Posts tagged ‘Warren Buffett’

The Buyback Bonanza Boost

Trampoline 2

With the S&P 500 off -1% from its all-time record high, many bears have continued to wait for and talk about a looming crash. For the naysayers, the main focus has been on the distorted monetary policies instituted by the Federal Reserve, but as I pointed out in Fed Fatigue is Setting In, QE and tapering talk are not the end-all, be-all of global financial markets. One need not look further than the dozen or so countries listed in the FT that have bond yields below the abnormally low yields we are experiencing in the U.S. (10-Year Treasury +2.75%).

Although there are many who believe a freefall is coming, much like a trampoline, a naturally occurring financial mechanism has provided a relentless bid to boost stock prices higher…a buyback bonanza! How significant have corporate stock repurchases been to spring prices higher? Jason Zweig, in his Intelligent Investor column, wrote the following:

In the Russell 3000, a broad U.S. stock index, repurchased $567.6 billion worth of their own shares—a 21% increase over 2012, calculates Rob Leiphart, an analyst at Birinyi Associates, a research firm in Westport, Conn. That brings total buybacks since the beginning of 2005 to $4.21 trillion—or nearly one-fifth of the total value of all U.S. stocks today.

 

To further put this gargantuan buyback bonanza into perspective, a recent Fox Business article described it this way:

Companies spent an estimated $477 billion on share buybacks last year. That’s enough to buy every NFL team 12 times over, run the federal government for 50 days or host the next nine Olympic Games with several billion left to spare. This year, companies are expected to ramp up buybacks by 35%, according to Goldman Sachs.

 

The bears continue to scream, while purple in the face, that the Fed’s QE and zero interest rate program (ZIRP) shenanigans are artificially propping up stock prices. The narrative then states the tapering and inevitable Fed Funds rate reversal will cause the market to come crashing down. While there is some truth behind this commentary, history reminds us that not all rate rising cycles end in bloodshed (see 1994 Bond Repeat or Stock Defeat?). Even if you believe in Armageddon, this rate reversal scenario is unlikely to happen until mid-2015 or beyond.

And for those worshipping the actions of Ms. Yellen at the Fed altar, believe it or not, there are other factors besides monetary policy that cause stock prices to go up or down. In addition to stock buybacks, there are dynamics such as record corporate profits, rising dividends, expanding earnings, reasonable valuations, improving international economies, and other factors that have contributed to this robust bull market.

At the end of the day, as I have continued to argue for some time, money goes where it is treated best – and generally that is not in savings accounts earning 0.003%. There is no reason to be a perma-bull, and I have freely acknowledged the expansion of froth in areas such as social media, biotech, Bitcoin and other areas. Regardless, there is, and will always be areas of speculation, in bull and bear markets (e.g., gold in the 2008-2009 period).

Magical Math

Investing involves a mixture of art and science, but with a few exceptions (i.e., fraud), numbers do not lie, and using math when investing is a good place to start. A simple but powerful mathematical formula instituted at Sidoxia Capital Management is the “Free Cash Flow Yield”, which is a metric we integrate into our proprietary SHGR (a.k.a.,“Sugar”) quantitative model (see Investing Holy Grail).

Free Cash Flow Graphic

Quite simply, Free Cash Flow (FCF) is computed by taking the excess cash generated by a company after ALL expenses/expenditures (marketing, payroll, R&D, CAPEX, etc.) over a trailing twelve month period (TTM), then dividing that figure by the total equity value of a company (Market Capitalization). Mechanically, FCF is calculated by taking “Cash Flow from Operations” and subtracting “Capital Expenditures” – both figures can be found on the Cash Flow Statement.  The Free Cash Flow ratio may sound complicated, but straightforwardly this is the leftover cash generated by a business that can be used for share buybacks, dividends, acquisitions, investments, debt pay-down, and/or placed in a banking account to pile up.

The great thing about FCF yields is that this ratio (%) can be compared across asset classes. For example, I can compare the FCF yield of Apple Inc – AAPL (+9.5%) versus a 10-Year Treasury (+2.75%), 1-year CD (+0.85%), Tesla Motors – TSLA (0.0%), Netflix, Inc – NFLX (-0.001%), or Twitter, Inc – TWTR (-0.003%). For growth and capital intensive companies, I can make adjustments to this calculation. However, what you quickly realize is that even if you assume massive growth in the coming years (i.e., $100s of millions in FCF), the prices for many of these momentum stocks are still astronomical.

An important insight about the current corporate buyback bonanza is that much of this price boost is being fueled by the colossal free cash flow generation of corporate America. Sure, some companies are borrowing through the debt markets to buy back stock, but if you were the Apple CFO sitting on $159,000,000,000 in cash earning 1%, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to sit on the cash earning nothing. It also doesn’t take a genius (or Carl Icahn) to figure out borrowing at record low rates (2.75% 10-year) while earning +10% on a stock buyback will increase shareholder value and earnings per share (EPS). More specifically, when Apple borrowed $17 billion  at interest rates ranging from 0.5% – 3.9%, a shrewd, rational human being would borrow to the max all day long at those rates, if you could earn +10% on that investment. It is true that Apple’s profitability could drop and the numerator in our FCF ratio could decrease, but with $45 billion smackers coming in every year on top of $142 billion in net cash on the balance sheet, Apple has a healthy margin of safety to make the math work.

