International Index Investing: A Metric to Measure Quality

themazeA recap of my thinking

Recapping the last few blog posts: I think valuations are too high in the United States. Choose your poison: CAPE ratios, market cap to GDP, or the average investor allocation to equities. All suggest low returns in the coming decade.

At the same time, I know that attempting to time the US market using valuation is a fruitless effort. Markets can stay expensive for a long time. Since 2000, the US market has only gone to its “average” historical valuation once, in the depths of the 2009 financial crisis. Avoiding the market for a long time in a low return asset like cash or t-bills ultimately hurts future returns. It can even result in negative real returns if inflation picks up. If interest rates stay this low, then the market can certainly remain expensive. The direction of interest rates is the key question when determining future valuations.

For value investors, timing based on the valuation of the broader market is particularly tricky because there is often value in individual securities even if the broader market is overvalued. For instance, in the early 2000s, value stocks had a nice bull market while the broader market melted down. In Japan, while the broader market was crushed, Joel Greenblatt’s magic formula returned an amazing 18% annual rate of return from 1993-2006.

So, I think that a portfolio of 20-30 cheap stocks over the next 10 years will handily beat the S&P 500.

The caveats to this:

(1) Value doesn’t usually experience a bull market while everything else goes down. The only time this happened was the early 2000s. Value stocks normally go down with everything else. I suspect the current disconnect between value and growth stocks will see value triumphant, but we likely won’t see that happen until a decline happens in the broader market.

I suspect the current cycle will be more like the 1970s when value stocks went down with the broader market in 1973 and 1974 and then staged a very nice bull market after ’74.

The current cycle has much more in common with the early ’70s than it does with the late 1990s. The high flying stocks of the early ’70s weren’t crazy speculative companies like they were in the late ’90s. The hot stocks of the ’70s weren’t garbage like, they were quality companies like McDonalds and Xerox. It’s the same thing today. The high valuations aren’t in junky speculative companies, they are in quality names like Facebook and Amazon.

The decline of 1973-74 wasn’t driven by a bubble popping like 2000, it was caused by a macro event (the oil crisis), which brought down the richly valued companies by bigger drawdowns than everything else. I think the same thing will probably happen to the US market this time around. What event will cause this is unpredictable (a war with North Korea, inflation causing a hike in interest rates?), but I think something is likely to come along that will cause a major drawdown.

A smart guy like Nassim Taleb would call this a “black swan” or “tail risk” event. I prefer a simpler way to express this: shit happens.

(2) Trying to time the US market with CAPE ratios is ineffective. The alternatives (cash, T-bills) do not yield enough to justify moving in and out of the US market. Tobias Carlisle did some great research on this here.

(3) Even value stocks are expensive in this market. For instance, a stock screen I like to comb through is the number of stocks trading at an EV/EBIT of less than 5. Out of the entire Russell 3000, I can only find 16 of them outside of the financial sector. Of these, half of them are in the retail sector.

At the beginning of 1999, there were 38 of these opportunities in a diversified group of industries. After the manic tech euphoria of 1999 where money flowed from “boring” stocks into tech, the number grew to 70 at the start of 2000. This group of stocks returned 20% in 2000, while the S&P 500 went down by 10.50%.

Expensive Value Stocks

The value opportunity set in the United States is currently limited.

Much of what fueled the early 2000s bull market in value stocks was the wide availability of cheap stocks in diverse industries. This simply isn’t the case today, as the small number of value opportunities in the U.S. is concentrated in one industry: retail.

I currently have 30% of my portfolio invested in the retail sector, which I’m comfortable with. If I were to buy all the cheap stocks in the United States, over 60% of my portfolio would be invested in retail. While I think retail stocks will ultimately stage a resurgence, I’m not certain of it. A 60-80% concentration in one industry is too risky. The sector could easily be cut in half again. 30% is the maximum extent that I am willing to commit to an individual industry. If retail were cut in half, my potential loss if 15% of my portfolio. If I expanded that to 60% or 80%, I could lose 30-40% of my entire portfolio. That’s a much more difficult event to recover from.

I could achieve more diversification by taking a relative valuation mindset to the current market, but I think this is dangerous. I prefer absolute measures of valuation — like a P/Sales of less than 1, the price is below tangible book, EV/EBIT of less than 5, 66% of net current asset value, earnings yields that double corporate bonds, etc.

A major reason I prefer absolute measures of valuation is that I think high valuation ratios in the cheapest decile of a market is a sign that the valuation metric is losing its effectiveness. A good example of this is price/book.

