Tag Archives: Benjamin Graham

Mature Company Stocks Are NOT Bonds

Like many professional investors, I love companies that pay dividends. Dividends bring tangible and intangible benefits: Over the last hundred years, half of total stock returns came from dividends.
In a world where earnings often represent the creative output of CFOs’ imaginations, dividends are paid out of cash flows, and thus are proof that a company’s earnings are real.

Finally, a company that pays out a significant dividend has to have much greater discipline in managing the business, because a significant dividend creates another cash cost, so management has less cash to burn in empire-building acquisitions.

Over the last decade, however, artificially low interest rates have turned dividends into a cult, where if you own companies that pay dividends then you are a “serious” investor, while if dividends are not a centerpiece of your investment strategy you are a heretic and need to apologetically explain why you don’t pray in the high temple of dividends.

I completely understand why this cult has formed: Investors that used to rely on bonds for a constant flow of income are now forced to resort to dividend-paying companies.

The problem is that this cult creates the wrong incentives for leaders of publicly traded companies. If it’s dividends investors want, then dividends they’ll get. In recent years, companies started to game the system, squeezing out dividends even if it meant they had to borrow to pay for them.

The cult of dividends takes its toll

Take ExxonMobil for example. It’s a very mature company whose oil production has declined nine out of the last ten quarters, and it is at the mercy of oil prices that have also been in decline. Despite all that, Exxon is putting on a brave face and raising its dividend every year. Never mind that it had to borrow money to pay the dividend in two out of the last four years.

I sympathize with ExxonMobil’s management, who feel they have to do that because their growing dividend puts them into the exclusive club of “dividend aristocrats” – companies that have consistently raised dividends over the last 25 years. They run a mature, over-the-hill company with very erratic earnings that have not grown in ten years and that, based on its growth prospects, should not trade at its current 15 times earnings. ExxonMobil trades solely on being a dividend aristocrat.

It is assumed that a dividend that was raised for 25 years will continue to be raised (or at least maintained) for the next 25 years. GE, also a dividend aristocrat, raised its dividend until the very end, when it cut it by half and then cut it to a penny.

In a normal, semi-rational world, dividends should be a byproduct of a thriving business; they should be a part of rational capital allocation by management. But low interest rates turned companies that pay dividends into a bond-like product, and now they must manufacture dividends, often at the expense of the future.

Let’s take AT&T. Today, the company is saddled with $180 billion of debt; its DirecTV business is declining; and it is also losing its bread and butter post-paid wireless subscribers to competitors. It would be very rational for the company to divert the $13 billion it spends annually on dividends, using it to pay down debt, to de-risk the company and to increase the runway of its longevity. But the mere thought of a lowered or axed dividend would create an instant investor revolt, so AT&T will never lower its dividend, until, like GE, its external environment forces it to do so.

There is a very good reason why investors should be very careful in treating dividend-paying stocks as bond substitutes. Bonds are legally binding contracts, where interest payments and principal repayment are guaranteed by the company. If a company fails to make interest payments and/or repay principal at maturity, investors will put the company into bankruptcy. It is that simple.

When you start treating a stock as a bond substitute, you are making the mental assumption that the price you pay is what the stock is going to be worth at the time when you are done with it (when you sell it). Thus, your focus shifts to the shiny object you are destined to enjoy in the interim – the dividend. You begin to ignore that the price of that fine aristocrat might be less, a lot less, when you and the stampede of other aristocrat lovers will be selling it.

For the last ten years as interest rates have declined not just in the US but globally, you didn’t have to worry about that. Dividend aristocrats have consistently outperformed the S&P 500 since 2008.
However, the bulk of the aristocrats’ appreciation came from a single, unrepeatable, and highly reversible source: price to earnings expansion. If you are certain that interest rates are going lower, much lower, then you can stop reading this, get yourself some aristocrats, buy and forget them, because they’ll continue to behave like super-long-duration bonds with the added bonus of dividends that grow by a few pennies a year.

If interest rates rise, the prices of dividend aristocrats are likely to act like those of long-term bonds. The price-to-earnings pendulum will swing in the opposite direction, wiping out a decade of gains.
Analyze management, not dividends

What should investors do? View dividends not as a magnetic, shiny object but as just one part in a multivariable analytical equation, and never the only variable in the equation. Value a company as if it did not pay a dividend – after all, a dividend is just a capital-allocation decision.

I know tens of billions of dollars have been destroyed by management’s misallocation of capital, be it through share buybacks or bad acquisitions. But as corporate management continues trying to please dividend-hungry investors, value will also be destroyed when companies pay out more in dividends than they can afford.

This is why analyzing corporate management is so important. A lot of management teams will tell you the right thing; they’ll sound smart and thoughtful; but their decisions will fail a very simple test. Here is the test: If this management owned 10% or 20% of the company, would they be making the same decisions?
Would GE, ExxonMobil, or AT&T have been run differently if they were run by CEOs who owned 10% or 20% of their respective stocks? It’s safe to say they would have put their billions in dividend payments to a very different, more profitable use.

The Market Doesn’t Care How “Fantastic” Your Stocks Are

The Roman philosopher Seneca wasn’t talking about the stock market when he wrote that “Time discovers truth,” but he could have been. In the long run a stock price will reflect a company’s (true) intrinsic value. In the short run the pricing is basically random. Here are two real-life examples.

Let’s say you had the smarts to buy Microsoft in November 1992. It would have been a brilliant decision in the long run — the software giant’s stock has gone up many-fold since. But nine months later, in August 1993, that call did not look so brilliant: Microsoft shares had declined 25% in less than a year. In fact, it would have taken you 18 months, until May 1994, for this purchase to break even. Eighteen months of dumbness?

In the early 1990s, the PC industry was still in its infancy. Microsoft’s DOS and Windows operating systems were de facto standards. Outside of Apple Macs and a tiny fraction of computers, every computer came preinstalled with DOS and Windows. Microsoft had a pristine balance sheet and a brilliant co-founder and CEO in Bill Gates who would turn mountains upside-down to make sure the company succeeded. The above sentence is infested with hindsight — after all, that was almost 30 years ago. But Microsoft clearly had an incredible moat, which became wider with every new PC sold and every new software program written to run on Windows.

Here is another example: GoPro is a maker of video cameras used by surfers, skiers, and other extreme sports enthusiasts. If you had bought the stock soon after it went public, in 2014, you would have paid $40 a share for a $5.5 billion–market-cap company earning about $100 million a year — a price-earnings ratio of about 55. Your impatience would, however, have been rewarded: The stock more than doubled in just a few short months, hitting $90.

Would it have been a good decision to buy GoPro? The company makes a great product — I own one. But GoPro has no protective “moat” around its business. None. Most components that go into its cameras are commodities. There are no barriers to entry into the specialized video camera segment. Most important, there are no switching costs for consumers. Investors who bought GoPro after its IPO paid a huge premium for the promise of much higher earnings from a company that might or might not be around five years later.

What is even more interesting is that some of those buyers were then selling to even bigger fools who bought at double the price a few months later. GoPro was a momentum stock that was riding a wave about to break. Fast-forward a few years and GoPro sales have been on decline; nowadays its stock trades below $6.

These two examples bring us to the nontrivial topics of complex systems and nonlinearity. My favorite thinker, Nassim Taleb, wrote the following in his book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder”:

“Complex systems are full of interdependencies — hard to detect — and nonlinear responses. Nonlinear means that when you double the dose of, say, a medication, or when you double the number of employees in a factory, you don’t get twice the initial effect, but rather a lot more or a lot less.”

The stock market is a complex system where in the short term there are few if any interdependencies between decisions and outcomes. In the short run, stock prices are driven by thousands of random variables. Stock market participants have different risk tolerances and emotional aptitudes, and diverse time horizons ranging from milliseconds (for high-speed traders) to years (for long-term investors).

