I sold 208 shares of GOVT @ $27.9661.
Harry Browne was a libertarian activist. He was also skilled investor. He successfully predicted the inflation of the 1970’s and took on heavy positions in gold at the beginning of the ’70s.
During the 1970’s, gold rose from $35/ounce to $800/ounce. I’m sure Harry Browne grew quite wealthy as a result.
While Harry Browne was a skilled investor and foresaw the inflation of the 1970’s, he didn’t think that most people should try to predict the market and pick stocks.
For this reason, he sought to create a simple portfolio that would deliver a decent return over long periods of time and offer protection in different economic environments.
Harry Browne called this approach “the permanent portfolio.”
The permanent portfolio is quite simple and extremely brilliant. It invests in only four separate asset classes:
Gold protects during inflationary periods or currency debasement. Cash restrains drawdowns and provides dry powder for rebalancing, along with providing a source of funds for shocks to income. Long term treasuries perform best in deflationary panics, like 2008 or 1929. The US stock market, obviously, delivers a return during periods of prosperity.
And that’s it! Four asset classes and a very small allocation to stocks.
There are few financial advisors that would endorse such a conservative approach.
It’s an unusual, iconoclast portfolio.
How does it perform?
You would think that a portfolio like this would dramatically under-perform US stocks with only a 25% allocation to equities.
Since 1970, the portfolio and US stocks had the following characteristics:
The permanent portfolio underperformed, but one would expect that the underperformance would be a lot more significant with only a 25% exposure to US equities.
The portfolio accomplished this result with massively less stress compared to solely investing in US stocks. The 2008-09 drawdown was only 13.52%, compared to 50.89% for US stocks. The same is true for other terrible years for equities.
In fact, most of the time, the permanent portfolio goes up when US stocks are going down.
In addition to those big, bad years, the permanent portfolio offered significant protection during quicker events like the crash of 1987. US stocks lost 29% during that crash, while the permanent portfolio lost a mere 5.75%.
US Stock Valuations
It’s also worth noting that valuations for US stocks (and hence, returns) were a hell of a lot lower and returns were higher in the 1970-2000 period than we can expect from the future.
That’s not going to happen again.
It’s not going to happen because today’s stock valuations are close to 2000 levels. Poor returns since 2000 have also been buoyed by a massive decline in interest rates, which probably won’t happen over the next 20 years considering that rates are now near-zero.
I think that anyone who expects 10% returns from US stocks from these valuations is going to be very disappointed. For the next decade, I wouldn’t be surprised if US stocks deliver a flat to negative return, likely with a gut wrenching crash somewhere in the mix.
Right now, we’re only slightly below internet bubble valuations, meaning 2000 is probably a more likely starting point for returns than what we experienced in the 20th century.
So, how did the permanent portfolio perform since the peak of the last bubble?
Since 2000, the permanent portfolio has outperformed US equities!
Meanwhile, it outperformed US stocks with significantly less stress. Lower drawdowns, lower volatility. It wouldn’t surprise me if this happens over the next twenty years, as well.
Since 1970, the permanent portfolio has a higher safe withdrawal rate, too, despite the lower returns.
More money can be safely withdrawn from this portfolio than can be withdrawn from index funds.
This happens because of the lower risk, not in spite of it. The lower risk and lower drawdowns make it much safer to withdrawal money from this portfolio in retirement.
I think that’s a pretty incredible result.
It’s a result that runs counter to everything we’re normally taught about investing. Namely, that risk always equals reward.
It’s that elusive 21st century “equity risk premium,” which doesn’t seem to exist anymore, considering that bonds have outperformed stocks over the last couple of decades.
We’re taught that if someone is aiming for retirement, that they need to take massive risks to earn a high rate of return. The evidence doesn’t back this up.
I don’t invest in Harry Browne’s portfolio, but my own asset allocation takes cues from this approach. I own long term treasuries to help me out during market panics and deflationary environments. I own gold to protect myself from the potential of currency debasement. I think small cap value, international small caps, and REIT’s will outperform market cap weighted indexes, which is why I own those instead of indexes.
I think the permanent portfolio is a very sound approach that makes a hell of a lot of sense.
It certainly makes more sense to me than buying a stock market index fund at crazy valuations, which are practically guaranteed to deliver low returns.
100% US stocks is also guaranteed to deliver an incredibly volatile result and massive drawdowns, as demonstrated by market history.
Too many people, in my view, think that one has to endure massive pain to grow one’s savings. The permanent portfolio is one example that there is a better way.
If you want to read more about Harry Browne’s portfolio, check out his book, Fail Safe Investing.
The Black Seeds – One By One.
Featured in my favorite episode of Breaking Bad, Four Days Out.
PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings. Read the full disclaimer.
I continue to under-perform the S&P 500. I’m in year #4 of putting this blog together after setting out to out-perform the market with a value portfolio.
It’s not working so far. I believe this is because of where we have been in the market cycle.
I still believe that small value will demonstrate exceptional performance when it usually does: when we are emerging from a recession and bear market.
This is what we saw in years like 1975, 1991, 2003, and 2009. Small value delivered the following performance in those years:
1975 = +53.94%
1991 = +42.96%
2003 = +37.19%
2009 = +30.34%
Meanwhile, value always lags at the end of a bull market. It then goes down with the market during the recession.
