Smoke ’em if You Got ’em!

Have you ever bought a mutual fund or ETF and received a prospectus in the mail? Some of them are over 100 pages. One of the reasons they’re so thick is the requirement by mutual funds to disclose the strategy’s risks. The government requires it. They want to make sure investors know the risks they’re taking before investing. How many people actually read the prospectus is beside the point. My point is the government wants investors to be careful and know they may lose money. Seems simple enough.

Out of curiosity, I pulled up a prospectus of a popular bond fund today. The fund’s risks include: principal risk, interest rate risk, call risk, credit risk, high yield risk, market risk, insurer risk, liquidity risk, derivatives risk, equity risk, mortgage risk, asset back security risk, foreign investment risk, emerging market risk, sovereign debt risk, currency risk, leveraging risk, managing risk, and short sale risk. Now you know why prospectuses are so long!

With interest rates at record lows and negative rates becoming more common globally, what is the biggest risk fixed “income” investors face today? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not on the list above. In my opinion, the biggest risk to bond investors, and all investors in all asset classes, is central banks and the possibility that their eight years of “emergency” policies fail. Among other things, the failure of these policies could create inflation, deflation, a currency crisis, a sovereign credit crisis, a fiscal deficit funding crisis, an inequality crisis, and a major reset in interest rates and asset prices. Don’t kid yourself (and I doubt many of you are), but interest rates and asset prices are not where they are because of fundamentals. Without the faith and confidence in central bankers, everything changes, everything.

How would bond investors respond tomorrow if central banks announced they were no longer able to buy bonds? Instead of buying, what if central banks had to sell the bonds they bought during their QE operations? In other words, what if the currency markets, or inflation, or a sudden shift in crowd psychology (i.e. zero to negative rates were perceived to be bad) forced central bankers’ hands and they went from the market’s unlimited bid to the world’s largest seller? Bond investors would lose trillions. Why isn’t the largest risk to investors, central banker policy failure, listed in the bond prospectus I referenced above? In my opinion, it should be listed, it should be mentioned first, and it should be in bold. Furthermore, it should be listed in all prospectuses, including equity funds.

What I find particularly interesting about all of this is how the government has a conflicting role in disclosing and encouraging investment risks. On the one hand, you have one government agency warning investors of the risks of investing – they’re trying to protect investors. On the other hand, you have another arm of the government, the Federal Reserve, actively encouraging investors to take risk. Eight years of ZIRP and negative real rates have screamed take equity risk, duration risk, liquidity risk, leverage risk, credit risk, market risk, and anything is better than cash risk!

The Federal Reserve is on record stating monetary policy has been successful in raising asset prices and that it has helped stimulate the economy. From Ben Bernanke’s op-ed article on November 5, 2010, “The FOMC intends to buy an additional $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by mid-2011…this approach eased financial conditions in the past and, so far, looks to be effective again. Stock prices rose and long-term interest rates fell when investors began to anticipate this additional action. Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth.” Later in the article Bernanke again discussed the wonders of asset inflation, “And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion [emphasis mine].”

So what is it Mr. Government? Do you want to protect investors from the risks listed in the prospectus, or do you want investors to take risk in order to drive up asset prices? It’s like the Surgeon General requiring cigarette manufactures to place warning labels on their packaging, while encouraging smoking by giving out free cigarettes! The Federal Reserve is running a smoke ‘em if you got ‘em monetary policy. Although the risks of the Fed’s policies are not being fully disclosed, investors should be aware that these policies can be very hazardous to their financial health.

As it relates to investing, identifying and fully understanding all of the risks of an investment is an important part of the research process. It is also critical to the valuation process as the measurement of risk goes directly into determining an investor’s hurdle rate or required rate of return. An accurate required rate of return is essential in properly valuing many assets including corporate debt and equities (especially when using DCF valuation methodology). In conclusion, absolute return investors should not rely on government warnings when it comes to understanding the most important risks associated with an investment. Read the risks. Read the disclosures. But also do your own work, think for yourself, and just because the risk isn’t listed doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Thou Shalt Not Overpay With Other Peoples’ Money

Funds: How Much Cash Is Too Much?

There’s good reason for funds to have extra cash—as a cushion—but not two-thirds of their assets or more.

