Look at the Relative Valuations Before Buying Energy Stocks

Posted on December 4, 2014 | Investor Update

Oil prices have dropped by about 40% over the past six months. Not surprisingly, the decline has led to weakness in oil-related stocks. This weakness intensified last week when shares of many energy companies were assigned Black Friday discounts.

Following the big drop, there have been some calls for investors to start buying these stocks. These calls are based on the assumption that oil prices will rebound in the months to come. Having started my finance career in Houston analyzing energy-related companies, I fully realize the potential profits that can be made from taking a contrarian stance. Being greedy when others are fearful does work in the energy sector. (It also works well in all other sectors too). The challenge is knowing when a discount is a true bargain. A very big secondary challenge is ensuring the longer-term reward is large enough to justify the short-term opportunity cost of a continued drop in the stock price and/or a period of underperformance.

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Debunking 10 Momentum Investing Myths

Posted on November 20, 2014 | Investor Update

Momentum strategies seek out stocks that have done well in the past (winners), though they can also short stocks with past poor returns (losers). The idea is to take advantage of the return premium from favoring winners over losers. Such strategies have their share of critics, however. Among the criticisms are that momentum is not exploitable by the average investor and that such strategies are more volatile.

Clifford Asness, Andrea Frazzini and Ronen Israel of AQR Capital Management and Tobias Moskowitz of the University of Chicago pushed back. In a paper published in the 40th anniversary issue of the Journal of Portfolio Management, they debunk the 10 “myths” they say exist about momentum. I’ll give a summary of their arguments here. For those who want to see the full paper and do not have access to the magazine, a version is available on the SSRN website.

Myth #1. Momentum Returns Are Too Small and Sporadic: Over long periods, momentum has performed better than small company size and value. During the period of 1927 through 2013, the return difference between small stocks and large stocks has averaged 2.9% annually, cheap versus expensive stocks has averaged 4.7% annually and the recent winners over recent losers has averaged 8.3%.

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A New Argument Against Long-Term Care Insurance

Posted on November 13, 2014 | Investor Update


“Most single individuals should not buy [long-term care] insurance given the availability of Medicaid.”

This is what the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College (CRR) wrote in a new research brief. A study from the organization looked not only the chances of needing nursing home care after age 65, but also the average duration of that care. The CRR found that previous research understated the probability of ever needing care, while also overstating the average duration of nursing home care.

The response from the long-term care industry was swift and blunt. A Bloomberg article published this morning quoted the executive director of the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance as calling the new study “irrelevant.” His reasoning, according to Bloomberg, was that most people take long-term care policies because “they want to remain in their own home.”

I’d counter-argue that the CCR’s brief gives interesting insight and its findings should be taken into consideration. Long-term care insurance helps cover the costs of assistance with daily living activities, but premiums have been rising and policies need to be chosen very wisely. Lifestyle and genetics play a role in what type of coverage you may need. An Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, or another debilitating ailment, could result in a lengthy period of needed assistance. If this occurs, your assets could be drained, leaving you with nothing to pass onto your family. On the other hand, long-term care insurance is use it or lose it; if you aren’t able to utilize the policy’s benefits, you will be out the money you paid for the coverage.

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Are Simpler Stock Strategies Better?

Posted on November 6, 2014 | Investor Update


A member recently asked me if a screening strategy with fewer criteria performs better than one with many criteria. As irony would have it, a few days later after I was asked this question, Wesley Gray and his colleagues at Alpha Architect published a paper on SSRN comparing several of the value-oriented AAII Stock Screens to a simple valuation model. The study’s results are not an apples-to-apples comparison to the way we track the performance of the screens (I’ll discuss the differences momentarily), but it did find that only our Piotroski High-F Score screen fared as well as a screen that simply seeks non-financial stocks with low ratios of EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) to TEV (total enterprise value).

Valuation is among the biggest drivers of stock returns. A strategy solely focused on low valuations will have good returns if it identifies enough stocks.

