Posts filed under ‘Themes – Trends’

NVEC: A Cash Plump Activist Target…For Icahn?

Cash-Icahn

Some might call Carl Icahn a greedy capitalist, but at the core, the 78 year old activist has built his billions in fortunes by unlocking shareholder value in undervalued companies. His targets have come in many shapes and sizes, but one type of target is cash bloated companies without defined capital allocation strategies. A recent high profile example of a cash ballooned target of Icahn was none other than the $591+ billion behemoth Apple Inc. (AAPL).  

His initial tweet on August 13, 2013 announced his “large position” in the “extremely undervalued shares” of Apple ($67 split adjusted). We have been long-term shareholders of Apple ourselves and actually beat Carl to the punch three years earlier when the shares were trading at $35 – see Jobs: The Gluttonous Cash Hog. Icahn doesn’t just nonchalantly make outrageous claims…he puts his money where his mouth is. After Icahn’s initial proclamation, he went onto build a substantial $3.6 billion Apple position by January 2014.

Icahn Tweet

Icahn initially demanded Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to execute a $150 billion share repurchase program before downgrading his proposal to a $50 billion buyback. After receiving continued resistance, Icahn eventually relented in February 2014. But Icahn’s blood, sweat, and tears did not go to waste. His total return in Apple from his initial announcement approximates +50%, in less than one year. And although Icahn wanted more action taken by the company’s management team, Apple has repurchased about $50 billion in stock and paid out $14 billion in dividends to investors over the last five quarters. Despite the significant amount of capital returned to shareholders over the last year, Apple still holds a gargantuan net cash position of $133.5 billion, up approximately $3 billion from the 2013 fiscal third quarter.

Icahn’s Next Cash Plump Target?

Mr. Icahn is continually on the prowl for new targets, and if he played in the small cap stock arena, NVE Corp. (NVEC) certainly holds the characteristics of a cash bloated company without a defined capital allocation strategy. Although I rarely write about my hedge fund stock holdings, followers of my Investing Caffeine blog may recognize the name NVE Corp. More specifically, in 2010 I picked NVEC as my top stock pick of the year (see NVEC: Profiting from Electronic Eyes, Nerves & Brains). The good news is that NVEC outperformed the market by approximately +25% that year (+36% vs 11% for the S&P 500). Over the ensuing years, the performance has been more modest – the +42% return from early 2010 has underperformed the overall stock market.

Rather than rehash my whole prior investment thesis, I would point you to the original article for a summary of NVE’s fundamentals. Suffice it to say, however, that NVE’s prospects are just as positive (if not more so) today as they were five years ago.

Here are some NVE data points that Mr. Icahn may find interesting:

  • 60% operating margins (achieved by < 1% of all non-financial companies FINVIZ)
  • 0% debt
  • 15% EPS growth over the last seven years ($1.00 to $2.29)
  • Cutting edge, patent protected, market leading spintronic technology
  • +7% Free Cash Flow yield ($13m FCF / $194 adjusted market value) $294m market cap minus $100m cash.
  • $100 million in cash on the balance sheet, equal to 34% of the company’s market value ($294m). For comparison purposes to NVE, Apple’s $133 billion in cash currently equates to about 23% of its market cap.

Miserly Management

As I noted in my previous NVE article, my beef with the management team has not been their execution. Despite volatile product sales in recent years, it’s difficult to argue with NVE CEO Dan Baker’s steering of outstanding bottom-line success while at the helm. Over Baker’s tenure, NVE has spearheaded meteoric earnings growth from EPS of $.05 in 2009 to $2.29 in fiscal 2013. Nevertheless, management not only has a fiduciary duty to prudently manage the company’s operations, but it also has a duty to prudently manage the company’s capital allocation strategy, and that is where NVE is falling short. By holding $100 million in cash, NVE is being recklessly conservative.

Is there a reason management is being so stingy with their cash hoard? Even with cash tripling over the last five years ($32m to $100m) and operating margins surpassing an incomprehensibly high threshold (60%), NVE still has managed to open their wallets to pursue these costly actions:

  • Double Capacity: NVE doubled their manufacturing capacity in fiscal 2013 with minimal investment ($2.8 million);
  • Defend Patents: NVE fought and settled an expensive patent dispute against Motorola spinoff (Everspin) as it related to the company’s promising MRAM technology;
  • R&D Expansion: The company shored up its research and development efforts, as evidenced by the +39% increase in fiscal 2014 R&D expenditures, to $3.6 million. 

The massive surge in cash after these significant expenditures highlights the indefensible logic behind holding such a large cash mound. How can we put NVE’s pile of cash into perspective? Well for starters, $100 million is enough cash to pay for 110 years of CAPEX (capital expenditures), if you simply took the company’s five year spending average. Currently, the company is adding to the money mountain at a clip of $13,000,000 annually, so the amount of cash will only become more ridiculous over time, if the management team continues to sit on their hands.

To their credit, NVE dipped half of a pinky toe in the capital allocation pool in 2009 with a share repurchase program announcement. Since the share repurchase was approved, the cash on the balance sheet has more than tripled from the then $32 million level. To make matters worse, the authorization was for a meaningless amount of $2.5 million. Over a five year period since the initial announcement, the company has bought an irrelevant 0.5% of shares outstanding (or a mere 25,393 shares).

