You might have noticed that the stock market is a tad wobbly these days. Your own portfolio might be significantly wobblier than the headline numbers suggest if you piled into some of the most popular stocks on social media, so I hope you didn’t.
A clever young man, Noah Weidner, kept track of an index of the most popular stocks owned by investors at the broker. More recently, even after the data feed was curtailed by the broker, he kept up a list of which stocks entered and exited the top 100. For the most part those rejected like energy ETFs, Berkshire Hathaway and Wells Fargo went on to do well. Meanwhile, most of those added have been among the biggest losers recently, including shares of Robinhood itself. I link to an academic study that does a nifty job of explaining why that happened.
I had the pleasure of being interviewed about the upcoming book by veteran financial journalist Roben Farzad on Full Disclosure Radio, which airs on NPR stations and is available as a podcast. This was a double treat because Roben is so well-prepared and also because he also interviewed two young men, Quinn and Finley Mulligan, for the same segment.
I spoke with a lot of smart people for the book, ranging from experts on options trading to social psychology to short selling to problem gambling to marketing to behavioral finance to Silicon Valley’s culture, but people like Quinn and Finley are really the subject of the book and their insight was tremendously valuable. They are among the “apes” who bought and continue to buy GameStop, AMC and other meme stocks either as a way of making money, sending a message, or both. While I don’t personally recommend doing that, their explanation in the podcast of why they and others continue to is smart and worth a listen. And they aren’t just any apes – the twin brothers are in the process of making a documentary about it, Apes Together Strong.
The rise of the apes and the rush of young investors into stock and crypto trading is the biggest personal finance story, if not financial story period, of the past few years. I knew I had to write about it as soon as one of my sons pointed me to what was happening on r/wallstreetbets a year ago. The episode blew multi-billion dollar holes in some of the slickest hedge funds on Wall Street. But it also poured billions more into the coffers of other Wall Street establishments who claim to be “democratizing finance” and continues to do so.
I hope you’ll check out the podcast, the upcoming documentary and, of course, my book.
January is a month full of hope for dieters but, as the year rolls by, our resolutions tend to fall by the wayside. Gyms know this, which is why they get so many new members around now and why it’s so difficult to cancel memberships. WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, doesn’t make it as tough. That’s not just ethical but smart: They have a lot of return customers.
I wrote about the company today. They were expecting a great 2021 even if lots of customers gave up as usual. Instead it was a dreadful year and their stock slumped by a third. Sentiment is about as bad as it was back in 2015 when Oprah Winfrey rode to the rescue, buying a tenth of the company, joining the board, and becoming their brand ambassador. Back then the stock rallied by 1,600% in three years.
I don’t think that will happen again, but it is cheap and one thing holding it back may soon reverse itself. Even though lots of people gained weight during the pandemic, the company’s bet that they would turn to their services to lose it proved wrong because people view dieting as punishment. They had already denied themselves so much during the pandemic that they were looking for a grace period.
There isn’t another Oprah waiting in the wings, but the stock is cheaper than it has been in quite some time. Full year results due next month might not look pretty. That might give patient investors a good entry point.
I wrote this past week about corporate spinoffs, which are all the rage these days. In a spinoff, a company takes a division or two and hands it to its shareholders, creating a brand new public company. The new company usually doesn’t fit in with its new owners, which can be a very good thing for patient investors.
Funds will own, say, a bank, and now they have a small insurer or whatever and sell its shares. But the managers of the new insurer are suddenly even more motivated as they have stock options and a lot more upside if its shares do well. The famous value investor Joel Greenblatt wrote a gem of a book largely about spinoffs, You Can Be a Stock Market Genius.
As with lots of things in investing, though, the magic has faded. Investing in spinoffs used to be a formula for very good returns, but lately they have lagged. The problem might be too many people reading the same statistics and also too many activist funds pushing companies to split apart for no good reason. With both General Electric and Johnson & Johnson announcing split this past week, I asked whether these latest attempts would create more than some initial excitement.
Breaking apart a company can, in theory, unlock value. Corporate spinoffs as an asset class have done well historically. Value investor Joel Greenblatt highlighted the opportunity for the masses in his book “You Can Be a Stock Market Genius.” Several studies using data from the 1990s through the middle of the last decade have shown that a portfolio of spinoffs can beat the market by 10 to 15 percentage points in the year after they go public. Managers of a newly public company are more focused and valuations often rise to reflect those of peers. But there are catches. One is that investors have to hold on to the spinoff to reap the rewards, and many don’t. Initial selling pressure on spinoffs often creates opportunities for even more outperformance once a new shareholder base is established. But the spinoff secret is out. Activist investors now push companies to reshuffle the deck chairs to generate short-term stock-market gains. Trian, the fund that took a stake in GE in 2017 with disastrous timing, applauded Tuesday’s move.
