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Investing During Inflation (Part Two)

Thursday, May 6th, 2021

Continued from Part One

In Part One, we took a look at how stock market returns for Large Cap and Small Cap stocks are impacted by inflation. I showed linear regressions for the S&P 500 (Large Cap stock index) and the S&P 600 (Small Cap stock index) for various time frames, but we focused on the period of time in the 70’s and 80’s where the country last had an inflation problem.

The correlation analysis showed that there was a negative correlation between the broad stock market indices and inflation, meaning that Large Cap and Small Cap stock prices are negatively impacted by inflation as represented by the Consumer Price Index.

Today, we are going to perform the same analysis, except with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (representing the dividend paying value stock style of investing) and the NASDAQ 100 (representing the growth stock style of investing).

Dow Jones Industrial Average (Value Stocks)

Whereas we looked yesterday at the broad market, the DJIA is a more narrow index that represents, in large part, blue chip dividend paying stocks that should be a part of everyone’s retirement.

As we did yesterday, we are focusing on the time period of 1975 to 1986 (for more in depth on why we chose this time frame, please see Part One).

Here, again, we have a negative correlation between dividend paying value stocks and inflation. Given the results that we saw with the S&P 500, this should not be a real surprise since during this time period, the stocks that made up the bulk of the S&P 500 weighting were dividend paying value stocks. It is a recent development that the S&P 500 is now so heavily weighted by the high tech giants that dominate the NASDAQ 100, which leads us to examine its correlation with the CPI.

NASDAQ 100 (Growth Stocks)

Before we look at the graph, I think we need to remember that in the 70’s and 80’s, the NASDAQ 100 was quite a different index than it is today. Apple listed itself on the NASDAQ in 1980, and that was arguably the genesis of today’s technology dominant index.

This somewhat surprised me. We finally have found a part of the stock market that has a positive correlation with inflation. However, given that the makeup of the NASDAQ during this time period is so different than it is today, I wanted to look at other growth stocks vehicles to see if we have a similar pattern. Unfortunately, finding data on annual returns is challenging. I did, however, find that one of the premier growth stock mutual funds publishes their returns back to this time period: Growth Fund of America.

Even though it is not as dramatic a correlation, we still observe that a positive correlation exists between growth stock returns and inflation.

Let’s try one more classic growth story to see if it supports this theory: Berkshire Hathaway.

Again, we see a positive correlation between a growth stock and inflation.

Implications

This analysis presents a quandry. Historically, as an economy has come out of a recession and economic growth has taken off, value stocks – particularly cyclical stocks whose earnings increase during the positive phase of the economic cycle – outperform growth stocks. I’ve written about that here on the blog recently, but increasing economic activity will typically bring an increase in inflation, which seems contradictory with the data presented here.

I think what we have is a situation where not all value stocks are created equally. So here is my theory:

  • (1) as an economy is ramping up GDP growth coming out of a recession, it has a positive impact on earnings growth in cyclical stocks while at the beginning of the recovery, inflation is tame.
  • (2) Then as we move through the recovery and inflation starts to build, the impact to earnings growth for the part of the value stock universe that is cyclicals begins to ease
  • (3) and the part of the value stock universe that is positively impacted by inflation takes over ( we are going to look at energy, miners, chemical producers, ag companies, and precious metals in this blog series to see if there is a positive correlation, but for purposes of this theory we will assume it exists).
  • (4) Additionally, as cyclicals start to lose steam and inflation plays heat up, investors begin to look for consistent earnings growers in the growth stock universe and growth stocks perform in the late recovery phase as inflation is peaking, giving growth stocks a positive correlation with the CPI.

Whats Next?

Since we mentioned it above, the next post will analyze the types of companies that we assume benefit from inflation: energy, miners, chemical producers, ag companies, and precious metals.

If you ever feel like the investment world is overwhelming or you tire of winding your way through the choices, please contact me. We can discuss your situation and set up an investment portfolio that meets your objectives.

—Mark

Investing During Inflation (Part One)

Wednesday, May 5th, 2021

In my last blog post, I provided some details on why prices are on the rise and inflation is becoming an issue. Since then, I’ve been doing some research on which investments perform positively and which perform negatively during inflation.

Below will be a series of graphs I put together that compare the historic performance of various asset classes to the levels of inflation at that time. I’ve have added a linear regression that will help you see the positive or negative relationship between the level of the Consumer Price Index and the returns on that asset class. Please understand that these graphs do not present the data in chronological order.

S&P 500 Index (Large Cap Stocks)

Below are a series of graphs that analyze the correlation between Large Cap Stocks (as represented by the S&P 500 Index) and the Consumer Price Index. The first graph covers the period for which all data is available, 1926 to today:

I know this graph is difficult to read if you are not used to looking at statistical correlations, so let me walk you through it. (1) Qn the left side, you will note that the Y Axis is the return for the S&P 500, going from -50% to +75%. (2) On the bottom, you will note that the X Axis is the level of inflation for various years and ranges from -10% to + 20%. (3) For each annual inflation reading, there is a blue dot that shows the return of the S&P 500 at that level of inflation. (4) The red line through the dots is a linear regression best fit line that helps us visually define whether there is a positive or negative correlation between inflation and stock market returns.

Looking at the red line, you can sort of make out that there is a slightly negative relationship here, meaning that inflation has a slightly negative impact on stock prices over the long term. To confirm this visual analysis, I also calculated the statistical Correlation at -0.00787, so it is definitely a very slight negative correlation.

