Financial, Retail Weakness Mask Underlying Core Profitability

Simply judging from the stock market’s performance over the last couple of months, you might think the entire U.S. economy is teetering on the brink of disaster. In reality though, the sheer ugliness of the financial services and retail sectors is masking the other eight sectors of the market that, while certainly weaker than they once were, are actually holding up okay given the economic backdrop. The easiest way to illustrate this is to show earnings by sector for the last three years; 2006, 2007, and 2008. Keep in mind the 2008 are estimates based on nine months of actual reported profits and estimates of fourth quarter numbers.

As you can see from this graph, earnings in areas like telecom, healthcare, staples, or utilities are doing just fine and can withstand further weakness in 2009 and still more than justify some of the share price declines we have seen in recent months.

The selling has been indiscriminate but the business fundamentals are quite differentiated, depending on sector, which is one of the reasons that the U.S. equity market has not been this cheap relative to earnings, interest rates, and inflation since the early 1980’s. It is a gift for long term investors.

Remember, Markets Rebound Before Economic Data Improves

As we head into 2009, the economic backdrop looks gloomy. Two important measures in particular, employment and corporate earnings, are set to deteriorate further throughout next year. The unemployment rate has risen from 4.4% to 6.5%, but many are now predicting a peak of 8%-9% sometime in 2009. Corporate earnings will fall for the second straight year in 2008, but many top-down forecasters expect a third year of declines. Does that mean stock prices have a lot further to fall still? Not necessarily.

Remember, the stock market is a discounting mechanism. It reflects future events ahead of time, as the 50% decline over the last year or so reflects. At some point, stock prices reach levels where they already are reflecting the assumptions of continued weakness in unemployment and corporate earnings. Bill Hester, of Hussman Funds, helps to shed light on this concept. He writes:

“The four-week moving average of the jobless claims data breached 500,000, which has happened only 4 other times. It occurred in December of 1974, in April of 1980, in November of 1981, and in March of 1991. During the 12-month period following these periods, the S&P rose 32 percent, 30 percent, 20 percent, and 9 percent, respectively. These periods also shared attractive valuation. Over the four periods the price-to-peak earnings ratio averaged 8.75, which is about right where the market’s current valuation is. Although it’s a small sample, low valuation, coupled with economic data confirming a substantial contraction in the labor market, has offered longer-term investors very strong average returns.

Those returns aren’t restricted to bull markets that follow the worst recessions. Returns following all of the recession-induced bear markets have been quite strong. First-year returns following a recession have averaged 37 percent with surprisingly little variation. Not including the out-sized gains following the 1982 bottom, all of these first-year bull markets gained between 29 and 44 percent.”

Even if we assume, as the market has already begun to grasp, that both employment and earnings don’t trough until mid or late 2009, we should not assume that the market will not hit bottom until those numbers stabilize or improve. Examining market history shows that the market rebounds before the economic data signal the recession has ended. As always, the market is a discounting mechanism.

Now, I don’t know if the economy will bottom in early 2009, mid 2009, late 2009, or during 2009 at all. As a long term investor, I don’t find it very helpful to try and guess between outcomes that are only a quarter or two away from each other. Even Nouriel Roubini, the biggest proponent around of a doomsday economic scenario, thinks the recession will end by the end of 2009. Even if you believe in his forecast, the market would start a new bull market in Q3 or Q4 of 2009 (3-6 months before the recession ends, as history suggests). If he is proved a bit pessimistic, it could be even sooner than that. As a result, long term investors should be buying, not selling at this point. Equity market valuations are too low to make the case that the market has not yet discounted most of the bad news we are likely to get in coming quarters.

When Markets Are Oversold, Not Much Needed For 500 Point Rallies

Today is a perfect example of why I do not recommend that long term investors, regardless of how afraid they are right now, sell their stocks into oversold equity markets to minimize short term pain. When sentiment is so negative, the mere nomination of a new Treasury Secretary can result in a 500 point Dow rally within hours.

All of this announcement did was lift some uncertainty from the market, but traders hate uncertainty. Does it matter that Geithner was one of the two or three people most talked about for this job? Not at all. All that matters is that now we know who it will be.

Now, does this mean we won’t be down 500 points on Monday? Of course not. The point is, when markets are down so much and have priced in so much negative information, it does not take much to get a massive rally. Imagine what would happen if economic data begins to improve sometime next year?

Unless you are psychic it is very difficult to get out of the market and get back in time to catch most of the rebound. With electronic trading and instant dissemination of information these days, the market can move a couple thousand points in a matter of days (which nowadays is a 20-30% move). The odds are against you being able to get back in fast enough, which is why I don’t even try.