A Prudent Proposal

The math does not require a Ph.D. in rocket science. With interest rates near a generational low, management is destroying value as inflation eats away at the growing $100 million cash hoard. I believe any CFO, including NVE’s Curt Reynders, can be convinced that earning +7% on NVE shares (or +15% if earnings compound at historical rates for the next five years) is better than earning +2% in the bank. Or in other words, buying back stock by NVE would be massively accretive to EPS growth. Conceptually, if NVE used all $100 million of its cash to buy back stock at current prices, NVE’s current EPS of $2.59 would skyrocket to $3.63 (+40%). 

A more reasonable proposal would be for NVE management to buy back 10% of NVE’s stock and simultaneously implement a 2% dividend. At current prices, these actions would still leave a healthy balance of about $75 million in cash on the balance sheet by the end of the fiscal year, which would arguably still leave cash at levels larger than necessary. 

Despite the capital allocation miscues, NVE has incredibly bright prospects ahead, and the recently reported quarterly results showing +37% revenue growth and +57% EPS growth is proof positive. As a fellow long-term shareholder, I share management’s vision of a bright future, in which NVE continues to proliferate its unique and patented spintronic technology. With market leadership in nanotechnology sensors, couplers, and MRAM memory, NVE is uniquely positioned to take advantage of game changing growth in markets such as nanotechnology biosensors, electric drive vehicles (EDVs), consumer electronic compassing, and next generation MRAM technology. If NVE can continue to efficiently execute its business plan and couple this with a consistent capital allocation discipline, there’s no reason NVE shares can’t reach $100 per share over the next three to five years.

While NVE continues to execute on their growth vision, they can do themselves and their shareholders a huge favor by implementing a shareholder enhancing capital return plan. Carl Icahn is all smiles now after his successful investments in Apple and Herbalife (HLF), but impatient investors and other like-minded activists may be lurking and frowning, if NVE continues to irresponsibly ignore its swelling $100 million cash hoard.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

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July 27, 2014 at 6:23 pm Leave a comment

The Thrill of the Chase

Chasing FreeImages

Men (and arguably women to a lesser extent) enjoy the process of hunting for a mate. Chasing the seemingly unattainable event aligns with man’s innate competitive nature. But the quest for the inaccessible is not solely limited to dating. When it comes to other aspirational categories, humans also want what they cannot have because they revel in a challenge. Whether it’s a desirable job, car, romantic partner, or even an investment, people bask in the pursuit.

For many investment daters and trading speculators, 2008-2009 was a period of massive rejection. Rather than embracing the losses as a new opportunity, many wallowed in cash, CDs, bonds, and/or gold. This strategy felt OK until the massive 5-year bull market went on a persistent, upward tear beginning in 2009. Now, as the relentless bull market has continued to set new all-time record highs, the negative sentiment cycle has slowly shifted in the other direction. Back in 2009, many investors regretted owning stocks and as a result locked in losses by selling at depressed prices. Now, the regret of owning stocks has shifted to remorse for not owning stocks. Missing a +23% annual return for five years, while getting stuck with a paltry 0.25% return in a savings account or 3-4% annual return achieved in bonds, can harm the psyche and make savers bitter.

Greed hasn’t fully set in like we witnessed in the late period of the 1990s tech boom, but nevertheless, some of the previous overly cautious “sideliners” feel compelled to now get into the stock game (see Get Out of Stocks!*) or increase their equity allocation. Like a desperate, testosterone-amped teen chasing a prom date, some speculators are chasing stocks, regardless of the price paid. As I’ve noted before, the overall valuation of the stock market seems quite reasonable (see PE ratio chart in Risk Aversion Declining – S. Grannis), despite selective pockets of froth popping up in areas like biotech stocks, internet companies, and junk bonds.

Even if chasing is a bad general investment practice, in the short-run, chasing stocks (or increasing equity allocations) may work because overall prices of stocks remain about half the price they were at the 2000 bubble peak (see Siegel Bubblicious article). How can stocks be -50% off when stock prices today (S&P 500) are more than +25% higher today than the peak in 2000? Plain and simply, it’s the record earnings (see It’s the Earnings Stupid). In the latest Sidoxia newsletter we highlighted the all-time record corporate profits, which are conveniently excluded from most stock market discussions in the blogosphere and other media outlets.

The Investor’s Emotional Roller Coaster (Perceived Risk vs Actual Risk)

Emotion Chart Ritholtz

The “Thrill of the Chase” is but a single emotion on the roller coaster sentiment spectrum (see Barry Ritholtz chart in Sentiment Cycle of Fear and Greed). The problem with the above chart is many investors confuse actual risk from perceived risk. Many investors perceive the “euphoric” stage of an economic cycle (top of the chart) as low-risk, when in actuality this point reflects peak risk. One can look back to the late 1990s and early 2000 when technology shares were priced at more than 100x years in earnings and every hairdresser, cabdriver and relative were plunging their life savings into stocks. The good news from my vantage point is we are a ways from that euphoric state (asset fund flows and consumer confidence are but a few data points to support this assertion).