Then, it delivers the out-performance emerging from the recession. This cycle doesn’t look any different to me.
Of course, we are not there yet. This is 2008 (small value -32%), not 2009. This is 1990 (small value -19%), not 1991. This is 1974 (small value -21%), not 1975.
We are only at the beginning of a recession and a bear market. Historically, this isn’t when the small value premium is delivered.
Based on the seriousness of shutting down large chunks of the global economy, this is likely to be a worse recession than the global financial crisis. The economy never grounded to an absolute halt during the GFC and that’s what is happening now.
What makes my under-performance even more incredible is that I anticipated a recession and went into the year with a significant amount of cash. Going into year end, I was roughly 30% cash and bonds. Going into March, I was nearly 50% cash.
Despite all of that cash and bonds, I still under-performed the S&P 500!
My assumption was that my cash would provide a nice cushion against the downturn I thought was coming in the market. The fact that I held so much cash and still under-performed is absolutely staggering.
Of course, this happened because most of my portfolio was in the deep value universe. Value is a universe that was annihilated this quarter.
Take a look at some of the popular value ETF’s this year:
QVAL – Down 40.23%
VBR – Down 34.98%
SLYV – Down 37.36%
Looking at the deep value EV/EBIT < 5 universe, the performance is even worse.
If I bought and held all of my stocks, then I would be looking at a very similar result today. My move to cash turned out to be the right decision.
Of course, my move to cash is not what a value investor is “supposed” to do. You’re not supposed to time the market, you’re not supposed to pay attention to macro, and you’re supposed to stick to the process no matter what. That’s what all of the mental models say and that’s what all of the experts say.
I’m done with all of that. I’m going to trust my own analysis going forward rather than mental models and superinvestor quotes.
I sold off most of my portfolio over concerns about the extreme recession and bear market that is unfolding.
I opened hedging positions with TAIL and SH to stay market neutral against the stocks that I still hold. I sold the short term bond ETF when rates went negative.
I bought one new position this quarter, American Outdoor Brands, a firearms manufacturer. You can read about the stock here.
The End of the Bull
How Bull Markets End
Since I started the blog, I have been worried about the next bear market.
Equities were rich and excess was everywhere. Venture capital firms were practically setting money on fire, as rich people gambled on the next Uber and Facebook, leading to situations like WeWork.
Private equity multiples and the leverage behind those deals grew more and more extreme.
We then had an ICO and crypto bubble, which bore many similarities to the dot com bubble. It was a mania. Manias are sure to end in tears.
Of course, market manias rarely end without a catalyst. That catalyst is typically a recession. In this cycle, we simply avoided a recession for longer than normal, so the mania grew more extreme.
I knew that once a recession came along, the market would be punished in an extreme fashion. I also knew that the frothy environment wouldn’t end until the recession came, so I stayed mostly long.
Now, the recession is here. It arrived faster and with more ferocity than I could ever have imagined.
Going into this year, I assumed that a recession was coming due to the yield curve inverting earlier in 2019.
The yield curve is the most reliable indicator of a recession that we have because it is a good proxy for how tight or loose the Fed is. I was really amused at everyone trying to rationalize the inversion earlier this year.
All of the “experts” lectured us about how inversions don’t matter, despite the yield curve’s excellent track record in predicting recessions. It’s different this time!
I expect the track record of the yield curve to remain intact. It will be even more useful during the next recession, because everyone will continue to dismiss the indicator.
Next time, they’ll say the 2019 inversion didn’t matter because what took down the economy was the Coronavirus. Then, a year later, we’ll have another recession.
We were headed into a recession and bear market without the Coronavirus. The Coronavirus is making a situation that was already unfolding into something more catastrophic to the global economy.
The Coronavirus is turning this from what would have been a normal, run-of-the-mill recession into the worst one that we’ve experienced since the Great Depression.
I do not understand the logic of the bulls who assume that the economy will just snap to life when everything re-opens. Will restaurant traffic immediately return to normal once everything re-opens? Will people return to movies, restaurants, and airlines right away? Will the millions of unemployed people suddenly get their jobs back?
Firms are going bankrupt right now. Their revenues are down 90%. Are they just going to spring back to life once everyone goes back to work? What about the deeper effects on the economy? Everyone’s spending is someone else’s income. Everyone’s debts are someone else’s assets. We’re witnessing a meltdown in asset values and income.
There is no way that is just magically resolved over a couple of months because the Fed is accommodative and some people get a $1,200 check and people can return to work. The bull case strikes me more as denial of reality than a valid thesis. It looks like an unrealistic fantasy to me.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong. I just think it’s highly unlikely that I am.
Valuation is destiny and the market has been overvalued since 2014.
The pundits have mocked bears since 2014.
The overarching attitude has been: “You keep talking about the CAPE ratio, but the market went up 20% last year, so you’re wrong and valuation doesn’t matter!”
The bulls were wrong in thinking valuation no longer mattered. The bears were wrong in assuming that valuations would come down without a recession. Based on the yield curve, a recession wasn’t a serious thing to worry about in the mid-2010’s. It wasn’t even a major concern at the end of 2018.
