stock market

IT WORKS UNTIL IT DOESN’T

the photo shows a wooden desk with a keyboard, notepad, pen, and balled up pieces of paper

We’re contrarians. We are not satisfied with conventional thinking that portfolio management requires plugging in the right numbers and then following the formula.

It’s not that simple—and it can actually lead investors astray.

Here’s the deal. Modern portfolio theory—one version of the conventional wisdom—uses rigorous statistical models that attempt to quantify volatility and risk in their many forms. The idea is that if you can measure and predict volatility then you can construct a portfolio that has only as much volatility as you desire.

We believe there are a lot of problems with this approach. These models all rely on the assumption that the market will continue to behave rationally. So when the market experiences irrational exuberance, statistical models quickly lose their meaning and begin producing nonsense.

For example, one measure of a stock’s volatility is called its “beta.” The more correlated a stock’s movement is to the broader market, the higher the beta. A high beta stock tends to be a big winner or big loser based on what the market is doing, while a low beta stock generally moves less than the market. A stock can even have a negative beta, where it tends to move the opposite way from the rest of the market!

Under normal circumstances, volatile stocks tend to have a high beta. But when a hot stock gets caught up in a speculative bubble, it can take on a life of its own. A stock on a hot streak that goes up even on days when the market is down will show a lower beta than stocks that follow the market but may still be volatile.

In cases like this, investment managers that are chasing “low beta” may end up with some very volatile holdings in a portfolio that claims to prioritize stability and low market correlation. And investors that are looking to avoid the roller coaster of the stock market may find themselves on an even bigger ride without realizing it.

We believe statistical analysis can be useful, but it cannot compete with timeless investment principles. Trying to quantify volatility exposure can lead to ugly surprises when the underlying models break down.

We think there’s another way. Instead of trying to mathematically capture and avoid it, we believe in living with volatility. If you are investing for the long haul and you know where your cash flow is coming from, you do not need to fret about day-to-day price action.

Clients, if you have questions about this or anything else, please give us a call.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

STOCK SPLITS AND SWEETS

photo shows a variety of individually-wrapped taffy pieces

Arithmetic is important in our line of work, but its lessons can be found all over.

My older brother gave me one such lesson when I was very young. There was a particular joy in convincing any of my siblings to share candy or treats with me. One day, my brother offered to split a piece of taffy.

“Mark,” he said, “how would you like a fourth of this piece?”

“Yes!” I said.

“If you think that sounds good, what about a tenth of this piece?”

I didn’t know much then, but ten was definitely bigger than four, so this development was promising. I nodded.

“Great! But how about a twentieth of it?”

I could barely contain my excitement. What a deal!

By the end of this process, we settled on a figure. My brother tore me off the tiniest corner of the taffy, and I learned a valuable lesson about math.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we thought of this story again with this news of some major companies executing stock splits.

A stock split is what it sounds like: a company increases the number of shares issued to holders by splitting each existing share into some fraction. Apple recently split four-for-one; Tesla just split five-for-one. (Unlike the taffy lesson, they don’t keep the other pieces! Shareholders went from owning one share to owning four or five, respectively.)

Why split stocks? In years gone by, the idea was that soaring prices made some companies out of reach for smaller investors. A stock split on an expensive company made a single share more affordable, and in theory more investors could get a piece of the action.

Today, many trading platforms allow investors to purchase “fractional shares,” which are also just what they sound like: even if you can’t afford a whole piece, plenty of platforms will still sell you a corner of it.

So why a stock split? Even if it’s not doing much to make the company more accessible to more investors, the move still communicates that idea. It’s a strong marketing campaign for valuable companies.

What does it mean for us? Not much. Remember, we want a piece of the action: any way you slice it, the ingredients and quality of the piece haven’t changed.

A stock split changes the mechanics of how the company is traded. It does not change the mechanics of the company—its outlook, its output, its fundamentals.

Math will always be important in our work, but in this case, we’re not going to let the numbers complicate the situation. Whether we’re splitting the taffy in two pieces or twenty, we know what we’re getting.

Clients, if you want to talk about this or anything else, please write or call.


Stock investing includes risks, including fluctuating prices and loss of principal.

YOU DON’T GET WHAT YOU GIVE

photo shows two rocks balanced on a flat rock on top of a triangular rock with water in the background

We’re not pessimists, by any stretch, so we’ll apologize now for the “gotcha” headline. But do you always get what you give? No, you don’t.

