History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes, or so the saying goes. In retrospect, we see many similarities between 2018 and 1994.
Searching Google for “Retail Apocalypse” returns 8.8 million results (in .45 seconds!). For the better part of a decade the sector has been beaten up in the press. The headlines are not unfounded. Former staples of American consumerism such as Toys-R-Us, Radio Shack, and Payless ShoeSource are no longer, while many others struggle to find stable ground. The negative hype surrounding the Retail Apocalypse has created a fog around the whole sector and retail stocks have not been a popular pick amongst active money managers in recent memory.
Behind the retail apocalypse headlines are companies who have adapted to new market conditions, have strong balance sheets, and forward-thinking management. Looking into the fog, we see a shunned sector, overly beaten down valuations, and good potential to seek out value. Our Mount Lucas Focused Large Cap Value currently holds 4 retail names amongst its 36 total holdings. Some may view this as a high concentration of an unpopular sector for a focused strategy which holds no more than 40 stocks. However, our quantitative stock picking algorithms have no such opinions, they are programmed to seek value.
Below are the 4 retail names currently being held in the strategy, each picked for the portfolio on Sept. 22, 2017. Presented are price charts with selection date indicated and resulting price move, as well as headlines from the time preceding selection. Even positive news is tinged with negatively worded headlines. We believe this illustrates the headline fear and peer pressures that all human stock pickers face, as well as the benefit of a non-biased quantitative approach to value investing.
In light of recent market performance, and the corresponding effect on changes in volatility on CTA returns we thought it important to give our views on the topic. Late last year, we were asked by a prospective client to see how one of our trend following models performed over several different stress environments. We highlight one particular stress that was given- a 20% stock market drop over 3 months, with 40% of move in month 1, 35% in month 2, and the last 25% of the move in month 3. A relatively straightforward exercise, but to really understand the nuances of different CTAs relative to our approach, you must look past just the change in level, but consider the potential price paths and volatility over that stress period. The difference boils down to whether one is viewing CTAs as a standalone investment, or as a piece of a larger portfolio, and the role of volatility targeting in position sizing.
Fed Chair, Janet Yellen said yesterday that economists were not good at stock valuation, but that she saw no red or even orange signals. Here’s one … The S&P 500 Relative Strength Index, a measure of “overboughtedness” is the highest it’s been in 20 some years – by a lot.
If nothing else, points out the contrast between the tech bubble and today’s market.
There is a saying in our business,”the trend is your friend.” Given the recent downturn in trend following returns, I am reminded of another saying, “with friends like these, who needs enemies.” I was in a meeting recently with a consultant who asked a question we have heard many times over the years. How do you keep clients invested in managed futures in times like these? We know the history, the diversification benefits, the crisis protection, the long volatility profile…but, each time there is an extended period of challenging performance clients look to throw in the towel – because their equity investments are ripping up and managed futures is down. A good question, and the answer, I think, lies in the statement – it is a matter of faith.
Investors in the equity market have faith. They trust, and have been conditioned, that the market goes up over time, corrections are temporary. Participating in the capital formation of companies provides a risk premium to the investor and is an investment in the economic growth of a country.
Managed futures on the other hand is viewed as a trading strategy, it goes long and short, it is typically quantitative based. The perception is…I can’t have faith in a model, it can break. But this perception is misplaced, trend following measures a real economic risk premium in the market, just like equities (see older posts diving deeper on this topic, Portfolio Symmetry, Commodities are not Stocks, Benchmarking Alternative Beta). Investors in this market are rewarded by taking the price risk companies seek to shed. Faith should be in the durability of this premium, just like there is in the equity risk premium. Faith is gained by understanding this risk premium, when it works (periods of volatility and instability), and when it doesn’t (periods of low volatility and stability). Similar to equities, faith should be garnered from the underlying economics of the markets.
Value investing can be counter-intuitive at times. Acting against our own intuitions is not an easy thing to do; it’s uncomfortable. We form our thoughts and reasons based on what we see and experience in the present, and extrapolating our present situation into what the future holds is something we all do. Predicting the trajectory of long-term trends that have already begun is not rocket science, but investing requires you to be right about the trend, as well as the timing of that trend.
Bill Gates wrote the following a while ago
‘we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.’
