Money Tree Podcast Interview

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I sat down to speak with Doug Goldstein of the Money Tree Investing podcast to discuss whether it’s realistic to expect to beat the market with any consistency and the media’s role in spooking or exciting investors. He asked smart questions and I tried to give smart answers based on the findings in my book and other personal finance sources. Check it out!

Markets Have Reached Peak Consonant

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We’ve hit peak consonant and that has me worried about the stock market.

There’s a difference between being an investor and a speculator. I advise readers to stick to the former in my book and to keep it simple. But I also point out that the awful performance of most ordinary savers has a flip side since the markets are a zero sum game. Aside from fees, which are considerable and keep many fund managers and advisers in fine fettle, a small number of speculators reap the rewards of outwitting a large number of suckers. When you zig they often zag. if you want to be one of those guys or girls who can sniff out opportunity or danger and profit from it then you have to be able to read the writing on the wall. I think I just saw it.

The trend of naming companies and products with few or no vowels seems to have peaked. The shuttered burger store pictured above, which I walked by yesterday on Broadway,  is exhibit A. Why on earth would this matter, though? Names are just names, after all, and the likes of Flickr, Scribd, or Unbxd are mostly private companies or, like Tumblr,  divisions of public ones with other activities.

Ah, but trendy names have been a recurring sign of danger in markets. Back in the early 1960s there were the “tronics.” Any company associated with space or electronics did marvelously for a while as the government poured cash into the Space Race. Burton Malkiel writes about a company that sold records door-to-door and changed its name to Space Tone. It saw its stock rise sevenfold in a short period. This sort of irrationality signaled not only a bubble for those particular companies but the beginning of the end of the Kennedy Bull Market.

Years later, most of us were in the market already during the granddaddy of them all when hundreds of companies with a dot-com in their names achieved lofty valuations. We all know how that ended.

In fact it seems that, even outside of a bubble, avoiding companies with exciting names is smart. The great investor Peter Lynch wrote in One Up On Wall Street, the first book I ever read about investing, that “a flashy name in a mediocre company attracts investors and gives them a false sense of security,” and he warned against buying stocks that have an x in their name.

I decided to test this out for an article I wrote for the Financial Times back in 2010 and found 109 companies in the Wilshire 5000 that began or ended with an ‘x.’ They were, in fact, more expensive, far more volatile, and less likely to be profitable. In a stock picking game I’ve been playing for several years I’ve blindly shorted such stocks and made decent returns doing so. ‘Q’ is just as bad.

So back to the vowel-less companies. Is it a case of what’s old is new again? The Semitic languages, including modern Hebrew and Arabic, had some of the first alphabets and are written mostly without vowels. When I went to Hebrew school they were written in but are considered training wheels in modern Hebrew, much to my confusion in Israel.

That’s not the case here. There is no convenience factor as with those scripts, just a hipness quotient. My former colleague John Carney once made up a fake company called Grindr that would grind down your enemies, but it turns out someone grabbed the name to start a gay dating app. I considered grabbing the url for Tstr, perhaps to launch a grilled cheese company, but it already was  claimed by “Tacoma & Seattle Trailer Repair.” Darn.

Anyway, the moment has passed and you’ve been warned. The stock market as a whole is at the 96th percentile of all observations in 135 years based on the Shiller P/E ratio and companies like Tesla with no earnings or free cash flow are worth multiples of established competitors many times their size. Put “cloud” in front of a product and you can command double the multiple. I can go on and on.

Watch out below – srsly.

Come See Me in Nashville

Neon Lights of Lower Broadway, Nashville, TN

Music, hot chicken, Vanderbilt, my sister and her family, more hot chicken – I love coming to Nashville. My next visit and first-ever speaking engagement in town will be on February 9th at 6:30-8:00 in the evening at University School of Nashville. The $25 fee goes towards an excellent cause: the USN scholarship fund.

The title of my talk is “Beat the Odds and Become a Much Better Investor.” I’ll also be signing and selling copies (at my cost) of my book, Heads I Win Tails I Win: Why Smart Investors Fail and How to Tilt the Odds in Your Favor.

Sign up here.

 

Talking Financial “Self Sabotage” With Pete the Planner

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Today I talked about financial “self sabotage” and  my book with financial guru and radio host “Pete the Planner.” It’s the subject of a series of interviews he’s doing and a great one for me to discuss. Heads I Win, Tails I Win is, after all, about multiplying your potential nest egg through avoiding unforced errors. Have a listen!