The key to reversing the sentiment roller coaster is to follow the thought process of investment greats who learned to avoid euphoria in up markets:

“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.” -Peter Lynch

“Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.” –Warren Buffett

 

While the “Thrill of the Chase” can seem exciting and a rational strategy at the time, successful long-term investors are better served by remaining objective, unemotional, and numbers-driven. If you don’t have the time, interest, or emotional fortitude to be disciplined, then find an experienced investment manager or advisor to assist you. That will make your emotional roller coaster ride even more thrilling.

www.Sidoxia.com

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 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, 2014 at 7:39 pm 4 comments

Winning via Halftime Adjustments

Halftime Scoreboard

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (July 1, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

In the game of sports and investing there are a lot of unanticipated dynamics that occur during the course of a game, season, or year. With the second quarter of 2014 now coming to a close, we have reached the half-way point of the year. Along the way, the coach (and investors) may need to make some strategic halftime adjustments. Reassessing or reflecting on the positioning of your investment portfolio once or twice per year in the context of your investment objectives, time horizon, and risk tolerance level is never a bad idea – especially when there are unforeseen events continually materializing during the game.

During the first half of the year, the financial markets have experienced numerous surprises:

  • Declining Interest Rates: Under the auspices of a massive 2013 gain in stock prices, expectations were for an accelerating economy and rising interest rates in 2014. Instead, the 10-Year Treasury Note has seen its yield counterintuitively plunge from 3.03% to 2.52%.
  • Geopolitical Tensions (Ukraine/Syria/Iraq): The stock market has ground higher this year in spite of geopolitical tensions in Ukraine, Syria, and now Iraq. These skirmishes make for great TV, radio, and blog content, but the reality is these conflicts will likely be forgotten/ignored in favor of other fresher clashes in the coming months and quarters.
  • Unabated Tapering: It’s true the Federal Reserve signaled the reduction in its bond buying stimulus program last year, however the more surprising aspect has been the pace of the taper. From the beginning of the year, the $85 billion program has already been reduced to $35 billion and will likely be reduced to $0 by the fall.
  • Polar Vortex/GDP: Weather is very unpredictable, and regardless of your views on global warming, the unseasonably cold weather on the eastern half of the country had a severely negative impact on first half GDP (Gross Domestic Product). In fact, first quarter GDP was revised lower to a contraction of -2.9%. The good news is expectations are for an improved second half of the year according to Merrill Lynch.

While it would be wonderful to live in Utopia, unfortunately for investors, there is always uncertainty and risk. These elements come with the investing territory. Of course, you can always compensate for that unwanted uncertainty by accepting low interest-paying options (e.g., stuffing your money under a mattress, in a CD, savings account, Treasury bonds, etc.).

Despite the unexpected first half events, the market continues to grind higher. During the first half of the year, the S&P 500 index rose 6.1% (+1.9% in June); the Dow Jones Industrials edged higher by +1.5% (+0.7% in June); and the Nasdaq climbed +5.5% (+3.9% in June). But stocks weren’t the only winning investment team in town – bonds tasted victory during the first half also, notching gains of +2.8% (AGG – Aggregate Bond), almost double the Dow’s performance.

Investor Psyche Pendulum Swinging in Positive Direction

Emotion Pendulum Picture Final

As I have written in the past, investor psyches continually swing along an emotional pendulum (see also Sentiment Pendulum article) from a state of “Panic” to “Euphoria”. While the pendulum has clearly swung in a positive direction, away from the emotional states of “Panic & Fear,” we appear to now be between “Skepticism & Hope.” The timing of when we get to the latter stages of “Optimism & Euphoria” is dependent on the pace of the economic recovery, risk appetites of consumers/businesses, and the trajectory of risky assets like stocks. Just because the ride has been fun for the last five years, does not mean the ride is over. However, as the pendulum continues to swing to the left, long-term investors need to fight the tempting urge to increase risk appetite just as the allure of high stock returns appears more achievable.

During the second half of this economic cycle, before the next recession, investors need to be more cognizant of controlling risk (the probability of permanent losses) by paying closer attention to valuations, diversification, and rebalancing too heavily weighted equity portfolios.

Besides rising stock prices and the beginning of positive fund flows, investors’ increasing appetite for risk is evidenced by the yield chasing occurring in junk bonds, which has raised prices of the lowest quality bonds to lofty levels. The chart below shows this phenomenon happening with the yields narrowing between high yield (HY) bonds and investment grade (IG) corporate bonds.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Even though I pointed out a number of disconcerting surprises in the first half of the year, as you consider making halftime adjustments to your portfolios, do not forget some of the underlying positive currents that are leading to a winning halftime score.

Here are some of the constructive factors supporting stock prices, which have nearly tripled in value from the 2009 lows (S&P 500 – 666 to 1,960):

Record Corporate Profits: I constantly bump into skeptics who fail to realize the fundamental power of record profits driving stock prices higher (see chart below). As the late John Templeton stated, “In the long run, the stock market indexes fluctuate around the long-term upward trend of earnings per share.”

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Improving Consumer Confidence: The University of Michigan consumer sentiment index increased to 82.5 for June from May. The confidence score came in above the consensus forecast of 82.0. Confidence has increased significantly from the 2009 lows but as the chart below shows, there is plenty of room for this metric to advance – consistent with the emotion pendulum discussed previously.