In other words, predicting where a stock price will be in a day, a month or even a year is not much different from prognosticating whether the ball on a roulette wheel will land on red or black. In the longer run, good decisions should pay off because fundamentals will shine through — as was the case with buying Microsoft in 1992 and not buying GoPro in 2014. But in the short run there is no correlation between good decisions and results.

Whenever you look at your portfolio, think of Microsoft and GoPro. The performance of your stocks in the short run tells you absolutely nothing about what you own or about the quality of your decisions. You may own a portfolio of Microsofts, and its value is going down because at this juncture the market doesn’t care about Microsofts. Or maybe you stuffed your retirement fund with overpriced fads that may not be around a year from now. But in the longer run, remember what Seneca knew:

“Time discovers truth.”

Why We Sold Apple Stock

Our firm bought Apple shares for clients’ portfolios in 2013, and we are used to being a contrarian voice when it comes to the stock (read here and here) — we loved it when it was hated. Now we are contrarian again — this time going against the company’s faithful.

Here are key reasons why we sold our entire Apple stake just last week:

The iPhone, though indispensable, is a mature product. Since introduction of the iPhone X, as been raising prices on iPhones. For instance, last quarter iPhone sales jumped 24% despite the number of iPhones sold not changing — all growth came from higher iPhone prices. Smartphone penetration is high globally, and thus most of the growth currently comes from replacement phones. Higher prices and lack of significant incremental improvements will likely lead to elongation of the replacement cycle from two years to three (or possibly four).

Recently Apple announced that it will stop disclosing iPhone and iPad shipments. There is only one way to read this news: The iPhone is a mature, middle-aged product with a wife and two kids. Apple’s management is desperately trying to create the narrative that it is becoming a service company. The second line of Apple’s quarterly press release says, “Services Revenue of $10 Billion Reaches New All-Time High.” Apple is trying to monetize its enormous installed base of iPhones, iPads, and Macs by selling digital goods and services to their owners.

This is where we lost optimism further. Apple has done a good job of selling digital goods (apps, movies, music, space) in its digital store, but so far it has proved to be a lousy services company. Its iCloud (email, calendar, data storage) and Apple Maps have been either outright failures or much-inferior products. Apple’s email (originally known as MobileMe) and iCloud data-storage service were basically rendered irrelevant by Google’s Gmail and Google Drive (and Dropbox). Apple Maps is only in business because it is the default map software in the iPhone. Google is light years ahead in accuracy when it comes to maps — just ask anyone who ever tried using Apple Maps.

In addition to Google, Apple competes in services with another giant, Amazon.com, which is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on movies and music. Apple’s streaming music service was initially a disaster. In all fairness, it has improved, but today it is fighting an uphill battle because Apple’s walled-garden approach doesn’t allow Apple Music to work on Amazon’s and Google’s speakers. This gave plenty of breathing room for competitors, who otherwise would not have had a chance.

Then there is Siri. In the beginning it was the smartest digital voice assistant, but not anymore. Not to be disrespectful to Siri, but its IQ has been dropping rapidly in comparison to Amazon’s and Google’s assistants. Google and Amazon opened the APIs (application programming interfaces) of their digital voice assistants to other developers, and soon every appliance in your house will be responding to “Hey Google” and “Alexa.”

There are several reasons why Apple has done so poorly in services. First, it’s a product company. Macs, iPhones, and iPads are incredibly complex devices that, though they are packed with software, are released every year or every few years. Services are software — they almost require gradual, even daily improvement. You release an imperfect product and then keep improving it with continual releases. This approach seems to go against Apple’s DNA.

The second and even more important point is that Apple is facing innovator’s dilemma: Today two-thirds of Apple revenues come from the iPhone, and for that beast to survive it requires a walled garden. This is why Apple’s music doesn’t work on Amazon’s or Google’s speakers. Oh, and what about Apple’s speakers? Apple predictably took a “premium” strategy with its speakers, a strategy that worked great with Macs, iPhones, and iPads. However, the strategy has failed in the case of speakers because Apple’s product is several times more expensive than the “good enough” offerings from Google and Amazon. Moreover, the walled-garden strategy has backfired here. For instance, Apple speakers will not play Spotify, an incredibly popular music service with 75 million paying users and 150 million active users that competes with Apple’s Music. Thus, to protect its iPhone cash cow, Apple services is fighting with one arm tied behind its back.

As shareholders, we became concerned about future sales of the iPhone and not highly confident that Apple’s service strategy will bear fruit, and herein lies the biggest problem for Apple: It needs a new huge product category. (The Apple Watch was a mildly successful product, but in the context of $265 billion of sales, it was a rounding error.) A car was supposed to be that category — it’s the largest product category globally — but, according to the New York Times, Apple has changed its car strategy several times and has basically given up on that category.

When Apple stock was lower, we did not have to worry as much about slower growth, but now we do — so we got out.

Average Stock Is Overvalued: Between Tremendously & Enormously

My business is to constantly look for new stocks by running stock screens, endlessly reading (blogs, research, magazines, newspapers), looking at the holdings of respected investors, talking to a large network of investment professionals, attending conferences, scouring through ideas published on value investor networks, and finally, scouring a large (and growing) watch list of companies to buy at a significant margin of safety.

With all of that, my firm is having little success finding solid companies at attractive valuations.

Don’t just take my word for it. Take a look at several charts, below, that show the magnitude of the stock market’s overvaluation and, more importantly, put it into historical context.

Each chart examines stock market valuation from a slightly differently perspective, but each arrives at the same conclusion: the average stock is overvalued — somewhere between tremendously and enormously. If you don’t know whether “enormously” is greater than “tremendously” or vice versa, don’t worry, I don’t know either. But this is my point exactly: When an asset class is significantly overvalued and continues to get overvalued, quantifying its overvaluation brings little value.

Let’s go to the charts. The first chart shows price-to-earnings of the S&P 500  in relation to its historical average. The average stock today is trading at 73% above its historical average valuation. There are only two other times in history that stocks were more expensive than they are today: just before the Great Depression hit and in the 1999 run-up to the dotcom bubble burst.

We know how the history played in both cases — consequently stocks declined, a lot. Based on over a century of history, we are fairly sure that, this time too, stock valuations will at some point mean-revert and stock markets will decline. After all, price-to-earnings behaves like a pendulum that swings around the mean, and today that pendulum has swung far above the mean.

What we don’t know is how investors will fare in the interim. Before the inevitable decline, will price-to-earnings revisit the pre-Great Depression level of 95% above average, or will it say hello to the pre-dotcom crash level of 164% above average? Nobody knows.

One chart is not enough. Here’s another, called the “Buffett Indicator.”Apparently, Warren Buffett likes to use it to take the temperature of market valuations. Think of this chart as a price-to-sales ratio for the entire U.S. economy, that is, the market value of all equities divided by GDP. The higher the price-to-sales ratio, the more expensive stocks are.

This chart tells a similar story to the first one. Though I was not around in 1929, we can imagine there were a lot of bulls celebrating and cheerleading every day as the market marched higher in 1927, 1928, and the first 10 months of 1929. The cheerleaders probably made a lot of intelligent, well-reasoned arguments, which could be put into two buckets: First: “This time is different” (it never is). Second: “Yes, stocks are overvalued, but we are still in the bull market.” (They were right about this until they lost their shirts.)

I was investing during the 1999 bubble. I vividly remember the “This time is different” argument of 1999. It was the New Economy vs. the old, and the New was supposed to change or at least modify the rules of economic gravity. The economy was now supposed to grow at a much faster rate. But economic growth over the past 20 years has not been any different than in the previous 20. Actually, I take that back — it’s been lower. From 1980 to 2000 the U.S. economy’s real growth was about 3% a year, while from 2000 to now it has been about 2% a year.

