Archive for January, 2011

Performance Beauty in Eye of Beholder

The average person may be a good judge in picking the winner of a beauty contest, but unfortunately your average investor is ill-equipped to sift through the thousands of mutual funds and hedge funds and thoughtfully discern the relevant performance metrics for investment purposes.

Investment firms however, are well-equipped with smoke, mirrors, and a tool-chest filled with numerous tricks. Here are a few of the investment firms’ gimmicks:

  • Cherry Picking: Fund firms are notorious with cutting out the bad performance numbers and cherry picking the good periods. As investment guru Charles Ellis reminds us, the wow factor results of “investment performance become quite ordinary by simply adding or subtracting one or two years at the start or the end of the period shown. Investors should always get the whole record – not just selected excerpts.”
  • Limited Time Period: Often the period highlighted by investment firms is insufficient to make a proper conclusion regarding a manager’s outperformance capabilities. Ellis acknowledges that  gathering enough yearly performance information can be practically challenging:
“By the time you had gathered enough data to determine whether your fund manager really was skillful or just lucky, at least one of you would probably have died of old age.”
  • Fee Disclosure: Some managers’ performance figures look stupendous until one realizes once hefty fees are subtracted from the reported figures, what previously looked top-notch is now average or below-average. It is important to read the small print or ask tough questions of the broker peddling a fund.
  • Audited Figures: Legitimacy of performance is key, and there are different levels of audited figures. Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS) compliance is an industry accepted standard. For pooled investment vehicles, audited results from regional or national accounting firms can be important too. 
  • Misused Rating Systems: Morningstar is the 800 pound gorilla in the mutual fund world and provides some useful data. Unfortunately, most Morningstar investors use the data incorrectly. A 2000 study by the Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis discovered, “There is little statistical evidence that Morningstar’s highest-rated funds outperform the medium-rated funds.” On this subject, Charles Ellis points out the following:
“While Morningstar candidly admits that its star ratings have little or no predictive power, 100 percent of net new investment money going into mutual funds goes to funds that were recently awarded five stars and four stars…Indeed, in the months after the ratings are handed out each year, the five-star funds generally earn less than half as much as the broad market index!…Morningstar ratings are misleading investors into buying high and selling low.”

 

Investors need to be careful in how they use the ratings – simply buying 4-5 star funds and selling star-losing funds can be a heartburning recipe for bad results. Buying high and selling low usually doesn’t turn out very well.

Find Winners…Then What?

Even if you are successful in identifying the winning funds, those same funds tend to underperform in subsequent periods. Ellis, a believer in passive index investing, noticed only 10% of active managers outperformed over 25 years, and the odds of sustaining outperformance in subsequent periods diminished even further.

Charles Ellis also noticed a fat-tail syndrome of losers versus winners. For example, Ellis found 2% of active managers outperformed over a set time period, but a whopping 16% underperformed the market over a similar timeframe. Consistent with these findings, Ellis stresses that past performance does not predict future results, with one exception: “The worst losers do tend to keep losing. If you do decide to select active investment managers, promise yourself you will stay with your chosen manager for many years…changing managers is not only expensive, but it usually doesn’t work.”

Professionals to the Rescue

Well, if individuals are not in a position to pick future winning fund managers, then thank heavens the professional consultants can help out…not exactly. Ellis was blunt about the capabilities of those professionals selecting active investment managers:

“Pension executives and investment consultants who specialize in selecting the best managers have, as a group, been unsuccessful at selecting managers who can beat the market.”

 

Ellis uses a respected firm as an example to prove his point:

“Cambridge Associates reports candidly, ‘There is no sound basis for hiring or firing managers solely on the basis of recent performance.’”

 

At the end of the day, finding current winners is not a problem, but sifting through the massive quantity of funds and selecting future winners is very challenging for individuals and professionals alike. The financial industry would like you to believe picking the future performance beauty winner is a simple task – the data seems to indicate otherwise. Rather than wasting your money attempting to pick the beauty winner, perhaps your money would be better spent on purchasing a tiara for yourself.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in MORN, Cambridge Associates, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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January 30, 2011 at 11:31 pm 4 comments

Playing the Field with Your Investments

For some, casually dating can be fun and exciting. The same goes for trading and speculating – the freedom to make free- wheeling, non-committal purchases can be exhilarating. Unfortunately the costs (fiscally and emotionally) of short-term dating/investing often outweigh the benefits.

