns from bearish to bullish, will Mr. Hussman make the right decision then?

Those questions are impossible to answer with any precision, but at least those are the right questions to ask.  What, you’d rather have the answer to a simple question like how did it return in the past, that has no bearing on how the fund will do in the future?  Sadly, that is the answer that propels more investment decisions than any other, and it is what leads to bad overall investment returns on average.

PS — In future articles in this irregular series, I will apply this to the Financial Sector Spider [XLF], and perhaps some fund of Kenneth Heebner’s.  Till then.

There was an article at Bloomberg on gaming additions to and deletions from indexes, and at least two comments on it (one, two).  You can read them at your convenience; in this short post I would like to point out two ways to stop the gaming.

  1. Define your index to include all securities in the class (say, all US-based stocks with over $10 million in market cap), or
  2. Control your index so that additions and deletions are done at your leisure, and not in any predictable way.

The gaming problem occurs because index funds find that they have to buy or sell stocks when indexes change, and more flexible investors act more quickly, causing the index funds to transact at less favorable prices.  You never want to be in the position of being forced to make a trade.

The first solution means using an index like the Wilshire 5000, which in principle covers almost all stocks that you would care about.  Index additions would happen at things like IPOs and spinoffs, and deletions at things like takeovers — both of which are natural liquidity events.

Solution one would be relatively easy to manage, but not everyone wants to own a broad market fund.  The second solution remedies the situation more generally, at a cost that index fund buyers would not exactly know what the index was in the short-run.

Solution two destroys comparability, but the funds would change the target percentages when they felt it was advantageous to do so whether it was:

  • Make the change immediately, like the flexible investors do, or
  • Phase it in over time.

And to do this, you might ask for reporting waivers from the SEC for up to x% of the total fund, whatever is currently in transition.  The main idea is this: you aren’t forced to trade on anyone else’s schedule.  The only thing leading you would be what is best for your investors, because if you don’t do well for them, they will leave you.

Now, that implies that if you were to say that your intent is to mimic the S&P 500 index, but with some flexibility, that would invite easy comparisons, such that you would be less free to deviate too far.   But if you said your intent was more akin to the Russell 1000 or 3000, there would be more room to maneuver.  That said, choosing an index is a marketing decision, and more people want the S&P 500 than the Wilshire 5000, much less the US Largecap Index.

So, maybe with solution two the gaming problem isn’t so easy to escape, or better, you can choose which problem you want.  Perhaps the one bit of practical advice here then is to investors — choose a broad market index like the Wilshire 5000.  At least your index fund won’t get so easily gamed, and given the small cap effect over time, you’ll probably do better than the S&P 500, even excluding the effects of gaming.

There, a simple bit of advice.  Till next time.

There’s a lot of talk about the Chinese stock market falling. I look at it as an opportunity to talk about why bubbles develop in markets, and why governments don’t take steps to avoid them until it is too late — also, why they try to prop the bubbles up, even though it is hopeless.  But first an aside:

Three weeks ago, I was interviewed on RT/America Boom/Bust.  Half of the interview aired — the part on domestic matters.  The part on Greece and China didn’t air, and what a pity.  I argued that China today was very much like Japan in the late ’80s, where the Japanese had a hard time investing abroad, and had an expansive monetary policy.  People had a hard time figuring out where to put their money.  Savings and fixed income didn’t offer much.  Real Estate was great if you could afford it.  The stock market was a place for putting money to work — and it had a lot of momentum behind it.

China has the added complexity of wealth management products which are opaque and many are Ponzi schemes.  Also, the fixed income markets in China are not as mature as Japan’s markets 30 years ago.  Both have the difficulties that they are too big for some of the indexes that international investors use.

Another reason for the bubbly behavior was use of margin, both formal and informal, and, the tendency for stock investors to have very short holding periods.  Short-termism and following momentum is most of what creates bubbles.  Ben Graham’s voting machine dominates, until the weighing machine takes over, and the voting machine votes the opposite way.

Long term assets like stocks should be financed with equity, or at worst, long-term debt.  Using a lot of margin debt to finance equity leads to a rocket up, and a rocket down.  When the amount of equity in the  account gets too low, more assets have to be added, or stocks will have to be liquidated to protect the margin loan that the broker made.  When enough stocks in margin accounts are forced to be sold, that can drive stock prices down, leading to a self-reinforcing cycle, until the debt levels normalize at much lower levels.  This is a part of what happened in the Great Depression in the US.

