Posts filed under ‘Behavioral Finance’

Passive vs. Active Investing: Darts, Monkeys & Pros

Bob Turner is founder of Turner Investments and a manager of several funds at the investment company. In a recent article he reintroduces the all-important, longstanding debate of active management (“hands-on”) versus passive management (“hands off”) approaches to investing. Mr. Turner makes some good arguments for the active management camp, however some feel differently – take for example Burton Malkiel. The Princeton professor theorizes in his book A Random Walk Down Wall Street that “a blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s stock page could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.” In fact, The Wall Street Journal manages an Investment Dartboard contest that stacks up amateur investors’ picks against the pros’ and random stock picks selected by randomly thrown darts. In many instances, the dartboard picks outperform the professionals. Given the controversy, who’s right…the darts, monkeys, or pros? Distinguishing between the different categorizations can be difficult, but we will take a stab nevertheless.

Arguments for Active Management

Turner contends, active management outperforms in periods of high volatility and he believes the industry will be entering such a phase:

“Active managers historically have tended to perform best in a market in which the performance of individual stocks varies widely.”

He also acknowledges that not all active managers outperform and admits there are periods where passive management will do better:

“The reason why most active investors fail to outperform is because they in fact constitute most of the market. Even in the best of times, not all active managers can hope to outperform…The business of picking stocks is to some degree a zero-sum game; the results achieved by the best managers will be offset at least somewhat by the subpar performance of other managers.”

Buttressing his argument for active management, Turner references data from Advisor Perspectives showing an inconclusive percentage (40.5%-67.8%) of the actively managed funds trailing the passively managed indexes from 2000 to 2008.

The Case for Passive Management

Turner cites one specific study to support his active management cause. However, my experience gleaned from the vast amounts of academic and industry data point to approximately 75% of active managers underperforming their passively managed indexes, over longer periods of time. Notably, a recent study conducted by Standard & Poor’s SPIVA division (S&P Indices Versus Active Funds) discovered the following conclusions over the five year market cycle from 2004 to 2008:

  • S&P 500 outperformed 71.9% of actively managed large cap funds;
  • S&P MidCap 400 outperformed 79.1% of mid cap funds;
  • S&P SmallCap 600 outperformed 85.5% of small cap funds.

Read more about  the dirty secrets shrinking your portfolio. According to the Vanguard Group and the Investment Company Institute, about 25% of institutional assets and about 12% of individual investors’ assets are currently indexed (passive strategies).  If you doubt the popularity of passive investment strategies, then look no further than the growth of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs – see chart), index funds, or Vanguard Groups more than $1 trillion dollars in assets under management.

Although I am a firm believer in passive investing, one of its shortcomings is mean reversion. This is the idea that upward or downward moving trends tend to revert back to an average or normal level over time. Active investing can take advantage of mean reversion, conversely passive investing cannot. Indexes can get very top-heavy in weightings of outperforming sectors or industries, meaning theoretically you could be buying larger and larger shares of an index in overpriced glamour stocks on the verge of collapse.  We experienced these lopsided index weightings through the technology bubbles in the late 1990s and financials in 2008. Some strategies may be better than other over the long run, but every strategy, even passive investing, has its own unique set of deficiencies and risks.

Professional Sports and Investing

As I discuss in my book, there are similarities that can be drawn between professional sports and investing with respect to active vs. passive management. Like the scarce number of .300 hitters in baseball, I believe there are a select few investment managers who can consistently outperform the market. In 2007, AssociatedContent.com did a study that showed there were only 22 active career .300 hitters in Major League Baseball. I recognize in the investing world there can be a larger role for “luck,” which is difficult, if not impossible, to measure (luck won’t help me much in hitting a 100 mile per hour fastball thrown by Nolan Ryan). Nonetheless, in the professional sports arena, there are some Hall of Famers (prospects) that have proved they could (can) consistently outperform their peers for extended durations of time. Experience is another distinction I would highlight in comparing sports and investing. Unlike sports, in the investment world I believe there is a positive correlation between age and ability. The more experience an investor gains, generally the better long-term return achieved. Like many professions, the more experience you gain, the more valuable you become. Unfortunately, in many sports, ability deteriorates and muscles atrophy over time.

Size Matters

Experience alone will not make you a better investor. Some investors are born with an innate gift or intellect that propels them ahead of the pack. However, most great investors eventually get cursed by their own success thanks to accumulating assets. Warren Buffet knows the consequences of managing large amounts of dollars, “gravity always wins.”  Having managed a $20 billion fund, I fully appreciate the challenges of investing larger sums of money. Managing a smaller fund is similar to navigating a speed boat – not too difficult to maneuver and fairly easy to dodge obstacles. Managing heftier pools of money can be like captaining a supertanker, but unfortunately the same rapid u-turn expectations of the speedboat remain. Managing large amounts of capital can be crippling, and that’s why captaining a supertanker requires the proper foresight and experience.

Room for All

As I’ve stated before, I believe the market is efficient in the long run, but can be terribly inefficient in the short-run, especially when the behavioral aspects of emotion (fear and greed) take over. The “wait for me, I want to play too” greed from the late 1990s technology craze and the credit-based economic collapse of 2008-2009 are further examples of inefficient situations that can be exploited by active managers. However, due to multiple fees, transaction costs, taxes, not to mention the short-term performance/compensation pressures to perform, I believe the odds are stacked against the active managers. For those experienced managers that have played the game for a long period and have a track record of success, I feel active management can play a role. At Sidoxia Capital Management, I choose to create investment portfolios that blend a mixture of passive and active investment strategies. Although my hedge fund has outperformed the S&P 500 in 4 of the last 5 years, that fact does not necessarily mean it’s the appropriate sole approach for all clients. As Warren Buffet states, investors should stick to their “circle of competence” so they can confidently invest in what they know.  That’s why I generally stick to the areas of my expertise when I’m actively investing in stocks, and fill in the remainder of client portfolios with transparent, low-cost, tax-efficient equity and fixed income products (i.e., Exchange Traded Funds). Even though the actively managed Turner Funds appear to have a mixed-bag of performance numbers relative to passively managed strategies, I appreciate Bob Turner’s article for addressing this important issue.  I’m sure the debate will never fully be resolved. In the meantime, my client portfolios will aim to mix the best of both worlds within active and passive management strategies in the eternal quest of outwitting the darts, monkeys, and other pros.

Read the full Bob Turner article on Morningstar.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds but had no direct position in stocks mentioned 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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March 29, 2014 at 3:19 pm 4 comments

Aaaaaaaah: Turbulence or Nosedive?

Airplane Landing

We’ve all been there on that rocky plane ride…clammy hands, heart beating rapidly, teeth clenched, body frozen, while firmly bracing the armrests with both appendages. The sky outside is dark and the interior fuselage rattles incessantly until….whhhhhssssshhh. Another quick jerking moment of turbulence has once again sucked the air out of your lungs and the blood from your heart. The rational part of your brain tries to assure you that this is normal choppy weather and will shortly transition to calm blue skies. The irrational and emotional, part of our brains  (see Lizard Brain) tells us the treacherous plane ride is on the cusp of plummeting into a nosedive with passengers’ last gasps saved for blood curdling screams before the inevitable fireball crash.

Well, we’re now beginning to experience some small turbulence in the financial markets, and at the center of the storm is a collapsing Argentinean peso and a perceived slowing in China. In the case of Argentina, there has been a century-long history of financial defaults and mismanagement (see great Scott Grannis overview). Currently, the Argentinean government has been painted into a corner due to the depletion of its foreign currency reserves and financial mismanagement, as evidenced by an inflation rate hitting a whopping 25% rate.

On the other hand, China has created its own set of worries in investors’ minds.  The flash Markit/HSBC Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) dropped to a level of 49.6 in January from 50.50 in December, which has investors concerned of a market crash. Adding fuel to the fear fire, Chinese government officials and banks have been trying to reverse excesses encountered in the country’s risky shadow banking system. While the size of Argentina’s economy may not be a drop in the bucket, the ultimate direction of the Chinese economy, which is almost 20x’s the size of Argentina’s, should be much more important to global investors.

At the end of the day, most of these mini-panics or crises (turbulence) are healthy for the overall financial system, as they create discipline and will eventually change irresponsible government behaviors. While Argentinean and Chinese issues dominate today’s headlines, these matters are not a whole lot different than what we have read about Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Turkey, and other negligent countries. As I’ve stated before, money goes where it’s treated best, and the stock, bond, and currency vigilantes ensure that this is the case by selling the assets associated with deadbeat countries. Price declines eventually catch the attention of politicians (remember the TARP vote failure of 2008?).

Is This the Beginning of the Crash?!

What goes up, must come down…right? That is the pervading sentiment I continually bump into when I speak to people on the street. Strategist Ed Yardeni did a great job of visually capturing the last six years of the stock market (below), which highlights the most recent bear market and subsequent major corrections. Noticeably absent in 2013 is any major decline. So, while many investors have been bracing for a major crash over the last five years, that scenario hasn’t happened yet. The S&P chart shows we appear to be due for a more painful blue (or red) period of decline in the not-too-distant future, but that is not necessarily the case. One would need only to thumb through the history books from 1990-1997 to see that investors lived through massive gains while avoiding any -10% correction – stocks skyrocketed +233% in 2,553 days. I’m not calling for that scenario, but I am just pointing out we don’t necessarily always live through -10% corrections annually.  

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Even though we’ve begun to experience some turbulence after flying high in 2013, one should not panic. You may be better off watching the end of the airline movie before putting your head in between your legs in preparation for a nosedive.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), 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 25, 2014 at 3:56 pm 2 comments

Controlling the Investment Lizard Brain

Brain

“Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us.”

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Investing is challenging enough without bringing emotions into the equation. Unfortunately, humans are emotional, and as a result investors often place too much reliance on their feelings, rather than using objective information to drive rational decision making.

What causes investors to make irrational decisions? The short answer: our “amygdala.” Author and marketer Seth Godin calls this almond-shaped tissue in the middle of our head, at the end of the brain stem, the “lizard brain” (video below). Evolution created the amygdala’s instinctual survival flight response for lizards to avoid hungry hawks and humans to flee ferocious lions.

 

Over time, the threat of  lions eating people in our modern lives has dramatically declined, but the human’s “lizard brain” is still running in full gear, worrying about  other fear-inducing warnings like Iran, Syria, Obamacare, government shutdowns, taxes, Cyprus, sequestration, etc. (see Series of Unfortunate Events)

When the brain in functioning properly, the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain in charge of reasoning) is actively communicating with the amygdala. Sadly, for many people, and investors, the emotional response from the amygdala dominates the rational reasoning portion of the prefrontal cortex. The best investors and traders have developed the ability of separating emotions from rational decision making, by keeping the amygdala in check.

