Friday, May 28, 2010

Market Decisions - Process

  1. Process

    This is #2 in the Market Tremors series.

    In the last posting, I stated that few retail investors ask and answer the right questions before portfolio construction, with the result that they panic during both bear and bull markets. This panic, whether due to significant market decline or portfolio lag, is the cause of most market underperformance. That is primarily because the investor panics and begins chasing the wrong asset class, at the wrong time.

    I suggest that all investors need to deal with these five questions, in order to have a good chance to outperform the market:

    1. Process;
    2. Rationale;
    3. Emotions;
    4. Holdings;
    5. Market Exposure

    Today, we are looking at Process, through the lens of my own recent portfolio reconstitution. Here’s how I define Process:

    What process and tools did I use to construct this portfolio?
    Have I given myself an edge in some way?

    Firstly, it’s rare that any long term market outperformance is possible without a decent process. If you’ve been outperforming the market without a specific process, then you better chalk it up to luck – and just like in the casino, it’s not likely to last. If you’ve luckily lurched from stock tip and suggestion and back to the same, better quit now and put your winnings in your pocket. Stop now, build and define your process.

    While I don’t suggest my process will fit everyone, it fits me. Here’s mine.

    First, I admit with my time constraints, I just don’t have the time to delve deep into the annual report of every corporation in the areas I have chosen. I used to do that when I bought just small and micro cap stocks, but have neither the time nor the desire to orient my portfolio that way anymore.

    Instead, I use quality “buy side” analysts who have my interests at heart (unlike the conflicted investment banks and their ADHD analysts). Therefore, I extensively use the Morningstar database to find stocks that might interest me.

    Using their database, I screen for stocks based on both “moat” (barriers to competition) and largest discount to fair market value.

    Second, I require all of the stocks I select to have a moat, and preferably a wide moat. I want that implicit margin of safety. I also require that all of the stocks I buy to have some margin of safety in terms of the pricing – the lower the stock price relative to their fair value estimate, the better. Also, I generally want to buy a four or five star rated equity, which, according to Morningstar’s data, have on average significantly outperformed the market over a relatively long period.

    I also check this rating with the S&P report (another buy side rating agency), to see if it’s roughly similar. Again, they report that their four and five star rated equities have significantly outperformed the market on average.

    Third, I also require that the equity be paying a dividend. I am looking for both an above average dividend yield, and recent history of dividend growth (or the possibility that is about to occur). Given the long-term outperformance of dividend-paying stocks, as further boosted by those providing dividend growth, I consider this one of the edges I use in the market.

    Fourth, when looking at the truncated financials, I look for above market average returns on equity and capital (assets), as both are long term drivers of stock price growth. I look for decent earnings per share growth. I also look at overall financial health of the company, accepting a “C” Morningstar rating at the lowest, but looking for better if possible. I also look at the PE ratio to see if that is a relative bargain.

    In terms of my ETF selection, I use a much more “gestalt” process – I usually pick specialty ETFs in areas I think there’ll be considerable growth into the future. Here, I use my general reading, and just plain thinking about the future, to orient towards those ETF buys. I also try to envision those ETF buys ten years out, because that’s my projected holding period in that instance. I look at the valuation ratios but, given I perceive these as the growth portion of my portfolio, are somewhat less concerning than in the stock selection (which I perceive as the value oriented portion of my portfolio). However, I also check relative value measures, like the PE ratio, to ensure I’m not buying the NASDAQ index circa 1999, with a PE of 100.

    Now, the final piece of the process is to print up all these materials I’ve compiled, together with any handwritten notes on the reports. I then do a very brief summary on the equities selection, such as dividend yield, Morningstar ratings and percentage of fair market value the equity is selling at, and a brief narrative overview, including PE ratios, value drivers, exposure to the US market, and/or other odds and sods. I do the same for my ETFs.

    Next we’ll look at “Rationale”, which will be published next.


The Confused Capitalist

(Reprise series from 2008)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

PIGS - Market Tremors

In my family of origin, reading something you thought interesting to a sibling, parent or child was a sign of love and affection, as well as a way to stay connected and to expand your world. Receiving one of those readings was taken similarly.

So, on a recent trip, I asked my wife to read to me, as I ground it out for the fifth hour on the freeway on our way there.

“Read what?”, she asked.

“The business pages, please.”, I replied.

But then I glanced down at the paper and saw the front page headline – “Markets Pounded – PIGS to blame”. Knowing my wife’s market nervousness, I told her to skip the reading. Instead of it being an enjoyable pastime for us both, I know she’d be pounding me with questions about our holdings, feeling sick if we lost anywhere near the average and dismal if it was more.

Which brings me to the point of this exercise: she reacted just like many people do. At a sign of market decline, they seriously question the market in general, and their holdings in particular.

Unfortunately, it is usually only at times of market extremes like these that people begin ask these questions, and it is usually in this order:

1. Market Exposure – Am I comfortable with the levels of equities I hold?

2. Holdings – What are my specific holdings – what is their orientation, what is their risk profile? How much am I counting on “the future” (potential growth of earnings etc.), rather than “the past” (historical earnings, etc.)?

3. Emotions – What is my emotional readiness to handle declines or lags in my portfolio, without changing strategies?

4. Rationale – What was my thought process for assembling this particular portfolio, and how well will this rationale hold up if market conditions are reversed?

5. Process – What process and tools did I use to construct this portfolio? Have I given myself an edge in some way?

In a bear market, the predictable answers to #1 and #2 are “I have too much equities – I need to lighten up”, and “I have too risky holdings, I need to sell”. In a bull market the answers are of course reversed. Typically, whether in a bull or bear market, few bother to get around to questions #3, #4, and #5.

If you want to outperform the market, aside from being willing to assemble a portfolio that looks unlike the market – and all the perceived and real risk that can entail - you need to spend considerable time on questions #3, #4 and #5.

In fact, I believe you need to reverse the order of asking these questions. That’s because they form the long-term framework for sticking with your ideas. And retail investors are notorious for dumping both their strategies and equities, just as market conditions begin to favor those very equities and strategies.

So, over the course of the next few postings, we’ll look more deeply at all these questions, in what I regard as the proper order (1. Process; 2. Rationale; 3. Emotions; 4. Holdings; 5. Market Exposure).

(Reprise series from 2008)