Archive for January, 2016
Like a full plane hitting a rough patch of turbulence, investors have been shaken by the recent price volatility in the stock market over concerns of a slowing Chinese economy, plummeting oil prices, and a host of other alarming headlines. As a result, investors are left picking up the pieces of the S&P 500 decline, which currently sits off -11% from its 2015 highs (down -15% at the 1/20/16 low). The picture looks even uglier if you consider the Russell 2000 small cap index, which has collapsed -21% from its 2015 highs (-26% at the 1/20/16 low).
What now, and what does this mean? There has been all kinds of crazy technical trading activity occurring around heavy options expirations, stop-loss selling, and short cover buying. With all the frenetic gyrations in the stock market (e.g., 2,000 point swing in the Dow Jones over the last month), there have been no shortage of opinions on TV, on the internet or at the watercooler. However, the best sage advice probably came from 86-year-old investor legend, John “Jack” Bogle (founder of Vanguard Group – $3.4 trillion in assets under management at 12/31/15), who emphatically told investors to “Don’t do something…just stand there!”
The advice to “stay the course” can be very counter-intuitive to human nature. In periods of stress, our brains tend to revert back to our ancestors’ Darwinian survival instincts, which tell us to flee from the ferocious lion (see also Controlling the Investment Lizard Brain). The fact is these periods of turbulence are normal – no different than a bumpy flight into San Francisco. In fact, we’ve hit quite a few choppy air pockets in recent years:
- Debt Downgrade/Debt Ceiling Debate/European PIIGS Crisis (-22% in 2011)
- Arab Spring/Grexit Fears (-11% in 2012)
- Fed Taper Tantrum (-8% in 2013)
- Ebola Outbreak (-10% in 2014)
- China Slowdown Fears (-13% in 2015)
Through all of this mayhem, including the current 2016 dip, the stock market has still managed to rise an impressive +77% since the 2011 pullback, which sure beats the sub-1% yield earned on bank CDs.
Inevitably, with the recent price breakdown, speculation has begun to swirl around the dreaded “R”-word (aka, recession) again. In general, this is a fruitless effort. When the smartest Nobel Prize winning economists fail miserably at predicting recessions, it’s hard to believe you or I will have a much better success rate. The great investor Peter Lynch astutely summed up recession forecasting as follows:
“It’s lovely to know when there’s recession. I don’t remember anybody predicting 1982 we’re going to have 14 percent inflation, 12 percent unemployment, a 20 percent prime rate, you know, the worst recession since the Depression. I don’t remember any of that being predicted. It just happened. It was there. It was ugly. And I don’t remember anybody telling me about it. So I don’t worry about any of that stuff. I’ve always said if you spend 13 minutes a year on economics, you’ve wasted 10 minutes.”
The noted Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Samuelson offered this shrewd observation on recessions as well:
“The stock market has called nine of the last five recessions.”
In other words, the stock market can predict recessions, but often times it is a horrible indicator for the health of the economy (e.g., see 2011-2015 above).
While I am definitely not a Nobel Prize winning economist, I can objectively point to supporting evidence showing we currently are not on the edge of a new recession. It is certainly true that a strong U.S. dollar and a Q4 energy earnings deterioration has been a drag on earnings, but these factors only paint a small part of the picture. Without going into gory economic detail, you do not need to be an expert to understand basic macro trends like employment, housing, auto sales, gasoline prices, and interest rates are providing a buttress to the economy.
As you can see from the chart below, the -73% cut in Q4 energy sector earnings, along with challenged exports from multinational corporations, has pressured profitability in the S&P 500. However, if you strip out the energy sector, earnings continue to grow. And although it’s early in the 2016 earnings reporting season, so far 73% of companies are beating estimates by 3% on average.
The economic winds are definitely spinning, and we may not be completely through the turbulence, but rather than panicking, you’re probably best served by following the advice of Jack Bogle by standing through the turmoil and look for opportunities when the volatility settles.
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 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.
During periods of heightened volatility like those recently experienced, it’s easy to get caught up in the emotional heat of the moment. I find time is better spent returning to essential investing fundamentals, like the ones I read in the investment classic by Charles Ellis, Winning the Loser’s Game – “WTLG”. To put my enthusiasm in perspective, WTLG has even achieved the elite and privileged distinction of making the distinguished “Recommended Reading” list of Investing Caffeine (located along the right-side of the page). Wow…now I know you are really impressed.
The Man, The Myth, the Ellis
For those not familiar with Charley Ellis, he has a long, storied investment career. Not only has he authored 12 books, including compilations on Goldman Sachs (GS) and Capital Group, but his professional career dates back prior to 1972, when he founded institutional consulting firm Greenwich Associates. Besides earning a college degree from Yale University, and an MBA from Harvard Business School, he also garnered a PhD from New York University. Ellis also is a director at the Vanguard Group and served as Investment Committee chair at Yale University along investment great David Swensen (read also Super Swensen) from 1992 – 2008.
