In Episode 55, we welcome Ed Easterling. Meb starts by referencing a survey he just conducted, asking readers’ opinions as to the single best investing book out there. It turns out that Ed’s book, Unexpected Returns, made the top 50 list, so Meb offers Ed a kudos.
But the guys hop into market discussions quickly. Ed tells us that the stock market is not driven by randomness. It’s predictable in the long run, driven by three components: 1) earnings growth, 2) dividend yield, and 3) the change in valuation level. Stock market returns over the short-term are unpredictable, but over the longer-term they’re highly predictable. And the key driver is the starting level valuation.
Meb brings up how numerous investors are currently expecting 10% returns (based on long-term averages). He asks Ed if that’s warranted.
It turns out, we need to distinguish between long-term returns (say, 100 years) and a return-period that’s more relevant to the average investor (say, 10 or 20 years). This is because changes in PE levels are much more significant for returns over 10-20 year periods for individual investors, more so than over 100 years.
Meb asks if Ed has a favorite PE ratio. Ed likes Shiller’s CAPE and the Crestmont PE – which is driven by GDP and EPS. Ed finds value in comparing the two. They have similar results yet have different approaches.
All the talk of valuation leads the guys into a discussion of secular versus cyclical markets. Ed offers some general context for secular versus cyclical, then says we’re definitely in a secular bear market. He offers up some great details here, factoring in valuations and the inflation rate.
Meb asks what will make the cyclical bear end? Ed says the PE has to get low enough where it can double or triple. So, starting out in the high 20s right now, the PE would need to get down to at least the mid-teens, if not the low-teens.
Soon, the conversation gravitates toward “volatility gremlins,” with Meb asking Ed to define the term and explain.
There are two volatility gremlins that compromise the compounded returns investors receive: 1) the effect of losses – Ed gives us example of the math behind wins and losses; 2) the dispersion of returns – steady returns yield the best compounding, but when returns are more dispersed, it adversely affects the compounding. Meb asks, “what then?” How does one build a portfolio knowing this? Ed answers by giving us a great analogy involving rowing and sailing.
Next, the guys touch on volatility and what will be the trigger that moves us from this mellow inflation environment. Ed says that volatility is a reflection of the movement of the markets, which also reflects investor sentiment and complacency. By one of the measures of volatility that Ed tracks, he says we’re well-into the lowest 3% or 4% of all periods since 1950. The other volatility measure is the VIX, which is settling again, back around 10. Do you know how many days since 1990 the VIX has dipped below 10? Ed tells us, and yes, we’re flirting with a sub-10 level right now.
There’s far much more in this episode: Where Ed would point a new investor starting in this environment… The biggest investing misconception Ed sees from his students… Ed’s favorite investing styles/strategies within the hedge fund space… And advice for retirees and/or income investors.
What is it? Find out in Episode 55.
In Episode 54, we welcome Elizabeth “Liz” Dunn, author of the book, “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending”.
Meb suggests they walk through the book using its five broad takeaways as their outline. But before they dive in, he asks Liz about her inspiration for writing the book.
Liz tells us that when she began making a “real, grown up” salary, she wasn’t entirely certain what to do with it. She was curious how to use it most effectively to promote her own happiness. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a great deal of research on the topic.
Next, Meb asks Liz to discuss her first main finding (and likely the best-known finding) – our happiness tends to increase when we spend money on experiences rather than things. Liz gives us the key takeaways, after which Meb asks why buying experiences over things is hard for us, when we know that’s what we should do.
The problem is we’re bombarded with opportunities to buy things. And it’s easy to see the differences between, say, Liz’s Honda and Meb’s Ferrari (no, Meb doesn’t own a Ferrari). With this comparison, Meb would feel great. But it cuts both ways – it’s also very easy for Meb to see someone else’s far more expensive Bentley, therein making him feel less satisfied with his Ferrari. Conversely, it’s more challenging to compare experiences. Each experience is somewhat unique, therein reducing the tendency to compare. Liz gives us an example using a safari she went on.
Meb and Liz soon move on to the second takeaway from the book: “make it a treat.” One of the greatest misunderstandings of happiness is the idea that if something makes us happy, then more of it should make us even happier. Apparently, that’s not the case. Whether we’re talking someone’s salary or a little luxury like “avocado toast” (Meb and Liz are both big fans), when we have more of it, this can erode our capacity to appreciate it.
This dovetails into the discussion of the salary “line in the sand” above which added dollars has diminishing impact on real happiness. Liz tells us that in the U.S., this figure is about $75K. But she mentions it with an interesting context…
There are two “flavors” to happiness: 1) the kind that comes when you evaluate a question like “am I living the kind of life I want to live?” and 2) the kind that comes when you ask “did I laugh or smile yesterday?”
