I’m raising a little cash

why not to do this

One of the earliest lessons I learned as a portfolio manager is not to raise cash. How so?

–it’s much harder to figure out whether stock A or stock B is cheap or expensive in absolute terms than it is to figure out that A is cheaper than B. This means the easiest way to beat the stock market is to keep fully invested and spend all of your time trying to find more As and eliminate any Bs

–the penalty for having a large cash balance and being wrong can be severe. One of my former work colleagues, running a high-profile value-oriented portfolio for pension clients, decided one day that the stock market was overvalued and that he would be a hero to clients by raising 40% cash. This is like professional suicide. He did it anyway. For the following two years the market went straight up. Nothing he did could offset the negative effect of that dead-weight cash. And after a short while he was so deep in the hole that he felt he couldn’t admit his mistake and reinvest the cash. It took a huge market downturn to give him an opportunity to buy in again. But all that did was more or less recoup the performance losses he had sustained by raising cash in the first place. Then he was fired.

–personally, I’m very bad at judging market tops. I’m pretty good at bottoms, I think. But I tend to think that the good times can go on longer than they actually can

why I’m doing it anyway

To be clear, I’m only selling about 10% of my portfolio, mostly paring back individual positions by that amount. That’s not enough to fundamentally change my portfolio composition–in other words, the gains/losses from this move may end up only as a rounding error in performance attribution. So it’s more security blanket than anything else.

What’s causing me to act is something I usually don’t like to talk about: performance.

performance

One of my early mentors told me he thought a good securities analyst could find a way to make a 20% yearly gain in almost any economic circumstances. In less folksy style, I’ve come to think of a good year as the market return (S&P 500) plus 5 – 8 percentage points; if the S&P 500 is up by 10%, I’d like to end up in the +15% – 20% range.

So far this year, however, my “capital flight” idea, envisioning the US today as like Mexico in the 1980s, has worked much better than I would have thought. That’s, unfortunately, because the Trump administration has been much more toxic than I could have dreamed. The result is that my portfolio is already many times ahead of my yearend relative performance target (I really dislike writing this last sentence. My experience is the minute you begin to pat yourself on the back, your performance begins to fall apart).

Still, I don’t think the epic wave I’ve been riding can go much farther. That’s probably my strongest belief right now. The only way I can see for present conditions to continue would be if we knew that Trump would be reelected. I don’t want to replace names I know with new ones that are basically the same thing. That’s just the anti-US pro-Trump bet all over again. But I don’t have a firm idea of where to go next.

Hence, 10% cash.

Trump underpins tech stocks …for now

The EU has a third more people than the US, has an older population and was in worse Covid shape than the US in early April. Today, however, US daily new cases are about 15x those in the EU; daily new deaths here are 7x those in the EU. The difference? The EU followed the recommendations of US medical scientists; Trump urged his supporters to ignore them.

The economic result for the US is a deeper, longer-lasting downturn than elsewhere in the OECD, huge amounts of Federal government assistance to keep the economy afloat–with a resulting budget deficit that could soon reach $6.0 trillion, vs. $0.6 trillion when he took office.

Rather than try to mitigate the suffering the US is going through, Trump appears to have decided to try to shift national attention away from his central role in creating this tragedy by creating a second, competing disaster. After the armed forces refused to help, Trump organized a gang of from other Federal agencies. Members wear identical camouflage combat gear and carry weapons. No identification on their bodies or vehicles, however. Not a thought about probable cause or excessive use of force, either. In other words, they’re shaped on the Gestapo/KGB/Stasi secret police model. Empowered by executive order and against the wishes of state and local officials, Trump envisions sending these groups into Democratic-leaning cities to instigate violence. Portland is his test case. News reports of the Navy veteran beaten in Portland (he decided to remind Trump’s minions they took an oath to defend the Constitution) show what’s going on. Kristallnacht in America is something no one would have believed possible four years ago. Talk about the banality of evil.

Relevance for the stock market? …a lot.

I’ve been writing for a while about the divergence between NASDAQ and the Russell 2000. The former is the part of the US stock market least tethered to the US by customers, revenues or physical assets; the latter represents the part most closely linked to domestic economic health. NASDAQ is up by about 55% since the beginning of 2018; the Russell 2000 is down by 4% over the same span. I read this 60 percentage point divergence as the stock market’s response to the ongoing economic damage Trump is doing to the US. The spread is very long in the tooth. It’s also so wide that it is begging for at least a temporary reversal of form. So far, however, every attempt at a counter-trend rally has been nipped in the bud.

