'Simple, but not easy'
By reducing the discount rates that are applied to equity earnings, lower interest rates have disproportionately favoured more highly rated quality/growth stocks which have a greater proportion of their value further out in the future.
Investing, and particularly contrarian investing, is often described as being 'simple, but not easy'. The simple part is straightforward. One waits for a share price to fall, carries out some due diligence to check for any hidden nasties, checks the stock is cheap on some sensible assumptions and then buys the share. And if everything goes to plan, the shares, as they recover, will attract the attention of other investors and provide the investor with a handsome profit.
The 'not easy' part is where the sweating begins. A stock only tends to fall if investors have some concerns about a company's future. There may be issues over a company's indebtedness, accounting, industry exposure or some purely idiosyncratic issue and virtually all of the time it is perfectly rational to hold these concerns. And, in many cases, history tells us it is correct to have such concerns as worst-case scenarios can often play out (of which a recent example is Carillion).
But a more dispassionate assessment of history tells us that on the whole these worst-case scenarios are a fairly rare species. They just tend to stick more in investors' minds than those stocks which do recover.
What can often be worse than the embarrassment of holding one stock that does very badly is holding a portfolio of stocks which, in general, are doing reasonably badly. This typically happens in markets which are influenced by a significant and prolonged theme – such as the technology, media and telecoms bubble in the late 90s and the mining bubble in the mid-noughties. At such times equity markets can become bifurcated with a group of stocks heavily in favour and the rest unloved.
What can often be worse than the embarrassment of holding one stock that does very badly is holding a portfolio of stocks which, in general, are doing reasonably badly.
We have been in one of these times over recent years. The belief that inflation will remain low for an extended period of time has seen interest rates fall to extraordinarily low levels, and this has created a number of market-wide effects that have worked against us. By reducing the discount rates that are applied to equity earnings, lower interest rates have disproportionately favoured more highly rated quality/growth stocks which have a greater proportion of their value further out in the future.
I've been on the wrong side of things and am seated firmly on the naughty step. I've been sitting there for so long now, that I'm starting to leave an impression.
So, what to do?
There are three options. Option one is to simply capitulate – admit that the world has changed, that the old rules do not work and to embrace the dark side. Option two is to sit tight, accept one's portfolio is significantly different from the market and trust that eventually themes (however strong the story) will reverse. Option three is to break the first law of digging holes made famous by Dennis Healey, the Labour politician, who opined that, "if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging". If the bifurcated market throws up increasingly attractive opportunities it is surely right to keep buying?
At this point, the career risk that Jeremy Grantham, founder of GMO, has often talked about becomes relevant. It stops being how long the fund manager can take the pain of underperformance and morphs into a discussion on how long the client is willing to take the pain of underperformance.
For a contrarian investor (and we are talking about a portfolio of stocks here rather than an individual stock) the typical response is somewhere between options 2 and 3. Continue to analyse the opportunity set and as it becomes ever more attractive to do so, skew the portfolio more towards the cheapest stocks. However, it is probably best not to come over as too pig-headed, bloody-minded or unprepared to investigate alternative views. 'The market is obviously wrong' rarely wins plaudits with clients on the receiving end of one's underperformance.
Looking in the tea leaves
The psychologist will tell you at these times that to remain rational, one should actively search for those whose views oppose your own. Continually seeking solace from like-minded individuals can quickly encourage 'confirmation bias' – the belief that something must be right because someone else agrees with you. Clearly it is healthy to search for contrasting views, but at such times the opposition have the upper hand – they are supported by a good narrative to which a trending share price brings further validation. The contrarian, on the other hand, appears to have just conjecture – 'what if the story reverses even though there is no sign of it in the tea leaves', or history – 'something typically turns up; the market's just not always smart enough to see it'.
It's not that the psychologists are wrong – it's more that when markets or stocks are at extreme levels, there is probably not a great deal of rationality on either side. Someone who sold a stock a lot higher is busy patting themselves on the back and telling their war story rather than considering whether the price has gone too far or the facts have changed. Whereas someone who purchased a stock on the way down only to lose a reasonable amount of money is busy licking their wounds, reluctant to add to a position and worried that the market knows something they don't. In these cases it is often good to return to analysis conducted in quieter, more rational times. The popular view may be well made, but at a lower price and valuation, what odds are being received for taking the contra view?
Underperformance is never nice, but for investors with high conviction portfolios and/or distinct investment styles it is unfortunately an almost inevitable price to pay for subsequently experiencing the good times.
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