What Bull Market?

I’m still trying to figure out why I keep hearing investment strategists proclaiming that the bull market remains intact. Do these people really think we are in a bull market? Do the numbers support that conclusion? Does this market feel like it’s going gangbusters? I have to say “no” on both counts.

First of all, the market is down since the turn of the millennium, and we’re more than halfway through the decade already. I hate to break it to everybody, but the bull market in stocks ended in 1999. It was the greatest bull market of all time, lasting a full 18 years beginning in 1982. During that stretch, the S&P 500 returned an average of 19% per year and recorded only 1 down year (a 3% loss in 1990).

It takes more than a couple of down years to get the bull running again. If stocks average 5% a year for the rest of the decade (which I think is entirely possible, if not probable), the average return for the decade will be 2% per year. When stocks fail to keep pace with inflation, it’s not a bull market.

That said, there is no reason investors can’t attain double-digit returns in a bear market. It just means that index funds won’t do the trick. Superior stock selection will.

Why Do Companies Give Guidance?

If I was running a public company, I would not give investors and analysts any type of precise financial guidance. Giving such sales and profit estimates stems from the implementation of Regulation FD, which required companies to divulge all meaningful information to the public, not just Wall Street analysts and boards of directors. No longer faced with having the luxury of “guiding” analysts to how a particular quarter was tracking, companies began issuing financial guidance in their press releases for everyone to see and interpret.

Unfortunately, earnings guidance plays right into the hands of those who focus too much on short-term financial performance, as opposed to building long-term shareholder value. CEO’s should not make business decisions in order to ensure they can make their numbers every quarter, but instead because it is in the best interest of the company and its shareholders long-term.

Making sound decisions that succeed in hitting both short-term and long-term goals is not always possible. Sometimes corporate managers have to make short-term sacrifices to ensure long-term stability and growth. Examples of these actions might be a dilutive acquisition, or price cutting to prevent a key customer from bolting to a competitor. Price discounts and dilutive deals will cause many companies to miss a quarter or two, but investors will be much better off five years later.

The fact remains that Wall Street focuses too much on quarter-to-quarter financial results. Investors see this every day when companies miss their EPS numbers by a penny or two and their stock drops 10, 20, or 30 percent in a single day. As a result, CEO’s begin to manage their business just to make sure they hit their numbers.

Taser (TASR) shipped out a $1 million order on December 31, 2004 to ensure they hit Q4 profit estimates. Pharmaceutical companies convinced wholesalers to take delivery of more product than they needed (a tactic called “channel stuffing”) so sales would be on target. According to court records, former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers agreed to cook his company’s books because they needed to “hit their numbers to keep the stock price up.”

Finding companies that manage their businesses based on strategic plans, and not their public financial guidance, will do a much better job over the long term, and that’s something investors should look out for.

Taser Shareholders Stunned

Let the class action lawsuits begin. It appears the party for stun gun maker Taser (TASR) is ending. Two years ago, TASR stock traded at $0.35 (split-adjusted). After rising to more than $33 in 2004, the stock fell 30% today, to close at $14 per share. Taser is down 55% so far this year, and it’s only January 11th. As a result, lawsuits will be filed, lots of them. And soon, very soon.

Shareholders will scream of being had. Taser didn’t adequately update the public about its business, they’ll say. They will point to the company’s management; a father (Chairman) and two sons (one is CEO, the other is President). The trio sold more than $100 million worth of stock in 2004, all while touting their stun guns’ safety and growth potential to any TV station or reporter that would listen.

They will be accused of insider trading because they were selling stock as they were hyping their company’s prospects. Class action lawyers will conclude they knew business would fall short of their rosy projections, hence they sold, but didn’t tell anyone, leaving shareholders with a 55% loss in 11 days.

Can you blame them? Not the shareholders, they are to blame, but rather Phil, Tom, and Rick Smith. Are they bad people for taking $105 million in profits off the table when their company was being valued at nearly $2 billion, despite only having $68 million in sales? Are they crooks? No. Actually, they are smart. They didn’t know ahead of time when orders would be delayed or exactly when competitors would bring new products to market. What they did know was that companies aren’t worth 30 times revenues very often, and when they are, it’s not for very long.

How about Mark Cuban? Is he a crook? Most people (including myself) think he was a genius when he sold his Internet broadcasting company, Broadcast.com, to Yahoo! for billions of dollars. He got Yahoo! shares in exchange, and even knew to sell those too. Mr. Cuban didn’t sell because he lost interest in his business, or because he doubted whether radio signals would be broadcast over the Internet. He sold because he knew Broadcast.com was not really worth the $7 billion the equity market was pricing it at.

It’s the world we live in today. We do something stupid, lose money because of it, and we sue. We don’t admit we made a mistake and learn from it; vowing never to make the same mistake again. That’s what we should do, but not what most of us will do. Taser shareholders who will choose to join the class action suits are a perfect example.

If you paid 30 times sales for an overhyped pipedream company, you probably will lose money. It happens. We all mess up sometimes. But do yourself a favor. Learn from the mistake. Learn how to value companies properly, so as to avoid losing any more money. But please, don”t sue the people who understood concepts you failed to grasp.

The Smiths may be very guilty of overhyping their company. But not once did they hold a gun (no pun intended) to somebody’s head and force them to buy Taser stock. When they saw an asset they owned become grossly overvalued, they sold. They did what every good investment manager would have done, and is heralded for doing.

We shouldn’t sue people just because they’re smarter than us. I’m not against giving every human being their fair day in court. The problem right now, in 2005, is that we don’t only sue when somebody breaks the law. We sue when we mess up, to get revenge.

Insider Selling Hit 4-Year High in November

Corporate insiders sold $6.6 billion worth of company stock in November, an increase of 187 percent from the prior month. This amount was the highest recorded in a single month since August of 2000 ($7.7 billion). For every $1 of stock purchased by insiders in November, $46.45 worth was sold. The largest group of sellers came from Charles River Labs (CRL), where 14 insiders sold nearly 800,000 shares, netting $36.7 million in the largest round of selling for that company in 5 years.

Historical evidence has shown that insider buying is a much better indication of equity valuations, when compared with insider selling. However, this statistic still indicates to me that stock prices, in general, are likely to be relatively fairly valued at this point in time. It appears that individual stock selection will be crucial in 2005, as the broad market indices aren’t likely to appreciate too much from here, given that the S&P 500 is slated to book an 8 percent earnings gain next year and the index trades at a forward P/E of 17.

One notable insider purchase was that of Washington Mutual’s CEO, who bought 50,000 shares of WM stock at $39.50, his first open market purchase ever and the largest in the company’s history.