ECONOMIC INFLATION: Why So High Right Now?

SIX REASONS

By Vitaliy Katsenelson CFA

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DEFINITION: In economics, inflation is a general increase in the prices of goods and services in an economy. When the general price level rises, each unit of currency buys fewer goods and services; consequently, inflation corresponds to a reduction in the purchasing power of money.

CITE: https://www.r2library.com/Resource/Title/082610254

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The war in Ukraine will likely pour more gasoline on the already raging inflationary fire, threatening to send the global economy into stagflation. Stagflation is a slowdown of economic activity caused by inflation.

READ: https://contrarianedge.com/why-is-inflation-so-high-right-now-6-reasons/?utm_source=IMA++-+Main+Articles&utm_campaign=8be9ec7af7-UBER_MONEY_MANAGER_KIDNAPPED_COPY_03&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f1c90406d1-8be9ec7af7-55139025

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CONCLUSION: The Six Commandments of Value Investing

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Investing and Chess

By Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA

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Conclusion: Investing and Chess 

I read somewhere that chess is a game of small advantages. When the game starts, the players are equal – both hold the same number of pieces in the same positions. But then every move either adds to your position (competitive advantage) or subtracts from it. These little decisions (resulting in a better pawn structure, a more secure king, a centrally positioned knight, and so on) that you make with every move accumulate into victory. 

Investing is not that much different, especially in today’s world where access to information has flattened. A mutual fund that manages $100 billion may spend $100 million on research, but that $100 million doesn’t buy any more than what a patient value investor can glean by reading financial statements. 

I am not talking about Warren Buffett either, who doesn’t even have a PC in his office. Ted Weschler and Todd Combs (Warren Buffett’s right-hand men) achieved phenomenal investment success without a fancy research department by simply reading carefully and following our Six Commandments. 

The key to succeeding in this irrational world is to actively ingrain each one of these principles into your investment operating system, improving your process just a little on a daily basis, and then success will follow. 

Finally, this would not be a worthy chapter if I did not contradict myself, just a little. Investing is also unlike chess. Investing affords us a luxury that few people appreciate: You can choose your own opponent. In chess tournaments, you don’t get to choose your opponent. Tournament organizers match you to someone with an equal rating; then as you win, you are progressively matched against better opponents. 

In investing, you are the “tournament organizer.” You get to walk into the room and, instead of choosing the geekiest opponent – the dude with thick glasses who hasn’t been on a date in years and has only thought and dreamt about chess – you can go for the muscular guy who spends five hours a day in the gym, and only joined the tournament because he lost a bet. 

Money doesn’t know how you made it. A hundred dollars made by solving easy problems (buying stocks where both your IQ and EQ were at their highest) buys as much as a hundred dollars that caused you to lose your hair. In investing, you don’t have to solve the problems that everyone else is solving. There are thousands of stocks out there, and your portfolio needs only a few dozen.

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#5: The Six Commandments of Value Investing

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Although it has been some time since speaking live with busy colleague Vitaliy Katsenelson CFA, I review his internet material frequently and appreciate this ME-P series contribution. I encourage all ME-P readers to do the same and consider his value investing insights carefully.

By Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA

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5. Risk is a permanent loss of capital (not volatility)

Conventional wisdom views volatility as risk. Not value investors. We befriend volatility, embrace it, and try to take advantage of it. For someone who has not researched a company, it is not readily apparent whether a decline in shares is temporary or permanent. After all, if you don’t know what the company is worth, the quoted price becomes the quotient of intrinsic value. If you do know what the company is worth, then the change in intrinsic value is all that is going to matter. The price quoted on the exchange will be your friend, allowing you to take advantage of the difference between intrinsic value and quoted stock price. If the quoted stock price is significantly cheaper than your estimated intrinsic value, you buy it (or buy more of it if you already own it). If the opposite is true, you sell it.

What is a company worth?

Determining the intrinsic value requires a combination of art and science, in that order – it is not quoted on the exchanges. We go about this the same way a businessman would figure how much he’d want to pay for a gas station or a McDonald’s franchise. Analysis of each company will be different, but at the core we estimate the cash flows the business will produce for shareholders in the long run (at least ten years) and what the business will be worth then (based on our estimate of its earnings power at the time). The combination of the two provides us an approximation of what the business is worth now. To further embed “the right” type of risk analysis into our investment operating system, we build financial models. Models help us to understand businesses better and provide insights as to which metrics matter and which don’t. They allow us to stress test the business: We don’t just look at the upside but spend a lot of times looking at the downside – we try to “kill” the business. We look at known risks and try to imagine unknown ones; we try to quantify their impact on cash flows. This “killing” helps to us understand how much of a discount (margin of safety) we should demand to what the business is worth. By applying this discount to fair value, we arrive at a buy price. For every stock we buy we probably look at a few dozen (at least).

For instance, if we are looking at a company that is selling products or services to consumers, we’ll be focusing on customer-acquisition costs. We try to drill down to the essential operating metrics of each company. If it’s a convenience store retailer, we’ll look into gallons of gas sold and profit per gallon. If it’s an oil driller, we’ll look at utilization rates, rigs in service, average revenue per rig per day. If it’s a pharmaceuticals company, we’ll have revenue lines for each major drug it sells and model the company for the eventuality that patents will run out. (Revenues usually decline 80-90% when a patent expires).

These models help us to understand the economics of the business. We usually build two type of models. We start with what we call the “tablecloth” model. This is a very detailed, in-depth model that zeros in on different aspects of the business. But the risk we run with a tablecloth model is that we get lost in the trees and forget about the forest.

This brings us to our “napkin” model. It’s a much simpler and smaller model that focuses only on the essentials of the business. It is easier to build the tablecloth model than the “napkin.” If we can build a napkin model, that means we understand the drivers of the business – we understand what matters. Models are important because they help us remain rational. It is only the matter of time before a stock we own will “blow up” (or, in layman’s terms, decline).

In this type of analysis, what happens this month, this quarter, or even this year is only important in the context of the long run – unless the company’s good or bad earnings report in any quarter changes our assumptions on the company’s long-term cash flows. If you methodically focus on what the company is worth and if your Total IQ is maximized, then price fluctuations are just noise. Volatility becomes your friend because you can rationally take advantage of it. It’s an under-appreciated gift from Mr. Market.

Side Note: As an advisor, I feel it is one of my great responsibilities to be an honest and clear communicator. There is an asymmetry of information between us and our clients. We have invested weeks and months of research into the analysis of each stock; therefore, we have a good idea what each company is worth. Our clients have not done this research, and they should not have to – that is what they hired us to do.This is why we pour our heart and soul into our quarterly letters – we want to close this informational gap and so we try as hard as we can to explain what we think the companies in our portfolio are worth. Our letters are often 15-20 pages long. 

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#3: The Six Commandments of Value Investing (Part 1)

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The Six Commandments of Value Investing (Part 1)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Although it has been some time since speaking live with busy colleague Vitaliy Katsenelson CFA, I review his internet material frequently and appreciate this ME-P series contribution. I encourage all ME-P readers to do the same and consider his value investing insights carefully.

By Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA

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The Six Commandments of Value Investing
3. The market is there to serve you, not the other way around.

Part 1
: The market is there to price stocks on a daily basis, but it doesn’t value them on a daily basis. In the long run (the yardstick here is years, not days or months) the market will value stocks, but in the short run stock price movements are random. 

