Posts filed under ‘Profiles’
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 the 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.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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.
Those readers who have frequented my Investing Caffeine site are familiar with the numerous profiles on professional investors of both current and prior periods (See Profiles). Many of the individuals described have a tremendous track record of success, while others have a tremendous ability of making outrageous forecasts. I have covered both. Regardless, much can be learned from the successes and failures by mirroring the behavior of the greats – like modeling your golf swing after Tiger Woods (O.K., since Tiger is out of favor right now, let’s say Jordan Spieth). My investment swing borrows techniques and tips from many great investors, but Peter Lynch (ex-Fidelity fund manager), probably more than any icon, has had the most influence on my investing philosophy and career as any investor. His breadth of knowledge and versatility across styles has allowed him to compile a record that few, if any, could match – outside perhaps the great Warren Buffett.
Consider that Lynch’s Magellan fund averaged +29% per year from 1977 – 1990 (almost doubling the return of the S&P 500 index for that period). In 1977, the obscure Magellan Fund started with about $20 million, and by his retirement the fund grew to approximately $14 billion (700x’s larger). Cynics believed that Magellan was too big to adequately perform at $1, $2, $3, $5 and then $10 billion, but Lynch ultimately silenced the critics. Despite the fund’s gargantuan size, over the final five years of Lynch’s tenure, Magellan outperformed 99.5% of all other funds, according to Barron’s. How did Magellan investors fare in the period under Lynch’s watch? A $10,000 investment initiated when he took the helm would have grown to roughly $280,000 (+2,700%) by the day he retired. Not too shabby.
Lynch graduated from Boston College in 1965 and earned a Master of Business Administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. Like the previously mentioned Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch shared his knowledge with the investing masses through his writings, including his two seminal books One Up on Wall Street and Beating the Street. Subsequently, Lynch authored Learn to Earn, a book targeted at younger, novice investors. Regardless, the ideas and lessons from his writings, including contributing author to Worth magazine, are still transferable to investors across a broad spectrum of skill levels, even today.
The Lessons of Lynch
Although Lynch has left me with enough financially rich content to write a full-blown textbook, I will limit the meat of this article to lessons and quotations coming directly from the horse’s mouth. Here is a selective list of gems Lynch has shared with investors over the years:
Buy within Your Comfort Zone: Lynch simply urges investors to “Buy what you know.” In similar fashion to Warren Buffett, who stuck to investing in stocks within his “circle of competence,” Lynch focused on investments he understood or on industries he felt he had an edge over others. Perhaps if investors would have heeded this advice, the leveraged, toxic derivative debacle occurring over previous years could have been avoided.
Do Your Homework: Building the conviction to ride through equity market volatility requires rigorous homework. Lynch adds, “A company does not tell you to buy it, there is always something to worry about. There are always respected investors that say you are wrong. You have to know the story better than they do, and have faith in what you know.”
Price Follows Earnings: Investing is often unnecessarily made complicated. Lynch fundamentally believes stock prices will follow the long-term trajectory of earnings growth. He makes the point that “People may bet on hourly wiggles of the market, but it’s the earnings that waggle the wiggle long term.” In a publicly attended group meeting, Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Inc. (DELL), asked Peter Lynch about the direction of Dell’s future stock price. Lynch’s answer: “If your earnings are higher in 5 years, your stock will be higher.” Maybe Dell’s price decline over the last five years can be attributed to its earnings decline over the same period? It’s no surprise that Hewlett-Packard’s dramatic stock price outperformance (relative to DELL) has something to do with the more than doubling of HP’s earnings over the same time frame.
Valuation & Price Declines: “People Concentrate too much on the P (Price), but the E (Earnings) really makes the difference.” In a nutshell, Lynch believes valuation metrics play an important role, but long-term earnings growth will have a larger impact on future stock price appreciation.
Two Key Stock Questions: 1) “Is the stock still attractively priced relative to earnings?” and 2) “What is happening in the company to make the earnings go up?” Improving fundamentals at an attractive price are key components to Lynch’s investing strategy.
Lynch on Buffett: Lynch was given an opportunity to write the foreword in Buffett’s biography, The Warren Buffett Way. Lynch did not believe in “pulling out flowers and watering the weeds,” or in other words, selling winners and buying losers. In highlighting this weed-flower concept, Lynch said this about Buffett: “He purchased over $1 billion of Coca-Cola in 1988 and 1989 after the stock had risen over fivefold the prior six years and over five-hundredfold the previous sixty years. He made four times his money in three years and plans to make a lot more the next five, ten, and twenty years with Coke.” Hammering home the idea that a few good stocks a decade can make an investment career, Lynch had this to say about Buffett: “Warren states that twelve investments decisions in his forty year career have made all the difference.”
You Don’t Need Perfect Batting Average: In order to significantly outperform the market, investors need not generate near perfect results. According to Lynch, “If you’re terrific in this business, you’re right six times out of 10 – I’ve had stocks go from $11 to 7 cents (American Intl Airways).” Here is one recipe Lynch shares with others on how to beat the market: “All you have to do really is find the best hundred stocks in the S&P 500 and find another few hundred outside the S&P 500 to beat the market.”
The Critical Element of Patience: With the explosion of information, expansion of the internet age, and the reduction of trading costs has come the itchy trading finger. This hasty investment principle runs contrary to Lynch’s core beliefs. Here’s what he had to say regarding the importance of a steady investment hand:
- “In my investing career, the best gains usually have come in the third or fourth year, not in the third or fourth week or the third or fourth month.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “The key to making money in stocks is not to get scared out of them.”
Bear Market Beliefs: “I’m always more depressed by an overpriced market in which many stocks are hitting new highs every day than by a beaten-down market in a recession,” says Lynch. The media responds in exactly the opposite manner – bear markets lead to an inundation of headlines driven by panic-based fear. Lynch shares a similar sentiment to Warren Buffett when it comes to the media holding a glass half full view in bear markets.
Market Worries: Is worrying about market concerns worth the stress? Not according to Lynch. His belief: “I’ve always said if you spend 13 minutes a year on economics, you’ve wasted 10 minutes.” Just this last March, Lynch used history to drive home his views: “We’ve had 11 recessions since World War II and we’ve had a perfect score — 11 recoveries. There are a lot of natural cushions in the economy now that weren’t there in the 1930s. They keep things from getting out of control. We have the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation [which insures bank deposits]. We have social security. We have pensions. We have two-person, working families. We have unemployment payments. And we have a Federal Reserve with a brain.”
Thoughts on Cyclicals: Lynch divided his portfolio into several buckets, and cyclical stocks occupied one of the buckets. “Cyclicals are like blackjack: stay in the game too long and it’s bound to take all your profit,” Lynch emphasized.
Selling Discipline: The rationale behind Lynch’s selling discipline is straightforward – here are some of his thoughts on the subject:
- “When the fundamentals change, sell your mistakes.”
- “Write down why you own a stock and sell it if the reason isn’t true anymore.”
- “Sell a stock because the company’s fundamentals deteriorate, not because the sky is falling.”
Distilling the genius of an investing legend like Peter Lynch down to a single article is not only a grueling challenge, but it also cannot bring complete justice to the vast accomplishments of this incredible investment legend. Nonetheless, his record should be meticulously studied in hopes of adding jewels of investment knowledge to the repertoires of all investors. If delving into the head of this investing mastermind can provide access to even a fraction of his vast knowledge pool, then we can all benefit by adding a slice of this greatness to our investment portfolios.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, including KO, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in DELL, HPQ or any other security mentioned. 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.
Since it’s Father’s Day weekend, it seems appropriate to write about about the “Father of Growth Investing”…Phil Fisher.
It was English physicist, astronomer, philosopher, and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton who in 1675 stated, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Investors too can stand on the shoulders of market giants by studying the timeless financial knowledge from current and past market legends. The press, all too often, focuses on the hot managers of our time while forgetting or kicking to the curb those managers whom are temporarily out of favor. Famous and enduring value managers typically have gained the press spotlight, rightfully so in the case of current greats like Warren Buffett or past talents like Benjamin Graham, because they managed to prosper through numerous economic cycles. However, when it comes to growth legends like Phil Fisher, author of the must-read classic Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, many people I bump into have never heard of him. Hopefully that will change over time.
Born on September 8, 1907, Mr. Fisher lived until the ripe age of 96 when he passed on March 4, 2004. Fisher was no dummy – he enrolled in college at age 15 and started graduate school at Stanford a few years later, before he dropped out and started his own investment firm in 1931. His son, Ken, currently heads his own investment firm, Fisher Investments, writes for Forbes magazine, and has authored multiple investment books. Unlike his dad, Ken has more of a natural bent towards value stocks.
