Competing with the Quants

I was having a drink a while back with my friend and fellow Rich Investor contributor John Del Vecchio, and we were reminiscing about how much this business has changed since we started our careers.

John is a forensic accountant who knows exactly where to look in the financial statements for accounting shenanigans; where “the bodies are buried,” so to speak. I call him the “Horatio Caine of finance” after David Caruso’s character on CSI: Miami. John has the same no-nonsense demeanor.

The late 1990s were a fantastic time to be a short seller. With the internet bubble entering the final blow-off stages, a disciplined forensic account had an almost unlimited supply of short candidates.

But you had to know what warning signs to look for. This often meant spending hours digging through the footnotes of a company’s income statement, cash flow statement and balance sheet.

Back then, John spent 10 hours per day on the LexisNexis database, pouring over every line of a short candidate’s financial statements. And often, it would all be for naught. Not every investigation ended with a perp walk.

Today, John presses a button and his system does the heavy lifting for him in a matter of seconds.

When the system finds irregularities, John still has to roll up his sleeves, put on the green visor, and dig into the books. But his quantitative system saves him hours (if not days) of exhausting research.

And the 1990s weren’t all that long ago. Let’s go a little further back in time.

Benjamin Graham – Warren Buffett’s mentor and the man that invented value investing as a discipline – made a fortune in the 1930s and 1940s by doing painstaking research.

He’d dig through the financial statements and calculate valuation ratios (price/earnings, CAPE, etc.) by hand.

As early as the 1950s, after Wall Street had starting hiring armies of analysts to do the same work, Graham had started to question whether he could still find bargains using his old methods.

By the 1970s, Graham has more or less given up and converted to an efficient market advocate.

Warren Buffett is most famous for owning large positions in household names like Geico and Coca-Cola. But earlier in his long career, Buffett literally walked door to door in Omaha asking little old ladies if they were interested in selling their paper stock certificates to him.

In today’s world of instant stock trading on your smartphone, that seems ridiculously quaint and old timey.

Fundamental investors have flocked to quantitative tools to help them pick through mountains of data faster than their competitors.

Forbes even coined a term for it – “quantimental” investing.

But is more data always better?

That’s a lot less certain. Last week, Bloomberg reported that quant funds are “reeling from the worst run in eight years.” AQR – considered one of the best quant managers in history – is down nearly 9% this year in one of its flagship funds after suffering a miserable June.

There are so many points to be made here, it’s actually hard to know where to start. But here we go…

1. You can’t realistically invest today without using at least some basic quantitative tools.

There are simply too many stocks to research and not enough hours in the day. Not all of us are crunching numbers using computers designed for NASA, of course. But even something as basic as a simple screen or ranking system can narrow your universe to a manageable size.

If Ben Graham were alive today, he wouldn’t be calculating ratios by hand after digging the numbers out of a quarterly report. It’s also highly unlikely he’d be using the same screening criteria that he recommended using in the 1930s.

Graham was a smart guy, and he would have evolved with the times, probably coming up with new ratios we’ve never heard of.

2. You’re never going to be able to compete with the big boys in technology investment. 

The biggest Wall Street banks and hedge funds really do use computers that were designed for NASA and have teams of PhD eggheads to run them. You can’t realistically compete with that, so you have to play a different game.

Look for opportunities in small- and medium-sized companies that the big boys can’t realistically touch. (A large fund can’t take a meaningful position in a smaller company without moving the market.)

3. Beware of false correlations. 

I wrote a couple months ago that butter production in Bangladesh was statistically proven to be the best predictor of U.S. market returns.

Now, this is obviously a quirky coincidence. No rational human being would really believe that dairy production half a world away makes a dime’s bit of difference to the stock market here.

But quantitative investing is full of little traps like these. So before you trade, your screen needs to pass a “smell test.”

If the criteria seems farfetched (seriously, Bangladeshi butter?) it’s likely that you’re mistaking statistical noise for worthwhile information.

