Best of Five Years (3): more on absolute vs. relative performance

I’ve been writing Practical Stock Investing for something over five years now.  I decided to go back through my archives so look at the most looked-at (and possibly read) posts over that time.  I’m going to re-post ten over the next two weeks.  This will give you a chance to see some of my earlier work that you may have missed.  And I’ll have time for home repairs I’ve been putting off.  I may just see a couple of baseball games and watch the basketball playoffs, though.

Here’s #3.

One of the earlier posts I wrote on this blog had to do with absolute vs. relative performance.  I reread it today and am generally satisfied with what I wrote then.  One exception, though.  I think the post came at the topic from the rather narrow perspective of a professional investor, who is already convinced that the best way–or at least one good way–to achieve absolute performance is to try to achieve relative results.

In this post, I’d like to broaden my discussion of the topic by adding two observations, one psychological, the other economic:

1.  One of the most important of the (many) clichés Wall Street uses is that market turns, especially upturns, come out of nowhere and catch most investors by surprise.  Not only that, but the initial move up can cover a lot of ground in a short time.  Missing this initial surge, so the argument goes, is virtually impossible to recover from.  Brokers typically cite academic studies that the greatest part of the market’s gains over a business cycle come in only about 10% of the trading days.  Be out of the market on those days and you’re toast.

I think there’s something to that argument.  I’d like to add my own twist to it, though.

In my experience, lots of professionals can either tell when the market is getting toppy or when it’s stunningly cheap.  But I don’t know anyone who has been able to do both.  Wall Street is a very gossipy place, so if there were such a person, word would get around–despite the individual’s desire to keep his ability to time the market a secret (so others wouldn’t begin to study his every move and his skill would remain his edge alone).  In addition, just off the top of my head I can think of three former professional acquaintances who “called” the top of the market, one in 1984 and two in 1986, with disastrous results for both them (two were fired) and their clients.

Look at the record of hedge funds, whose aggregate performance failed to match that of the S&P 500 every year since 2003.

Anyway, I think some investors have bearish temperaments and can call tops but not bottoms.  Others, like me, have a bullish cast of mind.  We can call bottoms but not tops.

2.  Assume that we live in a world that’s characterized by:  a) inflation; and b) economic growth.  Each implies that stock prices will tend to rise.

a.  Modern economics comes out of systematic study of the Great Depression of the 1930s.  One of the highest goals of monetary policy around the world is to avoid a recurrence.  In particular, the world wants to avoid a repeat of the deflation that marked that period.

Other than in the case of Japan, which has consistently chosen to have deflation rather than permit structural societal change, the world has been successful in doing so.  Let’s suppose (and fervently pray) that this continues.  What does this mean for stocks?

Stocks are priced in nominal terms, in dollars of the day.  But they represent ownership claims on real assets and business operations.  Inflation means that nominal prices in general are rising.  So there should be a tendency for the nominal value of the corporations whose shares of stock are publicly traded to rise as well.  Ultimately, this should translate into a tendency for stock prices to rise, even in the absence of real economic growth.

b.  But, as an empirical observation, there’s real economic growth all over the place.  The US economy, which has been closer to the caboose of the world economic train than the locomotive, is still 50% larger than it was a decade ago.  New nations have entered world commerce.  We have notebooks, netbooks, tablets, iPhones, iPods, social networking, online shopping, biotech, medical advances–lots of stuff we didn’t have ten years ago.  Why?  …because many people around the world like to build and invent new things.  Publicly traded firms–where else do entrepreneurs get the money they need to grow their companies?–participate very substantially in this growth.

My point is that the path of least resistance for stocks–due to inflation and to real economic growth–is up.

Yes, I believe what I’ve just written is true.  Maybe it’s a cartoon version of the truth, but it’s true.  That’s not really what I’m trying to convey in this post, though.  What I want to say is that professional investors in general opt to try for relative performance rather than absolute because they believe this, too.

Note:  reading this post in 2014, I’m not quite as cheery today as I was back when I originally wrote it.  I’m willing to stick with the general conclusions, but dysfunction in Washington is proving a bigger headwind to growth than I’d imagined.

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