Least Likely to Succeed

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(This excerpt originally appeared as a post on my LinkedIn feed).

Whoever first said that “life isn’t a popularity contest” probably needed to get out more, but he or she had one redeeming quality: being a good investor. My new book, Heads I Win, Tails I Win, shows that most of us are lousy.

Think back to your high school. If it was anything like mine, the student body voted to decide which of their classmates was cutest, best-dressed, funniest and most likely to succeed, among other categories. The last of those was often the easiest to guess: a kid who had it all figured out and was well on his or her way to an Ivy League university followed by medical school or some other solid, lucrative path.

There isn’t a vote for least likely to succeed. The point of these contests isn’t to hurt people’s feelings, even if they sometimes do. But if there were then the recipient would be equally obvious: that good-for-nothing stoner who was late for every class and barely graduated or didn’t at all.

Now imagine being able to buy a share in the future earnings of Mr. or Mrs. “Most Likely” and “Least Likely” as if they were a company. The market prices would be sky high for the former and a pittance for the latter, with good reason. Everyone else would fall somewhere in-between. That’s exactly how the stock market works, though the vote occurs every minute of the day.

Whether you rely on conventional wisdom or actual surveys such as “America’s Most Admired Companies,” picking out the corporate crème de la crème isn’t hard. But investing in them exclusively happens to be a bad idea. In fact, the least admired companies on such lists tend to outperform the best ones as measured by stock market performance.

Think back on the high and low achievers in your graduating class. Some of the bad eggs probably turned things around and, while they may not be fabulously wealthy, are doing fine. Meanwhile, some super-achievers never really lived up to expectations. Likewise, we pay too much of a premium for respectability in the corporate world. Once a company is a blue chip, it’s priced not only appropriately but at a premium. Translated into stock selection, going with less popular, less obvious choices is likely to be profitable. Finance professors Meir Statman and Deniz Anginer combed through several back issues of Fortune Magazine’s ranking of respectability and created a “most admired” and “least admired” portfolio. Shares of the latter outperformed the former by nearly two percentage points a year.

Favoring Wall Street’s redheaded stepchildren can be done systematically. One way is to buy companies that essentially are being dumped by larger corporations. Unable to sell them or unwilling to pay a big bill to Uncle Sam in the process of doing so, companies frequently “spin-off” subsidiaries to existing shareholders in a tax-free transaction. The thing is, though, professional investors act strangely when these brand new companies land in their portfolios. Suddenly a fund that owned, say, a large bank, also has the same exact stake in a small or medium-sized insurance company. They already owned it before, of course, but it didn’t have its own name and stock ticker. In a value-destroying disservice to their clients (hey, what else is new) , they decide that keeping it in their portfolio is more trouble than it’s worth so they’re likely to sell their shares in the near future, putting downward pressure on its price early on.

Meanwhile, a middle-level corporate manager at the former insurance subsidiary suddenly finds himself as the chief executive of a listed company with his or her very own stock options and an even stronger incentive to do well. It may take a while, but the results usually are surprisingly good. The phenomenally successful value investor Joel Greenblatt wrote about his strategy of buying spinoffs in You Can Be a Stock Market Genius. Other investors have taken note. There are exchange traded funds that buy spinoffs exclusively. A $100 investment in an index tracking their performance has grown to $319 in the past year compared to just $170 in the broad stock market

Another long-running, well-known, yet still successful way to profit from what’s out of favor on Wall Street is to buy the “Dogs of the Dow” each January – the ten highest dividend-yielding stocks among the 30 Dow Jones Industrials. These usually were relatively poor performers in the previous year, allowing their dividend yields to rise (as price falls, yield rises as long as payouts are unchanged). A $100 investment at the start of this century in the Dogs turned into $313 compared to $233 in the broad market.

Far worse than investing in the most-admired companies is having a preference for the most glamorous or exciting ones. The very first investing book I ever read, Peter Lynch’s 1989 bestseller One Up on Wall Street, warned investors away from companies with flashy names. It specifically said companies with an “x” in their name were to be avoided.

