Quiz!

8 of the 10 largest companies in the world in 1990 had something in common: what was it?

  1. They were all American.
  2. They were all technology stocks.
  3. They were all Japanese.
  4. They were all energy stocks.

Will Technology Stocks be the Leaders of the 2020s?

In 2021, the 10 largest companies in the world were technology stocks. Technology changed our lives, and the companies on the top 10 list are prominent names including Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Facebook and Tesla. Investing in such a prominent sector seems like a no-brainer – they are the future, and should stay dominant. While they declined more than the general stock market in 2021, it may seem reasonable to expect them to recover fast and continue their dominance.

It turns out that every decade or so, the top 10 most valuable companies in the world were dominated by a group that people fell in love with. In 1980 it was oil stocks, 1990: Japanese stocks, 2000: tech stocks, 2010: Chinese & energy stocks, 2021: tech stocks. (See the well-written article: https://mcusercontent.com/6750faf5c6091bc898da154ff/files/8a56f057-ed95-f5a2-56e2-cc7a5b72247d/GKDailyComment221206.pdf.)

Every time, there was a rational explanation for the dominance of the companies, and the continued dominance. While the story always sounded convincing, it never worked out. The world’s production isn’t driven by one sector. By the next decade, the favorite group underperformed, sometimes with decade-long declines, and got replaced by the next favorite.

Here are several tools to identify these situations:

  1. A group of stocks dominated the largest 10 companies in the world (by market cap = investment value).
  2. The valuations of this group of stocks were extremely high (measured by Price/Book Value, or P/B).
  3. The bubble popped, and the group of stocks underperformed the rest of the market for a number of months.

Once all 3 happened, the initial declines were not followed by a return to dominance in the following decade. Can you guess how many of these 3 applied to technology stocks in 2021? All 3! Seeing the dominant groups of stocks in each of the recent decades, can you guess the dominant group in the 2020’s?

Note that this article discussed investments, not intrinsic values of companies. To understand better, Price = book x price/book. The book value (or intrinsic value) of a company can grow nicely, but if the price/book starts very high and corrects itself, the price can still decline or grow much more slowly. This is how some great dominant companies in each decade end up being poor performers as investments.

Quiz Answer:

8 of the 10 largest companies in the world in 1990 had something in common: what was it?

  1. They were all American.
  2. They were all technology stocks.
  3. They were all Japanese. [Correct Answer]
  4. They were all energy stocks.

Explanation: Read this month’s article for more.

Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

Quiz!

What is the impact of Apple’s share buybacks on its P/E, and should you adjust for it?

  1. The share buybacks lowered Apple’s P/E in the past 3 years. At this rate, Apple’s cash will be gone in less than 3 years. Since this is not sustainable, you should adjust for it.
  2. Apple is a highly profitable company with desirable products. Its profits should keep generating cash to support share buybacks for the long run. There is no need for adjustments.

Should I buy or sell Apple Stock?

Apple is a very successful company, with strong demand for their products.  As an investment, I see conflicting messages in their financials:

  1. The Price/Earnings (P/E) of 21 is not extremely high (https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/AAPL/apple/pe-ratio).
  2. The Price/Book (P/B) of 41 is stratospheric, about x20 higher than the average for the S&P 500 (https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/AAPL/apple/price-book).

The problem?  Apple did massive share buybacks, reducing its cash on hand by 55% within about 3 years (https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/AAPL/apple/cash-on-hand).  Share buybacks reduce the number of shares, increasing the earnings per share, and lowering the P/E.  At the current rate, Apple’s excess cash will go down to $0 in less than 3 years.  Assuming continued success, with no change in earnings growth, something has to give within the next 3 years: a drop in the stock price, or a big increase in the P/E, resolving some of the current anomaly.

The solution? You can estimate the annual impact of share buybacks on Apple’s P/E in the past 3 years, and adjust for it, as part of a full analysis of the stock. QAM focuses on value investing based on the more reliable, stable and thoroughly studied P/B, and diversifies stock portfolios into 1,000s of stocks.

Quiz Answer:

What is the impact of Apple’s share buybacks on its P/E, and should you adjust for it?

  1. The share buybacks lowered Apple’s P/E in the past 3 years. At this rate, Apple’s cash will be gone in less than 3 years. Since this is not sustainable, you should adjust for it. [Correct Answer]
  2. Apple is a highly profitable company with desirable products. Its profits should keep generating cash to support share buybacks for the long run. There is no need for adjustments.

Explanations:

  1. Please read this month’s article above for an explanation of this point.
  2. While Apple is profitable, a realistic valuation should reflect a sustainable future, including a stable level of cash. With cash dropping fast in recent years, an adjustment is needed.
Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

Quiz!

Since 1970, what was the impact on the 3-year return of US and non-US investments, when the dollar reached high levels like today?

  1. It helped the returns of US investments and hurt the returns of non-US investments.
  2. It hurt the returns of US investments and helped the returns of non-US investments.

What Does a High Dollar Mean for US and non-US Investments?

Recently, the dollar reached a very high level last seen in 2002 and 1986. What does this mean for US vs. non-US investments? Since 1970:

  1. Very high currencies suffered from a drag during the following 3-year returns
  2. Very low ones enjoyed a boost to the following 3-year returns.

While these past results don’t guarantee a repeat in the future, today’s conditions are encouraging for non-US investments relative to the US ones.

There are two explanations for this behavior when the dollar was unusually high:

  1. The low currencies increase the growth of non-US companies, by attracting US consumers, who get to buy more cheaply.
  2. The currencies increase back to fair value, increasing stock prices as measured in dollars.

Quiz Answer:

Since 1970, what was the impact on the 3-year return of US and non-US investments, when the dollar reached high levels like today?

  1. It helped the returns of US investments and hurt the returns of non-US investments.
  2. It hurt the returns of US investments and helped the returns of non-US investments. [Correct Answer]

Explanation: Please read the article above for an explanation.

Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

Quiz!

Which stocks are riskiest when inflation is high? (Note: stocks in each group are split between Growth and Value, with Value getting the lower Price/Book.)

  1. Value stocks that are priced far above their average valuations.
  2. Growth stocks.
  3. Value stocks.

What is the Impact of High Inflation on Stock Returns?

We are experiencing very high inflation, last seen in the early 1980’s. What is the Impact of High Inflation on Stock Returns?

  1. Negative: It hurts stocks, by reducing stock valuations (Price/Book) to reflect a lower value of future earnings. It hurts growth stocks with high valuations especially hard. Examples are S&P 500 and Nasdaq.
  2. Positive: It ultimately helps stocks, because high inflation = higher prices => higher earnings for the companies.

The bigger the spike in inflation, the more stocks are likely to decline in the short run, because the negative forces can be greater than the positive ones. Once stock valuations adjust to higher inflation and higher interest rates (that are used to combat inflation), the positive impact tends to be much stronger, especially for value stocks.

Key takeaways:

  1. When inflation spikes, you should be especially cautious of stocks with very high valuations. Now the largest tech stocks are priced extremely high, something familiar from past cycles. In the 1970’s, we had the nifty-fifty, also called “one-decision” stocks. Counter to expectations at the time, they crashed badly despite being the most prominent of US stocks (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nifty_Fifty). Stock returns adhere to the formula, price = book value x (price / book value). If the valuations (price / book value) are very high, even the best company in the world can see its stock price drop.
  2. Value stocks (with low valuations, or price / book-value) are better positioned for high inflation, for 2 reasons: (1) Immediate: there is no big correction necessary to valuations; (2) Ongoing: more of their earnings are from the near-term, with a smaller needed discount to future earnings.
  3. Even value stocks can be expensive at times. For example, US Large Value stocks are currently very expensive (but still less than the S&P 500 and Nasdaq). In stark contrast, non-US Value stocks are priced low.

Quiz Answer:

Which stocks are riskiest when inflation is high? (Note: stocks in each group are split between Growth and Value, with Value getting the lower Price/Book.)

  1. Value stocks that are priced far above their average valuations. [Correct Answer]
  2. Growth stocks. [Correct Answer]
  3. Value stocks.

