In Episode 93, we welcome entrepreneur, author, and quant investor, John Reese.
We start with John’s background. When John was a child, his father was a subscriber to Value Line, and John related to the charts and numbers. Later, this love of numbers took him to MIT, where he researched how to take the wisdom from books and turn it into computer programs. Years later, when he sold his company to GE Capital, John needed to learn how to invest the proceeds. Yet, he wasn’t sure which investment guru to follow in doing this. He decided to study a handful of gurus, and was disappointed to find that there was no repeatability and sustainability of outperformance over multiple time periods.
However, John then came across Peter Lynch’s One Up On Wall Street. In the book, Lynch had provided enough detail about his strategy that John was able to translate it into a computer program designed to pick the stocks that Lynch might have chosen. The results were solid. John then moved on to Ben Graham, eventually codifying 12 different guru strategies. He then put his research up on a website, which eventually morphed into Validea.
Meb asks about the challenges of this – namely, many managers have a qualitative component to their stock selection as well quantitative. How did John account for this?
John tells us this was very challenging. He had to re-read the various books multiple times, determining whether the printed word actually matched what the guru did in the market, versus his actions revealing more information or biases. Meb asks about filtering the incredibly long list of potential gurus to follow, and John tells us the list actually wasn’t too long. Most gurus didn’t have a sufficiently-long track record of performance, or they didn’t describe their strategies in sufficient details as to be able to be codified.
Meb then asks how John determines when a period of underperformance reveals a manager has lost his touch, versus the manager’s style is simply out of favor.
John tells us that he first looks at the length of time in which the strategy worked. If it was long enough, he tends to believe that, at some point, the strategy will come back into favor. He goes on to tell us that in all of his research, he found that there was not one strategy that outperformed the market every single year. They were these periods of going-out-of-favor that paved the way for the outperformance that occurred when the style came back into favor.
The guys then jump into an actual example of how John’s guru quant strategies work, using Buffett. Be sure to listen to this part for all the details.
Moving on from Buffett, Meb asks if there are any common attributes to the models that tend to do the best – any broad takeaways.
John tells us that, over time, the more successful strategies tend to have a value orientation, some kind of debt criteria, and they’re all profitable.
Meb asks – “Okay, gun to your head, which strategy has outperformed?” I’m going to make you listen to find out John’s answer, but odds are you’ll be surprised.
Next, the guys turn to factors, with Meb asking if there are any combination of factors that John tends to prefer. John says he likes momentum and mean reversion. This leads into a conversation on timing factors.
As usual, there’s far more in this episode: practical guidelines for listeners looking to follow along… portfolio construction in today’s challenging environment… what John would have done differently if he could start over again on Day 1… a roboadvisor for income investors… and of course, John’s most memorable trade.
This one happened the day after Black Monday. What are the details? Find out in Episode 93.
In Episode 92, we welcome investor, author, and activist, Andrew Tobias.
Meb starts by asking Andy about his background and introduction to investing. Andy gives us his origin story, with highlights including collecting stamps, an early introduction to the stock market, a trip behind the Iron Curtain which led to a brief dalliance with Communism, then his becoming a paper millionaire due to some creative accounting (then those monies disappearing). It’s a fascinating look back.
Next, Meb recalls a survey we conducted some quarters ago, soliciting readers’ favorite investing books of all time. Andy’s book from 1978, The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, turned out to be high on that list. Meb asks Andy to explain the thesis of the original book, and whether there have been any significant changes in subsequent editions.
Andy tells us “There are just a few things you really need to know about investing, and they don’t ever change. The problem is it’s hard to get people to really grab onto them.” He goes on to say that investing isn’t like cooking or chess, where the more you read/learn, the better. Instead, with investing, the more you read, the more you can get yourself into trouble. He gives us an example using commodity speculating. Given that so much about investing remains constant, Andy’s revisions in subsequent editions haven’t been too substantial.
Meb pushes a bit more, asking if there’s any subject about which Andy has changed his mind since the original publication.
Andy tells us he’s become a bigger fan of special opportunity investing. Most people aren’t looking for this type of thing. So, Andy discusses putting 80% of your portfolio into inexpensive index funds, but spreading the remaining 20% over 5-6 really interesting, exciting speculations. Most will go to $0, but maybe you hit with one or two, and those proceeds offset the losses and more. Plus, this satisfies the need to have something more exciting to do with your money.
Meb agrees with this idea, and asks about Andy’s speculative process – is it rooted in quant or is there a discretionary component? Andy answers by giving us an example with Support.com.
Next, the guys discuss valuations, comparing where we are now to where we were back in the early ‘80s. It seems we’re flip-flopped a bit in terms of interest rates and equity valuations.
This segues into private investing, with Andy telling us about how came to own farmland. Turned out to be a great investment, buying at $500 an acre and selling years later at $3K an acre. Meb agrees farmland is a great asset class, but it’s hard to allocate toward.
This dovetails into a few other private investments in which Andy has participated, most notably “Honest Tea,” which was purchased by Coca Cola, as well as a small, musical comedy, which went on to play on multiple continents over many years.
The guys bounce around a bit here, discussing the need to spread your bets in private market investing… lockups… the benefit of illiquidity… binary thinking… Andy’s firsthand experience with selling way too early…
There’s plenty more in this episode, including Andy’s concerns for our existential future, his most memorable trade, and finally, a product he endorses which might help tackle dementia and improve reflexes. Apparently, Tom Brady swears by it.
What are the details? Find out in Episode 92.
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.