 

 

This article first appeared on Sizemore Insights as Competing with the Quants

Dividend Growth Portfolio 2nd Quarter 2018 Letter to Investors

At the halfway point, 2018 is shaping up to be a good year for us. The first quarter was rough. In addition to the correction that dinged virtually all long-only portfolio managers, rising bond yields punished some of our more rate-sensitive positions, particularly REITs and MLPs. Though as yield fears subsided in the second quarter, the Dividend Growth portfolio recouped nearly all of its losses and entered the third quarter with strong momentum.

Through June 30, the portfolio returned 0.39% before management fees and -0.36 after all fees and expenses. Encouragingly, the returns for the second quarter were 7.92% gross of management fees and 7.17% net of all fees and expenses. [Returns figures compiled by Interactive Brokers and represent the real returns of a portfolio managed with firm capital. Returns realized by individual investor may vary based on account size and other factors. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.]

By comparison, through June 30, the S&P 500 index was up 1.67% through June 30 and up 2.93% in the second quarter.

So, while 2018 got off to a rough start, our portfolio has significant momentum behind it as we enter the second half. Our positions in energy — most notably midstream oil and gas pipelines — in real estate and in private equity managers have been the strongest contributors to returns. Our positions in European and emerging market equities have been the biggest drag on returns.

As a portfolio with a strong income mandate, the Dividend Growth portfolio is naturally going to have more interest-rate sensitivity than a broad market index such as the S&P 500. When yields are rising – as they were in the first quarter – this presents a risk. But when yields are stable or falling – as they were in the second quarter – it presents an opportunity.

The question we now face is this: What are interest rates likely to do in the second half of the year?

Ultimately, I expect that the path taken by interest rates will depend on two factors: inflation expectations and fears stemming from the nascent trade war.

I’ll address inflation expectations first. The unemployment rate has been hovering around the 4% mark for all of 2018. Traditionally, many economists have considered a 5% unemployment rate to be “full employment,” as there will always be some segment of the population that is either between jobs or not reasonably employable. Also, there are new would-be workers that come out of the woodwork (students, stay-at-home mothers, bored retirees, etc.) when the labor market gets sufficiently tight as it is today.

At 4%, we are significantly below “full employment,” which has led many economists to expect an uptick in inflation. Thus far, however, inflation has remained muted. PCE inflation (the rate used by the Federal Reserve in its decision making) has been running near or slightly above the Fed’s targeted 2% rate over the past six months, but it is not trending higher, or at least not yet.

If you’ve followed my research for any length of time, you know my view of inflation and the tools used to measure it. I don’t believe it is realistic to expect inflation at the levels seen in previous expansions due the demographic changes affecting the country. America’s Baby Boomers as a generation are well past the peak spending years of the early 50s. In fact, the front end of the generation is already several years into retirement.

The Boomers have been the economic engine of this country for over 40 years. As they retire, the borrow and spend less, taking aggregate demand out of the economy.

This isn’t purely academic. It’s been happening in Japan for over 20 years. Japan’s reported unemployment rate, at 2.8%, is even lower than ours. And Japan’s deficit spending and central bank stimulus absolutely dwarf those of America if you adjust for the relative sizes of the two economies. Yet Japan hasn’t had significant, sustained inflation since the early 1990s… when Bill Clinton was still the governor of Arkansas.

At the same time, automation technology and artificial intelligence is already eliminating jobs. Walk into a McDonalds today. You can order at a kiosk and never actually speak to a human employee.

At the higher end, Goldman Sachs reported a year ago that half of its investment banking tasks could viably be automated away.

While there are clearly exceptions in certain high-skilled jobs, the fact is that labor gets replaced by cheap technology as soon as it gets too expensive. It’s hard to imagine sustained inflation in this kind of environment.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Mr. Market won’t decide to fret about it in the second half and send yields higher again. But I would consider any short-term weakness on higher bond yields to be a buying opportunity.

