What does ‘efficient market’ mean?

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‘Efficient market’ is one of the most important terms to understand when it comes to investing. It’s important because what you think about the efficiency of the market will dictate how you practically invest your money, which will shape your retirement and legacy.
So first, what does it mean? If the market is efficient it means that stock prices react to news and information really fast. For instance, news breaks that a company has committed fraud, and the stock price of that company falls immediately. It also extends to any small bit of news or public sentiment regarding the market or specific companies. Market prices are always moving based on new information and perceptions, and they move almost immediately upon receiving that new information. Those are signs of an efficient market. The speed at which information travels today has only made the market more efficient.
So why does that matter? Well, if the market really is super efficient, it means that picking stocks is futile. Think about it, if the market prices react and update immediately upon receiving new information, the only thing you can do to beat the market is to guess right. Unfortunately market guesses are less like investing and more like gambling. So if the market is efficient, the entire way you’ve previously thought about investing is not only impractical, it’s basically a roll of the dice. Instead of trying to beat the market, an efficient market would suggest you own the whole thing as efficiently as you can. You would diversify and hold stocks instead of research and pick stocks.
There is another important thing to recognize about investing in relation to the efficient market: people do beat the market sometimes, they sometimes pick the right stocks and get better returns than the market as a whole. It’s not often, somewhere around 90% of stock pickers underperform the market every year, but that leaves around 10% who seem to be doing something right. That 10% either figured something out, found some inefficiency in the market, or they got lucky. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter if they’re smart or lucky, and there’s not really any way to empirically test it anyways. Because the market is efficient, if a smart person does find an inefficiency it will close up before long, and if a lucky person gets lucky, they’ll also get unlucky at some point. Either way, by the time you’ve heard about their success, it’s too late. People who have beat the market in the past are much more likely to underperform the market in the future than to beat it again. In fact, they’re more likely to underperform even their contemporaries in the future. Any way you cut it, in an efficient market it simply doesn’t make sense to try to find or profit from market inefficiencies, regardless of whether or not they really exist, or to what extent.
So if the market is efficient, to whatever degree you agree, don’t try to beat it. Instead, own the efficient market as efficiently as possible.

Value Investor

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Value investing sounds really cool. It sounds savvy, it sounds smart, it sounds responsible, it sounds like it makes a lot of money. I mean, Warren Buffet is a value investor!

So what is a value investor? Well, a value investor is someone who invests in value companies. So what’s a value company? I’m glad you asked. Essentially, a value company is one whose stock price is about the same (could be a little higher or lower) than its intrinsic, or book, value. A lot of words there but stick with me. The intrinsic value of a company is what you get when you add up all the company’s assets, its land, warehouses, products (which can include patents), equipment, cash, etc. It might seem a little odd that a company’s stock price wouldn’t always be close to its intrinsic value, but the stock market prices of growth companies (the opposite of value companies) can actually trade multiples of 8 times higher than its intrinsic value. This happens because the market expects the growth company to continue growing. Value companies aren’t typically expected to grow much, they’re often characterized as distressed. So value investors are analyzing these value companies and deciding which ones they think are actually undervalued and which ones could bounce back. Again, it sounds great, they’re the brilliant nerdy guys reading all of the fine print and finding the deals in the stock market, the companies that are underpriced. All you have to do is hitch up to their wagon and ride those value companies up when everyone else figures out how valuable they actually are. Sounds pretty responsible, right?

A semi-famous value investor, Michael Burry, featured in the Big Short (as Christian Bale) crushed the growth stock market from 2001-2005. In the middle of 2005, he was up 242% when the U.S. large growth market (S&P500) was down 6.84%. Michael Burry is the quintessential weird genius that we love to fall in love with, and hand our money over to. He did things differently, he didn’t take normal massive fees, he was incredibly awkward with people in person, he kept to himself, he obsessively studied the interworkings of the companies he invested in, just about everything you would expect from the next market genius. He’s most famous for predicting, and attempting to short, the housing crash in 2007. And now’s he’s rich, and famous, and still investing. He recently stated that passive investing is a bubble, that he’s concentrated on water (you get it), that GameStop is undervalued, and that Asia is where it’s at. While these investment tips might accord with the laws of value investing, they hardly seem prudent.

Michael Burry is definitely smarter than I am, but here’s what I know:

1) Ken French, a professor of finance at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, who has spent much of his adult life researching and publishing in the sphere of economics and investing, conducted a study of mutual-fund managers (Luck versus Skill in the Cross-Section of Mutual Fund Returns) and found that only the top 2% to 3% had enough skill to even cover their own costs. Eugene Fama, another father of economic and investing academia, who co-wrote the paper with Ken French, summarizes their findings this way: “Looking at funds over their entire lifetimes, only 3% demonstrate skill after accounting for their fees, and that’s what you would expect purely based on chance.” Of the managers who do exhibit enough skill to cover their own costs, it’s hard to determine whether an actual skill is at work or it’s simply a facet of luck; most free-market scholars lean towards luck.