This is all well and good, but that doesn’t really get to the heart of how stocks perform during periods of significant inflation. To examine that, I isolated the time period of 1965 to 1986, a 21 year span that saw inflation move from 0.97% in 1964 to high of 13.29% in 1979 ( along with other double digit years during this time span) and back to 1.1% in 1986.

Visually, this is a lot easier to conclude that a period of rising and then falling inflation has a negative impact on large cap stock returns. To confirm that, I calculated the statistical Correlation to be -0.260998, a materially larger number than the Correlation of the 1926 to present day calculation.

The above analysis looks at an entire inflationary cycle. Since we are just at the beginning of a new cycle, lets refine the data further and just examine the period of time from 1965 to 1978, where inflation was building prior to its peak.

As we might guess, the visual examination shows the impact is even greater negative as inflation is building. The calculated correlation is even more revealing at -0.560582.

S&P 600 Index (Small Cap Stocks)

From the above, we see that rising inflation has a negative impact on the returns of Large Cap Stocks. However will it have the same impact on Small Cap Stocks. To determine that, I performed the same analysis on the S&P 600 Index. Unfortunately, there is not the same amount of data available for this index as there is for the much wider known S&P 500. Our data starts in 1975 for this analysis, so it doesn’t make sense to analyze the data prior to the 1979 peak in inflation, so we will examine the 1975 to 1986 period, comparable to the second graph above.

We again see the negative correlation between stock market returns and inflation. The calculated Correlation is -0.217613.

Implications

Based upon this analysis, the broad stock market is a bad place to be during times of inflation. Given the dominance of index funds and passive investing over the past decade or so and their dominant percentage of investment vehicles in the stock market – over half of all stock market investment is now through index funds – any negative impact on the broad market will have an oversized impact on individual investors.

The beta side of the stock market potentially is in trouble so we, as investment managers, need to rely on alpha to provide acceptable stock market returns and to reduce the risk of loss for clients. Beta is emblematic of the saying “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Many stocks have moved higher over the past decade because they were included in an index, and as money came into index funds, their stock prices went up whether they were a desirable investment or not. That is because the index funds have to mimic the make-up of the index so they have to buy the bad with the good.

Over coming days, I will show you various other analyses of markets, sectors, industries, and investment styles that illustrate which benefit from inflation and which do not. We are at the leading edge of this economic change so I want you all to understand what we are doing and to know how to manage your investments that you do not have with us.

Next up, we will look at the proxies for the growth and value styles of investing, the NASDAQ and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Until then, keep this fact in mind so that you are sure to read the next post: today the 3-year breakeven inflation rate is 2.82%, the highest level in 15 years while the 10-year breakeven inflation rate is the highest in eight years. The breakeven inflation rate is a signal given by the bond market and has proven to be exceptionally accurate over the years.

Inflation is here, we now need to prepare our investment portfolios accordingly.

—Mark

Prices On The Rise

Friday, April 30th, 2021

Signs Of Inflation

It is earnings season which means I am reading a lot of company earnings reports. One thing that is very noticable is that companies are talking a lot about the increase in their cost of inputs.

In looking at some of this inputs themselves, is apparent why companies are seeing their costs increase.

  • Lumber increased in price 27% just this past month
  • Soybeans, corn and wheat are at multi-years high prices
  • Copper, aluminum, lead, zinc, tin, iron and steel are at multi-year highs
  • Oil is up more than $100 per barrel over the past year from negative prices and up from $19 to $63 once the short-term negative pricing cleared up
Lumber Graph from Investing.com
Corn Graph from Investing.com
Oil Graph from Investing.com

Government economic reports are coming in that show inflation is becoming an issue

  • This week’s Chicago Purchasing Managers Index reported that prices paid at the factory gate (cost of production-only and not including transportation, marketing, mark-ups, etc.) surged to a 41 year high, last seen prior to Paul Volker taking over the Federal Reserve to combat the double digit inflation of the 70’s.
  • The Atlanta Fed’s sticky-price consumer price index (CPI)—a weighted basket of items that change price relatively slowly—increased 3.5 percent (on an annualized basis) in March, following a 2.3 percent increase in February. 
    • The flexible cut of the CPI—a weighted basket of items that change price relatively frequently—increased 21.8 percent (annualized) in March and is up 6.3 percent on a year-over-year basis.
  • Core PCE ( the measure of inflation that the Federal Reserve follows) saw the largest month-over-month increase since October 2009

Where is all of this coming from?

  • Supply constraints due to covid lockdowns of production and shipping facilities
  • Bad planning by miners and millers who did not anticipate the demand
  • Increased demand from the housing boom we see
    • People are moving out of the big cities because they can now work from home
    • They seek a home in the suburbs for a better lifestyle instead of a cramped apartment in the city
    • People are moving to southern states for a variety of reasons (weather, taxes, etc.)
  • Anticipation of an infrastructure boom coming from increase government spending
  • Reduced energy supply due to shut down of pipelines

The Federal Reserve states that this is transitory and will ease after a few months

I can see their point of view to an extent: shipping facilities will come back to full strength and production lines will be fully staffed again. However, we are seeing a secular change in how people work and where they want to live. The tidal wave of people moving from the cities to suburbs and those moving to southern states may slow, but it will not stop anytime soon.

With trillions of government dollars on the table and the plans to undertake multi-year projects means that fiscal stimulus will likely have an impact for an extended time period.

The Federal Reserve has stated that they do not see any sort of increase in over-night interest rates until after 2023. The Chairman also stated that he does not anticipate ending their bond buying activities anytime soon. Both of these monetary stimulus tools will continue to stimulate the economy and fuel the fires of inflation.

