Holding Cash in a Euphoric Market
I have a problem. 26% of my portfolio is in cash. I hate cash. It earns nothing. My preference is to be fully invested at all times. I prefer not to try to time the market.
But . . . I am frightened by the valuations present in the U.S. market right now. I don’t believe in market timing, but with a Shiller CAPE around 30, average equity allocation at 42% (probably higher now), and market cap to GDP at 132% . . . it definitely feels like the market is primed for a fall. Usually, value stocks tumble with everything else (except for the early 2000s).
This conflicts with my belief that investors shouldn’t time the market. If you own cheap stocks, it shouldn’t matter what the general market is doing, they will eventually realize their intrinsic value. The CAPE ratio or any valuation metric for that matter isn’t entirely predictive. Just because stocks are expensive now doesn’t mean that the market is necessarily going to crash. Valuations may even be justified if interest rates stay low. That seems like wishful thinking, but we’ve gone through long stretches before where interest rates stay very low (as they did in the 1930s and 1940s). You just don’t know. No one has a crystal ball.
Whether it is stocks or companies, all that you can do is put the probabilities in your favor. Expensive stocks and markets can get more expensive. Cheap stocks and markets can go down. As a group, though, this is unlikely. Buying cheap stacks the odds in your favor.
International Net-Net Investing
The prudent course seems to me to expand outside of the United States for diversification. It is also a way to make sure I am not overly correlated with the US market. The most tempting way to do this is to buy net-nets in foreign countries.
Net-net investing involves buying companies at sub-liquidation values. In the most basic form, you take all current assets and subtract all liabilities to arrive at the net current asset value (NCAV). No value is given to long term assets like plant, property, and equipment which might be more difficult to sell. Graham advocated buying a net-net at 2/3 of the NCAV value and then selling when it reaches full value (thus securing a 50% gain). Graham remarked about net-nets: “I consider it a foolproof method of systematic investment . . . not on the basis of individual results but in terms of the expectable group outcome.”
Studies show that net-net investing is the best way to earn the highest returns. Buffett’s best returns were when he was investing in net-nets in the 1950s and 1960s. Joel Greenblatt created his original “magic formula” with a net-net strategy in 1981. He devised a strategy of buying net-nets with low P/E’s and demonstrated that you could earn 40% returns. The period he studied was after the market crash of 1973-74.
Those net-net opportunities were eliminated during the bull market of the 1980s and 1990s, which is why he didn’t stick to that strategy. Net-net investing is also hard for professionals investing a lot of money (i.e., over $10 million or so), as the stocks usually have extremely low market caps. It’s only something that individuals like me can pursue who are dealing with relatively small sums of money.
The strategy I pursue during frothy bull markets is Graham’s low P/E strategy that he devised in the 1970s. Graham demonstrated that this strategy delivers 15% rates of return over the long run. 15% returns are incredible but not nearly as exciting as what you can make investing in net-nets which amp up returns to the 20% level. I look at other value factors (price to sales, EBIT-Enterprise Value, relative valuation), but I try to stick to Graham’s rules (low debt to equity ratio and an earnings yield that doubles corporate bond yields).
While Graham’s P/E strategy is my base during bull markets, I look at other value factors (price to sales, EBIT-Enterprise Value, relative valuation). I like to see multiple signals that a stock is cheap but I try to stick to Graham’s rules (low debt to equity ratio and an earnings yield that doubles corporate bond yields).
I would much rather invest in net-nets than the low P/E strategy, as the returns are better, it is easier to calculate intrinsic value, and it is easier to determine the appropriate selling point (you sell when the stock hits the net current asset value). Unfortunately, in the United States, there aren’t enough net-nets available to make it viable. Net-net returns are higher than any other strategy, but a net-net is also more likely to go bankrupt than a normal company, so diversification is paramount. When Graham bought net-nets for his partnership, he would buy them in bulk. I read once that he would own nearly 100 net-nets at any given time.