Barron’s recently published an article with the title and subtitle above. The article mentions several funds with very high cash levels and implies these funds are invested as if the world is coming to an end – doomsday funds so to speak. Instead of investing for Armageddon, is it possible these funds are simply staying true to their investment disciplines and objectives? If the funds’ objectives are to generate absolute returns, high cash levels during periods of record high valuations is not only possible, but should be expected. Moreover, in my opinion, today’s overvaluation is much broader than the bubbles of 1999-2000 and 2006-2007. This cycle’s broadness of overvaluation has significantly reduced the number of qualifying investments, increasing the need for cash above that of past cycle peaks.

For the past 18 years I’ve been running an absolute return portfolio with cash levels ranging from fully invested to over 80%. During this time, I’ve been asked every question imaginable as it relates to cash. I think the biggest misconception about portfolio managers who are willing to hold cash is that they are market timers. Although I can’t speak for other managers, I am not a market timer. In fact, I believe I’m an awful market timer. I have no idea where the stock market is headed. Although I believe stocks are overvalued (especially small caps) and they “should” decline, if I had to guess near-term I’d say they could go either way.

Stocks could go up. Policy makers appear determined to keep the game going by providing more and more stimulus and investors appear more than willing to play along. While valuation metrics are at nosebleed levels, one thing I learned in the late-90’s tech bubble is valuation isn’t a good predictor of stock prices in the near-term. Once prices and valuations are detached from intrinsic values, they can go anywhere they want and they can go there quickly. Given poor earnings and fundamentals haven’t mattered over the past several quarters, it’s possible they’ll continue to be ignored and multiples and overvaluation could continue to expand. Although the current market cycle is one of the longest in history and I believe we are in the later stages, the exact timing of this cycle’s demise is unknowable. The bull market could continue.

Stocks could go down. Let’s face it, we’ve never seen this type of investment environment before – global central bankers gone wild. We have no idea how these monetary experiments will end exactly or when they end. If central bankers can no longer maintain the perception that their balance sheets and bids are unlimited, investor demand for bonds yielding practically nothing (or worse!) would evaporate. We could wake up one morning and see the long bond down four or five dollars along with currencies in turmoil. A bond or currency collapse would most likely be blamed on failed central bank policies; therefore, more policy response would be perceived as a negative. At that point the central bankers’ “put” finally expires with no one left to bailout the markets. Stocks would crash.

So there you have it. I can see stocks continue to go up and I could see them crash. Real helpful I know and proves I have no idea where stocks are headed. Being 100% cash in my absolute return portfolio has nothing to do with my opinion on the stock market and everything to do with investment discipline and principle. On principle it’s pretty simple. While I’m no longer managing a public mutual fund, I strongly believe investment managers should never knowingly overpay for any asset with other peoples’ money. It’s a serious investment sin. In fact, it’s the first of my investment ten commandments – Thou Shalt Not Overpay. In other words, holding cash is a result of having a conscience and understanding overpaying is not only a poor investment decision, it’s just wrong.

Investment discipline is also a major factor in determining cash levels. None of the successful investors I’m aware of just wing it – they all follow strict investment disciplines, or a set of investment rules. As an absolute return investor, my discipline is founded on my desire to make money. It is driven by the fundamental analysis and valuation work I perform on hundreds of small cap stocks (it’s a bottom-up process). My discipline attempts to avoid overpaying and limit mistakes. To do this it’s essential to only take risk when getting appropriately paid relative to risk assumed.

Disciplined absolute return investors do not need to continuously hit home runs to achieve their investment objectives. By maintaining a high batting average and limiting mistakes (over a market cycle), absolute return investors can generate attractive returns while taking significantly less risk than relative return investors. As a reminder, relative return investors usually remain fully invested even in periods of inflated prices, elevated risks, and limited opportunities. Currently I do not believe most stocks, or bonds for that matter, will provide investors with sufficient returns relative to risk assumed. Prices and valuations are at record highs, overvaluation is very broad, risks appear unappreciated (VIX below 13), interest rates are artificial, and profit margins are extended.

It is during periods like we are in today that investors make their biggest mistakes; when conventional wisdom and crowd psychology suggests prices can only go up and there is “something different this time” (late 90s it was the new economy/productivity miracle, 2007 it was home prices never fall, and now it’s faith in global central bankers). This is when following discipline is most important and when I’m most thankful to be an absolute return investor. I’d be very uncomfortable if I was forced to be fully invested in this environment. Imagine being a bond manager right now with a fully invested mandate — yikes!