Finally, let’s look at a Tobin’s Q Ratio chart. This chart simply shows the market value of equities in relation to their replacement cost. If you are a dentist, and dental practices are sold for a million dollars while the cost of opening a new practice (phone system, chairs, drills, x-ray equipment, etc.) is $500,000, then Tobin’s Q Ratio is 2.0. The higher the ratio the more expensive stocks are. Again, this one tells the same story as the other two charts: U.S. stocks are extremely expensive — and were more expensive only twice in the past hundred-plus years.

Did the stock market decline cause the recession, or did the recession cause the stock market decline? The answer is not that important, because no one can predict a recession or a stock market decline.

In December 2007 I was one of the speakers at the Colorado CFA Society Forecast Dinner. A large event, with a few hundred attendees. One of the questions posed was “When are we going into a recession?” I gave my usual, unimpressive “I don’t know” answer. The rest of the panel, who were well-respected, seasoned investment professionals with impressive pedigrees, offered their well-reasoned views that foresaw a recession in anywhere from six months to 18 months. Ironically, as we discovered a year later through revised economic data, at the time of our discussion the U.S. economy was already in a recession.

My firm spends little time trying to predict the next recession, and we don’t try to figure out what will cause this market to roll over. Our ability to forecast is poor and is thus not worth the effort.

An argument can be made that stocks, even at high valuations, are not expensive in context of the current incredibly low interest rates. This argument sounds so true and logical, but there is a crucial embedded assumption that interest rates will stay at these levels for the next decade or two. In truth, no one knows when interest rates will go up or by how much. But as that happens, stocks’ appearance of cheapness will dissipate.

Here’s another twist: If interest rates remain where they are today, or even decline, this will be a sign that the economy has big, deflationary (Japan-like) problems. A zero-percent interest rate did not protect the valuations of Japanese stocks from the horrors of deflation — Japanese P/Es contracted despite the decline in rates. The U.S. is maybe an exceptional nation, but the laws of economic gravity work here as they do elsewhere.

Finally, buying overvalued stocks because bonds are even more overvalued has the feel of choosing a less painful poison. How about being patient and not taking the poison at all?

You may ask, how do we invest in an environment when the stock market is extremely expensive? The key word is invest. Buying expensive stocks hoping that they’ll go even higher is not investing, it’s gambling. We don’t do that and won’t.

Our goal is to win a war, and to do that we may lose a few battles. It’s great to make money, but it is even more important not to lose it. If the market continues to climb higher, my firm’s portfolio will likely lag behind. The stocks we own will become fully valued, and we’ll sell them and hold cash.

One thing is certain: We are not going to sacrifice our standards and let our portfolio be a byproduct of forced or irrational decisions. Timing the market is impossible. I don’t know anyone who has done it successfully on a consistent and repeated basis. In the short run, stock market movements are completely random — as random as you guessing the next card on the blackjack table.

In contrast, valuing companies is not random. In the long run stocks revert to their fair value. If we assemble a portfolio of high-quality companies that are significantly undervalued, then we should do well in the long run. Yet in the short run we have little control over how the market will price our stocks.

The market doesn’t need to collapse for us to be buyers. The market falls in love and out of love with specific sectors and stocks all the time. We also spend a lot of time looking for stocks outside the U.S., in countries that have a free market system and the rule of law.

We don’t own the market. Though the market may be overvalued, our portfolio is not.

A Few Simple Rules For Money Managers

I simply don’t trust the fundamentals of the global economy right now. The system is built on quicksand.

Debt is growing globally and governments are running huge deficits while interest rates are still incredibly low. Looking at almost any metric, stock markets have been more expensive once in the last 100 years — just before the dot-com bubble burst. There is also another risk in a category of its own: China.

A recent Bloomberg report on Chinese real estate noted that from June 2015 through the end of last year, the 100 City Price Index, published by SouFun Holdings Ltd., rose 31% to almost $202 per square foot. That’s 38% higher than the median price per square foot in the U.S., where per-capita income is more than 700% greater than in China.

This China story gets more interesting. Most of these apartments are sitting empty because they are purchased as investments. Rental yields in China are 1.5%, while the cost of borrowing (mortgage cost) is around 5%-6%. Chinese consumer debt-to-GDP is much greater than it was in the U.S. during the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Since household real estate lending is 22% of Chinese banks’ assets, if you are the almighty Chinese government, you have a decision to make: Do you let real estate prices normalize (decline) and then suddenly discover that your financial institutions are bankrupt, or do you allow (and actually support) the inflation of housing prices?

Predictably, as the Bloomberg report relates: China is ramping up development, and rather than curtail leverage, banks are jumping into the speculative real-estate bubble: mortgage growth is now at 20%.[signinlocker]

Which brings me to one of my all-time favorite books, “Margin of Safety,” by investing legend Seth Klarman, who writes:

“There is the old story about the market craze in sardine trading when the sardines disappeared from their traditional waters in Monterey, California. The commodity traders bid them up and the price of a can of sardines soared. One day a buyer decided to treat himself to an expensive meal and actually opened a can and started eating. He immediately became ill and told the seller the sardines were no good. The seller said, “You don’t understand. These are not eating sardines, they are trading sardines.”

Applying this to China, when an apartment becomes an unoccupied asset whose sole purpose to be used as a investment or speculation, it turns into a trading sardine. Its price will rise until — nobody knows; but at some point someone will metaphorically open that trading can and Chinese real estate prices will collapse, bringing the banking system and the nation’s economy down with them. Simply put, things that cannot go on forever don’t — it just feels like they’ll go on forever while you’re waiting for them to stop.

Today’s global investment environment is a game of musical chairs. Investors are up and marching along because the music is playing, hoping they’ll be able to grab a chair when the music stops (few will do so). Accordingly, I am investing as if the music might stop any second.

Over the past 10 years it has not paid to be cautious. Low interest rates drove prices of almost all assets higher. Pricier assets made people feel wealthier and thus magically created economic growth. Low interest rates also pushed people into riskier assets, thus creating a mismatch between the assets people hold and their true risk affordability and appetite.

So far, none of this has mattered — the more risk you took, the more money you made. It will matter when risk gets ugly, because investor reaction to it will be more irrational than usual. This is why my firm hedges our portfolios through put options.

The problem with an economy being propped up by artificially appreciated assets is that this pendulum swings both ways. At some point, prices will decline. No one knows what will cause the decline — maybe higher interest rates, maybe a presidential tweet, maybe the implosion of the Chinese economy, or maybe just because stock markets and real estate prices don’t grow to the sky. Or it could be triggered by something completely unseen today.

What is clear is that since interest rates are low and global economies are highly leveraged, central banks and governments will not have as much power to help.

This is one reason why my firm’s portfolio holds a lot of healthcare stocks, including Walgreens Boots Alliance. Healthcare companies have great balance sheets; their business is not cyclical (the demand for its products doesn’t fluctuate with the whims of the global economy); and there is a huge tailwind behind their backs in the form of the aging global population. Moreover, many of these stocks trade at highly attractive valuations.

How To Invest In A Market Due For A Hard Landing

I simply don’t trust the fundamentals of the global economy right now. The system is built on quicksand.

Debt is growing globally and governments are running huge deficits while interest rates are still incredibly low. Looking at almost any metric, stock markets have been more expensive once in the last 100 years — just before the dot-com bubble burst. There is also another risk in a category of its own: China.

A recent Bloomberg report on Chinese real estate noted that from June 2015 through the end of last year, the 100 City Price Index, published by SouFun Holdings Ltd., rose 31% to almost $202 per square foot. That’s 38% higher than the median price per square foot in the U.S., where per-capita income is more than 700% greater than in China.