With this genetically programmed tendency of constantly fearing the next lion or stock market crash, how does one control their lizard brain from making sub-optimal, rash investment decisions? Well, the first thing you should do is turn off the TV. And by turning off the TV, I mean stop listening to talking head commentators, economists, strategists, analysts, neighbors, co-workers, blogger hacks, newsletter writers, journalists, and other investing “wannabes”. Sure, you could throw my name into the list of people to ignore if you wanted to, but the difference is, at least I have actually invested real money for over 20 years (see How I Managed $20,000,000,000.00), whereas the vast majority of those I listed have not. But don’t take my word for it…listen or read the words of other experienced investors Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch, Ron Baron,  John Bogle, Phil Fisher, and other investment titans (see also Sidoxia Hall of Fame). These investment legends have successful long-term investment track records and they lived through wars, recessions, financial crises, and other calamities…and still managed to generate incredible returns.

Another famed investor, William O’Neil, summed this idea nicely by adding the following:

“Since the market tends to go in the opposite direction of what the majority of people think, I would say 95% of all these people you hear on TV shows are giving you their personal opinion. And personal opinions are almost always worthless … facts and markets are far more reliable.”

 

The Harmful Consequence of Brain on Pain

Besides forcing damaging decisions, another consequence of our lizard brain is its ability to distort reality. Behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner) and Amos Tversky through their research demonstrated the pain of $50 loss is more than twice as painful as the pleasure from $50 gain (see Pleasure/Pain Principle). Common sense would dictate our brains would treat equivalent scenarios in a proportional manner, but as the chart below shows, that is not the case:

Source: Investopedia

Source: Investopedia

Kahneman adds to the decision-making relationship of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex by describing the concepts of instinctual and deliberative choices in his most recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow  (see Decision Making on Freeways).

Optimizing Risk

Taking excessive risks in technology stocks in the 1990s or in housing in the mid-2000s was very damaging to many investors, but as we have seen, our lizard brains can cause investors to become overly risk averse. Over the last five years, many people have personally experienced the ill effects of unwarranted conservatism. Investment great Sir John Templeton summed up this risk by stating, “The only way to avoid mistakes is not to invest – which is the biggest mistake of all.”

Every person has a different perception and appetite for risk. The optimal amount of risk taken by any one investor should be driven by their unique liquidity needs and time horizon…not a perceived risk appetite. Typically risk appetites go up as markets peak, and conservatism reaches a fearful apex near market bottoms – the opposite tendency of rational decision making. Besides liquidity and time horizon, a focus on valuation coupled with diversification across asset class (stocks/bonds), geography (domestic/international), size (small/large), style (value/growth) is critical in controlling risk. If you can’t determine your personal, optimal risk profile, then find an experienced and knowledgeable investment advisor to assist you.

With the advent of the internet and mobile communication, our brains and amygdala continually get bombarded with fearful stimuli, leading to disastrous decision-making and damaging portfolio outcomes. Turning off the TV and selectively choosing the proper investment advice is paramount in keeping your amygdala in check. Your lizard brain may protect you from getting eaten by a lion, but falling prey to this structural brain flaw may eat your investment portfolio alive.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), 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 11, 2014 at 4:39 pm 3 comments

Confusing Fear Bubbles with Stock Bubbles

Bubbles 2 SXC

With the Dow Jones Industrial Average approaching and now breaking the 16,000 level, there has been a lot of discussion about whether the stock market is an inflating bubble about to burst due to excessive price appreciation? The reality is a fear bubble exists…not a valuation bubble. This fear phenomenon became abundantly clear from 2008 – 2012 when $100s of billions flowed out of stocks into bonds and trillions in cash got stuffed under the mattress earning near 0% (see Take Me Out to the Stock Game). The tide has modestly turned in 2013 but as I’ve written over the last six months, investor skepticism has reigned supreme (see Most Hated Bull Market Ever & Investors Snore).

Volatility in stocks will always exist, but standard ups-and-downs don’t equate to a bubble. The fact of the matter is if you are reading about bubble headlines in prominent newspapers and magazines, or listening to bubble talk on the TV or radio, then those particular bubbles likely do not exist. Or as strategist and investor Jim Stack has stated, “Bubbles, for the most part, are invisible to those trapped inside the bubble.”

All the recent bubble talk scattered over all the media outlets only bolsters my fear case more. If we actually were in a stock bubble, you wouldn’t be reading headlines like these:

Bubble3 Pics

Bubble Talk 11-23-13_Page_2

From 1,300 Bubble to 5,000

If you think identifying financial bubbles is easy, then you should buy former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan a drink and ask him how easy it is? During his chairmanship in late-1996, he successfully managed to identify the existence of an expanding technology bubble when he delivered his infamous “irrational exuberance” speech. The only problem was he failed miserably on his timing. From the timing of his alarming speech to the ultimate pricking of the bubble in 2000, the NASDAQ index proceeded to more than triple in value (from about 1,300 to over 5,000).

Current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was no better in identifying the housing bubble. In his remarks made before the Federal Reserve Board of Chicago in May 2007, Bernanke had this to say:

“…We believe the effect of the troubles in the subprime sector on the broader housing market will likely be limited, and we do not expect significant spillovers from the subprime market to the rest of the economy or to the financial system. The vast majority of mortgages, including even subprime mortgages, continue to perform well.”

