Short And Long-Term Opportunities With Risks

by: Mike Lipper, CFA

US stock prices since late July have violently fluctuated in a trading range, as measured by the three major stock indices.

At the lowest point, they were about halfway to a normal 10% correction.

Mid-course corrections and structural changes represent both opportunities and risks.

Mid-course corrections and structural changes represent both opportunities and risks. Opportunities and risks are rarely separate from each other. My process for dealing with each travels along similar routes:

  • Early, but not too early recognition. (Statistically, there is not much difference from a discovery that’s too early and being labeled wrong.)
  • Identify the magnitude (Large to life-changing vs. time and reputation risk, which can’t be recovered.)
  • A research plan to narrow the number of opportunities and risks. (We can’t deal with too many variables.)
  • An initial plan of action (Casualty lists are full of those who were too motionless.)
  • Frequent adjustments to the plan. (Frequent, but not too frequent - there is time needed for others to react reasonably.)
  • Listen to both extreme historians and futurists. (They are often the same.)
  • Create short-term achievable goals. (A passing grade is better than 100%, from which you can’t learn.)
  • Cut the losses when other opportunities appear with lower risks. (Most great discoveries/inventions are bi-products of research efforts seeking other solutions.)

Subscribers could use the above principles in reviewing what comes next.

Mid-course Correction?

US stock prices since late July have violently fluctuated in a trading range, as measured by the three major stock indices. At the lowest point, they were about halfway to a normal 10% correction. As of Friday, they were within a good trading week to their former peaks achieved in July: Dow Jones Industrial Average -2.05%, S&P 500 -1.56%, and Nasdaq Composite -2.73%. This blog is prepared for long-term investors, and I am therefore not going to focus on the momentum-driven traders that dominate the market these days, especially when long-term investors are nervously enjoying gains generated over the last ten years.

While the market and economies are not driven by the calendar, investors and the media tend to focus on annual returns. I am concerned that while most stock and equity fund investors have not yet reached a gain of 20% year to date, a large number have. I am wondering whether the market indices will go through their old highs with some enthusiasm, or whether they will be stuck in a price range with high volume, encouraging some equity investors to take some chips off the table and wait for the clarity they expect in November 2020.

This is not a political judgement; one expects to see some damage from low interest rates and falling currencies. These investors should remain equity investors in stocks and funds, perhaps with some rearrangement of their choices. However, under no circumstances should they have less than 50% invested in the stock market; re-entry costs and tensions are high for taxable investors.

Fundamental Changes for Long-Term Investors

There are two very important changes that are likely to impact successful investing in the future:

  • The appropriate nature of invested capital
  • Fewer workers and more mouths to feed

Adapting to the Changing Nature of Capital and Investing

The earliest identified capital included physical things like land, jewels, and weapons, etc. One could see them, and an experienced person could evaluate their worth. Thus, the earliest recorded loans were mortgages or collateral. The wonders of double entry accounting recognized an asset's value as the residual of its depreciated cost. Thus, the earliest investors concentrated on collections of assets, which led to analyzing balance sheets. This may well be appropriate in a world where the physical reality of assets is well understood, but that is not the reality today, and increasingly, it will be less so in years to come. Over one hundred years ago, J.P. Morgan, himself as a banker, made loans based on a person’s character, not their collateral. Nevertheless, today we still group companies in terms of their manufactured products, while our politicians focus on manufacturing jobs and their related products.

The service sector has been more productive in the production of wealth than the manufacturing sector for some time. As a matter of fact, most successful manufacturers are also good at providing service and arranging financing for their customers and themselves. I would certainly include salespeople as being service workers, both within and outside every business today. We have entered a low-interest era, which appears to limit profitability. Some wonderful old companies having more physical constraints are producing well-respected brands but have suffered sales and other problems, leading to significant layoffs. Some of these workers will retire or leave the industry, and others will go to competitors in much smaller and more specialized elements of their industry. I see this occurring in older tech, pharmaceutical, and financial companies.

For many years, CEOs have thanked their most important asset - their employees - in their annual report letter. Since recruitment has become an important responsibility of senior management, critical employees are identified as “talent”. To those who think about these things, it creates a dilemma. Do we as customers continue to rely on highly respected brands, or do we seek out products and services from which organizations are supposedly attracting the best talent? We face the same question as investors, especially the choice of colleges for those with children and/or grandchildren.

As an investment manager using financial services stocks and diversified mutual funds from around the world, I deal with this problem daily. A good long-term investment in these arenas needs good portfolio managers, sales people, and good administrators. It also needs top management who wishes to have these people and can manage them, which is not easy. The problem today is dealing with layoffs. The Financial Times noted that trading and advisory revenues dropped 11% in the first half of 2019 for the 12 largest investment banks in the US and Europe. We have seen most of these businesses shedding people, many of which were servicing and supporting the investment and wealth management efforts, both for their own companies and external clients. The people I know are looking because they have been laid off or because they see significant elements of decay in their shops and want a better home to practice their art. With these people, I could produce the best investment team in the world, but it unfortunately won’t happen because these people aren’t capable of working well together.

I am currently focusing on a small number of turnarounds which have similar characteristics. In the past, they’ve had some good-performing mutual funds, good sales teams, and good administration that was largely done in-house. What makes these potential turnarounds interesting is that they have retired their old management. They now have new management that is busy trying to hire the right people to run critical parts of their organization. While the companies I am looking at are publicly traded, the new top management is long-term focused and not looking to the next earnings report. Not all of them will succeed, perhaps none will. But if they don’t succeed in a reasonable time, they’ll not be able to attract the needed talent and will be forced to merge to save a limited number of jobs. Often, the acquirers are not much better than the acquired, just richer. Some will be successfully turned around if they can benefit from what I see and show next.

Retirement is Necessary for Our Success in the Future

Barron’s had a cover story this week, “How to Fix the Global Retirement Crisis”. It points out that in 2050, there will be more people over 65 than under in the US. Japan has already reached having 59% over 65, and in the US we are at 38%. I would suggest we need to find ways to keep able and willing people working. At the same time, we need to find humane ways to free up some of their jobs for younger workers who can do more with those jobs. Most of the time seniors are healthy and want to be active mentally and physically, if they have the financial resources to do so.

In some respects, the mutual fund industry is one of the luckiest of all industries. A substantial portion of its growth has come from external forces, usually the government looking after senior voters. In the US, the federal government passed legislation which created individual retirement accounts, salary savings accounts (401(k), 403(b), and 457 plans), tax-exempt mutual funds, and money market funds. Without these, the fund industry would have been much smaller. Things are similar in other countries, but they’ve used different measures to aid their own fund industry. The leader is Australia, which mandates that 9.5% be contributed to superannuation funds - a number that is expected to rise to 12% in the future. If one combines that with a history of no recession for 28 years, future retirees can look to a sustainable retirement. Considering seniors vote more often than other age groups, one would think that the US government might address their needs. This could even cause the interest rate of savings to rise to a level that would reduce future unemployment through sounder loans.

Investment Suggestions

  1. Use the present market to clean up your portfolio of losers that are unlikely to soon return your cost.
  2. Focus new investments on companies attracting good talent.
  3. Restrict brand buying to your consumer needs, not investments.
  4. Be prepared for opportunities and problems.

Editor's Note: The summary bullets for this article were chosen by Seeking Alpha editors.