The challenge with any strategy is making it investable. It is quite common for an analysis of indicators to divide the results into deciles, or 10 evenly split groups ranked from lowest to highest. Even if the universe of stocks studied for the analysis is narrowed in some fashion, each decile may still contain far more stocks than the average individual investor is willing to hold or can cost-effectively hold. (In Gray’s study, the EBITDA/TEV screen identified an average of 96 stocks.) There is also a behavioral aspect to consider: How willing are you to hold stocks that are otherwise unattractive?

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I Rebalanced My Portfolio

Posted on October 30, 2014 | Investor Update


I rebalanced my portfolio, or more specifically my 403(b) retirement savings account, this week. The change was made after I conducted my semiannual review. The changes offer some insight into how various asset classes have performed and how I personally manage my portfolio allocations.

Our 403(b) plan, which is the equivalent of a 401(k) plan, is operated through Vanguard. In it, I hold five funds: Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX), Vanguard Small-Cap Value Index Fund (VISVX), Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VGSIX), Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-U.S. Small-Cap Index Fund (VFSVX) and the Vanguard Intermediate-Term Investment-Grade Fund (VFICX). The 500 index fund gives me access to what is arguably the most frequently used benchmark. The domestic small-cap value fund takes advantage of two factors shown to lead to higher returns: value and small company size. The FTSE small-cap fund gives me diversification via international small-cap stocks. Real estate investment trusts (REITs) have had similar long-term returns as small-cap stocks, tend to offer diversification benefits over longer periods of time and are one of the few asset classes to have a higher correlation to inflation. The bond fund provides diversification, buffers the portfolio against volatility and serves as a counter-weight I can rebalance into during bull markets for stocks and out of during bear markets for stocks. (I gave a longer explanation of my allocation, as well as the corresponding Admiral Share mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) tickers, last year. Vanguard will not allow us to hold the less expensive Admiral Share class funds in our accounts regardless of how much we have saved.)

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The SEC Says “No!” to Next-Generation ETFs

Posted on October 23, 2014 | Investor Update


The exchange-traded fund (ETF) industry was dealt a setback this week. Two applications for next-generation actively managed ETFs were rejected by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Both applications (one of which iShares owner BlackRock was involved with) were for several ETFs that would have been actively managed but followed the less transparent mutual fund disclosure rules.

Had the SEC given its blessing, several new investment options in the ETF space would likely have been introduced. These ETFs would have provided direct competition to actively managed mutual funds. Presumably, such funds would have given you and me access to active management at a lower cost.

Instead, the SEC adamantly rejected the applications. The agency called the structure of the proposed ETFs “inherently flawed.” Ouch.

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The Markets Had Been Calm Until Recently

Posted on October 16, 2014 | Investor Update


If the volatility we’ve been experiencing as of late feels like a splash of cold water, it’s likely because it’s been a while since we’ve really experienced it. An extended stretch of calm waters preceded the U.S. market’s recent bout of volatility.

I’m going to share with you some updated numbers from what we crunched for last week’s AAII Dividend Investing update to put things in perspective. We use the iShares Dow Jones U.S. Index ETF (IYY) as the benchmark for both our DI and for our Stock Superstars Report portfolios. This ETF tracks the performance of the largest 1,260 U.S. stocks, giving it exposure to a combination of large-, mid- and small-cap stocks. This ETF incurred daily price changes of 1.5% or more 62 times in 2011 (29 days up by 1.5% or more and 32 days down by 2% or more.) For the entire period following 2011, meaning January 3, 2012, through yesterday, October 15, 2014, the ETF experienced a total of 39 days with a daily price change of 1.5% or more (20 down and 19 up). Again, 62 days in 2011 alone versus just 39 days for the nearly three-year period of 2012 through 2014.

Let’s look at the volatility another way. Wayne Thorp, who maintains a dashboard of market indicators for our Computerized Investing service, has been tracking the number of 1% down days for the Dow Jones U.S. ETF since 1999. Through Wednesday, he counted eight 1% down days over the last six months. This is below the median of 17 days and the average of 19 days with drops of 1% or more since 1999. (Wayne elaborates on this indicator in his Editor’s Outlook in the October Computerized Investing email newsletter that is being sent out this weekend.)

