Episode 91 is a radio show format.
We bounce around a bit in this one, starting with Meb’s most popular Tweet of all time. It involves a market record that people decided to politicize.
Next are some “signs of the top.” We discuss various indicators that support the general takeaway that (to no one’s surprise) we’re in a frothy market: US investor stock allocations are approaching the highest levels since 2000… Stocks as a percentage of household assets adjust for pensions funds are now the 2nd highest ever… The average expected return of state and local pension funds is 7.5%... The number of days the VIX has spent below “10” in 2017 was 52 (the combined amount for all years dating back to 1999? Less than “10”)…
We then discuss Meb’s upcoming personal portfolio rebalance. He publishes this each year, and he gives us the preview. Then there’s a discussion of Bitcoin, and Meb’s thoughts on how an investor might reasonably participate if so desired.
Then we hop into some listener/Twitter questions:
Plus, Meb is about to do some traveling overseas. Where’s he headed this time? Find out in Episode 91.
In Episode 90, we welcome Founder and Portfolio Manager of Verdad, Dan Rasmussen.
We start with a brief walk-through of Dan’s background. It involves a Harvard education, a New York Times best-selling book, a stint at Bridgewater, consulting work with Bain, then his own foray into private equity.
Turning to investments, Meb lays the groundwork by saying how many people misunderstand the private equity market in general (often confusing it for venture capital). He asks Dan for an overview, then some specifics on the state of the industry today.
Dan clarifies that when he references “private equity” (PE), he’s talking about the leveraged buyout industry – think “Barbarians at the Gate.” He tells us that PE has been considered the crown jewel of the alternative world, then provides a wonderful recap of its evolution – how this market outperformed for many years (think Mitt Romney in the 80s, when he was buying businesses for 4-6 times EBIT), yet its outsized returns led to endowments flooding the market with capital ($200 - $300 billion per year, which was close to triple the pre-Global Financial Crisis average), driving up valuations. Today, deals are getting done at valuations that are nowhere near as low as in the early days. And so, the outsized returns simply haven’t existed. Yet that hasn’t stopped institutional investors from believing they will. Dan tells us about a study highlighting by just how much institutional managers believe PE will outperform in coming years…yet according to Dan’s research, their number is way off.
Dan then delves into leverage and the value premium, telling us how important this interaction is. He gives us great details on the subject based on a study he was a part of while at Bain Consulting. The takeaway was that roughly 50% of deals done at multiples greater than 10x EBITDA posted 0% returns to investors, net of fees.
Meb asks about the response to this from the private equity powers that be… What is their perspective on adding value improvements, enabling a higher price? Dan gives us his thoughts, but the general take is that doing deals at 10x EBITDA is nuts.
Next, the guys delve into Dan’s strategy at Verdad. In essence, he’s taking the strategy that made PE so successful in the 80s and applying it to public markets. Specifically, he’s looking for microcap stocks, trading at sub-7 EBITDAs, that are 50%-60% levered. With this composition, this mirrors PE deals.
The guys then get neck-deep in all things private equity… control premiums, fees, and illiquidity… the real engine behind PE alpha… sector bets… portfolio weights…
Meb and Dan land on “debt” for a while. Dan tell us how value investors tend to have an aversion to debt. But if you’re buying cheap companies that are cash-flow generating, then having debt and paying it off is a good thing. Debt paydown is a better form of capital allocation than dividends or buybacks because it improves the health of the biz, leading to multiple expansion.
The guys cover so much ground in this episode, it’s hard to capture it all here: They discuss how to balance quantitative rules with a human element… The Japanese market today, and why it’s a great set-up for Dan’s PE strategy… Rules that should work across geography, asset classes, markets, and time… Currency hedging… And far more.
For the moment, we’re still ending shows with “your most memorable trade.” Dan’s involves a Japanese company that had been blemished by a corporate scandal. Did it turn out for or against him? Find out in Episode 90.
In Episode 89, we welcome legendary market veteran, Blair Hull.
We start per usual, with our guest’s background. In this case, long-time Meb Faber Show listeners may think they’ve heard it before. That’s because Blair’s background shares an interesting similarity with that of Ed Thorp – the card game, Blackjack.
It turns out Blair made a considerable sum of money playing Blackjack after reading Ed’s writings on the game. Blair tells us you needed an advantage, and then you need to stay in the game. That’s why he played with a team. More hands played according to their system tilted the odds in his favor. This is a fun part of the podcast you’ll want to listen to for all the details, including Meb’s foray into card counting with a partner that botched the system after drinking too many Bloody Mary’s.
