Friday, May 20, 2016

"We don't have to be smarter than the rest. We have to be more disciplined than the rest." --Warren Buffett

WHEN BUYING ASSETS, SELECT OLD BEARS AND YOUNG BULLS (May 20, 2016): There are many criteria which investors use in making buying and selling decisions. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these decisions are emotional rather than rational. People buy assets which appear to be superior, without realizing that this perceived excellence is actually due almost entirely to outperformance in recent years. Similarly, investors will tend to sell assets which they believe are inferior, without understanding that if something has been in a severe extended downtrend then it will almost always appear to be hopeless when it could be ready for a powerful rally. In other words, most investors subconsciously project the action during the past several years into the next several years, thereby nearly always ending up buying assets which will soon begin bear markets and selling assets which are about to enjoy spectacular percentage gains.

A tale of two outperformers: commodity producers and emerging markets versus high-dividend favorites.

The top sectors of 2016 have fallen into two completely different categories. The best performers have been gold and silver mining shares (GDXJ, GDX, GLDX, SIL, SILJ), with other commodity producers in mining (COPX, REMX) and energy (OIH, KOL) along with emerging-market assets in numerous countries (EWZ, GXG, RSX, NGE). Not far behind are high-dividend sectors, especially utilities (XLU), real estate investment trusts (IYR), and consumer staples (FXG, XLP). This is somewhat surprising, since both groups of securities behave very differently. Commodity producers and emerging markets normally love rising global inflationary expectations and worldwide GDP growth, while high-dividend shares tend to perform best when deflation reigns and there are fears of an economic contraction. Which of these two is likely to persist in its powerful uptrend?

With most commodity producers and emerging-market assets having approached two- and three-decade bottoms on January 20, 2016 and/or February 11, 2016, their bull markets have been in existence for only four months on average. In most cases, their bear markets had begun following major tops in April 2011, and had suffered total declines averaging 70%-90%. A young bull market following a historic washout often leaves huge remaining upside, since even if these shares merely return to their highs of 2014 or 2013 then they could double or triple from their current levels; some of them have already more than doubled since their respective January 20, 2016 nadirs. Almost anyone who wanted to sell shares of commodity producers or emerging markets had plenty of opportunities to do so, as is evidenced by all-time record outflows from many funds in these sectors during the second half of 2015 and the first few weeks of 2016.

In sharp contrast, most high-dividend shares had bottomed either during the fourth quarter of 2008 or during the first quarter of 2009, and thereafter enjoyed bull markets which lasted for more than seven years. A seven-year bull market is like a 100-year-old person running the marathon: you are quite impressed, but you know he or she won't be running many more marathons. It is possible and perhaps even likely that most high-dividend shares have already begun bear markets, although this won't be known for sure until after significantly greater losses have occurred. One major drawback to owning shares which pay 3% or 4% yields is that far too many investors have become disenchanted with bank deposits paying 1% interest or less, and have therefore crowded into high-yielding assets in a desperate attempt to achieve a modest income. There have been all-time record inflows into many high-dividend sectors in recent months. When too many people are pursuing the same concepts, regardless of their reasons for doing so, such assets become dangerously overpriced. On average, high-yielding assets have price-earnings ratios which exceed the overall price-earnings ratios for the S&P 500 Index and the Russell 2000. Utilities, real estate investment trusts, and consumer staples overall have never been more overvalued in their entire history, even when compared with major past bull-market peaks.

Begin with fair value, and tilt toward buying into the longest bear markets while selling into the longest bull markets.

Before making any trading decision, it is important to calculate fair value for any asset which you plan to trade. If you believe that something is far below fair value, then ask yourself why this is the case. If something has been declining for several years, then many investors will tend to sell it regardless of fundamentals. They may be disappointed about its persistent underperformance, or they can't bear to miss out on chasing after something which has been climbing or which is mentioned frequently in the media, or they may hate to wake up and look at the securities in their portfolios which seem to keep going down, or they may actually believe that they can make money by following various momentum strategies. Generally, the best assets to purchase are those which are either in bear markets which have persisted for a very long time and have lost a dramatic percentage of their previous peak valuation, or else had recently fit into this category and have been choppily rebounding in recent weeks or months. There are pros and cons to buying into the most oversold points on the way down versus buying into higher lows as they are created on the way back up, which I will discuss in more detail in a future update.