My belief is that inflation will go on longer and reach higher than the Federal Reserve wants to admit at the current time.

Investment Strategy

We have not seen inflation of any sort for a very long time. Most people managing investments today were not around in the 70’s and early 80’s to see the devastation it can cause, nor do they understand how to position portfolios to withstand the impact of increasing prices.

Precious Metals, Oil and Commodities (in particular the companies that produce these items) are a necessary component to portfolios. These companies get increasingly higher prices for their production and their share prices increase accordingly. Some of the companies we have in client accounts include:

  • Gold and Silver Miners: Newmont Mining, Barrick Gold, Agnico Eagle, Kirkland Lake Mines
  • Lumber Company Weyerhaeuser
  • Agriculture companies: Deere, Agco, Mosaic, CF Industries, and Nutrien
  • Energy producers: ExxonMobil, Conoco-Phillips, Chevron, Devon Energy

Real estate, hard assets, and collectibles all increase in value during times of inflation. Some of the companies we have in client accounts include:

  • Real estate companies: Florida landowner and developer St. Joe, Dallas and Atlanta landowner and developer Green Brick Partners, Florida lemon producer and landowner Limoneira

Companies that have the ability to pass along price increases because the buyers need their products:

  • Consumer Staples Companies: Hershey, Kellogg, Pepsi, Coca Cola, Procter & Gamble

Given all of the stimulus in the economy, both fiscal and monetary, we should see the economy growing. This means that there are certain investment styles that perform well:

  • Value stocks that are cyclical in nature will see their earnings increase as economic momentum builds
  • Small Cap stocks that are more domestic-focused than the multi-national companies see greater benefits from a resurgent US economy
  • Banks whose earnings go up as bond rates go up benefit from the increased demand for financing
    • Our Blue Chip portfolios are perfectly situated for this type of economy
    • Our Growth/Core/Fully Diversified portfolios have been rebalanced so they are positioned with large exposure to cyclical industries, banks, and small cap companies

Keep watch for updates here on the blog as we navigate the coming challenges posed by inflation. At the current time, the stock market is near all-time highs and not all that worried about the impact of inflation. However, when things change, they change fast. We have to be ready for any sort of correction that might come along.

We are positioned with cash in client accounts that we can deploy into our highest rated companies if we see any sort of pullback in prices from investors fear of ballooning inflation.

—Mark

Roadmap to Investing During Inflation

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

The thing that is top of mind for investors at the moment is inflation.  It seems that on a daily basis, the yield on the 10-year Treasury Note rises as the congress talks about another round of stimulus for the economy.  This talk of stimulus has investors worried that it is more than needed, and that worry is leading to the fear of inflation moving materially above 2%.

We all know that as inflation rises, bond yields rise as well because investors require ever higher yields to compensate for the lost purchasing power of the dollar due to inflation.  This, of consequence, sends the value of the bonds people already own down and they slow losses in their bonds portfolio holdings.

So, inflation up = bonds lose money.  It’s a very standard bit of knowledge that investors possess.

However, inflation’s impact on the stock market is less well understood.  We all believe that when inflation goes up, stock prices come down, and the graph below from Ally Invest confirms that since 1990, or over the last 30 years, at least for the first twelve months we see reduced stock market returns when inflation is reported above 2% compared to when it is reported below 2%.

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So why is this?  Stock market returns may be adversely affected by inflation because those inflationary pressures may threaten future corporate profits.  As investors value stocks for investment purposes, nominal discount rates used to value future corporate profits rise under inflationary pressures, reducing current value of those future profits and thus the value of the stock market.

Our job, then, as investment managers is to position portfolios so that they are defensive against the impact of inflation by including stocks of companies that will benefit from inflation or that have pricing power to raise prices of their goods and services as inflation rises.

What are these companies?  The easy ones to identify are precious metals miners, agriculture related companies, energy companies, real estate, or any other company in a commodity business.  All of these companies act as insurance for your portfolio during times inflation is rising or at a high level.

The more difficult ones to identify are the ones that are not commodity producers.  A rule of thumb for investment managers is that Value Stocks out-perform the market during times of rising or high inflation and Growth Stocks out-perform the market during times of falling or low inflation.  We have seen this over the past several years as growth stocks have outperformed value stocks in the post 2008 stock market crash era.

So why would Value Stocks out-perform?  Value Stocks in general have material amounts of current cash flows and dividends, and many have pricing power for their products and services.  As inflation rises, their current cash flows rise and dividend increases tend to follow as the prices for their output rise with inflation.  As valuations for these companies are calculated, during the initial phase of rising inflation, the cash flows are rising faster than the increase in the rate at which investors discount those cash flows.

Unfortunately, there is level of inflation above which the discount rate rises faster than the companies can increase prices, thereby leading to a slowing of cash flow growth rates.  From the studies I’ve read, as inflation rises to 3% above then current inflation levels, cash flow growth will increase as companies can raise the prices for their goods and services without a material impact on demand.

In fact, the height of the out-performance of Value Stocks over Growth Stocks is when the rate of inflation has risen to between 2% and 3% above then current levels as this is where the price increases have been maximized and demand has not been impeded.  When inflation increases greater than 3% above the then current levels, demand begins to fall along with wider economic conditions.

