Dividend Growth Portfolio 4th Quarter Letter to Investors

With one quarter left to go in 2018, there are three things on investors’ minds: the Fed, the coming mid-term elections and the ongoing trade war. Thus far, the market has mostly shrugged off these concerns, though income-focused investments such as bonds, REITs and dividend-paying stocks have had a hard time gaining traction.

Sizemore Capital’s Dividend Growth portfolio, which invests primarily in higher-yielding securities, has also had a hard time gaining traction in 2018. The portfolio returned 0.14% in the third quarter and 0.53% in the year-to-date through September 30. This compares to 7.2% in the third quarter and 9.0% year-to-date for the S&P 500 and 5.1% and 1.6% for the S&P 500 Value. [Returns data calculated from the performance of Sizemore Capital’s Dividend Growth model at Interactive Brokers; past performance is no guarantee of future results.]

Given its focus on attractively-priced stocks paying above-market dividend yields, I consider the S&P 500 Value to be a more accurate benchmark than the standard S&P 500. And frankly, it’s been a difficult market for value strategies.

Value vs. Growth

Over time, value strategies have proven to outperform.

This is not my opinion. This is empirical fact. In their landmark 1993 paper, University of Chicago professors Eugene Fama and Kenneth French found that value stocks outperform over time. More recent research by BlackRock found that in the 90 years through 2017, value has outperformed growth by a full 4.8% per year.

Figure 1: Value vs. Growth

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

But while value trounces growth over time, 90 years is a long time to wait. And there are stretches – sometimes long stretches – where value underperforms badly. We’re in one of those stretches today.

Figure 1 illustrates this in vivid detail. The graph shows the ratio of the Russell 1000 Value index divided by the Russell 1000 Growth index. When the line is declining, growth is outperforming value. When the line is rising, value is outperforming growth.

Value massively outperformed growth from 2000 to 2007, but it has struggled ever since. This has been particularly true over the past two years as the “FAANG” stocks – Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google (Alphabet) – have completely dominated the investing narrative.

I would love to tell you the exact date when the market will flip and value will start to dominate again. For all I know, by the time you read this, it might have already happened. Or that day might still be years away.

That’s not something I can control. But I can stay disciplined and focus on high-quality companies that I believe to be temporarily underpriced. And because my strategy has a strong income component, we don’t necessarily need prices to rise in order for us to realize a respectable return. The average dividend yield of the stocks in the Dividend Growth portfolio is 5.65% at time of writing. [This yield will change over time as the composition of the portfolio changes.]

As we start the fourth quarter, I am particularly bullish about some of our newer additions, such as Macquarie Infrastructure Company (NYSE: MIC) and Ares Capital (Nasdaq: ARCC).

Macquarie Infrastructure lowered its dividend earlier this year, which led investors to dump it in a panic. The shares dropped by over 40%, giving us a very attractive entry point.

Ares Capital, like many BDCs, has found the past decade to be difficult. But after a long, six-year drought, the company raised its dividend in September, and I expect further dividend hikes to come. At current prices, the shares yield a whopping 9.0%.

I also continue to see value in some of our long-held energy infrastructure assets, such as Energy Transfer Equity (NYSE: ETE) and Enterprise Products Partners (NYSE: EPD). Energy Transfer, in particular, is attractive due to its planned merger with is related company Energy Transfer Partners (NYSE: ETP). I believe this could be the first step to an eventual conversion from an MLP to a traditional C-corporation, which would potentially lower ETE’s cost of capital and allow for greater ownership by mutual funds, institutional investors and retirement plans like IRAs. CEO Kelcy Warren has indicated that this is the direction he ultimately wants to go.

I see the greatest risk in the portfolio coming from our positions in automakers General Motors (NYSE: GM), Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) and Toyota (NYSE: TM). I consider all three to be wildly attractive at current valuations, but all are also at risk to fallout from the escalating trade war. As a precaution, I lowered our exposure to the sector earlier this year by selling shares of Volkswagen. But given the potential for a rally in the shares following a favorable resolution to the trade war, I feel it makes sense to hold our remaining auto positions and potentially add new money to them on any additional pullbacks.