Now governments never argue with bubbles when they expand, because no one dares to oppose a boom.  (Note: that article won a small award. Powerpoint presentation here.)  The powers that be love effortless prosperity, and no one wants to listen to a prophet of doom when the Cabaret is open.

Now, the prosperity is mostly fake, because all of the borrowing is temporarily pulling future prosperity into the present.  When the bubble pops, that will revert with a vengeance, leaving behind bad debts.

Despite the increase in debts, and speculative changes in economic behavior, most policymakers will claim that they can’t tell whether a bubble is growing or not.  Their bread is buttered on the side of political contributions from financial firms.

But when the bubble pops, and things are ugly, governments will try to resist the deflating bubble — favoring relatively well-off asset owners over not-so-well-off taxpayers.  In China at present, they are closing down markets for stocks (if it doesn’t trade, the price must not be falling).  They are trying to be more liberal about liquidating margin debt.  They are limiting share sales by major holders.  They are postponing IPOs.  They are inducing institutions to buy stock.

China thinks that it can control and even reverse the deflating bubble.  I think they are deluded.  Yes, they are relatively more powerful in their own country than US regulators and policymakers.  But even if their institutions were big enough to suck up all of the stock at existing prices, it would merely substitute on problem for another: the institutions would be stuck with assets that have low forward-looking returns.  If you use those to fund a defined benefit pension plan, you will likely find that you have embedded a loss in the plan that will take years to reveal itself.

As a result, since China is much larger than Greece, its problems get more attention, because they could affect the rest of the world more.  For Western investors without direct China exposure, I’m not sure how big that will be, but with highly valued markets any increase in volatility could cause temporary indigestion.

The one bit of friendly advice I might offer is don’t be quick to try to catch a falling knife here.  It might be better to wait. and maybe buy stocks in countries that get unfairly tarred by any panic coming out of China, rather than investing in China itself.  Remember, margin of safety matters.  More on that coming in a future post.

My last post has many implications. I want to make them clear in this post.

  1. When you analyze a manager, look at the repeatability of his processes.  It’s possible that you could get “the Big Short” right once, and never have another good investment idea in your life.  Same for investors who are the clever ones who picked the most recent top or bottom… they are probably one-trick ponies.
  2. When a manager does well and begins to pick up a lot of new client assets, watch for the period where the growth slows to almost zero.  It is quite possible that some of the great performance during the high growth period stemmed from asset prices rising due to the purchases of the manager himself.  It might be a good time to exit, or, for shorts to consider the assets with the highest percentage of market cap owned as targets for shorting.
  3. Often when countries open up to foreign investment, valuations are relatively low.  The initial flood of money in often pushes up valuations, leads to momentum buyers, and a still greater flow of money.  Eventually an adjustment comes, and shakes out the undisciplined investors.  But, when you look at the return series analyze potential future investment, ignore the early years — they aren’t representative of the future.
  4. Before an academic paper showing a way to invest that would been clever to use in the past gets published, the excess returns are typically described as coming from valuation, momentum, manager skill, etc.  After the paper is published, money starts getting applied to the idea, and the strategy will do well initially.  Again, too much money can get applied to a limited factor (or other) anomaly, because no one knows how far it can get pushed before the market rebels.  Be careful when you apply the research — if you are late, you could get to hold the bag of overvalued companies.  Aside for that, don’t assume that performance from the academic paper’s era or the 2-3 years after that will persist.  Those are almost always the best years for a factor (or other) anomaly strategy.
  5. During a credit boom, almost every new type of fixed income security, dodgy or not, will look like genius by the early purchasers.  During a credit bust, it is rare for a new security type to fare well.
  6. Anytime you take a large position in an obscure security, it must jump through extra hoops to assure a margin of safety.  Don’t assume that merely because you are off the beaten path that you are a clever contrarian, smarter than most.
  7. Always think about the carrying capacity of a strategy when you look at an academic paper.  It might be clever, but it might not be able to handle a lot of money.  Examples would include trying to do exactly what Ben Graham did in the early days today, and things like Piotroski’s methods, because typically only a few small and obscure stocks survive the screen.
  8. Also look at how an academic paper models trading and liquidity, if they give it any real thought at all.  Many papers embed the idea that liquidity is free, and large trades can happen where prices closed previously.
  9. Hedge funds and other manager databases should reflect that some managers have closed their funds, and put them in a separate category, because new money can’t be applied to those funds.  I.e., there should be “new money allowed” indexes.
  10. Max Heine, who started the Mutual Series funds (now part of Franklin), was a genius when he thought of the strategy 20% distressed investing, 20% arbitrage/event-driven investing and 60% value investing.  It produced great returns 9 years out of 10.  but once distressed investing and event-driven because heavily done, the idea lost its punch.  Michael Price was clever enough to sell the firm to Franklin before that was realized, and thus capitalizing the past track record that would not do as well in the future.
  11. The same applies to a lot of clever managers.  They have a very good sense of when their edge is getting dulled by too much competition, and where the future will not be as good as the past.  If they have the opportunity to sell, they will disproportionately do so then.
  12. Corporate management teams are like rock bands.  Most of them never have a hit song.  (For managements, a period where a strategy improves profitability far more than most would have expected.)  The next-most are one-hit wonders.  Few have multiple hits, and rare are those that create a culture of hits.  Applying this to management teams — the problem is if they get multiple bright ideas, or a culture of success, it is often too late to invest, because the valuation multiple adjusts to reflect it.  Thus, advantages accrue to those who can spot clever managements before the rest of the market.  More often this happens in dull industries, because no one would think to look there.
  13. It probably doesn’t make sense to run from hot investment idea to hot investment idea as a result of all of this.  You will end up getting there once the period of genius is over, and valuations have adjusted.  It might be better to buy the burned out stuff and see if a positive surprise might come.  (Watch margin of safety…)
  14. Macroeconomics and the effect that it has on investment returns is overanalyzed, though many get the effects wrong anyway.  Also, when central bankers and politicians take cues from the prices of risky assets, the feedback loop confuses matters considerably.  if you must pay attention to macro in investing, always ask, “Is it priced in or not?  How much of it is priced in?”
  15. Most asset allocation work that relies on past returns is easy to do and bogus.  Good asset allocation is forward-looking and ignores past returns.
  16. Finally, remember that some ideas seem right by accident — they aren’t actually right.  Many academic papers don’t get published.  Many different methods of investing get tried.  Many managements try new business ideas.  Those that succeed get air time, whether it was due to intelligence or luck.  Use your business sense to analyze which it might be, or, if it is a combination.