Fortunately, in the investment world, you can get to know an investment pretty well through fundamental research that is widely available (e.g., 10Ks, 10Qs, press releases, analyst days, quarterly conference calls, management interviews, trade rags, research reports). Unlike dating, researching stocks can be very cheap, and you do not need to worry about being rejected.

Dating is important early in adulthood because we make many mistakes choosing whom we date, but in the process we learn from our misjudgments and discover the important qualities we value in relationships. The same goes for stocks. Nothing beats experience, and in my long investment career, I can honestly say I’ve dated/traded a lot of pigs and gained valuable lessons that have improved my investing capabilities. Now, however, I don’t just casually date my investments – I factor in a rigorous, disciplined process that requires a serious commitment. I no longer enter positions lightly.

One of my investment heroes, Peter Lynch, appropriately stated, “In stocks as in romance, ease of divorce is not a sound basis for commitment. If you’ve chosen wisely to begin with, you won’t want a divorce.”

Charles Ellis shared these thoughts on relationships with mutual funds:

“If you invest in mutual funds and make mutual funds investment changes in less than 10 years…you’re really just ‘dating.’ Investing in mutual funds should be marital – for richer, for poorer, and so on; mutual fund decisions should be entered into soberly and advisedly and for the truly long term.”

 

No relationship comes without wild swings, and stocks are no different. If you want to survive the volatile ups and downs of a relationship (or stock ownership), you better do your homework before blindly jumping into bed. The consequences can be punishing.

Buy and Hold is Dead…Unless Stocks Go Up

If you are serious about your investments, I believe you must be mentally willing to commit to a relationship with your stock, not for a day, not for a week, or not for a month, but rather for years. Now, I know this is blasphemy in the age when “buy-and-hold” investing is considered dead, but I refute that basic premise whole-heartedly…with a few caveats.

Sure, buy-and-hold is a stupid strategy when stocks do nothing for a decade – like they have done in the 2000s, but buying and holding was an absolutely brilliant strategy in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, even in the miserable 2000s, there have been many buy-and-hold investments that have made owners a fortune (see Questioning Buy & Hold ). So, the moral of the story for me is “buy-and-hold” is good for stocks that go up in price, and bad for stocks that go flat or down in price. Wow, how deeply profound!

To measure my personal commitment to an investment prospect, a bachelorette investment I am courting must pass another test…a test from another one of my investment idols, Phil Fisher, called the three-year rule. This is what the late Mr. Fisher had to say about this topic:

“While I realized thoroughly that if I were to make the kinds of profits that are made possible by [my] process … it was vital that I have some sort of quantitative check… With this in mind, I established what I called my three-year rule.” Fisher adds, “I have repeated again and again to my clients that when I purchase something for them, not to judge the results in a matter of a month or a year, but allow me a three year period.”

 

Certainly, there will be situations where an investment thesis is wrong, valuation explodes, or there are superior investment opportunities that will trigger a sale before the three-year minimum expires. Nonetheless, I follow Fisher’s rule in principle in hopes of setting the bar high enough to only let the best ideas into both my client and personal portfolios.

As I have written in the past, there are always reasons of why you should not invest for the long-term and instead sell your position, such as: 1) new competition; 2) cost pressures; 3) slowing growth; 4) management change; 5) valuation; 6) change in industry regulation; 7) slowing economy; 8 ) loss of market share; 9) product obsolescence; 10) etc, etc, etc. You get the idea.

Don Hays summed it up best: “Long term is not a popular time-horizon for today’s hedge fund short-term mentality. Every wiggle is interpreted as a new secular trend.”

Peter Lynch shares similar sympathies when it comes to noise in the marketplace:

“Whatever method you use to pick stocks or stock mutual funds, your ultimate success or failure will depend on your ability to ignore the worries of the world long enough to allow your investments to succeed.”

 

Every once in a while there is validity to some of the concerns, but more often than not, the scare campaigns are merely Chicken Little calling for the world to come to an end.

