Photo Credit: Daniele Dalledonne ||

Photo Credit: Daniele Dalledonne || Ever been to a place where everything was a little past its prime, but showed that it was a beautiful place in its time?

One of the great draws in reading investment writing is the lure of “hot tips.”  Everyone wants an investment idea that they can put a lot of money into that will reward buyers (or shorts) with a quick and large score.  Thus most publications try to lure you in with articles like these, whether they will work or not.

We live in an era where market players scour as much fresh data as possible to make money, because there is validity to the idea that only fresh, previously unknown information can produce excess returns.  The grand majority of us will never receive that information for free, and can’t afford to pay up for services that promise to give such carefully researched ideas (whether true or not, and whether they work or not).

So what’s a humble value investor to do, professional or amateur?  I can suggest five things:

  1. Take a look at old ideas that seemed promising but when the news hit the market, there was a price jump, then a fall, then nothing.  Typically, I have lists of companies that I have looked at — maybe it is time for a second look?
  2. Source your own ideas — particularly look at smaller companies that have low or no analyst coverage.  As regulations have come over Wall Street, you might be surprised at the number of companies in seemingly boring industries that have little to no real coverage.  Some of them are sizable.  (By “real coverage” I mean a human being, not an algorithm.  Don’t get me wrong, algorithms are often better than people, but the value of a human being  here is that he/she is more representative of how human investors think — and we love exciting stories.)
  3. Scan 13Fs for new positions and additions — my favorite ideas are when a number of clever investors are adding on net to their holdings (and the stock has done nothing), or two hedge funds buy a new name at the same time that none of the other bright investors hold at all.  (not a spinoff)
  4. Or, look at spinoffs.  For a little while, there will be liquidity and small or no analyst coverage.  Many large investors and indexers will toss out the smaller spinoff, often leaving a undervalued company behind.
  5. Hold onto companies in your portfolio if they stumble, but you still think management is making the right decisions.

One of the main ideas behind this is that it takes a while for business ideas to work out.  Most valid ideas will hit a couple of bumps along the way, and short-term earnings will disappoint occasionally with good companies.  Companies that never have disappointing earnings may be manipulating their accounting.

Many if not most of the companies that I hold for years run into disappointments, become an unrealized capital loss in my portfolio for a while, and come back to greater success.  The short-term disappointments sometimes allow me buy a little bit more, but the main thing to analyze is that the company’s management continues to behave rationally for the good of all shareholders.

Final Notes

This only applies to healthy companies.  Do not try this with companies that have weak balance sheets that might be forced to try to raise funds (at unattractive levels) if their plans don’t go right.  All good investing embeds a margin of safety.

Another way to phrase this is think differently.  There is a lot of money out there chasing the most liquid companies. If you can take on a little illiquidity on a quality company that is not well-known, that could be a good idea.  But remember, thinking differently is not enough if your idea isn’t smart.  It has to be smart and different.

With that, happy hunting.  Sometime in the near term, I will do a post on underfollowed companies.  Read it when it comes — it might have some good ideas.

So what’s a humble value investor to do, professional or amateur? I can suggest five things Click To Tweet

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Most days, I don’t trade.  I study.  I model.  I muse.  I plan.

There are some clever traders out there.  I am not one of them.  What little trading I do is done efficiently and effectively to get the best prices for assets that I want to buy and sell, but that’s not where most of the money is made in investing.

I can be like a chef who goes out to the market in the morning and buys the best ingredients available that day at great prices, except that my period of analysis is years, not a day.  The point is that I consider the deals that the market is offering, and choose attractive ones that will benefit my clients and me for years to come.  (I am still the largest investor that I manage money for — I eat the exact same meal that I serve to clients.)

What trading I do divides into two categories, which are designed for two different time horizons.  The first time horizon is long — 3-10 years in length.  Can I find companies with good or better business prospects trading at prices more attractive than the businesses that I currently own?

This is mostly a patient thing, unless I conclude that I got something materially wrong, in which case I try to be quick to sell.  Patience is needed, because investing is like farming.  It doesn’t grow overnight.  It will take time for value to be built, and time for people to recognize that the company is better than they thought it was.  It won’t be a linear process, either, unless something unusually good happens.  There are setbacks with almost every winning investment.  Keep your eyes on the main drivers of growth in value, and whether management is using excess cash to the best ends, which will vary by company.

