Index bubble

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This passive investing/index bubble idea from a Michael Burry interview continues to circulate. The idea has appeal, not the idea that another recession is imminent, but the idea that we could accurately predict one coming, and that the cause could actually make sense to us. The argument is fairly simple. A larger percentage of people are buying index funds, especially the S&P 500, than ever before. Index fund investors tend not to analyze each company in the S&P 500, they simply buy the index which owns all of them. So Burry worries that since fewer and fewer people are conducting analysis on company fundamentals, the prices of these companies are going to be inflated by virtue of the simple fact that they’re included in an index, not because they’re good companies that people believe in. That makes sense. The question then, is how much analysis and trading do we need in order to maintain a decent level of price discovery in the market? If index funds stifle price discovery, how do we avoid a bubble? Here are a few responses:

  • Even a small amount of price discovery (studying fundamentals, making trades, supply and demand) makes a huge difference for prices to reflect value. We don’t need large swaths of the market conducting analysis.
  • If 100% of invested assets were in index funds the price discovery argument might hold some weight. You would have to assume that there would be almost no company fundamental analysis happening, not an unreasonable jump but still an assumption. However, the truth is that only about 45% of invested assets are in index funds, and there’s still a host of investors and dollars outside of passive index funds working to set prices.
  • Index investing actually adds data to the market, it contributes to price discovery. Instead of contributing data on specific stocks, it contributes to larger market sector data as people commit dollars to different indexes across the world, which is helpful market data.
  • Despite the growth of index fund investing, global stock trading volume has actually remained about the same over the last ten years. People use passive vehicles to actively trade. Many index fund dollars are in ETFs among the most traded funds on the market. Just because money is in index funds does not mean that it’s passive. The activity all contributes to price discovery.
  • Some passive investors (like us!) actually do use some fundamental analysis in constructing portfolios (structured funds). And even our passive investors occasionally make trades; in order to rebalance, when they make contributions or withdrawals, etc. Even the most passive investors contribute to price discovery.
  • If the market was losing efficiency and price discovery as a result of growing index fund investors, we would expect to see an uptick in active money manager performance. Active managers would find the mispriced companies in the index and reap corresponding rewards. But the data shows no improvement, active managers have performed slightly worse over the last three years than before.

Despite the uptick in index and passive investing, price discovery is as strong as it ever has been in the stock market. Michael Burry’s comments on the index bubble are interesting and even sound plausible, but upon close inspection look misguided. Passive investing is still the way to go, though you do have permission to dump those index funds.

Value Investor (part 1)

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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 semi-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, which is 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.

Human capital

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What’s human capital?
To start, we need a definition. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “Human capital is the stock of habits, knowledge, social and personality attributes (including creativity) embodied in the ability to perform labour so as to produce economic value.” A little tricky, but basically human capital is the economic value of a person based on their skills and ability in the workplace.

So who gets paid for human capital?
In a free-market economy, everyone gets paid based on their own human capital. We each own our own skills and abilities and we collect income based on our ability and value when we work. Regardless of whether we work for a company or ourselves, we’re compensated for the value we’re able to provide.

So far so good. Now let’s tie this into investing. Without some understanding of the market, people tend to believe that they can beat the market by picking the right stocks. Consistent success (beating the market) in stock picking is actually impossible, but let’s pretend for a moment that’s not. If the market was beatable, there would naturally be people who were especially endowed with the skills and/or training to beat it. Those people would often become money managers and they would be highly sought after by the general public looking for great returns in their portfolios. But who would collect the premiums for additional returns achieved above-market returns? Stock picking would be a human capitalist skill! The brilliantly skilled money manager would collect some serious fees for his valuable ability, fees almost exactly in line with the amount of return he was able to achieve above the market. The additional return of the portfolio wouldn’t end up in the pockets of investors, it would go to the brilliant manager with the impressive human capital skills.

So here’s the point: the stock market is efficient and so it’s not consistently beatable, but even if it was, investors would not be the beneficiaries. The super-skilled money managers would rightly collect large fees, highly correlated to the additional value they were able to provide based on their human capital skills.