Patience is a Virtue

In the instant gratification society we live in, patience is difficult to come by, and for many people ignoring the constant chatter of fear is challenging. Pundits spend every waking hour trying to explain each blip in the market, but in the short-run, prices often move up or down irrespective of the daily headlines. Explaining this randomness, Peter Lynch said the following:

“Often, there is no correlation between the success of a company’s operations and the success of its stock over a few months or even a few years. In the long term, there is a 100% correlation between the success of a company and the success of its stock. It pays to be patient, and to own successful companies.”

 

Long-term investing, like long-term relationships, is not a new concept. Investment time horizons have been shortening for decades, so talking about the long-term is generally considered heresy. Rather than casually date a stock position, perhaps you should commit to a long-term relationship and divorce your field-playing habits. Now that sounds like a sweet kiss of success.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 28, 2011 at 1:03 am 1 comment

Your Portfolio’s Silent Killer

Shhh, if you listen closely enough, you may hear the sound of your portfolio disintegrating away due to the quiet killer…inflation. Inflation is especially worrisome with what we’ve seen happening with commodity prices and the drastic fiscal challenges our country faces. Quantitative Easing (read Flying to the Moon) has only added fuel to the inflation fear flames.

Whether you’re a conspiracy theorist who believes the government inflation data is cooked, or you are a Baby Boomer just looking to secure your retirement, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that movies, pair of jeans, a tank of gas, concert tickets, or healthcare premiums are all going up in price (See also Bacon and Oreo Future).

Inflation starting to heat up. Source: IMF/Bloomberg via Financial Times

Companies are currently churning out quarterly results in volume and seeing the impact from commodity prices, whether you are McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) facing rising beef prices or luxury handbag maker Coach Inc. (COH) dealing with escalating leather costs, margins are getting crimped. Investors, especially those on fixed income streams, are experiencing the same pain as these corporations, but the problem is much worse. Unlike a market share leading company that can pass on price increases onto its customers, an investor with piles of cash, and low yielding CDs (Certificates of Deposit), and bonds runs the risk of getting eaten alive. Baby Boomers are beginning to reach retirement age in mass volume. Life spans are extending, and this demographic pool of individuals will become ever-large consumers of costlier and costlier healthcare services. If investments are not prudently managed, Baby Boomers will see their nest eggs evaporate, and be forced to work as Wal-Mart (WMT) greeters into their 80s…not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Every day investors are bombarded with a hundred different scary headlines on why the economy will collapse or the world will end. Most of these sensationalist scare tactics distort the truth and overstate reality. What is understated is what Charles Ellis (see Winning the Loser’s Game) calls a “corrosive power”:

“Over the long run, inflation is the major problem for investors, not the attention-getting daily or cyclical changes in securities prices that most investors fret about. The corrosive power of inflation is truly daunting: At 3 percent inflation – which most people accept as ‘normal’ – the purchasing power of your money is cut in half in 24 years. At 5 percent inflation, the purchasing power of your money is cut in half in less than 15 years – and cut in half again in 15 years to just one-quarter.”

 

In order to bolster his case, Ellis cites the following period:

“From 1977 to 1982, the inflation-adjusted Dow Jones Industrial Average took a five-year loss of 63 percent…In the 15 years from the late 1960s to the early 1980s the unweighted stock market, adjusted for inflation, plunged by about 80 percent. As a result, the decade of the 1970s was actually worse for investors than the decade of the 1930s.”

 

Solutions – How to Beat Inflation

Although the gold bugs would have you believe it, we are not resigned to live in a world with worthless money, which only has a useful purpose as toilet paper. There are ways to protect your portfolio, if you are properly invested. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protection Securities): These government-guaranteed tools are a useful way to protect yourself against rising inflation (see Drowning TIPS).  
  • Equities (including real estate): Bond issuers do not generally call up there investors and say, “You are such a great investor, so we have decided to increase your interest payments.” However, many publicly traded stocks do exactly that. Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) is an example of such a company that has increased its dividend for 37 consecutive years. As alluded to earlier, stocks are unique in that they allow inflationary pressures placed on operating profits to be relieved somewhat by the ability to pass on price increases to customers.  
  • Commodities: Whether you are talking about petroleum products, precious metals (those with a commercial purpose), or agricultural goods, commodities in general act as a great inflationary hedge. Another reason that commodities broadly perform better in an inflationary environment is because the U.S. dollar can often depreciate, which commonly increases the value of commodities.
  • Short Duration Bonds: Rising rates are usually tied to escalating inflation, therefore investors would be best served by reducing maturity length and increasing coupon.