Overvalued markets don’t come down to Earth on their own. There needs to be a catalyst. In market history, the catalyst is typically a recession.
Valuation alone doesn’t push the market down. The multiple-compression comes during the recession.
The extent of a big equity drawdown is a combination of the overvaluation of the market and the severity of the recession. The bears miscalculated in the mid-2010’s because they didn’t take into account the fact that a recession was unlikely. The bulls miscalculated last year because they didn’t realize a recession was baked into the cake and a severe re-adjustment was likely going to happen based on how frothy the market was.
And yes, the market was insanely frothy. It was even worse than the internet bubble.
Last year, market cap/GDP went above its internet bubble highs.
Market cap/GDP is very good at predicting 10 years worth of returns.
What it doesn’t tell you is the sequence of those returns.
Usually, the sequence of those returns is wild and correlated with the timing of recessions and recoveries. In 2000, market cap/GDP suggested a .4% rate of return. The actual result was a .9% rate of return from that level. Market cap/GDP was a pretty damn good indicator through this lens.
Of course, the market didn’t return .9% per year for a decade in a straight line. This return happens in extreme bull and bear runs. When a very mild recession came in the early 2000’s, an overvalued market was knocked down to Earth.
From 2000-2003, the market went down 44%. Then from 2003-2007, it went up 90%. Then, from 2007-2009, it went down 50%. Then, from 2009-2010, it went up 50%. The market never moves in a straight line.
Let’s look at another decade with sky-high valuations that suggested poor returns: the 1970’s.
From 1973-1974, the market fell 45%. 1975-1980, it went up 200%. Due to inflation, all of these moves were null and the market was essentially flat over that period.
These returns were predictable based on valuations. What was less predictable is the sequence of those returns based on the timings of recessions.
An even better indicator of market valuation is Jesse Livermore’s indicator: the average investor allocation to equities.
The indicator predicted the poor returns of the 1970’s. It also predicted the poor returns of the 2000’s. It also anticipated the significant bull runs of the 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2010’s.
There is always a lag with the data for this indicator, but the latest data in Fred showed a 46% average investor allocation to equities at the end of last year. This was not as extreme as the internet bubble, when this went up to 51%.
Plugging this model into my equation based on this metric, this suggest a .7% return for equities for the 2020’s. Pretty similar to the 2000’s.
Market cap/GDP was at an all time high at the market peak this year, at 151% of GDP. This also suggests flat to negative returns to the 2020’s.
Will the path to these returns look like a straight line for a decade, or will it be like Mr. Market’s insane mood swings . . . that has always been the case through the history of markets?
Right now, we’re facing the worst recession that we’ve experienced in 90 years at record valuations.
We should see at least a 50% drawdown from the highs. We had a 50% drawdown during less serious recessions with less overvalued markets. Why won’t it happen this time? Because markets are more efficient? Give me a break.
Does the last 30 years look like an efficient market to you? Does it look like investors carefully calculate future economic prospects and cash flows during periods of prosperity and bear markets?
1990-2000 – Up 300%
2000-2003 – Down 45%
2003-2007 – Up 90%
2007-2009 – Down 50%
2009-2020 – Up 250%
Rather than carefully and rationally calculating future cash flows, it looks to me like markets simply extrapolate what is going on at the moment and assume that it will last forever, leading to extreme swings.
The bull case seems to be based on the idea that markets look forward and will see past this.
When has that ever been the case in markets? Looking at market history, I don’t see a group of rational actors that can see past the noise and look at the long-term picture of an economy.
At the peak of every expansion, markets get bid up to multiples that suggest it will never end. During most recessions (at high valuations, anyway), markets crash like prosperity will never come back.
Markets aren’t this efficient mechanism that we read about in finance textbooks.
This is how markets work. During prosperity, we have a wonderful bull market where multiples expand. Then, they come crashing down once we have a recession, based on how high multiples are and how bad the recession is. Fear and greed. It’s an eternal cycle of human emotion.
Why won’t this happen again, when we are facing the worst economic crisis we’ve had in a century? Have we broken the economic cycle? Are investors seeing the world more rationally than they did in the past?
This sounds absurd to me.
Of course, once all this is over, if history is any guide, we’ll have another rip-roaring bull market. We had a nice bull market from 1932-37 and we had a great bull market from 2003-07.
The good news is that the yield curve has un-inverted. Short term rates are now negative. I would expect this to continue.
Once the bond market begins anticipating a recovery, I would also expect longer term rates to start increasing again. This is happening now, but there is always a lag between the shift in monetary policy and its impact on the real economy. In the next year or two, markets will rebound. Of course, rebounds don’t happen after a mere 20% drawdown in the S&P 500 and at the opening gates of a recession.
The virus isn’t going to last forever. At some point, we’ll have a vaccine. At some point, the lock-downs will end. At some point, fiscal and monetary stimulus will have an effect on the economy. That doesn’t seem like it will happen anytime soon, though.
PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings. Read the full disclaimer.
Enterprise Value = $670 million
Operating Income = $32.3 million
EV/Operating Income = 20.74x
Price/Book = 1.06x
Earnings Yield = 3%
Price/Revenue = .77x
Debt/Equity = 53%
American Outdoor Brands is a firearms manufacturer. They sell handguns, long guns, handcuffs, suppressors, and other firearm-related products.