This China story gets more interesting. Most of these apartments are sitting empty because they are purchased as investments. Rental yields in China are 1.5%, while the cost of borrowing (mortgage cost) is around 5%-6%. Chinese consumer debt-to-GDP is much greater than it was in the U.S. during the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Since household real estate lending is 22% of Chinese banks’ assets, if you are the almighty Chinese government, you have a decision to make: Do you let real estate prices normalize (decline) and then suddenly discover that your financial institutions are bankrupt, or do you allow (and actually support) the inflation of housing prices?

Predictably, as the Bloomberg report relates: China is ramping up development, and rather than curtail leverage, banks are jumping into the speculative real-estate bubble: mortgage growth is now at 20%.

Which brings me to one of my all-time favorite books, “Margin of Safety,” by investing legend Seth Klarman, who writes:

“There is the old story about the market craze in sardine trading when the sardines disappeared from their traditional waters in Monterey, California. The commodity traders bid them up and the price of a can of sardines soared. One day a buyer decided to treat himself to an expensive meal and actually opened a can and started eating. He immediately became ill and told the seller the sardines were no good. The seller said, “You don’t understand. These are not eating sardines, they are trading sardines.”

Applying this to China, when an apartment becomes an unoccupied asset whose sole purpose to be used as a investment or speculation, it turns into a trading sardine. Its price will rise until — nobody knows; but at some point someone will metaphorically open that trading can and Chinese real estate prices will collapse, bringing the banking system and the nation’s economy down with them. Simply put, things that cannot go on forever don’t — it just feels like they’ll go on forever while you’re waiting for them to stop.

Today’s global investment environment is a game of musical chairs. Investors are up and marching along because the music is playing, hoping they’ll be able to grab a chair when the music stops (few will do so). Accordingly, I am investing as if the music might stop any second.

Over the past 10 years it has not paid to be cautious. Low interest rates drove prices of almost all assets higher. Pricier assets made people feel wealthier and thus magically created economic growth. Low interest rates also pushed people into riskier assets, thus creating a mismatch between the assets people hold and their true risk affordability and appetite.

So far, none of this has mattered — the more risk you took, the more money you made. It will matter when risk gets ugly, because investor reaction to it will be more irrational than usual. This is why my firm hedges our portfolios through put options.

The problem with an economy being propped up by artificially appreciated assets is that this pendulum swings both ways. At some point, prices will decline. No one knows what will cause the decline — maybe higher interest rates, maybe a presidential tweet, maybe the implosion of the Chinese economy, or maybe just because stock markets and real estate prices don’t grow to the sky. Or it could be triggered by something completely unseen today.

What is clear is that since interest rates are low and global economies are highly leveraged, central banks and governments will not have as much power to help.

This is one reason why my firm’s portfolio holds a lot of healthcare stocks, including Walgreens Boots Alliance. Healthcare companies have great balance sheets; their business is not cyclical (the demand for its products doesn’t fluctuate with the whims of the global economy); and there is a huge tailwind behind their backs in the form of the aging global population. Moreover, many of these stocks trade at highly attractive valuations.

30-Stocks To Add Some “Magic” To Your Portfolio

Index giant Vanguard manages more than $5 trillion of capital today, up from $1 trillion in 2010. Vanguard manages assets mostly indexed on a capitalization weighted scale, meaning companies are ranked according to their stock market value. But, while Vanguard and other traditional index providers have grown dramatically, a slew of alternative index funds called “smart beta” has also become popular. These funds rank stocks on metrics such as their underlying businesses’ economic footprint, valuation metrics, price momentum, volatility, and other “factors.”

One of the more interesting smart beta strategies is Joel Greenblatt’s “magic formula,” which is a simple two-factor model. A former hedge fund manager who enjoyed wild success trafficking in special situations like spinoffs and corporate restructurings, Greenblatt published two books called The Little Book that Beats the Market and The Big Secret for the Small Investor detailing a formula that ranks stocks based on their EBIT/Enterprise Value (a modified earnings yield or E/P ratio) and return on invested capital (ROIC). Cheapness is generally what the great value investor Benjamin Graham stood for, and business quality or returns on invested capital is generally what Graham’s most famous student, Warren Buffett, stands for. Combining the two investment touchstones, the strategy simply owns the stocks with the best combination of these two metrics, and swaps them out for whichever ones score best the next year.

When I was at Morningstar I calculated that the strategy beat the S&P 500 Index, including dividends, by 10 percentage points annualized from 1988 through September of 2009, based on Greenblatt’s back-tested numbers from his book and funds he was running at that time. That doesn’t mean the formula beat the index every single calendar year. In fact it showed patterns of underperforming for as many as three straight years before recovering and overtaking the index again. Value investors must tolerate fallow periods.

Greenblatt runs Gotham Capital now, a firm that offers mutual funds that invest in variations of this strategy. Most of the funds are long the stocks that score best on the two metrics and short the stocks that score worst in various proportions. Rather than looking at fund holdings, which are updated every quarter, we thought it would be interesting to run the screen on Greenblatt’s website (www.magicformulainvesting.com), which is more up to date, to see which stocks score the best on the screen. We ran it for the top-30 companies over $5 billion in market capitalization.

We also included current dividend yields, although that’s not part of Greenblatt’s screen. Dividend yields can be misleading when screening for stocks because high yields can be indications that the dividend is about to be cut. They also don’t tell you anything directly about profitability and cheapness, although some analysts make inferences about profitability from them. Nevertheless, we included them anyway to show that if investors use Greenblatt’s screen they can capture a current yield of 2.5%. If you run the screen for smaller capitalization stocks, it’s doubtful that you’ll get such a hefty yield. Greenblatt’s screening website allows you to screen stocks from $1 million to $5 billion in market capitalization.

Incidentally, Morningstar recently ran an article highlighting 10 cheap high-quality stocks with growing yields, and two stocks on the Greenblatt screen made Morningstar’s list for independent reasons – pharmaceutical and healthcare supply companies McKesson (MCK) and AmerisourceBergen (ABC) Morningstar analysts use a discounted cash flow model to analyze stocks, assigning a “moat” or competitive advantage rating, forecasting future cash flows and applying a discount rate to arrive at a present value.

Here’s the Greenblatt list:

Disclosure: Clarity Financial, LLC currently, or is planning to, hold positions in KLAC and CVS.

 

Good Companies Don’t Always Make Good Stocks

I was recently going through a new client’s portfolio and found it full of the likes of Coca-Cola, Kimberly-Clark and Campbell Soup — what I call (pseudo) bond substitutes. Each one is a stable and mature company. Your mother-in-law would be proud if you worked for any one of them. They have had a fabulous past; they’ve grown revenues and earnings for decades. They were in their glory days when most baby boomers were coming of age. But the days of growth are in the rearview mirror for these companies — their markets are mature, and the market share of competitors is high. They can innovate all day long, but consumers will not be drinking more fizzy liquids, wearing more diapers or eating more canned soup.

If you were to look at these companies’ financial statements, you’d be seriously under-impressed. They paint a stereotypical picture of corporate old age. Their revenues haven’t grown in years and in many cases have declined. Some of them were able to squeeze slightly higher earnings from stagnating revenue through cost-cutting, but that strategy has its limits — you can only squeeze so much water out of rocks (unless someone like 3G Capital takes the company, sells its fleet of corporate jets and starts mercilessly slashing expenses like the private equity firm did at Budweiser and Heinz). These businesses will be around ten years from now, but their profitability probably won’t be very different from its current level (not much higher, but probably not much lower either).

However, if you study the stock charts of these companies, you won’t see any signs of arthritis; not at all — you’ll have the impression that you’re looking at veritable spring chickens, as these stocks have gone vertical over the past few years. So this is what investors see — old roosters pretending to be spring chickens.