There are other ways of battling the inflation problem, but number one is saving and investing across a broadly diversified portfolio. If you want to secure and grow your nest egg, you need to use the silent power of compounding (see Penny Saved is Billion Earned) to combat the silent killer of inflation.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, WMT, TIP, equities, commodities, and short duration bonds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 26, 2011 at 1:18 am 2 comments

Operating Earnings: Half-Empty or Half-Full?

A continual debate goes on between bulls and bears about which earnings metric is more important: reported earnings based on GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) or “operating earnings,” which exclude one-time charges and gains, along with non-cash charges, such as options expenses. Bulls generally prefer operating earnings (glass half-full) because they are typically higher than GAAP earnings (glass half-empty), and therefore operating earnings make valuation metrics more attractive. This disparity between earnings choice is even broader over the last few years due to the massive distortions created by the financial crisis – gigantic write-downs at the vast majority of financial institutions and enormous restructurings at non-financial companies.

Options Smoptions

The options expense issue can also become a religious argument, similar to the paradoxical question that asks if God can create a rock big enough that he himself cannot budge? Logic would dictate that operating earnings should adequately account for option issuance in the denominator of the earnings per share calculation (Net Income / Shares Outstanding). As far as I’m concerned, the GAAP method reducing the numerator of EPS (Earnings Per Share) with an expense, and increasing the denominator by increasing shares from option issuance is merely double counting the expense, thereby distorting reality. Reading through an annual report and/or proxy may not be a joyous experience, but the exercise will help you triangulate share issuance estimates to forecast the drag on future EPS.

On a trailing 12-month basis (Sep’09 – Sep’10), Standard & Poor’s calculated reported earnings with about a -9% differential from operating earnings, equating to approximately a 1.5 Price/Earnings multiple point differential (17.8x’s for reported earnings and 16.2 x’s for operating earnings). For the half-glass full bulls, the picture looks even prettier based on 2011 operating earnings forecasts – the S&P 500 index is priced at roughly 13.6x’s the 2011 index earnings value of $95.45.

Forward More Important Than Backwards

As I make the case in my P/E binoculars article, the market is like a game of chess – a good player doesn’t care nearly as much about an opponent’s last moves as he/she cares about the opponent’s future moves. Financial markets operate in the same fashion, future earnings are much more important than prior earnings. From a practical standpoint, GAAP earnings are relatively useless. Market purists can evangelize about the merits of GAAP earnings until they are blue in the face, but the fact of the matter is that investors are whipping prices all over the place based on Wall Street EPS forecasts – based on operating earnings (not GAAP). In many instances, especially throughout much of the financial crisis, operating earnings will more closely align with the cash flows of a company relative to GAAP earnings, but detailed fundamental analysis is needed.

As far as I’m concerned, much of this GAAP vs Non-GAAP earnings debate is moot because both reported earnings and operating earnings can both be manipulated and distorted. I prefer using cash flows (see Cash Flow Statement article) because cash register accounting – the analysis of money coming in and out of a company – limits the ability of bean counters to use smoke and mirror strategies traditionally saved for the income statement. In other words, you cannot compensate employees, do acquisitions, distribute dividends, or buyback stock with GAAP earnings…all these functions require cold, hard cash. The key metric, rather than EPS, should be free cash flow per share. Growth companies with high return prospects should be given some leeway, but if the projects don’t earn a return, eventually cash resources will dry up. When EPS is materially higher than free cash flow per share, yellow flags fly up and I do additional research to understand the dynamics causing the differential.

These earnings-based arguments will likely never get resolved, but if investors focus on bottom-up analysis on individual security cash flows, determining whether the glass is half-empty or half-full will become much easier.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any security referenced in this article. The trailing 12 month data was calculated by S&P as of 1/19/2011. Forward 2011 operating earnings were calculated as of 1/18/2011. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 24, 2011 at 2:09 am Leave a comment

Bove on Goldman-Facebook Deal: Hug the Public!