All Eyes On the Fed

The Federal Reserve raised rates again in September, which was widely expected. But it was a subtle change to their statement that raised some eyebrows. They dropped the language saying that its policy “remained accommodative.” Does this mean that the Fed believes easy money is already over and that they’re not much more tightening to be done? Or does it mean that they’re about to get even more hawkish?

The statement was ambiguous. But it is noteworthy that the Fed is still forecasting another hike before the end of the year and three more in 2019. And Powell’s statements following the official statement suggest that he’s eager to continue draining liquidity out of the market.

There are limits to how aggressive the Fed can be here. If they follow through with raising rates as aggressively as they plan, they will push short-term rates above longer-term rates, inverting the yield curve. I don’t see the Fed risking that, as an inverted yield curve is generally viewed as a prelude to a recession.

Figure 2: 10-Year Treasury Yield

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Meanwhile, bond yields have finally pushed through the long trading range of the past six years. The 10-year Treasury yield broke above 3.2%, a level it hasn’t seen since 2011.

I do not expect yields to rise much above current levels, as I do not see such a move justified by current inflation rates or growth expectations. But this is something I am watching, because the Dividend Growth portfolio, given its yield-focused strategy, is sensitive to changes in bond yields.

Looking forward to a strong finish to the year,

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA

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

 

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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Looking Beyond the 60/40 Portfolio in an Era of Low Returns

I wrote earlier this year that the 60/40 portfolio is dead. Well, rumors of its death were not greatly exaggerated. The 60/40 portfolio that served retired investors so well over the past 30 years is gone… and it’s not coming back any time soon. As investors, we have to move on.

Rest in Peace 60/40 Portfolio

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While it’s true that a simple 60/40 portfolio of the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) and the iShares Core US Aggregate Bond ETF (AGG) is actually enjoying a nice run in 2016, up a little more than 3% for the year, don’t get used to it. The math simply doesn’t work out going forward.

Let’s play with the numbers. Back in 1980, the 10-year Treasury yielded a fat 11.1%, and stocks sported an earnings yield (calculated as earnings / price, or the P/E ratio turned upside down) of 13.5%. This implied a back-of-the-envelope portfolio return of about 12.5% per year going forward, and for much of the 1980s and 1990s that proved to be a conservative estimate. Both stocks and bonds were priced to deliver stellar returns, and both most certainly did.

But what about today? The 10-year Treasury yields a pathetic 1.6% and the S&P 500 trades at an earnings yield of just 4%. That gives you a blended portfolio expected return of an almost embarrassing 2.8%. [Note: The usual disclaimers apply here. These are not intended to be precise market forecasts.]

You know the refrain: past performance is no guarantee of future results. There is no guarantee, at least with respect to stocks, that expensive assets can’t get even more expensive. It’s possible that the great bull run in stocks could continue indefinitely, however unlikely it might be.

But I can’t say the same for bonds. Starting at a 1.6% yield to maturity (or even the 4% you might find on a mid-grade corporate bond) you cannot have returns going forward that are anything close to the returns of the past several decades. Bond yields would have to go negative, and I don’t mean the (0.15%) we see today on the Japanese 10-year bond. I’m talking (5%) or (10%) or even more.

That’s not going to happen. Or if somehow it did — if investors got so petrified that they piled into bonds to the extent that yields went negative to that degree — then I would assume the stock portion of your portfolio effectively fell to zero at that point.

The bottom line here is that even under the most optimistic scenario, investors are looking at disappointing returns in a standard 60/40 portfolio.

So, what are investors supposed to do about it? They can’t just stuff their cash in a mattress for the next 5-10 years. Most of us actually need to earn a return on our money.

I’d offer the following suggestions:

Consider taking a more active approach to investing.

To the extent you invest in traditional stocks and bonds, don’t be a buy and hold index investor. Yes, low fees are great. But the fact that you paid Vanguard only 0.09% per year in management fees won’t really matter if you’re returns are still close to zero.