Let’s zoom in on Coke. Unlike the U.S. government, Coca-Cola doesn’t have a license to print money (nor does it have nuclear weapons). But it is a strong global brand, so investors are unconcerned about Coke’s financial viability and thus lend money to the company as though it were the U.S. government. (Coke pays a very small premium to Treasury bonds.) Investors ignore what they pay for Coke; they only focus on a singular, shiny object: its dividend yield, which at 3 percent looks like Gulliver in Lilliput (fixed-income) land.


READ MORE ON THIS TOPIC

Something Wicked This Way Comes: McDonalds – A Bear in a Bull Costume


And as investors do so, they are ignoring an inconvenient truth: They are paying a very pretty penny for this dividend. Coke is trading at 23 times earnings. This is not the first (nor will it be the last) time this has happened to Coke stock. Investors who bought Coke in 1998 were down 50 percent on their purchase ten years later and have not broken even for more than 15 years.

And this brings us to the problem with shiny objects: They don’t shine forever. Investors are paying 23 times earnings for a very mature business. Consumption of Coca-Cola’s iconic carbonated beverage is on the decline in health-conscious developed markets, and you can clearly see this in its income statement — sales and earnings have languished over the past decade.

Let’s say Coke does what it has not done over the previous decade and grows earnings 3 percent a year, despite the shift in consumer preferences away from sugar-powered and chemically engineered (diet) drinks. If at the end of this journey its price–earnings ratio settles to its more or less rightful place of 13 to 15 times, then jubilant Coke investors will have lost a few percentage points a year on Coke’s price decline. Thus the bulk of the dividend will have been wiped out by Coke’s P/E erosion.

Coca-Cola to some degree epitomizes the U.S. stock market. If over the next ten years, despite all the headwinds it faces, Coke is able to grow earnings at a faster pace than 3 percent and interest rates remain at current levels (so that the company’s P/E stays at the present “I want this 3 percent dividend at any cost” level), then its stock will provide a decent return. However, there is a lot of wishful thinking in this paragraph.

If interest rates rise and/or consumers’ tastes continue to shift from high-margin sugary drinks to low-margin (commodity) water, then Coke will be hit from both sides — its earnings will stall, and investors will take their eyes off its shiny dividend. Suddenly, they will see Coke for what it is: a 124-year-old arthritic American icon whose growth days are sadly behind it.

I am using Coke just to demonstrate the importance of differentiating between a good company (which Coke is) and a good stock (which it is not), and the danger of having an exclusive focus on a shiny object — dividends — when you are analyzing stocks.

What NOT To Buy In Today’s Stock Market

Dear reader, if you are overcome with fear of missing out on the next stock market move; if you feel like you have to own stocks no matter the cost; if you tell yourself, “Stocks are expensive, but I am a long-term investor”; then consider this article a public service announcement written just for you.

Before we jump into the stock discussion, let’s quickly scan the global economic environment. The health of the European Union did not improve in 2016, and Brexit only increased the possibility of other “exits” as the structural issues that render this union dysfunctional went unfixed.

Japan’s population has not gotten any younger since the last time I wrote about it — it is still the oldest in the world. Japan’s debt pile got bigger, and it remains the most indebted developed nation (though, in all fairness, other countries are desperately trying to take that title away from it). Despite the growing debt, Japanese five-year government bonds are “paying” an interest rate of –0.10 percent. Imagine what will happen to its government’s budget when Japan has to start actually paying to borrow money commensurate with its debtor profile.

Regarding China, there is little I can say that I have not said before. The bulk of Chinese growth is coming from debt, which is growing at a much faster pace than the economy. This camel has consumed a tremendous quantity of steroids over the years, which have weakened its back — we just don’t know which straw will break it.

S&P 500 earnings have stagnated since 2013, but this has not stopped analysts from launching their forecasts every year with expectations of 10–20 percent earnings growth . . . before they gradually take them down to near zero as the year progresses. The explanation for the stagnation is surprisingly simple: Corporate profitability overall has been stretched to an extreme and is unlikely to improve much, as profit margins are close to all-time highs (corporations have squeezed about as much juice out of their operations as they can). And interest rates are still low, while corporate and government indebtedness is very high — a recipe for higher interest rates and significant inflation down the road, which will pressure corporate margins even further.

I am acutely aware that all of the above sounds like a broken record. It absolutely does, but that doesn’t make it any less true; it just makes me sound boring and repetitive. We are in one of the last innings (if only I knew more about baseball) of the eight-year-old bull market, which in the past few years has been fueled not by great fundamentals but by a lack of good investment alternatives.

Starved for yield, investors are forced to pick investments by matching current yields with income needs, while ignoring riskiness and overvaluation. Why wouldn’t they? After all, over the past eight years we have observed only steady if unimpressive returns and very little realized risk. However, just as in dating, decisions that are made due to a “lack of alternatives” are rarely good decisions, as new alternatives will eventually emerge — it’s just a matter of time.

The average stock out there (that is, the market) is very, very expensive. At this point it almost doesn’t matter which valuation metric you use: price to ten-year trailing earnings; stock market capitalization (market value of all stocks) as a percentage of GDP (sales of the whole economy); enterprise value (market value of stocks less cash plus debt) to EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) — they all point to this: Stocks were more expensive than they are today only once in the past century, that is, during the dot-com bubble.

In reference to this fact, my friend and brilliant short-seller Jim Chanos said with a chuckle,

“I am buying stocks here, because once they went higher . . . for a year.”

Investors who are stampeding into expensive stocks through passive index funds are buying what has worked — and is likely to stop working. But mutual funds are not much better. When I meet new clients, I get a chance to look at their mutual fund holdings. Even value mutual funds, which in theory are supposed to be scraping equities from the bottom of the stock market barrel, are full of pricey companies. Cash (which is another way of saying, “I’m not buying overvalued stocks”) is not a viable option for most equity mutual fund managers. Thus this market has turned professional investors into buyers not of what they like but of what they hate the least (which reminds me of our political climate).

In 2016, less than 10 percent of actively managed funds outperformed their benchmarks (their respective index funds) on a five-year trailing basis. Unfortunately, the last time this happened was 1999, during the dot-com bubble, and we know how that story ended.

To summarize the requirements for investing in an environment where decisions are made not based on fundamentals but due to a lack of alternatives, we are going to paraphrase Mark Twain:

“All you need in this life [read: lack-of-alternatives stock market] is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

To succeed in the market that lies ahead of us, one will need to have a lot of confidence in his ignorance and exercise caution and prudence, which will often mean taking the path that is far less traveled.

This Time Isn’t Different & The Lack Of Value

We are having a hard time finding high-quality companies at attractive valuations.

For us, this is not an academic frustration. We are constantly looking for new stocks by running stock screens, endlessly reading (blogs, research, magazines, newspapers), looking at holdings of investors we respect, talking to our large network of professional investors, attending conferences, scouring through ideas published on value investor networks, and finally, looking with frustration at our large (and growing) watch list of companies we’d like to buy at a significant margin of safety. The median stock on our watch list has to decline by about 35-40% to be an attractive buy.

But maybe we’re too subjective. Instead of just asking you to take our word for it, in this letter we’ll show you a few charts that not only demonstrate our point but also show the magnitude of the stock market’s overvaluation and, more importantly, put it into historical context.

Each chart examines stock market valuation from a slightly differently perspective, but each arrives at the same conclusion: the average stock is overvalued somewhere between tremendously and enormously. If you don’t know whether “enormously” is greater than “tremendously” or vice versa, don’t worry, we don’t know either. But this is our point exactly: When an asset class is significantly overvalued and continues to get overvalued, quantifying its overvaluation brings little value.

