|Executive Summary | Portfolio | Guru Analysis | Watch List|
|Executive Summary||June 22, 2012|
Investors were heartened this week as the results of Greece's highly anticipated elections indicated that the country isn't headed for a Eurozone exit, which many feared would have been highly destabilizing for the continent. Hopefully that news will bolster confidence and help give the global economy a jumpstart, because much of the U.S. economic data that has been rolling in over the past two weeks has been lackluster.
One example: Industrial production fell 0.1% in May, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve, as gains in mining and utility output were more than wiped out by 0.4% decline in manufacturing output. Overall, industrial production is still 4.7% higher than it was last year at this time, but the May results were nonetheless disappointing.
Retail sales also fell, declining 0.2% in May, according to a Commerce Department report. It was the first time in 11 months that sales dipped, though they remain 5.3% above where they were a year ago. There was also a bit of a silver lining in the numbers: Part of the reason for the decline was a decrease in gas prices. Still, consumers didn't seem to be putting the money they saved from gas price declines to work in other ways.
The housing market did offer some hopeful signs for the economy, however. While housing starts fell 4.8% in May, privately owned housing units authorized by permit jumped 7.9%, indicating we should see a pick-up in homebuilding. In addition, a National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo survey found homebuilder confidence to have reached a five-year high in June.
Unemployment claims, meanwhile, remained fairly steady since our last newsletter. New claims increased very slightly while continuing claims decreased very slightly, and both remain well below where they were a year ago. New claims are about 9% below their year-ago levels, while continuing claims are about 11.5% lower than they were a year ago.
Of course the hubbub surrounding Greece and the Eurozone continues to dominate most investors' minds. The outcome of Greece's elections last week showed that the country seems committed to staying in the Eurozone, though it wants some of the terms of its bailout deals altered. Eurozone countries also recently reached a preliminary bailout deal for Spain -- where medium-term borrowing costs hit Euro-era record highs this week -- though the details need to be worked out. It could be in the $100 billion range. All in all, the situation in Europe remains the great state of flux; for now the impact on the U.S. economy doesn't seem to be as damaging as many have feared. We'll have to see if the Greek elections and Spanish bailout help confidence enough to stabilize the situation and prevent greater spillover of Europe's problems to the U.S. Rating agency Moody's, for one, is concerned it might -- in downgrading 15 banks and securities firms with global capital markets operations this week, it cited the situation in Europe as one of several reasons.
Amid all this, the S&P 500 returned 0.8% since our last newsletter, while the Hot List returned 2.2%. So far in 2012, the portfolio has returned 7.9% vs. 5.4% for the S&P. Since its inception in July 2003, the Hot List is far outpacing the index, having gained 144.0% vs. the S&P's 32.5% gain.
Where Are The Values?
One of the questions that I and other investment managers are most frequently asked in interviews is, "Where are you finding the most value in the market right now?" It's a question that I think is particularly interesting and constructive to consider when talking about the Hot list and my models, because of their purely quantitative nature. Because there is no subjectivity, no guesswork or hunch-playing, my models and the Hot List portfolio can give an unbiased look at where the numbers say the best opportunities lie at any given time.
Often, however, the Hot List remains pretty well diversified. Right now, for example, five sectors and seven different industries are represented in the 10-stock portfolio. Only the retail-apparel industry, with two firms (TJX Companies and Guess?, Inc.), and the consumer financial services industry, with three firms (Discover Financial Services, Altisource Portfolio Solutions, and World Acceptance Corp.), have more than one holding in the portfolio.
That's not to say that it won't sometimes load up on a particular area of the market. Back in early 2009, for example, the Hot List included five capital goods stocks, taking advantage as overwrought fears about the U.S. economy being headed for oblivion pushed those cyclical firms' shares to unrealistically low levels. But generally the portfolio seems to hold a variety of stocks.
By using some of the other tools on my website, however, we can take a deeper look into where larger pockets of value may exist in the market. For example, the site's Advanced Guru Stock Screener allows you to search for stocks that get Guru Strategy approval and separate them by sector. Currently, 83 stocks get approval from two or more models (applying certain baseline liquidity and size requirements). Here's the breakdown among sectors:
Consumer Cyclical: 5
Capital Goods: 4
Consumer Non-Cyclical: 2
The services sector is by far the leader, but that shouldn't be surprising, given that the service sector comprises a huge part of our economy. When you consider that, the breakdown actually looks reasonably diverse.