Where the math doesn’t compute is in insanely priced deals. For example, the recent merger in which Facebook Inc (FB) paid $19 billion (1,000 x’s the estimated 2013 annual revenues) for a 50-person, money-losing company (WhatsApp) that is offering a free service, makes zero financial sense to me. Suffice it to say, the FCF yield on WhatsApp could cause Warren Buffett to have a coronary event. Yes, diamond covered countertops would be nice to have in my kitchen, but I probably wouldn’t get much of a return on that investment.

Share buybacks are not a magical elixir to endless prosperity (see Share Buybacks & Bathroom Violators), but given the record profits and record low interest rates, basic math shows that even if stock prices correct (as should be expected), the trampolining effect of this buyback bonanza will provide support to the market.

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), AAPL and a short position in NFLX, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in TSLA, TWTR, FB, Bitcoin, 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.

About these ads

March 22, 2014 at 1:17 pm 1 comment

Stock Market: Shrewd Bet or Stupid Gamble?

Playing Cards and Poker Chips

Trillions of dollars have been lost and gained over the last five years. The extreme volatility strangled investment portfolios, and as a result millions of investors capitulated by throwing in the towel and locking in losses. Melted 401ks, shrunken IRAs, and beat-up retirement accounts bruised the overarching psyche of Americans to the point they questioned whether the stock market is a shrewd bet or stupid gamble?

The warmth and safety of bonds provided some temporary relief in subsequent years, but the explosive rebound in stock prices to new record highs in 2013 coupled with the worst year in a decade for bonds still have many on the sidelines asking whether they should get back in?

As I’ve written many times in the past (see Timing Treadmill), timing the market is a fruitless effort. Elementary statistics, including the “Law of Large Numbers” will demonstrate that blind squirrels can and will beat the market on occasion, but very few can consistently beat the stock market indices for sustained periods (see Dart-Throwing Chimps).

However, there have been some gun-slinging hedge fund managers who have accumulated some impressive track records. Because of insanely high management fees, many overpaid hedge fund managers will swing for the fences by using a combination of excessive leverage and/or concentration. If the hedge funds connect with lucky returns, the managers can take the money and run. If they swing and miss…no problem. Close shop, hang out a shingle across the street, change the hedge fund’s name, and try again. Of course there are those successful hedge fund managers who have learned how to manipulate the system and exploit information to their advantage, but many of those managers like Raj Rajaratnam and Steven Cohen are either behind bars or dealing with the Feds (see fantastic Frontline piece on Cohen).           

But not everyone cheats. There actually are a minority of managers who consistently beat the market by taking a long-term approach like Warren Buffett. Long-term outperforming managers are like lifetime .300 hitters in Major League Baseball – the outperformers exist, but they are rare. In 2007, AssociatedContent.com did a study that showed there were only 12 active career .300 hitters in Major League Baseball.

Another legend in the investment industry is John Bogle, the founder of the Vanguard Group, a firm primarily focused on passive, index-based investment strategies. Although it is counter-intuitive to most, just matching the market (or index) will put you in the top-quartile over the long-run (see Darts, Monkeys & Pros). There’s a reason Vanguard manages more than $2,000,000,000,000+ (yes…trillion) of investors’ money. Even at this gargantuan size, Vanguard remains a fraction of the overall industry. Regardless, the gospel of low-cost, tax-efficient, long-term horizons is slowly leaking out to the masses (Disclosure: Sidoxia is a devoted user of Vanguard and other providers’ low-cost Exchange Traded Funds [ETFs]).

Rolling the Dice?

Unlike Las Vegas, where the odds are stacked against you, in the stock market the odds are stacked in your favor if you stay in the game long enough and don’t chase performance. Dr. Ed Yardeni has a great chart (below) summarizing stock market returns over the last 85 years, and what the data highlights is that the market is up (or flat) 69% of the time (59/86 years). The probabilities are so favorable that if I got comparable odds in Vegas, I’d probably live there!

Source: Dr. Ed's Blog

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

Unfortunately, rather than using this time arbitrage in conjunction with the incredible power of compounding (see A Penny Saved is Billions Earned), many individuals look at the stock market like a casino – similarly to betting on black or red at a roulette wheel. Speculating about the direction of the market can be fun, and I’ve been known to guess on occasion, but it’s a complete waste of time. Creating a long-term plan of reaching or maintaining your retirement goals through a diversified portfolio is the way to go – not bobbing in out of the market with cash and bonds.

At Sidoxia, we don’t actively trade and time individual stocks either. For the majority of our client portfolios, we follow a growth philosophy similar to the late T. Rowe Price:

“The growth stock theory of investing requires patience, but is less stressful than trading, generally has less risk, and reduces brokerage commissions and income taxes.”