Brands include: Smith & Wesson, M&P, Performance Center, Thompson/Center Arms, and Gemtech brands.
AOBC is not cheap on an earnings yield or EV/EBIT basis. This is because earnings are at a cyclical trough. Gun sales have been very poor for the last few years, and gun manufacturers have been punished accordingly.
The Obama Presidency was very good for gun sales. Gun enthusiasts bought up guns like crazy because they were worried about Obama imposing new gun regulations. Of course, the regulations never happened. This created a bonanza of earnings, cash flow, and sales for the industry.
At the peak in 2016, AOBC traded at a price/book ratio of 6x. Price/sales was 2x.
Then, the Trump Presidency came along and gun enthusiasts were no longer scared of regulation. Gun sales slowed.
Meanwhile, in the face of slowing gun sales and the recent bear market, AOBC shares were crushed down to below book value. Recently, all stocks have been dumped regardless of their prospects. The stock has also been punished in recent years due to the ESG fad, in which ESG investors don’t want to have exposure to an ugly industry like firearms manufacturing.
Unlike most of the economy, the firearms market now has excellent prospects. Last month, there was a 41% increase in background checks. Due to the Coronavirus panic, firearms sales are surging. I believe they are going to surge beyond the extremes experienced during the Obama Presidency.
This suggests higher multiples for AOBC. I don’t see why the multiple can’t expand back up to a price/book of 6x from its current 1x multiple. It could also expand up to its 2x price/sales multiple, on likely higher sales. I think there is potentially a 200% upside to the stock from current levels. The market seems to be catching onto this quickly. The stock is already up 15% from my purchase price while the rest of the market is going down this week. I expect this to continue.
PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings. Read the full disclaimer.
Traditional advice: Risk = Reward
Back in college, the traditional financial advice that I learned was that risk equals reward.
The logic is that equities are going to return more than bonds because equities are riskier.
Therefore, the traditional advice goes, if you want to compound wealth over time, then you have to go for the gusto and put everything into stocks. Otherwise, you’re a loser with no appetite for risk and won’t earn decent returns.
The FIRE movement has largely embraced this approach and encourages early retirees to put 100% of their wealth into US stock index funds.
Charlie Munger agrees with this logic:
“This is the third time that Warren and I have seen our holdings of Berkshire go down, top tick to bottom tick, by 50%. I think it’s in the nature of long-term shareholding, of the normal vicissitudes in worldly outcomes and markets that the long-term holder has his quoted value of his stock go down by say 50%. In fact you could argue that if you are not willing to react with equanimity to a market price decline of 50% 2-3 times a century, you are not fit to be a common shareholder and you deserve the mediocre result that you are going to get, compared to the people who do have the temperament who can be more philosophical about these market fluctuations.”
Charlie Munger might be okay with losing 50% of his money every 15 years.
Of course, this is easy to say when you’re a millionaire or billionaire that will always have plenty of money to live on no matter what happens. Even if stocks go down 80%, it wouldn’t have any impact on Munger’s abililty to put a roof over his head and food on the table.
I’m not okay with losing 50% every 15 years. You probably aren’t, either.
As a value investor, I don’t believe that volatility is risk, but I do think it accurately represents your level of heart burn and ability to sleep at night. I’d like to reduce my heart burn and sleep soundly.
Now that the Q1 results are final, many people will look at their stock-heavy portfolio returns returns and freak out a bit. Many will say to themselves: “This is the price of owning stocks and earning high returns. Risk equals rewards.”
There is a problem with this: it’s not true.
It is not a guarantee that stocks will always go up. It’s not even true over very long stretches of time. There have been 10 and 20 year periods of time when stocks had multiple horrific declines and were flat for the entire period.
Stocks frequently have lost decades, where they deliver horrific drawdowns and no return for the all of the stress. In other words, there are decades when stocks provide return-free stress.
The 2000’s and 1970’s are great examples of this. The 1930’s are a more extreme example.
Risk doesn’t always equal reward.
The truth is that there are different, less stressful ways to invest that can earn a satisfactory return on money over time without the stress of a 100% US stock portfolio.
This is readily apparent when looking at the returns of different asset allocations during the recent quarter, their financial crisis max drawdown, and comparing them to their CAGR since 2000.
As you can see, risk doesn’t always equal reward, and this has certainly been true over the last 20 years.
Look at the Permanent Portfolio, for instance. This portfolio only has 25% invested in US stocks. Meanwhile, it has beat the US stock market over the last 20 years with a fraction of the stress. It also made money in a quarter when it felt like the world was coming apart at the seams.
There are many allocations that diverge from 100% US stock market investing that provide for a much smoother ride and still provide a decent rate of return.
Combining volatile asset classes in a portfolio can provide a high and consistent rates of return over the long run.
To earn a satisfactory return over the long run, one doesn’t need to lose 50% every 15 years. One doesn’t need to look at their portfolio while chugging Pepto Bismol.
My own allocation was down down 12.83% this quarter. While I stressed in my active account about what stocks I owned and how they were positioned for the Coronavirus and how bad the extent of the drawdown and economic carnage would be, in my passive account I was able to take a “meh” approach.