This leaves the fear of an economic slowdown. Right now, the economic numbers look healthy and there is no immediate sign of recession on the horizon. But unemployment tends to reach its lowest points near the end of the expansion. Furthermore, the Fed is aggressively raising rates, which is flattening the yield curve. A flat or inverted yield curve is a sign of economic distress and usually precedes a recession.

United States Treasury Yield Curve

Does any of this mean a recession is “due” tomorrow? No, of course not. But it does suggest that we are late in the economic cycle, at a point when value sectors and higher-yielding sectors tend to outperform.

So, while I may make a few minor portfolio adjustments in the third quarter, I believe we are very well positioned at the half.

Looking forward to a strong finish to 2018,

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA

 

Can You Trust the Social Security Trust Fund?

Did you see this bit of news recently?

The Social Security Administration announced earlier this month that it would have to dip into its trust fund for the first time in 36 years.

With the Baby Boomers retiring in droves, the Social Security system is now paying out more in benefits than it’s taking in as tax revenue.

And if current trends hold, the trust fund will be completely depleted by 2034.

That sounds bad. Really bad.

But it’s actually worse than you think.

Social Security is dipping into a trust fund that doesn’t actually exist. There is no trust fund.

No, it wasn’t stolen in some Ocean’s Eleven-caliber heist. And no, I’m not a conspiracy theorist who believes it was an elaborate plot by our government to lie to us.

But I’m 100% serious when I say the Social Security trust fund doesn’t exist, nor has it ever existed – at least not in the way you or I would understand a “trust fund.”

Let’s start with the basics.

What is the Social Security trust fund?

The Social Security Administration essentially has two accounts at the U.S. Treasury: The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and the Disability Insurance Trust Fund. We’ll call both collectively the “trust fund.”

You and I and every other working American contribute to these funds through our payroll taxes: 6.2% of your paycheck (up to the first $128,400) goes to Social Security, and your employer chips in another 6.2%.

For the past 36 years, tax revenue coming in was greater than benefits going out. The accumulated surplus makes up the trust fund.

That sounds straightforward enough. At its heart, it’s not too different than the way all of us save for retirement.

There’s just one big problem. The surplus cash might go to the trust fund, but it doesn’t stay there. It gets sucked into the current expenses of the U.S. government and replaced with an IOU.

The trust fund’s assets are “invested” in U.S. Treasury bonds, and the cash is used to fund the current expenses of the government.

If you or I buy a U.S. Treasury bond, that debt obligation of the government is an asset to us.

But that’s not exactly what is happening here. Remember, Social Security is the government. So, the government is lending to itself and calling it an asset.

That doesn’t work in the real world.

I can write myself a check for a million dollars, but that doesn’t make me a single penny richer. I’m just shuffling the money from one pocket to another.

So, when I hear that Social Security is having to dip into its trust fund, I roll my eyes.

The so-called trust fund was never more than an accounting trick.

The idea that there was cash set aside for our retirement by the wise mandarins running the government was a convenient fantasy.

Keeping the fantasy alive actually isn’t that hard. If Congress raises payroll taxes, raises the retirement age or finds other stealthy ways to reduce benefits, such as by means testing or tinkering with inflation assumptions, we can rebuild the “trust funds” in a hurry.

For that matter, the U.S. Treasury could create a quadrillion-dollar superbond to prefund the trust fund from now until the end of time, and then promptly lend the money back to itself.

But what difference would it make? It’s all just accounting.

The reality is that the retirement of the Boomers is going to force the government to make some uncomfortable choices.

A current deficit (benefits going out being larger than payroll taxes coming in) means that the money has to come from somewhere else.

That means that taxes go up, other spending goes down or we simply borrow more. None of those options are desirable.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel comfortable depending on accounting gimmickry to fund my retirement needs or those of my family.

And, if anything, this just reinforces my belief that you must create your own income streams in order to have the type of retirement you want.