There’s more that could be said here.  Just be cautious with new investment strategies, whatever form they may take.  Make sure that you maintain a margin of safety; you will likely need it.

Investing ideas come in many forms:

  • Factors like Valuation, Sentiment, Momentum, Size, Neglect…
  • New technologies
  • New financing methods and security types
  • Changes in government policies will have effects, cultural change, or other top-down macro ideas
  • New countries to invest in
  • Events where value might be discovered, like recapitalizations, mergers, acquisitions, spinoffs, etc.
  • New asset classes or subclasses
  • Durable competitive advantage of marketing, technology, cultural, or other corporate practices

Now, before an idea is discovered, the economics behind the idea still exist, but the returns happen in a way that no one yet perceives.  When an idea is discovered, the discovery might be made public early, or the discoverer might keep it to himself until it slowly leaks out.

For an example, think of Ben Graham in the early days.  He taught openly at Columbia, but few followed his ideas within the investing public because everyone was still shell-shocked from the trauma of the Great Depression.  As a result, there was a large amount of companies trading for less than the value of their current assets minus their total liabilities.

As Graham gained disciples, both known and unknown, they chipped away at the companies that were so priced, until by the late ’60s there were few opportunities of that sort left.  Graham had long since retired; Buffett winds up his partnerships, and manages the textile firm he took over as a means of creating a nascent conglomerate.

The returns generated during its era were phenomenal, but for the most part, they were never to be repeated.  Toward the end of the era, many of the practitioners made their own mistakes as they violated “margin of safety” principles.  It was a hard way of learning that the vein of financial ore they were mining was finite, and trying to expand to mine a type of “fool’s gold” was not a winning idea.

Value investing principles, rather than dying there, broadened out to consider other ways that securities could be undervalued, and the analysis process began again.

My main point this evening is this: when a valid new investing idea is discovered, a lot of returns are generated in the initial phase. For the most part they will never be repeated because there will likely never be another time when that investment idea is totally forgotten.

Now think of the technologies that led to the dot-com bubble.  The idealism, and the “follow the leader” price momentum that it created lasted until enough cash was sucked into unproductive enterprises, where the value was destroyed.  The current economic value of investment ideas can overshoot or undershoot the fundamental value of the idea, seen in hindsight.

