A Secret Only a Tiny Number of Investors Understand
At 7 a.m. on Saturday morning we were in our room at the China World Hotel, looking down on eight lanes of traffic that had come to a dead stop in the Beijing traffic.
“The last century was America’s century,” says our Chinese colleague. “This is China’s century.”
“You know why America was such a success,” he continued. “Because it was a fairly free market with massive domestic demand. Companies could scale up in the highly competitive US market. That would make them larger and more advanced than their foreign competitors. They could then enter foreign markets and easily beat the locals.
“Now, the US is gummed up by taxes, debt and regulation. Outside of Silicon Valley most of the companies are old. There are few new businesses and not much new technology.
“I think you wrote something about the declining number of start-ups in the US. It’s a big deal that few people recognize. I think you said it was a result of crony capitalism. The feds subsidize and protect the big boys… and bail them out when they get into trouble. That’s why GM and Fannie Mae are still in business. But the little guys can’t even get credit.
“China, meanwhile, is full of new companies. Everything is new. And the internal market is fairly free compared to America. Talk about scale. These companies have massive domestic growth and learning capacity before they have to compete on the world markets.
The Largest IPO Ever
“Take Alibaba, for example. It’s a huge company already. It recently introduced a new kind of bank account, where you earn interest daily… at a much higher rate than banks in the US. Within a week, it was the third biggest, in terms of deposits, in the world.
“Alibaba is going public soon. It will be the largest IPO ever.”
More evidence of the liberty with which Chinese firms operate comes from a dear reader:
I probably shouldn’t bother you, but this one (about China) is right on and close to my heart. My wife has been a naturalized US citizen for 3 years, an LPR for 3 years before that. For the year before that (2007), we were waiting for the I-190 immigration processing.
We were married in 2007 in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, her family hometown. She had been running a business in Guangzhou. At start-up, she went to ONE place for a license.
She started to tell the guy she planned to deal in Suzhou silk embroideries, calligraphies, and paintings. He cut her off with, “You want to buy and sell things. Okay.”
She paid nominal taxes. In the US there is Schedule C, state B&O tax, county property tax, city license and taxes, and aaaarrrgggghhh…
We own a small “fangzi” in Nanchang and visit China every few years (her daughter is our partner and manages the property). For some time I have felt that China is MUCH more truly “free market” than we are. How tragic!
Can the Market Be Beaten?
But let us leave China and return to the subject of these last few Diary entries: how to invest intelligently in a world where real knowledge is scarce.
This is the third in our series. We have one or two more coming. So keep an eye out for those…
We grew up with the Efficient Market Hypothesis – which was popularized by economist Burton Malkiel in his 1973 book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street.
The hypothesis is that stock market prices reflect the sum of all publicly available knowledge about a company. Because no one could know more than everyone could know collectively, an individual would be unable to “beat the market” over the long term.
Of course, many investors did outperform the market. But efficient market proponents believed this to be a matter of luck, not skill.
Academics and investors attacked EMH from several directions. Some, such as a well-known investor from Omaha, pointed out he and others schooled in Graham-and-Dodd-style value investing had been able to earn the consistent above-market gains EMH theory said was impossible.
How did they do it?
We recently put the question to colleague Porter Stansberry. His reply:
I’ve nearly doubled the S&P 500 over the past 10 years, beating the market in both bull and bear markets… despite the significant handicap of having to do something on a monthly basis. How could I do that if the market was efficient…?
And I’m far from the only investor who has proven able to beat the market consistently, over long periods of time.
These investors aren’t lucky monkeys. They all tend to follow the same types of strategies – strategies that exploit proven anomalies in the market.
The Efficient Market Hypothesis, on the other hand, is the creation of academics who have never been tasked with making a living by their investments. This is second-hand knowledge of the worst kind. The EMH logic you’re aping is precisely the kind of “phony” knowledge you’ve written books about.
But let’s just give you a few simple examples that make a mockery of the EMH.
Right now two of the smartest investors in America – Carl Icahn and Bill Ackerman can’t agree on whether or not Herbalife is a fraud. Herbalife, as you probably know has been a public company with audited financial statements for the past 20 years. One extremely knowledgeable investor says it’s a Ponzi scheme. The other says it’s a great business. How could all of the available information about this business be accurately priced into the stock market?
The answer, of course, is that it can’t be. Nor could it ever be.