In a recent research report titled, Has Goldman Learned Anything?, esteemed Rochdale Research analyst Richard Bove chimed in about the recent controversy surrounding the failed U.S. private offering of Facebook shares by Goldman Sachs (GS) to the bank’s wealthiest clients. In the note, Bove states the following:

“The company is embroiled in a ‘headline’ controversy surrounding its handling of a Facebook offering which implies that Goldman does not understand the public’s interest at all.”

 

Bove goes onto add:

“I fear that this company may not yet understand that those actions that do not appear to be in the public’s interest can, in fact, harm the company.”

 

I’m having a real difficult time understanding how Goldman privately raising funds for a private company has anything to do with the public? Am I wrong, or don’t millions of private companies raise capital every year without getting approval from Mr. Joe and Mrs. Josephine Public? What exactly does Bove want Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein to say to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg?

“Oh hello Mr. Zuckerberg, this is Lloyd Blankfein calling from Goldman Sachs, and if I understand it correctly, you are interested in raising $1.5 billion for your company. I know you are arguably the greatest internet brand on this planet, but unfortunately I do not think we can help you because I believe the broader public may not be happy with their lack of ability to participate in the offering. If you don’t have Morgan Stanley’s or JP Morgan’s phone number, just let me know because perhaps they can assist you. Have a great day!”

 

Come on…Goldman Sachs is not a charitable organization with a mission to make the world a better place – they are one of thousands of publicly traded companies attempting to grow profits. Sure, could Goldman have more discreetly pursued this offering without attracting the massive media barrage? Absolutely. But let’s be fair, the buzz around Facebook is deafening and the paparazzi are following Mark Zuckerberg around as closely as Raj Rajaratnam chases insider trading tips. New York Times columnist and reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin (see Too Big to Fail book review) summed it up best when he said, “You take the words Facebook and Goldman Sachs and put them in the same sentence, it becomes a media sensation unto itself. So I think this was bound to happen one way or the other.”

So while I have no reason to cheerlead for Goldman Sachs, and I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons for the investment bank to be crucified, attempting to raise money for a private company is not a felony in my book. I commend Richard Bove’s altruistic intentions in protecting the public from Goldman Sachs’s evil capital raising activities, and I may even contribute to a group hug with the mass investing public. If he catches me on the right day, I may even give CEO Lloyd Blankfein a hug.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in GS, MS, JPM, Facebook, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 20, 2011 at 10:50 pm 1 comment

The 10 Investment Commandments

Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the powerful spiritual words of the Ten Commandments from God on two stone tablets and then went on to share the all-important, moral imperatives with his people. If Moses was alive today and was a professional investor, I’m sure he would have downloaded the “10 Investment Commandments” from Charles Ellis’s Winning a Loser’s Game on his e-reader, and then share the knowledge with all investors. I’m the furthest thing from Moses, but in his absence, I will be happy to share Ellis’s valuable and useful 10 Investment Commandments for individual investors:

1)      “Save. Invest your savings in your future happiness and security and education for your kids.”

2)      “Don’t speculate. If you must ‘play the market’ to satisfy an emotional itch, recognize that you are gambling on your ability to beat the pros so limit the amounts you play with to the same amounts you would gamble with the pros at Las Vegas.”

3)      “Don’t do anything in investing primarily for tax reasons.”

4)      “Don’t think of your home as an investment. Think of it as a place to live with your family-period.”

5)      “Never do commodities….Dealing in commodities is really only price speculation. It’s not investing because there’s no economic productivity or value added.”

6)      “Don’t be confused about stockbrokers and mutual fund salespeople. They are usually very nice people, but their job is not to make money for you. Their job is to make money from you.”

7)      “Don’t invest in new or ‘interesting’ investments. They are all too often designed to be sold to investors, not to be owned by investors.”

8)      “Don’t invest in bonds just because you’ve heard that bonds are conservative or for safety of either income or capital. Bond prices can fluctuate nearly as much as stock prices do, and bonds are a poor defense against the major risk of long-term investing – inflation.”

9)      “Write out your long-term goals, your long-term investing program, and your estate plan – and stay with them.”

10)   “Distrust your feelings. When you feel euphoric, you’re probably in for a bruising.”

We all commit sins, some more than others, and investors are no different. A simple periodic review of Charles Ellis’s “10 Investing Commandments” will spiritually align your portfolios and prevent the number of investment sins you make.