Phil Fisher’s iconic book, Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, was published in 1958. Mr. Fisher believed in many things and perhaps would have been thrown under the bus today for his long-term convictions in “buy-and-hold.” Or as Mr. Fisher put it, “If the job has been correctly done when a common stock is purchased, the time to sell it is – almost never.” Not every investment idea made the cut, however he is known to have bought Motorola (MOT) stock in 1955 and held it until his death in 2004 for a massive gain. Generally, he gave initial stock purchases a three-year leash before considering a change to his investment position. If the conviction to purchase a stock for such duration is not present, then the investment opportunity should be ignored.
Fisher’s concentration on growth stocks also shaped his view on dividends. Dividends were not important to Fisher – he was more focused on how the company is investing retained earnings to achieve its earnings growth. Like Fisher, Peter Lynch is another growth hero of mine that also felt there is too much focus on the Price/Earnings (PE) ratio rather than the long-term earnings potential.
Another classic trademark of Fisher’s investing style was his commitment to fundamental research. He was focused on accumulating data covering a broad range of areas including, customers, suppliers, and competitors. Fisher also emphasized factors like market share, return on invested capital, margins, and the research & development budget. What Mr. Fisher called his varied approach to gathering diverse sets of information was “scuttlebutt.”
Buying & Selling Points
Although Fisher believed firmly in buy and hold, he was not scared to sell when the firm no longer met the original buying criteria or his original assessment for purchased was deemed incorrect.
When buying, Fisher preferred to buy stocks in downturns or temporary problems – contrary to your typical momentum growth manager today (read article on momentum). Fisher has this to say on the topic: “This matter of training oneself to not go with the crowd but to be able to zig when the crowd zags, in my opinion, is one of the most important fundamentals of the investment success.”
Learning from Mistakes
Like all great investors I have studied, Phil Fisher also believed in learning from your mistakes:
“I have always believed that the chief difference between a fool and a wise man is that the wise man learns from his mistakes, while the fool never does.”
He expanded on the topic by saying the following:
“Making mistakes is inherent cost of investing just like bad loans are for the finest lending institutions. Don’t blindly accept dominant opinion and don’t be contrary for the sake of being contrary.”
I could only dream of having a fraction of Mr. Fisher’s career success – he retired in 1999 at the age of 91 (not bad timing). As my investment management and financial planning firm matures (Sidoxia Capital Management, LLC), I will continue to study the legendary giants of investing (past and present) to sharpen my investing skills.
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 MSI, BRKA/B, 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 ICContact page.
I recently caught up with 50-year investment veteran Bill Kort to answer his questions regarding the media’s impact on the financial industry. After working for Kidder Peabody, A.G. Edwards, Wachovia, and Wells Fargo, Bill called it quits and decided to retire. Besides enjoying retirement with his wife, children, and grandchildren, Bill now also devotes considerable time to his blog Kort Sessions (www.KortSessions.com).
In a recent interview published on his Kort Sessions blog (KS), here’s what we discussed:
KS: Today, when you recommend a client take on, or increase equity exposure, what are the most common push-backs that you get? Have these changed in the past few years? If so, could you explain.
Wade Slome: “Given the events that have transpired over the last 15 years, I expect to receive a healthy dosage of pushback. Many investors have naturally been scarred from the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis, so convincing certain people that the 100-year flood will not occur every 100 days can be challenging. Regardless of the skepticism I receive, I feel it’s my duty to provide the best possible advice I can to existing clients and prospective clients. I can lead a horse to water, but I believe it’s not my job to force clients into a single investment option. At Sidoxia, we customize investment plans that meet clients’ risk tolerances, time horizons, and overall objectives.
With regard to sentiment changes in recent years, it is true that the tripling in equity market values since early 2009 has changed investor moods. Risk appetites have definitely increased. Nevertheless, cynicism is still rampant. Surveys done by Gallup show that stock ownership is near 15-year lows and despite stocks at or near record highs, ICI fund flow data shows money fleeing U.S. stock funds in 2014. With generational low interest rates, I see many long-term investors being too imprudently conservative. However, on the other hand, my responsibility is to also prevent other clients from taking on too much risk, especially if they have shorter investment time horizons or have limited funds in retirement.”
KS: When you speak with clients today, what are prominent worries do they have about their investments: The general level of the market, valuation, the economic backdrop, U.S. political issues or geopolitical concerns (all of the above)? Could you rank or tell me which concerns seem to be paramount.
