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on investment discipline

3 Nov

For investors, it’s imperative to establish a disciplined approach and stick with it.   Developing that approach is one of the most difficult parts, however, as what has worked over time in investing does not work at all times.  Yet regardless of what the market is doing someone has done well recently.  Some hedge fund manager made a billion dollars on natural gas spreads, wheat futures, or in Latvian mud art, rare stamps, or old soda pop bottles.  The media will always find examples of who has done well lately.  If it were easy to flit around from strategy to strategy I’d be all over it, but it’s nearly impossible to execute reliably over long time periods.  The trick is not to lose focus on your own approach and to understand that if the core investment framework is sound and well-reasoned, there’s no cause to abandon it just because it’s not working at the moment.  To do so would be like piloting a rudderless ship, at the mercy of winds on the open seas.  It’d be tough to get anywhere.

There is also an undue focus on ‘the market’.  The goal is to beat the market, yes, because active management is, in theory, a fool’s errand without this outcome.  However, the majority of active managers don’t beat the market, and even index funds fall behind (due to fees and expenses).  The overriding goal should be to limit risk while generating returns that meet long-term goals.

Let’s face reality here, the smorgasbord of available investments today – stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities – have rather low forward return prospects.  The low interest rate environment has caused asset prices to be bid up to the point where forward return prospects are in the 4-7% range on average.  The capital markets are not just a place to blindly place capital today.  As Peter Bernstein observed, “The market’s not a very accommodating machine; it won’t provide high returns just because you need them.”  Yes, it’d be nice to see double-digit returns, but given the macro environment it doesn’t look possible on a sustainable basis.  (That is, it could run up 20% annually for five years, but the gains would likely be borrowing from well into the future.)  Investors should view an index fund investment today as a decent place to put money, but not a spectacular one.  Individual investments, on the other hand, may offer opportunities for better-than-average returns.

This leads me back to the main point: finding a consistent, disciplined investment approach.  How?  Identify what’s worked over time, regardless of market environment.  A few of these are listed below.  These provide good perspective for investors today, with a stock market that has declined for the past several weeks (but nonetheless remains up for the year).  It’s useful to remind oneself frequently of what has actually worked, especially when the pickings are slim.  As mentioned, they may work over time, but notall the time.

A list of some basics:

  •           A Low Price in relation to earnings, cash flow and asset value,
  •           Insider purchases of significant size,
  •           Recent large declines in a stock’s price,
  •           Smaller companies, and
  •           The above, especially with companies that generate high returns on invested capital.

Consistent execution of a strategy is tough.  For a portfolio manager, it requires institutional support to follow a discipline, especially because there aren’t loads of qualifying investments at all times.  When stocks are cheap, it’s psychologically tough to buy (“they could go lower”) and when they’re high it’s hard to sell (“they could go higher.”)  Individuals might have an easier go at implementing the strategy – the only thing they have to fight is “the urge to do something,” which is a powerful tendency.  (Professional investors aren’t immune, either.)

A final note: following a consistent investment strategy over time requires being very discipline on price paid in relation to value.  So when one can’t find qualifying investments, what ought they do with it?  Hold cash.  Just because it’s not ‘making anything’ doesn’t mean a whole lot. Think about it this way: an investor has $1,000 and a target stock is priced at $50 (worth $50).  If the investor buys today he’ll have 20 shares.  If the stock subsequently declines to $25 (worth $50), he’ll have only $500 (20 shares at $25) and won’t be able to buy more at the now-lower price. If he waited and holds cash, he’ll have $1,000, still, and be able to buy 40 shares for $1,000 that are now worth $2,000 total.  (Yes, the stock could also go up from $50, but wasn’t under-valued in the first place.)   I call the potential returns earned from having excess cash at the right time the ‘opportunity yield’.  The ability to hold cash is an important tool in an investors’ toolkit, and one an investor shouldn’t hesitate to wield.  Warren Buffett says it eloquently, “Lethargy bordering on sloth remains the cornerstone of our investment style.”