Instead, try a more active strategy, perhaps focusing on value or momentum. Or perhaps try a dividend focused strategy. With a dividend strategy, you can realize a cash return even if the market goes nowhere for years at a time.

Consider investing outside of the market.

If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, consider starting your own business or investing in a cash flowing rental property. Yes, there is more work involved, and there is the risk of failure. But there is also risk in trusting your savings to a fickle market when both stocks and bonds are both expensive by historical standards.

Consider a truly alternative asset allocation.

This final point is really my specialty. To the extent I can, I am eliminating traditional bonds from the portfolios of most of my clients and replacing them with non-correlated (or at least minimally-correlated) alternative investments. A standard 60/40 stock / bond portfolio might instead become a 50/50 dividend stocks / alternative investments portfolio.

Alternative investments” is a generic term that can mean just about anything. In practice, for me it has meant a combination of long/short strategies, options writing strategies, absolute return hedge funds, and liquid alternative portfolios.

Will a non-traditional portfolio like this outperform over time?

Frankly, I don’t know. No one does. We’ve never seen a market like today’s.

But to me, it’s the only move that makes sense. Taking the traditional path is a virtual guarantee of disappointment. Incorporating alternatives into the portfolio at least give us the potential for solid returns.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA is the principal of Sizemore Capital, an investments firm in Dallas, Texas.

Photo credit: Pheonix149

Why Dividends Matter

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Photo credit: www.SeniorLiving.Org

I like getting paid in cold, hard cash. And frankly, who doesn’t?

But stock dividends are more than just a quarterly paycheck. They are a way of doing things. I would go so far as to argue that they are a philosophy of life (or at least of business).

That might sound a little kooky at first, but hear me out.

In the Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort (or at least Leonardo DiCaprio playing Belfort) says that money does more than just buy you a better life; it also makes you a better person. That’s certainly debatable. But I can credibly say that paying a dividend makes for a better kind of company. And here are a few reasons why:

  1. Dividends are an outward, visible sign of who the real boss is. Remember, the SEO in the suit running the company isn’t the owner. He’s an employee, no different than a common assembly line worker other than for his larger paycheck. You, the shareholder, own the company. And management shows that they understand and respect that by regularly paying and raising the quarterly dividend.
  2. Dividends dissuade fruitless empire building. Corporate CEOs really aren’t that different from politicians. At the end of the day, they spend other people’s money and often times waste it on useless projects or on mergers that add no value. Why? Because growth – even unprofitable growth – gives them more power and control. Well, paying a regular dividend forces management to be more disciplined. If you’re paying out half your profits as a dividend, you have to be more selective about the growth projects you choose to pursue with your remaining cash. They focus on the most profitable and worthwhile and, by necessity, pass on the marginal ones.
  3. Dividends foster more honest financial reporting. At one point or another, many (if not most) companies will… ahem… perhaps be a little less than honest in their financial reporting. Outright fraud is pretty rare. But accounting provisions allow for a decent bit of wiggle room in how revenues and profits are reported. Even professionals can have a hard time figuring out what a company’s true financial position is if the numbers are fuzzy enough. Well, while revenues and profits can be obfuscated by dodgy accounting, it’s hard to fudge the numbers when it comes to cold, hard cash. For a company to pay a dividend, it has to have the cash in the bank. So while paying a good dividend is no guarantee that the company isn’t being a little aggressive with its accounting, it definitely acts as an additional check.
  4. Share buybacks – the main alternative to cash dividends – never quite seem to work out as planned. Companies inevitably do their largest share repurchases when times are good, they are flush with cash, and their stock is sitting near new highs. But when the economy hits a rough patch, sales slow, and the stock price falls, the buybacks dry up. And another (and frankly insidious) motivation for buybacks is to “mop up” share dilution from executive stock options and employee stock purchase plans. The net effect is that a company buys their shares high and sells them back to employees and insiders low. Call me crazy, but I thought the whole idea of investing was to buy low and sell high, not the other way around. A better and more consistent use of cash would be the payment of a cash dividend.
  5. And finally, we get to stock returns. I’m not particularly excited about the prospects for the stock market at today’s prices. Based on the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio, the S&P 500 is priced to deliver annual returns of virtually zero over the next decade. But if you’re getting a dividend check every quarter, you’re still able to realize a respectable return, even if the market goes nowhere. And that return is real, in cold hard cash, and not ephemeral like paper capital gains.