At least half of my winners spent time as an unrealized capital loss at some point.  My timing is sometimes nonideal, but ideal timing is not required for great results if the time horizon is years.  So I watch and monitor, and occasionally trade away the position when I find something with materially better prospects.

As an aside, not all RIA clients would like this, because it looks like I’m not doing that much.  I sometimes wonder how much better money management would be if clients were happy with portfolios that don’t change much and don’t have many of the current hottest and most recognizable companies in them.  Portfolios filled with unknown companies in boring but profitable industries… difficult to talk about at parties, but often more profitable.

What I have mentioned above is 85% of what I do.  The shorter-run movements of the market provide the other 15% as ideas and companies go in and out of favor in the short run.  I mentioned that my timing is often not the best.  This gives me an opportunity to do a little better.

I’ve mentioned that I use a 20% band around my position weights for the companies that I own.  As prices fall and hit the bottom of the band, I buy enough to come back up to the target weight.  Vice-versa for when the price hits the upper band.

20% is a significant move — it’s enough to justify the trading costs.  If the company is still a good one, the fall in price gives me the opportunity to lower my average cost modestly.  Note that this is a modest change — I’m not trying to be a hero or a home-run hitter.  I learned better when I was younger that making timing decisions on that level is too undisciplined.  It is far better to edge in and edge out around a core position — with a good company, a lower price means lower risk, and a higher price means higher risk, so this method is always taking and shedding risk at appropriate levels.

Edge in, edge out — trades like this happen a few times a month — more frequently when the market is lively, less often when it is sleepy.  Hey, don’t force things.  This is gradual reallocation of money from less to more attractive homes for capital.  The time horizon here is 3-12 months, and offers the ability to make a little more off of core positions.

Over 5 years, companies that I own might have a grand total of 5-10 trades from edging in and out.  It will always be a mix of both buys and sells — few companies don’t have moves of 20%+ down amid growth.  (As some will note, if markets are efficient, why is there such a large gap between 52-week highs and lows for individual stocks?  Really, markets aren’t efficient — they are just very hard to beat.)

Now, others will come up with different ways of managing multiple time horizons in investing, but this method offers a decent balance between the short- and long-terms, and does so in a businesslike, disciplined way.  And so I edge in and edge out.

This balances the short- and long-terms, and does so in a businesslike, disciplined way. Click To Tweet

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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Three months ago, I bumped against my upper cash limit.  After that, I put an additional 6% of funds into the market.  Now cash is up to 18%, near my cash limit of 20%.  As I look at my portfolio now, most of the portfolio is above the central band.  I may buy another stock to bring cash levels down, but I am going to use a different tool because everything has moved up.  I’m moving the band itself up.  (Last time, if I had moved the band up, there were a lot of stocks near the lower edge of the band, and I don’t like moving the band when results are dispersed.  I don’t want to buy or sell as a result of moving the band.)

I don’t adjust the trading bands often — maybe once a year or so.  I leave them fixed in nominal dollar terms, adjusting for when clients add or remove assets.  When the market has moved so much that almost every stock is above or below the central line of the band, rather than add or sell a stock, I adjust the height of the band.  I moved my band up 6%, which puts half of my stocks above and below the central line of band, from which if a stock is 20% over the central line, I sell down to the central line, and if a stock is 20% under the central line, I buy up to the central line if I still believe that the stock is a good one to own.  This is the way that Portfolio Rule Seven works.

This makes the sell points further away and makes the buy points nearer, which in turn makes it incrementally more likely that cash will be dispersed, not accumulated.  Now, if the market keeps running up, particularly for value stocks, cash will still accumulate, but it will take more to make that happen.

Why do I do it this way?  In this environment, I look at the height of the market, which is considerable, but I also look at the momentum, and conclude that I ought to let things run more, if they will.  In my opinion, the stocks that I own for clients are undervalued, even if the market is not undervalued.  Old economy stocks have lagged for years behind new economy stocks, and valuation differences are pronounced.  I experienced much the same thing in 2000-2001 when growth got whacked, and value kept performing until everything went through the wringer in 2002.

Now, I’m hoping, but not saying that value is coming back, but it is certainly overdue. If this period is anything like the beginning of the 2000s, it will be very good for value investors.  The challenge will be managing high absolute market valuations versus favorable relative valuations.  It makes for a bumpy ride, but I like the stocks that I own, and will keep adjusting through all of the bumps.