From the period when inflation rises greater than 3% above then current levels until it tops out is a really bad time for the stock market because all values are discounted at rates greater than companies can increase cash flows.  This is when you have to watch for stock prices to bottom, generally ahead of the ultimate top in inflation, and watch for Growth Stocks to begin to out-perform the market once again.

So here is your roadmap to investing during an inflationary period:  based upon an analysis of the history of inflation and stock prices, when inflation starts to rise the initial 12 months shows pressure on the broader stock market as investors begin to adjust to the new reality.  During this time, Value Stocks begin to out-perform the wider stock market and expand their outperformance as the rate of inflation increase to a level of 3% above current.  Beyond a 3% rise, both Value Stocks and Growth stocks perform poorly until investors being to anticipate a top in inflation, then Growth Stocks begin their period of out-performance as inflation falls.

Please note that this road map imples just buying Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Tesla will lead to you outperforming the stock market.  Nor can you rely on your index funds as we are  entering a period where stock picking will be key to the health of your savings and investment.  If you do not want to try your hand at picking stocks that will outperform the market during an inflationary time, use a professional who understands the implications of inflation and proper portfolio management.  If I can help, please let me know.

 

 


 

Step #3 In Detail

Friday, February 12th, 2021

Last week, I posted about Gambling Vs Investing and gave you a step by step guide on how to be an investor.  I’ve had some questions about parts of the process, so I thought it would be a good blog post to discuss some of those steps in more detail.  So, I thought we would start with Step #3 since steps 1 and 2 deal with deciding to buy a stop and choosing one to research.

“Step #3:  examine the macro issues impacting the stock:

·   is the stock market itself in a bull phase or a bear phase;

·   do you believe from a timing standpoint that now is a good time to buy ANY stock;

·   is the industry within which the company operates in a bull or bear phase:

·   are there forces that are acting as catalysts to push the stock price higher or are there headwinds that will exert downward pressure on the stock price (e.g., an example catalyst for an electric vehicle company is the government doing something to cause the price of oil to go higher; an example of a headwind for a retail store is consumers choosing to shop online instead of going to the mall)”

Examine the macro issues impacting the stock provides you a big picture overview.  There is an old investment saying “A rising tide lifts all boats” that applies here – meaning that if the stock market itself is going up, then all of its participant companies have a force pushing their stock prices higher.  However, the opposite also applies as a falling stock market will take prices of good companies down along with bad ones.  What you want to do is determine which way the tide is flowing in order to know if your timing is right to buy from a macro perspective.

How do you do that?

  • You can look at the valuation of the market and see if its overvalued or undervalued
  • You can look at the trends to see if it is trading above or below its moving averages.
  • You can look at breadth to see how many companies are moving along with the price of the market
  • You can look at sentiment so see if investors are euphoric or frightened

Today, lets focus on valuation and figuring out where we are in the macro picture.  A future blog post will look at trends, breadth and sentiment.

I have a number of ratios I calculate and indicators I follow that tell me this, but as in individual investor you have more limited time and access to information than I do as a professional.

So the easiest things you can do are:

  • Look at the P/E Ratio of the S&P 500 Index and see if it is trading below 10 (extreme undervalued) below 15 (undervalued) or over 20 (overvalued)
    • I could go thru the calculation for you, but the Wall Street Journal is nice enough to just tell you what the current P/E ratio is today compare to a year ago, so you get a picture of the trend – a P/E Ratio that is higher today than a year go tells you that the stock market is more expensive today than a year ago so some caution is warranted.
      • https://www.wsj.com/market-data/stocks/peyields
      • From the table below copied from this link, you can see today’s P/E of 43.92 is materially higher than last year’s 26.10
    • Since 43.92 is above 20, this simplistic measurement tells you the market is overvalued.

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  • Apply the Rule of 20 to determine the timing:  the sum of the S&P 500 P/E Ratio based upon estimated earnings for next year + the Projected Rate of Inflation must be less than 20
    • We know that we can get the P/E ratio from the WSJ link above, but they are also kind enough to provide you with the P/E Ratio based upon next year’s estimated earnings, or in this case 22.71.  This is already over the Rule of 20 threshold for overvalued, but roll with me…
    • We also need to know the Projected Rate of Inflation to complete our formula.  Again, our friends at the WSJ provide this data for you
      • https://www.wsj.com/graphics/econsurvey/?mod=nav_top_subsection    Once you navigate to this page, just choose CPI along the left side of the page in the Economic Indicators section
      • From the table below, you are given choices on timeframes for the projection.  I usually use the 6month projection since that is the average number of months overwhich our earnings projection covers.  There is no science here, just use one of them and you will be close enough, but make sure you have a basis for your selection
    • Our Rule of 20 calculation yields 22.71 + 2.8 = 25.51, or a number greater than our threshold of 20

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  • Compare the total value of the US Stock Market to the output of the US economy.  This is Warren Buffet’s favorite indicator for determining if the stock market is overvalued or undervalued from a macro standpoint.  You can do the research to figure out the total value of the stock market and the current reading of GDP (the measure of economic output), but I cheat and go to the gurufocus website and they provide the information for me – you just need to the the “X” at the bottom of the log-in pop-up screen to access it
    • https://www.gurufocus.com/stock-market-valuations.php
    • The chart they provide gives you a visual that is easy to follow – looking at it below you can see that the stock market is significantly overvalued compared to the economy and that they overvaluation has grown wider over since it was last on par in 2009

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They also provide us with this chart that bring the graph relevance:

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Why is valuation at a macro level important?  Because today’s valuation helps determine your future returns.  Again our friends gurufocus provide us a graph that explains this.