Let’s demonstrate this point by looking at a few charts.

The first chart shows price-to-earnings of the S&P 500 in relation to its historical average. The average stock today is trading at 73% above its historical average valuation. There are only two other times in history that stocks were more expensive than they are today: just before the Great Depression hit and in the1999 run-up to the dotcom bubble burst.

We know how the history played in both cases – consequently stocks declined, a lot. Based on over a century of history, we are fairly sure that, this time too, stock valuations will at some point mean revert and stock markets will decline. After all, price-to-earnings behaves like a pendulum that swings around the mean, and today that pendulum has swung far above the mean.

What we don’t know is how this journey will look in the interim. Before the inevitable decline, will price-to-earnings revisit the pre-Great Depression level of 95% above average, or will it maybe say hello to the pre-dotcom crash level of 164% above average? Or will another injection of QE steroids send stocks valuations to new, never-before-seen highs? Nobody knows.

One chart is not enough. Let’s take a look at another one, called the Buffett Indicator. Apparently, Warren Buffett likes to use it to take the temperature of market valuations. Think of this chart as a price-to-sales ratio for the whole economy, that is, the market value of all equities divided by GDP. The higher the price-to-sales ratio, the more expensive stocks are.

This chart tells a similar story to the first one. Though neither Mike nor Vitaliy were around in 1929, we can imagine there were a lot of bulls celebrating and cheerleading every day as the market marched higher in 1927, 1928, and the first eleven months of 1929. The cheerleaders probably made a lot of intelligent, well-reasoned arguments, which could be put into two buckets: first, “This time is different” (it never is), and second, “Yes, stocks are overvalued, but we are still in the bull market.” (And they were right about this until they lost their shirts.)

Both Mike and Vitaliy were investing during the 1999 bubble. (Mike has lived through a lot of more bubbles, but a gentleman never tells). We both vividly remember the “This time is different” argument of 1999. It was the new vs. the old economy; the internet was supposed to change or at least modify the rules of economic gravity – the economy was now supposed to grow at a new, much faster rate. But economic growth over the last twenty years has not been any different than in the previous twenty years – no, let us take this back: it has actually been lower. From 1980 to 2000 real economic growth was about 3% a year, while from 2000 to today it has been about 2% a year.

Finally, let’s look at a Tobin’s Q chart. Don’t let the name intimidate you – this chart simply shows the market value of equities in relation to their replacement cost. If you are a dentist, and dental practices are sold for a million dollars while the cost of opening a new practice (phone system, chairs, drills, x-ray equipment, etc.) is $500,000, then Tobin’s Q is 2. The higher the ratio the more expensive stocks are. Again, this one tells the same story as the other two charts: Stocks are very expensive and were more expensive only twice in the last hundred-plus years.

What will make the market roll over? It’s hard to say, though we promise you the answer will be obvious in hindsight. Expensive markets collapse by their own weight, pricked by an exogenous event. What made the dotcom bubble burst in 1999? Valuations got too high; P/Es stopped expanding. As stock prices started their decline, dotcoms that were losing money couldn’t finance their losses by issuing new stock. Did the stock market decline cause the recession, or did the recession cause the stock market decline? We are not sure of the answer, and in the practical sense the answer is not that important, because we cannot predict either a recession or a stock market decline.

In December 2007, Vitaliy was one of the speakers at the Colorado CFA Society Forecast Dinner. A large event, with a few hundred attendees. One of the questions posed was “When are we going into a recession?” Vitaliy gave his usual, unimpressive “I don’t know” answer. The rest of the panel, who were well-respected, seasoned investment professionals with impressive pedigrees, offered their well-reasoned views that foresaw a recession in anywhere from six months to eighteen months. Ironically, as we discovered a year later through revised economic data, at the time of our discussion the US economy was already in a recession.

We spend little time trying to predict the next recession, and we don’t try to figure out what prick will cause this market to roll over. Our ability to forecast is very poor and is thus not worth the effort.

An argument can be made that stocks, even at high valuations, are not expensive in context of the current incredibly low interest rates. This argument sounds so true and logical, but – and this is a huge “but” – there is a crucial embedded assumption that interest rates will stay at these levels for a decade or two.

Hopefully by this point you are convinced of our ignorance, at least when it comes to predicting the future. As you can imagine, we don’t know when interest rates will go up or by how much (nobody does). When interest rates rise, then stocks’ appearance of cheapness will dissipate as mist on the breeze.

And there is another twist: If interest rates remain where they are today, or even decline, this will be a sign that the economy has big, deflationary (Japan-like) problems. A zero interest rate did not protect the valuations of Japanese stocks from the horrors of deflation – Japanese P/Es contracted despite the decline in rates. America maybe an exceptional nation, but the laws of economic gravity work here just as effectively as in any other country.

Finally, buying overvalued stocks because bonds are even more overvalued has the feel of choosing a less painful poison. How about being patient and not taking the poison at all?

You may ask, how do we invest in an environment when the stock market is very expensive? The key word is invest. Merely buying expensive stocks hoping that they’ll go even higher is not investing, it’s gambling. We don’t do that and won’t do that.

Not to get too dramatic here, but here’s how we look at it: Our goal is to win a war, and to do that we may need to lose a few battles in the interim.

Yes, we want to make money, but it is even more important not to lose it. If the market continues to mount even higher, we will likely lag behind. The stocks we own will become fully valued, and we’ll sell them. If our cash balances continue to rise, then they will. We are not going to sacrifice our standards and thus let our portfolio be a byproduct of forced or irrational decisions.

We are willing to lose a few battles, but those losses will be necessary to win the war. Timing the market is an impossible endeavor. We don’t know anyone who has done it successfully on a consistent and repeated basis. In the short run, stock market movements are completely random – as random as you’re trying to guess the next card at the blackjack table.

However, valuing companies is not random. In the long run stocks revert to their fair value. If we assemble a portfolio of high-quality companies that are significantly undervalued, then we should do well in the long run. However, in the short run we have very little control over how the market will price our stocks.

Our focus in 2016 was to improve the overall quality of the portfolio – and we did. We will stubbornly continue to build a portfolio of high-quality companies that are undervalued.

The market doesn’t need to collapse for us to buy new stocks. The market falls in love and out of love with specific sectors and stocks all the time. In 2014 and 2015 healthcare stocks were in vogue, but in 2016 that love was replaced by a raging hatred. We bought a lot of healthcare stocks in 2016. In the first quarter, REITs as a group were decimated and we bought Medical Properties Trust (MPW) at less than 10 times earnings and a near 8% dividend yield – more on that later. We also spend a lot of time looking for stocks outside the US, in countries that have a free market system and the rule of law.

The point we want to stress is this: We don’t own the market. Though the market may be overvalued, our portfolio is not.

Playing a Game of Economic Survivor

I don’t do writing assignments. I don’t like deadlines. I am not a writer; I am an investor who thinks through writing. So when I was asked to write on the future of investing, my instinct was to politely decline. But the topic did seem intriguing. So I decided to give it a try.

At first, I felt like I needed a healthy dose of Prozac to tackle the article — it is easy to get depressed about the global economy. Europe is on the verge of disintegration; China risks a hard crash landing; Japan is a prick away from its debt bubble bursting; and emerging economies are too linked to China. The U.S., whose GDP grew at a less than inspiring annual rate of 2.5 percent in the second quarter, is the least-spoiled banana in the whole rotten fruit basket, the valedictorian of summer school. As I put down these words, the thought that came to mind was, Do I really want to be responsible for other people’s life savings in this tumultuous environment? Maybe I should learn to love deadlines and take up writing as a career.