In investing there are no strikes called for not swinging, so there’s often no point in swinging unless they’re coming down the middle of the plate.


tech confessions from a value investor

1 Nov

It was about a decade ago now that a friend and I started an investment partnership.  The venture was my first foray into managing money for others (friends, family), and it accomplished its intended goal.  First, it made us concentrate on discussing investments on a regular basis.  It established a disciplined feedback mechanism.  It’s like having a running partner – you don’t want to let the other person down.  We discussed strategy, generated ideas, developed reports and wrote letters indicating our thoughts on a regular basis.  The letters are fun to go back and read.  Some things were missed in those reports, however, including many errors of omission that appear glaringly large now.  This post somewhat of a post-mortem along those lines.  While we made plenty of mistakes on the stocks we actually bought, in retrospect, far worse decisions were made with respect to those we discussed but did not buy.  Case in point: Amazon.

Almost from when I began investing, I have been a devout value investor.  (Exception: about the first year.)  The books I read were almost exclusively ‘value’ based.  If I had a mentor, it would be those books and Warren Buffett.  Almost all of them, save a few, dismiss investing in technology stocks almost out of hand.  Buffett, for example, hasn’t touched Microsoft – except for 100 shares in order to receive the annual reports – even though his friend Bill Gates is one of the most brilliant folks he’s met.  (Also, Buffett has jumped into technology lately with his BYD investment, but that’s another story.)  The point is, when I started my mentally was to do the same: dismiss ‘tech’ investments almost out of hand.  “There are enough investments without technology stocks,” I’d say, plus I put them in the ‘too hard’ category.  It’s too hard to figure out what the future will look like.  So I avoided them.

The first rule of investing is ‘don’t lose money’ and the second rule is ‘don’t forget rule #1,” so looking at it from this perspective not investing in fast-changing tech makes a lot of sense.  It IS hard to figure out what the future economics of a business will be, let alone one that is heavily involved in technology.  Underestimated, however, was just how powerful some of these businesses could become.

Anyway, we went on to pass up investing in, at $7.  It was mostly my fault.  I would later pass on the IPO of Google.  I read about the pricing of the offering and considering it too expensive.  (In my defense, IPOs tend to be horrible times to invest.  Who would want to buy from a super-knowledgeable seller?)  Of course, the $85 IPO price looks like a bargain now.  Netflix was another.  I actually bought puts on the stock, trying to profit when the stock fell.  (It hasn’t.)  I must also note that I used Amazon a lot, performed web searches via Google, and was also a Netflix customer.  I loved each of their services.  I thought all three were great companies.  It came down to what I considered a high price in relation to value that I wasn’t willing to bet partners, client, or my own money, on them.  While I’m being masochistic, throw Apple in there, circa 2001.  I passed this over in spite of having several friends who used Macs and loved them.  Oh, then iPods came out…

Buffett has said that “growth” is a part of the “value” equation, that they are not distinct and separate.  This is something  I agree with wholeheartedly.  I’ve always used growth when valuing companies.  It’s the stinginess that, I think, made me not properly consider how growth could impact valuation if returns on capital could be maintained even at very high rates of growth.  Statistically this is very rare.  I also failed to weigh heavily enough how much the people running these companies mattered.  Bezos, Brin/Page, and Hoffman are phenomenal folks — that’s a key takeaway.

Allocating scarce capital involves many tough decisions, and for me the errors of omission keep me up as much as those of commission.  Of course, it’s easy to look back at the winners and say I missed them.  In the intervening period, there were successes in more ‘boring’ companies.  Still, reviewing one’s mistakes is FAR more useful as a learning tool than reviewing successes.  Failure, like success, can involve more luck than skill, but if you know you passed it over for ‘rational’ reasons it’s worth exploring those reasons and considering their validity no matter how much time has passed.   Too, I didn’t buy a bunch of high-flying technology stocks only to see them collapse 95% and lose it all.  So there is some advantage to investing – or not investing – according to a value discipline.

This post is already long enough to make folks who are reading it start to drift off, so I’ll stop here.  In closing, I am certainly more open to technology investments now, but I still prefer to buy the profitable toaster manufacturer trading at $5 with $10 of net cash on its balance sheet.  If I can have a 90% probability of a base hit versus 5% probability of a home run, I’ll still lean toward the base hit.

Disclosure: I own shares of Google (GOOG). 

two years and investment professionals’ mindset

17 May

Just returned from the CFA Annual Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland this past week and wanted to get a few thoughts down to maybe crystallize my takeaways. If you’d like a play-by-play, the conference was live-tweeted under @CFAIowa and also the #CFA2011 hashtag. I have found myself returning to these feeds and am likely to reference them several more times as I pen this.

The last conference we attended was 2009, and the world was just six months past a blow-up that brought down Lehman, Bear, and (almost) lots of others. The world had undergone a major shift, a ‘phase transition’. That year, it was as if the attendees were in a dark room, grasping around for the light switch. The various speakers proffered various suggestions on the location of the switch, and attendees were still forming their opinions of what exactly had happened and what was likely to transpire in the future. All we knew at the time was that the market had gained about 50% off the bottom in just two months but it was far from clear whether it was sustainable.

In retrospect, as usual, some forecasters were more right than others and the events since make reflecting on it much easier — had the world collapsed we’d see things much differently today. Instead, equity markets are ahead by double their March 2009 lows and the gains we’ve seen have proven sustainable thus far. In many ways, the light switch has been located.

From the vantage point of 2011, investors seem to have a good grasp of the major (known, large) risks to the world economy. The risks are that are well known today were more or less on the fringe at this time in 2009 – Eurozone economic risks, sovereign credit risks, debt, deficits, over-leveraged consumers, debt-fueled spending, the threat of rising inflation and interest rates, the rise of emerging markets, commodity supply and demand dynamics. Each was more or less reflected to varying degrees in the speeches and seminars this go round. There were a few ‘fringe’ views at the 2011 conference but nothing that was extremely aberrant. (You might have a guy who only likes gold, for example, but even this is almost mainstream today.) Whereas in 2009 the presenters spanned the “31-flavors” gamut, most came in vanilla circa 2011.

I will soon write another post on key takeaways – what might be gleaned from a contrarian viewpoint when ‘everybody knows’ the risks and issues facing investments. I think there are many broader implications for the investment profession as a whole. It seems clear that the powerful ‘institutional imperative’ will impede future performance even though managers, well aware of the potential headwinds facing market valuations and interest rates, believe they should not be 100% invested right now. Just because the risks are apparent doesn’t mean everyone is acting to protect against them. Career risk, or The Risk of Poor Short-Term Performance – a major issue to investment industry credibility – sometimes leads managers do crazy things when viewed from a long-term perspective. Often, ‘what’s right’ is not ‘what’s right now.’

Until next time!

farmland values and the twenty-seven PE

26 Apr

In Iowa, farmland values are up 25% year-over-year, a boon to the financial health of the state and especially farmers’ net worth, of which farmland comprises the majority. I recently came across a very interesting paper that discussed farmland values. (The creative title “Farmland Values: Current and Future Prospects,” pretty much sums up its contents.) For those interested in more information on the asset class that has been speculated to hold the “next bubble”, it is an enlightening read. I wanted to touch on a few things mentioned in the paper and expound on a few points.

As with all assets, farmland value is derived from the income it generates as well as by the discount rate (opportunity cost of capital) and growth rate assumptions. First, and not surprisingly, current farm income is healthy. Commodity prices are high and cash contribution margins (roughly, profit/revenues) are elevated, increasing farm income and boosting current (and potential) cash rents – what an absentee landowner earns by renting the land for productive use. The discount rate is very low, with ten-year Treasury bonds, the ‘risk-free’(?) benchmark rate), at just 3.4%. I discuss the growth rate assumption more below.

I’ve used price-earnings ratios in past posts, mostly for stocks. They are valid, though, for a variety of assets. Today, stocks trade around 18 times trailing twelve-month earnings. Using the inverse of their interest rate, ten-year Treasuries trade at 29 times ‘earnings’ while farmland is 27 times. The latter two are pretty high numbers. Now, which has shown historically higher growth? The growth rate for corporate (stocks’) earnings tend to track nominal GDP, or about 6%. Bonds don’t grow in value, the yield is mostly fixed as is the payoff at maturity. Farmland, which has lower earnings volatility than stocks and, like them, a (theoretically) infinite life, has tended to grow with the general rise in inflation plus another 2% for productivity improvements (same land, more crop). On a price-earnings ratios alone, it looks like stocks are the best relative deal. Still, cash remains attractive given the below-average projected returns on several asset classes. Cash has the advantage of what I call the “opportunity yield” – the ability to take advantage of cheaper prices when investors revise their return requirements higher.