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This is a busy graph, but it shows that the mover overvalued the market, the lower the forecast future returns are for the stock market.  This graph shows you that the most significantly overvalued level shown (i.e., the ratio of the value of the stock market to GDP) is 130%, leading to a projected negative 7% forward return.  They do not calculate the forward return when this ratio is at 195% (see the chart above) but the forward return would logically be significantly lower than negative 7%.

However, let me stress this point:  this is not the Bible, its more like government ethics – it is a guideline that is rarely adhered to by the stock market.  There are two factors to remember:  (1) this really only applies if you are a buyer of the broad stock market TODAY; and (2)you can find companies to buy today that will return significant profits for you in the future, even if the broader stock market has a negative return over coming years.

Don’t let this analysis convince you to sell everything you own simply because these guidelines provide an answer that is not pretty.

Do, however, let these calculations tell you that from a macro standpoint, now is not the best time to be a buyer of initial or expanded stock market exposure – there will be a time when the market is more supportive than it is right now of expanding your allocation to stocks.  You can use these tools to help you determine that, or you can hire a professional to do the work for you.  I believe the right answer is to hire a professional that understands this stuff – not all do, some will tell you that the market is set to go higher indefinitely, you can watch them on stock bubble television all day long, but that is not reasonable or logical – and let that professional use the tools in their toolbox to determine when the macro environment says to be a buyer.

Gambling Vs Investing

Friday, February 5th, 2021

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It has been a crazy couple of weeks in the stock market.  If you haven’t watched the investment news for awhile, you missed a wild ride in a few heavily shorted companies.  Gamestop is one of those companies, and in the chart above you can see that its price was in the $11 range for several months then rose to the mid-upper-teens for a period of time before being pushed up to nearly $500 in a short squeeze before backing down to the $50 level.  This is the essence of volatility and one of the things that you see when stock markets are nearing a top – people forget about basic risk management and turn investing into gambling.

If you are wondering how this sort of thing happens, here is a short explanation in bullet point format:

·  Gamestop as a business historically sold video games in cartridge format

·  Most video games are now downloaded directly over the internet, leading to a significant decrease in revenue over time and a subsequent drop in its stock price

·  Gamestop acquired a new major investor that recently sold their own internet driven business for more than a billion dollars who has said he plans to help Gamestop transition to a new internet-based business model

·  Many large hedge funds were short the stock of Gamestock, which is bet against the company in the belief that it would go down even further in price

·  However, small investors were discussing this change on internet discussion boards and as a group decided to try to drive the stock price higher with buying, forcing the hedge funds to cover their shorts by buying stock, starting a process that feeds upon itself:  buying begets more buying

·  Once the ball got rolling, and the stock price started to move, the discussion boards detailed how the small investors could buy calls on Gamestop which ultimately would move the stock higher because the brokers would have to buy the stock of Gamestock as a risk management measure which put more pressure on the hedge funds to buy as the stock price moved up

·  Here is an Article Posted On Reddit re: Gamestop Investing that helped to fuel the fire, and which the hedge funds missed – there  is another Reddit post out there (I can’t find it now to provide you the link) that told people to sell when the stock reached $480…guess what the high was on that chart:  $483

·  A lot of people who bought at the beginning of this frenzy made good money, but it was still a bet that that the Reddit community could drive the stock to a level where the hedge funds would be forced to buy stock to cover their short position

·  However, many more people lost money because they were a buyer at prices above $50 and didn’t sell into the frenzy – and the hedge funds who were forced to buy at $483 or some other price significantly above today’s $62 price have lots hundreds of millions of dollars, putting two major hedge funds on the brink of bankruptcy

·  This frenzy also forced a number of brokers to halt trading in Gamestop shares, causing a number of investors to lose money, either actually or from an opportunity cost standpoint, and the class action lawsuits against them are starting to come forward

Let me make it clear, what the small investors did was not illegal, but it is not investing.

What is investing?  Let me walk you through a process that I use that entails a significant amount of due diligence.  Due diligence is a process used to find the stock of a company that has the opportunity to outperform the rest of the stock market.  If you invest your own money, I hope you are engaging in a similar process – if not, I would be happy to manager your nest egg so that it follow process.

Due diligence involves research into companies to determine whether they would make a good fit as part of an overall portfolio designed to achieve an objective.  I won’t discuss in this post how you design and develop a portfolio nor how to position a portfolio to achieve an objective, but those will make interesting posts for the future.  However let’s take a look at buying one stock so you get a feel for the process.

Step #1:  you determine that you need to buy a stock – there are many reasons for this, like you have some cash to invest or you want to swap a current stock in which you have lost faith into one that you believe will outperform the market.

Step #2:  you decide on a stock you want to research – there are a number of ways to determine your research candidate, like you hear about it on investment television, from a neighbor, or perhaps you are a fan of their products, to name a few.

