value investing

Stocks Have No Memory

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Clients sometimes bring up their own history with a particular investment in
trying to assess it. We sometimes hear things like this:

• “It’s done nothing but go down since we bought it.”
• “This is the most boring stock ever! It just lays there.”
• “At what point do you give up on waiting for it to turn around?”

As investors, our challenge is to form an opinion about the future value of prospective investments. Broad economic trends, industry developments, and company evolution may go into the mix. Reading annual and quarterly reports, checking our research sources, and looking at pertinent news are part of our routine. We frequently have to do some arithmetic, too.

Notice something missing from our recipe? Investment price performance does not go into the stew. Track record is not a factor for us personally. If you believe in buying low, you sometimes buy things with terrible recent performance. Conversely, some of the best track records in history belong to bubbles at their peak.

We aren’t saying our approach is the right approach. There is a whole school of thought that says you should only invest in things that are already going up—trend followers. But our approach is our approach, and we are unlikely to change.

Market values depend on the consensus opinion of the rest of the world. As contrarians, we look for potential gaps between the consensus and how we believe the future may unfold. No guarantees, of course—but we aren’t going to base investment decisions on a consensus that may be flawed.

Your stocks do not know how much you paid for them, or when you purchased them. We look at companies, not stocks—and make decisions in line with what we see. Opinions change, the consensus shifts, and we wait. Sometimes we look out of step for a time, perhaps years. That’s part of being contrarian.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


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

 

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Buy Low, Sell High

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If you watch a lot of sports journalism, sooner or later you will see someone deliver some variation on this nugget of wisdom: “If we want to win, we just have to score more points than the other team.”

In investing terms, the equivalent is “If we want to make money, we just have to buy low and sell high.” This is just math: if you sell something at a higher price than what you paid for it, you make a profit.

The “sell high” part is usually easy for most people to grasp. Sometimes someone in a hot rally may get wrapped up in watching their gains go up and up and forget to cash out before things inevitably come crashing back down. But generally taking profits is fun and comes naturally to people.

It is the “buy low” part of the equation that people tend to struggle with more. Something in the news for being popular and making money is probably not trading at a low price. Buying low often means a metaphorical dumpster dive to find the unwanted dregs of the market. It is often not pleasant or easy to put your money in something that has a reputation as an unattractive investment. But if you want to buy low, that is where you frequently need to go.

The upshot is that this makes it a lot easier to get excited about a down market. It feels good to participate in a rising market, but it can be difficult to find spots to buy in when markets are up. For a value investor, market selloffs may lead to buying opportunities.

Clients, many of you already know what we are talking about. We are in business with you for a reason—we think you are the best clients in the world. We know it is not always easy to make disciplined investing decisions. But we think you have what it takes.

If you have questions about this or any other topic, please call or email us.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are 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.

Four Trends for Fall, 2018

© Can Stock Photo / Elenathewise

The gap between consensus expectations and reality as it unfolds is where we think profit potential lives. This is why we put so much effort into studying trends, and the ramifications for investors.

One year ago, we wrote about four trends. The next energy revolution (solar + batteries), long range prospects for the world’s most populous democracy, the airline industry, and rising interest rates continue to play roles in our thoughts and portfolios.

Other ideas are also in play.

1. Thinking about the next few years, our highest conviction idea is inflation will exceed consensus expectations. Some of the ways we act on this belief may provide some counterweight to other portfolio holdings, since inflation hurts some industries while it helps others.

2. As the economic expansion lengthens toward record territory, the desire to extend our lifespan tends to be insensitive to the business cycle. Biopharmaceutical companies, working on cures for everything from Alzheimers to various forms of cancer, seem attractively priced.

3. The trend toward rising interest rates, noted last year, may have an effect on weaker and more leveraged companies. We are looking to avoid the second-order and third-order effects that higher rates may have on some borrowers.

4. US stocks have become popular relative to international equities, with dramatic outperformance over the past decade. At some point the trend changes, and better value usually wins out.

One of the difficult things about being contrarian–going against the crowd–is that we sometimes look silly. When everybody else is having more success in the short run while we search for bargains, it can be tough. But that is what we do. We’re excited about the continuing evolution of your holdings as the future unfolds.

