bottom-up investing in a world turning top-down

the old days

Europe…

I started looking seriously at non-North American stock markets in 1984, after six years researching a number of sectors in the US market.  At that time, UK and continental European investors used almost exclusively a top-down style.  That is, they used macroeconomic analysis to select the countries they were interested in.  They then either bought banks, on the idea that the loan portfolios mirrored the economic structure of the countries; or they ventured into other sectors based on their economists’ view on what would be the areas of greatest economic strength.

…vs. the US

This process stood in stark contrast to what American investors did–which was to select individual stocks, mostly based on firm-specific factors, but with a little industry or sector guesswork also thrown in.  In fact, Peter Lynch of Fidelity Magellan, the most successful investor of that generation, wrote in his first book that he really didn’t pay much attention to macroeconomics.  He just picked good companies.

continental Europe?

When I began to manage a global portfolio at a small firm in 1986, I was faced with the problem of continental Europe.  I had limited resources.  There were lots of countries, all with different customs, different politics and different attitudes toward investing.  But together they only made up 10% or so of my benchmark index.   I’d spend all my time looking at just them if I adopted the European approach.  So I decided to do what Americans do, just pick stocks, on a pan-European basis and hope I didn’t get hurt too badly.

Ten years of European integration–and stellar portfolio performance along the way–later, my “accidental” approach had become the new norm.  It has stayed that way since.

…or so I thought.

macro-driven analysis

I’ve been surprised over the past couple of weeks to be seeing reports that harken back to an earlier day when analysts drew conclusions about individual stocks from general economic analysis, and nothing much else.

Two stick out.

1.  According to press reports, Goldman cut its price target on TIF a few days ago by 13%, from $77 to $67.  2013 eps were clipped by 4%, from $4.60 to $4.40.  Why?  Slowdown in the overall US economy.  That’s it.  Macroeconomic weakness will translate into lower jewelry purchases.

We’ll get some new evidence when TIF reports a little later this morning.   But judging from last night’s results from more down-market jewelry company SIG (which you’d expect to be hurt more severely than TIF if consumers were pulling in their horns),  however, there’s no sign of slowdown yet.  SIG said same store sales in the US were up 12% year on year in each month of the July quarter, and up 12% as well for the first three weeks of August.

I’m not saying GS is particularly insightful about TIF, nor that what I’ve read (I haven’t seen the actual report) is internally consistent.  What strikes me is the methodology–that there’s no apparent attempt to find a metric more subtle than that GDP growth is slowing.

2.  Deutsche Bank recently declared that the growth days for the casino gambling market in Macau are over.  Why?  Imports of German luxury cars into China, which had been growing at close to a 50% annual clip in the first half of 2011, slowed to +22% in July.  Deutsche believes this means wealthy Chinese citizens are seeing their income squeezed by global slowdown and are cutting back on spending (again, I haven’t seen the actual report, but it has been widely covered by the Asian press).

But July was a blowout month for the Macau gaming market.

According to Deutsche, that doesn’t matter.  We’re already seeing now is a reduction in high-roller participation in the market, but it’s being disguised for now by a boost in visits by less affluent Chinese gamblers.  By yearend, Deutsche thinks the Macau market will only be growing by 20%.  Growth of a mere 10% is possible for next year.  Evidence for any of this??

That’s an awful lot of inference from a one-month dropoff in sales of imported automobiles.   Who knows?  …maybe this year’s models are ugly.  …or customers have run out of garage space and will pick up the spending pace when their new garage additions are finished.

This report really struck a nerve in Hong Kong, however.  The entire gambling sector fell, with some stocks off as much as 10%.  It hasn’t recovered to date.

premises and conclusions

It’s always possible that your conclusions end up being correct even though your reasons are crazy–or non-existent. I happen to think that both reports will end up being too negative.  But that’s not my point.

In my experience, good analysts visit stores, interview/survey customers, talk with suppliers and with competitors to build a bottom-up model of a company or an industry.  They have detailed factual knowledge of a set of companies that they then integrate into an industry view.  Then maybe they knock on the door of their firm’s economist to give empirical feedback about the house macroeconomic view.

In these cases, the flow seems to have been reversed.  An economist who deals at the highest level of abstraction seems to be dictating what analysts are “supposed” to be seeing.  There’s a risk that the house macroeconomic view acts as a set of blinders that certainly make the analyst’s job easier, but makes the results less valuable at the same time.  I hope this isn’t the start of a trend.

We’ll know more about TIF later on today.  And Macau gambling numbers for August will be out in a week or so.