Nobody knows the direction of the stocks with certainty, and irrespective of whether the market goes down this year or not, history has proven the stock market has been a shrewd, long-term bet. 

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

February 8, 2014 at 1:10 pm 2 comments

Bernanke: Santa Claus or Grinch?

Santa - Grinch

I’ve written plenty about my thoughts on the Fed (see Fed Fatigue) and all the blathering from the media talking heads. Debates about the timing and probability of a Fed “taper” decision came to a crescendo in the recent week. As is often the case, the exact opposite of what the pundits expected actually happened. It was not a huge surprise the Federal Reserve initiated a $10 billion tapering of its $85 billion monthly bond buying program, but going into this week’s announcement, the betting money was putting their dollars on the status quo.

With the holiday season upon us, investors must determine whether the tapered QE1/QE2/QE3 gifts delivered by Bernanke are a cause for concern. So the key question is, will this Santa Claus rally prance into 2014, or will the Grinch use the taper as an excuse to steal this multi-year bull market gift away?

Regardless of your viewpoint, what we did learn from this week’s Fed announcement is that this initial move by the Fed will be a baby step, reducing mortgage-backed and Treasury security purchases by a measly $5 billion each. I say that tongue in cheek because the total global bond market has been estimated at about $80,000,000,000,000 (that’s $80 trillion).

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the Fed gets way too much credit (blame) for their impact on interest rates (see Interest Rates: Perception vs Reality). Interest rates even before this announcement were as high/higher than when QE1 was instituted. What’s more, if the Fed has such artificial influence over interest rates, then why do Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland all have lower 10-year yields than the U.S.? Maybe their central banks are just more powerful than our Fed? Unlikely.

Dow 128,000 in 2053

Readers of Investing Caffeine know I have followed the lead of investing greats like Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch, who believe trying to time the markets is a waste of your time. In a recent Lynch interview, earlier this month, Charlie Rose asked for Lynch’s opinion regarding the stock market, given the current record high levels. Here’s what he had to say:

“I think the market is fairly priced on what is happening right now. You have to say to yourself, is five years from now, 10 years from now, corporate profits are growing about 7 or 8% a year. That means they double, including dividends, about every 10 years, quadruple every 20, go up 8-fold every 40. That’s the kind of numbers you are interested in. The 10-year bond today is a little over 2%. So I think the stock market is the best place to be for the next 10, 20, 30 years. The next two years? No idea. I’ve never known what the next two years are going to bring.”

READ MORE ABOUT PETER LYNCH HERE

Guessing is Fun but Fruitless

I freely admit it. I’m a stock-a-holic and member of S.A. (Stock-a-holic’s Anonymous). I enjoy debating the future direction of the economy and financial markets, not only because it is fun, but also because without these topics my blog would likely go extinct. The reality of the situation is that my hobby of thinking and writing about the financial markets has no direct impact on my investment decisions for me or my clients.

There is no question that stocks go down during recessions, and an average investor will likely live through at least another half-dozen recessions in their lifetime. Unfortunately, speculators have learned firsthand about the dangers of trading based on economic and/or political headlines during volatile cycles. That doesn’t mean everyone should buy and do nothing. If done properly, it can be quite advantageous to periodically rebalance your portfolio through the use of various valuation and macro metrics as a means to objectively protect/enhance your portfolio’s performance. For example, cutting exposure to cyclical and debt-laden companies going into an economic downturn is probably wise. Reducing long-term Treasury positions during a period of near-record low interest rates (see Confessions of a Bond Hater) as the economy strengthens is also likely a shrewd move.

As we have seen over the last five years, the net result of investor portfolio shuffling has been a lot of pain. The acts of panic-selling caused damaging losses for numerous reasons, including a combination of agonizing transactions costs; increased inflation-decaying cash positions; burdensome taxes; and a mass migration into low-yielding bonds. After major indexes have virtually tripled from the 2009 lows, many investors are now left with the gut-wrenching decision of whether to get back into stocks as the markets reach new highs.

As the bulls continue to point to the scores of gifts still lying under the Christmas tree, the bears are left hoping that new Fed Grinch Yellen will come and steal all the presents, trees, and food from the planned 2014 economic feast. There are still six trading days left in the year, so Santa Bernanke cannot finish wrapping up his +30% S&P 500 total return gift quite yet. Nevertheless, ever since the initial taper announcement, stocks have moved higher and Bernanke has equity investors singing “Joy to the World!

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

December 22, 2013 at 1:45 am Leave a comment

Can Good News be Good News?

Smiley Face

There has been a lot of hyper-taper sensitivity of late, ever since Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke broached the subject of reducing the monthly $85 billion bond buying stimulus program during the spring. With a better than expected ADP jobs report on Wednesday and a weekly jobless claims figure on Thursday, everyone (myself) included was nervously bracing for hot November jobs number on Friday. Why fret about potentially good economic numbers? Firstly, as a money manager my primary job is to fret, and secondarily, stronger than forecasted job additions in November would likely feed the fear monster with inflation and taper alarm, thus resulting in a triple digit Dow decline and a 20 basis point spike in 10-year Treasury rates. Right?

