There is a small-cap stock portfolio (the Shadow Stock portfolio) managed by the head of an investment education non-profit, James Cloonan, PhD, of the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII), that has a nearly 20 year track record of 16% annualized returns, whereas the S&P 500 has returned 8% over that same time period and a more relevant comparison (benchmark) portfolio has returned 9%. He uses a rules based selection methodology, which is publicly available – and has been since day one. (All transactions, along with quantities bought and sold, are also publicly available.) In his most recent article, Adherence to Rules Helps Shadow Stock Portfolio’s Performance, Dr. Cloonan said this (bolded italics mine):
“I was somewhat sad in March when I had to sell Lithia Motors (LAD) because it had become too large to be a Shadow Stock. The same thing has now happened with CONN’S Inc. (CONN). Both of these stocks looked very strong and their elimination presents an opportunity to discuss the second critical investment management rule. Rule number one is: Develop a consistent, well-defined approach to investing in stocks. Rule number two is: Stick to it. Rule number two is extremely difficult to follow. There is always a reason to deviate. If those two stocks had been in my personal portfolio, I might well have kept them— thinking, “This time is different.”
The Model Shadow Stock Portfolio has had a geometric return of 16.1% a year since inception (almost 20 years). I cannot find a single mutual fund or advisory letter that has done better. It would seem very unwise to think I could make on-the-fly adjustments to the rules and do better. Following your rules doesn’t mean rules can’t be changed over time with evidence of a reason for change. We have looked at the historical impact of our rules and have modified some of them. We monitor the sell rules for market capitalization and for price-to-book ratio and have not found a justification for change.”
Unfortunately, you cannot invest with him in this portfolio. He uses it as a teaching tool. But you can learn from it. The lessons are many.
A broad, general description of Dr. Cloonan’s approach is that his rules seek out “cheap” stocks, stocks trading at low valuations relative to fundamentals such as cash flow, earnings, book value, etc. To put this approach into perspective, here’s what legendary investor Howard Marks, Chairman of Oaktree Capital Management, said in his May 25th, 2011 memo to investors, How Quickly They Forget:
“Especially since the publication of my book, people have been asking me for the secret to risk control. “Okay, I’ll read the 180 pages. But what’s really the most important thing?” If I had to identify a single key to consistently successful investing, I’d say it’s “cheapness.” Buying at low prices relative to intrinsic value (rigorously and conservatively derived) holds the key to earning dependably high returns, limiting risk and minimizing losses. It’s not the only thing that matters – obviously – but it’s something for which there is no substitute. Without doing the above, “investing” moves closer to “speculating,” a much less dependable activity.
So if you could ask just one question regarding an individual security, asset class or market, it should be “is it cheap?” Oaktree’s investment professionals try to ask it, in different ways, every day.”
In my last letter, I touched on the building blocks of return – income, growth in income, and changes in valuation – and the significance of price in the expected return thought process. In this letter, I’m going to focus on another building block of return: individual behavior.
Develop a consistent, well-defined approach to investing
Asking the question ‘is it cheap?’ represents an investment approach that separates the price of an asset from its value. Since it’s not possible for an asset to be a good investment regardless of the price paid, this approach says that low price in relation to fundamentals is associated with high future returns and high price in relation to fundamentals is associated with low future returns. This relationship makes the most sense to me.
Therefore, the key question becomes, what is a fair valuation, and what is expensive? Unfortunately, you may get as many different answers as the number of people you ask. Therefore, it is incumbent upon you or your advisor to know what your answer is, and why. And, ultimately, the answer to this question is the answer to a related question: At the asset class level, is it different this time?
Are corporate profit margins in the aggregate going to permanently remain substantially higher than their long term average? Is the long term growth in corporate earnings going to permanently increase or decrease from its average of the last 70+ years, during which we saw recession/expansions, inflation/stagflation, bull/bear markets, war/peace? Are interest rates going to remain permanently at historical lows?
If you can answer these types of questions, you know everything you need to know to earn above average returns as a diversified investor. However, the key to actually earning those returns is less about this knowledge than it is about having a different psychology from investors generally. You must be willing and able to act differently with this knowledge. Here’s what Howard Marks said about it in his September 10th, 2010 memo, Hemlines:
“…investors consistently seize upon above average returns as an encouraging sign and extrapolate them, and the 17.6% compound return on the S&P 500 from 1979 through 1999 was certainly a case in point. But rarely do they ask what gave rise to those good returns, or what it implies for the future. In essence, stock ownership conveys the benefits of owning a corporation, and stock appreciation should be powered by increases in profits. Thus long-run returns should reflect corporate growth. But as Warren Buffett has pointed out, “. . . people get into trouble when they forget that in the long run, stocks won’t appreciate faster than the growth in corporate profits.” Although that growth is the underlying source of equity profits, it is often overshadowed and obscured in the short run by trends in valuation (Joe Almon: i.e., changes in valuation). People took that 17.6% gain as an encouraging sign, overlooking the fact that it stemmed primarily from the rise of p/e ratios (Joe Almon: price to earnings ratios, or price divided by earnings) described above and thus was unlikely to continue unabated. Rather than healthy performance that could be extrapolated, this swollen return should have come as a warning that valuations were unsustainable and likely to regress toward the mean. But investors consistently fail to recognize that past above average returns don’t imply future above average returns; rather they’ve probably borrowed from the future and thus imply below average returns ahead, or even losses. The tendency on the part of investors toward gullibility rather than skepticism is an important reason why styles go to extremes.