Analyzing Stock Valuations During Recessions

Now that third quarter earnings reports have largely been released, I thought I would write a bit about valuing stocks during a recession. Having seen all of the numbers and listened to all of the conference calls, I am beginning the process of going through my client accounts and making adjustments, if necessary, based on what information has come out during earnings season.

Drastic business model shifts are rare, so this analysis largely involves looking at management’s execution of a company’s particular strategy (are they doing what an investor would expect) coupled with valuation analysis (what price is the market assigning to the business and what assumptions are embedded in those assumptions).

Valuation analysis is a bit trickier during a recession because earnings are at depressed levels. The key is to understand that a stock price is supposed to equate to the present value of expected future cash flows in perpetuity. As a result, corporate profits for any given single year are not always indicative of value, meaning that valuations using earnings during a recession will likely underestimate a company’s fair market value and vice versa during boom times.

A lot of people these days remain negative on stocks, despite the recent crash in prices, because they are assigning a low multiple to depressed earnings and are concluding that stocks aren’t very cheap, when in fact, they have not been this cheap since the early 1980’s. For instance, many expect earnings for the S&P 500 to dip to $60 in 2009. Market bears will assign a “bear market” P/E of 10 to those earnings and insist the S&P 500 should be at 600 (versus 865 today). More aggressive projections might use a P/E of 15 (the historical average) and conclude that the market is about fairly valued right now (15 x 60 = 900).

The problem with this analysis, of course, is that it assumes the economy is normally in a recession and a $60 earnings target for the S&P 500 is a reasonable and sustainable estimate for the future. In fact, it represents a trough level of earnings, which is not very helpful in determining the present value of all future cash flows a firm will generate, unless of course the economy never expands again.

Consider an entrepreneur who sells winter coats, gloves, and hats in an area that has normal seasonal weather patterns. If this person wanted to sell their business and a potential buyer offered a price based on the company’s profits during the month of June (rather than the entire year as a whole), the offer price would be absurdly low.

Because of that, you will often hear the term “normalized” earnings power. In other words, when valuing a stock investors should focus on what the company might earn in normal times, rather than at the extremes.

Take Goldman Sachs (GS) for example. Wall Street expects GS to earn $0.28 per share in the current quarter, whereas in the same quarter last year they earned $7.01 per share. Just as one should not use a $7 per quarter run rate to determine fair value for GS (the stars were aligned perfectly for them last year), one should also not use a $0.28 per share run rate either, because today represents close to the worst of times for the company’s business.

Investors need to value stocks using a reasonable estimate of normalized earnings power and apply a reasonable multiple to those earnings. With cyclical stocks, oftentimes you will see share prices trading at elevated P/E multiples during the down leg of the cycle because earnings are temporarily depressed. Investors are willing to pay a higher price for each dollar of earnings (as shown by high P/E’s) because they don’t expect earnings to remain at trough levels longer term.

One of the reasons stocks are so cheap today in historical terms is because many firms are trading at single digit P/E multiples based on recessionary profit levels. Buying trough earnings streams for trough valuations has always been a winning investment strategy throughout history, which is why so many long time bears are finally stepping up and starting to buy stocks again.

Take a very recent purchase of mine, Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF), as an example. The stock is trading at $16, down from $84. ANF typically trades for between 10 and 15 times earnings. They earned $5.20 per share last year but profits are expected to drop to $3.30 this year and to below $3 in 2009. The 2007 level of profitability is not what I would consider a “normalized” number, but earnings could drop 50% from the peak by 2009 (to $2.60) and that would not be normalized either.

The great thing about today’s market for long term value investors is that we can buy a company like ANF for only 6 times earnings, even after taking their 2007 profits and slicing that number by 50% to account for the recession! When the economy recovers, isn’t ANF going to earn more than $2.60 per share and trade at more than 6 times earnings? If one believes that, then ANF is a steal (as is any other stock that is trading at a similar price) as long as one is willing to be a long term investor and wait out the full economic cycle.

Full Disclosure: Peridot was long shares of ANF at the time of writing, but positions may change any time

“Buy & Hold” Is Dead? I Think Not.

I find it rather amusing that six weeks of a horrendous market can lead so many people to declare that a “buy and hold” investment strategy is no longer viable. The evidence for such a claim is quite unimpressive, in my view. They assert that people who invested in the broad U.S. equity ten years have lost money so far, so “buy and hold” doesn’t work.

Seriously? Yes, if you made a lump sum index fund investment in November 1998, waited a decade, never invested another penny, and sold today, you would have lost money over that time. “You would have made more by putting your money in the bank!” True again, but none of these arguments are very convincing. Let me explain why.

The stock market in the late 1990’s traded at the highest valuation ever recorded. That was not a good time to invest in the market with only a lump sum. Conversely, today stocks are trading at the lowest relative valuation since the early 1980’s. Those who use the last decade as evidence that “buy and hold” does not work anymore are simply telling us that buying high and selling low is a losing strategy. We already know that.