That’s why I started writing Peak Income, my newsletter dedicated this exact idea. Click here to learn more about it.

This article first appeared on Sizemore Insights as Can You Trust the Social Security Trust Fund?

3 Things You Should Always Ask a Financial Adviser

The following first appeared on Kiplinger’s as 3 Things You Should Always Ask a Financial Adviser.

Your choice of financial adviser might be the single most important decision you ever make, short of your spouse or maybe your doctor.

While you might not be putting your life in his or her hands, per se, you’re certainly putting your financial future at risk. A good adviser can help you protect the savings you’ve spent a lifetime building, and – with good planning and maybe a little luck from a healthy stock market – grow it into a proper nest egg.

But how do you choose?

Let’s take a look at some traits you’ll want to look for, as well as three questions you’ll want to ask any prospective candidate.
What you want in a financial adviser

An older adviser with a little gray in their hair might instinctively seem safer, but ideally you don’t want an adviser that will kick the bucket before you do. However, going with a younger adviser introduces greater uncertainty as they will generally have a shorter track record.

Likewise, educational pedigree matters … but not as much as you might think. You can assume that an adviser with an Ivy League degree is highly intelligent and motivated, and those are qualities you want to see. But these same characteristics can make for lousy investment returns if they mean the adviser is overconfident. Investing is a game in which discipline, patience and humility generally matter more than raw brains and ambition.

As Warren Buffett famously said, “Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 IQ beats the guy with the 130 IQ.”

Yes, you want your adviser to be smart. But don’t be overly swayed by fancy degrees.

To finish reading the article, please see 3 Things You Should Always Ask a Financial Adviser.

This article first appeared on Sizemore Insights as 3 Things You Should Always Ask a Financial Adviser

Is Value Dead?

Value investing has historically been a winning strategy… but it’s been a rough couple of years.

So… is value dead? Should we all just buy the S&P 500 and be done?

The rumors of value’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Larry Swedroe wrote am excellent piece on the subject this month, Don’t Give Up On the Value Factor, and I’m going to publish a few excerpts below.

As the director of research for Buckingham Strategic Wealth and The BAM Alliance, I’ve been getting lots of questions about whether the value premium still exists. Today I’ll share my thoughts on that issue. I’ll begin by explaining why I have been receiving such inquiries.

Recency bias – the tendency to give too much weight to recent experience and ignore long-term historical evidence – underlies many common investor mistakes. It’s particularly dangerous because it causes investors to buy after periods of strong performance (when valuations are high and expected returns low) and sell after periods of poor performance (when valuations are low and expected returns high).

A great example of the recency problem involves the performance of value stocks (another good example would be the performance of emerging market stocks). Using factor data from Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), for the 10 years from 2007 through 2017, the value premium (the annual average difference in returns between value stocks and growth stocks) was -2.3%. Value stocks’ cumulative underperformance for the period was 23%. Results of this sort often lead to selling.

Charles here. Other than perhaps overconfidence, recency bias is probably the most dangerous cognitive bias for the vast majority of investors. Investors look at the recent past and draw the conclusion that this is “normal” and representative of what they should expect going forward. This is why otherwise sane people do crazy things like buy tech stocks in 1998, Florida homes in 2005 or Bitcoin in late 2017.

Investors who know their financial history understand that this type of what we might call “regime change” is to be expected. In fact, even though the value premium has been quite large and persistent over the long term, it’s been highly volatile. According to DFA data, the annual standard deviation of the premium, at 12.9%, is 2.6-times the size of the 4.8% annual premium itself (for the period 1927 through 2017).

As further evidence, the value premium has been negative in 37% of years since 1926. Even over five- and 10-year periods, it has been negative 22% and 14% of the time, respectively. Thus, periods of underperformance, such as the one we’ve seen recently, should not come as any surprise. Rather, they should be anticipated, because periods of underperformance occur in every risky asset class and factor. The only thing we don’t know is when they will pop up.

