Stock Valuation and Occam’s Razor

Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

William of Occam

 

The use of this principle is valuable, but not completely determinative in science.  It often has an important application in investing.

Let us consider two hypotheses.

  1. A method of valuing markets that relies upon backward-looking data, looks at replacement value, or depends upon some other fixed ratio. Put another way, all the most popular valuation metrics.
  2. A method that considers prospective earnings, expected inflation, and interest rates.

Method one has been wrong for many years.  In fact, it has been mostly incorrect for decades.  Method two has been on the right side of market moves, but still shows significant deviations.  What can we learn from Occam’s Razor?

Method One

Since this method has been mostly wrong, many explanations have been offered.  I think I left a few out, but you get the drift.

  1. Speculation
  2. Not recognizing “fundamental” risks – Euro collapse, China collapse, recession, Brexit, etc.
  3. Depending upon dubious earnings estimates
  4. Market is about to crash
  5. Method not good for market timing, but returns will be poor for the next 5, 7, 10, 12, ? years
  6. Fed intervention – money printing and pumping up the market via QE
  7. Plunge protection team
  8. European Central Banks
  9. Suckers’ Rally
  10. Myopia of the investment world – no efficient markets
  11. High Frequency Traders and Algorithms

Method Two

Since this method has been mostly right, little explanation is needed.  The expected increase in market prices and multiples is consistent with the theory.  It should continue for another 8-10% and further if forward earnings increase.

 

Question

 

Should investors accept the complex and ever-changing explanations for method one?  Or perhaps should they consider that the method itself is flawed?

 

Are You Fooled by this Chart?

Throughout the big rally investors have been bombarded for reasons not to join in.  It is very profitable to play upon fears.  You then sell page views and advertising, conferences, gold, annuities, or fancy structured products.

I have taken a much less popular path – trying to educate investors.  Even though the issues at hand are the most important, much more significant that individual stock selection, it is not “actionable investor advice.”

I disagree!  Investors should act, and they should fight fear.

As an example, one of many I see each week, let’s take a look at this chart:

Let us start with a few simple questions:

  1. What is the red line? Presumably the blue line is the S&P 500, although the chart does not have a legend.  It is apparently some measure of equity risk premium, but there is no description of how it is calculated.
  2. What is the meaning of the gap between the lines, highlighted by the dotted lines? Is a big gap bad?  A warning?  That is clearly the message of the article.
  3. Aswath Damodaran, NYU professor and valuation authority, is cited as the source. Does this chart actually appear in his work, or did the author massage it?  What is Professor Damodaran’s current viewpoint on market valuation?

These questions should have been answered in the article.  The article, warning about the market, is using the technical term “equity risk premium” to frighten people.

Conclusion

I will do the best I can with the incomplete information in the post.

The last time the gap was this wide was in 2008-09, the best time in decades to buy stocks.  Why is it now bad news?

It is definitely NOT Prof. Damodaran’s conclusion.  Concerning Prof Shiller, he writes:

Of all of his creations, I find CAPE to be not only the least compelling but also potentially the most dangerous, in terms of how often it can lead investors astray. So, at the risk of angering those of you who are CAPE followers, here is my case against putting too much faith in this measure, with much of it representing updates of my post from two years ago.

He also provides his own version of our subject chart, described by Alex Barrow.

The following chart is from NYU finance professor Aswath Damodaran. In this, he charts the P/E of bonds (blue line), the Shiller P/E for stocks (purple line) and the ratio or spread between the two (orange bars). The lower the orange bars, the greater the risk-premium spread between bonds and stocks meaning the more attractive (cheap) stocks are relative to bonds or cash.

If you think of the orange bars as the equivalent of the dotted lines in the original chart, you will see that they are the same.  This chart, of course, has a legend explaining each of the lines and bars.  The interpretation – high equity risk premium makes stocks more attractive – is clearly stated.

This is a disturbing example of how writers “on a mission” see whatever they want in charts, provide only partial information, and prey upon the unsuspecting.  The original article is from a very popular source and is republished widely.

Stock Exchange: Finding Trading Ideas in a Low Volatility Market

Ted Williams was a terrific ball player, but he had one tactic that many found…questionable. He almost never swung at the first pitch.

Many short term traders and individual investors could take a lesson. The market has been dragging sideways for weeks. Volatility is low. There’s a great temptation to force in a few trades. It can be difficult to resist.