In my opinion, absolute return investors must have the willingness and ability to be patient, especially during prolonged periods of overvaluation and asset bubbles. In order to maintain a patient positioning, safe and liquid assets, such as cash are essential. I do not believe cash should be used in an attempt to time markets. Instead, cash levels should be determined on principle and by following a strict and thoughtful investment discipline. Cash provides investors with an alternative to owning overvalued assets. This makes a lot of sense to me as I’d rather hold cash than an overvalued asset. Wouldn’t you?

The Small Cap Police

Today I was going to write about passive investing, but there was just too much for one post, so I decided I’ll try to touch on the topic once a week until all aspects are completely covered.

In 1996, I joined the Evergreen Funds in Purchase, NY and started working solely on small cap stocks. It was a great experience and I pinched myself every day heading into work. I was only 25 years old and was working on a 4-5 star small cap fund. In 1996-1997 small cap businesses were performing very well as the profit cycle was peaking. It was tough to make mistakes as rising profits were elevating the small cap market to record highs. I thought I was the next Warren Buffett, but in reality I was just in the right place at the right time. Nevertheless, I learned a lot during the mid-90s and look back on those years as a time when the foundation of the absolute return strategy I developed was formed.

The fund I worked on was called the Evergreen Small Cap Equity Income Fund. It was a very interesting fund – a small cap fund with a yield requirement. Imagine how well that strategy would be performing today given the panic for risk and yield! In any event, the yield was meant to help reduce downside and obviously produce income. It turned out to be a great risk-adjusted return strategy and was listed by Barron’s in their top 100 funds rankings in 1997 and 1998. In addition to helping us generate attractive risk-adjusted returns, focusing on stocks with dividends forced me to follow and analyze more mature businesses that generated free cash flow. This concept has followed me even today as the majority of the small cap businesses on my 300 name possible buy list are in fact mature businesses that generate abundant free cash flow over a profit cycle.

Another reason I’ve gravitated towards mature businesses is I believe they can be valued with a higher degree of confidence versus young and unproven businesses. If there is a long operating history to analyze, I can better determine how the business will perform throughout an industry and economic cycle. The more cycles the better. Also, the longer the history the better understanding one can have of the company’s normalized free cash flow. Extrapolating peak cash flows (what many investors are doing now in my opinion) is a very dangerous game. Conversely, extrapolating trough cash flows can lead to tremendous cost in the form of lost opportunities. Lastly, mature companies often are higher quality businesses. If a company has survived for decades and has flourished through multiple economic booms and busts, there is typically something high quality about the business.

So what does all of this have to do with passive investing? Absolutely nothing. What I want to discuss, but was sidetracked, is how the top holders of many of the mature companies I follow has changed considerably since the mid-90s. At that time I remember the top holders of high quality small cap companies were often large buy-side mutual funds such as Royce, Heartland, and Gabelli. Can you guess what the top holders of most small cap stocks are today? You guessed it, passive index funds such as Vanguard, Blackrock, and Dimensional Funds.

In my opinion, high quality small caps are the most expensive I’ve ever seen them. For the first time since 1993 I don’t own one stock – I am completely out of the market. Looking through my possible buy list there is very little I would consider to be a good investment or that will generate adequate absolute returns relative to risk assumed. In effect, by recently recommending returning capital to clients, I was recommending going 100% cash. And that’s where I am today.

When I look at some of the stocks I owned over that past 20 years that were trading at 10-15x earnings at the time of purchase and that are now trading at 20-35x earnings, I ask myself, “Who in the world is buying these things?” When I pull up the top holders to discover the culprits, I often see the most popular index funds and ETFs.

Mature small cap businesses that are growing 2-3% organically should not trade at aggressive growth-like valuations. The math simply doesn’t work for slow to no growth companies. Investors are getting a 3-4% earnings yield on earnings that are in many cases being generated off peak margins. As noted previously, extrapolating peak cash flows is a very dangerous game, but extrapolating peak cash flows AND requiring a meager low single digit earnings yield is, frankly, irresponsible (especially if you’re doing this with other peoples’ money). A rational investor or banker wouldn’t lend to these businesses long-term at 3%, but equity holders are supposed to be satisfied with these type of cap rates on uncertain perpetual cash flows?