Explanation:

  1. While value stocks tend to have low Price/Book, sometimes an entire collection of stocks becomes expensive, including value stocks. A current example is US Large stocks.
  2. Growth stocks tend to have earnings far into the future, that need to be discounted by high interest rates (the tool used to combat high inflation).
  3. Value stocks are priced lower and have nearer-term earnings that not impacted as much by higher interest rates. The increase in income (along with inflation) can become the dominant force.

See article for more explanations.

Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

Quiz!

What does a dollar far above average do to future emerging markets returns?

  1. It hurts emerging markets returns.
  2. It helps emerging markets returns.
  3. There is no correlation between a very high dollar and future emerging markets returns.

Does a High Dollar Lead to Poor Emerging Markets Returns?

I’ve seen articles explain how a high dollar hurts emerging market (EM) economies. With the dollar recently reaching the highest level since late 2002, some articles gave concerning messages related to emerging markets investments.

Historical evidence for the opposite: The history of EM investments shows opposite results. When the dollar reaches high levels, future returns of EM tend to be stronger than when the dollar is low. For example, the recent time we had such a high dollar (2002) was around the beginning of phenomenal 5 years for diversified EM stocks.

Explanations: Once the dollar is at unusually high levels, the negative effect of the dollar is priced into EM stocks, with lowered valuations (price/book and price/earnings). Given that the dollar is cyclical, at some point we got a reversal, with a declining dollar. Some of the logic of the articles can be used to explain the benefits of the declining dollar, helping EM stocks.

Caveats: This quick read shows counter evidence + logic to many articles you may read in some prominent sources. There are still big unknowns. The dollar may have just peaked, or it may go up further. The goal of this article isn’t finding the exact peak, but looking at odds for further increases vs. decreases. When a cyclical measure is above average, you would expect higher odds for the measure to go lower than higher.

Quiz Answer:

What does a dollar far above average do to future emerging markets returns?

  1. It hurts emerging markets returns.
  2. It helps emerging markets returns. [The Correct Answer, but read explanation]
  3. There is no correlation between a very high dollar and future emerging markets returns.

Explanation: A rising dollar lowers the value of emerging markets (EM) returns as measured in dollars. So, the past EM returns leading to the dollar highs are hurt. Future emerging markets returns depend on the future movement of the dollar. From a level above average, the dollar is more likely to decline in the future. That would lead to above average returns. A caveat is that this simply reflects odds, not guarantees or specific timing.

Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

Quiz!

What leads to lost decades? (There may be multiple answers.)

  1. Wars.
  2. Pandemics.
  3. High valuations, as measured by price/book or price/earnings.
  4. Extreme economic distress.
  5. Euphoria.

The Anatomy of a Lost Decade

In the 2000’s, the S&P 500 experienced a 10-year decline, on a total return basis (including dividends), and much worse after counting the negative effect of inflation. This was not the first time – the decade ending in 1974 had +1.2% return per year, while inflation averaged 5.2% per year. This article describes what may lead to such long declines, and how they look.

What led to lost decades? A diversified portfolio of companies that produces products and services for entire countries is not likely to shrink its production for 10 years. What led to the 2 recent lost decades was high valuations (high price relative to the earnings of the companies or book values) of the companies. During the decade, the valuations declined by more than 50%, to correct (and typically overcorrect) the unusual pricing.

How did they look? The two most recent lost decades involved a series of gain periods followed by big declines, erasing substantial gains.

Can you avoid lost decades? There is no way to perfectly time the market, since turning points vary between cycles, with highs sometimes (but not always) leading to higher levels. There are various approaches with varying levels of success, involving getting out of diversified investments that did far above average for 10 years, or selling when valuations reach extremes. The easiest one is to diversify and include investments with lower average growth. While it involves a sacrifice to the returns, it gets around so many strategies that fail.

Why most people fail at timing? Once you find a strategy that stood the test of time, and has sound logic to it, you still have a major obstacle to overcome. Selling high and buying low involves going against the grain. It involves selling the most loved investment of the time, that people believe will just keep going up, and buying battered investments that underperformed for many years.

