Investing: 3 part harmony

Investment returns seem mysterious to most. You buy one investment and it takes off; you buy another and it tanks; you buy a third and it goes nowhere. Why? It seems more random and unpredictable than the weather at times.  

The underlying reality is more simple than that, though.  Investment returns can be broken into three parts and analyzed individually. Understanding that three part harmony makes investing seems much less mysterious and more practical–and so it is.

Investment returns consist of:

  1. dividends relative to price paid
  2. underlying earnings growth
  3. change in the multiple to underlying earnings

The dividend seems like the most straightforward part of investing returns, but many people seem to overlook the importance of it. What matters is the dividend relative to the price paid over the full period of investment. If that dividend is eliminated (like banks in 2009), shrinks (Real Estate Investment Trusts) or grows (Johnson and Johnson), that can have a big impact on your return. It’s important to understand the dividend yield as well as the sustainability of that dividend (whether it will grow or shrink).

The second element, earnings growth, is (in my experience) the hardest to predict, and has  the second largest impact on returns. If earnings grow while you hold an investment, then you have a nice tailwind that can allow you to generate good results (Apple). If earnings shrink (Best Buy), or even tank (Citigroup), it probably won’t matter what price you paid or dividend yield you start with, your investment results are likely to be unsatisfactory.  

Earnings consist of underlying sales and profit margins (or book value and return on equity in the case of banks, insurance companies, etc.). If sales grow and margins are stable (Wal-Mart), then earning will most likely grow. If margins grow and sales are stable (IBM), you’ll likely experience earnings growth. If margins and sales tank because technology has become obsolete (Blackberry, anyone?), earnings shrinkage will be a big headwind to your results.

The third element, change in multiple to earnings, is the most difficult for people to grasp and is likely to have the biggest impact on return. The multiple people are willing to pay for earnings, which is frequently expressed as price to earnings ($10 per share stock price, $1 per share in earnings, 10x price to earnings multiple), is a reflection of how market participants think of a company and its future prospects. If people think very highly of a company (Amazon), they may be willing to pay 20x or more on earnings; if they think poorly of a company and its prospects (Xerox), they may be willing to pay only 5x earnings.

Market sentiment towards companies changes a lot over time. When people become despondent with a company, it can trade very low to fundamentals; when people become euphoric, a company can trade at very high multiples. Whereas one can analyze and predict dividends and earnings based on underlying evidence, multiples are more likely to be a result that must be judged and reacted to rather than predicted. Buying at a low multiple and selling at a high one gives a tremendous tailwind to investing results.

When you put together multiple change, earnings growth and dividend yield over the life of an investment, you have the three parts of investment return. By analyzing those three parts, you can understand why your investments do well or poorly, and then make adjustments to your investment process. The three part harmony of good returns requires a keen understanding and mastery of all three parts.  

Investment results can be clearly understood if you take the time to do so. Such an effort removes the mystery and reveals an understandable system that can be used to produce good results. This may not sound as exciting as shooting from the hip in hopes of a big win, but good results over time create great wealth, and that’s as exciting as can be.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Investing: 3 part harmony

Dow 13,333

Amazingly enough, the market just keeps hitting new highs.

Despite headwinds from a slowing economy, higher gas prices, and a rocky housing market, most companies beat analysts estimates for the quarter.

The world economy is thriving with good (for them) growth rates in Europe and very high growth in China and India.

U.S. companies benefited this quarter, too, partially because they sell many goods and services to other countries and partially because the declining dollar provided an additional tailwind to results.

Another benefit, which the analysts seemed to have missed, came from companies buying back their own stock. If a company’s earnings increase by 5% and it buys back 5% of its stock, it suddenly has 10.5% growth in earnings per share. No real magic there.

I’m not foolish enough to try to forecast the short term direction of the market, but I do have some questions about how these dynamics will affect markets in the future.

If the Chinese economy slows, as the government there is trying to make happen, how will that impact the world economy? How much further can the dollar decline before it leads to increases in U.S. interest rates? How could U.S. companies be impacted by a slower world economy and higher U.S. interest rates? How much longer can companies buy back their shares instead of investing in new projects, capital expenditures or wages and salaries?

I don’t claim to know the answer to any of these questions, nor do I believe that answers to these questions are necessary to successfully invest over the long term. But, I do think it is important to assess the substance behind the recent good news and ask myself whether such tailwinds are likely to continue going forward.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Earnings season is upon us!

For those who seriously pay attention to the stock market, earnings season is an important time each quarter. Earnings season is when companies report their quarterly financial results both in conference calls and press releases. It’s not only a chance to see how businesses have done, but, more importantly, it’s a chance to get a peek at how businesses will do going forward. And that peek, more than anything else, is what drives stock prices in the short term.

What are the prognosticators seeing in their crystal balls this quarter? For the first time since the second quarter of 2003, earnings are forecast to grow at a slower than 10% pace year-over-year. What many stock market watchers are worried about is that companies will not only report slower growth, but that they will forecast slower growth for more than a quarter or two. Gasp! Horror! (sarcasm)

In the long run, a stock’s price is determined by what a company will earn over time. The thing that moves stock prices in the short term, however, is not so much how companies are doing, but how they are doing relative to the view of market participants. John Maynard Keynes, a famous economist and successful investor, once compared picking short term investment winners to a beauty contest. Instead of trying to pick the most beautiful person, you end up trying to guess who everyone else thinks is beautiful. The game, in the short run at least, it to try to outwit all the other people trying to outwit you in guessing how everyone will react to short term information.

Would you like to guess how well this methodology works over the long term? Answer: not so good. The problem is that quarterly earnings reports and guesses about how things in the economy are shaping up are extremely noisy–by which I mean they move around a lot and don’t necessarily indicate long term information. This noisiness means that trying to guess what will happen seems to be a fools errand. And yet, most on Wall Street and most money managers try to play it. Want to guess why 80% of professional money managers don’t beat the market?

I’m not saying quarterly earnings reports are a waste of time. Quite the contrary. A lot of valuable information can be gleaned by listening to conference calls and reading quarterly financial reports over a long period of time. That’s why I read quarterly reports and listen to conference calls.

The problem is the importance that’s placed on such noisy data. And this importance is what makes stock market prices much more volatile than the earnings of underlying companies. It’s all those bozo’s trying to guess what will happen over the next 12 seconds that leads prices to go so far astray from underlying value. While such volatility makes consistently beating the market in the short term almost impossible, it does lead to wonderful opportunities to buy good companies at overly low prices.

And, that’s the real reason I love earnings season.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.