Why are valuations of mature high quality small cap stocks so expensive? ZIRP, NIRP, and global QE along with the investment philosophy of the day T.I.N.A. (there is no alternative) are obviously to blame; however, I believe the shift to indexing and passive investing is also responsible. Index funds do not care about earnings yields, risk premiums, margins of safety, cash flows, and on and on. When an index fund receives an inflow it buys the stocks in the index regardless of fundamentals and price. I believe this sort of price indifference is one of the main reasons valuation multiples have expanded significantly this market cycle. I haven’t done the comparison, but if you pulled up a chart of index and ETF inflows I wouldn’t be surprised to see a high correlation to a chart of rising valuation multiples (especially price to sales and CAPE).

When I started this industry small caps were policed by the largest holders, which were often disciplined buy-side managers. These “small cap police” helped keep law and order in the price and valuations of the small cap stocks they owned or followed. Unlike index funds, the buy-side funds were price sensitive. Mature and boring small cap businesses would seldom trade at today’s valuations because the top holders were expected to sell and take profits if valuations increased to levels that couldn’t be justified with rational assumptions. While overvaluation and investors’ willingness to overpay (the #1 investment crime!) are present in every cycle, the major holders were at least cognizant of companies’ worth and were not indifferent to price. Where are the small cap police today? They’re no longer as important and are dropping off the list of top holders.

So without the small cap police what do we have? We have a market that is more price insensitive and dependent of flows. What happens when all of the index funds (the top holders) have outflows during the next bear market? Who will they sell to? They can’t sell to each other as they’ll all be selling at the same time to meet redemptions. Furthermore, since they’re fully invested they don’t have cash buffers and will have to liquidate holdings immediately, or that day. Just as they’re price insensitive on the upside, they’ll also be price insensitive on the downside.

I suspect most of the indexers who believe markets are efficient have never tried to liquidate a multi-million dollar small cap position in a market with few bids. I’ve seen it. It’s sloppy, illiquid, and very inefficient. I believe the great passive investing unwind could be one of next attractive buying opportunities for disciplined absolute return investors. I’m ready and looking forward to owning small cap stocks again.

Earnings Season — One Day it Will Matter

It’s earnings season again and we’ll soon have fresh data points on the health of the economy and corporate profits. Based on operating results and outlooks provided last quarter, I believe the earnings recession we’ve been in for the past year will drag on for another quarter. While I typically don’t use Wall Street research to confirm my analysis, in this case sell side analysts and I are on the same page. According to a recent Financial Times article, “Analysts [are] forecasting the longest profit recession since the financial crisis. Earnings of the major groups that comprise the S&P 500 index are seen falling 5% in the second quarter from the same three-month period in 2015.”

While earnings growth may be negative again this quarter, I’m not expecting significant deterioration in Q2 vs. Q1. Based on what I’m observing with the 300 small cap companies I follow, I believe revenue growth overall will remain weak, but earnings declines may moderate slightly year over year. While operating results should continue to be sluggish, earnings comparisons are becoming slightly easier. Furthermore, companies that were hurt by sharply lower energy prices and currency have had time to adjust and reduce costs. I also expect the use and abuse of non-GAAP adjusted earnings to continue, which optically could soften the blow from weak revenue growth. Lastly, adjusted EPS will be aided again by corporate buybacks.

Due to the increasing abuse of non-GAAP adjusted earnings and low-ball sell-side earnings estimates, I believe it is becoming more important to focus on revenues, volumes, and uncontaminated (GAAP) operating results. For example, CSX reported earnings today and several headlines regarding their earnings release state something similar to, “CSX Profits Top Estimates”. While the headlines suggest the quarter was good, actual results were quite poor. Adjusted EPS declined to $0.47 vs. $0.56, but more important volumes declined -9% and revenues declined -11.7% (management can’t non-GAAP volume and revenues). While coal volumes were a major drag (-34%), many of its other divisions saw volume declines as well, including: Agricultural (-8%), Phosphates and Fertilizers (-8%), Food and Consumer (-4%), Chemicals (-13%), Metals (-8%), Forest Products (-8%), Waste and Equipment (-2%), and Intermodal (-4%). The only gains in volumes were auto (+1%) and Materials (+13%). I will learn more tomorrow after I listen to the conference call, but this is interesting data and confirms what several other transportation companies have reported, including trucking (WERN recently announced weak results as well).