Well, the triple digit Dow move indeed came to fruition…but in the wrong direction. Rather than cratering, the Dow exploded higher by +200 points above 16,000 once again. Any worry of a potential bond market thrashing fizzled out to a flattish whimper in the 10-year Treasury yield (to approximately 2.86%). You certainly should not extrapolate one data point or one day of trading as a guaranteed indicator of future price directions. But, in the coming weeks and months, if the economic recovery gains steam I will be paying attention to how the market reacts to an inevitable Fed tapering and likely rise in interest rates.

The Expectations Game

Interpreting the correlation between the tone of news and stock direction is a challenging endeavor for most (see Circular Conversations & Tweet), but stock prices going up on bad news has not a been a new phenomenon. Many will argue the economy has been limp and the news flow extremely weak since stock prices bottomed in early 2009 (i.e., Europe, Iran, Syria, deficits, debt downgrade, unemployment, government shutdown, sequestration, taxes, etc.), yet actual stock prices have chugged higher, nearly tripling in value. There is one word that reconciles the counterintuitive link between ugly news and handsome gains…EXPECTATIONS. When expectations in 2009 were rapidly shifting towards a Great Depression and/or Armageddon scenario, it didn’t take much to move stock prices higher. In fact, sluggish growth coupled with historically low interest rates were enough to catapult equity indices upwards – even after factoring in a dysfunctional, ineffectual political backdrop.

From a longer term economic cycle perspective, this recovery, as measured by job creation, has been the slowest since World War II (see Calculated Risk chart below). However, if you consider other major garden variety historical global banking crises, our crisis is not much different (see Oregon economic study). 

EmploymentCalcRiskRecAlignNov2013

While it’s true that stock prices can go up on bad news (and go down on good news), it is also possible for prices to go up on good news. Friday’s trading action after the jobs report is the proof of concept. As I’ve stated before, with the meteoric rise in stock prices, it’s my view the low hanging profitable fruit has been plucked, but there is still plenty of fruit on the trees (see Missing the Pre-Party).  I am not the only person who shares this view.

Recently, legendary investor Warren Buffett had this to say about stocks (Source: Louis Navellier):

“I don’t have concerns about this market.” Buffet said stocks are “in a zone of reasonableness. Five years ago,” Buffett said, “I wrote an article for The New York Times that said they were very cheap. And every now and then, you can see that that they’re very overpriced or very underpriced.” Today, “they’re definitely not way overpriced. They’re definitely not underpriced.” “If you live long enough,” Buffett said, “you’ll see a lot higher prices. I don’t know what stocks will do next week or next month or next year, but five or 10 years from now, they are very likely to be higher.”

 

However, up cycles eventually run their course. As stocks continue to go up on good news, ultimately they begin to go down on good news. Expectations in time tend to get too lofty, and the market begins to anticipate a downturn. Stock prices are continually incorporating information that reflects the direction of future earnings and cash flow prospects. Looking into the rearview mirror at historical results may have some value, but gazing through the windshield and anticipating what’s around the corner is more important.

Rather than getting caught up with the daily mental somersault exercises of interpreting what the tone of news headlines means to the stock market (see Sentiment Pendulum), it’s better to take a longer-term cyclical sentiment gauge. As you can see from the chart below, waiting for the bad news to end can mean missing half of the upward cycle. And the same principle applies to good news.

Good News Bad News1

Bad news can be good news for stock prices, and good news can be bad for stock prices. With the spate of recent positive results (i.e., accelerating purchasing manager data, robust auto sales, improving GDP, better job growth, and more new-home sales), perhaps good news will be good news for stock prices?

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

December 8, 2013 at 11:53 am 1 comment

QE: The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread*

Sliced Bread4

Quantitative easing (QE), or the Federal Reserve’s bond buying program, has been a spectacular success. Arguably, the greatest innovation since sliced bread. Don’t believe me? I mean, if you listen to many of the experts, strategists, economists, and blogosphere pundits, the magical elixir of QE can be the only explanation rationalizing the multi-year economic recovery and stock market boom. Don’t believe me? Well, apparently many of the bearish pros make sure to credit QE for all our financial/economic positives. For example…

  • QE is the reason the stock market is near all-time record highs.
  • QE created seven million jobs in the U.S. over the last four years.
  • QE turned around the housing market.
  • QE turned around the auto market.
  • QE weakened the U.S. dollar, resulting in flourishing exports.
  • QE has lowered borrowing rates, thereby cleansing consumer balance sheets through deleveraging.
  • QE is the reason Facebook Inc. (FB) hired 1,323 employees over the last year.
  • QE is the reason Google Inc. (GOOG) has spent $7.8 billion on R&D over the last year.
  • QE explains why McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) plans to open more than 1,400 stores this year.
  • QE explains why Warren Buffett and 3G capital paid $28 billion to buy Heinz.
  • QE is the reason Elon Musk and Tesla Motors (TSLA) invented the model S electric vehicle.
  • QE exhibits why Target Corp. (TGT) is expanding outside the U.S. into Canada.
  • QE is the reason why S&P 500 companies are expected to pay $300 billion in dividends this year.
  • QE is the reason why S&P 500 companies were buying back shares at a $400 billion clip this year.
  • QE is the basis for corporations spending billions on efficiency enhancing cloud-based services.
  • QE led to a record number of new FDA drug approvals last year.
  • QE has caused a natural gas production boom in numerous shale regions.