Can you avoid lost decades? While it is very difficult to time the market, or at least soften the blow of tough stretches, there are several principles that can improve your odds:

  1. When you hear gloomy news, along with scary predictions, and the investments are very low (low valuations / low 10 year returns), get excited about the investment.
  2. When you see euphoria all around you, with the most positive news, and the investments are sky high (high valuations / high 10 year returns), have the ability pull the trigger and sell and switch to an investment that most people hate.
  3. Whatever strategy you choose, make sure that it passed 2 tests: the test of time & the test of logic. While these are not enough, I would not move forward without these in place.
  4. Don’t expect to successfully time within one day, week, month or even year. Short-term timing strategies are far more difficult than long-term ones.
  5. Have a very robust risk plan, accounting for cases much worse than experienced in the past, allowing you to stick with the plan in some of the toughest times.

Quiz Answer:

What leads to lost decades? (There may be multiple answers.)

  1. Wars.
  2. Pandemics.
  3. High valuations, as measured by price/book or price/earnings. [Correct Answer]
  4. Extreme economic distress.
  5. Euphoria. [Correct Answer]

Explanations:

  1. Wars end up leading to increased economic activity. Declines tend to be far shorter than a decade.
  2. Pandemics tended to create short-term shocks, not very long lasting.
  3. High valuations typically get corrected. When valuations reach extremes, such as x2 the typical or more, it takes a prolonged period of poor performance to correct those.
  4. Extreme economic distress can lead to declines, but without high valuations, they tend to get resolved in far less than 10 years.
  5. Euphoria tends to lead to very high valuations – see #3 above.
Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

Quiz!

Can You Make Money Buying Stocks that Declined?

  1. No
  2. Yes, with a combination of a diversified stock portfolio along with very low valuations.
  3. Yes, after a careful analysis of buying near the bottom.
  4. Yes, with diversified stock investments.

Can You Make Money Buying Stocks that Declined?

When you see your stock portfolio decline, is your instinct to double down and invest more, or sell and wait on the sidelines until the sky clears? Knowing whether a recovery at a reasonable timeframe is likely depends on multiple factors. Here are cases that could lead to disappointment:

  1. If your portfolio includes only one or a few stocks, it may never recover. Many companies go bankrupt every year.
  2. If your portfolio reached extremely high valuations, as measured by price relative to book value (or liquidation value), you could make money by holding on until past the recovery, but the recovery could be many years away.

If your portfolio is diversified and has very low valuations, you may enjoy seeing a recovery within a reasonable timeframe, making you money. This is far from guaranteed. Here are steps to increase your chances:

  1. You need a robust risk plan, that accounts for a significant amount of additional declines, with a prolonged timeframe to recovery.
  2. With the right risk plan in place, you need to be 100% committed to your plan. When additional declines occur, you are not likely to see headlines saying “don’t worry, everything will be fine, this is a temporary dip”. The headlines are likely to be between negative and terrifying. Sticking with the plan requires putting all emotions aside, focusing on your risk plan, and following it mechanically – not for the faint of heart!
  3. Buying after declines requires a great deal of humility. You may have strong gut feelings on the “obvious” next move for stocks. Avoid setting any short-term expectations – the next move is mostly influenced by information that is not available at the moment.
  4. Start by having your normal allocation. Then, given the uncertainty, it helps to have a multi-step plan, with incremental small investing with every material additional decline. Allow for more declines than you can imagine. This can empower you knowing that you are proactive with additional declines.
  5. An incremental investing plan is smart in theory, but can be tough to execute. On the way down, you are likely to feel increasingly wrong. Remember that your goal is not to call the bottom – a very tough thing to do, but to emphasize extra investing when the odds are stacked more strongly in your favor, and the risks are lower.
  6. If you don’t have long-term valuation data for your investment, one alternative is comparing the 10-year performance relative to the long run. 10-year outperformance relative to the long run could mean high valuations and high risk.
    1. For example, the S&P 500 had far above average returns in the past 10 years, leading it to reach near record valuations. Buying on the dip beyond your normal allocation in such cases can be very risky.
    2. On the other hand, Emerging Markets Value investments had unusually low returns in the past 10-years, leading to below average valuations. Buying on the dip beyond your normal allocation in such cases may be profitable, subject to all the precautions described above.