If you’re making more money – well beyond $75K, you’re more likely to answer #1 in an affirmative way. Sure, as you jet off to Bora Bora and evaluate your life, you’re likely to feel good about having the wealth to enable such a trip. However, it turns out this added wealth has very little effect on the second type of happiness – day-to-day happiness.
The third takeaway is “buying time.” What are we actually doing with the minutes of our lives? Is there a way to trade our money for more time? Liz and Meb discuss spending an hour commuting to work every day, and how miserable that makes people. Wherever appropriate, it makes sense to spend money on things/services/people that can give us back our time, which we can then spend with loved ones or volunteering, etc.
Meb makes the point “show me your calendar and checkbook and I’ll show you what you care about.” While Liz agrees to an extent, she points out that many times the calendar and checkbook DON’T align with things we truly care about because we get into habits – say, mowing the lawn even though we have enough money to pay someone else to do it for us. So part of our challenge is to sniff out where our priorities are out of alignment with where we’re actually spending our time/money, then look to shift out of that mindset.
The fourth takeaway is “pay now, consume later.” This is hardly the way our culture does things, with its credit card mentality. Unfortunately, consuming first and paying later is exactly the wrong thing for happiness. Liz and Meb discuss this in detail, dovetailing into the toxic effects of debt.
The final takeaway is “invest in other people.” Liz has found that we tend to be happier when we spend our money on other people, more so than ourselves. In supporting this takeaway, she tells us of her study in which she gave people either a $5 or $20 bill, and asked them to spend it by the end of the day – the caveat was that some people were asked to spend it on themselves, while others were asked to spend it on other people. Liz’s team followed up at the end of the day, calling the participants, and found that those who spent the money on others reported feeling happier than the people who’d spent it on themselves.
After finishing discussing the book, Liz and Meb go over a paper Liz just published. It’s a fascinating look into what motivates wealthier people to give more to charity. In short, people with lots of money tend to focus on personal achievement more so than the communal “group achievement.” As such, a messaging strategy that reframes the wealthy individual as the hero or standout tends to result in more charitable donations as compared to a communal message.
There’s plenty more in this episode, including Liz’s next research project, discussion of Syrian refugees, what prompted a classic Meb-meltdown as a child, and finally, Meb’s pointed question to Liz: If I put you on the spot and asked you to give us one single piece of advice for achieving more happiness, what would it be?
What’s Liz’s answer? Find out in Episode 54.
Episode 53 is another “radio show” format. This means we tackle a handful of topics from Meb’s blog and tweets.
TOPIC 1 – VALUATIONS
3 DIFFERENT TAKES ON CURRENT VALUE PICTURE:
Meb’s recent blog post “A Bar Too High” indicated that for stocks to meet expectations over next 10 years, valuations must rise to highest they’ve ever been in history. With a current CAPE ratio of 29, that means the stock market multiple needs to INCREASE to all-time 1999 bubble highs to meet investor expectations. He thinks tepid growth is more realistic.
On the other hand, James Montier, member of the asset allocation team at the Boston-based asset manager GMO, is convinced that the US stock market is in bubble territory. However, European equities aren’t particularly cheap, either. Only emerging markets value-stocks appear vaguely attractive to him. Investors should be patient and hold a lot of cash in their portfolios in order to be able to buy when markets are correcting.
What would make the US equity market attractive again – how much would it have to correct? To get back to our sense of fair value tomorrow, it would have to fall by more than 50%. Then we would be on average valuation, which again we estimate based on profitability going back to normal.
A third option from a reader question: “Lately there seems to be a lot of talk about CAPE measure not being as meaningful as many seem to think that it is because the very low yields on bonds and full pricing of bonds are basically changing the overall risk adjusted returns landscape. I think the point people are making is that stocks are fairly priced for current overall market conditions, despite many indicators which suggest that prices are historically high.”
Three viewpoints – how does Meb see them all? You’ll hear his take.
TOPIC 2 – INVEST IN SINGLE STOCKS AT YOUR PERIL
A new study by finance professor Hendrik Bessembinder, called “Do Stocks Outperform Treasury Bills?” found that while investing in the overall stock market makes sense, individual stocks resemble lottery tickets: A very small percentage of winning stocks have done splendidly, but when gains and losses are tallied up over their lifetimes, most stocks haven’t earned any money at all. What’s more, 58 percent of individual stocks since 1926 have failed to outperform one-month Treasury bills over their lifetimes.