Now, I'm hoping, but not saying that value is coming back, but it is certainly overdue. Click To Tweet

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There is a statement commonly made that firms in the US aren’t doing as well as they can in the long-run because the calculation of quarterly earnings inhibits long-term investment.  I’m not sure that such statements are true or false, but I will try to explain the problem or lack thereof in this post.

Common reasons for alleging the problem

  1. The division between management and ownership means that managements often act in their own interests rather than those of shareholders.
  2. Management incentives are calculated over too short of a period of time.
  3. Quarterly earnings distract from long-term planning.
  4. Accounting methods do not allow for capitalizing certain types of investments, and so they don’t get done to the degree necessary.
  5. Investing for the long-run will create greater returns.
  6. It is easier to simply buy back stock or pay dividends in the short run.  Investing more will create greater returns.

I’d like to get rid of a few of these arguments quickly.  First, there is no evidence that investing more produces greater returns, and there is evidence that stocks that do buybacks and pay dividends tend to outperform.  There is evidence in specific cases that buying back stock at high prices destroys value, but what high prices are is often only know in hindsight.  That said, I encourage corporate boards and managements to have their own conservative estimate of the private market value of their firm, and only to buy back stock when the price is below that estimate.

Second, there is no evidence that long-term investing produces greater returns on average.  Here’s why: longer investments are less certain than shorter ones, and require longer-term capital to finance them, which is more expensive.

I remember the Japanese making their long-term investments in the 1980s — they were regarded as very farsighted.  They invested a lot at what seemed like low ROEs, but their stock market kept going up, and they were hailed as geniuses that would bury the barbaric capitalism of the US.  As it was, the ROEs were low, and in many cases negative.

I liken it to trying to hit a home run in baseball.  It’s a high-risk, high-return strategy, but tends to lead to worse results than just trying to get on base.  Many good returning projects for firms are small, and short-term in nature.  Incremental improvement can go a long way.

Reasons 1-4 have a little more punch in my opinion, but they are all solvable by setting up an alternative accounting basis that facilitates long-term projects, using that as the definition for pro-forma earnings to present to Wall Street, and using it for management performance measurement and compensation.

There is a trick here, though.  Management and the board have to be intelligent enough to have both:

  • A long-term investment that they know with high probability will be a success, and
  • A means of measuring the progress toward the goal over a long period of time.

Both of those are tough.  Long-term projects can go wrong for a lot of reasons — cultural change, technological change, economic change, competitive change, change in the ability to keep the company as a whole financed, and more.

And, it’s not as if I don’t see project timelines in presentations that managements give to investors and analysts.  Long-term investing does get done, even if the GAAP or tax accounting treatments don’t favor it in the short run.

As I have mentioned before, corporate valuation depends on free cash flow, and GAAP accounting does not affect that.  As such, quarterly GAAP earnings should not affect the willingness of companies to take on long-term projects that they think will be winners.

That leaves management incentives, which are always a problem.  Most good incentive plans are a mix of short and long-run items.  The mix will depend on the maturity of the industry, and the relative opportunities faced by the firm.

Conclusion

If there is a problem here, boards and managements have adequate tools at their disposal to try to solve the problem, with the added risk that the cure could prove worse than the disease.  As an example, consider trying to get sleepy pipelines and utilities to innovate on long-term projects that are hard to manage and measure.  Well, that was Enron, Dynegy and a variety of companies that learned that there aren’t a lot of ways to dramatically improve performance in a mature business.

But there may be no problem here at all.  The US has been one of the better performing markets in the developed world, and in general, industries that invest a lot do not outperform industries that do less investing.  We may not need to adjust our methods at all.

Also, we might not need as many tax incentives from the government to promote investing either.  In my opinion, the good investments will get done.  Investments that require tax incentives just encourage management teams to do tax farming.

Management teams are less short-term focused than most imagine.  If they don’t invest a lot for the long-term, it may just be that there aren’t many attractive long-term investments capable of providing returns greater than the cost of longer term capital needed to finance the investments.

inside-the-investments-of-warren-buffett

Writing books about Warren Buffett is a bit of a cottage industry, and one that is getting scarce for new ideas.  This book takes a new approach because the author takes 20 companies that Buffett bought, and analyzes them himself using principles derived from things Buffett has written.