Wade Slome: “In this 24-hour news cycle society we live in, an avalanche of real-time data gets crammed down our throats daily through our smartphones and Twitter-Facebook pages. As a result, the overwhelming barrage of news gets disseminated instantaneously, which in turn spreads fear like wildfire by word of mouth. In this type of environment it comes as no surprise to me that the general public is on edge. Every molehill is made into a mountain by media outlets for a simple reason…fear sells! Before the internet 20 years ago, virtually no one could find the location of Cyprus, Syria, Ukraine, or Gaza on a map – now we have Google and Wikipedia to show us or the Twitter feed scrolling at the bottom of our television sets reminds us. As far as concerns go, it’s tough to rank which ones are paramount. One day it’s the elections or Iran, and then the other day it’s the stock market crashing or the Ebola virus. Eventually the emotional pendulum will swing from fear and pessimism to optimism and euphoria, it always does. Like a lot of different professions, one of best strengths to have as an investment manager is the experience in knowing what noise to filter out and the ability to identify the relevant factors that drive outperformance.”
KS: Could you share the short-form responses that you might give to your clients when addressing the aforementioned issues.
Wade Slome: “The best advice I can give investors is to ignore the headlines. This principle is just as true today as it was a century or two ago. Mark Twain famously said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” This is obviously presented a little tongue-in-cheek, but the main point being is headlines should not drive your investment decisions. It’s perfectly fine to be informed about the economy and politics, but people must realize the stock market often moves independently and in contrarian directions to prevailing media stories. Rather than emotionally react to news flow, it is much more important to create an objective, long-term investment plan that takes advantage of market noise, hype, and volatility.”
KS: Finally, this is a little bit of a leading question that I hope you might run with. Do you find any useful purpose being served by the financial, general or political media that might aid an individual’s investment process?
Wade Slome: “In my view of the financial markets, there are a few underlying principles that drive stock prices over the long-term, and they include such basic factors as earnings, valuations, interest rates, and market psychology. What I would objectively try to argue is that the financial, general, or political media have little to no impact on the first three factors and only modest influence on the last one (market psychology). Part of the reason I have been so constructive on the markets on my Investing Caffeine blog over the last five years is because all these factors have generally pointed in the right direction. I will become nervous when earnings decline, valuations get stretched, interest rates spike, and/or psychology turns euphoric. Right now, I don’t think we are seeing any of that occurring.
With that said, I do believe there are exceptions to the rule that the “media is evil.” If you have the time, interest, and patience to stagger through the endless desert of financial media, you can find a few rare flowers. Although I do consume mass amounts of media, 99% of it ends up in the trash or ignored. I do my best to reserve my media consumption to those successful investors who have lived through multiple market cycles and have a winning track record to back it up. It is possible to find sage investment bloggers; Warren Buffett interviews on CNBC; or newspaper interviews of thriving venture capitalists, if you properly dine on a healthy media diet. Unfortunately there is a lot of junk food financial content out in media land. What should generally be avoided at all costs are rants from economists, journalists, analysts, commentators, and talking heads. No matter how eloquent or articulate they may sound, the vast majority of the people you see on television have not invested a professional dime in their careers, so all you are getting from them are worthless, vacillating opinions. I choose to stick to commentary from the tried and true investment veterans.”
Bill, thanks again for the thoughtful interview questions, and continued success with your Kort Sessions blog!
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own GOOG/GOOGL, and a range of positions in certain exchange traded fund positions, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in TWTR, FB, WFC, 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.
If something sounds like BS, looks like BS, and smells like BS, there’s a good chance you’re probably eyeball-deep in BS. In the investment world, I encounter a lot of very intelligent analysis, but at the same time I also continually step into piles of investment BS. One of those piles of BS I repeatedly step into is the CAPE ratio (Cyclically Adjusted Price-to-Earnings) created by Robert Shiller. For those who are not familiar with Shiller, he is a Nobel Prize winner in economics who won the award in 2013 for his work on the “empirical analysis of asset prices.” Shiller vaulted into fame in large part due to the timing of his book, Irrational Exuberance, which was published during the 2000 technology market peak. He gained additional street-credibility in the mid-2000s when he spoke about the bubble developing in the real estate markets.
What is the CAPE?