Bill, as you know better than anyone else that I know, human beings aren’t driven by logic or facts. They’re driven by the delusions of their hearts. These delusions are reflected in the price of stocks. That creates frequent opportunities to buy stocks at prices that are attractive.
Off the top of my head, I can list at least a dozen “delusions” that are almost always available in the stock market. For the sake of brevity here are four that I’ve used in my career to trounce the market over the past 10 years…
1. The most important quality of any insurance company is the ability to profitably underwrite across the insurance cycle. But there is zero correlation between insurance company stock prices and underwriting track record.
Instead, Wall Street values all insurance stocks based on return on equity alone – even though all professional investors “know” that insurance company earnings are merely estimates that future losses will actually determine. Betting on the insurance companies with good underwriting culture is nearly a free bet that shouldn’t exist in an efficient market.
This opportunity has existed for as long as there is good data on underwriting and shows no signs of disappearing due to investor “knowledge.”
2. Certain homebuilders – NVR for example – have an enormous advantage by not owning any land. Rather than tying capital up in landholding, they merely option the land they need, at the time they need it.
These facts were clear for all investors to “know” and have been for at least the last 25 years. And yet… the human bias to desire land is so strong that not only do these firms rarely trade at a premium to other large homebuilders, they frequently will trade at a discount.
Meanwhile, the performance of the “landless” homebuilders dwarfs all of the “landed” homebuilders, both on annual measures (like returns on assets and equity) and in terms of stock performance over the long term.
No one on Wall Street has ever mentioned this advantage… and in fact, Wall Street and most professional investors continue to publish research professing a desire to own the land banks inside most homebuilders.
3. Investors favor buying puts rather than calls. Investors irrationally fear losses far more than they desire gains, leading to a permanent imbalance in the demand for put options as opposed to call options.
This imbalance makes it easy for investors to invest in put options (by selling them) and immediately gain an advantage over other investors who are unwilling or unable to sell puts. We’ve used this advantage to produce market-beating average returns in stocks while taking much less risk in my Stansberry Alpha product.
4. Credit investors are far better informed and far more rational than equity investors. Frequently, credit investors will price a firm’s debt at a price that indicates bankruptcy is an inevitability. In nearly every case, these firms do in fact go bankrupt.
Meanwhile, equity investors will value the attached common stock as being worth hundreds of millions of dollars, when, in fact, there is no possibility of even making the bond investors whole.
Shorting these stocks is sometimes even possible after bankruptcy has been announced and after the company has publicly advised its shareholders that no recovery is possible.
5. Okay… one more… frequently there are opportunities to profit from publicly announced mergers, acquisitions, spin-offs, and special dividends. Warren Buffett claims that with relatively small amounts of capital, investors can routinely earn 50% annually exploiting these anomalies.
I can recall buying shares of Anheuser Busch in the fall of 2008 for less than $56 per share within weeks of a fully funded, all-cash offer of $70 per share. Although this is, admittedly, a dramatic example, you couldn’t argue that all of the information about this deal wasn’t “known” to the market participants.
6. Just one more… The entire stock market continues to be priced according to “earnings” – which are derived from FASB accounting. These accounting methods were developed by the PA Railroad more than 100 years ago.
They are nearly useless for evaluating companies that have low capital investment requirements. This continuing anomaly is largely responsible for Buffett’s success… and mine.
It’s easy to build a model that will always outperform the S&P over any reasonable period of time (five years) by simply focusing on companies with good margins and low capital costs. These firms will produce higher cash returns for investors per dollar of sales.
Again, this information is available to all investors… And yet most investors continue to believe what they “know” about earnings – much of which isn’t so.
How the “Smart Money” Invests
And not only are individual stocks and groups of stocks often mispriced, but also sometimes the whole stock market wanders far from the path predicted for it by EMH.
Yale’s Robert Shiller, among others, looked back at what investors actually did, as opposed to what EMH said they should have done. This “behavioral finance” approach demonstrated a wide gulf between EMH theory and real-world investor activity.
According to Shiller, “As tests were developed, they tended to confirm the overall hypothesis that stock market volatility was far greater than the Efficient Market Hypothesis could explain.”
As any old-timer could tell you, investors are moved by greed and fear… often becoming too bullish… and sometimes too bearish.
This, of course, was obvious. Shiller went on to explain what Buffett, Stansberry and other market beaters were really doing. The “smart money” takes advantage of the irrational behavior of other investors.