That brings me to my first critique of the book.  You are getting the author’s point of view for analysis, which is somewhat similar to Buffett’s, but is usually not Buffett’s view.  In a minority of cases he references something Buffett wrote at the time.  He did not interview Buffett for this book, which is normal for most books about Buffett.

Buffett didn’t typically do simple analyses, though by the end, he could simplify them to make it understandable to average people.  I’m not saying Buffett’s math wasn’t simple; I am saying that he took great account of qualitative aspects of a business — honest & competent management, owner earnings (free cash flow), moats (sustainable competitive advantages), ability to reinvest excess earnings profitably, etc.  The author takes account of many of these things much of the time, but my view is that Buffett did more still.  Also, Buffett spent more time on margin of safety issues than the author did.

My second critique is that the book is a lot shorter than it looks.  Many of the pages are filled with the financials of the companies being analyzed, and only a tiny portion of the data there is referenced by any analysis in the book.  The book of 260 pages is more like 200 in total length.  For some readers that will be a plus, for others a minus.

The book does well in picking a range of investments by Buffett in terms of success.  Some of his less successful decisions are here — Berkshire Hathaway itself, US Air, Salomon Brothers, Gen Re, and IBM.  It also looks at investments where Buffett bought it all, and where Buffett bought part of a company.  Additionally, it covers investments initiated over a long time, ranging from the partnership years to the present.

My third critique is that in addition to the financial data, there is occasionally more padding in the book than needed — an interview of Buffett by Matt Rose of BNSF stands out, though many of the descriptions of the businesses involved could have been tighter.

On the whole, it is a good book, giving the opinions of another value investor on twenty asset purchase decisions by Buffett.  Those familiar with Buffett will probably want to pass by the book; better to read Buffett himself.  Never investors could benefit from the author’s viewpoint, as it gives a consistent way to build a value investing philosophy in a single book.

Quibbles

Already mentioned.

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

Those more experienced with Buffett’s own writings could ignore this book.  Those who are newer to value investing could benefit.  If you want to buy it, you can buy it here: Inside the Investments of Warren Buffett: Twenty Cases.

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.

Fuller disclosure: long BRK/B for myself and clients

Photo Credit: Rex Babiera ||Ours is an old house, and its guts reflect that.

Photo Credit: Rex Babiera || Ours is an old house, and its guts reflect that.

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A question from a reader on my recent post Me Too!:

I recently ran across Ed Thorp’s “Beat the Market.” I find reasonable his idea that you can take on risks that (almost / essentially) cancel each other out. Find assets that are negatively correlated to buy one long and the other short (he did it with stock warrants in the 60’s but when I started looking into that, well, I’m late to that party, so nevermind).

I’m uncomfortable with shorting anyway, so what about going long in everything and rebalancing when the assets get out of whack? Aren’t a lot of the price movements of various assets (cash, bonds, stocks, real estate, precious metals) the result of money flowing towards or away from that asset? If people are, on net, selling their stocks, to what type of asset are they sending the proceeds? I can’t predict where people will stash their money next, but if I own a little of everything, I’m both hedged against prolonged depression of one asset class and aware of what’s gotten “expensive” and what’s “cheap” now.

Along these same “indexing” lines, what do you think of using ALL the sector ETFs (Vanguard has 11) to index each sector and then rebalance among them as they change in value? How would that application of your portfolio rule 7 differ than when applied to individual stocks? Also, do you think it would be subject to the same / similar danger as everyone else “indexing” as you wrote about above?

My, but there is a lot here.  Let me try to unpack this.

Paragraph 1: All of the easy arbitrages are gone or occupied to the level where the risks are fairly priced.  Specialists ply those trades now, and for the most part, they earn returns roughly equal to short-term risky debt.  They tend to get hurt during financial crises, because at those points in time, fundamental relationships get disturbed because of illiquidity and defaults amid demands for liquidity and safety.

Paragraph 2: First, rebalancing is almost always a good idea, but it presumes the asset classes/subclasses in question is high quality enough that it will mean-revert, and that your time horizon is long enough to benefit from the mean reversion when it happens.  Also, it presumes that you aren’t headed for an utter disaster like pre-WWII Germany with hyperinflation.  Or confiscation of assets in a variety of ways, etc.

Then again, in really horrible times, no strategy works well, so that is not a criticism of rebalancing — just that it is useful most but not all of the time.

