Blind Spots

“Bull markets end when the perception of earnings growth disappears […]. Manias, on the other hand, end when the market runs out of buyers.” – Andy Kessler

2020 ended with the world collectively eager to put a challenging year in the rear-view mirror while looking forward to the light at the end of the tunnel. The US election results are now (mostly) behind us, and we have two approved Covid-19 vaccines being distributed in the US with an additional 5 being used in other parts of the world.  What is most surprising to me is, having witnessed a year where we endured the worst global pandemic in a century, the fastest bear market in history, a global recession, and a contentious presidential election; that I would find myself in the same place I was exactly a year ago: contemplating whether the market accurately reflects the reality of our economy.  

The Market Looks Forward

“When you put a fire under a pot, you learn what’s in it.” — Malcolm X

If a deadly pandemic overtakes the world, but the market looks past it, did the pandemic really happen?

The equity markets staged a dramatic rebound during the quarter as local economies opened across the country.  The question for investors is, how can the market turn so positive when data points to rough months ahead?

The short answer is “because the market is forward looking.” Investors are peering many months into the future to a point when Covid-19 fades away, the population gains herd immunity, or researchers find an appropriate treatment or cure. Investors are looking past current data towards a recovery. 

Should the Market be so confident? 

Defying Gravity

Overall, 2019 was quite a year with most indexes increasing by roughly a third.  From a historical perspective, the period from 2010 through 2019 was the first contiguous decade in the history of the market without a recession[1].  During this period, we had only one (2018) negative year.

The gains of 2019 were phenomenal in light of the many headwinds facing investors heading into, and throughout, the year:

Digging Deeper for Value

 

The New Year brought a dramatic market rebound. Performance was driven by a combination of a cautious Federal Reserve rethinking its plan to increase interest rates, and a “relief rally” during earnings season.  First quarter earnings reports weren’t impressive, but stocks rallied as investors realized that earnings, while mediocre, were not nearly as bad as they could have been. This is in contrast to just a few short months ago when markets seemed to be assured of an imminent collapse.

The Market Abhors Uncertainty

“Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold.” – Warren Buffett

From an investor’s perspective, 2018 was a challenging year that began with a strong first half, only to encounter a sharp reversal and decline.  Looking back to the start of 2018, if we had known that we would end the year with no major military conflicts, a major tax cut, a revised trade deal with Canada and Mexico, 20%+ corporate earnings growth and unemployment at 3.7%[1], any rational investor would have predicted a strong market for 2018.  The reality is that with the Republicans winning the White House in 2016 while already holding a majority of votes in The House and The Senate, the market expected legislation favorable to businesses and lower taxes. Expectations drove the market gains we saw throughout 2016 and 2017. The volatility we are seeing now….is based on investor expectations (and fears) for the year ahead.

Process Makes Perfect

In my last post, I discussed the macro issues and narratives driving the economy. Market volatility has continued and, in addition to an extended trade war, US markets are now also concerned with rising interest rates, creeping inflation, and an inverting yield curve. There will always be news that creates market concern, but it is usually something unforeseen that impacts investors the most. And for that reason, it makes sense to dedicate this post to detailing our investment strategy and process, which emphasizes understanding the individual companies rather than the broader economy. The investment process focuses on investing in outstanding companies at reasonable prices and reasonable companies at outstanding prices. If we are invested in great companies and buy at great prices, then these investments will inevitably withstand any storms, and our investments will prove profitable.

Tariffs and Taxes and Data, Oh My!

“Volatility scares enough people out of the market to generate superior returns for those who stay in.”

– Jeremy Siegel, Professor of Finance at The Wharton School

The year has started with volatility that we haven’t seen in the last two years, and it continues as I write this letter. There are two primary narratives driving current markets:

  1. A possible China/global trade war and,
  2. A broader technology stock selloff due to backlash over privacy/data lapses, and concerns over government regulation of the largest tech companies.

I will spend some time discussing both topics.

Surrendering Before the Battle Begins

“In any sort of contest – financial, mental or physical – it’s an enormous advantage to have opponents who have been taught that it’s useless to even try”  – Warren Buffet

Spring has arrived, and 2017 has continued with the positive sentiment that closed 2016.  U.S. stocks have done very well with the S&P 500 index up over 6% year-to-date.  This positive movement is largely the result of continued expectations that the new President will implement business-friendly tax and trade policies that will further boost corporate earnings.

In the December quarter, 65% of companies in the S&P 500 beat their earnings targets and had an average earnings growth rate of 4.9%[1].  This is the first time the index has seen a year-over-year growth in earnings for two consecutive quarters since March 2015.  More good news is expected in the coming quarters, but investors are now increasingly beginning to wonder if the stock market is “overvalued” and “are we due” for a correction or crash?

Investment Opportunities in Every Market

“In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment” – Charles Darwin

 

2016 ended exactly how we predicted…..or perhaps the opposite of that. Election results contradicted most polls, and the market’s reaction to the Republican win was not the Armageddon that I expected. In fact, the Dow, Nasdaq and S&P indexes all improved more than 2.5% from the election to year-end.  Benjamin Graham, the man considered to be the father of value investing, taught that “stocks aren’t pieces of paper or lottery tickets; they are units of ownership in real businesses whose underlying value does not change