Sometimes a fairly small company that I know will otherwise fall through the cracks catches my eye. The latest one is “The Joint,” a fast-growing chain of storefront chiropractic clinics. I learned a lot in the process of reporting it, most of it about the business of franchising rather than the iffy science of back “adjustments.”
The chain had been on a rocket ship ride with its stock up by 3,000% since the current CEO took over in April 2016. Then it took a tumble on a short-seller’s report. I don’t think that the report blew the lid off of a flaky company, as some reports do. But it correctly pointed out that the stock was pricing in some unrealistic growth.
Probably the most analogous company, and one most readers will know, is Massage Envy. Its founder was CEO of The Joint for a while and he sold Massage Envy in 2008 when it was still in its growth phase. It has been stalled for the past decade or so.
Will this do better? Back pain is a big problem, but The Joint has lots of imitators like SnapCrack and Chiro Now with similar no-insurance, subscription-based formulas. It has around 1% of the overall U.S. market and is the biggest storefront player so there is plenty of room to grow. Unfortunately, its revenue opportunity isn’t as big as it seems because clinics charge a lot more and offer more services. The Joint’s market value of $1.2 billion already assumes it will snatch a large share of a pretty big pie at more than 100 times projected earnings for 2023 when its management thinks it will reach 1,000 stores.
Some stores’ impressive profits represent in part an owner-operator’s sweat equity. For both the occasionally underemployed practitioners and their patients, a storefront’s simplicity has been appealing compared with high-pressure clinics. If one views the chain as being at the very early stages of disrupting its sector and assumes that its head start will make it the McDonald’s of back pain then its valuation could be a bargain. But if it is more like another Massage Envy then the stock’s price and its future cash flows are seriously misaligned.
“Aching Backs Equal Big Bucks, but an Adjustment Looms” WSJ, October 16, 2021
The hottest thing in investing these days is using ESG criteria (environmental, social, and governance). Count me a skeptic. Yes, I have seen studies showing that, for some specific period, such funds have outperformed the market. They usually are funds that have avoided fossil fuels during a particularly bad stretch for energy companies or are loaded up with tech stocks during a really good period.
Should you be forced to invest in a company that conflicts with your ethics? No, I guess not, but then investing in a fund isn’t the same as giving a company money. On the other hand, if you really want to put your money where your mouth (and wallet) is, why not make as much money as possible and then give it to a cause of your choice?
Let’s say that ethically and religiously focused funds, which reduce the number of possible companies in which you can invest, will do just as well over time as a fund that owns the whole stock market. The fees they charge you for doing that will still eat into your return, which is why ESG is a brilliant marketing concept but not such a smart way to invest.
But you know what really isn’t smart? I read today in the Wall Street Journal that Trump allies are now getting into the fund management business to promote “Unwoke” funds.Pictured up top is Kevin Hassett, the co-author of Dow 36,000. Just a reminder that this book came out almost 22 years ago and the Dow hasn’t hit that milestone yet, so caveat emptor. Below is the description of the criteria behind their “Society Defended ETF.”
Let’s just leave the gun control debate out of this and look at dollars and cents. If the companies, which I guess you could call anti-ESG, also do just as well as the market then you are paying unnecessary expenses to own the libs. At 0.75%, this fund charges you 0.7 percentage points more than a very low cost index fund. If the market goes up by 8% a year for the next 40 years then a $10,000 investment today would be worth nearly $50,000 less than in a plain vanilla fund. So if you love guns, or whales, or hate coal, or whatever, my recommendation is to just make the best investment possible and then get a nice tax-deduction at the end for contributing part of your windfall.
One of the more overused clichés is “it’s like turning around a supertanker.” As a landlubber, I’ll go ahead and assume that’s true in the literal sense. Financially-speaking, though, the business of hauling oil across the world certainly turned on a dime in the past year. Daily earnings collapsed by 99% from last March to the past week as carriers capable of holding two million barrels became very expensive floating storage tanks when there was a glut and are suddenly hunting for cargoes as big exporters try to buoy prices.
A year after their incredible good fortune, an equal basket of four energy shipping firms has lagged the S&P 500 by 70 percentage points over the past year and is right back to its long-term average ratio of price to book value. With life and energy demand returning to normal, this is no time for investors to walk the plank.
I edit more and write less these days, but even when I do write I often forget to link to it here. I’ll try to be better in 2021.
One thing I wrote recently generated an unusual amount of reader email, split about 40-60 between congratulatory and outraged. I said that star fund managers are to be avoided and I used the example of Cathie Wood, whose main exchange traded fund at ARK Invest grew assets by 1,000% last year and gained nearly 160%. She bet big and won on hot stocks like Tesla and biotechs that benefitted from Covid-19 speculation.
I am apparently a misogynist or don’t understand her genius or both. Anyway, the evidence is pretty strong that jumping on the bandwagon once a fund manager graces magazine covers isn’t a great idea whether that manager has a “Y” chromosome or not. You can read more about managers like Ken Heebner and Bill Miller in my book.