Besides being a scapegoat for every bear that has missed the tripling of stock prices in the last five years, the CAPE effectively is a simple 10-year average of the P/E ratio for the S&P 500 index. The logic is simple, like many theories in finance and economics, there often are inherent mean-reverting principles that are accepted as rules-of-thumb. It follows that if the current 10-year CAPE is above the 134-year CAPE average, then stocks are expensive and you should avoid them. On the other hand, if the current CAPE were below the long-term CAPE average, then stocks are cheap and you should buy. Here is a chart of the Shiller CAPE:
As you can see from the chart above, the current CAPE ratio of 26x is well above the 134-year average of 16x, which according to CAPE disciples makes the stock market very expensive. Or as a recent Business Insider article stated, the Shiller CAPE is “higher than at any point in the 20th century with the exception of the peaks of 1929 and 2000 – you know what happened after those.”
Problems Behind the Broken CAPE Tool
There are many problems with Shiller’s CAPE analysis, but let’s start with the basics by first asking, how useful has this tool actually been over the last, 10, 20, or 30 years? The short answer…not very. For example, if investors followed the implicit recommendation of the CAPE for the periods when Shiller’s model showed stocks as expensive (see above chart 1990 – 2014), they would have missed a more than quintupling (+469% ex-dividends) in the S&P 500 index. Over a shorter timeframe (2009 – 2014) the S&P 500 is up +114% ex-dividends (+190% since March 2009).
Even if you purchased at the worst time at the peak of the stock market in 2000 when the CAPE was 44 (S&P 500 – 1553), an investor would still have earned a total return of about +45% from 2000 – 2014, despite the CAPE still being 63% higher (more expensive) than the 134-year CAPE average of 16.
Peaches for $.25 Post-Bubble?
To illustrate a point, let’s assume you are a peach lover and due to a bubble in peach demand, prices spiked to an elevated level of $2.60 per pound for 9 years, but in year 10 the price plummeted to $.25 per pound today (see chart below). Assuming the 134-year average for peach prices was $1.60 per pound, would you still want to purchase your beloved peaches for the fire sale price of $.25 per pound? Common sense tells you $.25/lb. is a bargain, but if you asked the same question to Robert Shiller, he would say absolutely “NO”! The 10-year Peach CAPE ratio would be $2.37 ([9 yrs X $2.60] + [1 yr X $.25]) #1, but since the 10-year CAPE is greater than the LT-Average peach price of $1.60 per pound #2, Shiller would say peaches are too expensive, even though you could go to Kroger (KR) and buy a pound of peaches today for $0.25 #3.
This complete neglect of current market prices in the calculation of CAPE makes absolutely no sense, but this same dynamic of ignoring current pricing reality is happening today in the stock market. Effectively what’s occurring is the higher P/E ratios experienced over the last 10 years are distorting the Shiller CAPE ratio, thereby masking the true current value of stocks. In other words the current CAPE of 26x vastly exaggerates the pricey-ness of the actual S&P 500 P/E ratio of 16x for 2014 and 14x for 2015.
There are plenty of other holes to poke into CAPE, but the last major component of Shiller’s ratio I want to address is interest rates. Even if you disregard my previous negative arguments against Shiller’s CAPE, should anyone be surprised that the ratio troughed in the early 1980s of 7x when long-term interest rates peaked. If I could earn 18% on a CD with little risk in 1981, not many people should be dumbfounded that demand for risky stocks was paltry. Today, the reverse environment is in place – interest rates are near record lows. It should therefore come as no surprise, that all else equal, a higher P/E (and CAPE) is deserved when interest rates are this low. Nevertheless, this discussion of P/E and CAPE rarely integrates the critical factor of interest rates.
While I have spent a decent amount of time trashing the CAPE-BS ratio, I want to give my pal Bob Shiller a fair shake. I can do this by looking into a mirror and admitting there are periods when the CAPE ratio can actually work. Although the CAPE is effectively useless during long, multi-year upward and downward trending markets (think bubbles & depressions), the CAPE makes perfect sense in sideway, trendless markets (see chart below).
The investing public is always looking for a Holy Grail financial indicator that will magically guide them to riches in both up and down markets. Despite the popularity of Shiller’s CAPE ratio, regrettably no one perfect indicator exists. So before you jump on the bandwagon and chase the hot indicator du jour, make sure to look down and make sure you haven’t stepped in any Shiller CAPE-BS.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in KR, 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.