Aren’t a lot of the price movements of various assets [snip] the result of money flowing towards or away from that asset?

Back to the basics.  Money does not flow into or out of assets.  When a stock trade happens, shares flow from one account to another, and money flows the opposite direction, with the brokers raking off a tiny amount of cash in the process.  Prices of assets change based on the relative desire of buyers and sellers to buy or sell shares near the existing prior price level.  In a nutshell, that is how secondary markets work.

Then, there is the primary market for assets, which is when they were originally sold to the public.  In this case, corporations offer stocks, bonds, etc. to individuals and institutions in what are called initial public offerings [IPOs].  The securities flow from the companies to the accounts of the buyers, and the money flows from the accounts of the buyers to the companies.  The selling prices of the assets are typically set by syndicates of investment bankers, who rake off a decent-sized chunk of the money going to the companies.  In this case, yes, the amount of money that people are willing to pay for the assets will dictate the initial price, unless the deal is received so poorly that it does not take place.  After that, secondary trading starts.  (Note: this covers 95%+ of all of the ways that assets get to public markets; there are other ways, but I don’t have time for that now.  The same is true for how securities get extinguished, as in the next paragraph.)

The same thing happens in reverse when companies are bought in entire, either fully and partially for cash, and in the process, cease to be publicly traded.  The primary and secondary markets complement each other.  Corporations and syndicates take pricing cues from the levels securities trade at in the secondary markets in order to price new securities, and buy out existing securities.  Value investors often look at primary markets to estimate what the assets of whole companies are worth, and apply those judgments to where they buy and sell in the secondary markets.

Trying to guess where market players will raise their bids for assets in secondary trading is difficult.  There are a few hints:

  • Valuation: are asset cheap or rich relative to where normalized valuation levels would be for this class of assets?
  • Changes in net supply of assets: i.e., the primary markets.  Streaks in M&A tend to persist.
  • Price momentum: in the short-run (3-12 months), things that rise continue to rise, and vice versa for assets with falling prices.
  • Mean-reversion: in the intermediate term (3-5 years), things that currently rise will fall, and vice-versa.  This effect is weaker than the momentum effect.
  • Changes in operating performance: if you have insight into companies or industries such that you see earnings trends ahead of others, you will have insights into the likely future performance of prices.

All of these effects vary in intensity and reliability, both against each other, and over time.  If you own a little of everything, many of these effects become like that of the market, but noisier.

Paragraph 3: If you want to apply rule 7 to a portfolio of sectors, you can do it, but I would probably decrease the trading band from 20% to 10%.  Ditto for a portfolio of country index ETFs, but size your trading band relative to volatility, and limit your assets to developed and the largest emerging market countries.  With a portfolio of 35 stocks, the 20% band has me trade about 4-5 times a month.  With 11 sectors your band should be sized to trade 1-2 times a month.  20 countries, around 3x/month.  If it is a taxable account set the taxation method to be sell highest tax cost lots first.

Remember that portfolio rule 7 is meant to be used over longer periods of time — 3 years minimum.  There are other rules out there that adjust for volatility and momentum effect that have done better in the past, but those two effects are being more heavily traded on now relative to the past, which may invalidate the analogy from history to the future.

Using portfolio rule 7 overweights smaller companies, industries, sectors, or countries vs larger ones.  It will not be as index-like, but it is still a diversified strategy, so it will still be somewhat like an indexed portfolio.

Finally, even if we get to the point where active management outperforms indexing regularly, remember that indexing is still likely to be a decent strategy — the low cost advantage is significant.

That’s all for now, and as always, comments and questions are welcome.

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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.

Data Source: Media General || Note: Do not cite or republish this graph without publishing the limitations paragraph below.

Data Source: Media General || Note: Do not cite or republish this graph without publishing the limitations paragraph below.

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Before I start this evening, I want to state again that I welcome comments at this blog. It may not seem so from the last few months, but I have shaken the bugs out of the software that protects my blog, which was hypersensitive on comments. The only thing I ask of commenters is that you be polite and clean in your speech. Disagree with me as you like — hey, even I have doubts about my more extreme positions. 😉

Limitations

The graph above and the text explaining it could very easily be misused, so I am giving a detailed explanation of how I calculated the figures so that people looking at them can more easily critique them and perhaps show me where they are wrong.  Please use the above figures with care.