 

If the most powerful people in finance are horrible at timing financial market bubbles, then perhaps you shouldn’t stake your life’s savings on that endeavor either.

Bubbles History 101

Each bubble is unique in its own way, but analyzing previous historic bubbles can help understand future ones (see Sleeping Through Bubbles):

•  Dutch Tulip-Mania: About 400 years ago in the 1630s, rather than buying a new house, Dutch natives were paying over $60,000 for tulip bulbs.
•  British Railroad Mania: The overbuilding of railways in Britain during the 1840s.
•  Roaring 20s: Preceding the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (-90% plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial average) and Great Depression, the U.S. economy experienced an extraordinary boom during the 1920s.
•  Nifty Fifty: During the early 1970s, investors and traders piled into a set of glamour stocks or “Blue Chips” that eventually came crashing down about -90%.
•  Japan’s Nikkei: The value of the Nikkei index increased over 450% in the eight years leading up to the peak of 38,957 in December 1989. Today, almost 25 years later, the index stands at about 15,382.
•  Tech Bubble: Near the peak of the technology bubble in 2000, stocks like JDS Uniphase Corp (JDSU) and Yahoo! Inc (YHOO) traded for over 600x’s earnings. Needless to say, things ended pretty badly once the bubble burst.

As long as humans breathe, and fear and greed exist (i.e., forever), then we will continue to encounter bubbles. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to be notified of future bubbles in mainstream headlines. The objective way to unearth true economic bubbles is by focusing on excessive valuations. While stock prices are nowhere near the towering valuations of the technology and Japanese bubbles of the late 20th century, the bubble of fear originating from the 2008-2009 financial crisis has pushed many long-term bond prices to ridiculously high levels. As a result, these and other bonds are particularly vulnerable to spikes in interest rates (see Confessions of a Bond Hater).

Rather than chasing bubbles and nervously fretting over sensationalistic headlines, you will be better served by devoting your attention to the creation of a globally diversified investment portfolio. Own a portfolio that integrates a wide range of asset classes, and steers clear of popularly overpriced investments that the masses are talking about. When fear disappears and everyone is clamoring to buy stocks, you can be confident the stock bubble is ready to burst.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in TWTR, JDSU, YHOO 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.

November 24, 2013 at 9:12 am 6 comments

Sitting on the Sidelines: Fear & Selective Memory

Sidelines.sxc

Fear is a motivating (or demotivating) emotion that can force individuals into suboptimal actions.  The two main crashes of the 2000s (technology & housing bubbles) coupled with the mini-crises (e.g., flash crash, European crisis, debt ceiling, sequestration, fiscal cliff, etc.) have scared millions of investors and trillions of dollars to sit on the sidelines. Financial paralysis may be great in the short-run for bruised psyches and egos, but for the passive onlookers, the damage to retirement accounts can be crippling.

Selective memory is a great coping mechanism for those investors sitting on the sidelines as well. Purposely forgetting your wallet at a group dinner may be beneficial in the near-term, but repeated incidents will result in lost friends over the long-run. Similarly, most gamblers frequenting casinos tend to pound their chests when bragging about their wins, however they tend to conveniently forget about all the losses.  These same reality avoidance principles apply to investing.

A recent piece written by CEO Bill Koehler at Tower Wealth Managers, entitled The Fear Bubble highlights a survey conducted by Franklin Templeton. In the study, investors were asked how the stock market performed in 2009-2012. As you can see from the chart below, perception is the polar opposite of reality (actual gains far exceeded perceived losses):

Source: Franklin Templeton via Tower Wealth Managers

Source: Franklin Templeton via Tower Wealth Managers

With so many investors sitting on the sidelines in cash or concentrated in low-yielding bonds and gold, I suppose the results shouldn’t be too surprising. Once again, selective memory serves as a wonderful tool to bury the regrets of missing out on a financial market recovery of a lifetime.

Humans also have a predisposition to seek out people who share similar views, even though accumulating different viewpoints ultimately leads to better decisions. Morgan Housel at The Motley Fool just wrote an article, Putting a Gap Between You and Stupid,  explaining how individuals should seek out others who can help protect them from harmful biases. A scientific study referenced in the article showed how the functioning of biased brains literally shuts down:

“During the 2004 presidential election, psychologist Drew Westen of Emory University and his colleagues studied the brains of 15 “committed” Democrats and 15 “committed” Republicans with an MRI scanner. Each group was shown a collection of contradictory statements made by George W. Bush and John Kerry. Not surprisingly, the partisans were quick to call out contradictions made by the opposing party, and made up all kinds of justifications to rationalize quotes made by their own side’s candidate. But here’s what’s scary: The participants weren’t just being stubborn. Westen found that areas of their brains that control reasoning and logic virtually shut down when confronted with a conflicting view of their preferred candidate.”

 

Rather than letting emotions rule the day, the proper approach is to stick to unbiased numbers like valuations, yields, fees, and volatility. If you continually make mistakes; you aren’t disciplined enough; or you don’t like investing; then find a trusted advisor who uses an objective financial approach.  Opportunistically taking advantage of volatility, instead of knee-jerk reactions is the preferred approach. For those people sitting on the sidelines and using selective memory, you may feel better now, but you will eventually have to get in the game, if you don’t want to lose the retirement account game.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), 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 the information to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

October 26, 2013 at 7:41 pm Leave a comment

Investing: Coin Flip or Skill?