With this tremendous investment experience come tremendous insights. The original book, which was published in 1998, is already worth its weight in gold (even at $1,384 per ounce), but the fifth edition of WTLG is even more valuable because it has been updated with Ellis’s perspectives on the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
Because the breadth of topics covered is so vast and indispensable, I will break the WTLG review into a few parts for digestibility. I will start off with the these hand-picked nuggets:
Defining the “Loser’s Game”
Here is how Charles Ellis describes the investment “loser’s game”:
“For professional investors, “the ‘money game’ we call investment management evolved in recent decades from a winner’s game to a loser’s game because a basic change has occurred in the investment environment: The market came to be dominated in the 1970s and 1980s by the very institutions that were striving to win by outperforming the market. No longer is the active investment manager competing with cautious custodians or amateurs who are out of touch with the market. Now he or she competes with other hardworking investment experts in a loser’s game where the secret to winning is to lose less than others lose.”
Underperformance by Active Managers
Readers that have followed Investing Caffeine for a while understand how I feel about passive (low-cost do-nothing strategy) and active management (portfolio managers constantly buying and selling) – read Darts, Monkeys & Pros. Ellis’s views are not a whole lot different than mine – here is what he has to say while not holding back any punches:
“The basic assumption that most institutional investors can outperform the market is false. The institutions are the market. They cannot, as a group, outperform themselves. In fact, given the cost of active management – fees, commissions, market impact of big transactions, and so forth-85 percent of investment managers have and will continue over the long term to underperform the overall market.”
He goes on to say individuals do even worse, especially those that day trade, which he calls a “sucker’s game.”
Exceptions to the Rule
Ellis’s bias towards passive management is clear because “over the long term 85 percent of active managers fall short of the market. And it’s nearly impossible to figure out ahead of time which managers will make it into the top 15 percent.” He does, however, acknowledge there is a minority of professionals that can beat the market by making fewer mistakes or taking advantage of others’ mistakes. Ellis advocates a slow approach to investing, which bases “decisions on research with a long-term focus that will catch other investors obsessing about the short term and cavitating – producing bubbles.” This is the strategy and approach I aim to achieve.
Gaining an Unfair Competitive Advantage
According to Ellis, there are four ways to gain an unfair competitive advantage in the investment world:
1) Physical Approach: Beat others by carrying heavier brief cases and working longer hours.
2) Intellectual Approach: Outperform by thinking more deeply and further out in the future.
3) Calm-Rational Approach: Ellis describes this path to success as “benign neglect” – a method that beats the others by ignoring both favorable and adverse market conditions, which may lead to suboptimal decisions.
4) Join ‘em Approach: The easiest way to beat active managers is to invest through index funds. If you can’t beat index funds, then join ‘em.
The Case for Stocks
Investor time horizon plays a large role on asset allocation, but time is on investors’ side for long-term equity investors:
“That’s why in the long term, the risks are clearly lowest for stocks, but in the short term, the risks are just as clearly highest for stocks.”
Expanding on that point, Ellis points out the following:
“Any funds that will stay invested for 10 years or longer should be in stocks. Any funds that will be invested for less than two to three years should be in “cash” or money market instruments.”
While many people may feel stock investing is dead, but Ellis points out that equities should return more in the long-run:
“There must be a higher rate of return on stocks to persuade investors to accept risks of equity investing.”
The Power of Regression to the Mean
Investors do more damage to performance by chasing winners and punishing losers because they lose the powerful benefits of “regression to the mean.” Ellis describes this tendency for behavior to move toward an average as “a persistently powerful phenomenon in physics and sociology – and in investing.” He goes on to add, good investors know “that the farther current events are away from the mean at the center of the bell curve, the stronger the forces of reversion, or regression, to the mean, are pulling the current data toward the center.”
The Power of Compounding
For a 75 year period (roughly 1925 – 2000) analyzed by Ellis, he determines $1 invested in stocks would have grown to $105.96, if dividends were not reinvested. If, however, dividends are reinvested, the power of compounding kicks in significantly. For the same 75 year period, the equivalent $1 would have grown to $2,591.79 – almost 25x’s more than the other method (see also Penny Saved is Billion Earned).
Ellis throws in another compounding example:
“Remember that if investments increase by 7 percent per annum after income tax, they will double every 10 years, so $1 million can become $1 billion in 100 years (before adjusting for inflation).”
The Lessons of History
As philosopher George Santayana stated – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Details of every market are different, but as Ellis notes, “The major characteristics of markets are remarkably similar over time.”
