The Four Mystery Horsemen…

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Last week, I published the third post in my Stock Picking series (see Parts I, II & III), and it got me thinking – I haven’t seen a good mystery/blind stock challenge in a long time! There’s obviously tonnes of great investing advice out there to harvest, but the lessons we really take to heart are those we learn via trial & error, and hard won experience…

As I’ve been banging on about, stock picking is really composed of two very distinct processes: Stock Valuation & Stock Selection. But investors often tend to confuse & conflate the two… Just like meeting a person for the first time, stock selection often boils down ultimately to a first impression – a gut feeling Company X is dodgy/above-board, enjoys positive/negative investor sentiment, is well/poorly run, always/never delivers, is high/low growth, is financially weak/bullet-proof, has huge/no business or upside potential, etc. Basically, we’re making a snap decision whether it’s a good or bad company…

Such first impressions often exert a substantial & pernicious influence on our stock valuation process. We cherry-pick data, we discern & extract more favourable or unfavourable trends, valuation multiples contract or expand, inconsistent ratios are conveniently ignored, etc. etc. Given similar financial/operating histories, quite often we (wittingly, or unwittingly) end up arriving at radically different valuations for different stocks/companies.

Of course, their respective prospects may entirely justify wildly different valuations. Sure, but for the majority of companies, they generally don’t experience hockey stick growth out of the blue, nor do they suddenly fall off a cliff… [Novice investors are particularly susceptible to the ‘hockey stick’ assumption, blithely ignoring the fact they/other investors have sometimes been waiting years already for the same exceptional growth surge!] In reality a company’s future tends to reflect its past, good or bad, far more often than investors might credit – its management & culture, for example, can be a powerful institutional imperative ensuring this is true.

Multiply this potential for valuation bias across all investors, and inevitably you tend to end up with a pretty inefficient/irrational market…at least in terms of individual stocks & sectors. [Ooh, the heresy!] But a mystery stock challenge can wonderfully illustrate how under/over-valued individual stocks can actually become in the market. Plus it’s a highly effective way to separate the (quantitative) stock valuation process from the (more qualitative) stock selection process – and when the companies stand  revealed, investors can examine (individually & in aggregate) their stock valuation process & potential biases in a far more detached and objective fashion. Ideally, it also provides some up-close insight into the perspectives & valuation techniques of a broad selection of investors.

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Stock Picking…Art, or Science (Part III)?!

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Well, it’s not ideal publishing another post in this series two months+ after my last post…but I’m obviously no post a day pleaser. And life, Xmas, stocks & markets, and sneaking off to the movies, all tend to get in the way! ;-) A quick (re-)read of Parts I & II might be in order, if you’re so inclined? But to recap, very briefly: In Part I, I stressed stock picking is really two distinct & independent activities:

a) Stock Valuation, and

b) Stock Selection

And all too often, investors confuse & conflate the two…

But presuming your quantitative stock valuation process is nailed down, then stock selection is obviously a far more qualitative process…it’s certainly not about ranking & selecting stocks purely in terms of their upside potential. Fortunately, there’s plenty of stock selection filters you can employ – for example, to help protect against the risks posed by home bias, bottom-up stock picking, and/or a concentrated portfolio. Of course, the overall objective here is to:

i) Ensure stock selection is as much science, as it is art, and

ii) Always strive for greater diversification & superior risk/reward in your portfolio.

Here are some other filters you may find particularly useful. No doubt, as you read, they’ll strike you as perfectly obvious…the trouble is, applying them consistently is easily forgotten when you’re considering individual stock holdings & potential buys, let alone when you’re trying to manage the overall risk/reward of your entire portfolio: Continue reading

The Great Irish Share Valuation Project – 2014 Portfolio Performance (Part II)

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Continued from here.

My commentary & analysis of last year’s TGISVP losers & winners may have been meat & veg for some, but let’s kill the suspense & move on to dessert… How did 2014 performance stack up for the TGISVP Portfolios, vs. our ISEQ benchmark? Let’s take a look at the Beta Portfolios first:

[NB: Here’s a reminder of how they were constructed:

TGISVP – Beta Portfolio:  Assume an investor goes equally long all 27 stocks with positive Upside Potential (e.g. invests EUR 1 in each stock, for a total of EUR 27). The other 54 stocks, identified as neutral (2) or over-valued (52), are ignored. The portfolio return contribution from each stock is simply its Gain/(Loss)%/27.

TGISVP – Smart Beta Portfolio:  Stocks are chosen on the same basis as the Beta Portfolio, with one twist: All 27 stocks are divided into quartiles – assume EUR 4 is invested in each top quartile stock, 3 EUR in the next quartile stocks, down to EUR 1 in the bottom quartile stocks (for a total of EUR 70). This preserves diversification, but focuses the portfolio on stocks with the most Upside Potential.]

TGISVP FY-2014 Beta Performance

[NB: Again, see my last post – the appropriate benchmark return here is 4.7%, reflecting the ISEQ’s performance from March-30th ’til year-end. For reference, calendar year ISEQ performance was 15.1%].

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The Great Irish Share Valuation Project – 2014 Portfolio Performance

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It’s already well over a fortnight into the new year…time to scramble & take a closer look at last year’s portfolio performance! Let’s begin with The Great Irish Share Valuation Project – for reference, here’s my H1-2014 review. First, some notes:

- I managed to cover a grand total of 81 Irish companies, from the beginning of Feb ’til end-May last year – except for NTR plc, a new Wexboy portfolio holding I wrote up last August.

- I obviously referenced the latest share price when assessing each company’s individual valuation & upside potential. And March-30th was an appropriate mid-point date for the entire exercise, so I’ll adjust my benchmark accordingly: Keeping things simple, I’ll use the closing price level on that date as a starting value for my ISEQ Index performance.

- I should highlight the benchmark return was 4.7% (from March-30th ’til year-end). Which is substantially lower than the ISEQ’s actual FY-2014 performance of 15.1%** (the Irish market obviously enjoyed a great Q1 surge), though it’s clearly an appropriate benchmark to use. Sure, doing TGISVP on a nice & neat calendar year basis would be awesome…but that would require me conjuring up six/seven dozen write-ups & valuations, from scratch, on New Year’s Day! It’s never gonna happen…

[**Ireland was a top quintile global performer in 2014. And, of all countries, Argentina topped the charts with a spectacular 54.5% return! Which might well suggest buying Russia today (down 44.9% last year) could ultimately prove to be a very brave & smart decision, eh?!]

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The Obligatory Top Tips For 2015!

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I get asked for stock tips…a lot! So much so, occasionally I’ll pinch myself & check I’m (also) the author of an investment blog – one with dozens of investment write-ups & hundreds of posts at this point, all lovingly hand-typed & all for free. You really have to smile & wonder if they’ve ever actually read an entire post?!

But this is human nature, people always want that little something special, that easy shortcut: Go on, just this once, just for me… I mean, why wade through dozens of posts & tens of thousands of words, when all they crave is a single sure-fire winner of a stock! [Yeah, don’t we all, mate… :-( ] It’s like ringing an online dating firm’s customer service, to politely explain you don’t want to swipe left or right, let alone trawl through hundreds of profiles – ‘cos all you really want is your soul-mate, just the one, preferably right now & for free. C’mon, surely that’s not so much to ask?!

Unfortunately, there’s pretty much zero upside to doling out tips here & there. If you’re the ‘designated’ stock picker in your family, on your street, in your office, you know exactly what I mean… Your winning tips are quickly & seamlessly appropriated as worthy examples of the tippee’s own natural genius – whereas losers rebound & somehow become your personal responsibility, of which you will be bitterly reminded for months & even years to come. And the only thing worse than this burden of blame is the sometimes inevitable bout of self-flagellation over your appalling dereliction of duty! But rest assured, you’re not at fault – those occasional feelings of guilt simply mean you’re too good for this world… ;-)

However, there’s plenty of hacks out there who can’t even spell ‘guilty conscience’, let alone experience such a thing! And this time of year the financial media loves to wheel out its prognosticators & talking heads to opine on the macros, the markets & the best stocks for the coming year. I could describe it as an exercise in arrogance, but just as often it’s a shameless pandering to the cupidity & gullibility of a great many investors.