With this approach, I don’t have to worry about security selection and I don’t have to worry about what the future holds. The portfolio has it covered.
Will the economy spring back to life? I have it covered. Small value, real estate, and international small caps will likely do well in this environment.
Will we face a deflationary and horrific recession, like the early 1930’s? I have it covered. Gold ought to hold up even though it won’t go gangbusters. Long term treasuries should do very well in this environment, as investors scramble for the safety of treasuries and interest rates will probably go negative in the US further up the yield curve.
Will the Fed’s actions fuel horrible levels of inflation? Will they actively pursue inflation as a means of reducing the US debt/GDP ratio? I have that covered, too. My long term treasuries will be crushed in this environment and stocks will likely be punished, too. But, it’s hard to imagine how gold won’t do extremely well in this environment. Real estate will probably do well, too. Rents will increase with the inflation rate, along with the replacement cost of that real estate. The dollar will probably weaken, but that’s alright, as I have a global portfolio and foreign assets will benefit from a weaker dollar.
Will civilization implode? If that happens, I don’t think my portfolio matters much, anyway.
With the balanced approach, it doesn’t matter if my analysis is wrong, which it may very well be. With a balanced approach, I know that I have built in protections for different types of economic environments and should be able to earn a satisfactory return on my money over the upcoming decades.
Combining uncorrelated asset classes in a portfolio can achieve a better result that doesn’t require forecasting the future accurately, doesn’t require superhuman security selection, nor does it require Pepto Bismol when looking at the brokerage statement. Most importantly, it can often be implemented without paying a manager high fees.
Not only that, but safer portfolios with even lower rates of return than US stocks can have higher perpetual and safe withdrawal rates. This is evident using the ranking tool at the Portfolio Charts blog.
US stocks, even though they can deliver high rates of return, actually rank worse in perpetual withdrawal rates than most asset allocation strategies. This is because of the high volatility and long stretches in which they do not deliver a return. In other words, an investor does not even need to earn the super charged returns of US stocks when using a safer portfolio. This is useful for someone contemplating early retirement. The perpetual withdrawal rate matters more in this scenario than the CAGR over a long period of time.
In the case of my portfolio, the data since 1970 assumes it can sustain a 5.4% perpetual withdrawal rate. If I need my portfolio to generate $30,000 a year, this means that I need at least $555,555.56 to retire. In contrast, to obtain a $30,000 income from the stock market’s 3.5% perpetual withdrawal rate, one needs to save $882,352.41. The two portfolios have have similar CAGR’s – but the volatility and consistency of return for my portfolio creates a higher perpetual withdrawal rate.
My approach is not the only approach. There are many solid asset allocations. Harry Browne’s Permanent Portfolio is a particularly stress-free stud of a portfolio. The portfolio made money this quarter amid all of the horrifying headlines.
Or, maybe you want to go for the gusto and own 100% US stocks. I don’t think this is the optimal approach, but whatever. It’s your money.
You do you. There isn’t anyone else on Earth with your same goals or the same tolerance for risk.
It is worth examining other approaches that have a lot less stress and can still earn a satisfactory return over time.
If you want to explore different asset allocations, there is no better resource than the Portfolio Charts blog.
Another great backtesting resource is Simba’s backtesting spreadsheet at the Boglehead’s forum.
In terms of the allocations that I’ve examined since 2000 and described in the above chart, here they are:
Harry Browne Permanent Portfolio – 25% US stocks, 25% Gold, 25% Long Term Treasuries, 25% Cash. Here is a book on the approach.
David Swensen Individual Investor Portfolio – 30% US stocks, 20% REITs, 15% International Developed, 5% Emerging Markets, 15% TIPS, 15% Short Term Treasuries. I wrote about this portfolio here. Swensen’s book on the subject is great, and I highly recommend this read.
Ray Dalio All Weather – 30% US stocks, 40% Long Term Treasuries, 7.5% gold, 15% intermediate term treasuries, 7.5% commodities. Tony Robbins wrote about this portfolio here.
Boglehead Three Fund – 50% US stocks, 30% International Stocks, 20% Total US Bond Market. You can read about this portfolio with this book.
My asset allocation – 20% US small value, 20% international small, 20% global real estate, 20% gold, 20% long term treasuries. You can read about my approach here.
Wellesley – Want a portfolio that you don’t need to rebalance and can put zero effort into maintaining? Just buy the fund and let it ride? Wellesley has a pretty long track record since 1970 of helping investors do just that. The expense ratio is only .23%. Wellesley investors lost only 7% this quarter and lost only 10% in 2008, while stocks went down 37%. It has also beat the US stock market since 2000.
Buffett: Hold Stocks Forever
One of the most common criticisms I get from other value investors is that I trade too much. This is mainly because value investing has come to mean whatever Warren Buffett says it means.
Buffett recommends that the best holding period is forever. Buy a great business at a fair price and hold onto it for decades. This has become the commonly accepted wisdom among value investors.
Buffett’s views on holding periods is best summarized by the below quotes:
Our favorite holding period is forever.
Only buy something that you’d be perfectly happy to hold if the market shut down for 10 years
My activity is entirely inconsistent with this philosophy.