Hey, not every great company pays a dividend. And certainly, a younger company that is struggling to raise capital to grow has no business paying out its precious cash as a dividend when it might need it to keep the lights on next month. But for the bulk of your stock portfolio – the core positions that really make up your nest egg – look for companies that have a long history of paying and raising their dividends.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA is the principal of Sizemore Capital, an investments firm in Dallas, Texas.

 

How to Become a Financial Blogger

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My financial practice is an interesting creation of the internet era. I don’t do a lot of face-to-face networking, and I very rarely host dinners or live events. It’s not that I’m against doing these things but rather than they are expensive and time consuming, and I’m not very good at them. If these things were required to build a practice these days, then I would have never gotten off the ground.

I really don’t go out looking for clients. Most of my clients end up finding me after reading an article I wrote that made sense to them. In addition to my own blog, I regularly publish on Yahoo Finance, Forbes and Kiplinger’s, among other sites, so I manage to get in front of a lot of eyeballs.

I often get asked how I got into financial blogging. And my answer is always the same: I have no idea. It just sort of happened.

It was an odd experiment in trial and error, which means that I made every mistake there was to make before finally exhausting them all and managing to do a few things right. For any aspiring financial bloggers out there, I’m happy to share a little of what I’ve learned the hard way. This is by no means an exhaustive list and by no means a guaranteed path to success. There is always an element of being in the right place at the right time, but perhaps this list can better your chances of getting to that right place at the right time.

So with no more ado, here are my tips for cutting your teeth in financial blogging.

1. Use your real name and face. I have a simple policy on Twitter and StockTwits. If a person has a ridiculous handle (“KickassTrader47”) and uses a picture of a Star Wars character as their profile picture, this is not a person I take seriously. And the same goes for bloggers. First off, using your real name and face creates accountability. You can’t hide from your opinions or past recommendations. You own them, for better or worse.

And remember, as a writer you are building a relationship with your readers, even if you never meet them in person. Using your real name and face make you more personal and allows readers to identify with you and bond with you. That builds loyalty, and you need that.

There are exceptions here. One of my favorite bloggers goes under the pen name Jesse Livermore because his employer won’t allow him to write under his own name. And of course, there is “Tyler Durden” of Zero Hedge, who has created something of a cult following as a doom and gloomer. But these are the exceptions and not the rule. And if you’re wanting to build a brand around yourself, you need to use your own name and face. And don’t forget to smile in the photo.

2. Produce a ton of content. I’m always surprised by which posts of mine really get traction… and which ones flop. Thoughtful posts I’ll spend hours researching might barely get noticed… yet some hatchet job I threw together while watching Battlestar Galactica reruns might go viral. There is really no rhyme or reason to it. It seems to be totally random.

But that’s the nature of the internet. On any given day, a piece you wrote might get lost in the shuffle. But the very next day, an opinion maker might happen to stumble across an article you wrote and post a link to it. So the key is to simply get as much content out there as possible. It’s a numbers game. Put enough good content in front of enough eyeballs, and you’ll eventually get traction. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you shouldn’t expect instant success. Just make sure that you consistently publish content that readers will find useful or insightful.

Not every post has to be a masterpiece. I’m published blog posts that were nothing more than an embedded StockTwits tweet or a YouTube video. Just publish something that conveys an idea, even if it is a simple one.

3. Find publishing partners. SeekingAlpha might be the single best thing that ever happened to the aspiring financial writer. Anyone can submit an article. Now, not every article gets prominently published, of course. That’s up to the editors. But anyone that has a good idea to share can share it. Writing for SeekingAlpha got me noticed by InvestorPlace, which in turn got me noticed by other publishers. All of this is part of building name recognition and your personal brand.