It seemed like a throwaway line but it stuck in my head years later. Just for fun I decided to test it out for an investing column in 2010. The results were surprising. I found 109 stocks in the Wilshire 5000, the broadest U.S. stock index, that began or ended with an “x,” including a few that did both. Right away I could see that Lynch was onto something. Only 49 of them had been profitable in the previous year. Even weeding the money-losing ones out, the remaining stocks were far more expensive on measures such as price-to-book or price-to-earnings than the broad market and also a lot more volatile. In other words, they were both riskier and less desirable on average.

Why would there be a connection? As any Scrabble player can tell you, few words have an “x” so that letter, probably along with “z” and “q,” lend themselves to made-up, snazzy-sounding names. By my calculation, an “x” appears in company names 17 times more frequently than in actual English words.

The same warning could have been given about companies with a “dot-com” in their name 15 years ago. A quarter century earlier, in the swinging sixties, it was anything with the suffix “tronic” or the word “scientific.” Hot companies included Vulcatron, Circuitronics, Astron and the gratuitously snazzy-sounding “Powerton Ultrasonics.” In his classic A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton Malkiel tells the story of a company that sold vinyl records door-to-door. Its stock price surged 600% when it changed its name to Space Tone.

The fact that boring stocks are better seems to be a lesson that each generation has to learn anew. Superior bang for the buck from dowdy, out-of-favor companies was discussed as early as 1934 in Security Analysis, the investing classic by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd. Graham was the teacher and has served as the inspiration for the most-successful investor of all time, Warren Buffett, so it’s safe to say that his theories have worked pretty well in practice.

Each generation may make the same mistakes, but individual experience seems to matter. When my son’s high school had a stock picking contest I asked if I could see his classmates’ portfolios. The most popular choices were highfliers such as Tesla, Facebook, and Apple. Not a boring company in sight. Most of his classmates lagged the market.

A company called Openfolio that anonymously aggregates results and holdings from thousands of individual investors showed the same thing. Some 77% of Tesla shareholders were 49 or younger while 73% of Exxon Mobil owners were over 50. But younger investors’ love of flashy companies hurt them. During 2014 the portfolios of 35 to 49 years olds lagged 50 to 64 year olds by 2.3 percentage points. Those below 25 lagged the older group by a whopping 6.4 percentage points.

Maybe we do live and learn.

Barron’s Magazine Review

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I have a soft spot for Barron’s Magazine, the investing weekly. When I was a kid my dad would always have a folded copy in his briefcase. A little over 13 years ago, when I decided I wanted to be a financial journalist, one of the first things I did was apply for a job at Barron’s. They weren’t hiring but I wound up writing a couple of dozen freelance pieces for them anyway.

I’m happy to say that they, or at least their book reviewer, have a soft spot for me too. The review that appeared of Heads I Win, Tails I Win was very flattering. I like how it starts:

Spencer Jakab comes off as a reluctant financial guru. You might expect a Wall Street Journal columnist and editor (Heard on the Street, Ahead of the Tape) to stress his investment prowess in a book on investing. But not until page 249 does Jakab confide that he rescued his mother’s stock portfolio from the dot-com bust of the early-2000s, persuading her to sell her Nasdaq-related holdings in the fall of 1999 and park the funds in “boring Treasury bonds.” Her circle of middle-age Hungarian immigrants ignored his advice and lived to regret it.

Anyway, read the whole thing and then read my book if you haven’t already.

 

Zen and the Art of 401(k) Maintenance

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My book was featured in a nice article by Ron Lieber in The New York Times. It starts out mentioning an alleged Fidelity Investments study that showed a surprising finding about investor success. Here’s a transcript from Business Insider of Jim O’Shaughnessy discussing it with Barry Ritholtz:

O’Shaughnessy: “Fidelity had done a study as to which accounts had done the best at Fidelity. And what they found was…”

Ritholtz: “They were dead.”

O’Shaughnessy: “…No, that’s close though! They were the accounts of people who forgot they had an account at Fidelity.”

Except, as Lieber found, the study had never been conducted. For what it’s worth, I bet that’s what they would have found since, as I note from two actual studies in the book, frequency of trading or even checking your brokerage account correlates negatively with returns. Rip Van Winkle would’ve been an awesome investor.

In addition to being a nice piece on investing, the article has a photo credit (the pic above) by none other than little old me – surely a first for a Wall Street Journal reporter in our rival paper! It’s a snapshot of my collection (well, part of it) of bad investment books that I mention in Chapter One.