Despite this randomness, the media will always find a rational explanation for a move. However, trying to understand randomness and predict stock movements in the short run is like trying to have an intelligent conversation with a two-year-old. It may be fun, but it will consume a lot of your time and energy, and the outcome is far from certain. 

Stock fluctuations should be looked upon as a natural and benign feature of the stock market, but only if you know what the asset is worth. To make Mr. Market serve us and not become its slave, here is what we do.

If we know a stock is worth $1, then if its price falls from 50 cents to 30 cents (a 40% decline), that’s a blessing for several reasons: The company can now buy back a lot more of its stock at lower prices, and we can add to our position. After all, it’s 40% cheaper. 

Here is the key, though: You have to make sure that what you thought was worth $1 is still worth $1.

To quote Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” How do you remain rational when Mr. Market has just smashed you in the face by repricing your $1 stock from 50 cents to 30 cents? Maybe Mr. Market is right and that company’s fair value was never really $1 but only 40 cents?

To remain rational, we focus on maximizing our Total IQ. I know we were not supposed to have math, especially this early in the book. But indulge me with this little equation: Total IQ = IQ x EQ (where EQ <=1)Before I explain I want to stress this point: Your IQ, EQ, and thus Total IQ will vary from stock to stock and from industry to industry.

Let’s start with IQ.

IQ – our intellectual capacity to analyze problems – will vary with the problem in front of us. Just as we breezed through some subjects in college and struggled with others, our ability to understand the current and future dynamics of various companies and industries will fluctuate as well. This is why we buy stocks that fall within our sphere of competence. We tend to stick with ones where our IQ is the highest.

As I have mentioned before but will continue to repeat: If investing were an exact science – a formulaic process by which you could (in a vacuum) constantly test and retest your hypotheses and repeat your results – then EQ, our emotional quotient, would be irrelevant.

If we were characters from Star Trek – with complete control over our emotions, like Mr. Spock, or lacking emotions entirely, like Lieutenant Commander Data – then our EQ wouldn’t matter. However, investing is not a science and we are humans. We have plenty of emotions, and thus EQ is a very important part of this equation.

Though we usually think about our capacity to analyze problems as being dependable and stable over time, it isn’t.

First, emotions distort probabilities. So, even if my intellectual capacity to analyze a problem is not impacted, my brain may be solving a distorted problem.

Second, my IQ is not constant, and my ability to process information effectively declines under emotional stress. I either lose the big picture or overlook important details. This dilemma is not unique to me; I’m sure it affects all of us to varying degrees.

A friend of mine who is a terrific investor, and who will remain nameless (though his name is George), once told me that he never invests in grocery store stocks because he can’t be rational when he holds them. If we spent some Freudian time with him, we’d probably discover that he experienced a traumatic childhood event at the grocery store (he may have been caught shoplifting a candy bar when he was eight), or he may have had a bad experience with a grocery stock early in his career. The reason for his problem is irrelevant, though. What is important is that he has realized that his high IQ will be impaired by his low EQ if he owns grocery stocks.

The higher my EQ is with regard to a particular company, the more likely my Total IQ will not degrade when things go wrong (or even when they go right). This is why in the little formula above, EQ cannot be greater than 1. In your most emotionally stable state (when EQ = 1), your Total IQ will equal your IQ.

There is a good reason why doctors don’t treat their own children: Their ability to be rational (properly weighing probabilities) may be severely compromised by their emotions. 

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#1: The Six Commandments of Value Investing

1. A stock is partial ownership of a business 

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By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although it has been some time since speaking live with busy colleague Vitaliy Katsenelson CFA, I review his internet material frequently and appreciate this ME-P series contribution. I encourage all ME-P readers to do the same and consider his value investing insights carefully.

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The Six Commandments of Value Investing
Introduction

I wrote the core of this chapter in preparation for a speech I gave at an investment conference. In my speech, I wanted to show how at my firm, we took the Six Commandments of Value Investing and embedded them in our investment operating system. 

Since I was speaking to fellow value investors, this speech was written not to promote my firm but to educate. I was going to rewrite the speech for this chapter and make a bit less about us and more about you –but each attempt resulted in a dull chapter. So here is a much extended version of my original speech. 

The Six Commandments

These are the Six Commandments of Value Investing. I don’t expect any value investors reading this to be surprised by any one of them. They were brought down from the mountain by Ben Graham in his book Security Analysis.

1)    A stock is fractional ownership of a business (not trading sardines).
2)    Long-term time horizon (both analytical and expectation to hold)
3)    Mr. Market is there to serve us (know who’s the boss).
4)    Margin of safety – leave room in your buy price for being wrong.
5)    Risk is permanent loss of capital (not volatility).
6)    In the long run stocks revert to their fair value.

These commandments are very important and they sound great, but in the chaos of our daily lives it is so easy for them to turn into empty slogans. 

A slogan without execution is a lie. For these “slogans” not to be lies, we need to deeply embed them in our investment operating system – our analytical framework and our daily routines – and act on them.

The focus of this chapter goes far beyond explaining what these commandments are: My goal is to give you a practical perspective and to show you how we embed the Six Commandments in our investment operating system at my firm. 

1. A stock is partial ownership of a business 

The US and most foreign markets we invest in are very liquid. We can sell any stock in our portfolios with ease – a few clicks and a few cents per share commission and it’s gone. This instant liquidity, though it can be tremendously beneficial (we wish selling a house were that easy, fast, and cheap), can also have harmful unintended consequences: It tends to shrink the investor’s analytical time horizon and often transforms investors into pseudo-investors. 

For true traders, stocks are not businesses but trading widgets. Pork bellies, orange futures, stocks are all the same to them. Traders try to find some kind of order or a pattern in the hourly and daily chaos (randomness) of financial markets. As an investor, I cannot relate to traders –not only do we not belong to the same religion, we live in very different universes. 
Over the years I’ve met many traders, and I count a few as my dear friends. None of them confuse what they do with investing. In fact, traders are very explicit that their rules of engagement with stocks are very different from those of investors. 

I have little insight to share with traders in these pages. My message is really to market participants who on the surface look at stocks as if they were investments but who have been morphed by the allure of the market’s instant liquidity into pseudo-investors. They are not quite traders – because they don’t use traders’ tools and are not trying to find order in the daily noise – but they aren’t investors, either, because their time horizon has been shrunk and their analysis deformed by market liquidity. 

The best way to contrast the investor with the pseudo-investor is by explaining what an investor is. A true investor would do the same analysis of a public company that he would do for a private one. He’d analyze the company’s business, guestimate earnings power and cash flows. Assess its moat – the ability to protect cash flows from competition. Try to look “around the corner” to various risks. Then figure out what the business is worth and decide what price he’d want to pay for it (your required discount to what the business is worth). For an investor, the analysis would be the same if his $100,000 was buying 20% of a private business or 0.002% of a public one. This is how your rational uncle would analyze a business – your Warren Buffett or Ben Graham. 

How do we maintain this rational attitude and prevent the stock market from turning us into pseudo-investors? Very simple. We start by asking, “Would we want to own this business if the stock market was closed for 10 years?” (Thank you, Warren Buffett). This simple question changes how we look at stocks. 

Now, the immediate liquidity that is so alluring in a stock, and that turns investors into pseudo-investors, is gone from our analysis. Suddenly, quality – valuation, cash flows, competitive advantage, return on capital, balance sheet, management – has a much different, more complete meaning.