The column starts out with a “famous last words” puff piece from The Motley Fool titles “Move Over, Warren Buffett : This Is the Star Investor You Should Be Following.”
So read the headline on a year-end article from retail investing advice site Motley Fool touting the performance of fund manager Cathie Wood. Variations on the “Buffett is done” theme have been around since at least the tech bubble, while the cult of star mutual-fund managers goes back to the 1960s. Such commentators have eventually eaten their words.
Ms. Wood is a savvy businesswoman, but is she a savvy investor? Stock picking skill is very rare and even harder to discern when the manager is riding a hot category. In a bull market propelled by dumb retail money, everyone is a genius. It takes many years to establish whether success is random. And, as I point out, star manager’s performance is often worse than random on the downside. The most promising active funds are those that lagged their peers recently or got a low rating from a firm like Morningstar.
Fund managers are often compared with dart-throwing monkeys. That might be too flattering for those who get the most attention. Hot funds’ performance is often worse than random on the downside. A regularly updated study on the persistence of investor performance from S&P Dow Jones Indices shows that just 0.18% of domestic equity funds in the top quartile of performance in 2015 maintained that through each of the next four years—less than half what one would have expected by pure chance. And of course most actively managed funds lag behind the index to which they are benchmarked because of fees and taxes.
Anyway, the tone of the emails has made me more convinced that some investors in “disruptive innovators” have lost touch with reality. Congrats if you were early — the fund’s performance is pretty impressive (see chart below) — and be careful if you were late.
It sounds a bit flippant at a time when so many people are seeing their nest eggs melt down on paper, but the message is important. Retail investors lag the market significantly because of timing errors and the biggest mistakes are made at junctures like these. If the 20% bounce from the coronavirus-fueled low turns out to be a dead cat bounce then it will stoke further pessimism and cause people to either sell or to have less of their wealth in risky assets such as stocks once the eventual turn comes.
I’d love to tell you when that turn will be, but I can’t and neither can anyone else. The important thing to remember, though, is that if you were comfortable having, say, 70% of your nest egg in stocks when the Dow was knocking on the door of 30,000 then you should feel the same way at 20,000 or (gulp) 15,000. The richest gains of the next bull market (no, I don’t think this recent bounce was the start of one) probably will come early on. They always have before.
For example, if you put $100,000 into a plain vanilla U.S. index fund at the very start of the last bull market in March 2009 and had sold at last month’s peak then you’d have $630,000 including dividends. If you had decided to wait three months to make sure it wasn’t another false alarm then you’d have just $450,000.
Bad times are surprisingly good. If you could go back in a time machine and buy stocks at the bottom of every bear market of the past 90 years but had to sell as soon as a recession had officially ended then your annualized return would be a whopping 64%. You would never have lagged the market’s long-run return.
And what if you really can’t sleep at night? Well that’s okay – Covid-19 is enough to worry about! But then you should do one of two things. One would be to dial back the risk you take permanently – no cheating the next time everyone around you is getting rich on pot stocks or whatever the next fad will be. You’ll be that much older and closer to retirement then anyway. The other would be to entrust your money to someone else like a reputable fee-only adviser or a robo-advisor like Betterment or Wealthfront and just check it as infrequently as possible.
Why should you (sort of) like bear markets? Because they’re the time when your attitude can make you a superior investor. Everyone is a genius in a bull market, but tough times are when your mettle matters – no finance degree or superior IQ required. When those glossy brochures from a brokerage firm tell you that the long run return of stocks is 9.6% or whatever, those returns include bear markets that have seen portfolios cut in half or worse.
That’s my usual spiel, which you can read about at length in my book as well, but it’s when I finish giving it and emphasize that nobody on Wall Street knows anything that someone inevitably asks what I think about the market anyway.
I used to get paid a lot to tell people which stocks to buy. Now I get paid a more modest sum to write and edit articles about the same thing. It doesn’t mean you should listen to me about what or when to buy. But, for whatever you may think it’s worth, I’m pretty pessimistic at the moment. If I hold to form then I’ll still be pessimistic when the turning point is reached and we all should be buying stock funds like crazy.
I wrote about the cruise industry. There are often disasters or mishaps like the 2012 Costa Concordia accident or the Carnival “poop ship” in 2013 that produce temporary bargains for people brave enough to pounce on a cheap vacation deal or stock. The latest scary quarantines may be different, though.
There are threats aside from the immediate epidemic. The fact that the quarantines have occurred in Asia may do permanent damage to China’s embrace of cruising in what Carnival management has said it believes will grow into the world’s largest cruise market. About 4.24 million, or 15% of cruise passengers, came from Asia in 2018 according to the Cruise Lines International Association.When cruising was in its infancy in the U.S. it received a warmhearted P.R. boost from “The Love Boat” TV show that ran from 1977 to 1986. To would-be cruisers from China’s emerging middle class, scenes of ambulances and quarantines are leaving a far less heartwarming image than jolly Captain Stubing.