How so? I think the pro-NASDAQ portfolio configuration has a second motivation. It is also the first step in capital flight from a country moving in the wrong direction.

Recently, coinciding with Trump’s more explicit white racist actions and the resurgence of Covid in the South and Midwest, we’ve begun to see a second aspect of capital flight–a 5%+ decline of the dollar vs. the euro over the past few weeks. The US currency has even lost ground to perennial weaklings sterling and the yen.

It’s hard to know how this all will play out. A Trump win in November is the easier case. I imagine it would create a seismic negative shift in global attitudes toward the US. That would result in a steady outflow of our most productive human and financial capital. The dollar would continue its decline. Maybe, government bonds would begin to sag, too. At some point, Washington would presumably close the border to outflows, a la Mexico 1982. NASDAQ would likely go up, led by firms announcing the relocation of intellectual property-creating operations abroad. Maybe dual listings in New York and China. China and the EU stand to be the big long-term winners.

I think a Trump loss would much more complicated. There’s the issue of repairing the enormous economic, financial and cultural damage he has done to the country. There are also the former heavy industry areas, core sources of Trump strength, which have been ignored by both parties for decades at great national cost. A counter-trend rally might finally happen–maybe even pre-election if a pro-Biden outcome were clear. Would it have legs, if so?

dealing with Tesla (TSLA)

If the question came up about whether to buy TSLA at $1400 (I have no intention to do so), how would I decide?

If I were making a recommendation to someone else I’d do a detailed spreadsheet in which I’d try to project the level of future earnings, the rate of their growth and how long I thought the superior growth would continue.

Today, I’m going to do a quick, back of the envelope, calculation. My aim is to get an idea of what level of future earnings is already reflected in the price of TSLA.

valuation

Let’s say the current price is $1400 a share. The market cap is $260 billion, implying that about 185 million shares are outstanding. Let’s say that I would be willing to pay 30x future earnings for TSLA, once it starts to earn on a regular basis. That implies earnings at some point of $45 a share, or earnings of about $8.5 billion a year, to justify today’s price.

Let’s assume this all comes from selling electric cars. Let’s put the average selling price at $40,000 and the net profit to TSLA from each at $4,000. If so, how many cars does TSLA need to sell to make $8.5 billion? The answer is 2.2 million units. That’s as many as Mercedes or Kia or BMW do and would put TSLA at the low end of the top ten global auto brands.

If I’ll only pay 20x earnings for an auto company, TSLA has to sell 50% more vehicles, or 3.3 million, to get the $1400 share valuation. That would put the company in the lower middle of the top ten, somewhere around Chevrolet, Hyundai or Nissan.

Is that doable? Well, the American car companies, operating in a heavily protected market, have been by and large pretty sorry companies for most of my lifetime. The Europeans are currently embroiled in a scandal that’s resulted from widespread falsification of emissions testing results for the diesel cars they sell in their home markets. The chaebol and zaibatsu conglomerate structures in Korea and Japan mean profits and innovation are at best secondary considerations. In other words, the competition isn’t particularly stiff.

The world market is about 70 million units annually, so 3.3 million would be around a 5% market share. Again, not impossible–although at the high end of what traditional auto companies have been able to achieve recently.

time

How long will it take for TSLA to be able to manufacture 2 million+ cars a year? The company was making them at a 400,000 unit annual rate at the end of 2019. At a 30% growth rate, it would take close to ten years. At a 50% growth rate it would take four or five.

In other words, today’s stock price is discounting very large growth for TSLA and paying today for earnings that are easily a half-decade in the future. What I think is significant about this is that in my experience the US stock market rarely discounts earnings more than two years ahead. How so? Pre-financial crisis studies (when there were lots more experienced analysts) show that securities analysts aren’t able to make accurate earnings forecasts more than a year ahead. Also, how far in the future the market is willing to discount is also a measure of market bullishness. I’ve rarely seen markets where investors are willing to pay today for estimated earnings three years in the future. Eighteen months is more usual. In bear markets, no one pays for any future earnings! In this case, though, the market is willing to pay for profits much farther ahead than in typical bull markets.

my take

I can imagine a world where TSLA is the leading maker of electric vehicles, with a global market share of, say, 10% and where electric vehicles are the dominant form of ground transportation. That outcome is not in the current TSLA price, in my view. But my guess is that if this happens, it’s also at least another half-decade in the future. Unless/until enough time passes that the market wants to pay for this, my guess is that TSLA will be at best a market performer.