Source: Calculated Risk

Source: Calculated Risk

Dividends & Share Buybacks Near Record Levels: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Corporations have realized this investor desire and as a result companies are returning record levels of money (“capital”) to stock shareholders via increasing dividends and share buybacks (see chart below).

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Housing on the Mend: The housing market has improved in fits and starts, but the most recent data point of new home sales shows significant improvement. More specifically, May’s new home sales were up +18.6% from the previous month (see chart below), the highest level seen since 2008. Although this data is encouraging, there is still plenty of room for improvement, as current sales remain more than 50% below 2005 peak levels.

Source: Calculated Risk

Source: Calculated Risk

Record Industrial Production: Adding support to the improving economic outlook are the industrial production figures, which also hit a record (see chart below). This data also adds credence to why the U.S. stock market has outperformed the European markets during the economic recovery from 2009.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Declining Federal Deficit: The federal deficit continues to narrow (i.e., tax revenues growing faster than government spending), so previous fiscally panicked screams have quieted down. We’re not out of the woods yet, but the trends are encouraging (see chart below):

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

There have been plenty of bombshells during the first half of 2014 (no pun intended), and there are bound to be plenty more during the second half of the year. By definition, nobody can be fully prepared for a surprise, or else it wouldn’t be called a “surprise”. For those skeptical investors sitting on the sidelines, the record breaking stock market performance has also been astonishing. Regardless of what happens over the next six months, periodically making adjustments to your financial plan is important, whether it’s during the pre-game, post-game, or halftime. And if you’re not interested or capable of making those adjustments yourself, find a professional advisor/coach to assist you.

 

www.Sidoxia.com

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 and AGG, 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.

July 5, 2014 at 5:01 am 3 comments

Get Out of Stocks!*

Signature:1aa0edd3f00ecb0adc8aa215f572f8061f81f2bd7ee14d34f53c48d50acdcb69

Get out of stocks!* Why the asterisk mark (*)? The short answer is there is a certain population of people who are looking at alluring record equity prices, but are better off not touching stocks – I like to call these individuals the “sideliners”. The sideliners are a group of investors who may have owned stocks during the 2006-2008 timeframe, but due to the subsequent recession, capitulated out of stocks into gold, cash, and/or bonds.

The risk for the sideliners getting back into stocks now is straightforward. Sideliners have a history of being too emotional (see Controlling the Investment Lizard Brain), which leads to disastrous financial decisions. So, even if stocks outperform in the coming months and years, the sideliners will most likely be slow in getting back in, and wrongfully knee-jerk sell at the hint of an accelerated taper, rate-hike, or geopolitical sneeze. Rather than chase a stock market at all-time record highs, the sideliners would be better served by clipping coupons, saving, and/or finish that bunker digging project.

The fact is, if you can’t stomach a -20% decline in the stock market, you shouldn’t be investing in stocks. In a recent presentation, Barry Ritholtz, editor of The Big Picture and CIO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, beautifully displayed the 20 times over the last 85 years that the stocks have declined -20% or more (see chart below). This equates to a large decline every four or so years.

20 Percent Corrections 1928 - 2008

Strategist Dr. Ed Yardeni hammers home a similar point over a shorter duration (2008-2014) by also highlighting the inherent volatility of stocks (see chart below).

Corrections 2008-2014

Stated differently, if you can’t handle the heat in the stock kitchen, it’s probably best to keep out.

It’s a Balancing Act

For the rest of us, the vast majority of investors, the question should not be whether to get out of stocks, it should revolve around what percentage of your portfolio allocation should remain in stocks. Despite record low yields and record high bond prices (see Bubblicious Bonds and Weak Competition, it is perfectly rational for a Baby-Boomer or retiree to periodically ring their stock-profit cash register, and reallocate more dollars toward bonds. Even if you forget about the 30%+ stock return achieved last year and the ~6% return this year, becoming more conservative in (or near) retirement with a larger bond allocation still makes sense.  For some of our clients, buying and holding individual bonds until maturity reduces the risky outcome associated with a potential of interest rates spiking.

With all of that said, our current stance at Sidoxia doesn’t mean stocks don’t offer good value today (see Buy in May). For those readers who have followed Investing Caffeine for a while, they will understand I have been relatively sanguine about the prospects of equities for some time, even through a host of scary periods. Whether it was my attack of bears Peter Schiff, Nouriel Roubini, or John Mauldin in 2009-2010, or optimistic articles written during the summer crash of 2011 when the S&P 500 index declined -22% (see Stocks Get No Respect or Rubber Band Stretching), our positioning did not waver. However, as stock values have virtually tripled in value from the 2009 lows, more recently I have consistently stated the game has gotten a lot tougher with the low-hanging fruit having already been picked (earnings have recovered from the recession and P/E multiples have expanded). In other words, the trajectory of the last five years is unsustainable.

Fortunately for us, at Sidoxia we’re not hostage to the upward or downward direction of a narrow universe of large cap U.S. domestic stock market indices. We can scour the globe across geographies and capital structure. What does that mean? That means we are investing client assets (and my personal assets) into innovative companies covering various growth themes (robotics, alternative energy, mobile devices, nanotechnology, oil sands, electric cars, medical devices, e-commerce, 3-D printing, smart grid, obesity, globalization, and others) along with various other asset classes and capital structures, including real estate, MLPs, municipal bonds, commodities, emerging markets, high-yield, preferred securities, convertible bonds, private equity, floating rate bonds, and TIPs as well. Therefore, if various markets are imploding, we have the nimble ability to mitigate or avoid that volatility by identifying appropriate individual companies and alternative asset classes.