2) Fama continues: “Even the active funds that have generated extraordinary returns are unlikely to do better than a low-cost passive fund in the future.” Some managers do well enough to cover their own costs and beat the market in a given year. Unfortunately, their success languishes quickly and they regress to the same plane that active managers, on the whole, occupy, underperforming the market.

So is Michael Burry, or any value investor, the weird, brilliant savant that we desperately want to attach our life-savings to, or is he one of the 3% of managers who have done well enough to cover their own fees, but who the data says is more likely to regress to market underperformance mean than to do it again? I know which side I’m playing.

Financial Advisors aren’t evil (mostly)​

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I met a stranger this morning (the beauty of Facebook marketplace). He had looked me up in advance, not to be creepy (he assured me), just to make sure he wasn’t meeting a crazy person. He saw that I’m a financial advisor and wondered if I had ever met his financial advisor, whom he trusts very much. In fact, he trusts his financial advisor so much he recently handed over full discretion, meaning the advisor no longer needs his permission to make trades and move money. It was becoming cumbersome to give the okay every time the advisor wanted to make a trade. I informed him that I had not met his financial advisor, and he assured me that his advisor is a great guy.
Here’s the thing, I’m sure he is a great guy, I’m sure his intentions are (mostly) pure. Many financial advisors are really great, and they really care. But that little discretionary bit he shared with me is alarming. When it becomes cumbersome to approve every trade your advisor wants to make, that’s a problem. According to the data, financial advisors who actively trade routinely underperform the market, even advisors who are really great guys. Don’t work with an advisor only because he or she is a great person. Find an advisor who is a great person, but who also understands how the market works, how to most efficiently capture returns, how to avoid stock picking and market time and trying to beat the market, and most importantly, how to coach you. Your future depends on more than the integrity of your advisor. He may not be evil, but he may also be submarining your retirement.

Robinhood is dangerous

robinhood-for-webFirst of all, I don’t mean Robinhood the vigilante, the hero. Sure, was a criminal, but at least he was fighting against the bad guys. In an unjust agrarian society, his actions could be seen as defensible, but I digress.
I mean Robinhood the investment app. A few notes on its danger:

  • The Robinhood app is gorgeous. It’s so pretty it’s hard not to look at it. The graphs and charts are perfect, the animations and gestures are seamless, the design is minimal, it’s about as well designed as apps come. The old mantra ‘beauty is only skin deep’ applies here. The beauty draws you in but also masks some sordid parts.
    The beauty of Robinhood masks the fact that it’s essentially a place to gamble. Sure, you could call it sophisticated gambling, at least you’re not sitting in the smoky haze with eyes glazed over at a shiny slot machine, but it’s still gambling. The little news tidbits aren’t going to help you beat the market, nor will the pretty charts. The truth is that even professionals don’t beat the market. The beauty and ease just make it more tempting.
    Robinhood will you trade options, which is an even riskier way to invest, and even more likely to lose you more money. An option is just a leveraged bet on the market, like putting your money on 13 at the roulette table. It’s a terrible idea.
  • Robinhood offers free trades, perhaps its most alluring selling point. Purchasing stocks always involves fees, brokerage fees, trade commissions, transaction fees, etc. Brokers who conduct trades charge fees, usually per transaction. Robinhood is one of the few places where consumers can purchase shares without transaction fees. So it’s beautiful and free? Who says no to that?
    It’s not entirely free. There are regulatory fees on every trade which Robinhood does pass on to customers. These fees are typically fractions of pennies, and Robinhood rounds them up to the nearest penny, pocketing the round-up of course.
    Robinhood also generates substantial income from a practice called ‘payment for order flow,’ a controversial industry practice interestingly invented by Bernie Madoff. It basically means Robinhood sells the right to execute customer trades to third-party market makers who pay a small fee. Those small fees add up, and Robinhood relies on their high-frequency traders to make it work. Regulators don’t love it, in fact, other brokers and market makers have faced lawsuits over the issue. Robinhood’s dependence on this income could spell its downfall in the coming years.
  • Robinhood only allows you to buy entire shares, which are often pricey. At the time of this writeup Apple is trading at around $200/share, SPY (a very popular ETF that tracks with the S&P 500 index) is trading at about $300/share, Tesla is at $220, you get the idea. Not all shares are that expensive, but it’s tough to deposit a small amount and get trading, you need more money to buy full shares.
    It’s not like Robinhood couldn’t offer partial shares, other platforms do it. Robinhood doesn’t because this is another one of the ways they make money. Offering full shares exclusively means that you will usually have some leftover change in your account, and Robinhood earns interest on those leftover funds. It also encourages you to invest larger chunks of money, which means you’re likely to lose more money.

I’m not saying you’ll die young or retire destitute if you invest some money in Robinhood. But just be aware of what you’re doing. You’re gambling. For the most part, it’s best to stay away.