On the most striking revelations in the piece was that farmland turnover – the percentage of land stock that changes hands in a given year – was lower than its historical average of 3-5%. (Currently, turnover is estimated to be about 1.5% annually.) As we know, the more demand there is for an asset, the greater prices tend to rise. Couple this with a constrained supply of land being ‘offered to the market’ and prices can quickly rise. This is because the whole of the land stock is priced off these marginal, infrequent sales, making the whole appear more valuable on paper. Annually, 98.5% of landowners aren’t buying/selling; it’s the 1.5% that make the 98.5% a lot of paper wealth. This ‘low turnover combined with high demand’ phenomenon is also evident in the secondary market trading of several Web 2.0 companies today.

So is the current PE sustainable? As with most investment questions, the answer is nuanced. Farm income can experience sharp corrections when commodity prices sink. This would bring the multiple (land value/farm income) even higher than it is today. In addition, interest rates are very low and have been trending down for most of the last three decades. Should rates rise significantly, investors’ opportunity costs rise and the cash rent ‘yield’ must rise, which means prices must fall. Today, I can’t say we’re in a bubble. What I can say is that the current expectations baked into the price – continuing high cash rents, low interest rates, and/or good growth rates – might prove to have been overly optimistic when viewed in hindsight.

Farmland is an intensely local market so each parcel is different. Further, prevailing prices are based (as mentioned above) on marginal sales which comprise a very small portion of the total land stock. As long as landowners don’t lever up based on current land values to buy still more land, a sharp reduction in land values will not ripple through in the same fashion as the housing ‘collapse’. Current evidence suggests those taking on incremental farm debt are mostly larger operators, with younger farmers and livestock producers in the least-optimum financial condition. But anecdotally, I’ve heard that farmers know two things, ‘dirt’ (land) and (bank) CDs. The rate on the CDs become their comparison and these folks think, let’s buy more land with a 3% cash rent yield if a three-year CD is paying less than 1%. Thinking that way could put more than a few in trouble. So if there are to be detrimental economic impacts in the future should farmland prices come down, the $64B question is how much debt is being underwritten based on current values. Unfortunately, it’s probably more than we think.

commodities and inflation protection

23 Mar

It’s clear from the commodity price increases experienced over the past couple years (see this post) and anecdotal evidence — but not official government numbers — that inflation has returned and that price increases will be making their way through the economy. Several consumer staples companies have already raised prices 5-7% (P&G, Kimberly-Clark, and Fruit of the Loom, for example). This is just the beginning.

Often, money moves into commodities as an inflation hedge, but do commodities actually protect one’s purchasing power after the onset of rising consumer prices? Based on the last time we saw this in the U.S., the answer is “mostly, no”. Commodity prices, not surprisingly, tend to lead increases in actual inflation. But once inflation emerges, their ability to purchasing power protection diminishes. Thus, commodity ‘investors’ (aka speculators) who get in near the end of the pricing uptrend do not tend to fare as well.

The above charts illustrate this phenomenon over the same period I discussed in the last two posts, 1964 through 1988. They show commodity prices (Commodity Research Bureau spot price index) rising prior to a major jump in CPI inflation, with the bulk of the price spike clustered into just a couple of years (up 22.1% in 1972 and 59.8% in 1973), while actual annual inflation was just around 4.0%. From 1964 through 1973, average annual inflation was just 2.5% while commodities rose 8.4% per annum. After 1973 and through year-end 1988, annual inflation averaged 7.1% while commodity prices rose just 1.9%. Today’s commodities investors might be disappointed in their future returns while consumers may similarly be displeased with future price increases.

I do not want to be fatalistic and state unequivocally that inflation is inevitable, but I am not optimistic that it can be avoided at this point. The longer commodity prices remain high, the more they lead to higher structural costs for the economy as a whole. Once companies raise prices, they do not tend to lower them. Likewise with wages.

The final chart illustrates commodity prices versus actual inflation since 2000. To me, this looks similar to the period from 1964 through 1974, when commodity prices rose ahead of actual inflation in the face of inflationary government policies (namely, deficit spending). We see similar policies in place today, coupled with unprecedented monetary intervention that isn’t likely to abate anytime soon, especially in the face of a still-stagnant economy. And our national balance sheet is in worse shape. Are the mistakes that led to stagflation in the 1970s being repeated? Unfortunately, it appears so.

stocks and inflation (part 2 of 2)

22 Mar
(This is an update from yesterday’s discussion on inflation’s effect on markets.)
To augment the information presented in yesterday’s post, I wanted to add additional perspective with respect to earnings. Stock prices can be reduced to two components: (1) earnings and (2) a multiple against those earnings. Yesterday’s post dealt with the latter without much discussion of the former. So, I’ve added the chart below to address this oversight.