We can offer no guarantees except that we will continue to put our best effort into the endeavor. Clients, if you have any questions or comments or insights to add, please email us or call.


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

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

 

YOU Haven’t Missed Out

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The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted “one of the biggest surprises of the US stock market’s relentless rally…how many individual investors have run away from it.” This is from the January 4, 2018 article “Individual Investors Sit it Out.”

The article cites industry sources about where people have been putting their money the last several years. While nearly $1 trillion got pulled out of investment products that target US stocks since 2012, almost the same amount has gone into bond investment products.

Clients, would you trade your results over the past three or five or seven years for bonds with low potential interest and growth?

Our fundamental rules have guided us. Avoid stampedes—and the stampede into the supposed safety of bonds may be one of the biggest in history. Seek the best bargains—interest rates near the lowest levels in four decades1 hardly seemed like a bargain to us.

A strong contrarian streak encourages us to think about doing the opposite of what everybody else seems to be doing. We’ve been buying stocks when others were selling.

We’re focused now on getting the next big thing right. If we seek to avoid stampedes, we need to be careful if the stampede joins us. What we now own may become too popular and get over-priced. A 30% or 40% gain from current levels might put us in risky territory.

By continuously seeking better bargains in other sectors and trimming back holdings that are no longer cheap, we seek to reduce the potential for loss. No guarantees, of course: the next poor year is out there somewhere.

On investment advisory accounts managed through LPL Financial, our revenues are a function of your account value. When you capture an opportunity or avoid a loss, we are better off. This focuses our attention wonderfully.

Clients, if you would like to discuss how this applies to your circumstances, please email us or call.

1Interest rate data from Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/FEDFUNDS (as of January 2018.)


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

All investing, including stocks, involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Because of their narrow focus, sector investing will be subject to greater volatility than investing more broadly across many sectors and companies.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Backward Measures of Risk

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Our investing experience over the last two years vividly demonstrates the problem with confusing volatility and risk.

After years of relative stability, a certain security plunged by more than 80% in a few months. The standard model of risk would have you believe that the security was relatively safer at the high price level. And the more the price declined, the riskier it became—according to the standard methods.

Value investors seek the bargains. To them, the lower the price, the better the deal. This is exactly the opposite of the standard model of risk.

The rest of the story is that the security turned on a dime at the low point, and rose back to its original level in the following months. At the very point the standard model of risk viewed this investment in the worst light, it was preparing to embark on a rise of more than 400%.

There is a good reason why people (including professionals) confuse volatility with risk. In the short term, volatility IS risk. If you have wealth to pay the bills due within a few days, you cannot afford to have the value bouncing around from day to day. If it goes the wrong direction, you might not have enough money to pay the bills.

Therefore, whether volatility is risk depends on the time horizon. In the short term, volatility is risk. In the long term, perhaps volatility is opportunity, not risk. We work hard to understand your time horizon so we can get this right for you.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this in more detail, or have other things on your agenda, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Value investments can perform differently from the market as a whole. They can remain undervalued by the market for long periods of time.

This is a hypothetical example and is not representative of any specific investment. Your results may vary.

A Share of What?

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Some people invest in common stock without even knowing what the company does. To them, a stock is price on a screen that can be bought and sold minute by minute—day-trading, they call it. Those people study price charts, not financial statements.

At the other end of the spectrum, investor Warren Buffett understands that a share of stock is a piece of a business—a share in an enterprise. He once said it would not bother him if they closed the stock market for ten years: he is happy to own percentages of businesses.

We suspect that many of you have an understanding that is somewhere in between these two views. We would like to offer you a little more perspective on what ownership is, and what it means.

Recently, in analyzing a company many of you own, we broke it down to what $1 invested represents. We’ll call it Company X, the leader in its industry, a blue chip company.

$1 invested today, whether you just bought in or paid half that amount some years ago, represents a certain amount of revenues—sales of goods by the company. It also represents a share of income and dividends (cash paid to shareholders).

Each dollar of ownership value in Company X represents 32 cents worth of revenues this year. After expenses, the company’s net income for the year will be between seven and eight cents per dollar of today’s stock value. If the Board of Directors continues to approve quarterly dividends at the recent rate, each dollar of stock value will get close to 3 cents in cash dividends.