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PORTFOLIO: How to Build One for Today’s Crazy Stock Markets

Insights For Doctors and All Investors

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Amazon.com: Vitaliy Katsenelson: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle

By Vitaliy Katsenelson CFA

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NOTE: This piece is a little more technical, and contains a bit more stock-market jargon, than most essays you get from me. While how we build portfolios is important to us and our clients, we realize that the puts and takes might bore many readers.

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PODCAST: Value Investing with Vitaliy Katsenelson CFA

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Amazon.com: Vitaliy Katsenelson: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks, Kindle

By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson, CFA

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EDITOR’S NOTE: In this interview with investment website @GuruFocus, my colleague Vitaliy shares the full gamut of how he invests, where and why. He touches on the role of being eclectic when investing, how to invest abroad, and how value investors should think about macro-economics and finance, among many other important topics. Enjoy this fun and wide-ranging interview! It is very timely with the S&P 500, DJIA and NASDAQ just posting their 4th straight day of gains while Facebook rattled investors by posting a rare profit decline, driven by the company’s heavy spending on its vision for a so-called Metaverse and simultaneously confronting advertising challenges on its existing services.

Dr. David Edward Marcinko MBA CMP®

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PODCAST: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTSTbF0GwVw&t=69s

VALUE STOCKS: https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/markets/value-stocks-just-had-their-best-month-since-the-peak-of-the-2001-dot-com-bubble-%e2%80%94-and-theres-still-more-upside-to-come-bank-of-america-says/ar-AATpt1m?li=BBnb7Kz

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Will Mr. Market Eat Too Much Pi?

By Vitaliy Katsenelson CFA

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This Holiday, Will Mr. Market Eat Too Much Pi?
You can also listen to a professional narration of this article on iTunes, Google & online.

Mr. Market was less than kind to our portfolio over the last few months, and especially the last few weeks. I cannot tell you how little it worries us what Mr. Market thinks about our stocks at any particular point in time. We love* our portfolio even if the Mr. Market doesn’t fancy it today.

Also, before we take Mr. Market seriously, let us tell you about the rationality of Mr. Market lately. The World Health Organization (WHO) names each variant of the Covid virus by going to the next letter of the Greek alphabet. After Delta, which is currently the most predominant variant of the virus ravaging the world, there must have been nine others that were not important enough because we never heard of them. Why nine? Because when the latest variant of concern was found in South Africa, it emerged that the letter Nu was supposed to be applied to it. But Nu sounds a lot like new. WHO didn’t want to confuse people, so it skipped to the next letter in the Greek Alphabet, which is Xi – oops, that’s the Chinese supreme dictator. So, for the sake of global political stability, that letter was skipped, too.
This brings us to Omicron, the name of the latest variant.

This is where this story gets a bit more interesting.

The one disruption that really puzzles me is the labor shortage. There are millions of jobs going unfilled today. I hear stories of Starbucks stores being closed due to a lack of workers. Every service that has a heavy labor component has gotten worse – be it restaurants, ride-sharing, or pharmacies. There happens to be a cryptocurrency, one of thousands, that is also named Omicron. I still cannot grasp the logic behind it, but that cryptocurrency was up 900% on the day the South African variant was christened. There must have been a trading algorithm or a lot of bored investors looking for the next gamble, to drive something seemingly worthless up 900%.

That is the drunken Mr. Market that is pricing our stocks today.

I am going to repeat what you will find me saying several times in the letter: We own businesses that are priced, not valued, by Mr. Market thousands of times a day. We have done a lot of work on each company in the portfolio, and through diligent research we have reached the conclusion that each is worth more than the price it is changing hands at today. Are we going to be right about each and every stock? Of course not. This is a numbers game. But we use a time-tested methodology centered on common sense and the cash flows these businesses generate. Also, this is not our first rodeo. We’ll go on making small tweaks, taking advantage of Mr. Market’s manic-depressive moods, at least when it comes to anything that generates cash flows.

Of course, we could change our investment process and load up on the cryptocurrency called Pi Coin, which happens to take its name from the letter in the Greek alphabet that follows Omicron. But I think we all agree we should stick to our knitting, buying high-quality businesses that are significantly undervalued. (Anyway we already loaded up on pie during Thanksgiving.)

Our advice – enjoy this holiday season. Spend time with your loved ones; don’t look at your portfolio. Let us worry about it – after all, we own the same stocks you do.

We wish you joyful and safe holidays.

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PODCAST: Curmudgeon On “Crypto-Currency”

Curmudgeon on Crypto-currency


Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA

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How We INVEST IN INFLATION?

STRATEGIES AND MITIGATION

Finding investments to weather the storm. Strategies and ways to mitigate inflation risk, including investing in businesses with pricing power, capital intensity, and investing abroad.

By Vitaliy Katsenelson CFA

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How Physicians and All Investors Should Deal With the Overwhelming Problem Of Understanding The World Economy

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“What the —- do I do now?”

vitaly

By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA

A SPECIAL ME-P REPORT

This was the actual subject line of an e-mail I received that really summed up most of the correspondence I got in response to an article I published last summer. To be fair, I painted a fairly negative macro picture of the world, throwing around a lot of fancy words, like “fragile” and “constrained system.” I guess I finally figured out the three keys to successful storytelling: One, never say more than is necessary; two, leave the audience wanting more; and three … Well, never mind No. 3, but here is more.

Before I go further, if you believe the global economy is doing great and stocks are cheap, stop reading now; this column is not for you. I promise to write one for you at some point when stocks are cheap and the global economy is breathing well on its own — I just don’t know when that will be. But if you believe that stocks are expensive — even after the recent sell-off — and that a global economic time bomb is ticking because of unprecedented intervention by governments and central banks, then keep reading.

Today

Today, after the stock market has gone straight up for five years, investors are faced with two extremes: Go into cash and wait for the market crash or a correction and then go all in at the bottom, or else ride this bull with both feet in the stirrups, but try to jump off before it rolls over on you, no matter how quickly that happens.

Of course, both options are really not options. Tops and bottoms are only obvious in the rearview mirror. You may feel you can time the market, but I honestly don’t know anyone who has done it more than once and turned it into a process. Psychology — those little gears spinning but not quite meshing in your so-called mind — will drive you insane. It is incredibly difficult to sit on cash while everyone around you is making money. After all, no one knows how much energy this steroid-maddened bull has left in him. This is not a naturally raised farm animal but a by-product of a Frankenstein-like experiment by the Fed. This cyclical market (note: not secular; short-term, not long-term) may end tomorrow or in five years. Riding this bull is difficult because if you believe the market is overvalued and if you own a lot of overpriced stocks, then you are just hoping that greater fools will keep hopping on the bull, driving stock prices higher.

More importantly, you have to believe that you are smarter than the other fools and will be able to hop off before them (very few manage this). Good luck with that — after all, the one looking for a greater fool will eventually find that fool by looking in the mirror.

Last Spring

As I wrote in an article last spring, “As an investor you want to pay serious attention to ‘climate change’ — significant shifts in the global economy that can impact your portfolio.” There are plenty of climate-changing risks around us — starting with the prospect of higher, maybe even much higher, interest rates — which might be triggered in any number of ways: the Fed withdrawing quantitative easing, the Fed losing control of interest rates and seeing them rise without its permission, Japanese debt blowing up. Then we have the mother of all bubbles: the Chinese overconsumption of natural and financial resources bubble. Of course, Europe is relatively calm right now, but its structural problems are far from fixed. One way or another, the confluence of these factors will likely lead to slower economic growth and lower stock prices. So “what the —-” is our strategy? Read on to find out. I’ll explain what we’re doing with our portfolio, but first let me tell you a story.