Quiz Answer:

Can You Make Money Buying Stocks that Declined?

  1. No
  2. Yes, with a combination of a diversified stock portfolio along with very low valuations. [Correct Answer]
  3. Yes, after a careful analysis of buying near the bottom.
  4. Yes, with diversified stock investments.

Explanations:

  1. While there are no guarantees, with the right plan, you can make money buying stocks that declined – read on.
  2. Diversified stock investments tend to recover after declines. As long as you hold onto the investments until they hit a bottom, fully recovered and reached new peaks, you can make money. The low valuations help avoid some of the longest declines of stocks.
  3. A careful analysis may or may not be successful at identifying the bottom. In addition, a concentrated portfolio of one stock may never recover.
  4. While diversified stock investments tend to recover after declines, if the valuations are extremely high, it may take many years to enjoy a gain.
Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

Quiz!

Which is the best diversifier for US tech stocks?

  1. Cash
  2. Bonds
  3. US Value Stocks
  4. Emerging Markets Stocks
  5. Emerging Markets Value Stocks
  6. Bitcoin

A Great Diversifier to Hi-Tech

If you work in hi-tech, your financial position could be greatly influenced by the hi-tech cycle. Your income comes from hi-tech. In addition, If you have any stock options, stock grants or actual stocks of your company, they all depend on hi-tech. Even if you do not work in hi-tech, but most of your clients do, you are very dependent on this sector. When constructing your investment portfolio, it is worth being aware of this. It may be tough to diversify, if you believe that the strong run of hi-tech in recent years will never stop. To understand how a reversal is possible, note that valuations (price/book) of tech stocks surged in the past 10 years. This means that people are paying substantially more (price) for company values (book). This is in contrast to company values (book values) improving as much as the price gains, leading the price/book to stay flat over these years.

You may be discouraged by the fact that interest rates are low and expected to go up, and inflation has spiked. Commonly discussed candidates for moderating the risk of expensive tech stocks, including bonds and cash, can get hurt by rising interest rates and inflation.

There is a solution that doesn’t require accepting the typical low returns of bonds and cash, and without giving up the liquidity of stocks. This solution is especially helpful when interest rates and inflation go up. The solution is Value stocks, especially in other countries. When US tech stocks declined for over 10 years starting in 2000, Emerging Markets Value stocks grew substantially. This occurred at a time of extreme valuations for tech stocks, just like we are experiencing today. So, while any investor should be cautious of a concentration in high-tech stocks today, if your income is tied to hi-tech, you have a good diversifier available now.

Note that diversified Emerging Markets Value funds already have an allocation to high-tech stocks (while emphasizing lower valuations than typical), so they don’t require a separate allocation to high-tech.

Quiz Answer:

Which is the best diversifier for US tech stocks?

  1. Cash
  2. Bonds
  3. US Value Stocks
  4. Emerging Markets Stocks
  5. Emerging Markets Value Stocks [Correct Answer]
  6. Bitcoin

Explanations:

  1. Cash offers zero volatility, and seems perfectly safe. The issue is that it loses money to inflation. With a modest 3% inflation rate, you lose 50% every 24 years.
  2. Bonds offer low volatility, at a price of low returns. While they may seem compelling, they can decline when interest rates go up, and they can lose value relative to inflation.
  3. US Value Stocks are a good diversifier given that they are helped by rising interest rates and inflation, while tech stocks tend to get hurt by those. They are still subject to US-specific country risks, so are not the best.
  4. Emerging Markets Stocks diversify the US-specific country risk, but there is still better!
  5. Emerging Markets Value Stocks diversify the US-specific country risk, and are also typically helped by rising interest rates and inflation, while tech stocks tend to get hurt by those.
  6. Bitcoin is a currency, with no expected positive returns. But, it is far worse than cash, because it is extremely volatile. In addition, people were drawn to it in recent years given the high past returns, similar to tech-stocks. As seen recently, they can experience declines together with tech stocks. This is opposite of what some speculated, thinking that it may be a good inflation hedge.
Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

Quiz!

Question 1: In the past 10 years, how much did the S&P 500 companies grow their book values (change in price divided by change in price/book)?