As we often discuss, successful investors have a system – and they stick to it. That is as true for periods of low volatility as it is for any other market phenomena. Ben Carlson covered this topic recently, calling it “the hardest question in portfolio management.” He opens with a quote by Jim O’Shaughnessy:

“If you don’t have the discipline to stick with your underlying strategy particularly when it’s not going in your favor, it’s nothing. It’s data on a page.”

If you want to match the Splendid Splinter,  you must take what the market is offering. Wait for the right pitch.

This week, we’re joined by Chuck Carnevale himself. Chuck is one of our favorite sources of market wisdom and stock ideas, with a heavy focus on long-term earnings trends, cash flow, and balance sheets.

Review

Our last Stock Exchange considered how to trade a market with a lot of headline risk. If you missed it, please check back and catch up on this important topic.

Market Tech Take

Last week we introduced our proprietary indicator, the market health index (MHI). This is a specialized combination of breadth and strength in our own trading universe. The index remains strong. For contrast, we are looking for alternative technical measures. What is your own favorite indicator?

 

Let’s turn to this week’s ideas.

This Week—Finding Trading Ideas in a Low Volatility Market

Holmes

Holmes: Proofpoint Price (PFPT) is my pick of the week. The price on this one has been shifting sideways for months, which creates an attractive buying opportunity.

PFPT pricing is down near the 200 day moving average, and the stock 12% off its all time highs. I’m confident we could see significant gains here over the short term.

Chuck: As a fundamental long-term oriented investor, I like good businesses.  Proofpoint is a young mid-cap company with a lot of debt and a weak earnings record.  But operating cash flows have historically been growing at enormous rates.  Based on cash flow growth, this company looks inexpensive for a high-growth stock. Free cash flow growth has been even better and the company also looks attractively valued based on this metric.

Holmes: I don’t know (or care) much about the mechanics of the business, but all that sure sounds encouraging! Jeff is usually harsher on us.

Chuck: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It would be hard to call this a prudent long-term investment.

Holmes: That’s fine by me. I’m only looking at the next few weeks.

Chuck: Well, at least you’re sticking with your method.

Holmes: It’s been working well for me so far.

Felix

I’m buying into a long-term position in Sprint (S). Much like last week’s pick, this is another one where the stock is up near its all-time highs. For that reason, I understand I might be criticized for jumping in here. It’s not my ideal situation; but for a long-term investor, this is what opportunity looks like right now. Let’s check the chart:

The trend lines on the 50 and 200 day moving averages  have been steadily rising for almost a year now. I certainly don’t expect the price to triple again anytime soon, but from my perspective this looks like a winner.

Chuck: Sprint reminds me of the old adage “price is what you pay – value is what you get.”  To me the price is high – but the value low.

Felix: Ouch. Isn’t there anything here you like?

Chuck: Not so much. As Kenny Rogers so aptly put it “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”  As a fundamental value investor I believe that the “dealin’s done” on this one.

Oscar

Ted Williams is one of my favorites! I’ll help clarify your broader point: he always watched the first pitch, but he had a good reason for doing it. He wanted the most information he could get about a pitcher’s performance on a given day.

Here’s where the analogy breaks down. Once you’ve clicked through an order on your Trader Work Station, you’ve probably got the mechanics down. Naturally, I agree with the idea of waiting for the right pitch.

On to business, my pick this week is the Software Cloud and Computing sector. First Trust has an ETF for this, which captures the kind of growth and performance I expect.

For what people are calling a “sideways” market, this sector has been a clear outlier. These stocks are growing faster in 2017 than they did in 2016, and they’re doing it without a significant bump in November.

Chuck: Trying to find the best investments in cloud computing is a cloudy endeavor (pun intended).  You have pure growth stocks such as Amazon, Salesforce.com and Google.  In contrast you have stalwarts such as Microsoft, Oracle and IBM.

Oscar: That makes sense to me. How would you break these down?

Chuck: The trick here for fundamental investors is valuation.  IBM and Oracle are reasonable; Microsoft has gotten very pricey as has salesforce.com and Google.  Amazon has scant earnings but generates prodigious levels of cash flow.  To me, it’s tough to find a consistent investment theme in this sector.

Oscar: Point well taken. I have my own special mix of this sector, so I’m reasonably sure I can hit those value picks.