Ellis appreciates the importance of history plays in analyzing the markets:
“The more you study market history, the better; the more you know about how securities markets have behaved in the past, the more you’ll understand their true nature and how they probably will behave in the future. Such an understanding enables us to live rationally with markets that would otherwise seem wholly irrational.”
Home Sweet International Home
Although Ellis’s recommendation to diversify internationally is not controversial, his allocation recommendation regarding “full diversification” is a bit more provocative:
“For Americans, this would mean about half our portfolios would be invested outside the United States.”
This seems high by traditional standards, but considering our country’s shrinking share of global GDP (Gross Domestic Product), along with our relatively small share of the globe’s population (about 5% of the world’s total), the 50% percentage doesn’t seem as high at first blush.
Beware the Broker
“Those oh so caring and helpful salespeople make their money by convincing you to change funds. Friendly as they may be, they may be no friend to your long-term investment success.”
Unlike a lot of other investing books, which cover a few aspects to investing, Winning the Loser’s Game covers a gamut of crucial investment lessons in a straightforward, understandable fashion. A lot of people play the investing game, but as Charles Ellis details, many more investors and speculators lose than win. For any investor, from amateur to professional, reading Ellis’s Winning the Loser’s Game and following his philosophy will not only help increase the odds of your portfolio winning, but will also limit your losses in sleep hours.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in GS, 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.
The headlines haven’t been very rosy over the last week, but when is that ever not the case? Simply put, gloom and doom sells. The Chinese stock market is collapsing; the Yuan is plummeting; there are rising tensions in the Middle East; terrorism is rising to the fore; and commodity prices are falling apart at the seams. This is only a partial snapshot of course, and does not paint a complete or accurate picture. Near record-low interest rates; record corporate profits (outside of energy); record-low oil prices; unprecedented accommodative central bank policies; and attractive valuations are but a few of the positive, countervailing factors that rarely surface through the media outlets.
At the end of the day, smart long-term investors understand investing in financial markets is a lot like grocery store shopping. Similarly to stocks and bonds, prices at the supermarket fluctuate daily. Whether you’re comparing beef (bonds) and chicken (stocks) prices in the meat department (stock market), or apple (real estate) and orange (commodities) prices in the produce department (global financial markets), ultimately, shrewd shoppers eventually migrate towards purchasing the best values. Since the onset of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, risk aversion has dominated over value-based prudence as evidenced by investors flocking towards the perceived safety of cash, Treasury bonds, and other fixed income securities that are expensively priced near record highs. As you can see from the chart below, investors poured $1.2 trillion into bonds and effectively $0 into stocks. Consumers may still be eating lots of steaks (bonds) currently priced at $6.08/lb while chicken (stocks) is at $1.48/lb (see U.S. Department of Labor Data – Nov. 2015), but at some point, risk aversion will abate, and consumers will adjust their preferences towards the bargain product.
Some Shoppers Still Buying Chicken
While the general public may have missed the massive bull market in stocks, astute corporate executives and investment managers took advantage of the equity bargains in recent years, as seen by stock prices tripling from the March 2009 lows. As corporate profits and margins have marched to record levels, CEOs/CFOs put their money where their mouths are by investing trillions of dollars into share buybacks and mergers & acquisitions transactions.
Despite the advance in the multi-year bull market, with the recent sell-off, panic has once again dominated rational thinking. We see this rare phenomenon (a few times over the last century) manifest itself through a stock market dividend yield that exceeds the yield on Treasury bonds (2.2% S&P 500 vs 2.1% 10-Year Treasury). But if we are once again comparing beef vs. chicken prices (bonds vs stocks), the 6% earnings yield on stocks (i.e., Inverse P/E ratio or E/P) now looks even more compelling relative to the 2% yield on bonds. For example, the iShares Core U.S. Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG) is currently yielding a meager 2.3%.
For a general overview, Scott Grannis at Calafia Beach Pundit summarizes the grocery store flyer of investment options below:
While these yield relationships can and will certainly change under various economic scenarios, there are no concrete signs of an impending recession. The recent employment data of 292,000 new jobs added during December (above the 200,000 estimate) is verification that the economy is not falling off a cliff into recession (see chart below). As I’ve written in the past, the positively-sloped yield curve also bolsters the case for an expansionary economy.
While it’s true the Chinese economy is slowing, its rate is still growing at multiples of the U.S. economy. As a communist country liberalizes currency and stock market capital controls (i.e., adds/removes circuit breakers), and also attempts to migrate the economy from export-driven growth to consumer-driven expansion, periodic bumps and bruises should surprise nobody. With that said, China’s economy is slowly moving in the right direction and the government will continue to implement policies and programs to stimulate growth (see China Leaders Flag More Stimulus).