I know what you’re saying, “Please, not another article on Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys book and high frequency trading (HFT),” but I can’t resist putting in my two cents after the well-known author emphatically proclaimed the stock market as “rigged.” Lewis is not alone with his outrageous claims… Clark Stanley (“The Rattlesnake King”) made equally outlandish claims in the early 1900s when he sold lucrative Snake Oil Liniment to heal the ailments of the masses. Ultimately Stanley’s assets were seized by the government and the healing assertions of his snake oil were proven fraudulent. Like Stanley, Lewis’s over-the-top comments about HFT traders are now being scrutinized under a microscope by more thoughtful critics than Steve Kroft from 60 Minutes (see television profile). For a more detailed counterpoint, see the Reuters interview with Manoj Narang (Tradeworx) and Haim Bodek (Decimus Capital Markets).
While Lewis may not be selling snake oil, the cash register is still ringing with book sales until the real truth is disseminated. In the meantime, Lewis continues to laugh to the bank as he makes misleading and deceptive claims, just like his snake oil selling predecessors.
The Inside Perspective
Regardless of what side of the fence you fall on, the debate created by Lewis’s book has created deafening controversy. Joining the jihad against HFT is industry veteran Charles Schwab, who distributed a press release calling HFT a “growing cancer” and stating the following:
“High-frequency trading has run amok and is corrupting our capital market system by creating an unleveled playing field for individual investors and driving the wrong incentives for our commodity and equities exchanges.”
What Charles Schwab doesn’t admit is that their firm is receiving about $100 million in annual revenues to direct Schwab client orders to the same HFT traders at exchanges in so called “payment-for-order-flow” contracts. Another term to describe this practice would be “kick-backs”.
While Michael Lewis screams bloody murder over investors getting fraudulently skimmed, some other industry legends, including the godfather of index funds, Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, argue that Lewis’s views are too extreme. Bogle reasons, “Main Street is the great beneficiary…We are better off with high-frequency trading than we are without it.”
Like Jack Bogle, other investors who should be pointing the finger at HFT traders are instead patting them on the back. Cliff Asness, managing and founding principal of AQR Capital Management, an institutional investment firm managing about $100 billion in assets, had this to say about HFT in his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed:
“How do we feel about high-frequency trading? We think it helps us. It seems to have reduced our costs and may enable us to manage more investment dollars… on the whole high-frequency traders have lowered costs.”
Is HFT Good for Main Street?
Many investors today have already forgotten, or were too young to remember, that stocks used to be priced in fractions before technology narrowed spreads to decimal points in the 1990s. Who has benefited from all this technology? You guessed it…everyone.
Lewis makes the case that the case that all investors are negatively impacted by HFT, including Main Street (individual) investors. Asness maintains costs have been significantly lowered for individual investors:
“For the first time in history, Main Street might have it rigged against Wall Street.”
In Flash Boys, Lewis claims HFT traders unscrupulously scalp pennies per share from retail investor pockets by using privileged information to jump in front of ordinary investors (“front-run”). The reality, even if you believe Lewis’s contentions are true, is that technology has turned any perceived detrimental penny-sized skimming scheme into beneficial bucks for ordinary investors. For example, trades that used to cost $40, $50, $100, or more per transaction at the large wirehouse brokerage firms can today be purchased at discount brokerage firms for $7 or less. What’s more, the spread (i.e., the profits available for middlemen) used to be measured in increments of 1/8, 1/4, and 1/2 , when today the spreads are measured in pennies or fractions of pennies. Without any rational explanation, Lewis also dismisses the fact that HFT traders add valuable liquidity to the market. His argument of adding “volume and not liquidity” would make sense if HFT traders only transacted solely with other HFT traders, but that is obviously not the case.
Regardless, as you can see from the chart below, the trend in spreads over the last decade or so has been on a steady, downward, investor-friendly slope.
How Did We Get Here? And What’s Wrong with HFT?
Similarly to our country’s 73,954 page I.R.S. tax code, the complexity of our financial market trading structure rivals that of our government’s money collection system. The painting of all HFT traders as villains by Lewis is no truer than painting all taxpayers as crooks. Just as there are plenty of crooked and deceitful individuals that push the boundaries of our income tax system, so too are there traders that try to take advantage of an inefficient, Byzantine exchange system. The mere presence of some tax dodgers doesn’t mean that all taxpayers should go to jail, nor should all HFT traders be crucified by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) police.