Wow…the list goes on and on! Heck, I even hear QE can take the corrosion off of a rusted car battery. Given how incredible this QE stuff is, why even consider tapering QE? Financial markets have been volatile on the heels of tapering the 3rd iteration of quantitative easing (QE3), but why slow QE3, when the FED could add more awesomeness with  QE4, QE10, QE 100, and QE 1,000?

All of this QE talk is so wonderful, but unfortunately, according to all the bearish pundits, QE has created an artificial sugar high, thus creating an asset bubble that is going to end in a disastrous cratering of financial markets. 

I know it’s entirely possible that QE may have absolutely nothing to do with the financial market recovery (other than a bid under Treasury & mortgage backed security prices), and also has no bearing on why I buy or sell stocks, but I guess I will need to hide in a cave when QE3 tapering begins. Although the end of dividends, share buybacks, housing/auto recoveries, acquisitions, expansion, innovation, etc., caused by QE tapering sure does not sound like a cheery outcome, at least I still have a loaf of sliced bread to make a sandwich.

*DISCLOSURE: For those readers not familiar with my writing style, I have been known to use a healthy dose of sarcasm. Call me if you want a deeper explanation.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE II : Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) and GOOG, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in FB, TSLA, MCD, BRKA, TGT, 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

August 24, 2013 at 11:40 pm 4 comments

The Most Hated Bull Market Ever

Hate

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

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

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

Crash Diet at the Buffet

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

20 Years…NOT 20 Days

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

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

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

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

July 27, 2013 at 12:34 am 4 comments

The Challenge of Defining Growth vs. Value

????????????????????????????????

“A challenge only becomes an obstacle when you bow to it.”

― Ray Davis (Famous General in the Marines)

In the investing world, one major challenge is defining the differences between “growth” vs. “value”. Warren Buffett said it best when he described growth and value as two separate sides of the same coin. In general, low or declining growth will be valued less than a comparable company with faster growth. Often, most companies go through a life cycle just like a human would (see Equity Life Cycle). In other words, companies frequently start small, grow larger, mature, and then die. Of course, some companies never grow, or because of lack of funding or outsized losses, end up suffering an early death. It’s tough to generalize with companies, because some businesses are more cat-like than human. For example, Apple Inc. (AAPL) may not have had nine lives, but the stock has been left for dead several times during its lifespan, before managing to resurrect itself from value status to growth darling (with a little assistance from Steve Jobs). Whether Tim Cook can lead Apple back to the Promised Land of growth remains to be seen, but many investors still see value.

Fluctuating price and earnings trends over a company’s life cycle frequently create confusion surrounding the proper categorization of a stock as growth or value. The other frustrating aspect to this debate is the absence of a universally accepted definition of growth and value. A few specialty companies have chosen to address this challenge. Russell Investments in Seattle, Washington is a leader in the benchmark/index creation field. Russell tackles the definitional issue by creating quantitatively based definitions, tediously explained in a thrilling 44-page paper titled, “Construction and Methodology.” Here is an exhilarating excerpt:

“Russell Investments uses a ‘non-linear probability’ method to assign stocks to the growth and value style valuation indexes. Russell uses three variables in the determination of growth and value. On the value side, book-to-price is used, while on the growth side, the I/B/E/S long-term growth variable was replaced by two variables- I/B/E/S forecast medium-term growth (2 yr) and sales per share historical growth (5 yr).”

 

As I bite my tongue in sarcasm, I like to point out that these methodologies constantly change – Russell most recently changed their methodology in 2011. What’s more, there are numerous other indexing companies that define growth and value quite differently (e.g., Standard & Poor’s, Lipper, MSCI, etc.).

Like religious beliefs that are viewed quite differently and are prone to passionate arguments, so too can be the debates over growth vs. value categorization. I’ve been brainwashed by numerous great investors (see Investor Hall Fame), and underpinning my philosophy is the belief that price follows earnings (see It’s the Earnings Stupid). As a result, I am constantly on the lookout for attractively priced stocks that have strong growth prospects. If Russell or S&P looked under the hood of my client portfolios, I’m certain they would find a healthy mix of growth and value stocks, as they define it. If they looked in Warren Buffett’s portfolio, arguably similar conclusions could be made. Most observers call Buffett a value investor, but over Buffett’s career, he has owned some of the greatest growth stocks of all-time (e.g., Coca Cola (KO), American Express Co (AXP), and Procter & Gamble (PG)).

