Can You Blame Your Investment Model?

by: Mike Lipper, CFA

Introduction

Every moment of every trading day we are confronted with the question, “Do we buy, or sell, or just rearrange?” While one does not know exactly when the next major investment peak or bottom will be, almost all of my time should be spent on how to function between these extremes. Nonetheless, since the actual future turning points are not known, I probably should not expend a great deal of intellectual energy or emotion focusing on the search. If I have this discipline it puts me in a minority of those who make statements about the market. Perhaps my investment accounts and I are benefiting from this redirection of my emotion and mindset. Nevertheless, most of us operate in a relative performance world, my performance will be judged as how it compares with how others perform. Thus, I need to grasp how other investors, particularly institutional investors, view the market. As Hylton Phillips-Page, our firm’s VP of fund selection and I have frequent discussions with both mutual fund portfolio managers and some of their investors, I am struck that most of these chats revolve around “the market” in general, or the price of a particular stock is expressed as a ratio of the current price to some other variable. Most of the time the managers believe they are buying and owning at some attractive discount to the larger variable. In other words, they have a model which is generating a distinct benefit for their investors.

Experience as The Model

What I have learned from the Neuro-economics professors at Caltech, (where I serve as a senior trustee) is that when most are forced to make a judgment, the brain reviews its experiences. If the experiences generated pleasure it was good and thus similar situations will also be judged as good. Having been essentially a student of investing not only through my life but also of others over history where I can get some historical insight, I see a particular pattern emerging.

Most of the time prices move gradually. Often, at the final run-up or collapse one can divide professional investors/traders in general by age categories. Whatever driving enthusiasm is largely supported by the young, who view the then current offering as new, different, and wonderful will be the opposite of their older brethren that distrust the surge as it looks suspiciously like past problem-producing situations. Thus, the more experienced players don’t participate until the parabolic price move that comes just before the turning point. Some of the more experienced players can’t stand missing out these “goodies” and need to defend themselves against the arrogance of the newly rich. (The same pattern occurs on accelerating declines to a bottom when the twin views that the world is coming to an end and/or prices fail to reflect the survival realities.)

I have noticed throughout my career that many formerly successful investors miss out on “the new thing” because the load of their experiences reminds them of past failures from over-excited enthusiasm. One of the advantages of investing through medium to large mutual fund management groups is that they often have bright analysts and portfolio managers, some with a great deal of successful experience and often, younger ones that perceive greater futures. In assembling a portfolio of mutual funds we choose some of each.

Which Past is Relevant?

To choose as the statistical base for a predictive model we have recorded human history, derived history from scientific sources in addition to yesterday’s news. I suspect we could do far worse than being guided by The Bible. It tells of seven fat years followed by seven learn years, currency manipulation by rulers, collectible and uncollectible taxes, famines, wars, disease, population growth and immigration, etc. While no one has proven that these lessons are not still applicable, we have chosen to shift to statistical measures. Most often we rely on government-produced statistics. Since I have met some of the tabulators and understand how they gather data, I have always had a jaundiced eye on their product. That is even before today’s fully expected (by me) article in the New York Times about groups of government employees developing “slow walking” strategies showing their opposition to the new Administration.

We measure our deficit, that will undoubtedly grow, as a % of our GDP which is an output measure not a wealth measure. As a matter of fact, the government’s main view of the population is derived largely from aggregating tax returns. I ask how many of our readers attempt to show the largest income and the least expenses? Further, often as people get older their wealth grows and in retirement it is their wealth not their income that motivates them.

Another source of questionable value is reported earnings of public companies. When evaluating a possible acquisition of a public company, the excess assets and the operating business are separately evaluated. (I sold a data business’s operating assets, not the company and its balance sheet.)

One of the more popular valuation metrics is averaging the last ten year’s reported earnings. This is in contrast to my first lesson from Professor David Dodd, of Graham & Dodd, which was to restructure both the balance sheet and income statement to put them on a comparable basis with other companies that could have been investment candidates. Many models are based on industrial sectors as defined by either the government or a major credit rater. Over the years both IBM and Apple* (AAPL), among others, have been shifted from sector to sector. I suggest that if one wishes to be long or short either of these securities, it will not be because of different statistical ratios with whatever industrial sector someone places them.

*Held personally.

We are in a New World

I am well aware the typical reason given to buy a security that is historically overpriced is, according to the salesperson, “This time is different.” To some extent that could be right today in that we have entered essentially a new phase. In the past the leading countries were growing in population and wealth. Often they were clearly technological leaders. In the United States, China, Japan and developed Europe, the size of the work force is declining relative to their total populations and all are experiencing growth in seniors. (This may inhibit the new Administration’s ability to grow the US labor participation.)

Interesting that some have looked askance of my announcing our firm’s smallest new commitment to a fund that invests in the Middle East and Africa, because of favorable demographics, savings rates, and progress in their educational institutions. Based on current trends it is only a matter of time that Africa will house one quarter of the world’s population.

We are now living in a world where farming and manufacturing are becoming smaller, relative to the growth of the service sector. (Service sector includes financial services which is experiencing growth from traditional sources but also new entrants and technologies. Unschooled farmers in Africa are daily monitoring the price of their commodities on cell phones. The fastest growth in the financial sector is in mobile finance and banking.)

The world is facing the integration of currencies, taxes, trade and military policies. One should expect that in the future we will understand the difference between schooling and useful education.

Do I Have a Model?

The simple answer is no. But I have a process to benefit and protect my investment responsibilities. First, I attempt to get our accounts to utilize the TIMEPSAN L Portfolio® approach which addresses the importance of getting the future right. The shorter term portfolios live in the world of the present whereas the longer term portfolios are more future oriented. Since we use funds from a number of the leading investment organizations each has their own views of the future, they will change over time.

My model essentially leans on the investment lessons that have been learned over the millennia and watching what smart commercial and investment professionals do with their long-term money.

Question of the Week (or perhaps the year): What Model Drives Your Investments?

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