Irrespective of my shaky short-term forecasting abilities, I am confident people will continue to ask me my opinion about the direction of the stock market. My best advice remains to get out of stocks*…for the “sideliners”. However, the asterisk still signifies there are plenty of opportunities for attractive returns to be had for the rest of us investors, as long as you can stomach the inevitable volatility.

www.Sidoxia.com

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 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 7, 2014 at 9:40 pm 3 comments

Rise of the Robo-Advisors: Paying to Do-It-Yourself

Battery Operated Toy Robot

Robots and computers are taking over our lives. We see it in areas of our daily living, including the use of digitally driven cars, cell phones, automated vacuums, and electronic self-serve kiosks at the grocery store. And now robots have come into our investing and financial lives in the form of robo-advisors. With a few clicks of a computer mouse or taps on a smartphone, investors are hoping to find their way to financial nirvana.

What sites am I talking about? Here is a brief, albeit rapidly growing, list of popular robo-advisor sites:

Not all of these robo-sites invest individuals’ money, but nevertheless, there are several factors contributing to the upsurge in in these financial advice websites. For starters, there is a whole new, younger demographic pool of savers who have grown up with their iPhone and shop exclusively online for their goods and services. Many of these financial sites are trying to fill a void for this tech-savvy group looking for a new app to bring wealth and riches.

Another factor contributing to the rise of the robo-advisors is a function of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the explosive growth of the multi-trillion dollar exchange traded fund (ETF) industry. Many baby boomers who were planning to retire were hit brutally hard by the financial crisis and subsequently asked themselves why they were paying such high fees to their advisors for losing money. With the stock market now increasing for five consecutive years, some investors are gaining confidence in pursuing other lower-cost solutions to their investments outside of the traditional human advisor channel.

Too Good to Be True? The Shortcomings

On the surface, the proposition of clicking a few buttons to create financial prosperity seems quite appealing, but if you look a little more closely under the hood, what you quickly realize is that most of these robo-advisor sites are glorifying the practice of doing-it-yourself (DIY). After conducting some due diligence on the various investment bells-and-whistles of these robo-sites, one quickly realizes individuals can replicate most of the kindergartener-esque ETF portfolios by merely calling 1-800-VANGUARD  – without having to pay robo-advisor fees ranging from 0.15% – 0.95%. More specifically, Wealthfront and Betterment use 6-12 ETF security portfolios, integrating many Vanguard funds and other ETFs that can be purchased with a click of a mouse or phone call (without having to pay the robo-advisor middleman). A cynic may also point out these robo-investment sites are nothing more than expensive life-cycle funds that could be replicated at a fraction of the cost.

Despite the sites’ transparency preaching, filtering through robo fee and performance disclosure can be frustratingly tedious too – good luck to the novices. For example, Betterment claims to have created a superior performance track record, despite a hidden disclosure stating the results are manufactured from a computer back-test. The transparency pitch seems a little disingenuous, and I wonder how many of the new robo-site users are also aware of the extra underlying ETF fees? But when marketing a new high-cost start-up, I guess you need to fabricate a fancy chart and track record when you don’t have one. Underlying the robo investment sites is a disparate, hodge-podge of studies anointing Modern Portfolio Theory as the holy grail, but readers of this blog know there are many failings to pure quantitative strategies implemented by academics (see LTCM in Black Swans & Butter in Bangladesh).

The concept of DIY is nothing new. One can look no further than the impact Home Depot (HD) has had on the home improvement industry. In addition, there are plenty of individuals who choose to do their own income taxes with the help of software technology (i.e., Intuit), or those who forego hiring an estate planning attorney by using off-the-shelf legal documents (i.e., Legal Zoom). Many industries in our economy inherently have penny pinching DIY-ers, but despite current and future inroads made by the robo-advisors, there will always be individuals who do not have the capacity, patience, or interest to search out a DIY investment solution.

After watching the stock market rise for five consecutive years, taming investment portfolios may seem like a simple problem for internet software to solve, but experienced investors (not academics) understand successful long-term investing is never easy…with or without technology. The reality of the situation is that when volatility eventually spikes and we hit an inevitable bear market, these robo-sites will fail miserably in supplying the necessary human element to facilitate more prudent investment decisions.

While the rising robo-advisors may have many investment advisory shortcomings, I will acknowledge some appealing aggregating features that provide a helpful holistic view of an individual’s finances (see Mint). Also, these sites are forcing investors to ask their advisors the important and appropriate tough questions regarding fees, compensation, and conflicts of interest. However, in spite of the short-term, blossoming success of the robo-sites, investing has never been more difficult. Investors continue to get overwhelmed with the 24-7, 365 news cycles that proliferates an endless avalanche of global crises via TV, radio, Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere.