 

 

Well said.

After a period like the past ten years, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that value is dead. But investors drew the same conclusion in 1999… and they were dead wrong.

As a case in point, see Julian Robertson’s last letter to investors.

 

 

This article first appeared on Sizemore Insights as Is Value Dead?

Today on Straight Talk Money: All About Warren Buffett

I joined Peggy Tuck this morning on Straight Talk Money. Given that Berkshire Hathaway just had its annual meeting, we have Buffett on the brain. We discuss the Warren Buffett’s career and a few things you might not know about the Oracle.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

This article first appeared on Sizemore Insights as Today on Straight Talk Money: All About Warren Buffett

Keeping Perspective: Julian Robertson’s Last Letter to Investors

Growth stocks — and specifically large-cap tech stocks led by the FAANGs — have utterly crushed value stocks of late. It’s been the dominant theme of the past five years. Even the first quarter of 2018, which saw Facebook engulfed in a privacy scandal, saw growth outperform value.

SectorBenchmarkQtr. Return
Large-Cap GrowthS&P 500 Growth1.58%
Large-Cap StocksS&P 500-1.22%
InternationalMSCI EAFE Index-2.19%
UtilitiesS&P 500 Utilities-3.30%
Large-Cap ValueS&P 500 Value-4.16%
Real Estate Investment TrustsS&P U.S. REIT Index-9.16%
Master Limited PartnershipsAlerian MLP Index-11.22

Value stocks in general underperformed, and the cheapest of the cheap — master limited partnerships — got utterly obliterated.

So, is value investing dead?

Before you start digging its grave, consider the experience of Julian Robertson, one of the greatest money managers in history and the godfather of the modern hedge fund industry. Robertson produced an amazing track record of 32% compounded annual returns for nearly two decades in the 1980s and 1990s, crushing the S&P 500 and virtually all of his competitors. But the late 1990s tech bubble tripped him up, and he had two disappointing years in 1998 and 1999.

Facing client redemptions, Robertson opted to shut down his fund altogether. His parting words to investors are telling.

The following is the Julian Robertson’s final letter to his investors, dated March 30, 2000, written as he was in the process of shutting down Tiger Management:

In May of 1980, Thorpe McKenzie and I started the Tiger funds with total capital of $8.8 million. Eighteen years later, the $8.8 million had grown to $21 billion, an increase of over 259,000 percent. Our compound rate of return to partners during this period after all fees was 31.7 percent. No one had a better record.

Since August of 1998, the Tiger funds have stumbled badly and Tiger investors have voted strongly with their pocketbooks, understandably so. During that period, Tiger investors withdrew some $7.7 billion of funds. The result of the demise of value investing and investor withdrawals has been financial erosion, stressful to us all. And there is no real indication that a quick end is in sight.

And what do I mean by, “there is no quick end in sight?” What is “end” the end of? “End” is the end of the bear market in value stocks. It is the recognition that equities with cash-on-cash returns of 15 to 25 percent, regardless of their short-term market performance, are great investments. “End” in this case means a beginning by investors overall to put aside momentum and potential short-term gain in highly speculative stocks to take the more assured, yet still historically high returns available in out-of-favor equities.

There is a lot of talk now about the New Economy (meaning Internet, technology and telecom). Certainly, the Internet is changing the world and the advances from biotechnology will be equally amazing. Technology and telecommunications bring us opportunities none of us have dreamed of.

“Avoid the Old Economy and invest in the New and forget about price,” proclaim the pundits. And in truth, that has been the way to invest over the last eighteen months.

As you have heard me say on many occasions, the key to Tiger’s success over the years has been a steady commitment to buying the best stocks and shorting the worst. In a rational environment, this strategy functions well. But in an irrational market, where earnings and price considerations take a back seat to mouse clicks and momentum, such logic, as we have learned, does not count for much.

