taper on, taper off, taper on: what to do?


Months ago, the Fed hinted that it was warming up to start on the long road to money policy normality.  No, it had no intention of raising interest rates from the current level of zero (the plan is to start in 2015)   …but it would soon begin to “taper” the size of the extra money it is regularly pumping into the economy at the rate of $85 billion a month.

The consensus expectation was that the Fed would officially announce the start of tapering, and the size of the initial reduction ($10 billion less?), last Wednesday.  Instead, the Fed said it would prefer to wait for more positive economic news and was going to do nothing.

The S&P rallied by 1.5% in the minutes after the news broke.

It gave back all but .2% of the advance when Fed officials clarified that all they meant to convey was that tapering will probably begin next month.

what to make of Wednesday-Friday trading

In one sense, the large market moves are just typical short-term trader craziness.  As individual investors with a longer time horizon, we can’t allow ourselves to be distracted from the fundamental fact that we are now entering a period of rising interest rates.  So we should basically ignore what’s going on.

In another, however, a sharp swing in short-term sentiment like this, followed by a reversal, may give us a look at more permanent patterns in market money flow that might otherwise remain below the surface.

what to do

Take your equity portfolio, stock by stock, and look a how each issue performed over the three-day period.

This is relatively easy to do if you have the tickers for your stocks entered into a service like Google Finance  (the one I use, even though Yahoo Finance charts are better).  Just right-click on the ticker to open the stock chart in a new tab, set the chart to the past three days and compare the stock to the S&P.

If a stock outperformed when the market was going up and also when it was going down, that’s a good sign.

If the stock outperformed during one period and underperfomed during the other, and it ended up more or less unchanged, you have no information.  A big net plus is good; a big net minus is bad.

If the stock underperformed when people were bullish and underperformed again when people were bearish, that’s a reason to rethink whether the positive investment case for the stock remains intact.  The stock may well be perfectly fine, but this is a red flag.

the overall market

To give you some context for thinking about last week, over the three days only on S&P sector, Telecom (the smallest sector) lost ground.  The stars of the index were:

Utilities (also a small sector)          +1.1%

IT          +.8%

Consumer discretionary          +.5%

Growth stocks (as measured by the Russell 1000 Growth index) gained .6%.  Value stocks (Russell 1000 Value) were flat.

Small stocks (Russell 2000) marginally underperformed large (Russell 1000).


Among my holdings, WYNN and LOW were up, GIL and HOG were down.  I’m a little surprised about LOW, since it should be very sensitive to rising interest rates.  I’m slightly concerned about HOG, but only because I would have guessed it would be an outperformer, but for now I’m just going to put it on a somewhat shorter leash.



securities analysis in the 21st century: where the companies stand

two communication theories

1.  When I entered the business in the late 1970s, the attitude of publicly traded companies toward their actual and potential investors was personified by a Mobil Oil public relations executive named Herb Schmertz.

Herb’s view was that brokerage house securities analysts were a specialized kind of newspaper reporter.  If his company wanted to tell the financial community some tidbit without the information hitting the press, Schmertz would call in/call up favored analysts and let them know.  Their obligation, in his view, was to faithfully relay the company’s information–spun the way the company wanted–to their clients.  No actual analysis, no contrary conclusions, needed.

That’s not quite today’s view, though.

2.  I remember vividly a time in the mid-1990s when I held a large position in Sony (embarrassing but true–although I’m one of the few portfolio managers who can truthfully say he made money holding Sony).  I went to E3 in Los Angeles that year, where Sony Computer Entertainment was having a briefing for securities analysts.  I arrived at the meeting room and sat down.  A SCE official came up to me and told me to leave.  Why?  that Sony (Kaz Hirai) was going to be discussing sensitive information about strategy and upcoming products.  Only sell-side analysts were allowed to participate.  Everyone else, including shareholders (i.e., company owners!!!) , were barred.  I refused to leave and the guy left me alone.

Blend #1 with #2 and you get the way most companies act today.

what’s wrong with this picture?

Post Regulation FD (Fair Disclosure), the company behavior I just described is, to me, clearly illegal.

It seems a little crazy to me, as a shareholder, that a company may refuse to communicate with me directly, but will give information to a brokerage house analyst from whom I have to buy it.

Most important in a practical sense, the old system is broken–and most companies don’t realize it.  It’s broken in two ways:

–most brokerage houses have gutted their research departments because they believe research loses them money.

–I think the equity market swoon that accompanies the Great Recession has marked a key turning point in the way individual investors behave.  I think that as a group they’ve soured on mutual funds and have begun again to invest in a blend of index products plus individual stocks that they research themselves.  They instinctively know that active managers generally have no edge any more, and that brokerage research is threadbare.

clueless in Delaware

(that’s where most publicly traded companies are incorporated)

My experience over the past few years in dealing with investor relations departments is that they exhibit what one might call an “emperor’s new clothes” attitude.  They don’t want to acknowledge that the world has changed, and that the communications protocol they’ve used for decades no longer works.

what to do?