In conclusion, when you read headlines that company XYZ “beat” earnings estimates, it’s usually a good idea to dig a little deeper and go beyond the earnings estimate game. The earnings estimate game is played between Wall Street analysts and company managements (managements spoon-feed earnings estimates to analysts and the company beats the estimates – it’s almost as easy and fun as money printing!). Fortunately absolute return investors aren’t required to play this game and can spend their time analyzing actual results.

Although I’m expecting another weak quarter of GAAP earnings and sales (yes, most companies will beat analyst earnings estimates), I don’t have a strong opinion on the market’s reaction. I know how markets should respond, but “what should happen” has been a poor predictor of stock prices this market cycle. Earnings have declined for four consecutive quarters and for the most part, stocks could not care less. However, there was a moment earlier this year when it appeared investors were paying closer attention to fundamentals. In January and February, stocks declined sharply while another round of poor corporate earnings were being announced – fundamentals were once again influencing stock prices. For disciplined value investors, it was refreshing and encouraging. Unfortunately, the rise in correlations between stocks and fundamentals was short-lived. Before asset price declines became disorderly, central banks came to the rescue again by stepping up their policy response, driving asset prices sharply higher. I thought the ECB’s announcement that it would buy corporate debt was particularly dip buying inspiring!

With stocks again at record highs, it appears central bank policy continues to override fundamentals. Until this changes I believe it’s important to continue to follow business results and fundamentals, but keep in mind the profit cycle and market cycle have gone their separate ways and what should be happening (lower profits = lower stock prices) isn’t happening. As a fundamental analyst and absolute return investor, this is a frustrating environment, but there isn’t a lot we can do about it except wait for correlations and market psychology to change. I think it’s also important to consider that regardless of whether earnings decrease by a little or increase by a little this quarter or next quarter, the stock market is priced for VERY STRONG earnings growth. This growth is absent from actual earnings results and company outlooks. At this time, I see little evidence that second half earnings will grow significantly, which many analyst forecasts and stock prices are depending on.

In any event, enjoy earnings season! I’ll be particularly interested if results matter this quarter. As stated previously, over the past year, financial markets have shrugged off negative earnings trends. I am on alert as to when fundamentals matter more than monetary policy/market intervention. I’ll also be on alert as to when stocks respond more to actual results versus responding to whether or not a company beat easy-to-beat-spoon-fed earnings estimates. I’m not holding my breath, but one of these quarters I’m confident fundamentals and valuations will trump all. Until then, I’ll patiently wait in cash and let others play along with the central bankers and the earnings estimate games.

Bottom Up Economics vs. Government Data

Have you ever said to yourself, “That doesn’t look right,” after government data is released?  The release of economic data by government agencies is often highly anticipated by investors and can cause sharp reactions in financial markets. Over the years, I have found that government data often conflicts with what I’m witnessing in the real world and with the companies I follow. In fact, the government acknowledges their initial data is just an estimate, as most economic data is eventually revised to more accurately reflect reality, with many adjustments differing considerably from the original data. Even if adjustments are significant, financial markets seldom readjust proportionately to data revisions versus movements seen on the day of the initial release. Further increasing chances of faulty data, is the fact that there is often subjectivity involved in the calculation of the economic data (i.e. lowering inflation data due to the government’s opinion on improvements in quality of a product, or the birth death model in the employment report – government attempt to estimate how many jobs were created by business start-ups).  And there are seasonal adjustments as well that few market participants fully understand. In effect, economic data can be smoothed just like corporate non—GAAP earnings!

I have an easy solution. Stop relying on government economic data to make investment decisions. Why would an investor use data that is initially inaccurate and by the time it is accurate it is stale and possibly irrelevant? Instead of relying on data that will eventually be revised and is often subjective, why not pay more attention to what is going on in the real economy? Go straight to the source. I prefer getting my economic data directly from businesses. Specifically, I use my 300 name possible buy list, or the companies I actively follow, as a way to continuously monitor the economy in real time. So when the government says the economy is booming, I can verify or dismiss their data with timely and actual corporate results. I found this very helpful in spotting and preparing for the 2008 financial crisis before the government data (and Federal Reserve) caught up with what was happening in the real world.