I summed up the net income data for 2706 firms in the Media General database used in the AAII Stock Investor Pro screening software.  Those firms had:

  • Seven years of historical earnings data (2009-2015)
  • Earnings estimates that go out to 2018, and
  • An estimate of the diluted common shares of each

In short, it is all of the firms trading on US exchanges (that Media General covers) that have seven years of earnings history, and significant analyst coverage extending out for two years.  Please note that not all fiscal years are equivalent, and that the historic data is on fiscal years, aside from 2016YTD, which is a trailing twelve months figure.  That means 2016YTD is largely from the first half of calendar 2016 and the last half of calendar 2015.

Note that companies that went out of existence between 2009 and today are not reflected in these figures.  They represent only the companies that exist as publicly traded firms today.  Also note that foreign firms trading on US exchanges are in these figures.

The projected Non-GAAP earnings are the product of average sell-side earnings estimates and the most recent estimate of fully diluted common shares.  2016, 2017 & 2018 are the current, next year, and two years ahead estimates of adjusted earnings, which are Non-GAAP.

Remember that sell-side estimates are designed (in theory) to eliminate transitory factors and provide an estimate of run rate earnings for the future.  Whether that is true in practice is another matter, as we may see here.

There is one more piece of data that you need before you can interpret the above graph: because of foreign firms that are included, the total market capitalization underlying the graph is $28.8 Trillion.

Analysis

After my recent piece Practically Understanding Non-GAAP Earnings Adjustments, I felt there was something more to say, because regularly I would see earnings estimates that were higher than historic earnings by a wide margin, which would make me say “How does it get from here to there?”  The answer is simple.  It doesn’t.

Why?  We’re comparing apples and oranges.  GAAP earnings deduct many expenses out that were incurred in prior periods, but deferred.  GAAP earnings also have unusual and extraordinary charges that are expected not to occur.  Non-GAAP earnings exclude those (among other things, sometimes excluding interest and taxes).  As such, they are considerably higher than GAAP earnings.

Take a look at this table of price-earnings ratios.

Year

2009

2010201120122013201420152016YTD20162017

2018

P/E

36.61

24.8422.1323.2621.0121.7029.6930.6818.6816.02

14.06

Note: the same warning on the graph applies to this table.

Note that the current market capitalization is being applied against historic net income 2009-2016YTD.  2016-2018 are on projected non-GAAP net income estimated by the sell-side.  Obviously, in 2009 the market capitalization was much lower, and so the P/E then would have been higher.  Survivorship bias will have some impact here, but I’m not sure which way it would go.

See how much lower the P/Es are for the sell-side estimates (these would be bottom-up, not top-down).  Figures like this get cited by pundits who say the market isn’t that expensive.

Also, note how GAAP earnings have shrunk since 2014, and haven’t grown much since 2009.  I know only the media compares actual to prior, which is an anachronism, but maybe we need to do that more.

Summary

That leaves us with a few sticky questions:

  • Which is a better measure for growth in value?  GAAP or non-GAAP earnings?  (I think the answer varies by industry, and how long of a period you are considering.)
  • Should we allow non-GAAP earnings to be published? (Yes, after all management is going to explain the non-GAAP adjustments orally as they explain why the quarter was good or bad.)
  • Does this mean that the market is overvalued?  (Not necessarily.  Rational businessmen are still buying some firms out, which partially validates current levels. Also, free cash flow is not affected by accounting rules, so questions of overvaluation should not rely on accounting methods.  If it is overvalued on one, it should be overvalued on all, etc.)
  • Should we create a fifth main statement for GAAP accounting, that formalizes non-GAAP and gives it real rules? (Probably, but like most of GAAP, there will be some flexibility and industry-specific rules.)

As for me, this will give me a little help in making adjustments to earnings estimates as I try to think through valuation issues, and give me some rough idea as to whether the hockey stick that the sell side illustrates is worth considering or not, or to what degree.

Again, comments are welcome.  Please note that my findings are tentative here.

Photo Credit: Constanza || Well, aren't many efforts at adjusting earnings patch jobs??

Photo Credit: Constanza || Well, aren’t many efforts at adjusting earnings patch jobs??

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Over the years, I’ve written a lot about earnings adjustments and non-GAAP earnings.  There are several basic questions to answer:

1) Which matters more?  GAAP earnings or non-GAAP earnings?

