Posts tagged ‘trends’

The Art of Weather Forecasting and Investing

Source: Photobucket

I’ve lived across the country and traveled around the world and have experienced everything from triple-digit desert heat to sub-zero wind chill. The financial markets experience the same variability over time.

Forecasting the weather is a lot like forecasting the stock market. In the short-run, volatility in patterns can be very difficult to predict, but if efforts are energized into analyzing long-term factors, trends can be identified.

For example, I live here in Southern California, and although weather is fairly homogenous, the variability can be significant on a day-to-day basis. I’m much more likely to be accurate in estimating the long-term climate than the forecast seven days from now. I’m not trying to rub salt in the wounds of those people freezing in Antarctica or the upper-Midwest, but forecasting a climate of 72 degrees, sunny, and blue skies is a good fall-back scenario if you are a television weatherman in Southern California.

Charles Ellis, author of the Winning the Loser’s Game – “WTLG” (see Investing Caffeine  article #1 and article #2), highlights the weather analogy more convincingly:

“Weather is about the short run; climate is about the long run – and that makes all the difference. In choosing a climate in which to build a home, we would not be deflected by last week’s weather. Similarly, in choosing a long-term investment program, we don’t want to be deflected by temporary market conditions.”

 

Ellis adds:

“Like the weather, the average long-term experience in investing is never surprising, but the short-term experience is constantly surprising.”

 

In the financial markets the weather predicting principle applies to long-term economic forecasts as well. Predicting annual GDP growth can often be more accurate than the expected change in Dow Jones Industrial Index points tomorrow or the next day.

Economic Weathermen

As I outlined in Professional Guesses Probably Wrong, economists and strategists use several means of making their guesses.

  • One method is to simply not make forecasts at all, but rather use some big words and current news to explain what currently is happening in the economy and financial markets.
  • A second approach used by prognosticators is to constantly change forecasts. Consider a person making a weather forecast every minute…his/her forecast would be very accurate, but it would be changing constantly and not provide much more value than what an ordinary person could gather by looking out their own window.
  • Thirdly, some use the “spaghetti approach” – throw enough scenarios out there against the wall and something is bound to stick – regardless of accuracy.
  • Lastly, the “extend and pretend” method is often implemented. Forecasters make big bold economic predictions that garner lots of attention, but when the expectations don’t come true, the original forecast is either forgotten by investors or the original forecast just becomes extended further into the future.

Coin Flipping

If the weather analogy doesn’t work for you, how about a coin-flipping analogy? The short-term randomness surrounding the consecutive number of heads and tails may make no sense in the short-run, but will mean revert to an average over time. In other words, it is possible for someone to flip 10 consecutive “tails,” but in the long-run, the number of times a coin will land on “tails” will come close to averaging half of all coin tosses. The same dynamic is observed in the investment world. Often, short-term spikes or declines are short lived and return toward a mean average. IN WTLG, Ellis provides some more color on the topic:

“The manager whose favorable investment performance in the recent past appears to be ‘proving’ that he or she is a better manager is often – not always, but all too often – about to produce below-average results…A large part of the apparently superior performance was not due to superior skill that will continue to produce superior results but was instead due to that particular manager’s sector of the market temporarily enjoying above-average rates of return – or luck.”

 

Regardless of your interests in weather forecasting or coin-flipping, when it comes to investing you will be better served by following the long-term climate trends and probabilities. Otherwise, the performance outlook for your investment portfolio may be cloudy with a chance of thunderstorms.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

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

January 12, 2011 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

Forecasting Recipe: Trend Analysis & Sustainability

Forecasting financial performance of a company requires a fairly simple recipe: one part trend analysis and one part determining sustainability. On the surface, forecasting sounds pretty easy. While discovering certain financial trends can be straightforward, the ability to ascertain the durability of a trend can become endlessly complex.

Before you become Nostradamus and spreadsheet your way to the Wall Street Hall of Fame, an accurate forecaster must first build a firm understanding of a company and the underlying industry. Unfortunately for the predictor, not all companies and industries are created equally. Evaluating the profit dynamics of Cheesecake Factory Inc. (CAKE), an upscale casual chain of restaurants, is quite different from deciphering the financials of 3SBio (SSRX), a Chinese biotech company focused on recombinant products. Regardless of the thorniness of the company or industry, before you can truly look out into the future, the investor should learn the language of the company. For example, learning the importance of “comparable store sales” and “sales per square foot” for CAKE may be just as important as learning about the “Phase III FDA trial endpoint” and “pipeline” for SSRX.

Because you could spend a lifetime following just one company – for instance General Electric Co. (GE) or Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) – and never make an investment, you would probably be better served by applying a framework that allows you to research and analyze multiple industries and companies. There are various tools, whether you consider Harvard professor Michael Porter’s Five Forces or SWOT analysis (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats), and each provides a template or process to use when tearing apart specific companies and industries.

Nuts & Bolts of Forecasting

Before you can identify a trend, you first need to gather the data. For all companies I examine, I first compile a quarterly and annual income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement – those that have followed me know the extreme importance I place on the cash flows of a business. In general a good start is to create common size financial statements for the income statement and balance sheet. Basically, this exercise creates an income statement and balance sheet in percentage terms – usually expressed as a percentage of net sales (income statement) and as a percentage of total assets (balance sheet). Earnings forecasts are often used as a logical starting point for driving the shape of future results across the financials, but further insight can be gleaned by comparing year-over-year (this year vs. last) and sequential (this quarter vs. last quarter) growth rates for key figures.

These common statements will then serve as the foundation of identifying the trends, and force the forecaster to seek answers to random questions like these?

