Prudence: pitiful performance persists in 2010

Markets move in mysterious cycles that no one can predict with accuracy.  For several years value beats growth, or large companies beat small, and then the trend reverses.  Markets are one of the most mean reverting data series known to man, so you always know such trends will reverse, but never precisely when.

2010 was a particularly frustrating year to wait for trends to reverse, especially for those who were prudent. 

2009 was an understandably great year for junky versus prudent investments.  Junk had tanked in 2008 and prudence had dropped little, setting up a spectacular rise for junk in 2009 versus a mundane rise for prudence.  Once the government vowed to support any company large and imprudent enough to be in severe trouble, junk’s star was destined to be born.  It was in 2009. 

However, junk’s stardom seldom lasts because investors become understandably nervous as junk’s star gets too high.  I naively expected investors to become nervous in 2010, but was in hindsight much too early.  A quick look at the data (from Bespoke) highlights my naivete.

Companies considered junk by the rating agencies rose 19% in 2010.  Double-A and above rated companies returned a mere 6%.  2010 rewarded this form of imprudence with 3.2x the return.

The most expensive tenth of stocks, as measured by price to earnings ratios, returned 23% in 2010, versus 8% for the cheapest tenth of stocks.  Once again, 2.9x the return for jumping into junk instead of piling into prudence.

Buying the top tenth of stocks most sold short (where short sellers expect to profit from price declines) returned 26% versus the 17% performance earned from the bottom tenth with the least short sellers.  It was a mere 53% better to bet on this particular form of imprudence.

Investing in cyclical companies, those most impacted by economic cycles and thus hardest to predict, returned 25% against 11% for the non-cyclicals that perform regardless of cycles–2.3x better to hope instead of plan.

Finally, small companies (small ships are more easily toppled by storms than large ones) beat large 24% to 11% in 2010, giving those who bet the trend was their friend a 2.2x edge over those who expected trend reversal.

My naivete was on prominent display in 2010, but I’m not bitter.  I find solace in the certainty that markets mean revert.  Plus, I’ve been given the opportunity to buy prudence at even lower prices. 

Will 2011 be my year of redemption.  I don’t know for certain, but in the choice between junk and prudence, I can’t say I’m even remotely tempted to follow the junky crowd of 2010.

Thank you for reading my blog, and may you have the Merriest of Christmases.

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.

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Prudence: pitiful performance persists in 2010