I’ve always been intrigued by how seemingly small events can trigger sudden downturns in overvalued market sectors. In March of 2000, a Barron’s cover story did more than anything to accelerate the bursting of the dotcom bubble. Last week, a single tweet sparked a major selloff in biotechs and pharmaceuticals.
A few weeks back, I flew to Dallas and hit an unexpected trifecta: in a single day, I visited three companies with strong insider buying. I wasn’t aware of this coincidence until after I scheduled the meetings and began researching the companies. I was pleasantly surprised. Significant insider buying is quite rare. It almost never happens here in the Bay Area, where tech firms hand out stock options like napkins. Needless to say, I was intrigued by each of these companies. However, I only wound up buying stock in two of them—and the reasons why are important.
I have to admit, I’m looking forward to the Republican debate on Wednesday. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump’s candor is entertaining. It’s somewhat fun to watch him dismiss his political opponents (including the sitting president) as “losers” and “lightweights,” and his critiques of my industry—which he refers to as “those hedge fund guys”—are mostly spot on. Too many big fund managers really are little more than under-taxed, economically destructive financial engineers. Trump’s strident anti-immigrant rhetoric is far more troubling, but it’s not hard to see why it appeals to voters who feel left behind by globalization and the increasingly polyglot composition of America’s electorate.
Most economic studies show that immigration, legal and illegal, is a net contributor, not a cost, to economic growth. Three decades ago, the legendary University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman noted that the majority of illegal immigrants work, pay income and payroll taxes, but rarely receive government benefits like Social Security and Medicare. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has frequently been on the receiving end of government largesse. Despite his professed belief in free markets, he is the prototypical crony capitalist. Without all sorts of tax breaks, debt forgiveness, and giveaways, he would be far less rich.
I recently joined a group of other money managers for a meeting at Neflix’s (NFLX) Los Gatos, California headquarters. The company’s IR rep gave a concise 30-minute business overview, followed by 30 minutes of questions. I’ve never considered investing in Netflix and I probably never will. As a rule, I don’t buy or short popular, high-profile companies. But I have to say, I came away from that presentation more than a little skeptical about Netflix’s future prospects.
The company’s subscription service is a good, if not great business and its user growth has been impressive, but NFLX is an extremely expensive stock by almost any metric. Even after its recent selloff, its market capitalization still tops $40 billion vs. $6.8 billion in estimated 2015 revenues and roughly zero free cash flow in both 2015 and 2016. Its high valuation isn’t what worries me, though. Today about ten percent of the content available on Netflix is either licensed or created by the company. It plans to increase that number to fifty percent. To say this is an extremely risky move would be an understatement.
After one of the craziest rides anyone can remember, with the Dow dropping over 1000 points in a session for the first time and everybody learning the definition of “Rule 48,” stocks ended up pretty much where they began last week. Incredibly, the Dow, S&P and Nasdaq were actually up modestly by Friday’s close. Besides Xanax manufacturers, there were two clear winners in all of the sound and fury signifying not very much: the market’s croupiers—the brokers and Wall Street traders who collect commissions on stocks, bonds, and other financial products—and Mr. John Clifton Bogle.
As a Princeton graduate student in the 1970s, Bogle invented the index fund. Today almost 1/3rd of all mutual fund assets are invested in index funds and Bogle’s Vanguard Group is the nation’s largest money management firm as measured by assets under management. Study after academic study shows that the S&P 500 has produced a 9 percent annual return since World War II, while the average actively-managed mutual fund has delivered about 7.5 percent (after deducting the 1.5 percent average “expense ratio”). The typical retail investor lags far behind, earning closer to 5 percent a year. Weeks like this past one are a big reason why.
Warren Buffett famously advised investors to “be greedy when others are fearful.” With stocks all over the world getting clubbed in recent days, there is no shortage of fear out there. The question is: will all that negative sentiment become another “wall of worry” that the markets climb to new highs? I can’t say for sure. No one can. I will say that during yesterday’s gruesome selloff, I spent more time adding to my fund’s short book than searching out potential buys. That’s because, even with the Dow and S&P suffering their worst weekly declines in four years, I still see wildly, even stupidly overvalued companies everywhere I look.
A few months ago I traveled to Houston and wrote about the increasingly upbeat mood I encountered at the energy companies I visited there. I came away from that trip thinking that well-managed service and exploration firms might be attractive investments. Many had declined 40-60 percent in response to oil’s decline from $104 last summer to the low-$40s by late fall. As oil prices rose past $60 this spring, I suspected these stocks could eventually rally.
So much for that idea.
Last week was no picnic for stocks. With oil prices continuing to implode and a rate hike looking more and more imminent, you’d think a Texas-based homebuilder would have dropped along with the rest of the market. Instead, LGI Homes (LGIH) rocketed from $19 to an all-time high above $24 after it demolished earnings expectations.
As they say in sports, that’s why you play the game.
As I highlight in the introduction of my book Dead Companies Walking, retired New York money manager David Rocker once wrote that there are three types of shorts: fads, frauds and failures. I generally focus on the latter of the three by seeking out and shorting troubled companies that could soon go broke. Shorting fads, on the other hand, is tricky. Timing is everything, and predicting exactly when a fad fizzles out is almost impossible. Remember “Pogs,” those weird little toy discs that kids briefly went nuts for a while back? It seems unbelievable in retrospect, but two Pog-related companies came public during that mania. Both went bankrupt soon after the craze subsided, but if you’d shorted either of them beforehand, you would have needed some serious intestinal fortitude to stay in the position.
The trickiest fad businesses to short are the ones that grow so popular in such a short time, even seasoned investors become convinced they will turn evergreen. This is particularly true for products that are popular among financial workers and the broader investor class. After all, if the folks buying, selling and analyzing stocks love a company’s products, they’re more likely to overestimate its value and its longevity. As I write in my book, an analyst at a prestigious brokerage once swore to me that there would soon be ten times as many rollerbladers as bicyclists. Before I hung up the phone and shorted the stock of the second largest inline-skate maker at the time, she happily informed me that she and many of her colleagues were avid rollerbladers.
The two biggest “stealth fad” stocks in today’s market could very well be Fitbit (FIT) and Tesla (TSLA). Neither is likely to go the way of Pogs or rollerblades, at least anytime soon. But, like rollerblades, they’ve both benefited from their excessive popularity among the very people buying and analyzing their stocks.
I’m always amazed—and a little horrified—at how poorly my industry treats its customers. Unlike many service professions, the licensing requirements for financial advisors are minimal, and far too many so-called “wealth managers” manage their own wealth first by promoting what John Bogle calls “salesmanship over stewardship.” Like real estate agents or used car salesmen, they push big ticket, financially destructive products with sizable embedded commissions.
But as incompetent and flat out dishonest as folks in my business can be, John and Jane Q. Public are often their own worst enemies. Through greed, gullibility, or gross negligence, people routinely blow large sums of their hard-earned savings. These five mistakes are, by far, the best ways to torch your net worth: