Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On market timing

This is one topic that always attracts a lot of debate and verbal lashes. Value investors are of the view that it is futile to time the market. Over long period of time, studies have shown that you cannot beat market return after factoring transaction costs. This does not mean one cannot have positive returns. It might be possible to generate positive returns but I have enough evidence to believe that it's quite difficult.

Traders, on the other hand, believe that market timing is part and parcel of "investing". Well what value investors define as investing may be different from what traders define as investing though, but for now let's not delve into this yet. Anyways traders believe that those who don't look at charts and to a certain extent, time the entry and exit are idiots.

Ok, first we should actually define the two different types of market timing that exist.

The first type is looking at daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or even 1-2 yr charts and try to time the bottom and top. ie buy at the low (as dictated by chart patterns or other signals) then sell at the high. To try to win this game is very similar to playing at the casino. Your chances of winning are usually less than 50%. Nevertheless there are ways to make money even when you are up against the house. The book Fortune's Formula provide some interesting insights. I hope to discuss some interesting stuff from this book in the future but for now, we are not interested in this definition of market timing. You are at a value investing blog, remember?

Ok, the 2nd type of market timing involves 5-7 years macroeconomic trends and stock market cycles. This is the important type of market timing that we shall focus today.

From 1950 to 2000, if you invest in a stock index (in this post we use stats from the S&P500) and your investment horizon is only 1 yr, i.e. you buy in any particular year and sell 1 yr later, your returns can vary between -50% to +25%.

This means that if you are damn bloody good and started investing in at the bottom of the cycle, (e.g. 1998 to 1999), then your return can be 25%, in 1 yr. And if you are damn suay, and started at the peak of the cycle (like 2007), your return can be as bad as -50% in 1 yr.

However as your investment horizon stretches, the returns tend to vary less and get skewed towards a +ve return.

If your investment horizon is 1 yr, your returns vary from -50% to +25%.
For 5 yrs, your returns vary from -3% to +23%.
For 10 yrs, your returns vary from 0% to +19%.
For 25 yrs, your returns vary from +8% to +17%.
This is true for the time period 1950 to 2000.

The worst 25 yr return rate on record is when you started investing in 1929, your return is actually 0% after 25 yrs. Incidentally, this may be the case if you started in 2007. In order to avoid this pathetic outcome, someone invested in 2007 should keep buying esp in 2009 and 2010.

If you take the average of all these returns, it is roughly 10% which is average return for S&P500 over an 80 yr period. What about the other markets? Sadly most other markets do not deliver as good returns and the S&P. Japan for one, has a 25 year bear market and still counting. However, it's probably safe to say that stock markets have delivered 5-8%pa over the past 20-30 years even after taking into account this crisis.

Ben Graham, the father of value investing, advocates that we should not try to time the market and simply be happy with this 5-8%. Buffett had also mentioned that one of the best investment strategies for the retail investor would be to set aside some money buy an index fund every year and earn this 5-8%. It's simple, saves time, get rid of the emotions and can make you real money for retirement!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stock vs Spouse

If you are really into value investing, you should, hopefully by now, understand that buying and owning stocks can be akin to marriage. It is not about buying today, selling tomorrow. Or instant gratification. Or short term happiness. It's about long-term commitment, going through thick and thin together, sharing your lives.

Here's the list of comparisons. Enjoy!

Stock and spouse

1. Both are meant to be enduring life-long affairs.

2. Both require a lot of due diligence before committing to achieve happiness.

3. If you have made a good choice, the relationship only gets better over time.

4. You wouldn't admit it's a bad investment until it's too late.

5. If you've got a real gem, you can always show your friends and feel proud.

6. It's always better to start looking early in life. But not too early, teenagers reading this blog, sorry teenage = too early.

7. It's unwise to dismiss potential targets when there are only minor flaws bcos good ones are hard to come by.

8. And really, the super good ones are very hard to come by.

And here's the treat of the day!

Stock vs Spouse

1. A stock doesn't care if you surf net all day and didn't spend quality time with it.

2. A stock won't leave you for another sweet young thing.

3. A stock doesn't care if you look at other stocks.

4. A stock doesn't occupy 70% of your bed and SNORE.

5. A stock always look good in the morning, without make-up or grooming, even after 10 yrs.

6. A stock is never interested in how many stocks you have in the past.

7. You can still buy a stock even if you don't have a car, 2 condos, 3 country club memberships and 5 credit cards, well you do need a few thousand dollars though.

8. A stock doesn't need a diamond ring (with increasing carat) every 24 months.

9. A stock doesn't throw a big tantrum if you forgot the 15th anniversary of the day you two first met.

10. You don't have to visit the stock's Mum, Dad, 3 Aunties 6 Grandmas and 14 Uncles EVERY WEEKEND.

11. A stock will never complain about your cooking or your spending or anything about you for that matter.

12. A stock doesn't care if you make more money that it does.

13. A stock gives you dividends every year, usually you give your wife shopping allowance every week.

14. A stock gives you dividends every year which usually grows even bigger over time. Chances are not high to find a husband who can match that, esp if he is reading this blog.