Read More about Charles Ellis (article #1 and article #2)

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 18, 2011 at 1:34 am Leave a comment

New Year’s Investing Resolutions

As we exit 2010 and enter 2011, many people go through the annual ritual of making personal New Year’s resolutions. Here is a list of go-to resolutions if you haven’t made one, or are having trouble coming up with one.

1)      Lose weight

2)      Spend More Time with Family & Friends

3)      Quit Smoking

4)      Quit Drinking

5)      Enjoy Life More

6)      Save Money & Get Out of Debt

7)      Learn Something New

8)      Help Others

9)      Get Organized

10)   Travel More

I have a few on the list above that I would like to work on, but when it comes to investing, there are a few other resolutions I am looking to make or maintain in 2011:

1) Don’t be a Hog. The last few years have produced excellent returns, but we all know that pigs get fat, and hogs get slaughtered. Cashing the register and banking some of my gains can be frustrating when positions charge higher, but sticking to a disciplined approach pays off handsomely in the long-run and helps navigate through the volatile times.

2) Follow Crash Litmus Test. Only buy what you would confidently purchase at lower prices.  Sure, company or industry fundamentals can change over time, but for the vast majority of the time, companies and industries do not undergo paradigm shifts. Even though there are a 1,001 bombs that get launched daily, explaining why the world is coming to an end, I do my best to block out the useless noise and stick to the numbers and facts.

3) Remove Name Creep. It’s easy to fall in love with every new stock that walks by, but limiting the number requires a conviction discipline that pays off in the long run. Academic research and practical experience dictate diversification can be achieved without spreading yourself too thin. As Warren Buffett says, “I prefer to keep all my eggs in one basket and watch that basket closely.”

4) Tirelessly Turn Stones. I love my portfolio right now, but I know there are unique opportunities out there that can improve my results, if I take the time and make the effort.

5. Don’t Rush Into Tips. I’ve purchased or shorted securities recommended by respected investors, but it is important to do your own homework first. Even if these ideas work in the short-run, tips usually fall into loose hands and get punted at the worst times. Perform adequate due diligence to strengthen the roots of your thesis for volatile times.

6. Don’t Get Drunk on Story Stocks. There is never a shortage of great ideas, but many of them carry hefty price tags and have high expectations baked into future earnings growth estimates. Even if great stories exist in abundance, there is a shortage of great managers that can profit from great ideas. Associated high prices can however quickly turn a great story into a sad story – once excessively high expectations are not met, prices eventually will collapse.

7. Build Contingency Plan for Overconfidence. It’s important to have an exit strategy or contingency plan in place if things do not play out as planned. Overconfidence can be the pitfall for many investors, and this is not surprising when factoring in how highly people generally feel about themselves. Most believe they are better than average drivers, parents, and have superior intuition. This same overconfidence may not harm you in the real world, but in the financial markets, overconfidence can result in a woodshed beating. Confidence will not kill your portfolio, but arrogant confidence will.

8. Stick to Knitting. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I do my best to stay away from my blind spots. As legendary baseball player Ted Williams discussed in his book The Science of Hitting, players are much better off by patiently waiting for the fat pitch in the sweet spot of the strike zone before swinging. Finding your sweet spot and not venturing out of your circle of competence is just as important in the investing world as it is in baseball hitting.

9. Trade Less. Trading is fun and exciting, but paying commissions on top of bid-ask spreads, impact costs, and other fees removes some of the enjoyment. Trading is a necessary evil to make profits, but requires the trader to be right twice – once on the sale, and another time on the purchase. Even if you are right on both sides of the trade, chances are the fees, taxes, commissions, and impact costs will remove most if not all of the profits.

10. Learn from Mistakes. Unfortunately, 2011 will be another year that I will not remain mistake-free. Conveniently forgetting investment mistakes is a great rationalization mechanism, but forever sweeping blunders under the rug without learning from them will not make you a better investor.

If you are able to set aside some of those Bonbons and pay off those credit card balances, then maybe you can join me and take on an investing resolution or two. Don’t worry, like all resolutions, you always have the option of making the resolution without following through!

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 14, 2011 at 1:04 am Leave a comment

The Art of Weather Forecasting and Investing

Source: Photobucket

I’ve lived across the country and traveled around the world and have experienced everything from triple-digit desert heat to sub-zero wind chill. The financial markets experience the same variability over time.