Step #3:  examine the macro issues impacting the stock:

·   is the stock market itself in a bull phase or a bear phase;

·   do you believe from a timing standpoint that now is a good time to buy ANY stock;

·   is the industry within which the company operates in a bull or bear phase:

·   are there forces that are acting as catalysts to push the stock price higher or are there headwinds that will exert downward pressure on the stock price (e.g., an example catalyst for an electric vehicle company is the government doing something to cause the price of oil to go higher; an example of a headwind for a retail store is consumers choosing to shop online instead of going to the mall)

Once you determine that the overall market is at a place where buying stock makes sense and that the industry for your company is not facing significant headwinds, then we turn to examining the company itself

Step #4:  examine the fundamentals – this involves math, so be prepared to do it or trust the wall street analysts numbers (I don’t trust them since they are predominantly bullish and will sometimes use unconventional methods to justify a future stock price target higher than today’s price)

 ·   you need to determine an intrinsic value for the company’s stock (this is different than a price target that analysts publish) and compare it to today’s stock price since you want to buy the stock near or hopefully below that intrinsic value – this is complicated

·   an intrinsic value involves examining the company’s cash flows an discounting them so you determine what they are worth today

·   if the stock market is in a bull phase, it can be difficult to find a stock trading below its intrinsic value – so you will have to decide it buying above intrinsic value makes sense or whether it would be better to buy it once the price moves closer to intrinsic value

·   you need to determine if the company’s ongoing operations will support a move higher in stock price

·   you need to examine a company’s earnings growth (historic and projected) and its return on equity (historic and projected) to see if they meet you desired levels

·   there are two ways a stock’s price will move higher or lower:  (1) rising or falling earnings; and (2) how much investors value those earnings – a high level of earnings growth and return on equity will help you make sure you are meeting (1) above

·   you need to examine a company’s financial strength to make sure they will be around for the long term and can withstand a recession when it happens

·   debt levels,  cash on hand, owners equity levels, and free cash flow generation are critical

Step #5:  you need to look at a company’s valuation to determine if it is an acceptable time to buy or whether you should wait until the stock price comes down to acceptable valuation multiples – see (2) above

·   price to earnings multiples, prices to sales multiples, price to book multiples, price to earnings growth multiples, price to intrinsic value multiples all need to be examined at a minimum to see if the stock is trading at an acceptable valuation level to buy it

·   studies show that more money is lost in the stock market buying a company that is over-valued than lost based upon buying those with bad fundamentals

Step #6:  you need to look at a chart to see if technically it is time to buy or not

·   a stock chart is just a visual representation of the collective investor view on this company

·   sentiment and momentum play a big part in the short term outlook for a stock’s price

·   buying a stock when it is near the bottom of its short-term trading range can produce significantly higher long-term returns than buying a stock near the top of its short-term trading range

·   this helps you determine what price you want to pay for the stock and what price you will accept paying for the stock if it never gets to the price you want (if your analysis supports buying it at the higher price

Step #7:  buy that bad boy!

·   if everything aligns and you are satisfied you have a company that you want to own with good fundamentals at an acceptable valuation and current stock price, then buy it

Step #8:  determine what price you want to sell the stock

·   set an upper price target for the stocks – this doesn’t need to be a hard sell target, it might be the price where you want to rerun the steps above to make sure owning the stock makes sense (e.g., an example of this is buying a cyclical stock tied to the ups and downs of the economy – you want to buy it when the economy is a catalyst for the stock price to go higher but you want to sell it before a downturn in the economy becomes a headwind; setting a price target will force you to re-examine your reasons for owning the stock and will tell you whether to continue to hold it or whether to sell it – just remember to set a new target price if you continue to hold it)

·   set a price below your purchase price where you draw the line on losses – a common one is 9% so that you avoid any double digit losses on an investment

·   this can be tricky because many times you hit your loss limit and sell the stock only to see it recover and excel to the price target you set – but it is more important that you maintain standard practices because over the long-term you will be more successful than if you are haphazard in your actions

·   sometimes something can happen and a stock will plummet below your loss limit price (it’s just the way the market works and is typically news related relative to some non-public negative information becoming public) – you have to decide whether to cut your losses and sell at this lower price or you determine that this is an over-reaction by the market and it has provided you an opportunity to buy more shares at this cheaper price

Step #8:  document your analysis and your reason for buying the stock and for ultimately selling the stock

·   one of the major benefits of documentation is so that in the future you know why you bought a company and so that if you sell it you have done a significant portion of your due diligence in case you want to buy it back

Investing is not gambling – due diligence ensures that your stock portfolio will not go to zero and that you will have the best chance possible to meet your objectives

·   yes, some non-public information can become public and drive the price of one stock to zero or close to it, but that is why you build a portfolio and diversify that single company risk away

·   you can also have publicly available information drive a stock’s price to zero or close to it, but that is why we have this due diligence process that forces you to periodically review the company you bought and to sell it if something changes or your analysis was wrong (hey, it can happen, it does to professional investment managers all the time for many different reasons:  if your projections of future earnings and returns do not pan out, if investor sentiment changes, if your view of an acceptable valuation level to buy that stock is wrong, or any of countless other things happen)

Over the years, I have developed spread sheets that automate a significant portion of this due diligence process.  They help guide me to determine if what I want to buy will outperform the overall market and they help guide me to determine if I want to sell it.  However, if you are managing your personal portfolio, it is important for you to follow this process or another one that you develop on your own.  Sticking to a process will help keep you out of trouble, will help you achieve your objectives, and will make the weight of these critical decisions a bit lighter.

–Mark

 

Holly Jolly Market

Thursday, December 24th, 2020

 

 

 

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Double Click on any Image for a Full Size View

As we head into the next week full of holidays and thin stock market trading action, I thought we would take a look at various stock market statistics to give us a feel for where the market is and where it may be headed.

From a valuation standpoint, the market is overvalued.  The graph above shows you the P/E ratio of 37.47 last week compared to the historic median P/E ratio of 14.83.  This is the third highest reading on record after the 2000 Dotcom stock market crash and the 2008 Subprime Loan stock market crash.  This tells me that caution is advised.