I argue that Buffett’s approach is only one method of value investing.
It is a perfectly valid approach. But it’s not the only valid approach.
Graham: Two Years or 50%
Graham had a different view. It is also one that makes more sense to me. Graham’s view was that an investor should calculate a stock’s intrinsic value, buy below that intrinsic value, and then sell when it reached that intrinsic value. In other words, Graham believed in simple, easily comprehensible, rules-based value investing.
This is different from holding onto stocks in great businesses for decades on end no matter what.
Graham explained his rules in the following interview:
Q: How long should I hold onto these stocks?
A: First, you set a profit objective for yourself. An objective of 50 percent of cost should give good results.
Q: You mean I should aim for a 50 percent profit on every stock I buy?
A: Yes. As soon as a stock goes up that much, sell it.
Q: What if it doesn’t reach that objective?
A: You have to set a limit on your holding period in advance. My research shows that two to three years works out best. So I recommend this rule: If a stock hasn’t met your objective by the end of the second calendar year from the time of purchase, sell it regardless of price. For example, if you bought a stock in September 1976, you’d sell it no later than the end of 1978.
In other words, Graham recommended that an investor should sell a stock after a 50% gain or after holding for two years, whichever comes first.
This view makes sense to me.
I estimate what I think something is worth, then I sell when it hits that value. I don’t think I’m capable of figuring out which stocks among the thousands available in the investable universe will overcome the odds and compound for decades on end. I do think I’m capable of identifying a bargain and selling when it is reasonably close to its intrinsic value.
There are drawbacks to this strategy. I will never own a stock that compounds throughout the decades. I’ll never buy and hold Nike for 40 years. I’ll never become a millionaire by investing in the Amazon IPO.
I also don’t care. I can achieve perfectly satisfactory results without trying to buy these lottery tickets.
My approach is a high turnover approach, which increases costs and taxes. This is a big deal for someone like Buffett and not so much for me. Buffett is a megaladon and I’m a gnat in the belly of minnow. My trading account that I track on this blog is in an IRA and brokers don’t charge commissions any longer. I have miniscule sums of money and I can’t influence the price of a stock.
My strategy isn’t scalable, either. At least, it’s not scalable to Warren Buffett’s level. Warren Buffett commands the one of the largest pools of investable cash (that is constantly growing!) in global markets. He can’t nimbly move in and out of stocks. It’s like an elephant trying to nimbly move in and out of a swimming pool.
Buffett’s strategy is entirely valid, but it’s not the only valid strategy.
What’s a Wonderful Business?
Buffett recommends buying wonderful businesses. Well, what’s a wonderful business?
A wonderful business is a business that can earn high returns on capital over long periods of time.
This is extremely hard to do. It’s extremely hard to do because we live in a capitalist economy with a lot of competition. If someone has a business where they can earn high returns, other businesses are going to swoop in and do the same thing, which will reduce those returns.
This is why Warren Buffett focuses so much on the concept of a moat. Those high returns on capital can only be sustained if there is something about the business that helps it resist competition.
Where do moats come from? They can emerge from a lot of places. Some businesses might have a geographical moat, like a toll bridge. Others might have a regulatory moat, where government policy helps sustain their advantage. Brands are another form of moat. Are you willing to pay a premium for a Nike swoosh? You likely already have, many times over.
Buffett has identified many moats in good brands. After successes with other wonderful businesses such as American Express and Disney in the 1960’s, Buffett recognized the power of a moat through his investment in See’s Candy in the early 1970’s.
See’s Candy can earn high margins because it has a recognizable and enduring brand. Munger explains the moat below:
“When you were a 16-year-old, you took a box of candy on your first date with a girl and gave it either to her parents or to her. In California the girls slap you when you bring Russell Stover, and kiss you when you bring See’s.”
People are willing to pay a premium for See’s because of the enduring quality of the brand. That’s not something that an upstart competitor can easily disrupt.
The same is true for Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola has a strong brand. If you face a choice between a store brand Cola and Coke, you’re going to pick Coke.
It won’t make much of a difference in your personal finances or grocery bill if you pay 40 cents a can versus 30 cents a can. Why wouldn’t you chose a marginally more expensive quality brand that you’re familiar with over one that you have no familiarity with? Meanwhile, that small difference in price creates large profit margins that are sustainable over long periods of time.
Moats Are Hard to Find
Situations like Coke and See’s sound deceptively easy to identify.
A key problem is that moats are much harder to identify than we realize.
The concept of moats was popularized by Buffett, but it is rooted in the ideas of Michael Porter.
The ideas of Michael Porter have been widely disseminated throughout business education programs. In the 1980’s, it was first taught at the Ivy Leagues. By the 2000’s, it was disseminated and understood far and wide.
My MBA is about as far away from the Ivies that you can go. I earned my MBA at a cheap state school, but even I was taught the gospel of Michael Porter. Much like the efficient market hypothesis, which was drilled into my head during my Finance undergrad degree, Porter’s ideas were treated as gospel truth.