RoadRunner

(Commentary translated from various pecks, rapid movements and beeps).

I like Incyte (INCY), but only for the next 10-20 days. The pattern of growth is very attractive to me here. I can handle a brief lull if it’s capped off with a nice spike, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing here.

It may be a bit optimistic, but I’m anticipating that this most recent bump will bring us back to the $150 range.

Chuck: There are no fundamentals supporting this biotech company at all.  This is purely a hope and a dream speculation.  Maybe some of their pipeline will eventually bear fruit.  Nevertheless, the company has suffered losses for years but did begin earning a little money since 2015.

Road Runner: What if I’m approaching this like a short term trader? I might only be holding onto this position a few days.

Chuck: Earnings growth could accelerate in future years but not enough to support current levels.  This is a pure momentum play, a.k.a. a musical chairs stock.  Therefore, you better be sure to have a chair if and when the music stops.

Road Runner: Tough but fair.

Athena

Micron Technology (MU) is on a roll. The mid-march pop in price leads me to believe more short term gains could be significant. Is the price high? Sure. That’s my method, and I’m sticking to it.

Chuck: This stock is way too cyclical for my taste.  However, this might make it a short-term trader’s dream stock.

Athena: That’s the idea.

Chuck: Earnings go from losses to huge rates of change of earnings growth and stock prices tend to react over the short run.  I would consider this the classic sardine company that works like this.  I buy a can of sardines for $.50 and sell it to Oscar for $1.  He in turn sells it to Jeff who is hungry for $1.50.  Jeff opens the sardines and finds them rotten.  He complains to Oscar that he sold him rotten sardines.  Oscar then informs Jeff that he doesn’t understand sardines.  There are 2 kinds of sardines, Oscar says, there are eaten sardines and there are traden sardines.  I sold you traden sardines.

Athena: I think I just lost my appetite.

Conclusion

Despite the prevailing mood about the current market, there are plenty of opportunities for goal-oriented investors. The key, again, is to take what the market is giving you. Investors with a robust method should stick to it, even if it’s a bit harder to find new positions. Investors without a robust method probably shouldn’t be making any trades at all.

Chuck’s approach is value based, and that makes his recommendations extraordinarily consistent. Reading between the lines a bit, it’s clear that there’s some upside even in the companies he wouldn’t consider for his portfolio. What’s right for Felix and Oscar might not be a good fit for Holmes. There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, every batter has their own favorite pitch.

Stock Exchange Character Guide

Character Universe Style Average Holding Period Exit Method Risk Control
Felix NewArc Stocks Momentum 66 weeks Price target Macro and stops
Oscar “Empirical” Sectors Momentum Six weeks Rotation Stops
Athena NewArc Stocks Momentum One month Price target Stops
Holmes NewArc Stocks Dip-buying Mean reversion Six weeks Price target Macro and stops
RoadRunner NewArc Stocks Stocks at bottom of rising range Four weeks Time Time
Jeff Everything Value One month or long term Risk signals Recession risk, financial stress, Macro

Background on the Stock Exchange

Each week Felix and Oscar host a poker game for some of their friends. Since they are all traders they love to discuss their best current ideas before the game starts. They like to call this their “Stock Exchange.” (Check it out for more background). Their methods are excellent, as you know if you have been following the series. Since the time frames and risk profiles differ, so do the stock ideas. You get to be a fly on the wall from my report. I am the only human present, and the only one using any fundamental analysis.

The result? Several expert ideas each week from traders, and a brief comment on the fundamentals from the human investor. The models are named to make it easy to remember their trading personalities.

Questions

If you want an opinion about a specific stock or sector, even those we did not mention, just ask! Put questions in the comments. Address them to a specific expert if you wish. Each has a specialty. Who is your favorite? (You can choose me, although my feelings will not be hurt very much if you prefer one of the models).

Getting Updates

We have a new (free) service to subscribers to our Felix/Oscar update list. You can suggest three favorite stocks and sectors. We report regularly on the “favorite fifteen” in each category– stocks and sectors—as determined by readers. Sign up with email to “etf at newarc dot com”. Suggestions and comments are welcome. In the tables above, green is a “buy,” yellow a “hold,” and red a “sell.” Each category represents about 1/3 of the underlying universe. Please remember that these are responses to reader requests, not necessarily stocks and sectors that we own. Sign up now to vote your favorite stock or sector onto the list!