Reflections and Black Swans

By: Henry To | Thu, May 1, 2008
Print Email

(April 27, 2008)

Dear Subscribers,

Let us begin our commentary with a review of our 7 most recent signals in our DJIA Timing System:

1st signal entered: 50% long position on September 7, 2006 at 11,385;

2nd signal entered: Additional 50% long position on September 25, 2006 at 11,505;

3rd signal entered: 100% long position SOLD on May 8, 2007 at 13,299, giving us gains of 1,914 and 1,794 points, respectively.

4th signal entered: 50% short position on October 4, 2007 at 13,956;

5th signal entered: 50% short position COVERED on January 9, 2008 at 12,630, giving us a gain of 1,326 points.

6th signal entered: 50% long position on January 9, 2008 at 12,630, giving us a gain of 261.86 points as of last week at the close.

7th signal entered: Additional 50% long position on January 22, 2008 at 11,715, giving us a gain of 1,176.86 points as of last week at the close.

As of the close last Friday, both our latest buy signals in our DJIA Timing System are in the green. Readers who are interested in the historical performance (as of March 31, 2008) of our DJIA Timing System can refer to our comments from a couple of weeks ago (The End of "Market Fundamentalism"). Excluding dividends, our DJIA Timing System returned 13.76% over the last 12 months, beating the Dow Industrials return of -0.74%, and with lower volatility. Again, our next update would be for the period ending June 30, 2008 - with a move to a semi-annual update schedule thereafter.

Let us now begin our commentary. The events over the last year or so have been a surprise for many - and are certainly worth reflecting on. While we all know that a "black swan" will pay a visit to the financial markets more often than most financial models suggest, the latest liquidity crisis - once it came - took many of us by surprise in terms of its ferocity. As our former Fed Chairman Greenspan stated in late 2005, "History has not dealt kindly with the aftermath of protracted periods of low risk premiums," the swing, once it did came, swung to the other side of the pendulum very quickly from the historical lows in junk bond, emerging market bond, mortgage-backed, commercial mortgage-backed, and asset-backed securities yield spreads in early 2006.

Over the past 15 months, many companies whose business models have depended on cheap financing have either floundered or gone out of business altogether. An example is First Marblehead (FMD) - a company that has been featured in both Value Investors Digest and in the Motley Fool over the last couple of years. The company had been dependent on access to financing in the student loan asset-backed security market, and with the decimation of the asset-backed security market late last year, has effectively seen its core business shut down about six months ago. At the time of this writing - despite the fact that Congress is now trying to revive the student loan market - the credit markets for student loan asset-backed securities is still effectively closed. First Marblehead has been a small cap value investor's favorite over the last couple of years (except that of Barron's)- but only in hindsight did many value investors 1) realize that its long-term business model was shaky at best, and 2) found out that they did not really understand its business model and strategy. I believe this is a good lesson for us all!

The first obvious lesson here is the necessity of diversification - especially for the majority of us who do not have the stock-picking prowess (or the ability to directly influence the capital structure or improve the solvency of a company) of Warren Buffett. Keep in mind, however, that one can still run a relatively diversified portfolio with 10 to 15 positions (disclosure: my personal portfolio has 14 (all long) positions). The second lesson here is "don't be a hero" - especially so in an environment that is deleveraging. If one wants to be a hero (on the other hand, this is the only way one could expect to make tremendous gains in the stock market without managing money for others), then:

  1. Only do so in blue-chip names (GM doesn't count), such as American Express in 1964, IBM in 1993, or Phillip Morris in 2000;

  2. Only in names where most players (most importantly, the US government) have a vested interest in seeing the companies in question survive, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac today;

  3. Only do so if you have the ability to directly improve the capital situation of the company (for most of us, this would not apply), such as the recent capital injections into investment banks by sovereign wealth funds and private equity investors.

Both of these "lessons" are valuable - as long as one learns from them and don't make the same mistakes in the future (we could all wish, can we?). However, there is really no fun in discussing one's mistakes, so let us know discuss our take on the financial markets today and over the next 12 to 24 months.

What pessimists on the U.S. stock market today miss is that the performance of the stock market is not directly tied to the performance of the economy in the short and intermediate term. According to JP Morgan, since 1900, the U.S. stock market returned on average +1.4% during the times the economy was in recession (+2.1% if we ignore the sell-off from the stock market's severely high overvaluation during the 2001 recession). In addition, the U.S. economy actually grew faster in the 1970s than the 1980s, and yet the stock market enjoyed significantly better returns (an understatement) in the 1980s than the 1970s. Over the long run, the U.S. stock market is directly tied to earnings and more importantly, projected future earnings power. Today, this earnings stream is just not relegated to income from US customers, but all over the world, as about 50% of all income from members of the S&P 500 now comes from overseas markets. This makes projected future earnings power much more difficult to model, but we can always try.

I would argue that projected future earnings power (on an EPS basis - this is very important, as will be evident later) is directly based on:

  1. Projected corporate profit margins, or more specifically, corporate pricing power and expenses (wages, pension expenses, etc.);

  2. Projected corporate tax rates around the world;

  3. Projected financing costs, or cost of capital;

  4. Projected "float" of the global stock market (given that capital is very mobile today) - as expressed in the dollar value of shares that are available to investors today;

  5. Projected productivity, employment, and population growth - all of which have a direct impact to the build-up of global wealth;

  6. The ability and willingness of governments around the world to protect private capital and to allow capital to move freely around the world;

  7. The freedom to trade and the projected increase in trade flows around the world (Ricardo's law of comparative advantage).

Each of the above has a more direct impact on U.S. and global stock prices than projected GDP growth alone. More importantly, the effects of each of the above could be more easily quantified, unlike the "mixture of stuff" that is ever changing in every GDP computation (or in China's case, a make-believe number).

Furthermore, each of the above is not independent of each other. For example, both the cost of capital and corporate tax rates has a direct impact on corporate profit margins. I included corporate tax rates as a separate line item simply because it does not have a uniform effect on all companies. One example is corporate tax breaks for certain industries. When it comes to cost of capital - it is important to note that in a credit "seizure" such as what we are having now - the cost of capital for certain (highly credit worthy) companies will eventually decline as the Federal Reserve lowers rates, while increasing to near infinity to those which are assumed to be at the margin, such as First Marblehead, Bear Stearns (before its announced takeover by JP Morgan), or Thornburg Mortgage (it had to do an equity offering of around four times its market cap in order to survive). As some of these marginal companies go out of business due to the lack of financing options, corporate profit margins for the companies that survive would dramatically increase as competitors are taken out in their respective industries.

Secondly, the above seven points are meant to be sweeping in nature. For example, the ability of governments to project private capital does not only mean protection from government confiscation or theft, but from foreign invasion as well. Through the U.S. central bank and FDIC, our system has also built in a significant "safety net" that prevents private bankers from seizing our deposits or mortgaged-assets during a liquidity or a solvency crisis in our financial system (the latter of which is a far cry from the 1970s). Another example is projected productivity growth. Embedded within this statement is the assumption that capitalism will not only survive, but will continue to thrive. The reason is this: The best economic system that allows for sustained productivity growth is capitalism, and nothing else (Joseph Schumpeter went as far as associating technological advances directly with capitalism).

It is to be said here that investors' perceptions of future earnings power are almost as important as actual future earnings power, at least in the short to intermediate term. This is one factor that drives P/E contraction or expansion - and which also determines the cost of capital of companies via equity offerings (IPOs or secondaries). Note that this perception also takes into account financial transparency - as investors' perceptions of future earnings power will be clouded if company's balance sheets or income statements are perceived to be deceiving in nature. Another factor that drives future P/Es is, obviously, today's P/Es, as well as the valuation (and availability) of other liquid asset classes that are available to investors around the world, such as corporate bonds, government bonds, cash, REITs, commodities, etc. Speaking of "availability," the "supply" of equities (measured by the dollar value of the global equity market "float") is also important. A recent example was the significant divergence in the value of the Chinese "A shares" relative to their "H share" counterparts in Hong Kong, or ADRs being traded on the U.S. stock exchanges last year. The "poster boy" was the debut of PetroChina's shares in the Shanghai stock market in November 2007. At the time of the debut, only a little more than 2% of its shares were listed on the Shanghai stock exchange. Driven by the bidding frenzy in Shanghai, the stock traded debuted at a P/E of around 55, versus 22 in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Where Are We Right Now?

Using the above "model" as a basis, we now have a clearer picture of where stock prices may go over the next 12 to 24 months. Moreover, following are some trends that I believe could have an impact on the U.S. and global stock markets (especially individual stocks in certain industries) during this timeframe:

On the other side of the coin, there are now several benign trends that are supportive for the equity markets:

Obviously, we should continue to respect the general deleveraging in the U.S. economy for the next 12 to 24 months, as well as the potential change in U.S. public policy towards businesses should a Democratic candidate be elected President later this year. The continuing "diversification" by institutional investors away from equities and into hedge funds, private equity funds, and other alternative asset classes will also continue to be a short-term drag. That being said, there are now significant countervailing forces that are setting up U.S. stocks for a tremendous bull market sometime in the next 12 to 24 months. Ironically, the general deleveraging in the U.S. economy will ultimately prove to be very bullish for share prices (as long as you pick the right stocks, of course) - as the marginal companies are liquidated, resulting in higher corporate profit margins (more pricing power, lower wages, access to cheaper financing, lower rents, etc.) for the companies that remain.

More follows for subscribers...



Henry To

Author: Henry To

Henry K. To, CFA

Henry To, CFA, is co-founder and partner of the economic advisory firm, MarketThoughts LLC, an advisor to the hedge fund Independence Partners, LP. is a service provided by MarkertThoughts LLC, and provides a twice-a-week commentary designed to educate subscribers about the stock market and the economy beyond the headlines. This commentary usually involves focusing on the fundamentals and technicals of the current stock market, but may also include individual sector and stock analyses - as well as more general investing topics such as the Dow Theory, investing psychology, and financial history.

In January 2000, Henry To, CFA of MarketThoughts LLC alerted his friends and associates about the huge risks created by the historic speculative environment in both the domestic and the international stock markets. Through a series of correspondence and e-mails during January to early April 2000, he discussed his reasons and the implications of this historic mania, and suggested that the best solution was to sell all the technology stocks in ones portfolio. He also alerted his friends and associates about the possible ending of the bear market in gold later in 2000, and suggested that it was the best time to accumulate gold mining stocks with both the Philadelphia Gold and Silver Mining Index and the American Exchange Gold Bugs Index at a value of 40 (today, the value of those indices are at approximately 110 and 240, respectively).Readers who are interested in a 30-day trial of our commentaries can find out more information from our MarketThoughts subscription page.

Copyright © 2005-2009

All Images, XHTML Renderings, and Source Code Copyright ©