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TGISVP – One Last Yr-End Snapshot

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Now we have 2014 closing prices, let’s begin the New Year with The Great Irish Share Valuation Project: As you survey your year-end portfolio (and ponder potential 2015 buys & sells), an updated Irish stock ranking might prove useful – in terms of current share price vs. my TGISVP target price (i.e. current Upside Potential).

Since completing my usual valuation phase (as of end-May), I’ve added just one new stock write-up (NTR plc) & updated three stock valuations – Petroneft Resources (PTR:LN), Prime Active Capital (PACC:ID) & Fyffes (FFY:ID) – therefore, please be aware target prices in this post are now up to 11 months old. So while intrinsic valuations mostly tend to change quite gradually, pay close attention to any subsequent news & results (and possible valuation implications) – and, notably, to the potential impact(s) of the H2-2014 collapse in the Brent/WTI oil price. [Though let’s not overestimate this factor…I’m always amused by muppets who fondly entertain the notion a gyrating oil price is somehow relevant to the actual prospects of their favourite (but hopeless) junior resource stock!?]. And while we’re at it, I should also highlight our Irish stock universe is now down to 77 listings, after four H2-2014 market exits:

- Kentz Corp (KENZ:LN) was taken out by SNC-Lavalin Group. This acquisition was already locked down by the time the oil price started to slide (Petroceltic International wasn’t so lucky…), so this ultimately turned out to be a beautifully timed deal (and at a beautiful price & premium) for KENZ shareholders.

- TVC Holdings (TVCH:ID) distributed its stake in UTV Media (UTV:LN) to shareholders, and delisted shortly thereafter to continue its residual wind-down in private.

- REACT Energy (REAC:LN) has been suspended, pending clarification of the company’s financial (i.e. funding) position. That’s a shame – REAC’s yet another potentially good/great business undermined by insufficient funding. [I did see upside potential for REAC, in asset terms, but warned ‘Of course, the big problem here still is funding’]. This is a common hand-to-mouth complaint for many small(er) companies, but unacceptable when it comes to public companies – it seems an obvious fiduciary duty for management to scale (back) operating & capital expenditure plans, if necessary, to match the funding their company actually has available.

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Stock Picking…Art, or Science (Part II)?!

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Continued from here.

OK, time for a more in-depth look at stock selection. [NB: We’re presuming you’re already comfortable with the rigour & consistency of your stock valuation process]. While I’m happy to acknowledge stock selection may (ultimately) be art, here I’m going to illustrate & argue why it should be mostly grounded in science. So yes, I’m sorry – I don’t have any magic tricks up my sleeve to avoid, for example, a situation we all abhor…you know the one I mean:

You dutifully winnow a list of stocks down to two finalists, do a fine job of valuing them side-by-side, and make your final/fateful selection…only to see one stock double in three months, while you ponder the 35% loss on the stock you actually bought!?

But this can & does happen to the best of us! Unfortunately, it comes with the territory… You have to remember buyer’s regret & remorse are really just symptoms of Fear & Greed. Which can be tackled in two ways:

- Ignore the ProblemAs tempting as self-flagellation is, why indulge in such a pointless exercise? Don’t forget, we’ve already assumed you’re doing a bang-up job with your stock valuation process – so you obviously shouldn’t be buying dud stocks, or forsaking a decent margin of safety! What you’re dealing with here is really just Lady Luck…and her rough edges tend to get smoothed out over time.

- Systemise Your Process:  Stock selection is an independent, but equally important, part of your investment process – and as I’ve argued before, formalising & systemising every single component of that process is the best way to subdue and kill your fear & greed. Like I said, stock selection is mostly a science..!