Price/book worked marvelously prior to the 1990s, but its effectiveness has been dramatically reduced since then. This is because Fama & French identified price/book as the best value factor. This made it respectable to buy low price/book stocks, while previously low price/book investors were regarded as oddballs (rich oddballs who consistently beat the market, like Walter Schloss!). Once Fama & French gave it their blessing, vast amounts of institutional money poured into low price/book strategies. Price/book became synonymous with value and this ruined the effectiveness of the factor.

If too much money chases low P/E, P/Sales, EV/EBIT stocks, then they will suffer the same fate as price/book. They will still work due to human nature (investors will always find ridiculously cheap stocks repulsive), but the effectiveness will be diminished. Institutional big money can ruin the factor. I think a good way to tell that this is happening is to focus on absolute metrics of valuation rather than relative valuation compared to the rest of the market. If too much money chases the value factor, then absolute measures of valuation will rise. By focusing on absolute levels of valuation, I can avoid this.

EV/EBIT is by far the best of all value factors, but if too much money chases it, the effectiveness will be reduced.

This is why I think focusing on absolute valuation is a way to prevent falling into this trap. Think about it through the prism of the real estate bubble: a house cheaper than the rest of the neighborhood was still a bad bet in 2006 because all real estate was in an inflated bubble. A single house might have been a good relative value and suffered less of a price decline than everything else, but it was still expensive. Focusing on an absolute level of valuation would have helped avoid this trap.

Going International

The beauty of the modern world is that I’m not limited to the United States. Previous generations of investors had a handful of options: cash, bonds, US stocks. Fortunately, I don’t have to sit on a pile of cash earning nothing while I wait for US markets to deliver me juicy opportunities, which is a bad strategy that can cause real inflation-adjusted losses the longer that the adjustment takes. I could wind up sitting on cash for a decade, absolutely decimating my real returns.

A great alternative to cash while the US market is expensive is investing internationally. While I don’t trust my ability to research foreign companies, I am comfortable investing in an index of a foreign country. While I think foreign stocks are more prone to fraud, I don’t think the financial results of an entire index can be fraudulent.

A few weeks ago, I did this in a very crude way. I invested 10% of my portfolio into a basket of the 5 cheapest country indexes on Earth.

If I’m going to do this in a bigger way, I need a better quality metric. It seems obvious to me that higher quality countries (like the United States) should command a higher valuation than a low-quality country. The definition of a bargain would also depend on the economic quality of that country. For instance, the US at a CAPE Ratio of 15 (where it was in 2009) is a screaming bargain, while Russia at a CAPE of 15 is probably a bit expensive in comparison to the risk. I’ll invest in a country of any quality – but I should demand a higher margin of safety if it is a low-quality country.

But how does one measure the “quality” of an entire country? This is a tough thing to quantify. Mainstream economists do this by splitting up the “developed” (i.e., already rich) parts of the world from “emerging” (trying to get rich) and “frontier” (poor). This doesn’t make sense to me to use as a quality metric. An emerging or frontier market may have better prospects than a developed, rich country.

What makes a country’s economy “quality”?

One of my favorite books about this subject is P.J. O’Rourke’s “Eat the Rich“.  P.J. has written some of my favorite books of all time (Parliament of Whores in particular).


In the book, P.J. tries to define what makes countries “good” economically. His question is pretty simple: “Why do some places prosper and thrive, while others just suck?”

P.J. explains the conundrum in the following passage:

It’s not a matter of brains. No part of the earth (with the possible exception of Brentwood) is dumber than Beverly Hills, and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they’re boiling stones for soup. Nor can education be the reason. Fourth graders in the American school system know what a condom is but aren’t sure about 9 x 7. Natural resources aren’t the answer. Africa has diamonds, gold, uranium, you name it. Scandinavia has little and is frozen besides. Maybe culture is the key, but wealthy regions such as the local mall are famous for lacking it.

Perhaps the good life’s secret lies in civilization. The Chinese had an ancient and sophisticated civilization when my relatives were hunkering naked in trees. (Admittedly that was last week, but they’d been drinking.) In 1000 B.C., when Europeans were barely using metal to hit each other over the head, the Zhou dynasty Chinese were casting ornate wine vessels big enough to take a bath in–something else no contemporary European had done. Yet, today, China stinks.