At the end of the day, expectations embedded in the value of share prices determine future appreciation or depreciation, depending on how actual results register relative to those expectations. If stock prices are too high (as measured by the P/E, Price/Free-Cash-Flow, or other valuation metrics), slowing growth can lead to sharp and painful price declines. On the flip side, cheap or reasonably priced stocks can experience significant price appreciation if earnings and cash flows sustainably improve or accelerate.

In my view, the greatest stock pickers think about investing like sports handicapping (see What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Las Vegas). The key isn’t buying fast growth (high P/E) or slow growth (low P/E) companies, but rather discovering which stocks are mispriced. Finding heavily shorted stocks that are poised for growth, or discovering unloved stocks with underappreciated potential are both ways to make money.

While defining growth vs. value is certainly difficult, the more important challenge is calibrating a company’s future growth expectations and determining the fair price to pay for a stock based on those prospects. Investing entails many difficulties, but categorizing investors or stocks as growth or value is a less important challenge than honing forecasting and valuation skills. Investing is challenging enough without worrying about superfluous growth vs. value definitions.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in KO, AXP, PG, MHP, 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, 2013 at 11:24 am Leave a comment

M&A Bankers Away as Elephant Hunters Play

hunter pointing rifle in blaze orange gear

With trillions in cash sitting in CEO and private equity wallets, investment bankers have been chasing mergers & acquisitions with a vengeance. Unfortunately for the bankers, investor skittishness has slowed merger activity in the boardroom. Rather than aggressively stalk corporate prey, bidders look more like deer in headlights. However, animal spirits are not completely dead. Some board members have seen the light and realize the value-destroying characteristics of idle cash in a near-zero interest rate environment, so they have decided to go elephant hunting. During a nine day period alone in the first quarter of 2013, a total of $87.7 billion in elephant deals were announced:

  • HJ Heinz Company (HNZ – $27.4 billion) – February 14, 2013 – Bidder: Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA)/ 3G Capital Partners.
  • Virgin Media Inc. (VMED – $21.9 billion) – February 6, 2013 – Bidder: Liberty Global Inc. (LBTYA).
  • Dell Inc. (DELL – $21.8 billion) – February 5, 2013 – Bidder: Silver Lake Partners LP, Michael Dell, Carl Icahn.
  • NBCUniversal Media LLC 49% Stake (GE- $17.6 billion) – February 12, 2013 – Bidder: Comcast Corp. (CMCSA).

These elephant deals helped the overall M&A deal values in the United States increase by +34% in Q1 from a year ago to $167 billion (see Mergermarket report). Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t look so good on a global basis. The overall value for global M&A deals in Q1 registered $418 billion, down -7% from the first quarter of 2012. On a transaction basis, there were a total of 2,621 deals during the first three months of the year, down -20% from 3,262 deals in the comparable period last year.

Source: Mergermarket

Source: Mergermarket

With central banks across the globe pumping liquidity into the financial system and the U.S. stock market near record highs, one would think buyers would be writing big M&A checks as they wrote poems about rainbows, puppy dogs, and flowers. This is obviously not the case, so why such the sour mood?

The biggest scapegoat right now is Europe. While the U.S. economy appears to be slowly-but-surely plodding along on its economic recovery, Europe continues to dig a deeper recessionary hole. Austerity-driven fiscal policies are hindering growth, and concerns surrounding a Cypriot contagion continue to grab headlines. Although the U.S. dollar value of deals was up substantially in Q1, the number of transactions was down significantly to 703 deals from 925 in Q1-2012 (-24%). Besides buyer nervousness, unfriendly tax policy could have accelerated deals into 2012, and stole business from 2013.

Besides lackluster global M&A volume, the record low EBITDA multiples on private equity exit prices is proof that skepticism on the sustainability of the economic recovery remains uninspired. With exit multiples at a meager level of 8.2x globally, many investors are holding onto their companies longer than they would like.

Source: Mergermarket

Source: Mergermarket

While merger activity has been a mixed bag, a bright spot in the M&A world has been the action in emerging markets. In 2012, the value of global transactions was essentially flat, yet emerging market deal values were up approximately +9% to $524 billion. This value exceeded the pre-crisis M&A activity level in 2007 by $73 billion, a feat not achieved in the other regions around the globe. Although emerging markets also pulled back in Q1, this region now account for 23% of total global M&A deal values.

Elephant buyout deals in the private equity space (skewed heavily by the Heinz & Dell deals) caused results to surge in this segment during the first quarter. Private equity related buyouts accounted for the highest share of global M&A activity (~21%) since 2007. However, like the overall U.S. M&A market, the number of Q1 transactions in the buyout space (372 transactions) declined to the lowest count in about four years.

Until skepticism turns into confidence, elephant deals will continue to distort results in the M&A sector (Echostar’s [DISH] play for Sprint [S] is further evidence). However, the existence of these giant transactions could be a leading indicator for more activity in the coming quarters. If bankers want to generate more fees, they may consider giving Warren Buffett a call. Here’s what he had to say after the announcement of the Heinz deal:

“I’m ready for another elephant. Please, if you see any walking by, just call me.”