  1. 16.2%
  2. 6%
  3. -6%

Question 2: Last time the S&P 500 had approximately today’s valuations, what was its average annual performance in the following 10 years?

  1. 16.2%
  2. 10%
  3. -1%

S&P 500 10-Year Returns if The Past Repeats

The S&P 500 enjoyed strong returns averaging 16.2% per year in the past 10 years. 10 years look like a long track record, enough to entice investing in the S&P 500 today, based on this data. Let’s evaluate this theory:

1. Actual book-value growth calculated at a mere 6%: What was the growth in the book value of the S&P 500 companies in the past 10 years? We can calculate it as the difference between compounding the 16.2% price increase per year and about 9.6% price/book increase per year (x2.5 going from under 2 to nearly 5), which is 6% per year. It turns out that the past 10 years were not very exciting for the S&P 500 companies.

2. Valuations declined 9.6% per year: From the most recent cycle when valuations reached today’s valuations (year 2000), they declined from about 5 to about 2 in 10 years, which is equal to -9.6% per year.

3. If the past repeats itself, we can get -3.3% annual decline for 10 years = -28% total: If the companies do as well as the past 10 years = 6% per year, and valuations revert to normal as happened last time we reached today’s valuations = -9.6% per year, we get an annual decline of -3.3% per year, and a total decline of -28%.

We don’t know what the future will actually be. But, if you are projecting the past to the future, you should prepare for material declines for the S&P 500 over the next 10 years.

Quiz Answer:

Question 1: In the past 10 years, how much did the S&P 500 companies grow their book values (change in price divided by change in price/book)?

  1. 16.2%
  2. 6% [Correct Answer]
  3. -6%

Question 2: Last time the S&P 500 had approximately today’s valuations, what was its average annual performance in the following 10 years?

  1. 16.2%
  2. 10%
  3. -1% [Correct Answer]

See article for more explanations.

Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

Quiz!

What are good reasons to invest in Bitcoin? (There may be multiple answers.)

  1. It is a high-growth investment with low correlation to other investments.
  2. High growth as its adoption grows.
  3. Low transaction costs.
  4. Fast transfers.
  5. Free from government control.

2 Reasons I don’t Invest in Bitcoin

Bitcoin is a digital currency / cryptocurrency with many benefits over traditional currencies. This article doesn’t discuss these great benefits, but instead brings up reasons to not hold bitcoin and many other digital currencies for investment.

  1. Just like any other currency, Bitcoin doesn’t generate any value. There are plenty of investments that do generate value, including stocks (companies) and real estate.
  2. While Bitcoin has benefits over traditional currencies, many countries are working on digital currencies with values tied to their traditional currencies. These currencies will have the benefits of digital currencies with an additional big benefit over Bitcoin: central banks can control the supply of currencies, helping stabilize economies, and preventing recessions such as 2008 from turning into devastating depressions. This could stop Bitcoin from reaching the wide adoption that some people anticipate.

Bitcoin played a big role in learning about digital currencies, and designing digital currencies with values tied to traditional currencies. Yet, as an investment, there is nothing that gives me confidence that it won’t permanently decline by 50%, 90% or 99%, as government backed digital currencies come out.

Quiz Answer:

What are good reasons to invest in Bitcoin? (There may be multiple answers.)

  1. It is a high-growth investment with low correlation to other investments.
  2. High growth as its adoption grows.
  3. Low transaction costs.
  4. Fast transfers.
  5. Free from government control.

None of the answers is correct. Specifically:

  1. Bitcoin has historically been a high-growth investment with low correlation to other investments, but there are good reasons to expect the growth to be reversed into sharp declines, once digital currencies that are tied to traditional currencies come out. Read this month’s article to learn more.
  2. You can expect adoption to dramatically shrink once there are government issued digital currencies, that have additional benefits.
  3. Low transaction costs are a benefit of Bitcoin over traditional currencies, but not over traditional digital currencies.
  4. Same as #3.
  5. Bitcoin is currently free from government control, providing a benefit for certain uses including some illegal activities, but that is not a reason to hold them as an investment.
Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data