As we have recently experienced another China-driven correction in the stock market, and the U.S. economic expansion matures, equity investors must realize volatility is the price of admission for earning higher long-term returns. However, rather than panicking from fear-driven headlines, it’s times like these that should remind you to sharpen your shopping list pencil. You want to prudently allocate your investment dollars when deciding whether now’s the time to buy chicken (6% yield) or beef (2% yield).
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 AGG, but at the time of publishing 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.
This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (January 4, 2016). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.
Did you enjoy your New Year’s festivities? If you were like me and ate excessively and drank too much egg nog, you may have decided along the line to take a nap. It’s not a bad idea to recharge those batteries before implementing those New Year’s resolutions and jumping on the treadmill. That’s exactly what happened in the financial markets this year. After six consecutive years of positive returns in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (2009 – 2014), stock markets took a snooze in 2015, as measured by the S&P 500 and Dow, which were each down -0.7% and -2.2%, respectively. And bonds didn’t fare any better, evidenced by the -1.9% decline in the Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG), over the same time period. Given the deep-seated fears about the Federal Reserve potentially catapulting interest rates higher in 2015, investors effectively took a big yawn by barely nudging the 10-year Treasury Note yield higher by +0.1% from 2.2% to 2.3%.
Even though 2015 ended up being a quiet year overall, there were plenty of sweet dreams mixed in with scary nightmares during the year-long nap:
INVESTMENT SWEET DREAMS
Diamonds in the Rough: While 2015 stock prices were generally flat to down around the globe (Vanguard Total Word -4.2%), there was some sunshine and rainbows gleaming for a number of segments in the market. For example, handsome gains were achieved in the NASDAQ index (+5.7%); Biotech Index – BTK (+10.9%); Consumer Discretionary ETF – XLY (+8.3%); Health Care ETF – VHT (+5.8%); Information Technology ETF – VGT (+4.6%); along with numerous other investment areas.
Fuel Fantasy Driven by Low Gas Prices: Gas prices averaged $2.01 per gallon nationally in December (see chart below), marking the lowest prices seen since 2009. Each penny in lower gas prices roughly equates to $1 billion in savings, which has strengthened consumers’ balance sheets and contributed to the multi-year economic expansion. Although these savings have partially gone to pay down personal debt, these gas reserves have also provided a financial tailwind for record auto sales (estimated 17.5million in 2015) and a slow but steady recovery in the housing market. The outlook for “lower-for-longer” oil prices is further supported by an expanding oil glut from new, upcoming Iranian supplies. Due to the lifting of economic sanctions related to the global nuclear deal, Iran is expected to deliver crude oil to an already over-supplied world energy market during the first quarter of 2016. Additionally, the removal of the 40-year ban on U.S. oil exports -could provide a near-term ceiling on energy prices as well.
Counting Cash Cows
Catching some shut-eye after reading frightening 2015 headlines on the China slowdown, $96 billion Greek bailout/elections, and Paris/San Bernardino terrorist attacks forced some nervous investors to count sheep to fall asleep. However, long-term investors understand that underpinning this long-lived bull market are record revenues, profits, and cash flows. The record $4.7 trillion dollars in 2015 estimated mergers along with approximately $1 trillion in dividends and share buybacks (see chart below) is strong confirmation that investors should be concentrating on counting more cash cows than sheep, if they want to sleep comfortably.
Creepy Commodities: Putting aside the -30% collapse in WTI crude oil prices last year, commodity investors overall were exhausted in 2015. The -24% decline in the CRB Commodity Index and the -11% weakening in the Gold Index (GLD) was further proof that a strong U.S. dollar, coupled with stagnant global growth, caused investors a lot of tossing and turning. While bad for commodity exporting countries, the collapse in commodity prices will ultimately keep a lid on inflation and eventually become stimulative for those consumers suffering from lower standards of living.
Dollar Dread: The +25% spike in the value of the U.S. dollar over the last 18 months has made life tough for multinational companies. If your business received approximately 35-40% of their profits overseas and suddenly your goods cost 25% more than international competitors, you might grind your teeth in your sleep too. Monetary policies around the globe, including the European Union, will have an impact on the direction of future foreign exchange rates, but after a spike in the value of the dollar in early 2015, there are signs this scary move may now be stabilizing. Although multinationals are getting squeezed, now is the time for consumers to load up on cheap imports and take that bargain foreign vacation they have long been waiting for.
January has been a challenging month the last couple years, and inevitably there will be additional unknown turbulence ahead – the opening day of 2016 not being an exception (i.e., China slowdown concerns and Mideast tensions). However, given near record-low interest rates, record corporate profits, and accommodative central bank policies, the 2015 nap taken by global stock markets should supply the necessary energy to provide a lift to financial markets in the year ahead.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions VHT, AGG, and in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position VT, BTK, XLY, VGT, GLD, or 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.