How many investors invested a lump sum in the late 1990’s, never added to their investment, and sold recently? I don’t doubt that some people did that (because they traded on emotion, not analysis) but to conclude that those few instances prove that a long term passive investment strategy is a bad idea is nonsense.

One way to avoid buying high and selling low is by dollar cost averaging into the market by adding to one’s investments over time. 401(k) investors contribute a certain percentage of their income to their plans in equal (typically bi-weekly) amounts. Other investors try to max out an IRA every year to ensure they are always adding to their investments in order to build wealth faster over time. For people who follow those investment principles, even if they choose an index fund rather than active portfolio management, the fact that the market trades lower today than it did in November 1998 is irrelevant.

People are misguided if they believe they will always get rich by investing a lump sum of money in the market, regardless of price, by not following the investment or adding to it over time. Just because some investors have learned that lesson the hard way, it certainly does not mean we should proclaim that “buy and hold” is dead.

One final point. Unlike ten years ago, stocks today are quite cheap on a historical basis. As a result, I would be willing to bet that ten years from now the market will be meaningfully higher than it is today. Ironically, naysayers are out there advising people against doing just that.

With Share Prices Depressed, Dividend Yields Highest Since 1994

During the last couple of decades dividends have not really been a core focus for investors. That has been partly due to the fact that companies have been paying them out at historically low rates. Did you know that over the very long term dividends have represented about 40% of an investor’s total return in the equity market? With the average large cap dividend rate below 2% for much of the last decade or two, many investors probably were not aware of that.

With stock prices down so much in the last year, dividend yields are creeping back up. The indicated rate on the S&P 500 today is about 2.8%, the highest since 1994 when the index was paying out 2.9%. We are still below the historical average for payouts (about 4%) but the trend is in the right direction.

I bring this up because as contrarian value investors add fresh funds to their portfolios and hunt for bargains in this market, dividends could very well play a bigger role than they have in recent years. Getting paid to wait for stock prices and the economy to recover (by collecting meaningful dividend payments along the way) is another way for investors to capitalize on the value in this market.

During the most recent bull markets, a yield of 3% was considered pretty darn good, but now investors can find much better payouts and do not always have to sacrifice the quality of company they invest in to secure above-average dividend yields. As you search for value during this bear market, keep in mind that dividends can significantly boost total equity market returns and such yields are getting easier to find nowadays.

Why Perma-Bears Are Coming Out Of Hibernation

Well, aren’t you glad October 2008 is over? After all, the 17% drop in the market was the worst month in 21 years (Crash of 1987). Given the tremendous drop in stock prices, we are beginning to read about many perma-bears who have turned bullish, which is quite a good sign for investors (this week’s Barron’s includes an interview with Steve Leuthold of Leuthold Group, another so-called perma-bear who is bullish on stocks).

First, what is a perma-bear? The nickname has been given to investment strategists and managers who seem to be permanently bearish. Why do they rarely sing the praises of the stock market’s prospects? Did they have a bad experience and simply have yet to get over it? Hardly.

Actually, perma-bears do turn bullish every so often, it just takes a lot for that to happen. The reason is because perma-bears typically only want to invest heavily in stocks when prices are extremely cheap, typically in bear markets. You see, outsized market returns are attained the easiest when prices are depressed, so perma-bears are more than willing to forgo owning stocks in size until prices are dirt cheap. As a result, they are not bullish very often because bull markets last far longer than bear markets and economic expansions last far longer than recessions.

Since investing when stocks are dirt cheap is a proven winning strategy, why do perma-bears get so much heat? Well, the simple explanation is because since the first stock market opened for trading, in any given year stocks have risen about 80% of the time. So, if four years out of every five are going to see stock prices go up in value, perma-bear detractors would argue that only investing during the depths of bear markets, while a profitable strategy, misses out on many years of market gains.

Fair criticism? Sure, but it depends on your viewpoint. Proponents of long term investing would argue that one would be better off not trying to time the market and accept that during any five year period, they expect to make money during four years and lose money during one. Statistics have shown that strategy pays off handsomely over the long term.

Perma-bears are a little more difficult to please. They realize that the average bear market results in a 30% loss, and such a hit requires a 43% rise just to get back to where they were before the drop, so they prefer to try and avoid such a painful decline, despite it being temporary in nature. By only investing when stocks are dirt cheap, they are able to reduce the chances they incur sizable losses. As a result, the perma-bears missed much of the last bull market (stocks rose for four straight years heading into 2008, just as market history would have predicted).

