Noise and Unpredictability

Separating signal versus noise is challenging these days because today’s signal is more muddled than ever. One of the more unusual circumstances, which I covered in more detail in the article “Important and Unknowable” is that the immediate past is telling us extraordinarily little about the near future. That is unusual because we can typically

More volatility. Less predictability

S&P 500 stock market values are experiencing the same volatility as the first half of 2020, the start of the Covid-19 pandemic (based on the 50 largest value movements as a percentage of the index’s total market value). These dramatic movements show that market volatility leads to big price movements in stocks, both up and down. There are a couple of factors combining to enhance this turbulence: The popularity of the momentum trade (buying stocks that are rising quickly and dump the relative losers quickly). Decreasing liquidity (fewer buyers and sellers for the other side of trades). Both factors magnify the market’s moves in either direction.

Time to Worry

When Everything is Going Great, It Probably Isn’t.

Things can only get better from here… said the turkey the day before Thanksgiving. It’s challenging to know when it’s too late because things go badly gradually, then suddenly.

It might be time to start worrying about tech-stock valuations. Usually, all it takes is a few overly ebullient stock analysts to set off an alarm. When unreasonableness takes over (remember all those analysts’ reports from March 2000? The NASDAQ could only go up and all those internet funds were going to double again in 2001?). In March 2000, the bellwether for this nonsense was Henry Blodget’s recommendation of Amazon with a target price of $400.00 by March 2001 (at the time Amazon was trading for about $60.00 a share). Instead of being $400.00 in March 2001, Amazon’s price was $5.97 per share.

Long Term Value Means Long Term

Of course, Amazon has created an amazing business model and is fundamentally rewriting technology services and customer logistics. Trading at almost 100 times earnings the market believes there is much more growth and profitability to come. Really? Regardless of your perspective about that, Amazon is an example of investments that are either “don’t bother it’s ridiculous” or “never sell it’s ridiculous.”

The market may stay permanently irrational about companies like Amazon, or Amazon may catch up to the market’s irrationality. What should an investor do? The answer is simple – don’t play. By that I mean you either buy the stock and ride the tiger (which means you can never get off – or sell) or stay out of the jungle completely – don’t ever buy. Half measures rarely have good outcomes.

Amazon is exemplary. This tiger has rallied substantially since those woeful days in March 2001 to close above $3,200 per share in February 2021. So, even if you listened to the absurdity belched out in March 2000, and on paper, had substantial losses from your Amazon investment for several years, if you held on, you are brilliant and rich (more like lucky; but it’s smarter to be lucky than lucky to be smart). Don’t listen to the analysts and don’t get off.

Animal spirits and the madness of markets

When to sell is more important than what to buy. One of the biggest mistakes investors make is thinking that their purchase decision is the most important decision they will make. This is misguided because most losses are lost opportunities. They may be buying decisions that were never made, but most likely, they are selling decisions where the decision to sell was made too soon. When Warren Buffett owned 5% of Disney in the 1960s, he made a 50% return. He happily sold the stock. But investment decisions should not be made based on historical returns. Once again, all investments are predictions for the future. Regardless of whether the investment you currently hold has generated a great return or lost you money, what will it do from this point on?

Buying or selling is a crucial investment decision because you are always either buying or selling. There is no such thing as “holding.” If you own something you have bought it. If you would not buy it today but continue to own it simply because you bought it in the past, and not making an investment decision, just simply being inactive. If you are an investor who is buying or selling. Selling decisions tend to be inefficient. One does not need to be active, but one does need to think like an owner. If you own a great company, there is little reason to do anything else other than stay on top of developments within that company and industry to make sure they can remain a great company. Eventually, they will revert to the mean. More than anything, that is an investor’s job – figure out when the company will revert to the mean. That means they will either be losses or tremendous gains in the future as this trend occurs.

Nothing stays above average.

Markets and Valuations

The current low interest rate environment increases the discounted present value of future cash flows and reduces the return demanded for every investment. In other words, when the Fed funds rate is zero, 6% bonds become disproportionately attractive. Buyers have now bid bond prices up until yields are now significantly less.What does it mean if the prices of stocks and listed credit instruments are at levels not driven primarily by fundamentals reasons (i.e. current earnings and the outlook for future growth), but in large part because of the Fed’s buying, it’s injection of liquidity, and the resultant low cost of capital and the market’s lower demanded returns on financial instruments?