Professor Bessembinder found that a mere 4 percent of the stocks in the entire market — headed by Exxon Mobil and followed by Apple, General Electric, Microsoft and IBM — accounted for all of the net market returns from 1926 through 2015. By contrast, the most common single result for an individual stock over that period was a return of nearly negative 100 percent — almost a total loss.
Given all this, what reason is there for the average retail investor to be in specific equities instead of broader sector and index ETFs?
TOPIC 3 – VOLATILITY
We'll post a chart about our current low volatility – actual U.S. stock market volatility going to back 1928 has only been lower about 3% of trading days.
How does Meb interpret this – do these low readings mean a reversion is likely? Or is it the opposite – more of a trend approach where objects in motion tend to stay in motion?
Also, how would an investor act upon this using a tail-risk hedging strategy involving puts?
There’s plenty more and a handful of rabbit holes in this radio show episode, including investor sentiment, the name of Meb’s new child, how to avoid value traps, and yes, as the title suggests, the cheapest countries in the market today.
What are they? Find out in Episode 53.
In Episode 52, we welcome Jason Hsu, joining us all the way from Taipei. We start with a bit of background on Jason and his company, Rayliant, which is a spinoff off Research Affiliates. Listeners might recognize the name Research Affiliates, as it was co-founded with another Meb Faber Show guest, Rob Arnott. Rob and Jason decided to spin off Rayliant to enable Jason to focus on his investing passion, China.
As the conversation naturally led to China, Meb decides to run with it. He brings up how a prior Meb Faber Show guest (Steve Sjuggerud) is incredibly bullish on China. Meb asks Jason for a “boots on the ground” perspective. Does Jason agree with Steve’s bullishness?
In short, absolutely. Jason has two hypotheses as he evaluates China: One, as China continues moving toward, and eventually becomes, the world’s largest economy, investors will realize they’re underexposed to this market. Given this, there will be major rebalancing into Chinese equities; Two, Jason tells us that approximately 80-90% of Chinese daily trade flow comes from retail investors (here in the U.S. this percentage is significantly lower). This means more market inefficiencies, so the probability for “alpha” for managers is greater. Both these factors make China a market that should be on investors’ radars.
The China discussion dovetails into investor sentiment on China, and how emotionally-driven we are, which typically ends in underperformance. This leads Meb to ask pointedly, why are people so bad at investing?
Jason gives us his thoughts, which tend to reduce to “flow chases short-term performance.” He goes on to say how oftentimes, investors get crushed as they buy in at the peak of a style or asset class cycle.
Meb asks how investors should combat this. Jason has a classic response: “Whatever you think is a good idea… do the opposite and you’re going to be more successful.” The reason this tends to work is because “This is a market where the average human tendencies are precisely the wrong thing to do.”
This prompts Meb to bring up a study idea he wants a listener to undertake for him regarding historical news headlines and investor sentiment. Listen for the details. Anyone up for the project?
The guys stay on the topic of behavioral challenges, with Meb pointing toward one of Jason’s papers about how investors prefer complexity to simplicity. It’s a fascinating look into our wiring as humans and why investing is such a challenge for us.
Next, the guys move on to smart beta and factor investing. Meb asks Jason to provide an overview, and any main takeaways for investors implementing smart beta strategies.
Jason gives us his thoughts, including revealing his personal favorite factor: value. This leads the guys into a discussion of Warren Buffett and his true alpha being his ability to stick to his style and not abandon it at precisely the wrong time, as most of us do. The guys then discuss manager performance and underperformance, and the tendency to always be chasing.
There’s far more in this episode: Meb’s “forever fund” idea (which most people he’s discussed it with actually hate)… Why hedge fund lockups and opaqueness can actually be a good thing… The unique “values” which Jason created for Rayliant, and how they’re so different than those of most other money managers… Jason’s most memorable trade… And lastly, his final takeaway for listeners looking for better market performance.
What is it? Find out in Episode 52.
In Episode 51, we welcome Mark Kritzman. Per usual, we start with Mark’s background. He tells us a bit about his 40-year career in investing, leading to Windham, where he focuses on asset allocation and risk premia strategies.
But it’s not long before the guys jump in, starting with Mark’s 7th book, A Practitioner’s Guide to Asset Allocation, which will be coming out soon. Mark describes the process of asset allocation, starting with the basics, then taking us a layer deeper, discussing asset allocation as a way to balance the goal of increasing wealth while minimizing drawdowns. In essence, you need to identify the asset classes you want, evaluate their expected, long-term returns, then estimate the volatility of each and – just as importantly – estimate the correlation between the asset classes. With all this, you then find the particular allocations that give you the highest return for the same level of risk – the efficient frontier.