The Sidoxia Monthly Newsletter will be released in a few days (subscribe on right side of the page), so here is an Investing Caffeine classic to tide you over until then:

Everyone believes they are above-average drivers and most investors believe successful investing can be attributed to skill. Michael Mauboussin, author and Chief Investment Strategist at Legg Mason Capital Management, tackles the issue of how important a role luck plays in various professional activities, including investing (read previous IC article on Mauboussin) in his meaty 42-page thought piece, Untangling Skill and Luck.

Skill Litmus Test

Whenever someone becomes successful or a sports team wins, doubters often respond with the response, “Well, they are just lucky.” For some, the intangible factor of luck can be difficult to measure, but for Mauboussin, he has a simple litmus test to evaluate the level of skill and luck credited to a professional activity:

“There’s a simple and elegant test of whether there is skill in an activity: ask whether you can lose on purpose.  If you can’t lose on purpose, or if it’s really hard, luck likely dominates that activity. If it’s easy to lose on purpose, skill is more important.”

 

Mauboussin uses various sports and games as tools to explain the relative importance that skill (or lack thereof) plays in determining an outcome. At one extreme end of the spectrum you have a brain game like chess, in which a skillful chess pro could beat an amateur 1,000 times in a 1,000 matches. In the field of professional sports, at the other end of the spectrum, Mauboussin hammers home the relative significance luck contributes in professional baseball:

“In major league baseball the worst team will beat the best team in a best-of-five series about 15 percent of the time.“

 

Here is a skill-luck continuum provided by Mauboussin:

Source: Legg Mason Capital Management

Streaks vs. Mean Reversion

Mr. Mauboussin spends a great deal of time exploring the implications of skill and luck in relation to streaks and mean reversion. In the streak department, Mauboussin uses Joe DiMaggio’s record 56-consecutive game hitting stretch. He acknowledges the presence of luck, but skill is a prerequisite:

“Not all skillful performers have streaks, but all long streaks of success are held by skillful performers.”

 

When detailing streaks, Mauboussin may also be defending his fellow Legg Mason colleague Bill Miller (see Revenge of the Dunce), who had an incredible 15 consecutive year of besting the S&P 500 index before mean reverting back to lousy human-like returns.

This is a nice transition into his discussion about mean reversion because Mauboussin basically states this reversion concept dominates activities laden with luck (as shown in the Skill-Luck Continuum chart above).  Time will tell whether Miller’s streak was due to skill, if he can put together another streak, or whether his streak was merely a lucky fluke. Unlike the judicial world, investment managers are often treated as guilty until proven innocent. For now, Miller’s 1991-2005 streak is being treated as luck by many in the investment community, rather than skill.

Nobel-prize winner Paul Samuelson may believe differently since he concedes the existence of skillful investing:

“It is not ordained in heaven, or by the second law of thermodynamics, that a small group of intelligent and informed investors cannot systematically achieve higher mean portfolio gains with lower average variabilities. People differ in their heights, pulchritude, and acidity. Why not their P.Q. or performance quotient?”

 

Peter Lynch’s +29% annual return from 1977-1990 is another streak on which historians can chew (read more on Lynch). I, like Samuelson, will give Lynch the benefit of the doubt.

Creating a Skillful Analytical Edge

Unlike the process of mowing lawns, in which more applied work time generally equates to more lawns cut (i.e., more profits), the investment world doesn’t quite work that way.  Many people could work all day, stare at their screen for 23 hours, trade off of useless information, and still earn lousy returns. When it comes to investing, more work does not necessarily produce better results. Mauboussin’s prescription is to create an analytical edge. Here is how he describes it:

“At the core of an analytical edge is an ability to systematically distinguish between fundamentals and expectations.”

 

Thinking like a handicapper is imperative to win in this competitive game, and I specifically addressed this in my previous Vegas-Wall Street article. Steven Crist sums up this indispensable concept beautifully:

“There are no “good” or “bad” horses, just correctly or incorrectly priced ones.”

 

A disciplined, systematic approach will incorporate these ideas, however all good investors understand the good processes can lead to bad outcomes in the short-run. By continually learning from mistakes, and refining the process with a constant feedback loop, the investment process can only get better. On the other hand, schizophrenically reacting to an endless flood of ever-changing information, or fearfully chasing the leadership du jour will only lead to pain and sorrow. Fortunately for you, you have skillfully completed this article, meaning financial luck should now be on your side.

Read full Mauboussin article (Untangling Skill and Luck) here

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in  any other security referenced in this article. Radio interviews included opinions of Wade Slome – not advice. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is the information to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

September 28, 2013 at 12:22 pm 3 comments

The Most Hated Bull Market Ever

Hate

Life has been challenging for the bears over the last four years. For the first few years of the recovery (2009-2010) when stocks vaulted +50%, supposedly we were still in a secular bear market. Back then the rally was merely dismissed as a dead-cat bounce or a short-term cyclical rally, within a longer-term secular bear market. Then, after an additional +50% move the commentary switched to, “Well, we’re just in a long-term trading range. The stock market hasn’t done a thing in a decade.” With major indexes now hitting all-time record highs, the pessimists are backpedaling in full gear. Watching the gargantuan returns has made it more difficult for the bears to rationalize a tripling +225% move in the S&P 600 index (Small-Cap); a +214% move in the S&P 400 index (Mid-Cap); and a +154% in the S&P 500 index (Large-Cap) from the 2009 lows.

