Monthly Archives: August 2015

last week’s final score: index funds 1, active management 0

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 an 8.5 percent annual return since World War II, while the average actively-managed mutual fund has delivered about 7 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.

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a few things to consider before you go bargain hunting

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.

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the oil crash isn’t the only thing killing energy companies

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.

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lone star gems

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.

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tesla, fitbit, and what happens when wall street forgets a fad is a fad

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.

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