My Story

When I was a sophomore in college, I was taking five or six classes and had a full-time job and a full-time (more like overtime) girlfriend. I was approaching finals, I had to study for lots of tests and turn in assignments, and to make matters worse, I had procrastinated until the last minute. I felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. I whined to my father about my predicament. His answer was simple: Break up my big problems into smaller ones and then figure out how to tackle each of those separately. It worked. I listed every assignment and exam, prioritizing them by due date and importance. Suddenly, my problems, which together looked insurmountable, one by one started to look conquerable. I endured a few sleepless nights, but I turned in every assignment, studied for every test and got decent grades. Investors need to break up the seemingly overwhelming problem of understanding the global economy and markets into a series of small ones, and that is exactly what we do with our research. The appreciation or depreciation of any stock (or stock market) can be explained mathematically by two variables: earnings and price-earnings ratio. We take all the financial-climate-changing risks — rising interest rates, Japanese debt, the Chinese bubble, European structural problems — and analyze the impact they have on the Es and P/Es of every stock in our portfolio and any candidate we are considering.

Practical applications

Let me walk you through some practical applications of how we tackle climate-changing risks at my firm. When China eventually blows up, companies that have exposure to hard commodities, directly or indirectly (think Caterpillar), will see their sales, margins and earnings severely impaired. Their P/Es will deflate as well, as the commodity supercycle that started in the early 2000s comes to an end. Countries that export a lot of hard commodities to China will feel the aftershock of the Chinese bubble bursting. The obvious ones are the ABCs: Australia, Brazil and Canada.

However, if China takes oil prices down with it, then Russia and the Middle East petroleum-exporting mono-economies that have little to offer but oil will suffer. Local and foreign banks that have exposure to those countries and companies that derive significant profits from those markets will likely see their earnings pressured. (German automakers that sell lots of cars to China are a good example.)

Japan is the most indebted first-world nation, but it borrows at rates that would make you think it was the least indebted country. As this party ends, we’ll probably see skyrocketing interest rates in Japan, a depreciating yen, significant Japanese inflation and, most likely, higher interest rates globally. Japan may end up being a wake-up call for debt investors. The depreciating yen will further stress the Japan-China relationship as it undermines the Chinese low-cost advantage.

So paradoxically, on top of inflation, Japan brings a risk of deflation as well. If you own companies that make trinkets, their earnings will be under assault. Fixed-income investors running from Japanese bonds may find a temporary refuge in U.S. paper (driving our yields lower, at least at first) and in U.S. stocks. But it is hard to look at the future and not bet on significantly higher inflation and rising interest rates down the road.

untitled

[Moscow]

A side note:

Economic instability will likely lead to political instability. We are already seeing some manifestations of this in Russia. Waltzing into Ukraine is Vladimir Putin’s way of redirecting attention from the gradually faltering Russian economy to another shiny object — Ukraine. Just imagine how stable Russia and the Middle East will be if the recent decline in oil prices continues much further.

1447968781847

[Defense Industry]

Inflation and higher interest rates

Defense industry stocks may prove to be a good hedge against future global economic weakness. Inflation and higher interest rates are two different risks, but both cause eventual deflation of P/Es. The impact on high-P/E stocks will be the most pronounced. I am generalizing, but high-P/E growth stocks are trading on expectations of future earnings that are years and years away. Those future earnings brought to the present (discounted) are a lot more valuable in a near-zero interest rate environment than when interest rates are high. Think of high-P/E stocks as long-duration bonds: They get slaughtered when interest rates rise (yes, long-term bonds are not a place to be either). If you are paying for growth, you want to be really sure it comes, because that earnings growth will have to overcome eventual P/E compression. Higher interest rates will have a significant linear impact on stocks that became bond substitutes. High-quality stocks that were bought indiscriminately for their dividend yield will go through substantial P/E compression.

These stocks are purchased today out of desperation. Desperate people are not rational, and the herd mentality runs away with itself. When the herd heads for the exits, you don’t want to be standing in the doorway. Real estate investment trusts (REITs) and master limited partnerships (MLPs) have a double-linear relationship with interest rates: Their P/Es were inflated because of an insatiable thirst for yield, and their earnings were inflated by low borrowing costs. These companies’ balance sheets consume a lot of debt, and though many of them were able to lock in low borrowing costs for a while, they can’t do so forever. Their earnings will be at risk.

Charlie Munger speaks

As I write this, I keep thinking about Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger’s remark at the company’s annual meeting in 2013, commenting on the then-current state of the global economy: “If you’re not confused, you don’t understand things very well.” A year later the state of the world is no clearer. This confusion Munger talked about means that we have very little clarity about the future and that as an investor you should position your portfolio for very different future economies. Inflation? Deflation? Maybe both? Or maybe deflation first and inflation second?

I keep coming back to Japan because it is further along in this experiment than the rest of the world. The Japanese real estate bubble burst, the government leveraged up as the corporate sector deleveraged, interest rates fell to near zero, and the economy stagnated for two decades. Now debt servicing requires a quarter of Japan’s tax receipts, while its interest rates are likely a small fraction of what they are going to be in the future; thus Japan is on the brink of massive inflation. The U.S. could be on a similar trajectory.

Let me explain why

Government deleveraging follows one of three paths. The most blatant option is outright default, but because the U.S. borrows in its own currency, that will never happen here. (However, in Europe, where individual countries gave the keys to the printing press to the collective, the answer is less clear.) The second choice, austerity, is destimulating and deflationary to the economy in the short run and is unlikely to happen to any significant degree because cost-cutting will cost politicians their jobs. Last, we have the only true weapon government can and will use to deleverage: printing money. Money printing cheapens a currency — in other words, it brings on inflation. In case of either inflation or deflation, you want to own companies that have pricing power — it will protect their earnings. Those companies will be able to pass higher costs to their customers during a time of inflation and maintain their prices during deflation.

On the one hand, inflation benefits companies with leveraged balance sheets because they’ll be paying off debt with inflated (cheaper) dollars. However, that benefit is offset by the likely higher interest rates these companies will have to pay on newly issued debt. Leverage is extremely dangerous during deflation because debt creates another fixed cost. Costs don’t shrink as fast as nominal revenues, so earnings decline.

Crystal ball

Therefore, unless your crystal ball is very clear and you have 100 percent certainty that inflation lies ahead, I’d err on the side of owning underleveraged companies rather than ones with significant debt. A lot of growth that happened since 2000 has taken place at the expense of government balance sheets. It is borrowed, unsustainable growth that will have to be repaid through higher interest rates and rising tax rates, which in turn will work as growth decelerators. This will have several consequences:

  1. First, it’s another reason for P/Es to shrink.
  2. Second, a lot of companies that are making their forecasts with normal GDP growth as the base for their revenue and earnings projections will likely be disappointed.
  3. And last, investors will need to look for companies whose revenues march to their own drummers and are not significantly linked to the health of the global or local economy.

The definition of “dogma” by irrefutable Wikipedia is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” On the surface this is the most dogmatic columns I have ever written, but that was not my intention. I just laid out an analytical framework, a checklist against which we stress test stocks in our portfolio. Despite my speaking ill of MLPs, we own an MLP. But unlike its comrades, it has a sustainable yield north of 10 percent and, more important, very little debt. Even if economic growth slows down or interest rates go up, the stock will still be undervalued — in other words, it has a significant margin of safety even if the future is less pleasant than the present.