As earnings season begins, we’ll soon have many new data points to help us form our opinion on the economy. A fresh data point on the industrial economy came out today with Fastenal’s (FAST) earnings report. FAST is a high quality distributor of industrial and construction supplies. I have found FAST conference calls and earnings reports helpful as they often go into considerable detail and provide a good overview of industrial and construction economies. I’d much prefer reviewing FAST’s quarterly results to determine the health of the industrial economy than relying on government industrial production data! It’s more timely and hard data. Management goes into detail on monthly trends as well. For FAST, I particularly like to review their sales trends of distribution stores open over five years, which better resemble economic activity than newer stores. April was +2.1%, May -0.4%, and June -1.8%. FAST has been experiencing weaker than normal growth as soft industrial demand continues to weigh on results. Management noted, “The decline in daily sales growth in May and June of 2016 was driven by continued weakness with our manufacturing and construction customers.” Regardless of what government economic data suggests, I expect this macro trend continued in Q2.

Monetary Sugar Daddy

I started in the asset management industry in 1993. Since then, industry assets under management (AUM) have grown from slightly under $4 trillion to over $17 trillion at the end of 2013 (source: Yahoo Finance). AUM has grown consistently, except for declines in 2002 ($6.6 trillion in AUM) and 2008 ($10.4 trillion in AUM). The 2002 decline was bailed out by Alan Greenspan and 1% rates (low rates for a “considerable period”). Of course Greenspan’s easy monetary policies created a housing bubble (thank you Easy Al – we sold our house in FL near the peak) and the eventual bust, which caused the industry’s AUM decline in 2008. During this industry recession, Bernanke came to the rescue and outdid Greenspan. The Bernanke Fed lowered rates to 0% and printed trillions of dollars to purchase mortgage debt and U.S. Treasuries, creating massive asset inflation. Asset gatherers and the investment management industry rejoiced – long live the Fed!

The asset management industry has often relied on and appreciated the Federal Reserve’s heavy hand in financial markets. Monetary policy under Greenspan, Bernanke, and Yellen has increased in its influence each market cycle and has helped put a floor under the industry’s AUM and revenue. Initially the Fed’s backstop of the financial markets was called the Greenspan put, but now it’s safe to insert any global central banker. It has been a wonderful relationship and business model for the investment management industry. Even if an asset management business didn’t grow its customer base, it could increase fees and revenues by simply riding the wave of easy money policies and the resulting asset inflation.

Despite record high stock prices and record low bond yields, the easy ride for asset managers appears to be coming to an end, as the industry is now under threat of a structural shift. As most know, the investment management industry is undergoing a major shift away from active to passive management strategies. According to a recent Bloomberg article, “Vanguard managed more than $3.5 trillion globally as of April 30,” with “$148 billion in flows in the first six months of 2016.” The shift to passively managed strategies isn’t new news. However, I believe a major cause is underappreciated.

While many market participants will point to the lower fees as the catalyst for the growth in passively managed funds, I believe aggressive, asymmetrical, and relentless monetary policy has also contributed. Since central banker “emergency” intervention began in 2008, EVERY decline in asset prices has been reversed with central banker policy response — real and verbal. In effect, one of the most important aspects of free markets, the pricing and respect for risk, has been temporarily suspended. Central bankers have replaced free markets with markets that are perceived to only go one direction (up).  Investors are being conditioned and rewarded to believe this time actually is different. If investors believe central bankers can set asset prices and control risk (or at least the perception of risk), it’s understandable they’ll flock into index funds and ride the central banker’s wave of easy money in a low fee vehicle.

Unlike private bank balance sheets that were the foundation of the credit bubble of 2003-2008, current asset bubbles are supported by unlimited central banker purchasing power – their balance sheets, in theory, can expand indefinitely. The perception that central banker resources are unlimited provides investors with a feeling that they can always rely on central bankers to maintain financial stability (stable to rising prices); further reducing investor need for risk management, and in turn reducing investor demand for active management.

Ironically, the investment management industry needs its sugar daddy, the central bankers, to fail and fail miserably. The industry needs to prove active management works and its fees are justified. In a market without properly priced risk and without genuine opportunity, it is difficult to generate sustainable absolute returns and achieve investment objectives (for example, how does a bond fund with an income objective provide sufficient income in a no yield world?). In addition to threatening the business models of banks (flat yield curve), insurance and pension plans (insufficient yields relative to obligations), I believe it’s safe to add the asset management industry to the list of industries the central bankers have inadvertently put at risk.