Wharton’s Professor Jeremy Siegel, the author of Stocks for the Long Run, used historical data (a) to demonstrate that there had never been a long period when stocks didn’t outperform cash, bonds and inflation, and thus (b) to argue that most people of average risk tolerance should have roughly 100% of their capital in the stock market. But Siegel, like many laymen, failed to pursue the most critical line of inquiry. The right question to ask in the late 1990s wasn’t, “What has been the normal performance of stocks?” but rather “What has been the normal performance of stocks if purchased when the average p/e ratio is 33?”
At the asset class level, a consistent, well-defined investment approach which distinguishes between price and value is driven by the answer to one question: Is it different this time? Once you’ve come to terms with your answer to that question, you arrive at Dr. Cloonan’s rule number two: stick to it.
Stick to it
Rule number two is extremely difficult to follow. There is no way to overestimate the difficulty of sticking to it. The evidence of this should be obvious from the opening of this letter, where Dr. Cloonan says, “The Model Shadow Stock Portfolio has had a geometric return of 16.1% a year since inception (almost 20 years). I cannot find a single mutual fund or advisory letter that has done better.” Think about that for a minute, then consider this. In an industry where the smartest, most sophisticated equity portfolio managers are considered elite if they outperform their benchmarks by 2% annualized, and stratospherically elite if they outperform by 3% annualized, Dr. Cloonan’s portfolio outperformed its benchmark by 7% annualized.
Too good to be true? No, just proof of how incredibly difficult sticking to it really is – and the incredible value of extremely rare, and disciplined, behavior. I’ll repeat here the quotes from three legendarily successful investors which I included in my last letter:
The investor’s chief problem and even his worst enemy is likely to be himself. - Ben Graham
Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 IQ beats the guy with the 130 IQ. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing. - Warren Buffett
It’s not supposed to be easy. Anyone who finds it easy is stupid. – Charlie Munger
The right question to ask at this point is, how much risk did Dr. Cloonan take to achieve such dramatic outperformance? Did he take an amount of extra risk commensurate with his extra return? More? Less?
Distinguishing between risk and volatility
In my last letter I told you my definition of risk is permanent impairment of capital, not volatility, and I explained why this is the case.
At the asset class level, such as a broadly diversified index fund or a broadly diversified actively managed fund, such permanent loss is the result of buying high and selling low, plus the possibility of default in the case of bonds. In a less diversified portfolio, it is possible to so grossly overpay for a group of assets as to permanently impair the value of your investment, as happened with many portfolios of internet stocks in the Dotcom Bubble.
In the case of Dr. Cloonan’s Shadow Stock Portfolio, since the stock selection criteria requires financial health and a bargain price, as do the ongoing monitoring criteria, it’s hard to argue he’s taken more risk to achieve his excess return. His portfolio is more volatile than its benchmark and the S&P 500, but less than commensurate with his outperformance. So even by that measure, he’s in a class by himself.
But that isn’t his point, and it isn’t mine. The point is, as I said in my last letter, having the right general principles and the character to stick to them. Ben Graham said exactly that in his last interview with the Financial Analyst’s Journal, after nearly 60 years of experience. Now Dr. Cloonan is making the same point via a track record that begins nearly 80 years after Graham ‘s career began. Maybe there’s something to this advice both men are emphasizing…
There is always a reason to deviate
Rich forward-looking risk compensation typically prevails when investors are terrified, as they were in early 2009. Poor forward-looking risk compensation typically prevails when investors are unafraid, as they were in 1999 and again in 2007. If you want to alter your allocation over time to own more stocks when they seem relatively cheap (when others are afraid) and less when they seem relatively expensive (when others are unafraid), you’ll likely get better results than the vast majority of investors, but you’ll need unusual patience, discipline, and psychology to do this. There is always a reason to deviate.
It is typical for some of the world’s greatest investors to disagree about the outlook for inflation/deflation, whether stocks are fairly valued/undervalued/overvalued, whether we’re in/about to enter/about to exit a recession, whether the EU will breakup or stay together, etc., etc., etc. Rather than try to predict such things, focus on where returns come from and what you should reasonably expect going forward given the price you’re paying today. You must decide what you believe – decide what your rules are – and stick to it. There is always a reason to deviate. You cannot flip flop and expect to win over the long run.
If you’re going to ignore the market until it either excites or terrifies you, and you buy when excited and sell when terrified, you’re in big, big trouble. If you can ignore it altogether, you’ll get market returns, which is better than most investors get. Over full market and economic cycles, returns come from the coupon payments of bonds and the growth in earnings and dividends of stocks, and from your behavior. The only thing you control is your behavior. There is always a reason to deviate. Doesn’t that warrant more attention and effort than something you don’t control?
Develop a consistent, well-defined approach to investing – and stick to it.
I will write to you again in January. As always, call or email anytime with questions or concerns.