Next, the conversation takes a turn toward investing fallacies, including the idea that asset allocation drives more than 90% of performance. Mark tells us there are some flaws with this idea, then explains in detail. Another fallacy discussed is that of time-diversification – the assumption that investing over the long-term is safer than investing over shorter periods. Again, Mark provides details that call into question this belief.
The guys then get into investing in illiquid assets, and how to appropriately structure them in an asset allocation. It can be hard to maintain a balanced portfolio consisting of illiquid assets. Mark’s approach is to treat liquidity as a shadow investment. In essence, you attach a shadow asset as well as a shadow liability to the appropriate parts of the portfolio. You’ll want to listen to this part of the episode for all the details.
This dovetails into hedge funds, since hedge fund investing can also be illiquid. Meb asks how Mark thinks about hedge fund investing, and given limited information, is an investor’s only recourse to be able to pick the best managers? And if one doesn’t have that ability, should he/she just stick with investing in the S&P?
Mark has a great answer about how most of the historical premium of private equity over public equity can be attributed to the sector exposures of private equity funds. So investors can build a portfolio of public sector ETFs in a way that can approximate much of the hedge fund sector allocation. You’re probably going to be surprised at just how much of the premium of private equity over public equity doing this which would have delivered to an investor.
As usual, there’s plenty more in this episode: the role of fees and taxes… the concept of “turbulence”… the absorption ratio, and how we can use it to evaluate risk… and lastly, what Mark’s most useful idea is for listeners.
What is it? Find out in Episode 51.
Episode 50 is a return to our “radio show” format, in which we discuss current market news, Tweets Meb finds interesting, various research papers of note, and anything else on Meb’s mind.
But first things first: A huge congratulations to new father, Meb Faber. His “spin-off” came in the early morning hours just a few days ago. In fact, this episode was recorded with Meb calling in from a spare room at the hospital.
The Meb Faber Show also just passed the one-million downloads mark. So a huge thank-you to everyone who has tuned in, listened, and recommended us to your friends. We’re genuinely grateful to everyone for giving us their time each week.
Diving into the financial content, we start with Meb discussing the need for investment literacy with kids and new investors. The problem is that most of us learn to invest incorrectly – generally, we learn about single stock valuation. As Meb tells us, the problem is that far more historical context is needed before even getting to this point. What have equity and bond investments averaged over the years? How cyclical are the markets? What does a bubble look like and how to you avoid one? In essence, there’s so much to learn in order to be an informed investor before diving into the details of, say, a cash flow statement or a price-to-earnings ratio.
This ties into a conversation about expected returns going forward. Turns out, a recent source indicated that some investors are still expecting to make 8.5% per year going forward. Is this realistic? Not if you go by Bogle’s formula. Meb explains in detail.
Next, Meb made a recent change to his personal investment portfolio. Since he believes it to be important to be transparent about how he invests, he publishes this online. Meb tells us about his recent change, in which he added a tail risk hedging component. He expects it to be a drag on portfolio returns under normal circumstances, but it should provide him some protection if the U.S. equity market spikes lower. This bleeds into a discussion on bonds, and where they might going, since roughly 90% of Meb’s new hedge investment actually is invested in 10-year Treasuries.
Next up is a quote from John Bogle which Meb recently Tweeted. It’s about risk, valuations, and indexing. It leads into a discussion about whether there’s a valuation at which the risk of owning stocks outweighs the potential reward of remaining invested. We discuss market timing, and the possibility of exiting stocks due to absurd valuations – and potentially missing great gains as the market climbs higher, indifferent to your opinion that it was too overvalued.
The conversation takes another shift, gravitating toward active versus passive funds, the toxic effect of fees when buying active funds, and the problem of “active share.” Active share references the degree to which a fund in which you’re invested differs from its benchmark. If you want to invest in a smart beta fund, typically you want to see high active share (lots of difference) compared to a vanilla index fund – especially if the fund fees are high. Unfortunately, there are lots of funds out there claiming to be different, but they’re actually “closet indexing.” All you’re doing is paying through the teeth for something you could buy much more cheaply. Meb discusses in detail.
There’s lots more in this episode, including a “coffee can” portfolio… the challenges of “looking different” when the market and/or your neighbors are doing better (even though over a longer investing horizon, you’re positioned to be in better shape)… “over-rebalancing” toward global markets these days… why Europe has been a horrible investment for a decade and what its prospects might be going forward…
What are Meb’s thoughts? Find out in Episode 50.