For the unfortunate souls who bunkered themselves into cash for an extended period, the return-destroying carnage has been crippling. Making matters worse, some of these same individuals chased a frothy over-priced gold market, which has recently plunged -30% from the peak.

Bonds have generally been an OK place to be as Europe imploded and domestic political gridlock both helped push interest rates to record-lows (e.g., tough to go lower than 0% on the Fed-Funds rate). But now, those fears have subsided, and the recent rate spike from Ben Bernanke’s “taper tantrum” has caused bond bulls to reassess their portfolios (see Fed Fatigue). Staring at the greater than -90% underperformance of bonds, relative to stocks over the last four years, has been a bitter pill to swallow for fervent bond believers. The record -$9.9 billion outflow from Mr. New Normal’s (Bill Gross) Pimco Total Return Fund in June (a 26-year record) is proof of this anxiety. But rather than chase an unrelenting stock market rally, stock haters and skeptics remain stubborn, choosing to place their bond sale proceeds into their favorite inflation-depreciating asset…cash.

Crash Diet at the Buffet

I’ve seen and studied many markets in my career, but the behavioral reactions to this most-hated bull market in my lifetime have been fascinating to watch. In many respects this reminds me of an investing buffet, where those participating in the nourishing market are enjoying the spoils of healthy returns, while the skeptical observers on the sidelines are on a crash diet, selecting from a stingy menu of bread and water. Sure, there is some over-eating, heartburn, and food coma experienced by those at the stock market table, but one can only live on bread and water for so long. The fear of losses has caused many to lose their investing appetite, especially with news of sequestration, slowing China, Middle East turmoil, rising interest rates, etc. Nevertheless, investors must realize a successful financial future is much more like an eating marathon than an eating sprint. Too many retirees, or those approaching retirement, are not responsibly handling their savings. As legendary basketball player and coach John Wooden stated, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

20 Years…NOT 20 Days

I will be the first to admit the market is ripe for a correction. You don’t have to believe me, just take a look at the S&P 500 index over the last four years. Despite the explosion to record-high stock prices, investors have had to endure two corrections averaging -20% and two other drops approximating -10%. Hindsight is 20-20, but at each of those fall-off periods, there were plenty of credible arguments being made on why we should go much lower. That didn’t happen – it actually was the opposite outcome.

For the vast majority of investing Americans, your investing time horizon should be closer to 20 years…not 20 days. People that understand this reality realize they are not smart enough to consistently outwit the market (see Market Timing Treadmill). If you were that successful at this endeavor, you would be sitting on your private, personal island with a coconut, umbrella drink.

Successful long-term investors like Warren Buffett recognize investors should “buy fear, and sell greed.” So while this most hated bull market remains fully in place, I will follow Buffett’s advice comfortably sit at the stock market buffet, enjoying the superior long-term returns put on my plate. Crash dieters are welcome to join the buffet, but by the time they finally sit down at the stock market table, I will probably have left to the restroom.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), including IJR, and IJH, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in BRKA/B, Pimco Total Return Fund, 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.

July 27, 2013 at 12:34 am 4 comments

Information Choking Your Money & Mood to Misery

Source: Photobucket

Source: Photobucket

On a daily basis, I make my way I into the office before the market opening bell, preparing myself to gorge on a massive heaping of news stories and headlines. But scarfing down tons of tweets and hundreds of headlines is not enough. Magazines, newspapers, conference calls, blogs, presentations, conferences, interviews, television clips, and software lists are but just a few additional aspects to my steady diet of information. Like shopping down each and every aisle of the grocery store, an annoying tendency I admittedly commit, there are plenty of healthy and unhealthy items to choose from. The key is identifying the items that are the best for your financial health. After carrying out this gluttonous information-stuffing business for more than twenty years, I’ve gotten much better at separating the data wheat from information chaff. This is critical in avoiding heartburn for my Sidoxia clients and me.

One might ask, “What harmless headline or innocent anecdote could possibly cause harmful financial indigestion?” I don’t know about you, but in recent months, gobbling down these following headlines without discretion can lead to a serious case of acid reflux:

  • “Stocks Tumble as Bernanke Discusses Tapering” USA Today
  • “China’s Economy is Freezing Up. How Freaked Out Should We Be?” Washington Post 
  • ” ‘Suffocating in the Streets’: Chemical Weapons Attack Reported in Syria” NBC News
  • “Europe’s Zombie Banks – Blight of the Living Dead” The Economist
  • “Threats from Extremists as Egypt Slides into Turmoil” The Times
  • “Japan Market Plunge Sparks Global Sell-Off” Los Angeles Times

I think you get the idea. No wonder investors collectively are acting like a deer in headlights, resulting in declining stock market participation – a 15-year low (see Investing Caffeine’s DMV Economy)

In the world of competitive eating, the execution of improper consumption technique can lead to a so-called “reversal of fortune,” as can be experienced by the last video on my Investing Caffeine article, Baseball and Hot Dogs. Disciplined processes are needed to prevent such an event when devouring excessive amounts of information. This is a timely topic as Joey Chestnut recently set a new world record by eating 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes.