When you invest a dollar, it rarely works out such that you make only a dollar or lose only a dollar. Returns aren’t symmetrical: it’s not one dollar in, one dollar out. It could be one dollar in… and many dollars out. Or pennies. No guarantees.

Our core investing philosophy guides us toward those investments that are likely to stay robust and provide healthy returns for the long haul. However, there is room in some accounts to consider more speculative investments from time to time.

Take Silicon Valley, for example, which is full of disruptive visionaries trying to turn the auto industry upside down. Maybe they are geniuses, and maybe not so much: they could go broke in the blink of an eye. But if an upstart company can capture 3% of the new vehicle market over the next few years, the payoff may be considerable. That could be an opportunity.

As another example, some time ago we invested in a flyer—a fairly risky company at the time—because we figured we might make five times our money if it worked out, and we would only lose one time our money if it didn’t. There were no guarantees either way, but the potential reward dwarfed the potential cost.

There are examples that ought to be cautionary tales, times when the potential reward is so tiny compared to the potential cost. Consider the choice of racing across the train tracks as the arms start coming down. Potential reward? You could save five minutes. Potential cost? The whole rest of your life.

Not worth it.

We can’t know the future, and we are always dealing with uncertainty. But we can think about the possibilities and work to understand the potential outcomes. This applies to investing and life: it’s why we took that flyer, and it’s why we do the practically free things that might help us live longer, healthier, happier lives.

Do you always get what you give? No, but it’s easier to find our opportunities when we understand the consequences.

Clients, when you’d like to talk about this or anything else, please write or call.

Peril or Opportunity?

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / flocu

Everybody talks about “the market” but each company in the market has its own story. We need to revisit this to understand the errors we perceive in a currently popular theory.

Some say that actions by the Federal Reserve and other central banks have artificially pumped up asset prices across the board, so there is no safe place to invest. When we look at the pieces of the market, however, a different story emerges.

Some sectors are far below their peak prices from many years ago. Many oil and natural resource companies are trading at only one-third to two-thirds of past high points. The financial sector has actually lost money over the decade ending July 31st.1

Within these and other sectors, we see opportunities. So we reject the idea that everything is too high to own.

At the same time, we know that there are distortions and potential bubbles in some parts of the investment universe. Even though we know the Federal Reserve will eventually get it right (because the markets force it to), we’ve described why we do not like current policy. We have also talked about the potential bubble we see in the bond market, and what might burst it.

Bottom line, the investment universe has rarely been this interesting. It contains both opportunity and peril, the potential for growth and stagnation. As always, we are studying hard to understand the pieces we should own. Please call or email if you would like to discuss your situation.

1As defined by Standard & Poor’s and calculated by State Street Global Advisors


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

It’s a Market of Stocks, not a Stock Market

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / mddphot

In the financial press you hear a lot of talk about “the market”: the market is up, the market is down, the market is jittery, and so on. Sometimes they’ll cite a specific index, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average or Standard & Poor’s 500, using them as shorthand for the stock market as a whole.

This is a generalization, of course. There is no single monolithic “stock market” that tracks the performance of all publicly traded companies. What happens with one company’s stock price may not be happening with others—even within the big indexes.

For example, the S&P 500 Index rose 19.81% in 1999: the peak of the dot-com bubble. According to Standard & Poor’s sector research, the tech sector of the S&P Index went up a whopping 98.27% that year while boring sectors like consumer staples and utilities actually went down. “The market” had a great year, but a tech-heavy portfolio fared much better than a portfolio invested in old economy stocks. The reverse was true the next year, when the tech bubble popped and S&P’s tech sector dropped over 40% while banks, utilities, and staples went shooting up.

We find S&P’s index to be a useful barometer for the stock market as a whole and are sometimes guilty of using it as a generalization for all stocks. But it’s important to remember that the index is still made up of individual stocks, each with their own story.

Sometimes when you average all of those stocks together some compelling stories can get lost in the mix. Some advisors recommend a broad-based index approach, hoping that overperforming stocks will balance out underperforming stocks. While there is a time and place for indexing, we would really just prefer to own the overperforming stocks and try to leave the others out of it. Obviously this is not really feasible—we cannot know in advance which stocks will do well. However, we believe we can try.

As contrarian investors, we are interested specifically in stocks that look like they have the potential to buck the trend of the market. When there’s a stampede, we prefer to be running the other way. So it’s little surprise that some of our favorite holdings may be up when the indexes are down (or, unfortunately, vice versa.)

At 228 Main, we often deal with generalizations about the market because of the broad scope of our writings. If you want to talk specifics, call or email us and we’ll see if we can help.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.