Episode 108 has a radio show format. In this one, we cover some of Meb’s Tweets of the Week and various write-in questions.
After giving us the overview of his upcoming travel, Meb shares his thoughts on our recent episode with James Montier. It evolves into a conversation about the importance of “process” in investing.
Next, we talk about a Tweet from Meb which evaluated what matters more – your savings rate or your rate of return. As you might guess, in the early years, savings trumps, but for longer investment horizons, rate of return is far more influential.
It’s not long before we jump into listener questions. Some that you’ll hear Meb address include:
There’s plenty more in this episode including data mining, trend following time-frames, and what Meb’s thoughts are on ramping up equity exposure in a portfolio to offset the effects of living longer. All this and more in Episode 108.
In Episode 107 we welcome the great James Montier. The chat starts on the topic of James’ questionable sartorial choices. He tells us he’s “always been a fan of dressing badly.” But the guys quickly jump in with Meb noting how James has generally been seeing the world as expensive over the last few years. Has anything changed today?
James tells us no; by in large, we’re still trapped in this world where, frankly, you’re reduced to this game of “picking the tallest dwarf.” In general, every asset is expensive compared to normal. He summarizes, telling us “there really is a serious challenge to try to put together an investment portfolio that’s going to generate half-decent returns on a forward-looking basis.”
Meb digs into, focusing on James’ framework for thinking about valuation, specifically, as a process.
James starts from accounting identities. There are essentially four ways you get paid for owning an equity: a change in valuation, a change in profitability, some growth, and some yield. James fleshes out the details for us, discussing time-horizons of these identities. One of the takeaways is that we’re looking at pretty miserable returns for U.S. equities.
James notes that we now have the second highest CAPE reading ever. Or you could look at the median price of the average stock – the price-to-sales ratio has never been higher. Overall, the point is to look at many valuation metrics and triangulate, so to speak. When you do, they’re all pretty much saying the same thing. James finishes by telling us that from his perspective, U.S. equities appear obscenely expensive.
Meb takes the counter position, asking if there’s any good argument for this elevated market. Is there any explanation that would justify the high values and continued investment?
James spends much time performing this exact exercise, looking for holes. He tells us that most people point toward “low interest rates” as a reason why this valuation is justified. But James takes issue with this. From a dividend discount model perspective, James doesn’t think the discount rate and the growth rate are independent. He suggests growth will be lower along with lower rates. He goes on to discuss various permutations of PE and other models, noting that there’s no historical relationship between the Shiller PE and interest rates.
Meb comments how so many famous investors echo “low rates allow valuations to be high.” But this wasn’t the case in Japan. Meb then steers the conversation toward advisors who agree that U.S. stocks are expensive yet remain invested. Why?
What follows is a great discussion about what James calls the “Cynical Bubble.” People know they shouldn’t be investing because U.S. stocks are expensive, but investors feel they must invest. If you believe you can stay in this market and sell out before it turns, you’re playing the greater fool game. James tells us about a game involving expectations – it’s a fun part of the show you’ll want to listen to, with the takeaway being how hard it is to be one step ahead of everyone else.
The conversation bounces around a bit before Meb steers it toward how we respond to this challenging market. What’s the answer?
James tells us there are really four options, yet not all have equal merit:
1) Concentrate. In essence, you own the market about which you’re most optimistic. For him, that would be emerging market value stocks. Of course, buying and holding here will be hard to do.
2) Use leverage. Just lever up the portfolio to reach your target return. The problem here is this is incompatible with a valuation-based approach. Using leverage implies you know something about the path that the asset will take back to fair value – yet it may not go that route. You may end up needing very deep pockets – perhaps deeper than you have.
3) Seek alternatives like private equity and private debt. The problem here is most are not genuinely alternative. They’re not uncorrelated sources of return. James tell us that alternatives are actually just different ways of owning standard risk.
4) The last option is James’ preferred choice. Quoting Winnie the Pooh: “Never underestimate the power of doing nothing.”
Next, Meb brings up “process” as James has written much about it. James tells us that process is key. Professional athletes don’t focus on winning – they focus on process, which is the only thing they can control. This is a great part of the interview which delves into process details, behavioral biases, how to challenge your own views, and far more. James concludes saying “Process is vitally important because it’s the one thing an investor can control, and really help them admit that their own worst enemy might be themselves.”