While digesting the avalanche of daily data is quite complex, understanding the harmful consequences of doing so is quite simple. Carl Richards, a contributor writer to the The New York Times and Morningstar Advisor does a great job of outlining the detrimental impact of information consumption on investors’ wealth and happiness through minimalist charts found at BehaviorGap.com.

Here is my co-mingled version of Richards’ work:

Data Consumption vs Happiness

As Mark Twain said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”  It’s perfectly fine to remain current with major economic, political, and worldly events, but the consequences to overreacting to the ever-changing news flow can be disastrous to your financial and personal well-being.  Managing your life savings can be stressful and if not managed correctly will damage your financial goals.

If you do not have the time, interest, or self-control to digest the massive buffet of endless information, do yourself a favor and find an experienced and trusted advisor that can assist you with the Heimlich maneuver, so you don’t choke on the infinite amount of data.

See also (Investing Caffeine: Age of Information Overload)

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) and CMCSA, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in GCI, WPO, NYT, MORN 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.

July 13, 2013 at 7:21 pm Leave a comment

What’s Going on with This Crazy Market?!

The massive rally of the stock market since March 2009 has been perplexing for many, but the state of confusion has reached new heights as the stock market has surged another +2.0% in May, surpassing the Dow 15,000 index milestone and hovering near all-time record highs. Over the last few weeks, the volume of questions and tone of disbelief emanating from my social circles has become deafening. Here are some of the questions and comments I’ve received lately:

 “Wade, why in the heck is the market up so much?”; “This market makes absolutely no sense!”; “Why should I buy at the peak when I can buy at the bottom?”; “With all this bad news, when is the stock market going to go down?”; “You must be shorting (betting against) this market, right?”

With the stock market up about +14% in 2013, as measured by the S&P 500 index (on top of another +13% increase in 2012), absent bystandershave frustratingly watched stock prices rise about +150% from the 2009 lows. Those investors who appropriately controlled risk in their diversified portfolios and did not panic in 2008-2009, have been handsomely rewarded for their patience. Those individuals who have had their money stuffed under the mattress in savings accounts, money markets, CDs, and low-yielding bonds have continued to watch inflation eat away their wealth. If the investing bystanders make no changes to their portfolios, inflationary and interest risks could outweigh the unlikely potential of Armageddon. Overly nervous investors will have to wait generations for the paltry 0.2% bank rates to equalize the equity market returns earned thus far.

For years I have been listening to the skeptics calling for a purported artificially-inflated stock market to crash. When prices continued to more than double over the last few years, the doubters blamed Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve as the instigators. The bears continue to point fingers at the Federal Reserve for spiking the financial punch bowl with unnaturally low interest rates (through Quantitative Easing bond purchases), thereby laying the foundation for a looming, inevitable market crash. So far, the boogeyman is still hiding.

If all the concerns about the Benghazi tragedy, IRS conservative targeting, and Federal Reserve bond “tapering” are warranted, then it begs the question, “How can the Dow Jones and other indexes be setting new all-time highs?” In short, here are a few reasons:

I.) Record Profits:
Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

 

You hear a lot of noise on TV and read a lot of blathering in newspapers/blogs, but what you don’t hear much about is how corporate profits have about tripled since the year 2000 (see red line in chart above), and how the profit recovery from the recent recession has been the strongest in 55 years (Scott Grannis). The profit collapse during the Great Recession was closely chronicled in nail-biting detail, but a boring profit recovery story sells a lot less media advertising, and therefore gets swept under the rug.

II.) Reasonable Prices (Comparing Apples & Oranges):

Historical PE Ratios

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

The Price-Earnings ratio (P/E) is a general barometer of stock price levels, and as you can see from the chart above (Ed Yardeni), current stock price levels are near the historical average of 13.7x – not at frothy levels experienced during the late-1990s and early 2000s.

Comparing Apples & Oranges:

Apples vs Oranges

At the most basic level of analysis, investors are like farmers who choose between apples (stocks) and oranges (bonds). On the investment farm, growers are generally going to pick the fruit that generates the largest harvest and provide the best return. Stocks (apples) have historically offered the best prices and yielded the best harvests over longer periods of time, but unfortunately stocks (apples) also have wild swings in annual production compared to the historically steady crop of bonds (oranges). The disastrous apple crop of 2008-2009 led a massive group of farmers to flood into buying a stable supply of oranges (bonds). Unfortunately the price of growing oranges (i.e., buying bonds) has grown to the highest levels in a generation, with crop yields (interest rates) also at a generational low. Even though I strongly believe apples (stocks) currently offer a better long-term profit potential, I continue to remind every farmer (investor) that their own personal situation is unique, and therefore they should not be overly concentrated in either apples (stocks) or oranges (bonds).

Earnings Yield vs Bond Yields

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Regardless, you can see from the chart above (Dr. Ed’s Blog), the red line (stocks) is yielding substantially more than the blue line (bonds) – around 7% vs. 2%. The key for every investor is to discover an optimal balance of apples (stocks) and oranges (bonds) that meets personal objectives and constraints.

III.) Skepticism (Market Climbs a Wall of Worry):

Stock Fund Flows

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Although corporate profits are strong, and equity prices are reasonably priced, investors have been withdrawing hundreds of billions of dollars from equity funds (negative blue lines in chart above - Calafia Beach Pundit). While the panic of 2008-2009 has been extinguished from average investors’ psyches, the Recession in Europe, slowing growth in China, Washington gridlock, and the fresh memories of the U.S. financial crisis have created a palpable, nervous skepticism. Most recently, investors were bombarded with the mantra of “Selling in May, and Going Away” – so far that advice hasn’t worked so well. To buttress my point about this underlying skepticism, one need not look any further than a recent CNBC segment titled, “The Most Confusing Market Ever” (see video below):

CNBC Most Confusing Market Ever?