I think the market’s willingness to discount far into the future is primarily a function of super-low interest rates. There’s also the sense that substantial structural changes to global economic life are in the offing and that it’s important to have a portfolio oriented toward companies of the future rather than those of the past. But if fixed income investments were to become more attractive–that is, if interest rates were higher–portfolios would shift toward bonds. At the same time, I think, the discounting mechanism in the stock market would become more conservative/less willing to look five-ten years ahead. That would spell trouble for TSLA …and many other tech-ish names.

what stock prices are (and are not) saying

–he key leading indicator for economic forecasters of the US economy is the domestic stock market. Wall Street tends to lead GDP by around six months, both on the upside and downside. That’s because financial markets react to changes in government, mostly monetary, policy immediately, while companies and individuals take more time (i.e., six months) to adjust.

The stock market is where it is today because the Washington floodgates have been opened to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic. The fact that this is also an election year hasn’t hurt. On the minus side of the ledger, the reverse Midas touch that Trump showed in a uniquely unsuccessful business career has carried over “bigly” into his time in the Oval Office. Despite massive government stimulus at the start of his term, he has somehow managed to bring the US, an unusually vibrant and resilient place, to a grinding halt even before COVID struck. His destructive “it’s a hoax” response to the virus has added to this misfortune. We’re now watching new cases proliferate here while the EU is starting to open up again–crediting US medical research as the reason why.

Prices seem frothy to me–and I’m usually late to seeing market tops. Still, while fiscal and monetary policy are creating lots of extra money sloshing around in the system, it’s hard to see the stock market going down a lot. Thinking about leading indicators, this probably requires the pandemic spread to lose momentum–hard to do given the way Trump has politicized taking safety precautions. Also, Trump’s recently amplified race hatred rhetoric will scarcely induce investors to give up the capital flight theme. Part of me wants to delete this paragraph, because predicting absolute ups and downs (vs. relative value) is notoriously difficult. Nevertheless, it’s what I think.

–The counter-trend rotation into economically sensitive stocks isn’t happening. There have been many attempts by the market over the past month or so to shift from tech to consumer recovery names, but all have been nipped in the bud. There is a kind of mini-rotation taking place inside tech–days when pandemic beneficiaries like Zoom are strong and reopening beneficiaries like Paycom are weak, and vice versa. But that’s not the same.

Not all stock investors are happy, though. More tomorrow.

random-ish musing (ii)

Alarming reports about the spread of the pandemic in the south and west have stopped the stock market in its tracks over the past few days. The bad news is coming primarily from states that decided to believe the wishful thinking of the administration rather than the country’s health experts. One consequence of this has been a new round of economy-damaging moves–proposed new tariffs, for example–by Trump as he tries to distract attention from the human tragedy he has created.

Taking off my hat as a citizen and putting on my investor cap, the main stock market issue is that the spread has reached prime vacation destinations, where local governments have made no preparations for its arrival. Therefore, summer travel is dead and, unlike many overseas areas, the US consumer economy is not going to reopen soon. Are we back to the buy NASDAQ/sell R2000 (or buy NASDAQ/sell the Dow) trade that has been the key to stock market success for most of the Trump administration?

A problem: NASDAQ is expensive and the degree of its outperformance over R2000 is very, very large by historic standards. So it’s a reasonable first guess that the spread won’t get much wider. In fact, the gap had started to close before news of the virus spread came out. On the other hand, the domestic economy is being handed another setback by bungling governors and typical summer vacation travel destinations have become virus hotspots. So it’s also reasonable to conclude that the NASDAQ/R2000 spread will get wider and that the R2000 rebound will just be more ferocious when it happens sometime down the road.

Where do I come out on this?

–One of the first things any successful portfolio manager learns is that you don’t need to have an opinion about everything. Just the opposite. You need to have strong (and correct) opinions about a few non-consensus things that you shape your portfolio around. For now, I’m choosing not to change what I hold to bet on what will happen to the NASDAQ/R2000 spread.

–Regular readers will know that a while ago I made a small shift to reduce the size of my very large pro-NASDAQ overweight. That hasn’t worked out well so far, but I don’t care. I want to do more–which I look at as locking in some of the outperformance I’ve achieved so far this year. But I’m guessing that I may have a better chance to do so over the summer. In other words, from a short-term-tactical point of view (sort of like betting on whether the next pitch will be a ball or a strike) I think the economically sensitives go down as NASDAQ more or less treads water.

A related topic (for tomorrow): how will the current situation ultimately play out? I think a lot hinges on the election in November.