On REITs

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REITs (Real Estate Investment Trust) are a hot topic in 2019. Real estate is popular, it’s tangible, it’s easy to understand the profits and costs involved, and many of us already own some ourselves. REITs offer the allure of owning income-producing real estate without ever having to take a call from a grumpy tenant or running over to fix a leaky toilet in the middle of the night. It’s real estate investing without all the hassle! Well, that’s not exactly true, here a few reasons to look elsewhere for investing returns:

  1. A REIT is not like investing in real estate the way most of us think about real estate investing (owning rental properties). Traditional real estate investing is a great way to make money, but it’s not passive. Ask anyone who owns rental properties and they’ll tell you it’s a job, maybe a part-time job, maybe a worthwhile job, but a job none-the-less. It takes work and time and good business sense. A REIT is like a mutual fund that only owns income-producing real estate (at least 75% of the income within a REIT must come from rental income or something similar), which sounds similar to traditional investing, but a REIT is completely passive. The expected earnings on the two types of investments are very different because they’re very different types of investments.
  2. Investing in REITs is redundant. If you’re invested in the stock market you already own real estate. In fact, you already own the same exact companies and properties that are also in the REIT you’re thinking about purchasing. You could theoretically double down on real estate, own it both in your investment account and in a REIT, but why would you do that? There are three essential market factors that drive returns: stocks (which outperform bonds over time), small companies (which outperform large companies over time), and value companies (which outperform growth companies over time); real estate doesn’t make the cut. There’s no additional benefit to increasing your exposure to real estate, no additional returns, no additional diversification benefits, nothing. You could buy into a REIT if you have a hunch that real estate as a market sector is going to do well in the next few years but that would be market timing, a proven great way to lose money.

REITs sometimes sound exciting, especially when they’re doing well, but keep the big-picture perspective. No one knows when REITs will do well or for how long, we just know that over time they won’t beat a well-diversified portfolio, which already owns a lot of real estate anyways.

Thoughts on capitalism (part 4)

4: Capitalism isn’t perfect.

I wanted to finish up these thoughts on capitalism with an observation: capitalism is great, but it’s not perfect. Again, many of these thoughts are extracted from John Addison Teevan’s Integrated Justice and Equality which I can’t recommend highly enough, and a few are gleaned from Not Tragically Colored by Ishmael Hernandez.

Capitalism does not contain values, it’s amoral. It can’t distinguish anything on any basis besides price. For capitalism, there’s no difference between a missile and a bushel of apples besides its market value. This basically means that capitalism is as good (moral) as the people who are utilizing it.

Capitalism relies on the self-interest of humans, a pretty reliable foundation. However, apart from values, self-interest can quickly and easily devolve into greed. Greed is a problem, Teevan argues that it ‘flattens the soul.’ Greed changes the equation from self-interest to gross indulgence. It’s the opposite of moral, and it can wreak havoc on society.

We know that capitalism is the single greatest sociological economic force in creating wealth and alleviating poverty. But we also know it’s not perfect, it can be manipulated for greedy ends, harming people and environments. So what’s the solution? A popular conclusion is to hand over responsibility to the government to regulate and stipulate and care for the underprivileged, that personal generosity and compassion should be delegated. That’s a bad idea, for a few reasons:
(1) Government compulsion stifles generosity and compassion within society. Generosity means giving, void of any obligation or compulsion. When the government requires and stipulates giving, generosity dies. Not only do people resent the government for taking from them, they learn to resent the people to whom their proceeds are redirected. They learn to hold what they have closely. Why do you think CPA’s do so well? It’s not because they help people pay taxes, they help people pay the least amount of tax possible. People lose compassion when it’s delegated to the government.
(2) Redistribution deprives people of their dignity. Recipients of government ‘compassion’ efforts don’t receive a gift, whatever they receive becomes a right, an entitlement. Instead of gratitude, they learn to expect. Instead of self-reliance, they learn dependence. Part of a person’s self-worth is lost in all this.

Instead, in order for capitalism to work in society, shared moral values, specifically personal compassion, are required. The delegation of personal generosity and compassion from the people to the government is destructive for everyone. Capitalism is as strong as the values of the people who embrace it. “P.J. O’Rourke is alleged to have quipped that civilization is a bootstrap operation: we have to work at being civil. We cannot assume that the bounty of wealth or the freedom to enjoy it can be continually provided without continual care” (Teevan, p121).