Forecasting the weather is a lot like forecasting the stock market. In the short-run, volatility in patterns can be very difficult to predict, but if efforts are energized into analyzing long-term factors, trends can be identified.

For example, I live here in Southern California, and although weather is fairly homogenous, the variability can be significant on a day-to-day basis. I’m much more likely to be accurate in estimating the long-term climate than the forecast seven days from now. I’m not trying to rub salt in the wounds of those people freezing in Antarctica or the upper-Midwest, but forecasting a climate of 72 degrees, sunny, and blue skies is a good fall-back scenario if you are a television weatherman in Southern California.

Charles Ellis, author of the Winning the Loser’s Game – “WTLG” (see Investing Caffeine  article #1 and article #2), highlights the weather analogy more convincingly:

“Weather is about the short run; climate is about the long run – and that makes all the difference. In choosing a climate in which to build a home, we would not be deflected by last week’s weather. Similarly, in choosing a long-term investment program, we don’t want to be deflected by temporary market conditions.”

 

Ellis adds:

“Like the weather, the average long-term experience in investing is never surprising, but the short-term experience is constantly surprising.”

 

In the financial markets the weather predicting principle applies to long-term economic forecasts as well. Predicting annual GDP growth can often be more accurate than the expected change in Dow Jones Industrial Index points tomorrow or the next day.

Economic Weathermen

As I outlined in Professional Guesses Probably Wrong, economists and strategists use several means of making their guesses.

  • One method is to simply not make forecasts at all, but rather use some big words and current news to explain what currently is happening in the economy and financial markets.
  • A second approach used by prognosticators is to constantly change forecasts. Consider a person making a weather forecast every minute…his/her forecast would be very accurate, but it would be changing constantly and not provide much more value than what an ordinary person could gather by looking out their own window.
  • Thirdly, some use the “spaghetti approach” – throw enough scenarios out there against the wall and something is bound to stick – regardless of accuracy.
  • Lastly, the “extend and pretend” method is often implemented. Forecasters make big bold economic predictions that garner lots of attention, but when the expectations don’t come true, the original forecast is either forgotten by investors or the original forecast just becomes extended further into the future.

Coin Flipping

If the weather analogy doesn’t work for you, how about a coin-flipping analogy? The short-term randomness surrounding the consecutive number of heads and tails may make no sense in the short-run, but will mean revert to an average over time. In other words, it is possible for someone to flip 10 consecutive “tails,” but in the long-run, the number of times a coin will land on “tails” will come close to averaging half of all coin tosses. The same dynamic is observed in the investment world. Often, short-term spikes or declines are short lived and return toward a mean average. IN WTLG, Ellis provides some more color on the topic:

“The manager whose favorable investment performance in the recent past appears to be ‘proving’ that he or she is a better manager is often – not always, but all too often – about to produce below-average results…A large part of the apparently superior performance was not due to superior skill that will continue to produce superior results but was instead due to that particular manager’s sector of the market temporarily enjoying above-average rates of return – or luck.”

 

Regardless of your interests in weather forecasting or coin-flipping, when it comes to investing you will be better served by following the long-term climate trends and probabilities. Otherwise, the performance outlook for your investment portfolio may be cloudy with a chance of thunderstorms.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 12, 2011 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

Ellis on Battling Demons and Mr. Market

A lot of ground was covered in the first cut of my review on Charles Ellis’s book, Winning the Loser’s Game (“WTLG”). His book covers a broad spectrum of issues and reasons that help explain why so many amateurs and professional investors dramatically underperform broad market indexes and other forms of passive investing (such as index funds).

A major component of investor underperformance is tied to the internal or emotional aspects to investing. As I have written in the past, successful investing requires as much emotional art as it does mathematical science. Investing solely based on numbers is like a tennis player only able to compete with a backhand – you may hit a few good shots, but will end up losing in the long-run to the well-rounded players.

Ellis recognizes these core internal shortcomings and makes insightful observations throughout his book on how emotions can lead investors to lose. As George J.W. Goodman noted, “If you don’t know who you are, the stock market is an expensive place to find out.” Hopefully by examining more of Ellis’s investment nuggets, we can all become better investors, so let’s take a deeper dive.