  • Why is depreciation expense going down even though the company is expanding retail stores?
  • Gross margins increased for seven consecutive quarters for a total of 250 basis points (2.5%), however in the recent quarter margins declined by 175 basis points…why?
  • Long-term debt increased by $200 million in the current quarter, but if the company just issued $325 million in equity last quarter, then why do they need new capital?

Many of these types of questions may have logical explanations, but by getting answers the analyst will be in a position to better understand the business issues affecting financial performance and to better forecast future economic values.

Forecasting Your Way to Wrongness

A lot can go wrong with forecasting, principally in the assumptions used for the forecast. As the character Felix Unger from the Odd Couple stated, “You should never “assume.” You see, when you “assume,” you make an “ass”… out of “you”… and “me.”” Often assumptions do not consider the inclusion of important economic shocks or unexpected factors, such as recessions, currency fluctuations, management turnover, lawsuits, accounting changes, new products, restructurings, acquisitions, divestitures, flash crashes, Greek debt downgrades, regulatory reform…yada…yada…yada (you get the idea). To get a better sense for a range of outcomes, sensitivity analysis can be employed to determine a “base case” outcome in conjunction with a rosier “upside case” and more conservative “downside case.” Worth noting is the impact debt levels can have on the variance of outcomes – I think Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers would concur with this point.

Pinpointing variable financial figures is quite difficult. Different companies and industries inherently have more or less predictable attributes. Predicting when the sun will rise and set is quite a bit more predictable than predicting what Intel Corp’s (INTC) gross margins will be on a quarterly basis. As mentioned earlier, layering on debt can increase the volatility of earnings forecasts as well.

Forecasting is essential in the investment world, but even if you were the best forecaster in the world, investors cannot disregard the importance of valuation skills. The art of valuation is just as important, if not more important than being right on your financial scenarios.

All in all, the recipe of forecasting sounds simple if you look at the basic ingredients of trend and sustainability analysis. However, before the ultimate forecast comes out of the oven, this straightforward recipe requires a lot of preparation, whether it is slicing and dicing cash flow figures, whipping up some margin trends, or measuring up sales growth. Any way you cut it, systematically following a recipe of trend and sustainability analysis is a non-negotiable requirement if you want to heat up superior financial results.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

*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 positions in GE, MSFT, CAKE, SSRX, INTC, JPM/Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, 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.

June 25, 2010 at 12:17 am Leave a comment

Extrapolation: Dangers of Mixing Cyclical & Secular

One of the toughest jobs in making investment decisions is determining whether changes in profit growth rates are due to cyclical trends or secular trends. The growth of technology and the advent of the internet have not only accelerated the pace of information exchange, but these advancements have also led to the explosion of information (read more).

Drowning in too much information can make the most basic decisions confusing. One of the dreaded by-products of “information overload” is extrapolation. When faced with making a difficult or time consuming decision, many investors choose the path of least resistance, which is to fall back on our good friend…extrapolation.

Rather than taking the time of gathering the appropriate data, exploring both sides of an argument, and having objective information guide educated decisions, many investors open their drawers and grab their trusty ruler. The magic ruler is a wonderful straight-edged tool that can coherently connect any two data points. The beauty of the wooden instrument is the never-ending ability to bolt on a simple convenient story on why a short-term trend will persist forever (upwards or downwards).

We saw it firsthand as the world got sucked down the drain of the global financial crisis. Throughout 2008 bearish pundits like Nouriel Roubini, Peter Schiff, Meredith Whitney, and Jimmy Rogers came out of the woodwork (read more about Pessimism Porn) comparing the environment to the Great Depression and calling for economic collapse. Needless to say, equity markets rebounded significantly in 2009. The vicious rally was not strong enough, nor has the economic data turned adequately rosy for the bears to pack up their bags and hibernate. To be fair, the panicked moods have subsided for “Happy Abby” (Abby Joseph Cohen – Goldman Sachs strategist) to make a few short cameos on CNBC (read more), but we are far from the euphoric heights of the late ‘90s.

I think recent comments by John Authers, columnist at The Financial Times, captures the essence of the current sour mood despite the economic and equity market rebounds:

“Last year’s rebound was, most likely, a bear market bounce. The central hypothesis remains intact. On balance of probabilities, the rally since March has been a (very big) rally within a bear market, and the downward move is a (not so big) correction to that rally. There is no new reason to fear we will revisit the lows of 2009, but every reason to believe that stocks are still fundamentally mired in a bear market.”

 

Just as overly pessimistic bearishness can cloud judgment, so too can rose colored glasses. Chief economist at the National Association of Realtors, David Lereah, is an example of how biased bullishness can cloud reasoning too. Among the many comments that made Lereah a lightning rod, in July 2006 he noted the real estate “market is stabilizing” and followed up six months later by claiming, “It appears we have established a bottom.”

Extrapolation is a fun, easy tool, but at some point the simple laws of economics must kick into gear. Supply and demand generally do not rise and fall in a linear fashion in perpetuity. As the saying goes, “The herd is often led to the slaughterhouse.” Rather, I argue mean- reversion is a much more powerful tool than extrapolation for investors (read more).  

The country faces many critical problems that cannot be ignored and politicians need to show leadership in addressing them. I encourage and remind people that we have survived through multiple  wars, assassinations, currency crises, banking crises, SARS, mad cow, swine flu, widening deficits, recessions, and even political gridlock. So next time someone tells you the world is coming to the end, or a stock is going to the moon, do yourself a favor by putting away the ruler and aggregating the relevant data on both sides of an argument before jumping to hasty conclusions.

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 time of publishing had no direct positions in LM, or GS. 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 5, 2010 at 12:01 am Leave a comment


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