We live in a different world. To put it in perspective, there are about 9 net-nets in the United States right now. Of these 9 choices, they aren’t of the best quality and most of them can only be bought on OTC exchanges.
Net-nets become available in bulk in the United States during market meltdowns like 2008 and 2009. There were also a lot of them in the early 2000s during the tech crash. During both periods, net-nets performed exceptionally well.
There are quality net-nets available internationally, but the problem I have with buying them is that I don’t trust my ability to read foreign financial statements or research companies. I can’t go into Edgar and read an annual report for a Korean net-net, for instance.
I don’t even know where I can run reliable screens to hone in on the right opportunities. Unforeseen tax consequences would also plague me by investing in individual foreign stocks. While I wouldn’t owe US taxes because this is an IRA account, I would still owe taxes in the foreign countries on any gains. For those reasons, I am not keen on buying individual stocks outside of the United States.
Another reason I prefer buying individual companies in the United States is the SEC. I’m happy that the SEC is active in the US market. The SEC misses quite a bit, but it’s still better than what exists internationally.
For all of these reasons, I don’t want to buy international net-nets even though I think the returns are probably substantial and it would allow me to diversify outside of the frothy United States market.
I will shift to net-nets when they are available in bulk quantities (as they were in 2008 and 2009) during the next market meltdown and I can buy at least 10 quality choices. Unfortunately, that’s not an option in the current market.
A Possible International Solution
Thinking about the issue, I thought of something I once heard of listening to a Meb Faber speech from 2014 at Google. He discussed a really interesting idea: applying Robert Shiller’s CAPE ratio internationally.
Meb Faber has done a great research (available on his website) about this topic. He has empirically demonstrated that countries with a low CAPE tend to deliver higher returns (as a group) compared to those markets with higher valuations. Just like individual companies with low valuation metrics, this occurs as a group and it’s not an iron clad rule of prediction.
The CAPE ratio isn’t the best valuation metric for a market, but it’s good enough and it’s readily available for most markets.
This brings me to a possible solution: buying international indexes via ETFs for countries posting low CAPE ratios. This would allow me to avoid the tax consequences of international investing in individual stocks, remain consistent with a value approach, and provide adequate diversification. I will also be able to lower my correlation with the US market in a manner consistent with a value template.
I found a decent list of countries by CAPE ratio. The cheapest market in the world right now is Russia. The reasons for Russia’s low valuation is obvious. Oil has been crushed in recent years and Russia’s economy is very oil dependent. They are also under international heat and sanctions. For these reasons, Russia has a CAPE ratio of 4.93. Russia is hated by international investors. Of course, that is music to my ears: the best investments are the ones that everyone hates.
If it’s not behaviorally difficult to buy, it’s not really a bargain.
To give some perspective on how low Russia’s CAPE ratio is — there were only a handful of times that the US has a CAPE ratio that low — the early 1920s, the early 1930s, World War II, the early 1950s, the early 1980s. All of these were exceptional times to buy stocks. Even in March of 2009, the CAPE ratio for the US market only went down to 15.
In the early 1920s, early 1930s and the early 1980s – people hated stocks, which made them the best times to buy them.
Business Week ran a cover in 1979 called “the death of equities”. This was right before the greatest bull market in history from 1982-2000, which took the Dow from below 1,000 to over 10,000. The reason people hated stocks in the early 1930s is obvious. In the early 1920s, people in the United States hated stocks because the country suffered a severe but short Depression, which everyone forgets about because it is overshadowed by the Great one in the 1930s.
It’s true for individual companies and it’s true for entire markets: buy them when everyone hates them, sell them when everyone loves them.
I haven’t decided if I’m willing to pull the trigger on this idea just yet, but I am curious to hear anyone’s thoughts.
I was considering putting 10% of my portfolio into two of the below ETFs:
iShares MSCI Brazil Index (Ticker: EWZ). Brazil currently has a CAPE ratio of 10.4.
iShares MSCI Russia Capped ETF (Ticker: ERUS). Russia currently has a CAPE ratio of 4.9.
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