In the short-run, non-GAAP earnings matter more for two reasons: a) the non-GAAP earnings attempt in principle to eliminate special factors and estimate the change in run-rate earnings or free cash flow.  If done properly, it is a very valuable exercise.  If done wrong, it’s just an advanced form of chicanery, where companies attempt to keep the stock price higher than it deserves to be, before gravity catches up with them.  Gravity will catch up regardless and eventually, because fooling Ben Graham’s weighing machine invites a rude payback with compound interest.  Ask Enron.

b) the second reason is a weaker one, but the sell-side performs a service by estimating earnings, and they use non-GAAP earnings.  It is a control mechanism that allows investors to measure the progress of companies in the short-run.  Note that this does not encourage short-termism unless the non-GAAP adjustments are done wrong.  It’s fine to talk about the long-run, but what progress are you making toward it?  If the non-GAAP metric does not reflect the best efforts of the management team to create the long term value, then they need to adjust their non-GAAP earnings metric to reflect what maximizes long-run value creation.  After that, educate the sell-side on why you are right, and let the buy-side quietly consider whether they can improve on it.

That said, GAAP earnings are more important for the long run.  Even more important is the growth in book value plus accrued dividends.  These measures take into account the one-time adjustments.  The many one time adjustments.  THE CONSTANT ONE TIME ADJUSTMENTS!!  

(Ahem.) Management is responsible over the long haul for all of the things that they never anticipated, because they are supposed to be prepared for them on average.  It’s fine to complain about weather affecting sales or margins for one quarter, but to complain about it more than twice in a decade means you aren’t prepared as a management team.  The same applies to writing down goodwill and other asset values.  One surprise every now and then is fine, but if it becomes annual then it should be planned for… perhaps the recoverability estimates aren’t very good at all, and you need to write down ten years of a lack of expected profitability now, rather than eating the elephant of subpar decisions one bite at a time.

2) What should we look for in earnings surprises?

a) Be wary of companies that always beat estimates.  Those that do are one of two things — stupendous, or manipulators.  Earnings should be somewhat ragged, even for a growth company.  I actually like my companies to miss estimates every now and then, because it proves genuineness.

b) Be wary of companies that beat positive estimates frequently, but never seem to have GAAP earnings or book value that grows.  What that means is that the non-GAAP metric may not truly represent what is building value for the firm.

c) Be wary of companies that beat positive estimates frequently, and yet have to raise a lot of capital because the business isn’t throwing off a lot of cash that can be reinvested in the business.  Non-GAAP metrics should be strongly related to free cash flow, which should reduce financing needs.

d) For companies with negative forecast earnings, watch the date closely for when earnings are supposed to go positive.  If you see that date extended more than once, you might want to sell.

e) If a stock trades at a low valuation, don’t make too much out of missing earnings if the book value grows at a decent rate.

3) What else should we know?

a) Earnings misses and beats are frequently overestimated in importance.  Business has irregularities; get used to it, and don’t panic off of one or two bad numbers.

b) But repeated misses probably should be sold, unless the valuation is so cheap that an activist would have an easy time with the stock.

c) If a management is good at managing capital, and honest, an earnings miss can be a great opportunity to buy.  Remember that not all value is driven through short-term earnings.  Clever use of free cash flow to do small acquisitions that can be grown organically can be underestimated.  During times of crisis, a genuinely clever management team can occasionally do amazing things as conditions seem to be falling apart, by buying cheap assets from mis-financed sellers who need quick cash.

d) Stocks with high valuations should use excess cash to pay dividends; those at low valuations should buy back stock.

e) The height of the stock market tends to be determined by long-term estimates of unadjusted future earnings or free cash flow, rather than the current period expected earnings.  As with everything in investing, don’t get too excited about anything.  This is a business, and not primarily a game, though many things are game-like.

f) Situations where M&A are involved are always more complex, and require special handling.  I can’t give a simple general answer there.

g) Actual GAAP earnings and non-GAAP earnings do not live on the same planet on average.  At some point, I will put out a post showing how inflated non-GAAP earnings are on average versus GAAP earnings.  I have the study design ready to go, and just have to run the calculations.  If you look at past earnings, and compare them to forecast earnings, the naive will say, “Wow, what growth!”  The experienced will say, “There are things in the non-GAAP earnings that will not factor into long-term growth in value.”

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That’s all for now.  Your quality thoughts in response are always welcome, though I can’t answer every comment.