A key principle is to assiduously avoid buying anything which has been in a powerful extended uptrend for several years. Such assets will attract the attention of many investors who become enamored by its apparent invincibility, or who love to chase after recent outperformance, or who emotionally like to think they own winners even if they missed out on most of the gain to be enjoyed because they bought far too late, or because something which has been climbing for several years has usually received persistently optimistic media coverage which tells people why they should own such assets. Even if something is far above fair value, you will almost never read anything negative which will warn you against purchasing something which is clearly overpriced. You only see negative stories about something which has already suffered sharp declines, as analysts "explain" why those losses have occurred and tell you why they will get worse. It is easy to become brainwashed by these messages simply by hearing them repeated frequently.

Prefer youthful bull markets following extended bear markets. Disfavor ancient bull markets.

Even though you may wish to own anything which has been outperforming in 2016, stick with those assets which had suffered multi-year bear markets and have just been recovering for four months, rather than assets which are wildly overpriced and have been mostly in uptrends for more than seven years. The former group will continue to rally strongly because they remain intrinsically undervalued and are still unpopular, with most brokerages and analysts continuing to shun them and even to downgrade them in recent weeks. Some of these funds like GDX have continued to experience net outflows regardless of their spectacular gains since January 20, 2016. High-dividend shares have become so popular with amateurs, institutions including hedge funds, and just about everyone that they make excellent short positions. This is especially true for U.S. assets in these sectors which had enjoyed the massive global surge into U.S. stocks, bonds, real estate, the U.S. dollar, and just about everything else with a United States pedigree in recent years. Commodity producers located in emerging-market countries had been the world's most depressed and undervalued securities four months ago, and in spite of having doubled or tripled in some cases would have to double, triple, or quadruple again to finally surpass their April 2011 highs.

Choose assets for which there is no reason to own them.

The financial markets have always been a paradox. If there is a valid reason to own any asset, especially if that reason can be easily explained to others, then almost everyone else will have heard and believed the story and will have already purchased it. This will cause such assets to become dangerously overvalued. On the other hand, if there is no easy explanation for why you should own something, then very few people will be eager to participate, and the asset will tend to be substantially undervalued and thus an excellent bargain. Low bank interest rates give investors a perfect excuse for possessing high-dividend shares, and therefore you must avoid the temptation to own them along with everyone else. No one can easily comprehend why they should own shares of commodity producers or emerging-market securities, and therefore you should capitalize upon their unpopularity. Once you hear on a daily basis about why you should own these as an inflationary hedge, or because so-and-so genius has been buying them, or just because they're going up, then it will be getting close to the next selling opportunity.

Disclosure: Whenever they have appeared to be especially depressed, I have been buying the shares of funds which invest either in emerging-market assets or in the shares of commodity producers, since I believe these are among the two most undervalued sectors in a world where real estate and U.S. equity indices remain dangerously overvalued. As the extremely popular U.S. dollar stuns investors by suffering a bear market instead of continued gains as almost everyone is expecting, this will lead to a major upward revision in global inflationary expectations. From my largest to my smallest position, I currently own GDXJ, KOL, SIL, XME, GDX, COPX, HDGE, REMX, EWZ, RSX, GLDX, VGPMX, URA, GXG, FCG, IDX, ECH, BGEIX, NGE, VNM, RSXJ, EPU, TUR, SILJ, SEA (new), SOIL, EPHE, and THD. Yes, HDGE is back on the list as of my previous update (see below) after having sold all of it just before it had peaked near 13. I have continued to increase my modest short positions in FXG and IYR, and I am also modestly short XLU. I expect the S&P 500 to eventually lose roughly two thirds of its May 20, 2015 peak valuation of 2134.72, with its next bear-market bottom perhaps occurring in 2018. As with all bear markets, the biggest losses will likely occur in its final months, and won't even be acknowledged as a bear market until then--as is evidenced by the media falsely proclaiming in March 2016 that the bull market had celebrated its seventh birthday. The Russell 2000 Index and its funds including IWM had handily outperformed the S&P 500 from March 2009 through March 2014, and have subsequently dramatically underperformed, trading at their lowest levels during January 2016 in 2-1/2 years. Small-cap U.S. equities typically lead the entire U.S. equity market lower as they have done in past decades including 1928-1929, 1972-1973, and 2007. Those who have "forgotten" or never learned the lessons of previous bear markets are doomed to repeat their mistakes. The most overvalued sectors rely on the overhyped deflation trade and money which has been withdrawn from safe bank accounts by conservative investors deluded into believing that these are nearly as safe as government-guaranteed time deposits; these make excellent short positions and include consumer staples (FXG, XLP), real estate investment trusts (IYR), and utilities (XLU).