Friday, May 31, 2019

Weekend catch-up

We heard your feedback and we don’t want to clutter your inboxes. We’ll proceed with posting our collection of reads on Inside Edge on a weekly basis. On Saturday mornings, pour yourself a mug of coffee, get comfortable and enjoy a few of the most interesting pieces that we came across during the week.

Interview insights from Graham & Doddsville quarterly issue 

Yen Liow discusses compounding and durable businesses. 
Compounding is the most important framework in investing. Your business model, portfolio and structure should be built around it. You must find durable compounders which are businesses with a substantial and repeatable advantage that allows them to grow more briskly than the broader market.

How do you find these durable compounders? Many believe that they need the largest possible investment universe to find opportunities when in fact the opposite is true. You need to find a rich vein of repeatable inefficiency in a finite universe that you can focus on, so when price dislocation occurs you can exploit it.

Most of the market will revert to the mean over time as excess profit gets eroded away by competition. Focusing on the small percentage of stocks that resist the mean-reversion forces is where you should spend all our time and resources. These are called durable growth businesses. Durable growth businesses are often more predictable businesses because history often holds when faced with new dynamics. Businesses or industries where there is a loose link between history and the future are often defined as lower quality, as your ability to find repeatable situations is low. 

Our job is to find situations where history does hold and to constantly ensure that new dynamics and threats do not jeopardize the durability of that moat. When the moat breaks down, our ability to predict breaks down.

When your ability to predict breaks down, it is hard to know what to do with volatility. Is it an opportunity or is it risk? When your portfolio is highly durable and volatility hits, at worst you know to hold through, and at best you know to exploit it.

Q&A with Howard Marks

What are qualitative measures you use to take the temperature of the market? 
You want to assess the emotion that is prevalent in the market. When investor optimism is high, assets tend to sell above their intrinsic value.

When people are more concerned about FOMO then the fear of losing money then you must assume that prices will be high relative to intrinsic value.

When bullish prognosticators are in high demand on TV, when bullish books are written, when financial articles tout the last great time to buy before things go to the moon or when first-time fund managers easily raise funds. All these things are strong qualitative indicators of a hot market and that investor emotion is running high.

Timing the market is impossible, so to what extent can you predict market cycles if the timing is unknown?

The pattern of a cycle can be understood. We can have a sense of when we are high in a cycle or low in a cycle. We can have a sense that something will happen, but we will never know when.

If we believe a security is overvalued, we will either underweight it or eliminate it entirely from the portfolio. When a security is overvalued in our estimation it is more likely to go down then up, but we will never know when it will go down.

If overpriced meant that a stock will go down tomorrow, then nothing would ever become overpriced. In the real world, we see things go from overpriced to more overpriced to maximally overpriced. That’s how we get bubbles which proves that prices are not self-correcting.

We sometimes understand what’s going on in the market and understand its implications for the future, but we never know when these implications will take effect.

Returns are almost never average
It seems rational to assume that stock and bond market returns would be clustered around the average with a few outliers. If we go back to 1926 we clearly see this is not the case. The average return for stocks during the 92-year period from 1926 to 2017 was 10.3%. How many times during those 92 years do you think the annual return fell between 8% and 12%? Incredibly, that only happened 6 times based on the chart below.

Why do investors underestimate their vulnerability to bias?
Below are five (of many) possible explanations:
Overconfidence: Our belief that we are better than others is probably the most obvious explanation; this issue is exacerbated for professional investors as there is undoubtedly a selection bias into fund management roles toward those with exaggerated levels of confidence in their own capabilities.

Cognitive dissonance: Whilst the overconfidence explanation focuses on how we perceive ourselves relative to others, cognitive dissonance is focused on how we judge ourselves internally.

Too complex / too difficult: It may simply be a case that dealing with personal biases is too difficult.

Personal narratives: When objectively and dispassionately observing another person’s investment decisions it is often easy to identify the potential biases that are likely to be influencing their judgment.

The sales message: Perhaps the reticence of professional investors to engage with their own bias is related to a general reluctance to acknowledge mistakes.

None of these potential justifications are a reasonable excuse for understating our own behavioural limitations or failing to actively mitigate them. Given how few genuine edges are available in the investment industry, it is baffling that this one remains widely neglected.

What Buffett’s short-termism critics don’t tell you 

There are still critics today claiming Buffett's old-school style won't last in today's “new era” of investing and that Mr. Buffett has lost his edge.

In today's climate of short-termism, the demand for immediate results makes it hard to preach Buffett's long-term style of investing. Lagging the S&P 500 Index in recent years just gives those pundits something to talk about but their arguments don’t hold any truth when evaluating Berkshire’s performance over the longer periods. If you had purchased $100 worth of Buffett’s stock in 1987 it would be worth more than $8,000 today. The same investment in an ETF tracking the S&P 500 Index would have earned you $1,700. Almost 80% less in 32 years.

Many compare Buffett's performance against bull market cycles and willingly leave out how Buffett performed during bear markets. The graph below shows that Buffett outperformed the S&P 500 Index in all of the last three bear-bull market cycles.  Berkshire lost only 41% in the 2007–2009 financial crisis, while the index fell 51%. In the 2000–2002 dot-com debacle, when the S&P 500 Index collapsed 45%, Buffett pulled off a gain of 28%. Without loading up on tech stocks, his portfolio outperformed.

Jeff Bezos - Big ideas

What we’re really focused on is thinking long-term, putting the customer at the center of our universe and inventing. Those are the three big ideas to think long-term because a lot of invention doesn’t work. If you’re going to invent, it means you’re going to experiment, you have to think long-term.

We don’t take a position on whether our way is the right way, we just claim it’s our way. Bezos quotes one of Warren Buffett's sayings, “You can hold a ballet and that can be successful and you can hold a rock concert and that can be successful. Just don’t hold a ballet and advertise it as a rock concert. You need to be clear with all of your stakeholders, are you holding a ballet or are you holding a rock concert and then people get to self-select in.” 

You can’t skip steps, you have to put one foot in front of the other, things take time, there are no shortcuts but you want to do those steps with passion and ferocity.

From the Bond desk: 
New all-time low in 10-year German bund yields at -0.20%