For companies, it seems to me a basic rethink of communication strategy is in order:

–previously analyst-only meetings should have a provision for individual shareholder participation.  This might be at the same physical location.  The very least should be a webcast with interactive chat and ability to participate in Q&A sessions.

–same thing for appearances at broker-sponsored conferences, including breakout sessions.

–investor relations departments should become more responsive to queries from individual shareholders, or potential shareholders.  This isn’t as glamorous as coast-to-coast travel to talk with big institutions and brokers, but both of those constituencies are withering on the vine.

For our part, if/when a phone call (or several) to a company isn’t returned, a letter to the chairman is in order–explaining why we think the policy of not responding to shareholder inquiries is misguided.  I think the key points are that it isn’t fair to give information to non-owners but not to owners, and that it’s doubly unfair to give it to brokerage intermediaries who then force us to pay for information about our own companies.  (A word about how the world has changed may be in order;  pointing out that current practices violate Reg FD will probably get you, at best, a form letter from the legal department (i.e., nowhere).)



securities analysis in the 21st century: fifty years of changes

Fifty years ago, the financial services industry in the US was a backwater, somewhere people went to work if they couldn’t find a job elsewhere.  But powerful changes were on the cards.  Americans were becoming wealthy, at least in part because the country’s industrial base was the only one in advanced economies left standing after World War II.  And they were developing an appetite for stocks.

reasons for rapid growth of financial services during 1970-90

–the maturing of the Baby Boom

–1974 ERISA legislation, which more or less compelled companies to hire competent third parties to manage their employees’ pension assets

–ERISA also established IRAs

–1978 tax legislation established 401ks

–the rise of discount brokers and no-load funds (even in the 1980s, load funds charged purchase fees of up to 8%) that made investing cheaper and easy

–the crash of 1987, which, I think, caused a fundamental shift by individual investors away from traditional brokers and individual stocks, to mutual funds

–a shift in the 1990s, motivated by wanting to reduce their legal liability, by traditional brokerage houses to convert brokers from “stock jockeys” into salesmen of packaged products like mutual funds

The result of all this was the spectacular rise of the money management industry during the second half of the last century.

seeds of decline

–downward pressure on commission rates

ERISA requires that when money managers transact, they obtain the best execution (buying/selling price) as well as the lowest transaction cost.  As technology developed, this meant that trading rooms had a legal obligation to use electronic crossing networks (“dark pools”) instead of routing orders through traditional brokers. Fidelity was a leader in this.

The move also had the positive side effect of denying brokers to opportunity to use client trading information for their own benefit–either by trading on it themselves or by blabbing about it to other money managers.

–questioning of “soft dollars”

money managers routinely buy information from research organizations, including brokers, by allowing them to charge commissions that are 50%-100% higher than normal (called “research commissions”).  Fidelity, the industry standard of best practice, has been working for years to restrict the amount of shareholder money that is being spent this way.  Yes, this is good for Fidelity–by being bad for smaller rivals.  And its efforts have been very effective in cutting the diameter of the firehose spraying commission dollars at research sources.

in recent years, there’s been a small but growing trend for big clients of money managers to demand that a portion of their soft dollar allotment be earmarked for buying services for the client, not the money manager

–the move to index funds, and ultimately to ETFs, which don’t require active management

–massive redemption of equity mutual funds during the Great Recession, reducing further the assets in the hands of active managers.  Since managers are paid a percentage of the assets they oversee as their fee, fewer assets means less money to pay employees like securities analysts and portfolio managers

–large-scale firings of experienced securities analysts by brokerage firms during the Great Recession.  Over the course of my career on Wall Street, brokerage companies have been gradually changing themselves into trading firms–because, rightly or wrongly, they regard trading as much more profitable.  They’ve been laying off experienced analysts for over a decade,  disgorging even the most deeply entrenched during 2008-9.

The net result:  the big brokerage research departments of the 1980s-90s are gone.  There may be bodies occupying seats today, but they generally lack training, supervision and experience.

Active managers, who had cut back their (mostly ineffective) research staffs in the 1980s,  in favor of buying information from brokers with soft dollars instead, have few internal assets to rely on.  They also have lower fee income.  Are they going to rebuild their own research?  If so, whose current pay gets cut?  Will new research be any better than the sub-par operations they ran last time around?

for individual investors, like you and me…


Yes, less well-informed institutions means that day-to-day volatility may be higher.  But it also means that we have a much better chance than we did a decade ago to discover valuable information that Wall Street doesn’t know yet.