The current technology, Internet and telecom craze, fueled by the performance desires of investors, money managers and even financial buyers, is unwittingly creating a Ponzi pyramid destined for collapse. The tragedy is, however, that the only way to generate short-term performance in the current environment is to buy these stocks. That makes the process self-perpetuating until the pyramid eventually collapses under its own excess. [Charles here. Sound familiar? Fear of trailing the benchmark has led managers to pile into the FAANGs.]

I have great faith though that, “this, too, will pass.” We have seen manic periods like this before and I remain confident that despite the current disfavor in which it is held, value investing remains the best course. There is just too much reward in certain mundane, Old Economy stocks to ignore. This is not the first time that value stocks have taken a licking. Many of the great value investors produced terrible returns from 1970 to 1975 and from 1980 to 1981 but then they came back in spades.

The difficulty is predicting when this change will occur and in this regard, I have no advantage. What I do know is that there is no point in subjecting our investors to risk in a market which I frankly do not understand. Consequently, after thorough consideration, I have decided to return all capital to our investors, effectively bringing down the curtain on the Tiger funds. We have already largely liquefied the portfolio and plan to return assets as outlined in the attached plan.

No one wishes more than I that I had taken this course earlier. Regardless, it has been an enjoyable and rewarding 20 years. The triumphs have by no means been totally diminished by the recent setbacks. Since inception, an investment in Tiger has grown 85-fold net of fees; more than three time the average of the S&P 500 and five-and-a-half times that of the Morgan Stanley Capital International World Index. The best part by far has been the opportunity to work closely with a unique cadre of co-workers and investors.

For every minute of it, the good times and the bad, the victories and the defeats, I speak for myself and a multitude of Tiger’s past and present who thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Charles here. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Value will have its day in the sun again, and that day is likely here with the FAANGs finally starting to break down.

Had Robertson held on a little longer, he would have been vindicated and likely would have made a killing. Consider the outperformance of value over growth in the years between the tech bust and the Great Recession:

 

So, don’t abandon value investing just yet. If history is any guide, it’s set to leave growth in the dust.

 

 

This article first appeared on Sizemore Insights as Keeping Perspective: Julian Robertson’s Last Letter to Investors

Dividend Growth Portfolio 1st Quarter 2018 Letter to Investors

The first quarter of 2018 was not kind to value and income investors. Long-term bond yields started rising in the second half of last year, and that trend accelerated in January. For the quarter, the Dividend Growth portfolio lost 7.36% vs. a loss of 1.22% on the S&P 500. [Data as of 3/30/2018 as reported by Interactive Brokers. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.]

Remember, as bond yields rise, bond prices fall, as do the prices of bond proxies such as utilities, REITs and other high-yielding stocks.

At the same time, the great “Trump Rally” that kicked off after the 2016 election reached a frenetic climax in December and January. The proverbial wall of worry that has characterized the “most hated bull market in history” since 2009 crumbled and was replaced by the fear of missing out, or “FOMO” in traderspeak.

The combination of a surge in bond yields and a sudden preference for high-risk/high-return speculation over slow-and-steady investment caused most income-focused sectors to underperform in January.

And then February happened. Volatility returned with a vengeance, dragging virtually everything down, growth and value alike. So, in effect, value and income sectors enjoyed none of the benefits of the January rally, yet still took a beating along with the broader market in February and March.

SectorBenchmarkQtr. Return
Large-Cap GrowthS&P 500 Growth1.58%
Large-Cap StocksS&P 500-1.22%
InternationalMSCI EAFE Index-2.19%
UtilitiesS&P 500 Utilities-3.30%
Large-Cap ValueS&P 500 Value-4.16%
Real Estate Investment TrustsS&P U.S. REIT Index-9.16%
Master Limited PartnershipsAlerian MLP Index-11.22

It’s striking to see the differences between sectors. Even after the selloff in the leading growth stocks — the “FAANGs” of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google — the S&P 500 Growth Index still managed to finish the quarter with a 1.58% gain.