Opportunity Set From Hell

Depending on your valuation measure of choice, stock valuations are near or at record highs. The valuation measures that I prefer, such as price to sales, are at record highs. The price to sales ratio on my 300-name possible buy list exceeded 2x at the end of Q2 – the highest I can remember, while its P/E exceeded 30x! Many of the mature small caps I follow typically sell closer to 1x sales (makes sense as 1x sales would equate to 15x earnings using 10% EBIT margin). In May, Goldman Sachs noted median stocks trade at the 99th percentile of historical valuations, with EV/Sales at 100% percentile. Bond prices and yields are beyond belief. Over $11 trillion of global bonds now provide negative yields, while the 30-year Treasury recently reached a record low yield, dropping to as low as 2.14% on July 5. Alternative investments aren’t screaming value either. Residential and commercial real estate has appreciated significantly, with cracks beginning to show in higher end properties such as in New York and San Francisco. Private equity returns looks great, as all asset classes do in the rearview mirror of a boom. Some pensions and asset allocators are firing their hedge fund managers and “diversifying” (or performance chasing?) into alternative assets.

To be fair, it’s not an easy environment for asset allocators and it’s even more difficult for absolute return investors. Let’s face it, it’s an opportunity set from hell. With asset prices so high and yields so low, are adequate absolute returns possible? While I can’t speak as confidently about other asset classes, I believe at current prices, small caps will struggle to provide sufficient absolute returns (sufficient = positive returns that appropriately compensate for risk assumed). I believe small cap stocks are extremely overvalued. Assuming the price to sales ratio of most mature small cap stocks revert to more normalized and justifiable levels (2x sales declining to 1x sales), I believe many small cap stocks could be cut in half. While large declines are uncommon and may sound extreme, small caps saw similar declines in the bubbles of 1999-2000 and 2008-2009.

What is an absolute return investor to do in such an environment? Be patient and remain safe and liquid is the best answer I can come up with and it’s what I am doing. Participating and playing along is great if you can time markets – I can’t, I don’t, and I won’t. Is this why the investment management industry has become so obsessed with relative investing? Relative investing provides cover for professional investors to stay fully invested even when valuation metrics are flashing red. Relative performance investors (most professional managers) have few options, but to play along. They have inflexible mandates and may fear losing assets under management, so they stay invested and practice relative value investing (buy overvalued securities, but not the most overvalued).

We can debate why prices are where they are in another post, but I believe most value investors would agree that many assets are artificially inflated and expensive. I have no special insight on when this cycle ends. Again, I can’t time markets. Nonetheless, if we are in fact in the third asset bubble in only 17 years, I believe it too will end as no amount of touting T.I.N.A (there is no alternative) can keep overvalued markets inflated indefinitely. In investing, although it may feel this way, we do not have guns to our heads that force us to overpay. We don’t have to do it. There is a choice. There is a decision. As an absolute return investor, I’m saying no and refuse to invest in the current opportunity set from hell. There will be better ones in the future – that I’m confident of.

Unemployment — First Day

Yesterday was my first day of unemployment since 1988 when I started as a Baskin Robbins trainee. By 1989 I had moved my way up to “Head Scoop” and increased my hourly wage from $3.15 to $4 (including best employment perk of all times: all you can eat ice cream)! As a teenager with few obligations, I was crushing it financially and I was young enough to burn off all the calories/free ice cream. At the end of the summer, I decided to buy a CD at my local bank with all of the money I saved. I still remember the exact amount — $750. I was rich! Even better, the one-year CD I invested in was yielding 7%. From that day forward I was hooked on the power of compounding.

As an absolute value investor I long for the days of 7% risk-free returns. Are such risk free returns even possible now? If the yield curve shifted upward 500-600bps, developed countries would become insolvent overnight. Total US debt of $19 trillion x 0.06 = $1.14 trillion increase in fiscal deficit = game over. Has global debt reached a point that makes normalization of rates impossible? The math doesn’t support normalization; hence, the consistent delays on the emergency monetary policy exit. Is the Fed data dependent, or terrified of the normalization process?

Absolute Return Investing — Utilities

I’m not an investment snob. To achieve attractive absolute returns over a market cycle, I believe it’s important to keep an open mind and your opportunity set as wide as possible. At times, I’ll be interested in areas some investors will avoid either due to their rigid beliefs or perception fears. There are times during market booms and near cycle peaks that boring stocks, such as utilities, are often forgotten and left behind. In a raging bull market, utilities may be considered too risky to hold for professional investors obsessed with relative performance. Portfolio managers may avoid boring stocks as they try to keep up with the herd, providing opportunity for absolute return investors.