Readers will note that earnings (dark blue) more than kept pace with inflation over the twenty-five year period from 1964 through 1988. Certainly, if it were possible to invest in corporate earnings alone during this period, an investor would have fared quite well. This is the crux of the argument made by those who believe stocks will keep pace with inflation — that corporations will raise prices and earnings will largely keep pace. Unfortunately, it’s the ‘multiple’ component that hurts investors during inflation – if ending valuations are meaningfully lower than beginning, an investor may not fare well even if earnings grow nicely. And over this period, they certainly did — real earnings were 50% higher in 1988 than in 1964.

stocks: inflation hedge or vedge?

21 Mar

I want to spend a little time thinking about what markets do when inflation hits. Common knowledge seems to believe that when inflation rears its ugly head stocks will rise in line with inflation. I think we have seen the monetary stimulus from the Fed show up in financial asset prices lately and I want to dispel this fundamental misconception of stocks as a hedge for high inflation with some market history. Note that my comments are not valid for hyperinflation. Almost anything is better than paper money during such time periods. During Brazil’s high inflation of the late 1980s and early 1990s the stock market roughly held its own with domestic paper money (but looked flat to a foreign investor). If you’re like me and believe we’ll see elevated, but not catastrophic inflation in the near future it makes good sense to look at what periods of elevated (again, not hyper-) inflation have done to the stock market.

I looked back at a period of time where inflation was low, rose to quite elevated levels, and fell back again to low average levels. In other words, a period containing three “regimes”: before inflation reared its ugly head, during high inflation, and back again to more stable, predictable levels. I chose the twenty-five year period from 1964 through year-end 1988 because it nicely exhibits these characteristics.

The chart to the left shows inflation (consumer price index) in red, the S&P 500 total return in green and the real return (total return minus inflation) in purple. Each is indexed to 100 at 1/1/1964. Clearly, stocks (green) did not keep up with inflation over this time period while the real return on the market over was negative. That’s a pretty poor showing over a period when inflation boosted the consumer price level to almost 4 times its starting point. If stocks were a good inflation hedge we’d expect the green line to be persistently higher than the red, and meaningfully higher at 12/31/1988 if real returns were positive. However, this does not seem to have been the case.

Why were stocks such a poor inflation hedge over this period? The answer lies in valuation. Using Shiller’s cyclically-adjusted PE ratio, which I’ve cited often, the S&P 500 traded at 21.6 times earnings in 1964. By year-end 1988, they were just 14.7, a P/E decline of 32%. The chart below shows the inverse relationship between inflation (red) and stock valuations (cyclically-adjusted PE, green). Over this time period, the correlation between the two was negative 0.956, representing an almost perfect inverse correlation. High inflation proved to be an enemy when stock valuations started high.

Why is inflation so hostile for stock valuations? It comes down to interest rates; nominal interest rates must include compensation for inflation plus a real return component. Investors ultimately compare this rate against the “coupon” available on stocks – that is, corporate returns on equity (ROE). Since ROE does not tend to fluctuate much over long periods and is more likely to fall than rise during high inflation, the yield available on stocks can only change if their prices move lower (coupon “yield” relative to book value moves higher). Maturities are also compared – bonds have a definite maturity while a stock’s maturity is infinite. I’ll defer to Warren Buffett for further clarification: “Because of the additional risk, the natural reaction of investors is to expect an equity return that is comfortably above the bond return – and 12 percent return on equity versus, say, 10 percent return on bonds issued by the same corporate universe does not seem to qualify as comfortable. As the spread narrows, equity investors start looking for the exits.”

Historical stock returns are likely to have looked much different if starting valuations were much lower than the 22 PE we see in the above illustrations. Because of these elevated levels, inflation had a demonstrably large impact on longer-term returns. While starting valuations always matter for subsequent returns, they seem to matter even more during high inflation.

Could this happen again? Well, today the cyclically-adjusted PE ratio is 23.7, so valuations are even higher than where these charts begin (1964). Even if you believe the Fed has everything under control and we won’t see high inflation anytime soon, it’s worthwhile to consider the aforementioned data when allocating your portfolio. The importance of stable prices is most noticeable when they go missing.

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