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Have Patience With Small-Cap Stocks

Posted on October 9, 2014 | Investor Update


It has not been a good year for small-cap stocks. As of yesterday’s close, the Russell 2000 index was down 4.78% year-to-date. In contrast, the larger-cap Russell 1000 index was up 7.72%. We’re seeing similar comparisons with other indexes as well. For example, the S&P SmallCap 600 was down 4.99%, whereas the S&P 500 index was up 6.52%. (Obviously, these numbers will be lower once data reflecting today’s decline is published.)

Valuations have been blamed as the reason why. Small-cap stocks were expensive relative to large-cap stocks. They still are. S&P Capital IQ calculates the SmallCap 600 as trading at 22.1 times trailing 12-month (TTM) earnings, versus 26.3 at the end of 2013. In contrast, the S&P 500 is trading at 16.8 times TTM earnings, versus 16.9 at the end of 2013. Arguably, in the background, other concerns (e.g., the tapering of bond purchases by the Federal Reserve, geopolitics, the length of the bull market, etc.) are also playing a role in causing small caps to lag.

This is not the first time small-cap stocks have underperformed large-cap stocks, and it likely won’t be the last time either. As John McDermott and Dana D’Auria discussed a few months ago in the AAII Journal, small-cap stocks only beat large-cap stocks on an annual basis about 50% of the time between 1926 and December 2013. The size premium realized by small-cap stocks comes from their higher volatility. Small-company stocks experienced a standard deviation of 32.3% between 1926 and 2013. Large-company stocks had a lower standard deviation of 20.2%, according to the 2014 Ibbotson SBBI Classic Yearbook. (Standard deviation measures the range of values above and below average for a set of data. Larger values indicate greater variability.)

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The Investment Industry’s Response to Dementia

Posted on October 2, 2014 | Investor Update


I had the opportunity to attend SIFMA’s Senior Investment Forum this week. It was an industry seminar focused on cognitive impairment (dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and related ailments). The timing was somewhat ironic given that on the same day of the conference, the family of Malcom Young—the founding member of Australian rock band AC/DC—confirmed the reason for the guitarist’s retirement: dementia. (I’m listening to some of his work as I write this.)

A positive takeaway from the conference is the investment industry’s awareness of the problem. Some firms have set up protocols, implemented training programs, or are otherwise are educating employees about identifying and working with clients showing signs of cognitive impairment. Wells Fargo Advisors distributes a pamphlet entitled “A Quick Reference Guide for Elder Financial Abuse.” Ameriprise Financial gives its financial advisers a “compliance snapshot,” which has guidance for working with clients believed to be “experiencing diminished mental capacity.” Bank of America Merrill Lynch has a director of financial gerontology. Cynthia Hutchins, who holds this role, believes this is the first such position of its kind.

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How to Invest Like a Quant Fund

Posted on September 25, 2014 | Investor Update


Quant funds utilize computer algorithms to guide their investment strategies. These computerized methods pick securities based on quantitatively identifiable characteristics. Rather than selecting stocks with a good story (e.g., Alibaba (BABA)), they select stocks based on various fundamental or technical criteria.

Many hedge funds follow quantitative strategies. Smart beta funds also follow these strategies. Last week, Morningstar announced that it is now designating quant exchange-traded funds (ETFs) as strategic beta funds. The investment research company described these funds as those that try to improve returns or isolate a specific return relative to a benchmark, increase or decrease the level of risk relative to a benchmark, or follow non-return or risk-oriented strategies, such as equal-weight strategies.

The basic idea behind quant funds is to identify anomalies or return factors that lead to higher returns or less volatility. By giving a preference to investments with these characteristics, higher returns, less volatility or both are sought. It can be an unemotional way to invest as long as personal biases are not allowed to interfere with either the creation or the execution of the model. The better you are able to stick to the model, the more you will be able to invest like a quant fund.

Creating your own model does require a level of comfort with a good screening program such as our Stock Investor Pro and, depending on the model used, a spreadsheet. If you are unwilling or unable to do the mathematical and computer work, following a quantitatively oriented screen or buying a strategic beta fund may be the better option.

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