Preventing Investment Mistakes - Weekly Blog # 533

by: Mike Lipper, CFA

Confirmation and Anchoring

Confirmation and anchoring, according to a recent survey, are the two most popular biases of investment advisors. I suspect these are largely the biases of their clients. While these biases tend to drive investors at all levels into the most popular strategies and investments, they imply that the crowd is normally right, or at least it is safer when wrong to go down with a crowded ship than try to swim in lonely waters.

The Favorites

Those that search for popularity did not attend my first class in analysis of securities and people. The class was held on most days, including Saturday, in an open-air setting at various New York racetracks. The most popular horses had the smallest betting odds. These were called the favorites, as if they were like the most popular high school dates. The problem with chasing favorites is that on average they only win between 30% and 40% of the time.

More importantly, when they win, after deducting the portion of the winning pool that went to the track and state taxes, they do not generate sufficient winnings to cover the 60-70% of the time when they lose. (Like many investors, the winners do not recognize that they owe income tax on their winnings.)

Useful Information

Many investors believe that they are smarter or have more useful information than those on the other side of the bet or transaction. They quickly confuse temporary winning with greater mental capabilities. Just as various political leaders, central bankers, and pundits of all types view an errant morsel of information.

A new breed of binary judges is being marketed to investors as factor funds, which ranks and chooses securities by various statistical measures, such as revenues (Fortune), Market Capitalization (Standard & Poor's and Russell), Earnings Per Share Growth, Price/Earnings Ratio, Free Cash Flow, Current Yield, and others. Sometimes single factors are brought together into multi-factor portfolios. The problem with this approach is that if it were that easy various printers of financial statements would be the richest people in the world.

One of the early lessons from the track, security analysis, and topographical maps/photos is that these are given to all who can afford them. The key to more victories is what is missing, often in plain sight but not recorded for publication or correctly understanding the value of a corporation's inventories, fixed assets, patents, and customers.

There are other occasions when both the buyer and seller are correct or wrong, one being an expected time span in ownership ranging from one moment to almost infinity. Another is completing a portfolio structuring or restructuring. A third might be the value of a shareholders' vote.

Avoid Arrogance

Thus, to avoid unforced mistakes avoid the arrogance of assuming the party on the other side of the trade is dumb. Make a serious attempt to guess the motivation on the other side. They may know something that might be helpful.

The professors at Caltech believe that what we commonly call thinking is reaching back into our memory banks. There is a growing gap between those that have experienced either a bond bear market, deflation, or even a 1987 style stock market. Therefore, many investors make mistakes that seniors avoid. If you don't know something it is easy to be arrogant and not look to understand the other side of a trade.

Crosswinds

One of the big mistakes that far too many investors are guilty of is not examining a large enough set of inputs. Rare insights are often in plain sight but ignored by most. With that thought in mind, the following are some factoids that I saw this week which could impact some short to very long-term investment decisions:

Possible short-term inputs

The top three global market weekly advances were - Nikkei 225 +3.71%, Shanghai Composite +3.06% and S&P BSF Sensex (India) +2.48%. (Asians must believe that they won't be hurt significantly by the trade politics, or there is massive short covering.)

Somewhat linked to the above is that the next two index risers were the NASDAQ 100 and the S&P 500 Info Tech Index. This was supported by 18 of the best 25 performing mutual funds for the week, which likely held those types of securities.

Both the S&P 500 and NASDAQ Composite were at record price levels this week, but their trailing price/earnings ratios were not higher than year-ago readings. (This suggests that higher prices are being driven by reported earnings, not changes in valuation levels.) However, margin debt is continuing to grow at record levels. My guess is that margin debt is supporting speculative holdings of bonds and/or stocks.

Intermediate Term

Over the last year the average Taxable Long-term Bond fund's total reinvested return was less than the average coupon on the bonds in the portfolio. This suggests that those investors spending their distributions are eroding their capital. To a lesser degree, this has been happening for the last five years. Even though nominal inflation has been historically low, on a "real" return basis, they are eating into their spending power and are certainly doing so if they are tax payers.

With the global aging of developed nation populations, the result of longevity expansion and healthcare becoming more extensive, the underfunding of pensions is growing. This does not take into consideration the self-funding that many are or should be doing.

We may have entered into a world where the money cycle is more important than the trade or product cycle. One of the indications of the impact of technology on jobs can be seen in the oil patch, particularly for those involved with fracking. The number of employees used in extraction is flat to declining and the number used in energy service is growing and is larger than those used in extracting. It would be even higher if the service companies could find a sufficient number of truck drivers.

Longer-Term Considerations

In about twenty years, just 8 US states will comprise 49.5% of the expected population. Adding another 8 states raises the total to about 70%. These states are mostly on the east coast, California, Texas, and Colorado, although they are still unlikely to control the US Senate.

Nigeria will replace India as the home of the most poor people. While this is good for India, it suggests that Africa will likely be the home of most conflicts for many years. While I have been suggesting that the bottom performing commodity funds should be looked at for long-term investing, it may require too much patience as commodity players and farmers remind me that commodity cycles typically take 30 years.