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Another valuation measure shown above, the Price to Book ratio is at 4.12 compared to its median reading of 2.78.  This is the highest reading since late 2000 and also advises caution.

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Another valuation measure shown above, Price to Sales ratio is at a record high 2.71 compared to its median reading of 1.50, again advising caution.  The above three graphs are courtesy of Robert Shiller’s website.

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The above grid gives you several other valuation measures with most of them at the 100% percentile reading, or record highs, advising caution.  The credit for this graph goes to Cresent Capital.

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From a sentiment standpoint, based upon the Equity Put/Call Ratio, we are at record levels never before seen.  This ratio measure the amount of bullish stock option buyers compared to bearish stock option buyers, and at the moment it appears almost all are bullish.  This also advises caution because any change in sentiment can cause a volatile reaction in stock prices at all those bulls try to stop the losses in their options and sell, leading to selling in the underlying stocks.  This graph comes credit of Charlie Biello.

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Another sentiment measure is the amount of cash available to continue to fund stock purchases.  The graph above shows that cash levels are low since everyone is bullish, and we are levels that in the past have led to stock market corrections.  This graph comes courtesy of Bank of America and also advises caution.

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Our final sentiment graph shows you the Bull/Bear survey results of the American Association of Individual Investors.  This graph shows you the level of bearish investors compared to the S&P 500 Index.  You can see the steady drop in the height of the red lines as the number of investors bearish this market since summer.  Too many people bullish, as noted above, give us caution.  This graph comes from Helene Meisler’s blog.

So what am I thinking?  We need a healthy correction, maybe in January in the post-Santa Claus Rally period, so that the speculators are shaken out of the market and the investors can take advantage of lower prices for the long term.  However, any correction looks – at least at the moment – like it would be short-lived.

The graph below comes from Clearbridge and gives you a dashboard look at the economy.  All of the factors, as of the past three month-ends, are supportive of a growing economy except Investor Sentiment (they also are noting that too much positivity can lead to stock market corrections and potential recessions) and Initial Jobless Claims are showing caution.

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Because of these factors, the likelihood of a healthy economy in months ahead means that post any correction, we should see a healthy rebound in the market possibly to new highs that are supported by improving corporate earnings.  This years rally has been all valuation expansion and not earnings driven.  A correction will bring those valuations back in line with recent (pre-covid) levels and growing earnings should propel the market forward.

Obviously we do not have a crystal ball, so as we saw in 2020, anything can happen.  Barring the economy closing down again, and our pulling out of the covid recession, we should see a healthy post-correction stock market in 2021.

Take care and Merry Christmas!

–Mark

 

 

Don’t Marry Your Stocks

Friday, November 20th, 2020

I recently performed a major rebalancing of client portfolios who have a Growth, Core or Fully Diversified investment objective, buying and selling a number of holdings so that portfolios would be in line with our views on the market (I will get to that in a bit).  Selling a stock holding can be difficult, but as an investor you have to remember that you don’t make any money when you buy a stock – you make it when you sell it.  It is very easy to buy a stock at the right price, ride the price up to new highs, then watch as you turn you big winner into a loss.  It’s why I tell people that you don’t marry your stocks – its OK to make a change when circumstances say it’s time.  

This got me thinking about what stocks were in client portfolios when I started this business in 1991.  Unfortunately we changed our computer system sometime in 1998 so I selected 12/31/1998 to look as some accounts and see what sorts of things we owned and what has happened to them since.  I chose a performance chart format so we can see how the stock price has done in all these years.

Walmart:

I thought we’d start with one of the survivors (or winners, if you will) of the passage of time

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Double click on any image for a full size view

You can see that if you were a patient owner of this stock, you would have done very well over all this time.  However, if we were looking at the performance at the end of a decade, you would not have been a happy investor at the end of 2009:

1For 10 years, you earned a whopping 34% return – I’m not sure any investor would be pleased with that return as it basically kept pace with inflation.

GE, Citigroup, AT&T, Xerox, Del Monte:

Many of the stocks owned in 1998 do not exist today, either because they were merged into another company (e.g., Compaq Computers, Sun Microsystems, Lucent) or because they have gone out of business (Sears, National City Bank).  These five companies still exist and I can guarantee you that there are folks that have owned them all of this time.

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Yes, there have been some companies that we owned in 1998 that have been huge winners for people, some of them are listed in the merged company list above.  But the idea here is that there is no reason to hold onto a stock if you see a catalyst that will likely cause it to flatline in return like the decade-long Walmart chart or to go down in price like GE above.

Why am I telling you this and what does it have to do with the major rebalancing of client portfolios?  Excellent question!

We are at an investment fulcrum where I believe the stocks of many of the market leaders since 2008 will likely flatline in price for a period of time (Two years? Ten years?  No way to know until you reach another fulcrum).

The cause of this investment fulcrum?  Covid, or rather the end of the Covid Recession.   This virus will work its way through the population and eventually we will achieve the herd immunity required for it to die out because you will either be vaccinated against it, you will have already had it (like me – it’s one of the reasons you haven’t heard from me on the blog in the past few weeks), or you have a natural immunity to it.  As we approach that point, the stock market will look forward and start to revalue the stocks of companies that prosper during economic expansions.

I expect that our economy will move from being stimulated by monetary policy to being stimulated by an infrastructure bill.  That infrastructure bill (as long as it goes to actual construction projects – in the past, we have seen state governments take Federal money and spend it elsewhere) will juice the natural growth that comes from an economy opening up again after a recession.  The stocks of companies that prosper coming out of a recession are the cyclical value stocks and the domestic-focused small cap stocks.