15. When you decide to part ways with a stock, it doesn't go around bitching about you.

16. When you decide to part ways with a stock, it doesn't claim ownership of 50% of your OTHER ASSETS.

But a stock cannot give you a massage when you need it, a shoulder to cry on, share your joy and laughter, love you and care for you in sickness and in health.

And that's why Spouse still wins.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wisdom from the Guru

The following is taken from the latest Berkshire Hathaway Chairman's letter.

In good years and bad, Charlie and I simply focus on four goals:

(1) maintaining Berkshire’s Gibraltar-like financial position, which features huge amounts of excess liquidity, near-term obligations that are modest, and dozens of sources of earnings and cash

(2) widening the “moats” around our operating businesses that give them durable competitive advantages

(3) acquiring and developing new and varied streams of earnings

(4) expanding and nurturing the cadre of outstanding operating managers who, over the years, have delivered Berkshire exceptional results.
Undoubtedly good advice for retail value investors as well. In this post, I shall add my two cents brief commentary on each of the following points raised from the guru. (The link here: Just in case you are new here and wondering which guru we are talking about.)

1. As individuals, how much cash should we have in hand? There are many rules to live by. Going by portfolio construction, 5-10% in cash. In times like this, some would say 100%. But I would live by Graham's rules of not trying to time markets, ie maintain a fixed proportion in certain asset classes regardless of what happens, and rebalance that ever yr - ie if it becomes 20% bring it back down to 10% or vice versa. However, one other rule that I live by would be 6-12 mths of living expenses. Unemployment rate can hit both the headlines and us! So for me, it would 10% of portfolio or 12 mth living expenses whichever is more.

2. For this, since small time retail investors like us can't really help to enhance the moat of our companies, we should focus on buying co.s ALREADY having a durable competitive advantage. This would be big brands, strong companies. In Singapore, as mentioned in my past posts, probably less than 30 of them around. However, as individuals, we can and should focus on expanding our personal moat: something that we can do exceptionally well, much better than most people. This takes great effort and a hell lot of time, and most people never achieve anything of significance. Well, still need to try though, just be the best that we can be!

3. This came as a surprise. Buffett is not known for diversifying his bets. Anyways, I have always advocated not to put all our eggs in one basket. This, I think is a universal truth. Of course it does not make sense to have 100 bets as well. Probably a dozen of new and varied streams of earnings will earn the praise from the Guru himself!

4. Again as individual investors, we cannot really get to know top management well enough. We can only get to know them from media and from their actions (like whether they suka suka do RIGHTS issue! - which btw is super duper bad for existing shareholders, and not a free treat to buy stocks cheap as most aunties and uncles would like to think). In the context of personal networking, this means to mingle with people with the correct mindset, with honesty and integrity.

Well always refreshing to read letters from the Guru himself. Hopefully Berkshire's stock price can recover soon!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

More on margin of safety

A frequently asked question on value investing is this: how can you be so sure that the co's intrinsic value is $100 (or any other no.)?

For those not so sure what the hell is going on, read these first
Value Investing
Intrinsic Value
Good Investment

Well, the truth is, you are never sure, you can spend 20 days calculating the intrinsic value of the company and become so sure that the stock is undervalued. So you buy and the stock tank 20%. Shiok huh?

Intrinsic value goes hand in hand with margin of safety. Bcos you can never be sure whether you really got the intrinsic value right, you need to have a margin of safety. ie you will only buy the stock if the current price is way, way, WAY below your calculated intrinsic value. As a rule of thumb, I recommend 30-40% below your calculated intrinsic value. That is if you calculated that a stock is worth $100, you should be buying only when it hits $60-70.

Buffett used the example of building a bridge. If you know that the maximum weight of vehicles that will cross the bridge is 10 tons (based on historical statistics), will you build a bridge that will support 10 tons or a bridge that will support 30 tons?

That is margin of safety.

Ben Graham, the grandfather of value investing once said this: if you need to surmise value investing into only 3 words, it would be "margin of safety". It is THAT important.

Unfortunately, most investors don't really have this concept in mind. Even those who are very experienced. I guess it's not easy partly bcos have a strict margin of safety rule forces you to pass on many investment ideas even if they are quite good. And when you see them rally 100% after you decided NOT to buy them, wah shiok right? Now every wall you see has a purpose. For you to bang your head hard on it! Haha!

But having a margin of safety will make very sure that you will not lose your shirt. Even if you are damn wrong on your intrinsic value, you may lose a bit of money, the stock may tank 20%, below your buying price but quite unlikely to tank 80% below your buying price. And chances are after it tanked it will creep back up again, it will not bankrupt you. That's the strength if you have a huge margin of safety.