You should also reach out to other bloggers and quote posts that you like. And when you do, make sure the blogger knows about it. Find their Twitter or StockTwits handle and post them the link. That can lead to retweets and to more eyeballs for your post.

4. Optimize your posts for search. “Search engine optimization” sounds complicated. It really isn’t.

Sure, you can get really scientific about it, but you don’t necessarily have to. Following a couple basic steps will get you most of the way there. First, you should obviously include the terms that would be relevant for search. If you are writing a piece about Walmart’s earnings release, you should probably include the terms “Walmart earnings” and “WMT earnings” somewhere in the post. You should also try to include those terms in the title of the post and the URL if possible. Second, include relevant outbound links… and if possible, get others to link to you. The more embedded you are in the web, the more you matter to Google.

Along the same lines, if you write about individual stocks, regularly post your pieces to StockTwits and include a cashtag. For example, if writing about Walmart, include “$WMT” in your tweet. This will get your tweet in the message stream for that stock… and get you on the Yahoo Finance page for that stock too under Market Pulse.

5. Have fun. And finally, have fun with it. If you enjoy what you do and your personality comes out in the posts, people will gravitate to you. If your posts read like a lifeless Reuters press release generated by a computer, they won’t. People crave human interaction and want to read the work of a real person, typos and all.

I try to keep it somewhat professional though certainly not formal. Basically, this means that I avoid profanity and personal insults and try to avoid industry jargon (no one wants to read about EBITDA). But importantly, I try to make it lively.  You don’t have to have the writing skills of Ernest Hemingway. You just need to have something a interesting to say.

And finally, I would add that superficial touches can make a big difference. Add a stock photo from Flickr or Google Images to add a little color to your post. And stock charts from BigCharts or any number of other sources make for a nice effect too.

Best of luck. The pool of quality financial bloggers gets bigger every day. There is no reason why you can’t be one of them.

Charles Sizemore is the principal of Sizemore Capital, a wealth management firm in Dallas, Texas. 

Photo credit: Mike Licht

 

Blast from the Past: Walmart Dividend Letter from 1985

I was digging through an old file cabinet that had belonged to my grandfather, and I found this little blast from the past: a Walmart (WMT) letter to shareholders from 1985, signed by Chairman and company founder Sam Walton.

As a child in the 1980s, I actually remember my grandfather proudly showing me a paper certificate for his shares of Walmart stock, and I remember the day he went electronic by handing the paper certificates to the trust department at the bank. He wasn’t sure he trusted the system and made sure to photocopy his certificates before handing them over…just in case.

Paper stock certificates seem so anachronistic today in this age of online trading and instant liquidity. It makes me wonder how different the world of trading and investment will be when my future grandchildren are going through a drawer of my personal effects.

1985 Walmart Dividend Letter

The truth is, I’m not sure how beneficial instant liquidity is in building long-term wealth. In fact, it’s probably downright detrimental. When my grandfather bought his shares of Walmart, the high cost of trading discouraged him from short-term trading. As a result, he was a de facto long-term investor, which ended up working out to his benefit as Walmart grew into one of the largest and most successful companies in history. Long after my grandfather passed away, the cash dividends from the Walmart stock he accumulated in his lifetime continued to pay for the retirement expenses of my grandmother–and for my college tuition! Had my grandfather had access to the instant liquidity of today, he might have been tempted to sell far too early.

My grandfather also practiced his own version of Peter Lynch’s advice to invest in what you know long before Peter Lynch became a household name. He was an Arkansas boy–born and raised not far from Fort Smith–and he liked to invest in local companies that he could observe firsthand. Walmart was one of those local companies; its headquarters in Bentonville is less than an hour and a half from Fort Smith by car.

I remember fondly my grandfather taking me to Fort Smith’s Walmart and buying me an Icee at the snack bar. He liked to walk the aisles personally to see what Mr. Walton was doing with his money. That might seem a little old fashioned today, but then, it’s still the approach taken by Warren Buffett and by plenty of long-term value investors. If done right, it works.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA, is chief investment officer of the investment firm Sizemore Capital Management and the author of the Sizemore Insights blog.