Mischievous Mr. Market

Why is winning in the financial markets so difficult? Ellis devotes a considerable amount of time in WTLG talking about the crafty guy called “Mr. Market.” Here’s how Ellis describes the unique individual:

“Mr. Market is a mischievous but captivating fellow who persistently teases investors with gimmicks and tricks such as surprising earnings reports, startling dividend announcements, sudden surges of inflation, inspiring presidential announcements, grim reports of commodities prices, announcements of amazing new technologies, ugly bankruptcies, and even threats of war.”

           

Investors can easily get distracted by Mr. Market, and Ellis makes the point of why we are simple targets:

“Our internal demons and enemies are pride, fear, greed, exuberance, and anxiety. These are the buttons that Mr. Market most likes to push. If you have them, that rascal will find them. No wonder we are such easy prey for Mr. Market with all his attention-getting tricks.”

 

The market also has a way of lulling investors into complacency. Somehow, bull markets manage to make geniuses not only out of professionals and amateur investors, but also cab drivers and hair-dressers. Here is Ellis’s observation of how we tend to look at ourselves:

“We also think we are ‘above average’ as car drivers, as dancers, at telling jokes, at evaluating other people, as friends, as parents, and as investors. On average, we also believe our children are above average.”

 

This overconfidence and elevated self-assessment generally leads to excessive risk-taking and eventually hits arrogant investors over the head like a sledgehammer. Michael Mauboussin, Legg Mason Chief Investment Strategist and author of Think Twice, is a current thought leader in the field of behavioral finance that tackles many of these behavioral finance issues (read my earlier piece).

The Collateral Damage

As mentioned by Ellis in the previous WTLG article I wrote, “Eighty-five percent of investment managers have and will continue over the long term to underperform the overall market.” When emotions take over our actions, Mr. Market has a way of making investors make the worst decisions at the worst times. Ellis describes this phenomenon in more detail:   

“The great risk to individual investors is not that the market can plummet, but that the investor may be frightened into liquidating his or her investments at or near the bottom and miss all the recovery, making the loss permanent. This happens to all too many investors in every terrible market drop.”

 

With the market about doubling from the early 2009 equity market lows, this devastating problem has become more evident. With volatility rearing its ugly head throughout 2008 and early 2009, investors bailed into low-yielding cash and Treasuries at the nastiest time. Now the stock market has catapulted upwards and those same investors now face significant interest rate risk and still are experiencing meager yields.

The Winning Formula

Ellis acknowledges the difficulty of winning at the investing game, but experience has shown him ways to combat the emotional demons. Number one…know thyself.

“’Know thyself’ is the cardinal rule in investing. The hardest work in investing is not intellectual; it’s emotional.”

 

Knowing thyself is easier said than done, but experience and mistakes are tremendous aids in becoming a better investor – especially if you are an investor who spends time studying the missteps and learns from them.

From a practical portfolio construction standpoint, how can investors combat their pesky emotions? Probably the best idea is to follow Ellis’s sage advice, which is to “sell down to the sleeping point. Don’t go outside your zone of competence because outside that zone you may get emotional, and being emotional is never good for your investing.”

Finding good investment ideas is just half the battle – fending off the demons and Mr. Market can be just as, if not more, challenging. Fortunately, Mr. Ellis has been kind enough to share his insights, allowing investors of all types to take this valuable investment advice to help win at a losing game.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 10, 2011 at 1:51 am Leave a comment

Top 10 of 2010

Last year is over, but you can relive some of the memories by enjoying a few of the more popular Investing Caffeine articles of 2010. If you have already read all of these, you can always take a vacation and return 365 days from now and read the best of 2011 then. Happy (not so) New Year!

John Mauldin: The Man Who Cries Wolf

Professional Double-Dip Guesses areProbablyWrong

Technical AnalysisAstrology or Lob Wedge?

Marathon Investing: Genesis of Cheap Stocks

PIMCOThe Downhill Marathon Machine

The Invisible Giant

Jobs: The Gluttonous Cash Hog

Getting off the Market Timing Treadmill

TMI: The Age of Information Overload

Lessons Learned from Financial Crisis Management 101

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 7, 2011 at 1:00 am Leave a comment

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