Time to Take Out the Trash: From Garbage to Cream
As we saw with the +50% move in the 2003 NASDAQ recovery when there was a flight to garbage (lower quality stocks), eventually the cream rose to the top in the later stages of the 2002-2007 bull market. Usually investors get what they pay for, yet many of the companies that were left for dead in 2008 (including bankruptcy fears) have rebounded the fiercest. As the “anti-Great Depression” trade has paid off handsomely for those low quality stocks, high quality stocks have patiently waited on the sidelines eager to jump along for the escalating ride. Ben Levisohn, Business Week writer, thinks it’s time for high quality stock’s to outperform their junky brethren. Here’s what Mr. Levisohn had to say:
“The stock market has gained 58% since its bear-market low Mar. 9, but the rally hasn’t lifted all equities equally. As is typical in many market bouncebacks, the worst recovered first. Low-quality companies, those with weak or nonexistent profits, mediocre return on equity, and less-than-stellar balance sheets, outpaced their more solidly profitable peers by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, according to research from Baird Private Wealth Management.”
Intuitively, the “garbage” rally makes sense from the standpoint, the harder you fall, the faster you will bounce. However, the sustainability of such rapid, fierce moves should be questioned. Eventually, fundamentals move up investors’ priority list and the “cream” (quality stocks) rises to the top.
Mr. Levisohn further highlights the disparity between “garbage” and “cream” by noting:
“Baird found that companies not earning a profit gained 92% from the Mar. 9 lows through the end of August, compared with a 47% rise for companies that had the highest profit margins. Companies with the lowest return on equity outperformed those with the highest by more than 2 to 1, according to Baird.”
With the sickly stock rally and the removal of the “global meltdown” scenario apparently behind us, I concur with Mr. Levisohn that now is the time to focus on “quality” stocks. What does “quality” mean? From a quantitative perspective, concentrating on those companies with high returns on invested capital (ROIC), high returns on equity (ROE), companies with low levels of debt (leverage), generating healthy levels of cash flow (See Cash Flow Article), represents “quality” investing to me. From a fundamental standpoint, management teams with a clear track record of success, and companies with deep barriers to entry, and a healthy pipeline of growth opportunities are other quality characteristics I look for.
Companies retaining these higher quality traits generally are not held hostage to the capital markets and banking system (i.e., no bailouts necessary). As a result, these companies have the flexibility to invest additional resources into areas like research & development, marketing, manufacturing, and mergers & acquisitions. Superior companies have the ability to step on the throats of weaker competitors, thereby extending their competitive advantage and garnering additional market share.
We have experienced a massive rebound in the markets since the March lows, but now it’s time to take out the garbage. As I search for high quality stocks through my computer terminal, I’ll be enjoying my delicious coffee…with extra cream.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.