I admit I like utilities. I’ve often used utilities to help generate absolute returns, especially when they’re being neglected by the go-go relative performance crowd. Utilities are simple businesses and mostly regulated. In effect, they’re easy to value. If you can buy a utility near or slightly above book value, an investor can earn near the utility’s allowable (what regulators allow utilities to earn) ROE. Customer growth and the moderate use of leverage can also add slightly to growth and enhance returns further. I often use tangible book value as a starting point in my utility valuations and apply a realistic allowable ROE (adjusted for regulatory lag) to determine the expected cash flow from the utility. I then view it more or less as a perpetual bond with a no to slowly growing coupon.

Near the last cycle’s peak (2006-2007) I was able to find attractively priced utilities which allowed me to soak up some cash in a very expensive small cap market. The herd was avoiding boring utilities in favor of more exciting returns, such as those found in cyclical and commodity stocks. Unfortunately, this cycle utilities are not attractively priced and are not being ignored — utility stocks are on a tear and have been one of the best performing sectors for the first half of 2016. According to Yahoo Finance, Utilities increased 21.2% during the first half of 2016. Select water utilities have done even better with California Water Services (CWT) up 52% and Middlesex Water increasing 65%. So much for boring and forgotten – charts of water utility stocks look like internet stocks in 1999! As mentioned earlier, I prefer buying utilities near or slightly above book value. Currently most utilities are selling at meaningful premiums to book value and significantly over historical price to book ratios. Water utilities are selling near 3x book value on average, which implies P/E ratios near 30x based on allowable ROEs of approximately 9%. These valuations make little sense to me given risks and historical and expected growth rates.

I think most would agree that utility stocks are being chased for yield this cycle, as long term Treasuries yields collapse to 1-2%. As their stocks surge, yields on utility stocks are falling and no longer appear as attractive and defensive. Yields on water utility stocks are particularly unappealing. According to Dividend.com, the water utility stocks in its group are only yielding 2.04% on average, with some water utilities, such as American Water Works (AWK) yielding below 2%. As utility stocks have outpaced gains in long term Treasuries (ETF TLT up 16% first half of 2016), their dividend yields are also becoming less attractive relative to Treasuries.

While investors may point to the collapse in bond yields, especially Treasuries, as a reason to own utilities, lower Treasury yields can increase regulatory risk. Regulators often look to competing yields, especially risk free yields, when determining a utility’s allowable ROE. Assuming interest rates remain depressed, it is within reason to assume regulators may reduce (or continue to reduce) allowable ROEs, which in turn would reduce the cash flows and ultimately what an investor is willing to pay for the business. While lower allowable ROEs and lower rate hikes would benefit utility customers, it would not be great news for utility investors.

In addition to lower yields, I believe utilities have benefited from investors flight into quality. I believe quality is very expensive for this stage of the market cycle. Many investors were burnt last market cycle by piling into riskier cyclical businesses. When the 2008-2009 crash hit, many of these lower quality stocks were destroyed. Investors have learned their lesson this cycle, or have they? While high quality businesses, such as utilities, have more certain cash flows and are less risky businesses, are they lower risk investments? Given current valuations, I do not believe they are. We’ll have a lot more time to discuss the excesses I’m observing in high quality stocks (very important and underappreciated topic), but for now I just wanted to point out that I believe utility stocks were benefiting from the rush into quality.

 

Welcome to Absolute Return Investing

Over the past 18 years I’ve been managing a strategy that is focused on and has generated attractive absolute returns. I believe absolute return investing is superior to relative return investing. Relative return investing has never made sense to me. Investors, big and small, think in absolute returns (think pension return assumption of 8% or an individual return goal of “making money”). Nevertheless, the investment management industry has consistently gravitated more and more to the world of relative investing. In relative investing, losing 30% of clients’ capital is an achievement if the market declines 32%! In the following posts I will attempt to shine light on absolute return investing and why I prefer it to the relative world. Furthermore, I plan to provide current updates on the business environment through the eyes of 300 small cap companies — many of which I’ve followed for 10-20 years. As I recently recommended returning capital to clients (due to the excessive small cap valuations and broadness in overvaluation), I’m using this blog, along with managing my own separate account (which is now 100% cash), as a way to stay engaged until my opportunity set improves and I eventually return to the asset management industry.