Meanwhile, the S&P 500 Value Index — which is a reasonable proxy for Sizemore Capital’s Dividend Growth Portfolio — was down 4.16%.

It actually gets worse from there. REITs and MLPs — two sectors in which Sizemore Capital had significant exposure at various times during the quarter — were down 9.16% and a staggering 11.22%, respectively.

Suffice it to say, if your mandate calls for investing in income-oriented sectors, 2018 has been a rough year.

I do, however, expect that to change. While I consider it very possible that we see a bona fide bear market this year, I expect investors to rotate out of the growth darlings that have led for years and into cheap, high-yielding value sectors that have been all but abandoned.

Why a Bear Market is a Real Possibility

They don’t ring a bell at the top. But often times, there are anecdotal clues that a market is topping.

As a case in point , my most conservative client — a gentleman so risk averse that even the possibility of a 10% peak-to-trough loss was anathema to him — informed me in January that he would be closing his accounts with me because I refused to aggressively buy tech stocks and Bitcoin on his behalf.

He wasn’t alone. Again, anecdotally, I noticed that several clients that had been extremely conservative since the 2009 bottom suddenly seemed to embrace risk in the second half of last year. The fear of missing out — FOMO — had its grip on them.

This is the first time I’ve seen FOMO in the wild since roughly 2006. I was working in Tampa at the time, and the Tampa Bay area happened to be one of the centers of the housing bubble. I recall watching a coworker buy a house she couldn’t quite afford because she was afraid that if she waited, prices would quickly get out of her reach. She and her husband bought the house as the market was topping, and it was a major financial setback for them.

It may be in bad taste to recount personal anecdotes like these, but I do for an important reason. I want to avoid falling into the same mental trap.

Today, the market is expensive by historical standards. The cyclically-adjusted price/earnings ratio — or CAPE — is sitting at levels first seen in the late stages of the 1990s tech bubble.

Meanwhile, we are now nearly a decade into an uninterrupted economic expansion, and we’re effectively fighting the Fed. Chairman Jerome Powell has made it very clear that he intends to raise interest rates fairly aggressively to nip any potential inflation in the bud.

None of this guarantees that the current stock correction will slide into a bear market. (The same basic conditions were true in the 1998 correction, and stocks went on to rally hard for another two years.)

But it does tell me that caution is warranted, and that now — more than ever — we should stick with financially-strong value and dividend stocks. In a turbulent market, I expect to see investors seek shelter in “boring” value stocks offering a consistent payout. In a market in which capital gains no longer appear to be the “sure thing” they were a year ago, a stable stream of dividend income is attractive.

Will Value Get Its Mojo Back?

Growth utterly destroyed value last quarter. But this is really just a continuation of the trend of the past five years.

Consider the five-year performance of the iShares S&P Value ETF (IVE) and the iShares S&P 500 Growth (IVW). Growth’s returns have literally doubled value’s, with most of the outperformance happening in 2017.

Growth massively outperformed value in the last five years of the 1990s. But this is by no means “normal” or something that should be expected to continue indefinitely. Consider the performance of the same two ETFs in the five years leading up to the 2008 meltdown.

Value stock returns didn’t quite  double their growth peers. But they outperformed by a solid 40%, and that’s not too shabby.

This by no means guarantees that value stocks will outperform or that the specific value stocks Sizemore Capital owns will outperform. But if the market regime really has shifted — and I believe that it has — then the “FAANGs” story is over. Investors will be searching for a new narrative, and I believe that value and income stocks will be a big part of that story.

In the first week of the second quarter, I moved to a moderately defensive posture, shifting about 20% of the portfolio to cash. This gives us plenty of dry powder to put to work once this correction or bear market runs its course. But if I’m wrong, and this is yet another buyable dip, then we still have substantial skin in the game.

And whether the market goes up, down or sideways, we’ll continue to collect a high and rising stream of dividend income.