The heightened convoluted nature to our country’s exchange-based financial system can be traced back to the establishment of Regulation NMS, which was passed by the SEC in 2005 and implemented in 2007. The aim of this regulatory structure was designed to level the playing field through fairer trade execution and the creation of equal access to transparent price quotations. However, rather than leveling the playing field, the government destroyed the playing field and fragmented it into many convoluted pieces (i.e., exchanges) – see Wall Street Journal article and chart below.
The new Reg NMS competition came in the form of exchanges like BATS and Direct Edge (now merging), but the new multi-faceted structures introduced fresh loopholes for HFT traders to exploit – for both themselves and investors. More specifically, HFT traders used expensive, lightning-fast fiber optic cables; privileged access to data centers physically located adjacent to trading exchanges; and then they integrated algorithmic software code to efficiently route orders for best execution.
Are many of these HFT traders and software programs attempting to anticipate market direction? Certainly. As the WSJ excerpt below explains, these traders are shrewdly putting their capitalist genes to the profit-making test:
Computerized firms called high-frequency traders try to pick up clues about what the big players are doing through techniques such as repeatedly placing and instantly canceling thousands of stock orders to detect demand. If such a firm’s algorithm detects that a mutual fund is loading up on a certain stock, the firm’s computers may decide the stock is worth more and can rush to buy it first. That process can make the purchase costlier for the mutual fund.
Like any highly profitable business, success eventually attracts competition, and that is exactly what has happened with high frequency trading. To appreciate this fact, all one need to do is look at Goldman Sachs’s actions, which is to leave the NYSE (New York Stock Exchange), shutter its HFT dark pool trading platform (Sigma X), and join IEX, the dark pool created by Brad Katsuyama, the hero placed on a pedestal by Lewis in Flash Boys. Goldman is putting on their “we’re doing what’s best for investors” face on, but more experienced veterans understand that Goldman and all the other HFT traders are mostly just greedy S.O.B.s looking out for their best interests. The calculus is straightforward: As costs of implementing HFT have plummeted, the profit potential has dried up, and the remaining competitors have been left to fend for their Darwinian survival. The TABB Group, a financial markets’ research and consulting firm, estimates that US equity HFT revenues have declined from approximately $7.2 billion in 2009 to about $1.3 billion in 2014. As costs for co-locating HFT hardware next to an exchange have plummeted from millions of dollars to as low as $1,000 per month, the HFT market has opened their doors to anyone with a checkbook, programmer, and a pulse. That wasn’t the case a handful of years ago.
Admittedly, not everything is hearts and flowers in HFT land. The Flash Crash of 2010 highlighted how fragmented, convoluted, and opaque our market system has become since Reg NMS was implemented. And although “circuit breaker” remedies have helped prevent a replicated occurrence, there is still room for improvement.
What are some of the solutions? Here are a few ideas:
- Reform complicated Reg NMS rules – competition is good, complexity is not.
- Overhaul disclosure around “payment-for-order-flow” contracts (rebates), so potential conflicts of interest can be exposed.
- Stop inefficient wasteful “quote stuffing” practices by HFT traders.
- Speed up and improve the quality of the SIP (Security Information Processor), so the gaps between SIP and the direct feed data from exchanges are minimized.
- Improve tracking and transparency, which can weed out shady players and lower probabilities of another Flash Crash-like event.
These shortcomings of HFT trading do not mean the market is “rigged”, but like our overwhelmingly complex tax system, there is plenty of room for improvement. Another pet peeve of mine is Lewis’s infatuation with stocks. If he really thinks the stock market is rigged, then he should write his next book on the less efficient markets of bonds, futures, and other over-the-counter derivatives. This is much more fertile ground for corruption.
As a former manager of a $20 billion fund, I understand the complications firsthand faced by large institutional investors. In an ever-changing game of cat and mouse, investors of all sizes will continue looking to execute trades at the best prices (lowest possible purchase and highest possible sales price), while middlemen traders will persist with their ambition to exploit the spread (generate profits between the bid and ask prices). Improvements in technology will always afford a temporary advantage for a few, but in the long-run the benefits for all investors have been undeniable. The same undeniable benefits can’t be said for reading Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys. Like Clark Stanley and other snake oil salesmen before him, it will only take time for the real truth to come out about Lewis’s “rigged” stock market claims.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in GS, SCHW, ICE, 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.