But when I step back and look at the past 100 years, I’m reassured by all the things that the U.S. and global economies survived: pandemics that wiped out a percentage of the global population, two “hot” world wars and a cold war, the disintegration of a superpower, plenty of other wars, a few nuclear plant meltdowns, economic collapses, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, stock market crashes, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a slew of other bad things. Somehow our economy (and economies that were affected a lot more than ours) got through those things. Our will to survive is so much stronger than any adversity.

Pause for a second. Put yourself in any moment in the past century. There was always something terrible happening that seemed like it was going to tip us over the edge of the cliff. And every bad time seemed uniquely bad. But I suspect that, outside of a giant meteor hitting the earth, the global economy will survive whatever adversity is thrown at it.

An economy doesn’t need a fertile ground of calmness and abundance to thrive. Just think of Japan, a nation living on a few big rocks, with no natural resources, in the middle of the Pacific, surviving and prospering after two nuclear bombs obliterated two of its largest cities — a country constantly abused by earthquakes and tsunamis (“tsunami” is a Japanese word). Despite all that, Japan developed into one of the most prosperous nations in the world, with one of the highest life expectancies. Or think of Israel, a thriving democracy of fewer than 8 million people, surrounded by half a billion “friends.”

There are a lot of bad things brewing on the horizon, and I’d be the last person to tell you to bury your head in the sand, pray to the gods of blissful ignorance, and just hope for the best. Bad things will happen, but we’ll survive, and if history is prologue, we’ll come out stronger. In the meantime, I’ll take the advice of Oaktree Capital Management co-founder Howard Marks, who likes to say, “You cannot predict, but you can prepare.”

It is still not too late to structure your portfolio to weather the global storm. The key is to own quality. For me, quality companies are the ones that need to exist, that you can imagine being around five or even 50 years from now. They also usually come with wide moats that protect them from competition trying to take a bite out of their cash flows.

Companies with pricing power will protect you both in an inflationary environment, by passing price increases on to their customers, and during deflationary times, by maintaining their prices. Strong balance sheets are not really appreciated in an environment where everyone is drowning in liquidity, but they will be appreciated by scared creditors when things go bad. There is a tremendous value in the recurrence of revenue; companies with plenty of it have to do less heavy lifting to grow.

Don’t pay high multiples for growth; you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Returns for stocks are driven by two factors: earnings growth and price-to-earnings expansion or contraction. The external environment may not be kind to earnings growth (the aforementioned recurring revenue will fight for this on your behalf), but a stock bought at a significant discount to fair value puts you on the right side of the P/E trend and can handle a lot of bad news thrown at it. In the longer run it will see P/E expansion.

Dividends are also important. They force management to focus on cash flow — dividends are paid out with cash, not with earnings — and serve as a deterrent to dumb empire-building, value-destroying acquisitions.

If you cannot find enough companies that fit the above criteria, default to cash.

Even if we experience inflation, cash is better than a bad stock.

This Rocky Stock Market Requires An All-Terrain Portfolio

The bulk of U.S. stock gains in this long-running bull market are due to one variable: the expansion of the price-to-earnings ratio.

Earnings for S&P 500 companies have stagnated since 2014. Stock prices have gone up because the Federal Reserve and other central banks have squeezed all investors to the same side of the risk curve. Stocks, especially high-quality ones that pay dividends, are regarded as bond substitutes. Investors now look at the dividends of those stocks and compare those yields to what they can earn in, say, 10-year Treasurys. This strategy will end in tears, as these bond-substitute stocks are significantly overvalued.

Investors globally are facing major obstacles nowadays. These include:

• The risk of lower or negative global economic growth.

• Inflation (high interest-rates), deflation (low interest rates) or a combination of the two (higher interest-rates and deflation).

We don’t know which of these extremes are going to show up, or in which order. Despite their eloquence and portrayed confidence, financial commentators arguing one or another extreme point of view don’t know either. In fact, the more confident they are, the more dangerous they are. Nobody knows.

What’s really called for is an “I don’t know” portfolio that can handle extremes.

As investors today we feel something like a traveler preparing to drive across an unknown continent. A look in the rear-view mirror tells us we should pick a sports car, and if the road continues to be as it has been, then our trip may be fast and uneventful. But what if the road that lies ahead is rocky, full of potholes, and maybe strewn with giant boulders?

A sports car will not get past the potholes. What we need is a four-wheel-drive, all-terrain vehicle. This monster will not have the speed or the sex appeal of the shiny red convertible, but it will complete the journey. Its position at the finish line will depend entirely on one unknown — the road ahead. If it is a smooth, unbroken route, then our Land Cruiser will be left in the dust by the Ferraris and Maseratis.

But if my prediction is correct, you’re going to be mighty glad to have four-wheel drive — you might even end up at the head of the pack.

On the surface, the U.S. and global economies appear to be growing, and though growth has been slow, it has been steady. My concern is that demand for goods has been highly inorganic, engendered by central bankers’ quantitative easing and government’s unsustainable budget deficits.

This is a time for investors to show humility and patience. Humility, because saying the words “I don’t know” is difficult for us money manager types.

Patience, because most assets today are priced for perfection. They are priced for a confluence of two outcomes:

  1. low (or negative) interest rates continuing at current levels or declining further, and;
  2. above-average global economic growth.

Both happening at once is extremely unlikely. Take one away, and stock market indexes are overvalued somewhere between a lot and humongously. (I won’t even try to quantify superlatives.)

So, how does one invest in this overvalued market? Our strategy is spelled out in this fairly in-depth article.

New I-Phones Not Enough, Apple Needs A New Category

Editor’s Note: All of us at Real Investment Advice are proud to welcome Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA to our growing list of outstanding contributors. Vitaliy is the CIO at Investment Management Associates, which is anything but your average investment firm. He has also written two books on investing, which were published by John Wiley & Sons and have been translated into eight languages. Forbes magazine called him “the new Benjamin Graham.” 

It is hard to find a bigger Apple stock cheerleader than me. I’ve been writing Apple stock love poems for years. For a long time, it was easy to love the shares because they were unloved by others and it was cheap.

Until recently, when Apple stock was still trading in the low $100s and at single-digit multiples, we were buying current product categories at a discount and were not paying for future product categories.

At today’s price that is not the case anymore. That is true with any company – the more expensive the stock gets, the more clairvoyance investors need to discern the company’s future growth.

At Apple’s size it is very hard for the company to increase its earnings significantly. Macs, iPads, and even iPhones are mature products.

The iPhone may have a few growth spurts left, but not many. It is facing an unavoidable headwind: the elongation of its replacement cycle. The iPhone improved substantially over the years, but as the i-marvels piled up, the incremental improvements that motivated people to buy a new phone every two years or so became less and less significant.

At some point the iPhone will face the fate of the iPad – its replacement cycle long in the tooth and sales stagnant and declining.

Will the iPhone’s sales stop growing in 2018, or 2020? I don’t know, but from a long-term perspective of the company’s valuation, a few years don’t make that much difference.

(A new iPhone is expected to be unveiled next week. The stock fell slightly Wednesday on concern supply disruptions could cause shipping delays with the new phone.)

Services is the only segment that can grow at a double-digit rate for a considerable period of time, but it only represents 13 percent of revenue. Even the Apple Watch doesn’t really move the needle.

They need another genius

But can Apple come up with new product categories? Let’s ponder on this question in the context of the following quote:

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Apple has a lot of talented people designing and redesigning products in the categories that Apple already dominates. They are hitting a lot of targets no else can hit. Apple’s brand is as healthy as ever, and so is product satisfaction.

However, to create a new category of products Apple needs to “hit targets no one else can see,” and this requires a genius. But in an organization of this size with a lot of bright and talented people, it also requires a benevolent dictator – someone able to make bold, unconventional decisions (and own them), someone who in addition to everything else is able to inspire others to create what they may think is impossible. Yes, I am referring to the one and only Steve Jobs, he of the “reality distortion field.”