It comes to mind as I think about some of the stocks we hold, some of the stocks that are doing really well and the difference between a great company and a great investment. There is a lesson in the drivers of value investing and how it interacts with momentum, and more broadly on real visceral fears that are out there, manifesting themselves in the politics of both the left and the right. One way to think of value vs growth investing is as extrapolations of the current set of worries out to the future. Everyone remembers the Blockbuster video example, killed off by Netflix, and see that story writ large across big chunks of the rest of the economy and stock market. Disrupted businesses are everywhere – just this week Hertz announced a bad set of numbers, sequential declines in revenues and a bigger than expected loss. The stock got hit hard. On the other side? The new ride sharing services, Uber and Lyft, raising money at high valuations as people extrapolate to a future of self-driving on demand cars, and no place for old school Hertz. Amazon making it tough for big box retail is another example. Tech, robots and AI are coming for jobs and business as we know it.
Many instances of these seem perfectly valid, and it’s easy to paint the picture. The likes of Amazon, Netflix and Tesla are amazing businesses that have changed the world and achieved incredible things. The issue we have is that they seem priced for ever greater levels of growth into perpetuity, and don’t seem to take into account what we think is one of the key reasons value investing works – the people running the businesses are scared as well, and where they can, they fight back. Some will be unable to. But not all. Take General Motors and Tesla. General Motors trades around a 5 PE and pays a dividend north of 4%, and the last couple of years has about $9bn in income. The numbers are a bit different for Ford, but the picture about the same. That income is an enormous amount of firepower. The people running these businesses are not stupid, and I’ll bet are more worried about electric vehicles and driverless cars than you or I. The market focuses on Tesla and the incredible way it’s broken into the car market, its Gigafactory, and its solar roof product. They are extrapolating a future whereby Tesla hits the big time with its $35k Model 3 and kills off Ford and GM – at these prices that’s what is implied. Relating it to option buying, by buying Tesla investors are effectively buying calls on this amazing future – things need to get to this new world quicker, and it needs to be more amazing than it seems now. They may be right, but boy are those calls expensive here. With GM and Ford, we see value investing as akin to buying puts on the speed and scale of this societal change, and think that the extrapolation has gone too far – and doesn’t take into account the firepower of the businesses. If the transformation doesn’t happen, takes longer, or investors decide to pull financing from the Tesla project (and they sure will need a lot of funding to build out the scale the stock price is banking on) maybe things looks different and old Detroit transforms itself. That $9bn pays for a huge amount of R&D to fight back – indeed when you look at it, the first few firms to get an electric vehicle to market at a mass market price point have already done so. They Chevy Volt, the electric Ford Focus, the Nissan Leaf. GM is hiring 1000 engineers in Silicon Valley to expand Cruise Automation, the self-driving car unit it spent some $600m on last year. Ford is doing similar, investing $1bn in a self-driving car firm in Pittsburgh. GM is into the battery game as well, opening battery factory in Shanghai. One can make the same case with Walmart and Amazon – Walmart has some $20bn in operating income, and an e-commerce business growing at 30% a year. At its root, Walmart isn’t too far from being an Amazon warehouse with a door and a checkout – it has a brand name, incredible logistics and supply chains – and won’t go down without a fight.
All of this isn’t to say that Tesla and Amazon aren’t incredible companies pushing the world forward – they certainly are. What they also do though, is to bring others up with them, galvanizing competitors into action. Capitalism in all its glory. We think the markets are extrapolating the future too far in both directions – the new kings Tesla and Amazon and their ilk to the high side and older world names to the low side. Back to the Bill Gates quote, investors are focused on the first part, over estimating the next two years at the expense of how things will look in ten years. The people in Detroit and Bentonville are focused on the second part, and not being lulled into inaction. Buying old Detroit at valuations like this is hard, it goes against the story of change. What you are doing by buying is really selling a put on the speed and scale of the change. We’ve seen a movie like this before at the turn of the century. New world growth expectations were out of hand and the growth premium over that five year period was enormous. The following five years were reversed, as value investing outperformed strongly. The chart below has some details on it. That’s how value investing works, in cycles, and it works because it’s uncomfortable.
A while back I read a piece about political stability not being all it seems. It made the case that looks can be deceiving, and illustrated it something like this. Since 1945 Italy has had some 40 changes of prime minister. Saudi Arabia has had 6 rulers in the same period. North Korea has had 3. By that metric, Italy appears pretty unstable, while the other two look like oases of calm. But which keeps you up at night? For all the Machiavellian twists and turns in Italian politics, the political process has a way to reset the compression of the spring, to take out some of the tension every few years to stop it from popping, as the Italians turf out the incumbent and vote for a change. North Korea and Saudi Arabia on the other hand don’t have the mechanism, and need more and more pressure to keep it in place. The force underneath keeps on building though, the eventual reaction getting bigger. But that’s statistics for you – measured that way you get an answer on stability, but it’s probably the wrong one.