Final bits

There are five final bits of advice with which I want to leave you:

  1. First, step out of your comfort zone and expand your fishing pool to include companies outside the U.S. That will allow you to increase the quality of your portfolio without sacrificing growth characteristics or valuation. It will also provide currency diversification as an added bonus.
  2. Second, disintermediate your buy and sell decisions. The difficulty of investing in an expensive market that is making new highs is that you’ll be selling stocks that hit your price targets. (If you don’t, you should.)

Of course, selling stocks comes with a gift — cash. As this gift keeps on giving, your cash balance starts building up and creates pressure to buy. As parents tell their teenage kids, you don’t want to be pressured into decisions.

Assessment

In an overvalued market you don’t want to be pressured to buy; if you do, you’ll be making compromises and end up owning stocks that you’ll eventually regret. Margin of safety, margin of safety, margin of safety — those are my last three bits of advice. In an environment in which the future of Es and P/Es is uncertain, you want to cure some of that uncertainty by demanding an extra margin of safety from stocks in your portfolio.

Conclusion

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Why we build [business and/or valuation] investment models?

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Qualitatively and quantitatively intensive!

By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA 

vitalyOur investment process at IMA is both qualitatively and quantitatively intensive. Throughout the course of a year we look at hundreds of companies. Most of them receive only a cursory look – we don’t like the business, the valuation is too stretched, or we simply have no insight into the business. We usually glance at them and move on.

But, if we really like the business and/or its valuation, we build a model. Often, just from a cursory look we know that the stock is not cheap enough, but if we really (really!) like the business we’ll invest the time to model it so we can understand it better and set a price at which we want to buy it (and then wait).

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We build models

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We build a lot of models. We built over a hundred models last year (we bought only a handful of stocks). Building models is important for us. Models help us to understand businesses better. They provide insights as to which metrics matter and which don’t. They allow us stress test the business: we don’t just look at the upside but spend a lot of times looking at the downside – we try to “kill” the business. We usually try to drill down to essential operating metrics. If it is a convenience store retailer, we’ll look into gallons of gas sold and profit per gallon. If it is a driller (see our Helmerich & Payne analysis), we look at utilization rates, rigs in service, average revenue per rig per day, etc.

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In the past, when we owned Joseph A. Banks, a model helped us understand the impact maturation of its new stores had on same-store sales (PDF, see slide 49). Half of Joseph A. Banks stores were less than five years old, and their maturation drove significant same-store sales increase for years.

***

We looked at American Express before the crisis, which gave us insight into inflated profit margins of the financial sector, and thus we avoided for the most part the carnage in the financials. We thought American Express stock was not cheap enough at the time, but we learned that Amex’s high swipe-fee revenue provided an important buffer to help the company absorb significant loan losses. Amex could have withstood over 10% loan losses on its credit card portfolio and still have remained profitable. This insight gave us the confidence to buy Amex during the crisis.

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Models are important because they help us remain rational. It is only the matter of time before a stock we own will “blow up” (or, in layman’s terms, decline). We can go back to our model and assess whether the decline is warranted. The model then gives us the confidence to make a rational (very key word) decision: buy more, do nothing, or sell.

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Assessment

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Models are frameworks that help us think about the businesses we analyze. We are always aware of John Maynard Keynes’ expression, “I’d rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong.” Models are not a panacea, but they are an important and often invaluable tool. However, models are only as good as their builders and the inputs to them.

***

ABOUT

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson, CFA, is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Active Value Investing (Wiley 2007) and The Little Book of Sideways Markets (Wiley, 2010).  His books have been translated into eight languages.  Forbes called him – the new Benjamin Graham.

***

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On Value Investor Guy Spier

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What I Learned from Value Investor Guy Spier 

By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA

***

A few months ago I was asked by the CFA Institute to give talks to CFA societies in London (October 27), Zurich (October 29) and Frankfurt (November 3). I enjoy giving occasional talks (but only a few a year, otherwise they become a chore). I also love Europe — history, old buildings and cultures, museums, sometimes a mild adventure. But this offer was much more interesting — I was asked to give a joint presentation with Guy Spier.

About  Guy

Guy Spier is a tremendous value investor who happens to be a good friend whose company I truly enjoy. He is the most cosmopolitan person I know. He was born in South Africa, spent his childhood in Iran and Israel, received his bachelor’s degree from Oxford and MBA from Harvard, lived in New York and in 2008 got sick of the New York hedge fund rat race and moved with his family to Zurich. His wife, Lory, is Mexican, so in addition to being fluent in languages of all the above-mentioned countries, he romances in Spanish.

Last year Guy published a book, The Education of a Value Investor: My Transformative Quest for Wealth, Wisdom, and Enlightenment. It is not a traditional investing book. In fact, I’ll say that differently: This is the most untraditional book on investing you’re likely to run into. It is a self-effacing memoir of Guy’s transformation from a Gordon Gekko wannabe who believes that his Ivy League education entitles him to Wall Street riches to a committed follower of Warren Buffett and his sidekick, Charlie Munger.

It must have taken a lot of guts and self-confidence (overcoming a lot of self-doubt) to write this book. To be honest, I am not sure I could have written it. It is one thing to strive for intellectual honesty; it is another to unearth and expose one’s own greed, arrogance and envy. Many of us are trying to hide such character traits in plain sight, never mind telling the world about them in a popular book.

After all, Guy is not writing about a fictional character; he is writing about himself. The humility he displays is what makes the book so effective — you can clearly follow the deliberate transformation of a cockroach (the Wall Street version of a caterpillar) into a butterfly.

This memoir is able to achieve something that many other investments books don’t (including my own): It reveals the real, practical, behavioral side of investing, not the way you read about it in behavioral finance textbooks but the raw emotions every investor experiences.

There are a lot of lessons we can learn from Guy. The first one — and, for me, the most important one — is that environment matters.

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value

[Eye for Value]

Enter Dan Ariely PhD

Dan Ariely PhD, the well-known behavioral economist, was interviewed on Bloomberg Television and asked, What can one do to lose weight? He said, Start with the environment around you. If you come to work and there is a box of doughnuts on your desk, losing weight is going to be difficult. Also, look in your fridge: All the stuff that is probably not good for your diet is staring you in the face, whereas the fruits and vegetables that are essential to healthy eating are buried in the hard-to-access bottom drawers.

The same applies to investing: We may not notice it, but the environment around us impacts our ability to make good decisions. Guy writes, “We like to think that we change our environment, but the truth is that it changes us. So we have to be extraordinarily careful to choose the right environment — to work with, and even socialize with, the right people.”

I have found that checking the prices of stocks I own throughout the day shrinks my time horizon, impacts my mood and wastes my brain cells as I try to interpret data that have very little information. I am getting better; I am already down checking prices only once a day. My goal is to do it just once every few days.

Guy is ahead of me: He checks them once a week. Recently, I put in price alerts for stocks my firm owns or follows. If a stock price changes more than 10 percent or crosses a certain important (buy or sell) point, I’ll get an e-mail alert.

Guy finds that he isn’t effective when he gets to the office because of external distractions. In his Zurich office he has a quiet room that he calls the library. It doesn’t have phones or computers, and this is where he reads, thinks and naps. Here in Denver, I have a lawn chair (bought at Costco for $50) that I take outside to sit on, put on headphones, and listen to music and read. My friend Chris goes to Starbucks or the local library in the morning for four hours before he goes to his office, and that’s where he does his reading. The key is to figure out what works for you and try not to fight your external environment.