For long term owners, this year’s results are of interest but the outlook for the future has a large impact on how the stock price will change. For this reason, we seek to understand the relative value today, but also the potential for the company to reap its share of future growth in the American or global economy—to increase its revenues, income, and dividends.

This work is totally captivating, if you are us. Clients, many of you have told us this is why you hire us—your interests lie elsewhere. They say it takes all kinds to make a world; we’re glad to know your kind. If you’d like to talk about this or anything else, please call or email us.


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

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

The payment of dividends is not guaranteed. Companies may reduce or eliminate the payment of dividends at any given time.

Classical Language, Mostly Classic Ideas

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A surprising number of Latin phrases are woven into modern society, considering the language has not been widely used for centuries. From simple truisms like tempus fugit (time flies) to mottos like e pluribus unum (from many, one), the wisdom and ideas of a civilization lost to antiquity survive.

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote “experientia docet,” experience teaches. We must take issue with this one. Investors make a critical mistake in learning from experience, in our view. They often learn the wrong lesson.

People sometimes adopt tactics and strategies that would have worked great in the last cycle. Unfortunately, times change and the outdated strategies usually fail to perform like they did before.

In the year 2000, following the stock market bust stocks fell—but home values rose. This taught people the wrong idea that “you can’t lose money in real estate”, which caused a lot of damage during the 2007 financial crisis. Then, by 2009, lenders learned the wrong lesson again—because auto loans outperformed in the downturn. Today they may be setting up future losses by putting too much money into substandard auto loans.

A related problem is best illustrated by a product pitch we recently received from an investment sponsor. Their latest offering is based on “the top performing asset class of the last decade!”

Clients, you know what our issue is with this. We love to buy bargains. The best performer over the past decade is, by definition, no bargain. Piling in after a big runup may be jumping on the bandwagon right before it goes off a cliff. However, the experience of the last decade evidently taught many that the specific sector was the one to buy now. Wrong lesson, again.

One interesting facet of all this is that experience actually can teach us. We just need to be certain we are learning the right lesson.

There were useful and profitable lessons in the tech wreck of 2000 and the real estate bust that began in 2007. In our view, those lessons are that it is dangerous to invest in over-priced assets—and it doesn’t pay to join a stampede in the market. Those lessons help us live with attractively priced stocks, and avoid the flight to safety that made historically more stable assets overpriced (in our opinion.)

So let us leave you with a little Latin of our own devising: cognitio ad felicitatem. (Knowledge leads to prosperity.) Clients, if you have any questions, comments or insights please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Because of their narrow focus, sector investing will be subject to greater volatility than investing more broadly across many sectors and companies.

Safe is the New Dangerous

© Can Stock Photo / onepony

We strive to see the world as it is, and act accordingly. Going by the textbook and implementing conventional wisdom without testing it against actual conditions is not in our playbook. What we see today is nothing short of astonishing—for two reasons.

“Safe” has become the new dangerous. We are astonished at how the investment world appears to be upside down in some respects. And we are astonished that so few of us seem to have noticed.

During the year 2000, the technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite index fell over 39%1. This crushing of technology and growth stocks at the start of the millennium and the financial crisis that arose just seven years later drove fear of the stock market deep into the psyche of some investors. Consequently, we believe there has been a flight to safety that has created some real anomalies.

Yields on long term government bonds and high yield corporate bonds have fallen to near historical lows not seen in over 50 years2. It isn’t just in bonds, either. Supposedly safe stocks appear to be the most expensive part of the market.

Standard & Poors reports that the market average price to earnings (P/E) ratio is about 18. Food companies, shampoo makers, toothpaste sellers, medical supply companies and utilities are priced at a premium because those lines of business are assumed to be recession-proof…you know, safe. In an 18 P/E market, these companies are priced at 22, 25, 30, or 34 times earnings3.

We have owned many of these companies in the past at P/E’s of 10 or 12 or 14. Why anyone would own an electric utility when solar plus battery technology is bound to turn them upside down is beyond us. (We wrote about the coming change here.)

Consequently, we believe that allegedly “safe” stocks have become so expensive they are dangerous. The textbook says utility stocks are safe. We look at the world and say, “Not really.” Safe is the new dangerous.