When investors misprice a stock – which Shiller refers to as an “innovation” – a smart investor with a sharp pencil and a clear mind buys the stock. The stock then returns to a more reasonable price. And the smart investor makes more than the great mass of greedy and fearful investors.
Readers will recognize our own Simplified Trading Strategy (STS) as a way to “time” the market at these extremes of greed and fear.
According to the EMH theorists – as well as many Graham-and-Dodd value investors – timing the market is impossible. But just as a single stock is sometimes extremely mispriced, so is the entire stock market.
Our system – of buying stocks when P/Es are 10 or below and selling when they are 20 or above – is just a blunt, and rather stupid, way to take advantage of the same anomaly.
Shiller describes the difference between the “smart money” and other investors in a way that makes most investors seem innumerate. Rather than do the numbers, they read the paper… react to the news and opinions… and are greatly influenced by recent history.
They are “feedback investors,” he says.
As stocks move higher and higher, more and more people come into the market hoping for quick and easy profits. These unsophisticated investors are particularly “feedback” sensitive.
They have not done the math. They don’t know the real value of the shares they buy. They bid them up. And seeing the stock market rise, they become convinced that it is going higher still.
The smart money sees this as irrational behavior…
“Find the trend whose premise is false,” says George Soros, “and bet against it.”
As we have seen in our discussion of the asymmetry of knowledge, it is easier to know what is false than what is true.
The STS gives us a way to profit from it.
More tomorrow – including how much you could have made with STS had you lived as long as 108-year-old value investor Irving Kahn…
Now’s a Terrible Time to Own This Popular Investment
To Bill’s advice against buying stocks selling for more than 20 times earnings we offer an addendum:
Steer clear of bonds when the yield on the 10-year Treasury note is under 2.5%… the average yield on investment-grade corporate bonds is just over 3%… and the average yield on junk bonds is just over 5%.
As Kathleen Gaffney, portfolio manager of the Eaton Vance Bond Fund, warns, credit markets today are “extremely overvalued.”
And as regular readers will know, although extreme valuations are poor market-timing indicators, they’re a big killer of long-term returns.
When you boil it down, there are only two possible outcomes if you’re a bond investor.
Either you buy a bond and hold it to maturity. Or you buy a bond and sell it on to another investor before it reaches maturity.
And either way, investors are blindly taking big risks in the bond market right now.
Let me explain…
If you buy, say, a 10-year T-note and hold it to maturity, your return will be made up of the repayment of your principal after 10 years and the income you pick up along the way.
Given that the official rate of inflation is running at 2% over the last 12 months, your best-case scenario – providing the Fed doesn’t let inflation fall – is a flat real return after your bond matures.
And if inflation picks up, you’ll be left with a negative real return.
If you buy the same 10-year T-note and sell it on before it matures, you risk getting less back for your bond than what you paid for it.
That’s because as interest rates rise, so does the yield on newly issued 10-year T-notes. So, to compensate potential buyers for the lower yield on your bond, you must offer to sell it at a discount to the price you originally paid for it.
That’s why as interest rates rise, bond prices fall.
But it gets even worse…
You see, a lot of folks aren’t happy with earning 2.4% in the Treasury market. So they’ve been “reaching for yield” in riskier areas of the bond market, such as junk bonds – where it’s possible to earn a yield of about 5% by taking on higher default risk.
This has led to record issuance of junk bonds… and, of course, a record number of junk bonds being held by investors.
If investors all want to get out of these riskier bonds at once, bargain-hunter buyers are going to want a steep discount in exchange for taking those bonds off sellers’ hands. And this means a big gap down in prices…
So, what should you buy instead of bonds?
The answer might surprise you: nothing. With such high valuations in the bond market right now, you’re better off holding cash and using it to pick up bargains when the next downswing in the market kicks in.
As resource-investing legend Rick Rule put it at a private meeting of members of Bill’s family wealth advisory, Bonner & Partners Family Office, cash gives you two things – the courage and the ability to pick up bargains when the market starts to put assets on sale.
Without cash on board, you can’t hope to take advantage of that opportunity.
Right now, given the kinds of valuations we’re seeing in both stocks and bonds, consider having about 15-20% of your portfolio in cash.
Not only will it reduce your risk of losses in a market correction, it will also allow you to make outsize gains in the next upswing in prices.