Another lesson I have learned is that misery loves company. I was talking to Guy about his book, and he told me that people who love the book appreciate the fact that he is so honest about the emotions that consume him when he is struggling in the stock market. As investors, we often put on a brave face, but if we aren’t emotionally honest, our opinion of ourselves, our self-worth, may fluctuate with the performance of our portfolio.

Personally, I can really relate to this. When I read Guy’s book the first time (I’ve read it twice), I was going through a tough time with my portfolio. I found this book extremely therapeutic. In fact, I recommended it to a friend of mine who was going through a similar rough patch.

Another lesson:

Surround yourself with the right people. Friendships matter. I’ve been blatantly plagiarizing Guy on this for years. Guy created a conference called VALUEx Zurich, a gathering of like-minded people who get together and share investment ideas. I attended the very first one in 2010, and since then I have hosted a very similar event, VALUEx Vail, every year in June.

Guy has a latticework group of eight investors that meets every quarter and discusses the stock market, the investment process and personal issues. I’ve copied that, too. Four of us got together in Atlanta in October. We visited a few companies and debated stocks, industry trends, diets, women . . . okay, you get the point. That was our first latticework event, but I hope we’ll meet a few times a year.

Attending Guy’s conference in Zurich and organizing VALUEx Vail have resulted in enduring friendships. These conferences allowed me to create a large network of like-minded investors I talk to regularly. Every member of my latticework group I met at VALUEx Vail.

(A short side note: One of the most important things we can do as parents of teenage kids is to make sure they have good friends. That’s paramount. We as parents lose influence on our kids when they become teenagers. Their friends have a disproportionately larger impact on their choices than we do. We can influence the environment around our kids by helping them select friends.)

And then there are thank-you cards. Over the years Guy has written tens of thousands of them. He is indiscriminate about them — at one point he wrote to every employee at a boutique hotel he stayed in. All right, maybe he took it too far that time. But, writing a thank-you card to value investor Mohnish Pabrai changed his life. He attended Pabrai Investment Funds’ annual meeting in Chicago. After the meeting he sent Pabrai a thank-you note. A few months later Pabrai came to New York and invited Guy to dinner. This was the start of the Spier-Pabrai bromance. Thank-you cards work because so few people write them. They leave a lasting impression on the receiver because they say, “I like you. You are important to me.”

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stock-exchange

[Stock-Exchanges]

Mentors

The last point is, Be yourself. Having mentors is important. For many value investors, Buffett and Munger are our north stars. There are lots of things we can learn from them. But we also have to realize that we must be ourselves, because we are not them. I remember reading a long time ago that Buffett did not do spreadsheets. That impacted me for a few months — I stopped building models and creating spreadsheets. I thought, If Buffett doesn’t do it, I shouldn’t do it either. Wrong.

Buffett is a lot smarter than I am; he is able to analyze companies in his head. He is Buffett. I have found that spreadsheets work for me because they help me think. When Buffett and I look at a company philosophically, we are looking for the same things, but I need a computer to assist me, and he doesn’t.

Mohnish Pabrai owns just a handful of stocks. Guy, on the other hand, knows that he would not be able to be a rational decision maker if he had only a handful of stocks. There will be a significant overlap between Guy’s and Pabrai’s portfolios, but Guy’s will have two or three times as many stocks.

Assessment

Dear ME-P Readers, I spoke with your Editor-in-Chief Dr. Dave Marcinko a few weeks ago, and as you can tell from this ME-P essay, I am a very biased book reviewer. I am not even sure this qualifies as a book review. Despite my biases, I can safely say that The Education of a Value Investor is one of the best books I’ve read in 2015. (I promise you that it is not the only book I’ve read this year.) Before you commit your time and money to this book, watch Guy’s presentation on Talks at Google.

ABOUT

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson, CFA, is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Active Value Investing (Wiley 2007) and The Little Book of Sideways Markets (Wiley, 2010).  His books have been translated into eight languages.  Forbes called him – the new Benjamin Graham.

Conclusion

Your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated. Feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, subscribe to the ME-P. It is fast, free and secure.

Speaker: If you need a moderator or speaker for an upcoming event, Dr. David E. Marcinko; MBA – Publisher-in-Chief of the Medical Executive-Post – is available for seminar or speaking engagements. Contact: MarcinkoAdvisors@msn.com

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Practitioners, Prognosticators and Portfolio Pain

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Are recent U.S. equity market highs creating “altitude sickness?

vitaly

By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA

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

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

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

A Bubble?

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

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

A murky line

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

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

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More pain

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

An annoying phase

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

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

Assessment

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

ABOUT

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Active Value Investing (Wiley 2007) and The Little Book of Sideways Markets (Wiley, 2010).  His books were translated into eight languages.  Forbes Magazine called him “The new Benjamin Graham”.  

Conclusion

Your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated. Feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, subscribe to the ME-P. It is fast, free and secure.

Speaker: If you need a moderator or speaker for an upcoming event, Dr. David E. Marcinko; MBA – Publisher-in-Chief of the Medical Executive-Post – is available for seminar or speaking engagements. Contact: MarcinkoAdvisors@msn.com

OUR OTHER PRINT BOOKS AND RELATED INFORMATION SOURCES:

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How [Physician] Investors Should Deal With The Overwhelming Problem Of Understanding The World Economy

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“What the —- do I do now?”

By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA

vitaly This was the actual subject line of an e-mail I received that really summed up most of the correspondence I got in response to an article I published recently. To be fair, I painted a fairly negative macro picture of the world, throwing around a lot of fancy words, like “fragile” and “constrained system.” I guess I finally figured out the three keys to successful storytelling: One, never say more than is necessary; two, leave the audience wanting more; and three … Well, never mind No. 3, but here is more.

Domestic / Global Economy

Before I go further, if you believe the global economy is doing great and stocks are cheap, stop reading now; this column is not for you. I promise to write one for you at some point when stocks are cheap and the global economy is breathing well on its own — I just don’t know when that will be. But if you believe that stocks are expensive — even after the recent sell-off — and that a global economic time bomb is ticking because of unprecedented intervention by governments and central banks, then keep reading.

Today, after the stock market has gone straight up for five years, investors are faced with two extremes: Go into cash and wait for the market crash or a correction and then go all in at the bottom, or else ride this bull with both feet in the stirrups, but try to jump off before it rolls over on you, no matter how quickly that happens.

Of course, both options are really nonoptions. Tops and bottoms are only obvious in the rearview mirror. You may feel you can time the market, but I honestly don’t know anyone who has done it more than once and turned it into a process.

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sad

[INSANITY]

Psychology

Those little gears spinning but not quite meshing in your so-called mind — will drive you insane. It is incredibly difficult to sit on cash while everyone around you is making money. After all, no one knows how much energy this steroid-maddened bull has left in him. This is not a naturally raised farm animal but a by-product of a Frankenstein-like experiment by the Fed. This cyclical market (note: not secular; short-term, not long-term) may end tomorrow or in five years. Riding this bull is difficult because if you believe the market is overvalued and if you own a lot of overpriced stocks, then you are just hoping that greater fools will keep hopping on the bull, driving stock prices higher. More important, you have to believe that you are smarter than the other fools and will be able to hop off before them (very few manage this). Good luck with that — after all, the one looking for a greater fool will eventually find that fool by looking in the mirror.

