Legg Mason's (NYSE:LM) Bill Miller and many other seasoned pros are having trouble in this market. So am I. So, probably, are you. Mr. Miller reminded readers that it is at the end of a string of dismal months that future rates of return are highest, yet the smallest number of investors is interested.
Mr. Miller issued his second-quarter letter earlier in the week, from which I took the following excerpts:
[Warren Buffett] then made the perfectly sensible point that as we are all net savers, we should be happy if stock prices declined a lot more, so we could buy even better bargains. That is a point Charlie Ellis elaborated on in his fine book, Investment Policy, a few years back. As a matter of logic, it is irrefragable. As a matter of psychology, I think most of us value investors think we have plenty enough bargains already, and may not be able to handle that many more. Or more accurately, our clients may not be able to. We are value investors because we are persuaded of the logic of buying shares of businesses when others want to sell them, and we understand that lower prices today mean higher future rates of return, and high prices today mean lower future rates of return.
The best time to buy our funds or to open an account with us has always been when we've had dismal performance, and the worst time has always been after a long run of excess returns. Yet we (and everyone else) get the most inflows and the most interest AFTER we've done well, and the most redemptions and client terminations AFTER we've done poorly. It will always be so, because that is the way people behave.
This is the only market I have seen where you could just read the headlines in the papers, react to them, and make an excess return. I have used the mantra to our analysts that if it's in the papers, it's in the price -- which used to be correct. Indeed, it borders on cliché in the business that by the time something makes the cover of the major news or business publications, you can make money by doing the opposite. There is solid academic research to back this up. But in the past two years, you didn't need to know anything except to sell what the headlines were negative about (anything related to real estate, the consumer, or finance) and buy anything that was going up and that everybody liked (energy, materials, industrials).
It has been explained to me that it was obvious we should not have owned homebuilders, or retailers or banks, and that I should have known better than to invest in such things. It was also obvious that growth in China and India and other developing countries would drive oil and other commodities to record levels and that related equities were the thing to own. "Don't you even read the papers?" was a common comment.
While I am quite aware of our mistakes, both of commission and omission, when I ask what is obvious NOW, there is little consensus. If there is something obvious to do that will earn excess returns, then we certainly want to do it.
Is it obvious financials should be bought now, having reached the most oversold levels since the 1987 Crash, and the lowest valuations since the last great buying opportunity in 1990 and 1991? Or is it obvious they should be avoided, since the credit problems are in the papers every day and write-offs and provisioning will likely continue into 2009?
Is it obvious energy stocks should be bought on this correction in oil prices from $147 to $123, a correction that has wiped 25 points off the prices of companies like XTO Energy (XTO) and Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) in just a few weeks? Or is it obvious that oil had reached bubble levels at $147, and that buying the stocks here, down 30% from their highs, is akin to buying homebuilders down 30% from their highs in 2005? If you had bought Tesoro Petroleum (NYSE:TSO) or Valero Petroleum (NYSE:VLO) when their prices broke late last fall -- remember the Golden Age of Refining story that took Tesoro from under $4 to over $60? -- you would be looking at losses in this year greater than if you had bought Citibank (NYSE:C) or Merrill Lynch (MER).
I do think some things are obvious: it is obvious the credit crisis will end, and it is obvious the housing crisis will end, and that credit markets will function satisfactorily and house prices will stop going down and then start moving higher. It is obvious that the American consumer will spend sufficiently to keep the economy moving forward long term. It is obvious that the U.S. economy, already the most productive in the world, will get even more productive and will adapt and grow. It is obvious stock prices will be higher in the future than they are now.