When we look at specific industries, the website's Industry Index comes in handy. Right now, the top five industries on the list are Retail-Apparel, with a score of 95; Jewelry & Silverware (90); Life Insurance (89); Construction & Agricultural Machinery (88); and Retail-Drugs (87). At the bottom of the list are Retail-Home Improvement (61); Computer Hardware (69); and Specialty Retail, Paper & Paper Products, and Catalog & Mail Order Retail (all with 73). The industry ratings can sometimes be a bit skewed, however -- the Jewelry & Silverware industry, for example, has just 9 stocks, and one of them (Fossil, Inc.) makes up more than 80% of the industry's market capitalization.
Perhaps a more interesting gauge involves looking at where some of my better-performing individual guru-based portfolios are looking these days. I checked the composition of my five top-performing 10-stock portfolios, those picked using my Motley Fool-, Benjamin Graham-, Kenneth Fisher-, James O'Shaughnessy-, and Martin Zweig-inspired models. These portfolios have annualized long-term returns between 8.2% and 12.4% since their July 2003 inceptions (vs. just 3.5% for the S&P 500, all figures through June 20). A handful of stocks pop up in multiple portfolios, so all in all the five models have keyed in on a total of 43 stocks. Here's the sector breakdown:
Basic Materials: 5
Consumer Cyclical: 4
Consumer Noncyclical: 2
Capital Goods: 1
The services sector again is well in the lead, not surprisingly. After that, financials get a bit more love, percentage-wise, than they do when looking at the Advanced Guru Stock Screener, as do consumer stocks. Energy and tech stocks get a little less attention, percentage-wise.
So, what conclusions, if any, can we draw from all of this? Well, if we consider things through the lens of traditionally defensive sectors vs. traditionally aggressive sectors, I'm not sure there's too many conclusions to be drawn. For example, while some traditionally defensive sectors, like healthcare, appear to be offering a lot of value, others, like utilities, offer little.
But these days, the traditional distinctions have in many ways been flipped on their heads. Technology, normally an aggressive sector, in some ways acts as a defensive area, with our economy relying so much on technology that many of these companies have been able to produce solid, steady earnings for a decade or more. And financials and healthcare, traditionally two defensive sectors, are both considered by many to be far from safe because of lingering global debt woes and the uncertainty of the sweeping U.S. healthcare reform, respectively.
But I think there is a lesson to learn from where my models are finding the most value, and it has to do with fear. Look at the sectors and industries that get the most interest right now. Most -- retailers and service firms, energy companies, basic materials firms, and healthcare companies -- have some sort of significant fears swirling around them. Retailers and service companies are dealing with the alleged "death" of the U.S. consumer (which, so far, has been greatly exaggerated); energy and materials companies are dealing with fears that Europe's debt woes and China's slowdown will lead to a big drop in global commodities demand; healthcare firms are the subject of great fear and anxiety because of the uncertainty surrounding the healthcare overhaul.
But as the vast majority of the highly successful gurus I follow have shown, if you want to generate strong, market-beating returns over the long haul you have to be willing to tread into areas of the market where fear reigns. Investors tend to overreact -- both on the upside and downside -- so stocks in fear-dominated areas of the market more often than not get beaten down too far, and offer very good value for those who have the courage to venture into them.
Of course, there will be times when stocks in more well-liked areas of the market are attractive, perhaps because they simply are proven, steady performers, or perhaps because of short-term, company specific issues that make them bargains. And, of course, just because a stock looks cheap, that doesn't mean it's a buy -- if a firm isn't financially sound, isn't generating cash, and/or doesn't do a good job growing investors' money, it could well trade at low valuations because it's a dog, and everyone knows it. That's why you always want to make sure that the business behind attractively priced shares is a solid, proven one; by using fundamentals and balance sheet data, you can assess whether the stock is cheap because the company is in real trouble, or whether it's a case of investors overreacting. Making that delineation is how investors like Warren Buffett, Benjamin Graham, Joel Greenblatt, and Kenneth Fisher became gurus, and it's how the Hot List has beaten the market by a wide margin over the long haul.
Guru Spotlight: John Neff
Most investors wouldn't give a fund described as "relatively prosaic, dull, conservative" a second glance. That, however, is exactly how John Neff described the Windsor Fund that he headed for more than three decades. And, while his style may not have been flashy or eye-catching, the returns he generated for clients were dazzling -- so dazzling that Neff's track record may be the greatest ever for a mutual fund manager.
By focusing on beaten down, unloved stocks, Neff was able to find value in places that most investors overlooked. And when the rest of the market caught on to his finds, he and his clients reaped the rewards. Over his 31-year tenure (1964-1995), Windsor averaged a 13.7 percent annual return, beating the market by an average of 3.1 percent per year. Looked at another way, a $10,000 investment in the fund the year Neff took the reins would have been worth more than $564,000 by the time he retired (with dividends reinvested); that same $10,000 invested in the S&P 500 (again with dividends reinvested) would have been worth less than half that after 31 years, about $233,000. That type of track record made the understated, low-key Neff a favorite manager of many other professional fund managers -- an "investor's investor", if you will.