Source: CNBC

CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO

It’s clear that investors remain skittish, but as legendary investor Sir John Templeton so aptly stated, “Bull markets are born on pessimism, grow on skepticism, mature on optimism and die on euphoria.” The sentiment pendulum has been swinging in the right direction (see previous Investing Caffeine article), but when money flows sustainably into equities and optimism/euphoria rules the day, then I will become much more fearful.

Being a successful investor or a farmer is a tough job. I’ll stop growing apples when my overly optimistic customers beg for more apples, and yields on oranges also improve. In the meantime, investors need to remember that no matter how confusing the market is, don’t put all your oranges (bonds) or apples (stocks) in one basket (portfolio) because the financial markets do not need to get any crazier than they are already.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), 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.

June 3, 2013 at 10:51 am Leave a comment

Fence-Sitting: The Elusive Art of More Data and Pullbacks

Fence Sitting Cowboys

The world of financial markets is full of fence-sitters, especially in the professional realm. Why? Well, for starters, fence-sitting provides the luxury of never being wrong. If fence-squatting observers do nothing and provide no opinions, then they cannot by definition be wrong or mistaken. Why should a professional put their neck out for an economic, sector, or investment specific forecast, if there is a potential of looking stupid or losing a job?

For many, the consequences of possibly being wrong feel so horrendous that participants choose instead to sit on the non-committal fence. In most cases, the fence posts on any financial issue or investment align along the comfort of consensus thinking. Unfortunately, consensus thinking has a limited shelf life, because the views held by the majority are constantly changing. Repeatedly modifying personal opinions to match consensus views may prevent the bruising of egos, however, this naïve strategy can be destructive to long-term returns. Here are a few examples:

2000

Consensus ViewNew Normal tech stocks will continue explosive growth; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.                                                                         

2006

Consensus View: Home prices will rise forever and leverage is beautiful; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.

2010

Consensus View: Greece and European collapse to cause a double-dip global recession; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.

2011 

Consensus View: U.S. credit downgrade will be bad for Treasuries and rates; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.

2012

Consensus View: Uncertainty surrounding election bad for equities; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.

2012

Consensus View: China’s slowing growth and real estate bubble expected to cause a global double-dip recession; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.

2012

Consensus View: Impending fiscal cliff bad for equities; Consensus Outcome: Wrong; Investor Net Result: Losses and/or Lost Profits.

2013 

Consensus View: Debt ceiling debate bad for equities; Consensus Outcome: ???; Investor Net Result: ???.

2013

Consensus View: Looming sequestration bad for equities; Consensus Outcome: ???; Investor Net Result: ???.

In recent years the market has continued to climb a wall of worry, but will this year be different? We shall soon see.

Placing the concern du jour aside, if consensus fears coalesce around a specific upcoming event, chances are that particular issue is already factored into existing expectations and price structures. Therefore, rather than wasting personal “worry” bandwidth on those fears, investor anxiety should be dedicated to less prevalent but potentially more impactful unknown concerns. Or if you need clarification about the unknowns to worry about, perhaps Donald Rumsfeld can clarify the situation by highlighting the risk of “unknown unknowns”:

I Love Data and Pullbacks!

When faced with apprehension or uncertainty, many fence-sitting investors revert to wanting more data or waiting for a better price. For example, I often hear, “I love stock XYZ, but I want to wait for the earnings to come out,” or analyst day, or share buyback announcement, or merger closing, or restructuring, etc., etc., etc. For strategists and economists, they are famished for the next critically irrelevant weekly jobless claims number, Federal Reserve policy minutes, ISM monthly manufacturing data, or latest consumer confidence figure.

More data for fence sitters is not sufficient. I often listen to stock-pickers say, “I love XYZ stock, but not at the current $52.50 price, but I’ll back up the truck at $51.50!” Okay, so you’re telling me that you think the stock is worth +40% more, but you want to litigate the purchase price over $1?!

Sadly, there is a cost for all this fence-sitting: a) if good news comes out, investment prices catapult higher and the investor is stuck with a pricier investment; b) if bad news comes out, that long-awaited price pullback is usually not acted upon because fundamentals have now deteriorated; or c) in many cases the price grinds higher before the long-awaited jewel of information is disseminated. The net result is further fence-sitting paralysis, which paradoxically is not helped by more information or a price pullback.

The other reason fence-sitters say or do nothing is because articulating a gloomy thesis simply sounds smarter. For instance, saying “The reason I’m on the sidelines is because we are in a secular bear market due to the debasement of our currency as a result of inflationary Fed monetary policies,” sounds smarter and more compelling than “Stocks are cheap and are already factoring in a lot of negativity.”

Investing is an unbelievably challenging endeavor, but for those fence-sitters with an insatiable appetite for more data and elusive pullbacks, I humbly point out, there is an infinite amount of information that regenerates itself daily. In addition, there is nothing wrong with having a disciplined valuation process in place, but if your best investment ideas are predicated on a minor pullback, then enjoy watching your returns wither away…as you sit on your cozy fence.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any 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 11, 2013 at 10:31 pm 1 comment

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