While a younger, less-affluent DIY demographic may flock to some of these robo-advisors, the millions of aging and retiring baby boomers ensures there will be plenty of demand for traditional advisors. Experienced independent RIA advisors and financial planners, like Sidoxia, who integrate low-cost ETFs into their investment management practices stand to benefit handsomely. Those advisors/sites offering simplistic, commoditized ETF offerings with no wealth planning services will be challenged. While I may not lose sleep over the rise of the robo-advisors, I will continue to dream of a robot that will lower my taxes and win me the lottery.

www.Sidoxia.com

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 (including Vanguard ETFs), AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HD, TWTR, FB, Legal Zoom, 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.

May 18, 2014 at 12:55 pm 5 comments

Hunting for Tennis Balls and Dead Cats

Tennis Cat Pic

When it comes to gravity, people understand what goes up, must come down. But the reverse is not always true for stocks. What goes down, does not necessarily need to come back up. Since the 2008-09 financial crisis there have been a large group of multi-billion dollar behemoth stocks that have defied gravity, but over the last few months, many of these highfliers have come back to earth. Despite the pause in some of these major technology, consumer, and internet stocks, the overall stock market appears relatively calm. In fact, the Dow Jones Industrials index is currently sitting at all-time record highs and the S&P 500 index is hovering around -1% from its peak. But below the surface, there is a large undercurrent resulting in an enormous rotation out of pricier momentum and growth stocks into more defensive and yield-heavy sectors of the market, like utilities and real estate.

To expose this concealed trend I have highlighted a group of 20 stocks below, valued at close to half a trillion dollars. Over the last 12 months, this selective group of technology, consumer, and internet stocks have lost over -$200,000,000,000 from their peak values. Here’s a look at the highlighted stocks:

Tennis Ball Dead Cat FINAL 5-14

With respect to all the punished stocks, the dilemma for investors amidst this depreciating price carnage is how to profitably hunt for the bouncing tennis balls while avoiding the dead cat bounces. By hunting bouncing tennis balls, I am referring to the identification of those companies that have crashed from indiscriminate selling, even though the companies’ positive business fundamentals remain fully intact. The so-called dead cats reflect those overpriced companies that lack the earnings power or trajectory to support a rebounding stock price. Like a cat falling from a high-rise building, there may exist a possibility of a small rebound, but for many severely broken momentum stocks, minor bounces are often short-lived.

For long-term investors, much of the recent rotation is healthy. Some of the froth I’ve been writing about in the biotech, internet, and technology has been mitigated. As a result, in many instances, outrageous or rich stock valuations have now become fairly priced or attractive.

Profiting from Collapses

Many investors do not realize that some of the greatest stocks of all-time have suffered multiple -50% drops before subsequently doubling, tripling, quadrupling or better. History provides many rebounding tennis ball examples, but let’s take a brief look at the Apple Inc. (AAPL) chart from 1980 – 2005 to drive home the point:

Apple 1980 - 2005

As you can see, there were at least five occasions when the stock got chopped in half (or worse) over the selected timeframe and another five occasions when the stock doubled (or better), including a +935% explosion in the 1997–2000 period, and a +503% advance from 2002–2005 when shares reached $45. The numbers get kookier when you consider Apple’s share price eventually reached $700 and closed early last week above $600.

These feast and famine patterns can be discovered for virtually all of the greatest all-time stocks. The massive volatility explains why it’s so difficult to stick with theses long-term winners. A more recent example of a tennis ball bounce would be Facebook Inc (FB). The -58% % plummet from its $42 IPO peak has been well-documented, and despite the more recent -21% pullback, the stock is still up +223% from its $18 lows.

On the flip side, an example of a dead cat bounce would include Cisco Systems Inc (CSCO). After the bursting of the 2000 technology bubble, Cisco has never fully recovered from its $82 peak value. There have been many fits and starts, including some periods of 50% declines and 100% gains, but due to excessive valuations in the late 1990s and changing competitive trends, Cisco still sits at $23 today (see chart below).

Slide1

It is important to remember that just because a stock goes down -50% in value doesn’t mean that it’s going to double or triple in value in the future. Price momentum can drive a stock in the short run, but in the long run, the important variables to track closely are cash flows and earnings (see It’s the Earnings, Stupid) . The level and direction of these factors ultimately correlate best with the ultimate fair value of stock prices. Therefore, if you are fishing in the growth or momentum stock pond, make sure to do your homework after a stock price collapses. It’s imperative that you carefully hunt down rebounding tennis balls and avoid the dead cat bounces.

 

www.Sidoxia.com

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), AMZN, long NFLX bond, short NFLX stock, short LULU, and long CSCO (in a non-discretionary account), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in TWTR, GRPN, YELP, ATHN, AVP, P, LNKD, BBY, ZNGA, WDAY, WFM, N, SSYS, JDSU, COH, CRM, FB 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.

May 11, 2014 at 12:23 am 1 comment

Buy in May and Tap Dance Away

tap shoes

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (May 1, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

The proverbial Wall Street adage that urges investors to “Sell in May, and go away” in order to avoid a seasonally volatile period from May to October has driven speculative trading strategies for generations. The basic premise behind the plan revolves around the idea that people have better things to do during the spring and summer months, so they sell stocks. Once the weather cools off, the thought process reverses as investors renew their interest in stocks during November. If investing was as easy as selling stocks on May 1 st and then buying them back on November 1st, then we could all caravan in yachts to our private islands while drinking from umbrella-filled coconut drinks. Regrettably, successful investing is not that simple and following naïve strategies like these generally don’t work over the long-run.