How did Neff do it? By focusing first and foremost on value, and a key part of how he found value involved the Price/Earnings Ratio. While others have called him a "contrarian" or "value investor", Neff writes in John Neff on Investing that, "Personally, I prefer a different label: 'low price-earnings investor.' It describes succinctly and accurately the investment style that guided Windsor while I was in charge."
To Neff, the P/E ratio was key because it involved expectations. If investors were willing to buy stocks with high P/E ratios, they must be expecting a lot from them, because they are willing to pay more for each dollar of future earnings per share; conversely, if a stock has a low P/E ratio, investors aren't expecting much from it. Much like David Dreman, the great contrarian guru who we examined a few newsletters back, Neff found that stocks with lower P/E ratios -- and lower expectations -- tended to outperform, because any hint of improvement exceeded the low expectations investors had for them. Similarly, stocks with high P/Es often flopped, because even strong results couldn't match investors' expectations.
To Neff, however, the P/E wasn't always a lower-is-better ratio. If investors knew that a firm was a dog, they'd rightly avoid its stock, giving it a low P/E ratio but little in the way of future growth prospects. Because of that, he wrote that Windsor targeted stocks with P/E ratios between 40 and 60 percent of the market average.
While it was at the heart of his investment philosophy, the P/E ratio was also by no means the only metric Neff used to judge stocks. He wanted to see earnings growth, but here again it was not a case of more-is-better. A stock with too high a growth rate -- more than 20 percent -- could have trouble sustaining that growth over the long haul. He thus preferred to see growth between 7 and 20 percent per year, the kind of steady, unspectacular growth that could be sustained.
Sustainable growth also meant growth that was driven by sales -- not one-time gains or cost-cutting measures. Neff thus liked to see companies whose earnings growth and sales growth were rising at similar rates. (My Neff-based model interprets this as sales growth needing to be at least 7 percent per year, or at least 70 percent of EPS growth.)
One more key aspect of Neff's strategy involved dividends. He believed that many investors valued stocks strictly on their price appreciation potential, meaning that you can often essentially get their dividend payouts for free. He estimated that about two-thirds of Windsor's 3 percent per year market outperformance during his tenure came from dividends.
To make sure that his analysis captured dividend payments, Neff used the Total Return/PE ratio. This measure divides a stock's total return (that is, its EPS growth rate plus its dividend yield) by its P/E ratio. He looked for stocks whose Total Return/PE ratios doubled either the market average or their industry average.
In recent years, my Neff-inspired model has been very stringent, with very few companies passing all of its tests. Here's a look at the stocks that currently make up my 10-stock Neff-based portfolio:
Xerox Corporation (XRX)
Aflac Incorporated (AFL)
GameStop Corp. (GME)
Oracle Corporation (ORCL)
Discover Financial Services (DFS)
Spreadtrum Communications (SPRD)
The Buckle, Inc. (BKE)
Valassis Communications, Inc. (VCI)
EZCORP Inc. (EZPW)
CACI International Inc. (CACI)
I began tracking my Neff-based portfolio at the start of 2004, and it's had some significant ups and downs. From its inception through 2007, the portfolio returned about 67%, about double the S&P 500's 32.4% return. The 2008 crash was especially hard on value stocks, however, and the Neff portfolio fell more than 48% for the year, about 10 percentage points behind the S&P. It bounced back strong in 2009, surging 45.4%, but has struggled over the past couple years. All in all, it is averaging annualized returns of 1.3% since inception, lagging the S&P 500 by 1 percentage point (through June 18).
Just like Neff himself, the Neff-based model often treads into the most unloved parts of the market. As you can see above, many of its current holdings have a good amount of fear hanging over them, whether it be company-specific or industry-related. Because of that, a value-focused strategy can languish for lengthy periods of time. But Neff succeeded by staying disciplined and focusing on value. But by ignoring the crowd and focusing on these firms' strong financials and fundamentals, I think the Neff model will end up benefiting significantly from many of these picks.
News about Validea Hot List Stocks
Discover Financial Services (DFS): Discover's second-quarter net income fell 10% to $532 million, or $1 a share, compared with $593 million, or $1.09 a share, a year earlier, the Associated Press reported. Sales volume on Discover cards was up 5% to $26.1 billion, and credit card balances grew about 4%, AP stated. Delinquency rates and the rate of loans being written off as uncollectible fell to what the firm said were "historic lows".
The Next Issue
In two weeks, we will publish another issue of the Hot List, at which time we will rebalance the portfolio. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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