Government does not cause affluence. Citizens of totalitarian countries have plenty of government and nothing of anything else. And absence of government doesn’t work, either. For a million years mankind had no government at all, and everyone’s relatives were naked in trees. Plain hard work is not the source of plenty. The poorer people are, the plainer and harder is the work that they do. The better-off play golf. And technology provides no guarantee of creature comforts. The most wretched locales in the world are well-supplied with complex and up-to-date technology–in the form of weapons.

You should read the whole book (it’s really funny), but the gist is pretty simple: what causes prosperity is economic freedom. Economic freedom doesn’t just mean “people can do whatever they want”, it is capitalism within a defined rule of law that is enforced.

The magic ingredient that can make a country rich is economic freedom, and it’s what turned the United States from a third world nation of farmers into the richest country on Earth that it is today over a relatively short span of history. The people of the United States weren’t more talented or better than anyone else. We were the first to wholeheartedly embrace capitalism while the rest of the world fiddled around with bad ideas like feudalism, mercantilism, socialism, and communism.

The secret to US success is now out.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, economic freedom has been advancing throughout the world (even though it has retreated in its birthplace, the United States). The worldwide spread of capitalism and economic freedom have been profoundly positive for humanity. In fact, the global rate of poverty has been cut in half since 1990. It’s not a coincidence that this decline began at the exact moment that the Soviet Union collapsed. As the world embraces capitalism, it is growing increasingly prosperous as a result.

If we acknowledge that economic freedom is the best measure of the “quality” of a country, how do we quantify that?

The Index of Economic Freedom

The Heritage Foundation has done the world a service by quantifying economic freedom in their index of economic freedom, which they update annually.

They define economic freedom in four key categories:

  1. Rule of law – property rights, judicial effectiveness, government integrity.
  2. Government size – tax burden, government spending, fiscal health.
  3. Regulatory efficiency – business freedom, labor freedom, monetary freedom.
  4. Market openness – Trade freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom, openness to foreign competition.

Each category is scored and the total is grouped in the following levels:

Free: 100-80 (Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore)

Mostly Free: 79.9-70 (The United States, Ireland, the UK, Sweden)

Moderately Free: 69.9-60 (Israel, Japan, Mexico, Turkey)

Mostly Unfree: 59.5-50 (Russia, Egypt, Iran, China)

Repressed: 49.9-40 (Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, Afghanistan)

Going forward, I think I will buy “free” and “mostly free” countries (a score of 70-100) if their CAPE Ratio is below 15. By this metric, Singapore is the most attractive market in the world right now, with a CAPE ratio of 12.9 against an economic freedom score of 88.6.

If I’m going to buy countries that are “mostly unfree”, I should demand a higher margin of safety — i.e., it should be a compelling bargain, with a CAPE ratio below 10. Russia would be defined as “mostly unfree” (Russia currently has a score of 57.1). However, at Russia’s current CAPE ratio of 5.6, it would still meet my requirements and provide an adequate margin of safety.

The quick and dirty way I think about P/E ratios or CAPE ratios is in terms of earnings yield. Take the P/E or CAPE ratio and divide it with 1. For instance, Russia’s CAPE is 5.6, so its earnings yield (1/5.6) is an astounding 17.85%, well worth the heightened risk of owning that country’s stocks. The US, with a CAPE ratio of 30, would have an earnings yield of 3.33%. This means US investors can expect a total return of about 34% in the coming decade. In comparison, if Russia delivers a compounded return of 17.85%, it’s a return of 438%.

It’s also important to consider that the returns will be lumpy. Much of the return could be concentrated in a few years and there will likely be a large drawdown at some point. Stocks deliver high returns because of these drawdowns. The high returns of stocks are a compensation for this risk. The US returns aren’t terrible, especially when compared to bonds, but they’re nothing to get excited about.

Among the other two positions I chose, Poland and Turkey, they are in the murkier area of “moderately free”. I think I’ll buy these type of markets when they get below a CAPE ratio of 12.

Here is where my current positions stack up in terms of both CAPE ratio and standings in the index of economic freedom:


Using these guidelines, I made a good choice with both Singapore and Russia, but likely paid too much for Brazil and Poland. As I expand my position in international indexes while the US market is expensive, I will use the index of economic freedom as a rough quality metric when determining the appropriate price to pay for each country.

When I rebalance my portfolio in December, I am going to expand this segment of my portfolio. When the US market suffers a drawdown, I will reduce this segment of my portfolio and purchase more bargain stocks boasting low absolute valuation metrics.

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.

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