Even if you believe in market timing and seasonal investing (see Getting Off the Market Timing Treadmill ), the prohibitive transaction costs and tax implications often strip away any potential statistical advantage.

Unfortunately for the bears, who often react to this type of voodoo investing, betting against the stock market from May – October during the last two years has been a money-losing strategy. Rather than going away, investors have been better served to “Buy in May, and tap dance away.” More specifically, the S&P 500 index has increased in each of the last two years, including a +10% surge during the May-October period last year.

Nervous? Why Invest Now?

nervous

With the weak recent economic GDP figures and stock prices off by less than 1% from their all-time record highs, why in the world would investors consider investing now? Well, for starters, one must ask themselves, “What options do I have for my savings…cash?” Cash has been and will continue to be a poor place to hoard funds, especially when interest rates are near historic lows and inflation is eating away the value of your nest-egg like a hungry sumo wrestler. Anyone who has completed their income taxes last month knows how pathetic bank rates have been, and if you have pumped gas recently, you can appreciate the gnawing impact of escalating gasoline prices.

While there are selective opportunities to garner attractive yields in the bond market, as exploited in Sidoxia Fusion strategies, strategist and economist Dr. Ed Yardeni points out that equities have approximately +50% higher yields than corporate bonds. As you can see from the chart below, stocks (blue line) are yielding profits of about +6.6% vs +4.2% for corporate bonds (red line). In other words, for every $100 invested in stocks, companies are earning $6.60 in profits on average, which are then either paid out to investors as growing dividends and/or reinvested back into their companies for future growth.

Hefty profit streams have resulted in healthy corporate balance sheets, which have served as ammunition for the improving jobs picture. At best, the economic recovery has moved from a snail’s pace to a tortoise’s pace, but nevertheless, the unemployment rate has returned to a more respectable 6.7% rate. The mended economy has virtually recovered all of the approximately 9 million private jobs lost during the financial crisis (see chart below) and expectations for Friday’s jobs report is for another +220,000 jobs added during the month of April.

no farm payroll

Source: Bespoke

Wondrous Wing Woman

Investing can be scary for some individuals, but having an accommodative Fed Chair like Janet Yellen on your side makes the challenge more manageable. As I’ve pointed out in the past (with the help of Scott Grannis), the Fed’s stimulative ‘Quantitative Easing’ program counter intuitively raised interest rates during its implementation. What’s more, Yellen’s spearheading of the unprecedented $40 billion bond buying reduction program (a.k.a., ‘Taper’) has unexpectedly led to declining interest rates in recent months. If all goes well, Yellen will have completed the $85 billion monthly tapering by the end of this year, assuming the economy continues to expand.

In the meantime, investors and the broader financial markets have begun to digest the unwinding of the largest, most unprecedented monetary intervention in financial history. How can we tell this is the case? CEO confidence has improved to the point that $1 trillion of deals have been announced this year, including offers by Pfizer Inc. – PFE ($100 billion), Facebook Inc. – FB ($19 billion), and Comcast Corp. – CMCSA ($45 billion).

big acq 14

Source: Entrepreneur

Banks are feeling more confident too, and this is evident by the acceleration seen in bank loans. After the financial crisis, gun-shy bank CEOs fortified their balance sheets, but with five years of economic expansion under their belts, the banks are beginning to loosen their loan purse strings further (see chart below).

The coast is never completely clear. As always, there are plenty of things to worry about. If it’s not Ukraine, it can be slowing growth in China, mid-term elections in the fall, and/or rising tensions in the Middle East. However, for the vast majority of investors, relying on calendar adages (i.e., selling in May) is a complete waste of time. You will be much better off investing in attractively priced, long-term opportunities, and then tap dance your way to financial prosperity.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

May 3, 2014 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

You Can’t Kiss Every Pretty Girl (…or Handsome Boy)

Kissing

There are a lot of pretty girls in the world, and there are a lot of sexy stocks in the stock market, but not even the most eligible bachelor (or bachelorettes) are able to kiss all the beautiful people in the world. The same principle applies to the stock market. The most successful investors have a disciplined process of waiting for the perfect mate to cross their path, rather than chasing every tempting mistress.

Happily married to my current portfolio, I continually bump into attractive candidates that try to seduce me into buying. For me, these sexy equities typically come in the shape of high P/E ratios (Price/Earnings) and rapid sales growth rates. It’s fun to date (or rent) these sexy stocks, but the novelty often wears off quickly and the euphoric sensation can disappear rapidly – just like real-world dating. Case in point is the reality dating shows, the Bachelor and Bachelorette. Over 27 combined seasons, of which I sheepishly admit seeing a few, only five of the couples remain together today.  While it may be enjoyable to vicariously watch bevies of beautiful people hook-up, the harsh reality is that the success rate is abysmal, similar to the results in chasing darling stocks (see also Riding the Wave).

Well-known strategist and investor Barton Biggs once said, “A bull market is like sex. It feels best just before it ends.” The same goes with chasing pricey momentum stocks – what looks pretty in the short-run can turn ugly in a blink of the eye. For example, if you purchased the following basket of top 10 performing stocks of 2012 (+118% average return excluding dividends), you would have underperformed the market by -16% if you owned until today.