My second point is that often the price performance of an investment idea overshoots.  Then the cash flows of the assets can’t justify the prices, and the prices fall dramatically, sometimes undershooting.  It might happen because of expected demand that does not occur, or too much short-term leverage applied to long-term assets.

Later, when the returns for the investment idea are calculated, how do you characterize the value of the investment idea?  A new investment factor is discovered:

  1. it earns great returns on a small amount of assets applied to it.
  2. More assets get applied, and more people use the factor.
  3. The factor develops its own price momentum, but few think about it that way
  4. The factor exceeds the “carrying capacity” that it should have in the market, overshoots, and burns out or crashes.
  5. It may be downplayed, but it lives on to some degree as an aspect of investing.

On a time-weighted rate of return basis, the factor will show that it had great performance, but a lot of the excess returns will be in the early era where very little money was applied to the factor.  By the time a lot of money was applied to the factor, the future excess returns were either small or even negative.  On a dollar-weighted basis, the verdict on the factor might not be so hot.

So, how useful is the time-weighted rate of return series for the factor/idea in question for making judgments about the future?  Not very useful.  Dollar weighted?  Better, but still of limited use, because the discovery era will likely never be repeated.

What should we do then to make decisions about any factor/idea for purposes of future decisions?  We have to look at the degree to which the factor or idea is presently neglected, and estimate future potential returns if the neglect is eliminated.  That’s not easy to do, but it will give us a better sense of future potential than looking at historical statistics that bear the marks of an unusual period that is little like the present.

It leaves us with a mess, and few firm statistics to work from, but it is better to be approximately right and somewhat uncertain, than to be precisely wrong with tidy statistical anomalies bearing the overglorified title “facts.”

That’s all for now.  As always, be careful with your statistics, and use sound business judgment to analyze their validity in the present situation.

I was writing to potential clients when I realized that I don’t have so much to write about my bond track record as I do my track record with stocks.  I jotted down a note to formalize what I say about my bond portfolios.

One person I was writing to asked some detailed questions, and I told him that the stock market was likely to return about 4.5%/yr (not adjusted for inflation) over the next ten years.  The model I use is the same one as this one used by pseudonymous Philosophical Economist.  I don’t always agree with him, but he’s a bright guy, what can I say?  That’s not a very high return — the historical average is around 9.5%.  The market is in the 85th-90th percentiles of valuation, which is pretty high.  That said, I am not taking any defensive action yet.

Yet.

But then it hit me.  The yield on my bond portfolio is around 4.5% also.  Now, it’s not a riskless bond portfolio, as you can tell by the yield.  I’m no longer running the portfolio described in Fire and Ice.  I sold the long Treasuries about 30 basis points ago.  Right now, I am only running the Credit sensitive portion of the portfolio, with a bit of foreign bonds mixed in.

Why am I doing this?  I think it has a good balance of risks.  Remember that there is no such thing as generic risk.  There are many risks.  At this point this portfolio has a decent amount of credit risk, some foreign exchange risk, and is low in interest rate risk.  The duration of the portfolio is less than 2, so I am not concerned about rising rates, should the FOMC ever do such a thing as raise rates.  (Who knows?  The economy might actually grow faster if they did that.  Savers will eventually spend more.)

But 10 years is a long time for a bond portfolio with a duration of less than 2 years.  I’m clipping coupons in the short run, running credit risk while I don’t see any major credit risks on the horizon aside from weak sovereigns (think the PIIGS), student loans, and weak junk (ratings starting with a “C”).  The risks on bank loans are possibly overdone here, even with weakened covenants.  Aside from that, if we really do see a lot of credit risk crop up, stocks will get hit a lot harder than this portfolio.  Dollar weakness and US inflation (should we see any) would also not be a risk.

I’ve set a kind of a mental stop loss at losing 5% of portfolio value.  Bad credit is the only significant factor that could harm the portfolio.  If credit problems got that bad, it would be time to exit because credit problems come in bundles, not dribs and drabs.

I’m not doing it yet, but it is tempting to reposition some of my IRA assets presently in stocks into the bond strategy.  I’m not sure I would lose that much in terms of profit potential, and it would increase the overall safety of the portfolio.

I’ll keep you posted.  That is, after I would tell my clients what I am doing, and give them a chance to act, should they want to.

Finally, do you have a different opinion?  You can email me, or, you can share it with all of the readers in the comments.  Please do.

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

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