Practitioners, Prognosticators and Portfolio Pain

I spend a lot of time looking for new stocks, either by screen or by reading or talking to other value investors. We are all having a hard time finding many stocks of interest.

Practitioners, Prognosticators and Portfolio Pain

“Asphyxiation is a condition in which the body doesn’t receive enough oxygen.”

That’s how I started my last column, in which I explained how the recent U.S. equity market highs have been creating “altitude sickness,” or value asphyxiation, for investors. If you look down from 30,000 feet, the market is trading at a significant premium to its average long-term valuation, especially if you normalize earnings for sky-high profit margins.

The view from the trenches is not much different. I spend a lot of time looking for new stocks, either by screen or by reading or talking to other value investors. We are all having a hard time finding many stocks of interest. In fact, we’ve been doing a lot more selling than buying.

I often get asked a question: Are we in a bubble? Bubble is a word that has been thrown around a lot lately. There may be an academic definition of what a bubble is — probably something to do with valuations at least a few standard deviations from the mean — but I don’t really care what it is. (Only academics believe in normal distributions.)

From the practitioner’s perspective, a bubbly valuation occurs when the price-earnings ratio of a company is so high that its earnings will have a hard time growing into investors’ expectations. In other words, the stock is so expensive that investors holding it will find it difficult to realize a positive return for a long time (think of Cisco Systems, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems in 2000). There are some bubbly stocks in the market today. Most years you see some, but today there are probably a few more than usual.

We see a lot of overvalued or fully valued stocks. Expectations (valuations) of those stocks have already more than priced in rosy earnings growth scenarios. If these scenarios play out, investors will likely make very little money, as earnings growth will merely offset P/E compression. But here is where it gets interesting: The line between overvalued and bubbly stocks is often very murky. If the economy’s growth is lower than expected or corporate profit margins revert toward the mean (or, in the situation we have today, decline), the return profiles of these stocks will not be substantially different from those of the bubbly ones. Unfortunately for the value-asphyxiated investor, there are a lot of stocks that fall into this overvalued bucket.

It is very hard for investors to remain disciplined and stick to an investment process. Selling overvalued stocks is hard, because every sell decision brings consequent pain as overvalued stocks that are not aware you’ve sold them keep on marching higher. Just as Pavlov’s dog responded to a bell, the pain of selling teaches us not to sell.

If that pain were not enough, cash keeps burning a hole in our portfolios. Cash doesn’t rise in value when everything else is rising; thus investors feel forced to buy. When you are forced into a buy or sell decision, the outcome will usually not be good. Forced buy decisions are usually bad buy decisions. Just because a stock looks less bad than the rest of the market doesn’t make it a good stock. Maybe its peer is trading at 23 times earnings and your pick is trading at “only” 19. Such relative logic is dangerous today, because it anchors you to a transitory environment that may or may not be there for you in the future (most likely not).

We are in the most annoying phase of the investing calendar: the month when every market strategist and his dog have to make a prediction as to what the market will do next year. To be right in forecasting, you have to predict often. And market strategists do. In fact, they predict so often that no one remembers how often their predictions worked out. I am not knocking the prognosticators: That is their job. They predict and sound smart doing it — just like it’s the barber’s job to cut your hair and pretend he is concentrating on not cutting off your ear.

It is your job, however, not to pay attention to the predictors. They simply don’t know. They may have a gut feeling, but that feeling is worth as much as you pay for it — very little. To time the market, you have to forecast what the economy will do, which is also very difficult. The Fed has 450 economists working full time on that (half of them are Ph.D.s, but I am not going to hold it against them), and they have an amazingly poor track record. Then you have to figure out how other market participants will respond to the economics news — and that is incredibly difficult. Let’s say you nailed both of these tasks. You still need to predict the multitude of random events — a few of which may be very large black swans — that will show up in the next 12 months. There is a reason why they are called “random.”

Though it is dangerous to drink the market’s Kool-Aid and celebrate, it is not time to be gloomy either. There is good news for all of us: Cyclical bull markets are here to absolve us from our “buy” sins. Not every stock in your portfolio is marching in rhythm to its fundamentals. Indeed, this market has lifted many stocks while divorcing them from their weak fundamentals. This absolution is temporary: Take advantage of it.

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