Worthless: Thoughts on Investing in Collectibles

My favorite historical anecdote—and one that every investor should be forced to acknowledge reading before opening a brokerage account—dates to the era of the South Sea Bubble. A charlatan whose name is lost to history, published a prospectus forA company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.” 

Yes, some 18th-century two-bit hustler launched an IPO for a company with a “top secret” business plan, and British investors actually gave him money.  If contemporary accounts are true, he took the money and fled to Europe, never to be seen or heard from again.

As a student of market history, I’ve come away with one enduring observation: investors can be phenomenally stupid.  Whether it is profitless social media stocks, Miami condos, or, if you want to go old school, decorative tulip bulbs, there seems to be no limit to the force with which otherwise sane people will suppress rational thought in order to throw away their hard-earned money.

But as crazy as stock market bubbles can be, they really don’t compare to collectibles crazes. A share of stock represents a claim of ownership in a business that, however implausibly, could someday generate real profits.  A collectible’s value, on the other hand, rest entirely on your ability to someday sell it to a greater fool.

In some cases—think Renaissance paintings—collectibles have maintained their value over time and proven to be fantastic investments.  Others…well, let’s just say that Star Wars Happy Meal toys might not be as good of investments as Old Masters.

Let’s take a look at two high-profile collectible bombs of recent decades, and then I’ll offer a little guidance on how not to fall victim to the next collectible fad.

Baseball Cards

I’ll start with one that I myself fell victim to in my late childhood: baseball cards.

I loved baseball as a boy and would subject my poor father to hours of inane player statistics. (He showed remarkably patience…a virtue I hope I can repeat when my own sons get old enough to badger me with meaningless statistics from the hobby of their choice.)

In the days before the internet, baseball cards were the perfect way to access years’ worth of player statistics, and I legitimately enjoyed organizing my cards into albums…and spending hours thumbing through the albums.

Then, somewhere around the late 1980s, it all got adulterated.  Baseball cards ceased to be a little boy’s objects of adoration and become “investments.” I stopped touching my “valuable” baseball cards for fear of degrading their mint condition, choosing instead to encase them in hard-shell plastic cases. I subscribed to Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, the authority on baseball card prices, and read it religiously.  I also stopped buying packets of cards as prices rose, choosing instead to buy individual cards of the most valuable players.  Not my favorite players, mind you, but rather the players whose cards were the most valuable at that time.

In Mint Condition, Dave Jamieson tells the story of the Great Baseball Card Bubble of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and The Slate published a fantastic excerpt here, which I quote below.

By the ’80s, baseball card values were rising beyond the average hobbyist’s means. As prices continued to climb, baseball cards were touted as a legitimate investment alternative to stocks, with the Wall Street Journal referring to them as sound “inflation hedges” and “nostalgia futures.” Newspapers started running feature stories with headlines such as “Turning Cardboard Into Cash” (the Washington Post)…

Precious few collectors seemed to ponder the possibility that baseball cards could depreciate. As the number of card shops in the United States ballooned to 10,000, dealers filled their storage rooms with unopened cases of 1988 Donruss as if they were Treasury bills or bearer bonds. Shops were regularly burglarized, their stocks of cards taken as loot. In early 1990, a card dealer was found bludgeoned to death behind the display case in his shop in San Luis Obispo, Calif., with $10,000 worth of cards missing.

It was a full-blown speculative mania.  And like all speculative manias, it didn’t end well.  High prices encouraged a massive increase in supply of the “investment,” no different than in the internet mania of the 1990s or the South Sea Bubble I mentioned at the beginning of this article, when companies couldn’t dilute their stock fast enough to meet investor demand .  As Jamieson continues,

Unfortunately for investors, each one of those cards was being printed in astronomical numbers. The card companies were shrewd enough never to disclose how many cards they were actually producing, but even conservative estimates put the number well into the billions. One trade magazine estimated the tally at 81 billion trading cards per year in the late ’80s and early ’90s, or more than 300 cards for every American annually.

At some point, something just clicked in my mind and collecting baseball cards lost its appeal. There was nothing enjoyable about having to elbow my way past sweaty, bearded, middle-aged men to bid for a piece of cardboard encased in glass.  The massive influx of new “premium” card series were hard to keep track of and, in any event, out of my price range.  And frankly, as I entered my teenage years, I discovered girls and pretty well lost interest in anything related to baseball statistics. The baseball card bubble crashed soon thereafter, and my “valuable” investments became all but worthless.

New baseball card sales were a $1.5 billion industry in 1992.  Today, the number is closer to $200 million, a drop of nearly 90%, and that does not include the effects of inflation.  The number of baseball card shops has shrunk from over 10,000 to less than 200.  And the value of all of those premium Upper Deck baseball cards?  You’d be lucky to get a couple cents for them.

Beanie Babies

I was thankfully too old to have ever played with a Beanie Baby and too young to have ever purchased one for my kids.  But I remember the Beanie Baby Bubble well, and it is as baffling to me today as it was in its mid-1990s heyday.

Beanie Babies were adorably cute bean-bag toys for babies and small children, and I understand their appeal—as toys for children.  How this became an investment fad for otherwise sane adults is something sociologists are no doubt still studying, but one family famously lost $100,000 when the bubble burst about 25 years ago.  And that’s $100,000 in late 1990s dollars.  Tack on another 30%-40% to get an estimate in today’s dollars.

John Aziz gives a nice telling of the Beanie Baby Bubble story here.  Beanie Babies were originally marketed as affordable toys for children, usually priced around $5.  But because they were originally sold at smaller stores and had a certain aura of exclusivity about them, they quickly became an object of speculation.  And the enabling tools of speculation soon followed: baseball cards had Beckett Baseball Card Monthly; Beanie Babies had Mary Beth’s Bean Bag World, which at one point had a circulation of 650,000 readers.

What made people believe that Beanie Babies had value?  Part of it was artificially constrained supply.  The manufacturer intentionally kept production down to create an air of exclusivity (yes…in a beanbag toy). Beyond this, it was a case of rising prices begetting rising prices.  The high prices attracted new speculator, who in turn sent prices even higher.

At some point, there were not enough new buyers to keep prices rising, and the bottom fell out.  Today, “investment grade” Beanie Babies that once sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars can be had for less than $10.  Which, after all, is a fair price for a cute toy made to be played with by young children.

So, how can you know ahead of time if a collectible is an enduring masterpiece or a ridiculous fad that will make you an object of ridicule among your closest friends and family?

There are no hard and fast rules here, but I would give two broad guidelines to consider:

  1. The rarity of the object in question, and
  2. What drives its perception of value.

I’ll start with rarity.  Rarity is not a guarantee of high prices, but it is definitely a precondition.  The mass-produced baseball cards from the late 1980s are all but worthless, but truly rare baseball cards have actually held their value surprisingly well.  A 1909 T206 Honus Wagner card can be expected to clear well over $1 million at auction.

This brings me to perception of value.  Rarity alone does not make the Wagner card valuable; there has to be something that makes the object special.  Among baseball aficionados, Wagner was considered to be one of the all-time greatest players.  And there is a mystique about the card itself because Wagner ordered its production stopped; he was uncomfortable with the fact that his image was being used to sell tobacco to children.

The same is true of paintings.  And Old Master is priceless because of its rarity but also for its beauty, the quality of the artwork, and legendary status that the painters have acquired with the passing of time.

So, before you consider investing in collectibles, ask yourself: Is the object sufficiently rare, and has its perception of value withstood the test of time?

But beyond this, I would offer one last piece of advice.  Don’t view a collectible as an investment at all or you lose that “special something” that make it valuable to begin with. Buy it because of the way it makes you feel, with the assumption that, even if its monetary value fell to zero, it’s still something you’d proudly display in your home.