Eventually, Blair took his winnings and used them to get a seat on the Pacific Exchange, where he became a market maker and began trading options. Blair tells us he was intrigued with market timing, resulting in a paper he wrote which concluded that you can time the market.
Meb asks about the genesis of Blair’s market timing strategies.
Blair points back to Blackjack – each different card provides an idea about the future. In a similar way, various indicators provide an idea about a market’s future. So, part of the challenge is which indicators do you consider and what weights do you put on them?
Next, Meb digs deeper, asking for more specifics of Blair’s strategy, inquiring about the indicators.
Blair mentions one indicator that piqued his interest – the Federal Reserve Bank Loan Officer Survey. They found the correlations with 6-month returns was about 30%, which is a fairly high correlation for an indicator. He then took this indicator and combined it with a few others and ran a regression with no forward-looking bias to see if they could exceed the returns of the S&P. What were the results? You’ll have to listen.
The conversation bounces around a bit before Blair mentions how valuation is one of their key variables. He tells us his valuation method combines three different aspects: CAPE, cyclically adjusted dividend yield including buybacks, and book-to-price.
The guys spend a while discussing the various inputs in Blair’s model before discussing sentiment (which Meb calls “squishy). Both guys like sentiment, with Blair even having invested in two different firms that are using Twitter feeds so he can get a better handle on sentiment.
Next, Meb asks about AI, and how machines may affect investing going forward. Blair has a proprietary trading firm that operates on a high frequency basis, so he gives us his thoughts, noting that a key to maximizing wealth is to use an optimal-sized bet.
Meb changes direction, asking what Blair is excited about today.
It turns out Blair is focusing on the stigma of market timing. He believes it will be irresponsible not to be involved in market timing over the next 30 years. That’s because when we have correlations that really go to “1” when we have a disaster, getting an edge in the market is critical.
There are a couple quick questions – Blair’s favorite indicator, and Blair’s advice to young quants looking to get into quant finance today, but then we turn to Blair’s most memorable trade.
This is a great one involving the crash in ’87, when Blair was a market maker. Don’t miss it.
There’s plenty more in this great episode featuring a true market legend, including why Blair tells us “Emotions will kill you in this game.”
That and far more in Episode 89.
In Episode 88, we welcome portfolio manager, Eric Clark.
As usual, we start with Eric’s background, which spans 25 years in the investment industry. After working for an asset manager, Eric realized he wanted to do something passion-based – a “timeless equity strategy.” So, when he felt he had the answer, he created a suite of consumption-based brand strategies.
Meb asks about these brands and how they play a role in Eric’s portfolio construction.
Eric tells us he tasked himself with identifying some stable, persistent themes he could anchor to (for the purposes of building a portfolio). He tells us that “nothing is more persistent than a consumer’s propensity to spend.” With this in mind, he looked at the U.S. economy, and what drives it. Eric tells us that the consumption component of GDP has annualized at about 3.5% a year for 50 years. And of that, about 70% of our GDP is consumption. Now, take these two pieces together – “if consumption…is predictable then how do I build a strategy that taps into that?” The answer points toward buying great consumer brands.
Next, Meb asks about the framework. Eric says you need an index. Therefore, they created the Alpha Brands consumer spending index. The goal was a broad universe, tracking a lifetime of spending. For instance, a Millennial spends differently than someone from GenX. So, the idea was to create an index consisting of the most relevant and recognizable brands that track a lifetime of spending.
Meb asks how it works going forward? For instance, how would Eric see companies like GE and IBM? Are they great buying opportunities or dead brands?
Eric points toward IBM as a brand they’ll likely hold onto, as it’s still a powerful B-to-B brand. But he tells us the food packaging industry, for example, is coming under pressure. That’s because the type of food we buy is changing. He identifies Kellogg as a company facing challenges.
The conversation bounces around a bit, referencing valuation, where this brand-based type of investing fits into a broader portfolio, and how this type of strategy might be expected to hold up during a recession. Eric speaks to this last point by discussing consumer discretionary versus consumer staples, including the risk of rising rates.
There’s plenty more in this episode – where Eric believes the market is going in 2018 (he mentions some thoughts on earnings)… how international sales affect the brands-strategy… how the asset management industry seems to be moving toward the commoditization of portfolio construction, where advisors just want to own everything (in response, Eric tells us “I still believe that alpha is available and possible, and beating a benchmark is possible if you understand a bunch of things”).
We wrap up with Eric’s most memorable trade. It involves an ill-timed attempt to short banks in July ’09.
Hear all the details in Episode 88.