As I wrote in an article last spring, “As an investor you want to pay serious attention to ‘climate change’ — significant shifts in the global economy that can impact your portfolio.” There are plenty of climate-changing risks around us — starting with the prospect of higher, maybe even much higher, interest rates — which might be triggered in any number of ways: the Fed withdrawing quantitative easing, the Fed losing control of interest rates and seeing them rise without its permission, Japanese debt blowing up. Then we have the mother of all bubbles: the Chinese overconsumption of natural and financial resources bubble.

Of course, Europe is relatively calm right now, but its structural problems are far from fixed. One way or another, the confluence of these factors will likely lead to slower economic growth and lower stock prices. So “what the —-” is our strategy? Read on to find out. I’ll explain what we’re doing with our portfolio, but first let me tell you a story.

My Story

When I was a sophomore in college, I was taking five or six classes and had a full-time job and a full-time (more like overtime) girlfriend. I was approaching finals, I had to study for lots of tests and turn in assignments, and to make matters worse, I had procrastinated until the last minute. I felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. I whined to my father about my predicament. His answer was simple: Break up my big problems into smaller ones and then figure out how to tackle each of those separately. It worked. I listed every assignment and exam, prioritizing them by due date and importance. Suddenly, my problems, which together looked insurmountable, one by one started to look conquerable. I endured a few sleepless nights, but I turned in every assignment, studied for every test and got decent grades.

[Physician] investors need to break up the seemingly overwhelming problem of understanding the global economy and markets into a series of small ones, and that is exactly what we do with our research. The appreciation or depreciation of any stock (or stock market) can be explained mathematically by two variables: earnings and price-earnings ratio. We take all the financial-climate-changing risks — rising interest rates, Japanese debt, the Chinese bubble, European structural problems — and analyze the impact they have on the Es and P/Es of every stock in our portfolio and any candidate we are considering. Let me walk you through some practical applications of how we tackle climate-changing risks at my firm.

When China eventually blows up, companies that have exposure to hard commodities, directly or indirectly (think Caterpillar), will see their sales, margins and earnings severely impaired. Their P/Es will deflate as well, as the commodity supercycle that started in the early 2000s comes to an end. Countries that export a lot of hard commodities to China will feel the aftershock of the Chinese bubble bursting. The obvious ones are the ABCs: Australia, Brazil and Canada.

However, if China takes oil prices down with it, then Russia and the Middle East petroleum-exporting mono-economies that have little to offer but oil will suffer. Local and foreign banks that have exposure to those countries and companies that derive significant profits from those markets will likely see their earnings pressured. (German automakers that sell lots of cars to China are a good example.) Japan is the most indebted first-world nation, but it borrows at rates that would make you think it was the least indebted country. As this party ends, we’ll probably see skyrocketing interest rates in Japan, a depreciating yen, significant Japanese inflation and, most likely, higher interest rates globally. Japan may end up being a wake-up call for debt investors. The depreciating yen will further stress the Japan-China relationship as it undermines the Chinese low-cost advantage.

So paradoxically, on top of inflation, Japan brings a risk of deflation as well. If you own companies that make trinkets, their earnings will be under assault. Fixed-income investors running from Japanese bonds may find a temporary refuge in U.S. paper (driving our yields lower, at least at first) and in U.S. stocks. But it is hard to look at the future and not bet on significantly higher inflation and rising interest rates down the road.

***

confirmation-bias

[Inflation / Deflation Paradox]

***

A Side Note

Economic instability will likely lead to political instability. We are already seeing some manifestations of this in Russia. Waltzing into Ukraine is Vladimir Putin’s way of redirecting attention from the gradually faltering Russian economy to another shiny object — Ukraine. Just imagine how stable Russia and the Middle East will be if the recent decline in oil prices continues much further. Defense industry stocks may prove to be a good hedge against future global economic weakness. Inflation and higher interest rates are two different risks, but both cause eventual deflation of P/Es. The impact on high-P/E stocks will be the most pronounced.

I am generalizing, but high-P/E growth stocks are trading on expectations of future earnings that are years and years away. Those future earnings brought to the present (discounted) are a lot more valuable in a near-zero interest rate environment than when interest rates are high. Think of high-P/E stocks as long-duration bonds: They get slaughtered when interest rates rise (yes, long-term bonds are not a place to be either). If you are paying for growth, you want to be really sure it comes, because that earnings growth will have to overcome eventual P/E compression. Higher interest rates will have a significant linear impact on stocks that became bond substitutes. High-quality stocks that were bought indiscriminately for their dividend yield will go through substantial P/E compression.

These stocks are purchased today out of desperation. Desperate people are not rational, and the herd mentality runs away with itself. When the herd heads for the exits, you don’t want to be standing in the doorway. Real estate investment trusts (REITs) and master limited partnerships (MLPs) have a double-linear relationship with interest rates: Their P/Es were inflated because of an insatiable thirst for yield, and their earnings were inflated by low borrowing costs. These companies’ balance sheets consume a lot of debt, and though many of them were able to lock in low borrowing costs for a while, they can’t do so forever. Their earnings will be at risk.

As I write this, I keep thinking about Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger’s remark at the company’s annual meeting in 2014, commenting on the then-current state of the global economy: “If you’re not confused, you don’t understand things very well.” A year later the state of the world is no clearer. This confusion Munger talked about means that we have very little clarity about the future and that as an investor you should position your portfolio for very different future economies. Inflation? Deflation? Maybe both? Or maybe deflation first and inflation second? I keep coming back to Japan because it is further along in this experiment than the rest of the world.

The Japanese real estate bubble burst, the government leveraged up as the corporate sector deleveraged, interest rates fell to near zero, and the economy stagnated for two decades. Now debt servicing requires a quarter of Japan’s tax receipts, while its interest rates are likely a small fraction of what they are going to be in the future; thus Japan is on the brink of massive inflation. The U.S. could be on a similar trajectory. Let me explain why. Government deleveraging follows one of three paths. The most blatant option is outright default, but because the U.S. borrows in its own currency, that will never happen here. (However, in Europe, where individual countries gave the keys to the printing press to the collective, the answer is less clear.) The second choice, austerity, is destimulating and deflationary to the economy in the short run and is unlikely to happen to any significant degree because cost-cutting will cost politicians their jobs.

***

Japan and world markets tumbling - dollar stronger

[Nikkei Index]

***

Last, we have the only true weapon government can and will use to deleverage: printing money. Money printing cheapens a currency — in other words, it brings on inflation. In case of either inflation or deflation, you want to own companies that have pricing power — it will protect their earnings. Those companies will be able to pass higher costs to their customers during a time of inflation and maintain their prices during deflation. On the one hand, inflation benefits companies with leveraged balance sheets because they’ll be paying off debt with inflated (cheaper) dollars.

IRs

However, that benefit is offset by the likely higher interest rates these companies will have to pay on newly issued debt. Leverage is extremely dangerous during deflation because debt creates another fixed cost. Costs don’t shrink as fast as nominal revenues, so earnings decline. Therefore, unless your crystal ball is very clear and you have 100 percent certainty that inflation lies ahead, I’d err on the side of owning underleveraged companies rather than ones with significant debt. A lot of growth that happened since 2000 has taken place at the expense of government balance sheets. It is borrowed, unsustainable growth that will have to be repaid through higher interest rates and rising tax rates, which in turn will work as growth decelerators. This will have several consequences:

First, it’s another reason for P/Es to shrink. Second, a lot of companies that are making their forecasts with normal GDP growth as the base for their revenue and earnings projections will likely be disappointed. And last, investors will need to look for companies whose revenues march to their own drummers and are not significantly linked to the health of the global or local economy. The definition of “dogma” by irrefutable Wikipedia is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” On the surface this is the most dogmatic columns I have ever written, but that was not my intention. I just laid out an analytical framework, a checklist against which we stress test stocks in our portfolio. Despite my speaking ill of MLPs, we own an MLP. But unlike its comrades, it has a sustainable yield north of 10 percent and, more important, very little debt. Even if economic growth slows down or interest rates go up, the stock will still be undervalued — in other words, it has a significant margin of safety even if the future is less pleasant than the present.