Here is an instance that comes to mind: Jobs asked his engineers to come up with a touchscreen computer – a tablet. They did. It looked like a bulky version of today’s iPad. Steve looked at and said “Let’s put the tablet on ice,” then refocused the company on miniaturizing that tablet and making a phone instead.

It is important to remember that at the time, though Apple was financially healthy, it was not swimming in cash the way it does today. Jobs made a benevolent dictator-like decision: He diverted engineers who were working on the MacOS to work on what would become the iPhone OS, causing the late release of some Mac products. And only years later, after the iPhone was a raging success, Apple brought the iPad back to life. That was Jobs’ Apple.

Now let’s visit Tim Cook’s Apple. The New York Times ran an in-depth article unearthing why Apple has (so far) failed to come up with an electric self-driving car. These few sentences jumped out at me:

“But the car project ran into trouble, said the five people familiar with it, dogged by its size and by the lack of a clearly defined vision of what Apple wanted in a vehicle. Team members complained of shifting priorities and arbitrary or unrealistic deadlines.”

Nokia spent a lot on R&D too

Even Jobs admitted that Cook is not a “product man.” Cook doesn’t have “the vision,” and thus he doesn’t have the authority to be a benevolent dictator. Nor does he have the charisma to project and maintain a reality distortion field.

Today Apple spends almost $12 billion on R&D – double what it spent just a few years ago. But as outside observers, we really don’t know where this money is going. Or more importantly, how productively it is being spent. I vividly remember how Nokia was increasing its R&D spend every year during the last years of its dumb-phone dominance, but all that R&D did not bring forth new products that would have saved the company from its eventual demise. Apple is not facing Nokia-like collapse, but the R&D argument still stands: R&D spend doesn’t always equal great new products.

The NY Times article said that Apple curtailed its ambition to make a car and is now focusing solely on self-driving technology. In other words, Apple is basically pulling out of the electric car space (at least for now).

If Apple develops and licenses its self-driving technology, it will recover some of its losses on investments made to date. But it will not be able to take advantage of the significant competitive advantage that comes with its incredible brand, its distribution network – hundreds of stores (potential car dealerships) sprinkled all over the world – its know-how in battery management, its design prowess, and its i-ecosystem.

We still own a little bit of Apple stock but have sold most of what we owned at current prices. Maybe Apple’s augmented reality products will become a huge success, or maybe the company is working on a brand new category of products that we have not even imagined. It is all possible.

In making investment decisions you never have perfect information. Apple is no exception. At today’s valuation we are paying for genius – Apple’s ability to successfully create and dominate a new, large product category. While the company is run by very talented people who will do a great job getting us excited about the categories of products they are already in, the company’s genius died with Steve Jobs.

It’s Not Just Amazon’s Fault

Editor’s Note: All of us at Real Investment Advice are proud to welcome Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA to our growing list of outstanding contributors. Vitaliy is the CIO at Investment Management Associates, which is anything but your average investment firm. He has also written two books on investing, which were published by John Wiley & Sons and have been translated into eight languages. Forbes magazine called him “the new Benjamin Graham.” 

Retail stocks have been annihilated recently, despite the economy eking out growth. The fundamentals of the retail business look horrible: Sales are stagnating and profitability is getting worse with every passing quarter.

Jeff Bezos and Amazon get most of the credit, but this credit is misplaced. Today, online sales represent only 8.5 percent of total retail sales. Amazon, at $80 billion in sales, accounts only for 1.5 percent of total U.S. retail sales, which at the end of 2016 were around $5.5 trillion. Though it is human nature to look for the simplest explanation, in truth, the confluence of a half-dozen unrelated developments is responsible for weak retail sales.

Our consumption needs and preferences have changed significantly. Ten years ago we spent a pittance on cellphones. Today Apple sells roughly $100 billion worth of i-goods in the U.S., and about two-thirds of those sales are iPhones. Apple’s U.S. market share is about 44 percent, thus the total smart mobile phone market in the U.S. is $150 billion a year. Add spending on smartphone accessories (cases, cables, glass protectors, etc.) and we are probably looking at $200 billion total spending a year on smartphones and accessories.

Ten years ago (before the introduction of the iPhone) smartphone sales were close to zero. Nokia was the king of dumb phones, with sales in the U.S. in 2006 of $4 billion. The total dumb cellphone handset market in the U.S. in 2006 was probably closer to $10 billion.

Consumer income has not changed much since 2006, thus over the last 10 years $190 billion in consumer spending was diverted toward mobile phones.

It gets more interesting. In 2006 a cellphone was a luxury only affordable by adults, but today 7-year-olds have iPhones. Our phone bill per household more than doubled over the last decade. Not to bore you with too many data points, but Verizon’s wireless’s revenue in 2006 was $38 billion. Fast-forward 10 years and it is $89 billion — a $51 billion increase. Verizon’s market share is about 30 percent, thus the total spending increase on wireless services is close to $150 billion.

Between phones and their services, this is $340 billion that will not be spent on T-shirts and shoes.

But we are not done. The combination of mid-single-digit health-care inflation and the proliferation of high-deductible plans has increased consumer direct health-care costs and further chipped away at our discretionary dollars. Health-care spending in the U.S. is $3.3 trillion, and just 3 percent of that figure is almost $100 billion.

Then there are soft, hard-to-quantify factors. Millennials and millennial-want-to-be generations (speaking for myself here) don’t really care about clothes as much as we may have 10 years ago. After all, our high-tech billionaires wear hoodies and flip-flops to work. Lack of fashion sense did not hinder their success, so why should the rest of us care about the dress code?

In the ’90s casual Fridays were a big deal – yippee, we could wear jeans to work! Fast-forward 20 years, and every day is casual. Suits? They are worn to job interviews or to impress old-fashioned clients. Consumer habits have slowly changed, and we now put less value on clothes (and thus spend less money on them) and more value on having the latest iThing.

All this brings us to a hard and sad reality: The U.S. is over-retailed. We simply have too many stores. Americans have four or five times more square footage per capita than other developed countries. This bloated square footage was created for a different consumer, the one who in in the ’90s and ’00s was borrowing money against her house and spending it at her local shopping mall.

Today’s post-Great Recession consumer is deleveraging, paying off her debt, spending money on new necessities such as mobile phones, and paying more for the old ones such as health care.

Yes, Amazon and online sales do matter. Ten years ago only 2.5 percent of retail sales took place online, and today that number is 8.5 percent – about a $300 billion change. Some of these online sales were captured by brick-and-mortar online sales, some by e-commerce giants like Amazon, and some by brands selling directly to consumers.

But as you can see, online sales are just one piece of a very complex retail puzzle. All the aforementioned factors combined explain why, when gasoline prices declined by almost 50 percent (gifting consumers hundreds of dollars of discretionary spending a month), retailers’ profitability and consumer spending did not flinch – those savings were more than absorbed by other expenses.

Understanding that online sales (when we say this we really mean Amazon) are not the only culprit responsible for horrible retail numbers is crucial in the analysis of retail stocks. If you are only solving “who can fight back the best against Amazon?” you are only solving for one variable in a multivariable problem: – Consumers’ habits have changed; the U.S. is over-retailed; and consumer spending is being diverted to different parts of the economy.

As value investors we are naturally attracted to hated sectors. However, we demand a much greater margin of safety from retail stocks, because estimating their future cash flows (and thus fair value) is becoming increasingly difficult. Warren Buffett has said that you want to own a business that can be run by an idiot, because one day it will be. A successful retail business in today’s world cannot be run by by an idiot. It requires Bezos-like qualities: being totally consumer-focused, taking risks, thinking long term.