Tomorrow, what companies are doing–with an aside on AAPL.

security analysis in the 21st century: the former paradigm

One of my California brothers-in-law, a savvy investor and an Apple devotee, sent me an email the other day lamenting the parlous state of brokerage house analysis of AAPL.  He supplied this link from Apple Insider as evidence.

The article talks about Peter Misek, an analyst from Jefferies, who:

1.  had a price target of $900 for AAPL last year while the stock was going up and one of around $400 now that the stock has weakened

2.  made a series of (mostly negative) predictions about new products and current sales for AAPL, none of which have come true, and

3.  is blaming his misses on AAPL management failures and has used these occasions to downgrade the stock further.


In one sense, this is “normal” Wall Street behavior.   As an analyst trying to make a name for himself, Misek has been making out-of-consensus predictions.   He wants distinguish himself from the crowd and catch the attention of institutional clients who might direct trades (and therefore commissions) to his firm in exchange for access to his research.  In this, he’s following the time-honored dictum that customers will remember the home runs and quickly forget about the strike outs.

From what I’ve read on the internet–I haven’t seen Mr. Misek’s actual research, and have no desire to–what really sticks out in this case is the lack of skill he’s shown in the predictions he’s made.

Even that is not so surprising.

An illustration:

Early in my career (I’d been a buy-side oil industry analyst for maybe three years), I got a call to interview for a job as assistant to Charles Maxwell, then the dean of Wall Street sell-side oil analysts.  I went.

The interview was with the research director for Maxwell’s firm.  It was very short.

The hours were long.  The pay was poor.  I would be away from home visiting companies and clients about 60% of the time.  The payoff would come–if one did–three or four years hence.  Having made a reputation with clients, and with Charlie’s blessing, I’d be hired by a major brokerage firm as its oil analyst.  I’d do basically the same work as before but be paid the equivalent of several million dollars a year in today’s money.

The look of horror on my face at the prospect of a ton of boring travel–hadn’t they ever heard of the telephone?–was enough to tell both of us that I wasn’t the man for this job.

Two points:

–back in the day, securities analysts spent long apprenticeships learning their trade before they were allowed to take the reins as sell-side analysts covering major companies. and

–compensation was relatively high.

Both factors have changed a lot during the past decade.  Nevertheless,  I don’t think either the investing public or the companies being researched understand what’s happened.  Neither group appears to me to have adjusted to the new world we’re in.

More tomorrow.





calculating operating leverage

I’ve written a number of posts on operating leverage.  You can use the search function on the blog to get them.

The basic idea is that a company has both fixed costs, which it must pay whether it sells anything or not, and variable costs, which are a function of the number of things a company sells.  Once a company covers its fixed costs through sales, the operating profit on additional sales can be very high.  This is a key source of positive–and negative–earnings surprise.

As a practical matter, though, how can we calculate how operating leverage works in a given company?

For some firms, it’s impossible.   Take 3M (MMM).  It makes a gazillion different items, many of them sold in massive quantities. For an investor, there’s no way to see very deeply inside the company.

We also have to realize that the data we get from any company’s financials is going to be imperfect, at the very least during our initial look.  If we take the time and energy to compare our projections to the actuals the company publishes, listen very carefully during management conference calls for clues, and call the company every once in a while, we may be able to refine the numbers we come up with in a surprisingly significant way.

Nevertheless, for smaller companies that sell only one or two main products, there’s a very simple way to get an idea of whether a firm has significant operating leverage or not:

–take two most recent consecutive quarters

–subtract the revenue reported for Q1 from the revenue reported from Q2

–subtract the operating income of Q1 from that of Q2

–calculate an incremental operating margin by dividing the operating income change by the sales change

–compare that with the operating margin achieved during either quarter.

An example:

Harley-Davidson (HOG–I own shares, despite the fact the ticker symbol spells a word) sells motorcycles, spare parts and branded merchandise.

During 2Q13, the company posted motorcycle-related revenues of $1.631 billion and operating profit of $362.9 million.  The operating margin was 22.2%.

During 1Q13, HOG had motorcycle revenues of $1.414 billion and operating profit of $279.0 million.  The operating margin was 19.8%.

The quarter-on-quarter revenue difference was $217.9 million, and the q-on-q operating profit difference was $83.1 million.  The operating margin on the extra production was 38.1%.

In HOG’s case, we can go on to make a number of refinements.  We can try to separate out the profits from sales of merchandise and spare parts, which are relatively small in revenue in comparison with motorcycles but which carry higher margins.  And we can examine whether the much higher margin on incremental sales comes from manufacturing efficiency or from leveraging SG&A (it’s the latter).

But the main point is clear.  HOG makes almost twice as much on incremental sales as it does on average sales.  And we found this out just by making some simple subtractions.