Top 2012 Performers

Warren Buffett understands hunting for short-term relationships may be thrilling, but this strategy often leads to tears and heartbreak. Buffett summarized the importance of selectivity here:

“I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only twenty slots in it so that you had twenty punches – representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all. Under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did, and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about. So you’d do so much better.”

 

Rather than hungering for the spiciest stocks, it’s best to find a beauty before she becomes Miss America, because at that point, everybody wants to date her and the price is usually way too expensive. If you stay selective and patient while realizing you can’t kiss every pretty girl, then you can prevent the stock market from breaking your heart.

 

www.Sidoxia.com

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 PHM, MHO, CVI, EXPE, HFS, DDS, LEN, MPC. TSO, GPS, 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 IC Contact page.

 

April 26, 2014 at 10:25 am Leave a comment

Lewis Sells Flash Boys Snake Oil

Snake Oil

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.

The Fixes

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.

 

www.Sidoxia.com

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.

April 11, 2014 at 1:04 pm 1 comment

The Treadmill Market – Jogging in Place

Treadmill

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (April 1, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

After the stock market raced ahead to about a +30% gain last year, it became clear this meteoric trend was not sustainable into perpetuity. Correct investing should be treated more like a marathon than a sprint. After dashing ahead by more than +100% over the last handful of years, 2014 stock prices took a breather by spending the first quarter jogging in place. Like a runner on the treadmill, year-to-date returns equated to a -0.7% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average index, and +1.3% for the S&P index. Digesting the large gains from previous years, despite making no discernable forward progress this quarter, is a healthy exercise that builds long-term portfolio endurance. As far as I’m concerned, nothing in life worthwhile comes easy, and the first three months of the year have demonstrated this principle.

As I’ve written in the past (see Series of Unfortunate Events), there is never a shortage of issues to worry about. The first few months of 2014 have been no exception. Vladimir Putin’s strong armed military backed takeover of Crimea, coupled with the Federal Reserve’s unwinding $30 billion of the $85 billion of its “Quantitative Easing” bond buying program (i.e. tapering) have contributed to investors’ nervousness. When the “Fairy Godmother of the Bull Market,” Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, hinted at potentially raising interest rates in about 12 months, the mood soured further.

The unseasonably cold winter back east (a.k.a., Polar Vortex) has caused some additional jitters due to the dampening effects on economic conditions. More specifically, economic growth as measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is expected to come in around a meager +2.0% rate during the first quarter of 2014, before picking up later in the year.

And if that isn’t enough, best-selling author Michael Lewis, whose books include Money Ball, The Blind Side, and Liar’s Poker, just came out on national television and sparked a debate with his controversial statement that the “stock market is rigged.” (read and listen more here)

Runners High

But as always, not everything is gloom and doom. Offsetting the temporary price fatigue, resilient record corporate profits have supported the surprising market stamina. Like a runner’s high, corporations are feeling elated about historically elevated profit margins. As you can see from the chart below, the reason it’s prudent for most to have some U.S. equity exposure is due to the clear, upward multi-decade trend of U.S. corporate earnings.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (gray areas are recessions)  

Source: Calafia Beach Plundit (gray areas are recessions)

While the skeptics wait for these game-ending dynamics to take root, core economic fundamentals in areas like these remain strong:I didn’t invent the idea of profits impacting the stock market, but the concept is simple: stock prices generally follow earnings over long periods of time (see It’s the Earnings, Stupid). In other words, as profits accelerate, so do stock prices – and the opposite holds true (decelerating earnings leads to price declines). This direct relationship normally holds over the long-run as long as the following conditions are not in place: 1) valuations are stretched; 2) a recession is imminent; and/or 3) interest rates are spiking.  Fortunately for long-term investors, there is no compelling evidence of these factors currently in place.

Employment Adrenaline

The employment outlook received a boost of adrenaline last month. Despite the slight upward nudge in the unemployment rate to 6.7%, total nonfarm payroll jobs increased by +175,000 in February versus a +129,000 gain in January and an +84,000 gain in December. Not only was last month’s increase better than expectations, but the net figures calculated over the previous two months were also revised higher by +25,000 jobs. As you can see below, the improvement since 2009 has been fairly steady, but as the current rate flirts with the Fed’s 6.5% target, Chair Yellen has decided to remove the quantitative objective. The rising number of discouraged workers (i.e., voluntarily opt-out of job searching) and part-timers has distorted the numbers, rendering arbitrary numeric targets less useful.

Housing Holding Strong

In the face of the severe winter weather, the feisty housing market remains near multi-year highs as shown in the 5-month moving average housing start figure below. With the spring selling season upon us, we should be able to better gauge the impact of cold weather and higher mortgage rates on the housing market.

Even though stock market investors found themselves jogging in place during the first quarter of the year, long-term investors are building up endurance as corporate profits and the economy continue to consistently grow in the background. Successful investors must realize stock prices cannot sustainably sprint for long periods of time without eventually hitting a wall and collapsing. Those who recognize investing as a marathon sport, rather than a mad dash, will be able to jump off the treadmill and ultimately reach their financial finish line.

www.Sidoxia.com

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 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.

April 5, 2014 at 12:02 am Leave a comment

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