Over the past several years, I have focused client portfolios on large cap growth stocks and largely avoided value and small cap stocks based upon the economic policies our country adopted coming out of the 2008/2009 recession.  The massive monetary stimulus pushed down interest rates to zero and made investing in companies with ever-increasing valuations (i.e., expanding Price to Earnings ratios) make sense.  These were the only companies with consistently growing earnings and investors were willing to pay up to own companies with growing businesses.

However, investor face two major problems investing in highly valued large cap growth stocks in an expanding economy, when economic momentum is gaining speed: (1) even if the large cap growth stocks still have expanding earnings, they new have competition of other significantly lower valued companies with significantly lower P/E Ratios whose earnings are growing at the same or higher rates.  This means there is less demand from buyers of their stocks at the high valuations so when the supply of people wanting to sell their shares outpaces the demand of buyers, the stock price has to come down; and (2) as interest rates begin to rise those higher rates put pressure on valuation levels.  The valuations of companies go down as interest rates go up, even if their earnings continue to grow.

Now, I know you are going to say that interest rates will be low for a long time – you’ve heard it on the news, on internet, just about everywhere – you have even watched the Federal Reserve Chairman on TV telling you so.   However, I mean the rates material to corporations that occur in the bond market, not the overnight Fed Funds rate controlled by the Federal Reserve – that rate has been and will likely continue to be held artificially at the zero level for years to come.  However the bond market is totally independent of the rates set by the Fed.  If demand for capital increases because economic activity increases, and corporate America needs to borrow money to fund its growing business, they will go to the bond market and borrow it from investors.  The more demand, the higher the bond market can charge for the borrowing (yet again, supply and demand matter).

Also, as economic activity increases, prices can increase – think of all the businesses that have been nearly shut down or have had to lower their prices just to exist through this recession – once the demand is back for their goods and services and the covid restrictions are eased up, prices will rise.  As prices rise at the same time as demand increases for borrowing money, the lenders (in this case the people who buy the corporate bonds) will keep demanding higher and higher yields on the borrowed money so that they achieve purchasing power parity (or more simply, keep the buying power of their money stable despite the inflation).

All of this means that I expect (1) cyclical value stocks whose fates are tied to the economy to outperform growth stocks, and (2) domestically focused small cap stocks to outperform their internationally-focused large cap brethren who are doing business in places that will not likely have a domestic recovery until well after ours is underway.  Those growth stocks steady earnings and large cap stocks with an international focus will be valued less by investors because they can buy cheaper value stocks with the same or better earnings growth and small cap stocks with better earnings growth than large cap stocks that are less tied to our economic recovery.

Have I sold all of our large cap growth holdings? Absolutely not – however everything I own for clients has some catalyst or story that gives investors a reason to own them, even if their P/E’s are higher than normal.  For the bulk of the large cap growth companies, they will have to grow into their valuations, and that will take time.  It is much like what happened to Walmart all those years ago – it went from its high growth stage where investors drove its stock price up faster than its earnings so that its P/E Ratio was well above the median valuation for retail industry.  Their price didn’t need to fall, and in fact could increase a bit, but to drive down their P/E Ratio and get the resulting valuation of the company in line with the retail industry, their earnings growth had to far outpace their stock price growth.

Since 2008, the prices of large cap growth stocks grew faster than the earnings grew.  When Price was divided by Earnings, the valuation went up as the P got larger relative to the E.  Now, we will likely be watching the E grow faster than the P so that the valuation comes down to a level that will once again entice investors.  It’s sort of math that you have to pay attention to as an investor, otherwise you get stuck with companies in your portfolio that will cause your returns to suffer.

Investment Strategy

>I have rebalanced client portfolios to reduce economic risk, adding a significant allocation of Value and Small Cap stocks and reduced our allocation of Large Cap Growth stocks so that portfolios are in line with the coming economic expansion.

>Portfolios have a strong domestic bias over foreign to reduce the timing risk of foreign economies not recovering as quickly (or ever) as the US economy.

>Every stock I own in client portfolios has some sort of catalyst that I believe will cause investors to want to own their shares as that catalyst helps to drive their earnings higher.

>To reduce the individual company risk of owning stocks based upon projected earnings growth once the economy starts to recover, I have reduced the position size and increased the number of positions in portfolios.

>To make me sleep better at night owning such a large allocation to value and small cap, the projected earnings growth for the portfolio is > 15% and the projected Return on Equity is 25% (just remember that there is not a direct correlation between these numbers and stock price increases – lots of outside factors influence stock price growth, like whether the supply and demand for the company’s stock is favorable or not, whether the discount rate for corporate earnings is rising or falling, etc.  However, as long as earnings and returns are rising at these levels, one major factor in stock price movement is taken care of).

>I have also significantly reduced bond portfolio durations (for clients that are not invested 100% in equities) to protect against interest rate risk, keeping individual bond holdings short-term and bond mutual fund holdings short duration or floating rate.

Note:  In coming blog posts I will discuss the catalysts mentioned earlier in this post.  To give you preview, though, one of those is the Humanization of Pets.  One of the unexpected things to come out of the covid restrictions is an increase in the number of households that own pets.  Our society has moved to the point where pets are members of the family who get good food and medical care.  With the increase in the number of pets, comes increased demand for quality pet food and medical care.  As such, client portfolios own two leaders in the pet pharmaceutical field in client portfolios because of the increased demand for pet medical care.

Have a great weekend!

—Mark