 

Despite the weak overall M&A activity, the hunters are out there and they have plenty of ammunition (cash).

See also: Mergermarket Monthly M&A Insider Report (April 2013)

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) and CMCSA, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HNZ, BRKA, VMED, LBTYA, DELL, GE, DISH, S 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 21, 2013 at 6:57 pm Leave a comment

Monitoring the Tricks Hidden Up Corporate Sleeves

Cheating

As Warren Buffett correctly states, “If you are in a poker game and after 20 minutes, you don’t know who the patsy is, then you are the patsy.” The same principle applies to investing and financial analysis. If you are unable to determine who is cooking (or warming) the books via deceptive practices, then you will be left holding a bag of losses as tears of regret pour down your face. The name of the stock investing game (not speculation game) is to accurately gauge the financial condition of a company and then to correctly forecast the trajectory of future earnings and cash flows.

Unfortunately for investors, many companies work quite diligently to obscure, hide, and distort the accuracy of their current financial condition. Without the ability of making a proper assessment of a company’s financials, an investor by definition will be unable to value stocks.

There are scores of accounting tricks that companies hide up their sleeves to mislead investors. Many people consider GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) as the laws or rules governing financial reporting, but GAAP parameters actually provide companies with extensive latitude in the way accounting reports are implemented. Here are a few of the ways companies exercise their wiggle room in disclosing financial results:

Depreciation Schedules: Related to GAAP accounting, adjustments to longevity estimates by a company’s management team can tremendously impact a company’s reported earnings. For example, if a $10 million manufacturing plant is expected to last 10 years, then the depreciation expense should be $1 million per year ($10m ÷ 10 years). If for some reason the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) suddenly changes his/her mind and decides the building should last 40 years rather than 10 years, then the company’s annual expense would miraculously decrease -75% to $250,000. Voila, an instant $750,000 annual gain created out of thin air! Other depreciation tricks include the choice of accelerated or straight-line depreciation.

Capitalizing Expenses: If you were a management team member with a goal of maximizing current reported profitability, would you be excited to learn that you are not required to report expenses on your income statement? For many the answer is absolutely “yes”.  A common example of this phenomenon occurs with companies in the software industry (or other companies with heavy research and development), where research expenses normally recognized on the income statement get converted instead to capitalized assets on the balance sheet. Eventually these capitalized assets get amortized (recognized as expenses) on the income statement. Proponents argue capitalizing expenses better matches future revenues to future expenses, but regardless, this scheme boosts current reported earnings, and delays expense recognition.

Stuffing the Channel: No, this is not a personal problem, but rather occurs when companies force their goods on a distributor or customer – even if the goods (or service) are not requested. This deceitful practice is performed to drive up short-term revenue, even if the reporting company receives no cash for the “stuffing”. Ballooning receivables and substandard cash flow generation can be a sign of this cunning, corporate custom.

Accounts Receivable/Loans: Ballooning receivables is a potential sign of juiced reported revenues and profits, but there are more nuanced ways of manipulating income. For instance, if management temporarily lowers warranty expenses and product return assumptions, short-term profits can be artificially boosted. In addition, when discussing financial figures for banks, loans can also be considered receivables. As we experienced in the last financial crisis, many banks under-provisioned for future bad loans (i.e. didn’t create enough cash reserves for misled/deadbeat borrowers), thereby overstating the true, underlying, fundamental earnings power of the banks.

Inventories: As it relates to inventories, GAAP accounting allows for FIFO (First-In, First-Out) or LIFO (Last-In, Last-Out) recognition of expenses. Depending on whether prices of inventories are rising or falling, the choice of accounting method could boost reported results.

Pension Assumptions: Most companies like their employees…but not the expenses they have to pay in order to keep them. Employee expenses can become excessively burdensome, especially for those companies offering their employees a defined benefit pension plan. GAAP rules mandate employers to contribute cash to the pension plan (i.e., retirement fund) if the returns earned on the assets (i.e., stocks & bonds) are below previous company assumptions. One temporary fix to an underfunded pension is for companies to assume higher plan returns in the future.  For example, if companies raise their return assumptions on plan assets from 5% to a higher rate of 10%, then profits for the company are likely to rise, all else equal.

Non-GAAP (or Pro Forma): Why would companies report Non-GAAP numbers on their financial reports rather than GAAP earnings? The simple answer is that Non-GAAP numbers appear cosmetically higher than GAAP figures, and therefore preferred by companies for investor dissemination purposes.

Merger Magic: Typically when a merger or acquisition takes place, the acquiring company announces a bunch of one-time expenses that they want investors to ignore. Since there are so many moving pieces in a merger, that means there is also more opportunities to use smoke and mirrors. The recent $8.8 billion write-off of Hewlett-Packard’s (HPQ) acquisition of Autonomy is evidence of merger magic performed.

EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest Taxes Depreciation & Amortization): Skeptics, like myself, call this metric “earnings before all expenses.” Or as Charlie Munger says, Warren Buffett’s right-hand man, “Every time you see the word EBITDA, substitute it with the words ‘bulls*it earnings’!”

This is only a short-list of corporate accounting gimmicks used to distort financial results, so for the sake of your investment portfolio, please check for any potential tricks up a company’s sleeve before making an investment.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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

February 24, 2013 at 12:54 am 1 comment

Uncertainty: Love It or Hate It?

Source: Photobucket

Source: Photobucket

Uncertainty is like a fin you see cutting through the water – many people are uncertain whether the fin sticking out of the water is a great white shark or a dolphin? Uncertainty generates fear, and fear often produces paralysis. This financially unproductive phenomenon has also reared its ugly fin in the investment world, which has led to low-yield apathy, and desensitization to both interest rate and inflation risks.

The mass exodus out of stocks into bonds worked well for the very few that timed an early 2008 exit out of equities, but since early 2009, the performance of stocks has handily trounced bonds (the S&P has outperformed the bond market (BND) by almost 100% since the beginning of March 2009, if you exclude dividends and interest). While the cozy comfort of bonds has suited investors over the last five years, a rude awakening awaits the bond-heavy masses when the uncertain economic clouds surrounding us eventually lift.

The Certainty of Uncertainty

What do we know about uncertainty? Well for starters, we know that uncertainty cannot be avoided. Or as former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin stated so aptly, “Nothing is certain – except uncertainty.”

Why in the world would one of the world’s richest and most successful investors like Warren Buffett embrace uncertainty by imploring investors to “buy fear, and sell greed?” How can Buffett’s statement be valid when the mantra we continually hear spewed over the airwaves is that “investors hate uncertainty and love clarity?” The short answer is that clarity is costly (i.e., investors are forced to pay a cherry price for certainty). Dean Witter, the founder of his namesake brokerage firm in 1924, addressed the issue of certainty in these shrewd comments he made some 78 years ago, right before the end of worst bear market in history:

“Some people say they want to wait for a clearer view of the future. But when the future is again clear, the present bargains will have vanished.”

 

Undoubtedly, some investors hate uncertainty, but I think there needs to be a distinction between good investors and bad investors. Don Hays, the strategist at Hays Advisory, straightforwardly notes, “Good investors love uncertainty.”

When everything is clear to everyone, including the novice investing cab driver and hairdresser, like in the late 1990s technology bubble, the actual risk is in fact far greater than the perceived risk. Or as Morgan Housel from Motley Fool sarcastically points out, “Someone remind me when economic uncertainty didn’t exist. 2000? 2007?”

What’s There to Worry About?

I’ve heard financial bears argue a lot of things, but I haven’t heard any make the case there is little uncertainty currently. I’ll let you be the judge by listing these following issues I read and listen to on a daily basis:

  • Fiscal cliff induced recession risks
  • Syria’s potential use of chemical weapons
  • Iran’s destabilizing nuclear program
  • North Korean missile tests by questionable new regime
  • Potential Greek debt default and exit from the eurozone
  • QE3 (Quantitative Easing) and looming inflation and asset bubble(s)
  • Higher taxes
  • Lower entitlements
  • Fear of the collapse in the U.S. dollar’s value
  • Rigged Wall Street game
  • Excessive Dodd-Frank financial regulation
  • Obamacare
  • High Frequency Trading / Flash Crash
  • Unsustainably growing healthcare costs
  • Exploding college tuition rates
  • Global warming and superstorms
  • Etc.
  • Etc.
  • Etc.

I could go on for another page or two, but I think you get the gist. While I freely admit there is much less uncertainty than we experienced in the 2008-2009 timeframe, investors’ still remain very cautious. The trillions of dollars hemorrhaging out of stocks into bonds helps make my case fairly clear.

As investors plan for a future entitlement-light world, nobody can confidently count on Social Security and Medicare to help fund our umbrella-drink-filled vacations and senior tour golf outings. Today, the risk of parking your life savings in low-rate wealth destroying investment vehicles should be a major concern for all long-term investors. As I continually remind Investing Caffeine readers, bonds have a place in all portfolios, especially for income dependent retirees. However, any truly diversified portfolio will have exposure to equities, as long as the allocation in the investment plan meshes with the individual’s risk tolerance and liquidity needs.

Given all the uncertain floating fins lurking in the economic background, what would I tell investors to do with their hard-earned money? I simply defer to my pal (figuratively speaking), Warren Buffett, who recently said in a Charlie Rose interview, “Overwhelmingly, for people that can invest over time, equities are the best place to put their money.” For the vast majority of investors who should have an investment time horizon of more than 10 years, that is a question I can answer with certainty.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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

December 9, 2012 at 1:37 am 4 comments

Older Posts


Subscribe to Blog

Meet Wade Slome, CFA, CFP®

More on Sidoxia Services

Recognition

Top Financial Advisor Blogs And Bloggers – Rankings From Nerd’s Eye View | Kitces.com

Wade on Twitter…

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,035 other followers