There are five final bits of advice I want to leave you

First, step out of your comfort zone and expand your fishing pool to include companies outside the U.S. That will allow you to increase the quality of your portfolio without sacrificing growth characteristics or valuation. It will also provide currency diversification as an added bonus.

Second, disintermediate your buy and sell decisions. The difficulty of investing in an expensive market that is making new highs is that you’ll be selling stocks that hit your price targets. (If you don’t, you should.) Of course, selling stocks comes with a gift — cash. As this gift keeps on giving, your cash balance starts building up and creates pressure to buy. As parents tell their teenage kids, you don’t want to be pressured into decisions. In an overvalued market you don’t want to be pressured to buy; if you do, you’ll be making compromises and end up owning stocks that you’ll eventually regret.

Assessment

Margin of safety, margin of safety, margin of safety — those are my last three bits of advice. In an environment in which the future of Es and P/Es is uncertain, you want to cure some of that uncertainty by demanding an extra margin of safety from stocks in your portfolio.

ABOUT

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Active Value Investing (Wiley 2007) and The Little Book of Sideways Markets (Wiley, 2010).  His books were translated into eight languages.  Forbes Magazine called him “The new Benjamin Graham”.  

Conclusion

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Are We There … Yet?

By Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA

vitaly

NOTE: This article was first written in May 2013, but it is still as relevant today as it was then.

Preface

In early May 2015 I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the Value Investing Congress in Las Vegas. The last time I had spoken there, it was May 2008 and the market was just coming off its top.  The Standard & Poor’s 500 index was trading at 18 times trailing earnings. Profit margins were at a modern-day high. They subsequently collapsed but came back to set an even higher high. If you normalize profits for high margins and look at ten-year trailing earnings, in 2008 stocks were trading 66 percent above their average. They were at 30 times ten-year trailing earnings.

The Market Repeats

In all honesty, I could do the same presentation today that I did five years ago, since market valuation is not dramatically different from what it was then. A cyclical bear and a cyclical bull market later, the S&P 500 is at (the same) 18 times trailing earnings and 26 times ten-year trailing earnings. Investors who were on the sidelines the past few years and who are now pouring money into stocks, expecting that we are in the midst of a secular bull market, will likely be disappointed. The previous sideways market, of 1966–82, included four cyclical bull markets and five cyclical bear markets. From 1970 to 1973 the Dow went from 700 to 1,000, just to drop again, to 600.

Lost Hope

Sideways markets are there to destroy hope. It is when nobody wants to own stocks ever again, when valuations are below their historical average, that a secular sideways market finally dies (actually, more like goes into hibernation), and the next secular bull market is born. But even that is not enough: Stocks need to spend time at below-average valuations. In the 1966–82 market they spent half of their time at below-average valuations. During the recent crisis we tiptoed into below-average valuations, but we danced right back out.

A present day secular bull market?

To believe we are in the midst of a secular bull market, you have to be very comfortable with three things, starting with profit margins.

  1. Today corporate profit margins are hitting all-time highs. Historically, profit margins have been mean-reverting — high margins were never sustained by corporations over a prolonged period of time because, as legendary value investor Jeremy Grantham puts it, “capitalism works.”  When a company — Apple, for example — starts earning very high margins, its competitors (like Samsung) come in with lower prices. In response, Apple must lower its margins. If margins decline even as the economy grows, earnings growth will be very benign or negative.
  2. Second, even if you are comfortable with high profit margins, you have to make an assumption that economic (revenue) growth will be robust going forward. Given how many headwinds we are facing from Europe, China and Japan, it is hard to develop a high comfort level there.
  3. And finally, you have to believe that price-earnings ratios can expand from their current level. I have news for you: In the past, sideways markets started (bull markets ended) when valuations were at current levels.

Stock returns are driven by two variables, earnings growth and changes in P/Es. Earnings growth for the next five to ten years is unlikely to be exciting and may not even be positive, and P/Es are likely to change for the worse, not the better.

***

silhouettes chart

***

Interest rates

Interest rates were much higher in the ’70s and early ’80s than they are today, and thus stocks may deserve higher valuations than they did then. This applies to all assets. But, the Federal Reserve’s policy may inflate stocks’ valuations for a while. If the Fed succeeds and real growth resumes, then interest rates will rise and (expensive) stocks that were discounting all-time-low rates will get crushed. After all, they — like long-duration bonds — do great when interest rates decline and bite the dust when interest rates rise.

Of course, on many levels things are better now than they were in 2008. The financial crisis and real estate bubble are behind us; we are probably not going to see those again for a while. But their resolution came at a big price: much higher government debt and a command-control interest-rate policy that would have made the Soviets proud.

Today

We’re now living in a Lance Armstrong economy. We’ve consumed so many performance enhancement drugs through endless quantitative easing that it is hard to know how well the economy is really doing. Unfortunately, as Armstrong at some point did, we’ll have an Oprah Winfrey moment when the economy will have to fess up for all the QEs.

We are living through one of the most grandiose and untested lab experiments ever conducted by a central bank: QE Infinity. At the recent Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffett said, “Watching the economy today is like watching a good movie — you don’t know the ending.” His sidekick Charlie Munger added, “If you are not confused about the economy, you don’t understand it very well.”

The FOMC

The Fed’s unprecedented intervention in the economy has increased the possible range and severity of negative outcomes, from runaway inflation to deflation or a freaky combination of the two (freakflation). Deflation (or freakflation) is not good for stocks or their valuations. Just look at Japan. Over the past 20 years, stock valuations declined despite interest rates being at incredibly low levels. Expensive stocks (as I’ve mentioned, stocks in general are very expensive) discount earnings growth. If growth fails to materialize, these P/Es will decline. Unknowns are simply unknown.

Caution

At a time when the market is making all-time highs, it is easy to become complacent and let your guard down. Don’t. • •

ABOUT 

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson CFA is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. He is the author of Active Value Investing (Wiley 2007) and The Little Book of Sideways Markets (Wiley, 2010).  His books were translated into eight languages.  Forbes Magazine called him “The new Benjamin Graham”.  

Assessment

Your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated.

Conclusion

Feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, subscribe to the ME-P. It is fast, free and secure.

Speaker: If you need a moderator or speaker for an upcoming event, Dr. David E. Marcinko; MBA – Publisher-in-Chief of the Medical Executive-Post – is available for seminar or speaking engagements. Contact: MarcinkoAdvisors@msn.com

OUR OTHER PRINT BOOKS AND RELATED INFORMATION SOURCES:

Comprehensive Financial Planning Strategies for Doctors and Advisors: Best Practices from Leading Consultants and Certified Medical Planners(TM)

Front Matter with Foreword by Jason Dyken MD MBA

logos

“BY DOCTORS – FOR DOCTORS – PEER REVIEWED – FIDUCIARY FOCUSED”

***

 

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