There’s a problem with the ideas of Michael Porter: there isn’t any proof that any of it is true. Dan Rasmussen explains much better than I ever could in this excellent article in Institutional Investor. Rasmussen explains:
Porter’s logic suggests that firms with competitive advantage would earn excess profits, so profitability margins should be a guide to which firms have the most-sustainable profit pools. Yet profit margins have no predictive power in the stock markets. In fact, academic research suggests that margins are mean-reverting and provide little information about future profitability. The implicit certainty of Porter’s view of the world — that margins are persistent, that competitive advantages result from permanent structural features of industries, that “excess profits” come only from distortions in market structure — could lead investors to overpay for current performers. The theory leads not to an investing edge, but to the most common of investing mistakes.
It’s harder than hell to distinguish between a business that is enjoying a temporary edge between one that is an economic franchise.
It’s also hard as hell to figure out if an economic franchise which has endured for decades is about the completely fall apart. One of the best examples of this is Kodak. In the 1990’s, Kodak looked like it had an impenetrable moat. Then digital cameras came along.
Morningstar has put significant resources and intellectual depth into identifying moats. As highlighted in this excellent article by Rupert Hargraves, companies christened as “wide moat” don’t outperform over the long run like they theoretically should. Are you a better analyst of a moat than the talented people at Morningstar who have devoted themselves to solving this problem?
The same phenomenon is also highlighted by Tobias Carlisle in Deep Value. Carlisle cites Michele Clayman’s analysis of Tom Peter’s book “In Search of Excellence” as an example.
In the early 1980’s, Tom Peters identified key attributes of “wonderful” companies and assembled a list of truly wonderful companies. These were companies with high growth rates and high returns on invested capital.
In 1987, Michele Clayman analyzed the stock performance of these “excellent” companies. The portfolio underperformed the S&P 500.
Adding insult to injury, Clayman also assembled a list of companies with the opposite characteristics of excellence – bad returns on capital, low growth rates. Guess what? The unexcellent portfolio outperformed both the S&P 500 and the “excellent” portfolio by a wide margin.
Of course, a modern value investor would argue that they weren’t really excellent companies because they didn’t have a moat to defend those high returns on capital.
These investors would say that the companies that they are purchasing today actually have a moat. Okay. What’s more likely? That these investors have found a moat or a business enjoying a temporarily good situation that will ultimately be eroded by competition? I would say that the evidence suggests they are unlikely to find a moat.
Coca Cola: A Case Study in Moats
Buffett gobbled up Coca-Cola shares after the stock market crash of 1987. He knew Coca-Cola was one of the ultimate American brands and had a strong moat which allowed it to earn high returns on invested capital.
A key source of Coke’s moat was its long and successful marketing campaigns. Coke was everywhere for 100 years. Baseball games. Logos printed on every billboard. Indelible images pounded into the American psyche, like Santa Claus drinking an icy cold Coca-Cola and smiling.
The success of Coca Cola’s marketing was best demonstrated during Coca-Cola’s debacle with New Coke. In 1985, Coca-Cola tried to change their formula. They tested out their formula in taste tests and people preferred it.
Once the new flavor was released, the public hated it. Coke executives quickly realized that Coca-Cola’s success had nothing to do with the actual taste: it had to do with the public perception of the Coca Cola brand, which Coke spent decades establishing. The people associated messing with Coke’s flavor with messing with a part of Americana itself. Coke ultimately relented and brought back the old flavor in the form of “Coca-Cola Classic.”
This is a great documentary from 2003 on the debacle, the People vs. Coca-Cola.
I grew up on a steady diet of Coke marketing and Coke products. Coke’s aggressive marketing has made me associate that brand with an image of America itself.
The sugary sweetness was an immediate appeal. The sugar and caffeine high that came afterwards made me feel good. It was usually served to me at happy occasions: family events, movies, birthday parties. My mind quickly associated the taste of Coca-Cola with good times and good feelings.
Generations of children had the same experience. This made for a hell of a moat, probably the ultimate moat in the history of business.
A Wonderful Business at a Fair Price
Modern value investors are obsessed with identifying Coke-like businesses. They want to identify these wonderful businesses at fair prices and hold onto them for decades of compounding success, following Buffett’s example.
As justification for their frothy purchases, they cite Buffett’s transformation from buying stocks below working capital to buying wonderful businesses at fair prices.
Of course, the price of Buffett’s Coke purchase was hardly modern compounder territory. Buffett bought Coke at a P/E of 12.89 in 1989 and 14.47 in 1988.
Furthermore, I think that Buffett holding onto Coca-Cola for decades was a mistake. He should have sold it in the late ’90s.
Coca-Cola has treated Berkshire exceptionally well. Coca-Cola has compounded at a 13% rate since 1986 in comparison to the stock market’s rate of 10% during the same period. In other words, Coca-Cola turned a $10,000 investment into $660,653. The US stock market turned the same $10,000 into $270,528.
What is missing from the raw CAGR is the sequence of these returns. From 1986 to 1998, Coca-Cola grew at an astounding CAGR of 27.68%. However, from 1998 through 2020, Coke has only appreciated at a CAGR of 4.74%. 10 year treasuries have returned 5.31% with a lot less stress.
An investor would have been better off investing in 10-year treasuries in 1998 than investing in Coca-Cola.
Did Coca-Cola’s business change? No. Coca-Cola has continued to be a great business since 1998, growing earnings and earning high returns on invested capital. It didn’t matter for the stock.