And as I wrote in my last post:

‘Stock valuation must be absolute, but stock selection is usually relative.’

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Stock Picking…Art, or Science?!

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Gather some investors together, mix liberally with beer, garnish with some grub, lose track of time, and there’s a question which inevitably bubbles to the surface:

So, stock picking…is it bloody art, or is it science?!

If you’re a regular reader, you might recall my Why I Read (I, II & III) series & this more recent piece (Investing Haiku), and assume I’d argue stock picking is ultimately art. That’s understandable – and if you buy me enough drinks, I’m sure I’d be more than happy to expound on that very argument! [And yeah, maybe I can talk even more than I can write. ;-) But only v occasionally… :-) ] But in the hard light of day, I’d be far more reluctant – not because of the argument itself, but because of how it tends to be abused…

First, we have the experts who never really share/explain their actual investment process. Who knows if they’re afraid to share their secret sauce, if they’re looking to add some mystery & glamour (and a following), or if they’ve simply succumbed to false modesty? Intentional or not, they persuade investors their stock picking is ultimately art – so you can invest with them, slavishly copy their stock picks, or you can simply give up…because you can never hope to emulate them!

[I mean, look at Warren Buffett – here we are, 60 years into his career, still slavering over any attempt to reverse-engineer the keys to his investment process & success. Whilst lauding a schizophrenic media that likes to preach why you should invest like Buffett, and why you can’t invest like Buffett! Before he dies, Alice Schroeder needs to perform the ultimate public service – lock herself in a room with Buffett, and only come out when she’s fully documented the real nuts & bolts, facts & figures, and dollars & cents of his major stock picking successes!]

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Baby Boomers…Yes, It’s All About Them!

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In my last post, I acknowledged logic tends to fly out the window in a market correction, and fear & greed take over the driving. My advice was to take a deep breath, just accept the fact we don’t always know what’s coming next, and to positively transform the compulsion to do something anything to relieve your market-induced stress. Because a correction’s a wonderful upgrade opportunity, a chance to (re)deploy your weaker portfolio holdings & cash into higher quality growth companies – those compounders you hardly ever get to buy. Happily, things look a little rosier now (a special thanks, Japan!), and hopefully we’re now heading into a traditional year-end rally…

Of course, long-term performance is the best reminder to always remain invested in the market. Unfortunately, fear & greed can quickly undermine such compelling logic. Companies face a similar issue – it takes a great leader to keep a company set on its long-term growth trajectory, despite all the setbacks it will obviously encounter. The idea great leaders are great storytellers is interesting in this context – it suggests numbers & analysis aren’t enough, people often require a compelling narrative to motivate & help them stay the course. In terms of the markets, the more you can interpret & understand the narrative of the past, the better equipped you will be to see the long-term narrative arc & how it might continue playing out in the future.

So, let me share some of my market narrative. Remember, it’s a story – it doesn’t require proof, and it won’t necessarily remain set in stone. [Accordingly: I’m sure I’ll include plenty of links, but I’ll try resist the temptation to jam this post full of graphs & figures]. You may nod your head, agree, and ponder the implications for your own portfolio – or you’ll replace it with your own narrative…and that’s good too. I’m going to focus on the US here: i) because it’s the growth-engine of the world, and ii) where the US goes, much of the world tends to follow. I’ll also focus on the Baby Boomers – because they bloody deserve the blame…for just about everything! [I promise you’ll hear this more & more in the years to come]:

The Boomers grew up to a constant refrain: A never-ending list of the immense sacrifices and hardships their parents & grandparents endured during World War II & the Great Depression before it. Quite a dose of survivor guilt to be saddled with… Except when they started to come of age in the ’60s, they looked ’round and saw they were actually living in the richest & most powerful country on earth. Hardship and sacrifice seemed like rather quaint & irrelevant concepts, while sexual & political liberation beckoned as a far more enjoyable way to embrace young adulthood. Unfortunately, just when getting a job, getting married, and having kids began to enter the equation, everything turned to shit…

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