So, what should we conclude when the worst month for stocks in 21 years has resulted in several well-known perma-bears coming out of hibernation and recommending investors buy stocks? It means that for the first time in a long time, stocks are at the low end of their historical valuation range, which usually equates to an excellent buying opportunity. The perma-bears are getting another opportunity to come out of hibernation and play, which bodes well for all of us.

Warren Buffett Op-Ed Explains Why He Is Buying, Not Selling

Warren Buffett’s Op-Ed in the New York Times today is a must read. He echoes many of the same thoughts I offered in my quarterly letter to clients last week, but don’t take it from me, the Oracle of Omaha feels the same way.

You can read the full piece here:

Some highlights:

In the near term, unemployment will rise, business activity will falter and headlines will continue to be scary. So… I’ve been buying American stocks. This is my personal account I’m talking about, in which I previously owned nothing but United States government bonds. (This description leaves aside my Berkshire Hathaway holdings, which are all committed to philanthropy.) If prices keep looking attractive, my non-Berkshire net worth will soon be 100 percent in United States equities.

I haven’t the faintest idea as to whether stocks will be higher or lower a month or a year from now. What is likely, however, is that the market will move higher, perhaps substantially so, well before either sentiment or the economy turns up. So if you wait for the robins, spring will be over.

Today people who hold cash equivalents feel comfortable. They shouldn’t. They have opted for a terrible long-term asset, one that pays virtually nothing and is certain to depreciate in value. Indeed, the policies that government will follow in its efforts to alleviate the current crisis will probably prove inflationary and therefore accelerate declines in the real value of cash accounts.

Equities will almost certainly outperform cash over the next decade, probably by a substantial degree. Those investors who cling now to cash are betting they can efficiently time their move away from it later. In waiting for the comfort of good news, they are ignoring Wayne Gretzky’s advice: “skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

Strong Balance Sheets Make Hunting For Value Easier

During the last bear market (2000-2002) there were dozens of situations where individual stock valuations looked down right silly. This bear market will be no different, and long term value-oriented investors can take advantage of the fact that in times like these numerous bargains can be had, but most people are too afraid to take them.

A great way to find value in the market is to use enterprise values (market values after netting out the firm’s cash on hand and debt outstanding). Investing in companies with hoards of cash in the bank allow investors to get the operating businesses on the cheap. There are many examples of this, and I often talk about net cash positions of various stocks on this blog, but let’s use former Halliburton (HAL) subsidiary KBR (KBR) to show what I am talking about. I don’t own the shares, but it fits the description perfectly.

At $15 per share, KBR stock is down 66% from its 52-week high of $44 and sports a market value of about $2.55 billion. Earnings in 2007 were $1.08 per share, and are expected to jump to $1.72 this year and $1.98 in 2009. That quick glance shows that KBR appears to be a pretty cheap stock at about 10 times trailing earnings and less than 9 times current year projections, but KBR’s balance sheet tells an even better story.

As of June 30th, KBR had cash on hand of $1.85 billion and no debt outstanding. With a market value of only $2.55 billion, KBR’s enterprise value is merely $700 million. With $11 per share of net cash in the bank, investors who buy KBR at $15 per share are getting the firm’s operating businesses for the aforementioned $700 million, or only $4 per share. This for a company that has earned $428 million in operating income in the last 12 months.

A valuation of less than 2 times cash flow is truly silly, but in markets like the one we have right now, nobody really cares because they are too busy being concerned about overnight LIBOR rates and when the Treasury is going to start buying up assets from banks. What great news for long term investors who can seize on opportunities.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Don’t Borrow Money to Buy Stocks

Much of the recent market decline has been due to forced sellers like hedge fund and mutual fund managers that have had no choice but to sell stocks they own due to redemption notices from their panicked investors. In many cases, forced selling has also taken the form of margin calls.

Consider the shares of long time Peridot favorite Chesapeake Energy (CHK) which fell 50% in just the last 3 days of last week. The stock movement felt like panic selling and late Friday we learned that the company’s largest shareholder (the co-founder and CEO) was forced to sell most of his 5% stake in the company between Wednesday and Friday. Why? To meet brokerage margin calls that were triggered because he had bought the shares in part with borrowed money.

For the most part, I would never recommend that individual investors borrow money to buy stocks. Every so often there are arbitrage opportunities that can be completely hedged and therefore using margin can pay off if downside risk can be hedged away, but speculating on a stock price’s future movement based on fundamental bullishness (as was the case with CHK) with borrowed money is a recipe for potential disaster.

Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake’s CEO, has paid the ultimate price by being forced to sell 94% of his stake in his own company in the middle of one of the most panicked weeks the market has ever seen. Don’t make the same mistake he did by speculating with borrowed money. Leverage has crushed the investment banks, but it can get individuals in deep trouble too.

Full Disclosure: Peridot was long shares of CHK at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time