Meanwhile, there are market sectors and companies priced below the market average P/E, including some with dynamic prospects in the years ahead. We believe the stocks we own are bargains. That’s an opinion, not a guarantee. You know we don’t offer guarantees, except that values will fluctuate.

Clients, if you would like a longer conversation about this upside down situation or any other topic, please email us or call.

1Nasdaq, Inc.

2Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

3Standard & Poor’s, Inc.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Floating rate bank loans are loans issues by below investment grade companies for short term funding purposes with higher yield than short term debt and involve risk.

High yield/junk bonds (grade BB or below) are not investment grade securities, and are subject to higher interest rate, credit, and liquidity risks than those graded BBB and above. They generally should be part of a diversified portfolio for sophisticated investors.

Government bonds are guaranteed by the US government as to the timely payment of principal and interest and, if held to maturity, offer a fixed rate of return and fixed principal value.

Would You Take Every Drug on the Shelf?

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We have written quite a bit about the conventional investing wisdom recently. This essay puts the focus on what we do here at 228 Main.

One of our principles is to find the best bargains. We cannot be sure where they are, but we will still try to find them. We look for seemingly healthy investments at historically low-seeming valuations.

We recognize this means buying investments which are unpopular. This is fine with us. In fact, we rely on it. One of our core principles is to avoid stampedes. The more of something everyone else is buying, the more expensive it is going to get.

A natural consequence of our approach is that our portfolio construction may not be as diversified as conventional wisdom dictates. But we are not interested in trying to own everything. We want to own the bargains.

We may not always be able to pick them. We may miss out on some high flyers because we thought they were too expensive to buy. Sometimes a “bargain” turns out not to be one. Generally, though, we believe that our odds are better if we at least try to find the bargains.

An alternative to our way is like going to a doctor who prescribes every drug he can think of in case one of them works. “Chances are some of them will make things better and some of them will make things worse, but in theory one of them should cure you.” Wouldn’t you run out the door?

There are many unknowns in both medicine and investing. A doctor may have to try several courses of treatment before finding one that works. Similarly, we frequently implement several promising tactics at the same time. Some don’t work out and need to be replaced.

We think it is reckless, however, to simply give up trying to find successful investments in favor of simply grabbing a little bit of everything. Yet that seems to be a popular, if lazy, strategy with some investment professionals.

Clients, please call or email us if you want to discuss how our investment ideas apply to your situation.


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

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Bargain Hiding in Plain Sight

© Can Stock Photo / mrivserg

Imagine a product that has these uses1:
• Vital part of every home and building.
• Goes into every vehicle; hybrids and electrics use up to four times more.2
• Needed for manufacture, installation and use of solar panels and wind turbines.
• Key requirement in making batteries.

One might imagine that demand for this product will rise in coming years, as technology changes our power grid and transportation, and the world continues to modernize.

Now consider the supply side. It takes billions of dollars and four years or more to create a new production facility. The industry that produces it went through a depression as prices for the product got cut in half from 2011 to 20163. Revenues disappeared, losses mounted, spending got slashed. New projects were cancelled.

Rising demand, constricted supply: we know how this works. Prices will rise, revenues and earnings for producers will go up, stock prices may follow. No guarantees, of course, and the timing is always uncertain.

The product is COPPER. There is no replacement for it. The question we face as investors is, can we get involved on a favorable basis?

We know companies that produce a lot of copper, along with other resources. Their stocks are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The valuation on their shares seems compelling. A dollar of profit in one trades for a third less than that of the average stock; the other one carries a two-thirds discount. One is trading at one-third of its all-time peak a few years back, the other is discounted even more.

Both stocks have been about twice as volatile as the average stock. (This is measured by a statistic called ‘beta.’) We don’t care. Downside volatility is wonderful if you are trying to buy bargains. But owners should be prepared for the roller-coaster.

Clients, we are telling you this story for a reason. When you hear that ‘the market is too high’ or things are at some unsustainable peak, remember that at 228 Main, we are pounding the table and jumping up and down about the bargains we are finding. If you would like to discuss this or anything else at greater length, please email us or call.

1The World Copper Factbook 2014, International Copper Study Group

2The Electric Vehicle Market and Copper Demand, International Copper Alliance

3Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

The fast price swings in commodities and currencies will result in significant volatility in an investor’s holdings.