Looking to a better second quarter,

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA

ETF Flow Portfolio 1st Quarter Letter to Investors

The ETF Flow Portfolio met its first real challenge in the first quarter of 2018, and I’m proud to say it passed with flying colors. The portfolio returned 2.99% for the quarter compared to a loss of 1.2% for the S&P 500. (Returns were net of trading costs but gross of management fees, which may vary by account size. As always, past performance no guarantee of future results.)

But what excites me the most isn’t the outperformance. It’s the fact that the outperformance was achieved by successfully side-stepping the major drawdowns in February and March. The S&P 500 was down 3.9% in February and 2.7% in March on a price basis. By comparison, ETF Flow was down 0.06% in February and up 0.46% in March.

By using its short-term momentum indicators, ETF Flow rotated into defensive positions and spent most of February and March in bonds and cash equivalents.

The stock market has arguably been the greatest wealth-creating machine in all of human history, and it allows passive investors to own a little piece of the world’s greatest companies. But that doesn’t mean that buying and holding an index fund is the best strategy at all times. Market valuations swing like slow-motion pendulums, gradually moving from underpriced to overpriced and back to underpriced again. Unfortunately, after nearly a decade of uninterrupted bull market, stock prices have swung towards being overvalued again. The cyclically-adjusted price/earnings ratio (“CAPE”), among other valuation metrics, suggests that stocks are priced to deliver flat or negative returns over the next decade.

At the same time, stocks investors are effectively fighting the Fed, as Chairman Jerome Powell is committed to gradually raising short-term rates and winding down the Fed’s balance sheet, which was inflated by years of quantitative easing.

Meanwhile, GDP growth and employment both look exceptionally strong at the moment, particularly compared to recent years. But these are lagging indicators that tend to be at their highest near the end of the economic cycle.

None of this is to say that expensive stocks can’t get more expensive or that the stock current correction is guaranteed to slide into a full-blown bear market. But it does suggest that it is prudent to maintain a nimbler trading strategy or, at the very least, to diversify into complementary, noncorrelated strategies. And this is precisely the role that ETF Flow successfully filled during this correction and the role that I expect it to fill going forward.

Looking forward to a strong 2018,

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA

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Finance Blogger Wisdom: What’s a Reasonable Estimate for Portfolio Returns Going Forward?

Tadas Viskanta, editor of the excellent finanical blog Abnormal Returns, asked a group of financial bloggers the following question:

Assume you are advising a pension fund, endowment or foundation. What is a reasonable long-term expectation for real returns for a well-diversified portfolio?

The answered varied, but it seems like the consensus was somewhere in the ballpark of 2%-3%, though some had estimates of 5% or better.

This was my response:

We all know the standard answer: stocks “always” return 7% to 10% per year. But while that might be true over a 20-30-year time horizon, the reality can be very different over shorter time horizons.

At today’s valuations, the S&P 500 is priced to actually lose 2%-3% per year over the next eight years. That estimate is based on historical CAPE valuations, which have limitations (including the failure to take into account differences in interest rates over time). So, let’s assume the CAPE is being unduly bearish given today’s yields and that stock returns end up being 5% better than the CAPE suggests. We’re still looking at returns of 2%-3%.

That’s roughly in line with with the yields you can achieve on a high-quality bond portfolio. So, core assets should return something in the ballpark of 2%-3% per year over the next 8-10 years. Overseas (and particularly emerging market) stocks might do significantly better than that, and commodities might enjoy a good decade starting at today’s prices. So, a diversified portfolio that included emerging-market stocks and commodities might post respectable returns. But a standard 60/40 portfolio is unlikely to return better than about 3% over the next 8-10 years.

There were some very solid, very thoughtful responses from several financial bloggers I respect and follow.  To read the other answers, see Finance blogger wisdom: real returns.

 

 

This article first appeared on Sizemore Insights as Finance Blogger Wisdom: What’s a Reasonable Estimate for Portfolio Returns Going Forward?