What changed was the price. Coca-Cola got up to a P/E of 40x in 1998. The price grew faster than the fundamentals.
The valuation mean-reverted in the 2000’s despite the performance of the underlying business, causing the less than satisfactory result.
Buffett should have sold Coca-Cola in the late ’90s, but he didn’t.
Why didn’t he?
It could be for public image reasons. Berkshire had become so closely associated with the company. If Buffett sold, it would be a blow to the public image of Berkshire and Coke.
He also couldn’t nimbly move out of it, as it had grown into a massive portion of the Berkshire portfolio.
In fact, it’s quite possible that Buffett realized Coke was expensive, couldn’t sell for the public image reasons, and this may have been a major reason that Berkshire purchased General Re, which helped dilute Coke as a percentage of Berkshire’s holdings.
I’d also argue Buffett was in love with the business and couldn’t bring himself to sell.
Problems with Wonderful Businesses
Coke’s price run-up in the ’90s and Buffett’s mistake by holding on outlines a major problem with buying wonderful businesses.
If the business is indeed wonderful, how can an investor bring themselves to sell when the price gets ahead of the fundamentals?
Another major problem with moat investing is that moats are ridiculously hard to identify. I would argue that even Coca-Cola’s moat isn’t certain to persist into the future.
While it was socially acceptable to give children sugar water when I was a kid, that dynamic is different today. Coke has tried to get away from this problem by diversifying into other products. Still, I find it hard to believe that Dasani will have the same marketing grip over future generations that Classic Coca-Cola had over previous generations.
If Coke’s moat is uncertain, then what moats are certain?
If it’s possible that Buffett – the greatest business analyst of the last hundred years – is making a mistake by holding Coke, then what are the odds that you going to make a mistake by buying the business that you think has a wide moat? I am certainly not a business analyst that’s as good as Buffett.
It is also increasingly difficult to acquire these businesses at “fair” prices. Investors fall in love with wide-moat businesses and bid them up to prices which are likely going to create disappointing future results.
For example, modern value investors are buying things like Visa and Costco because they are wonderful businesses with moats.
I certainly agree that, on the surface, Visa and Costco have incredible moats. Visa controls a significant portion of the global payment system and it’s unlikely that a competitor can disrupt that. Costco controls an ever increasing portion of America’s retail spending habits and maintains that by maintaining low prices and locking in consumers with memberships.
Neither of these businesses can be acquired at the kind of “fair” prices that Buffett acquired companies like See’s and Coca-Cola.
Look at the current EV/EBIT multiples of these wonderful businesses:
Coca-Cola – 24.14
Costco – 19.91
Visa – 23.42
Additionally, Buffett didn’t buy Coke and See’s at crazy, or even slightly high, prices. They were incredible bargains!
As mentioned earlier, for Coke, Buffett bought it at a P/E of 14 and 12. The enterprise multiple was likely much lower than that raw P/E suggests. See’s was purchased for $25 million. Sales were $30 million the year that he bought it. Profits were $4.2 million.
Buying a company for less than its annual sales and at a P/E of 5.95 is nothing like buying today’s compounders at EV/EBIT multiples over 20.
Yes, See’s wasn’t a net-net, but it was hardly a situation where Buffett and Munger threw caution to the wind and paid a sky high valuation for a great business that compounded over time.
Do I Trade Too Much?
Let’s return full circle to the question I asked at the beginning. Do I trade too much?
I don’t buy wonderful businesses and hold them for all the reasons described above. I buy cheap stocks and then get out when the fundamentals deteriorate or they get close to intrinsic value. I certainly trade more than the Buffett-style compounding value investors, who would waive a ruler at me like a nun in Catholic school for betraying the faith.
I went to Catholic school and this was a frequent occurrence.
I trade even more frequently than Graham’s rules recommend.
Not only do I sell at intrinsic value, I often sell at mere 52-week highs. I’ll also sell if I notice a deterioration in the performance of the business, often relatively quickly after I buy them.
A major reason I sell so quickly is because I know I’m not necessarily buying wonderful businesses. I’m buying businesses at what looks like a bargain price regardless of its underlying quality. I get out when I see signs of a deterioration in the business, which helps me avoid value traps.
I’d argue that the approach works, even though I’ve lagged the S&P 500.
As with all things, I like to look at the evidence and not the dogma.
Here is a comparison of stocks I’ve sold, comparing my sale price to the current market price.
I’m not following the Buffett scriptures, but it seems to me like I’ve made some pretty decent sell decisions.
I think I will continue to follow my own path instead of sticking to an investing religion dogmatically.
- Buffett believes in long term holding periods. Graham recommending shorter periods. I agree with Graham.
- Wonderful businesses with moats are extraordinarily hard to find. It’s also hard to find in any quantitative sense.
- There isn’t any empirical evidence that proves that wonderful businesses outperform over long periods of time. In fact, the opposite is true.
- I get criticism for trading too much, but it seems to be working out for me. I’m going to chart my own path and not stick to an investing dogma like it’s a religion.
- You do you. There isn’t any one true faith in investing.
I sold 74 shares of BSV @ $81.805. Short term rates are now negative and I’m not interested in holding this any longer.