There’s plenty more in this great episode: James’s answer to whether we’re in a bubble, and if so, what type… market myths that people get wrong involving government debt… and of course, James’ most memorable trade. This one was a loser that got halved…then halved again…then again…then again…
How did James get it so wrong? Find out in Episode 107.
In Episode 106 we welcome market vet, Brian Singer. Meb dives right now, asking Brian for his general approach to the markets.
Brian tells us it’s fundamental in nature. They look at about 100 different asset markets, trading the broad markets rather than individual equities or bonds. They look for mis-pricings, then when one has been identified, they dig in, running both quantitative and qualitative analyses. They follow this with various risk management strategies. The overall portfolios are both long and short.
As Brian often writes about macro factors that affect asset prices, Meb asks which macro factors are influential today. Brian gives us his thoughts – not just on macro factors, but game theaters as well. He talks about populism, energy (which ties into the Middle East game theater), and Chinese growth. Additional game theaters beyond the Middle East he discusses are the European Union and Asia.
Next, Meb asks about Brian’s process. How does it really work when you’re putting together a portfolio?
Brian starts with valuation work. Specifically, they focus on the present value of future cash flows. They then assess things from a qualitative perspective – for instance, how might a certain government policy affect markets? They don’t look at markets on a company-by-company basis. It’s a macro approach, with fundamental value being a critical component. All of this is the “where” stage in Brian’s process. Next is the “why?” For instance, why does an asset mis-pricing exist? This eventually leads to game theory and an assessment of market turbulence and fragility.
Meb brings up Brian’s portfolio and asks about his current positioning. In general, Brian is cautiously optimistic on some equity markets, but generally against bonds. What he finds attractive right now from an equity perspective are Emerging Markets and some European markets. He’s especially attracted to Greece, Brazil, Argentina, and India; and to a lesser degree, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Brian talks more about Italy, Spain, and the UK.
Brian tells us most bond markets are unattractive. He gets into more detail regarding investment grade bonds, sovereigns, and junk.
Soon, the guys dive into currencies. Though most investors tend to think “it’ll all net out in the long run,” Brian takes a more active approach. The specific currencies he finds attractive right now include the Swedish Krona, Indian Rupee, Russian Ruble, Philippine Peso, and Turkish Lira. As to overvalued currencies, he points toward the U.S. Dollar, the Euro, the Swiss Franc, the Thai Baht, and the Israeli Shekel.
Next, Meb asks what is keeping Brian up at night as he looks at the markets today. Brian points toward four major concerns: monetary policy, rules-based strategies such as smart beta, the Volcker Rule, and circuit breaker inconsistency. He dives into tons of great detail that supports the notion for some concern, concluding “We don’t know what will trigger the decline, but when it happens, our fear is that it’s sharper and deeper than investors would otherwise expect.”
There’s plenty more in this episode: Brian’s thoughts on what steps can be taken to help protect against a declining market… his stance on cash in a portfolio… whether the 10-year bond will ever get back to 4%-5%... and finally, Brian’s most memorable trade.
This one involves Black Monday. Hear all the details in Episode 106.
Episode 105 is a wholly unique show. In this episode, we depart from traditional investment themes, and instead, bring you an episode featuring Meb’s second professional love, biology. Specifically, we welcome the renowned evolutionary biologist and writer, Olivia Judson.
It turns out Olivia wrote for The Economist in her early years. Meb asks how a scientist got started writing for a business magazine. Olivia tells us of the progression that led from one article submission to several other articles, to a staff job.
Next, Meb asks about the genesis for writing Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation. (For anyone unaware, the book is written in the style of a sex-advice column to animals. It details the variety of sexual practices in the natural world and provides the reader with an overview of the evolutionary biology of sex.) Olivia tells us one of her early articles was the inspiration, though she’d been studying and researching the topic for years. She thought the book would take her only six months to write so she quit her job…she finally finished it four years later.
Meb notes how much of the book identifies a power struggle between males and females, and how this shapes evolutionary dynamics. Olivia expounds, telling us how sometimes what the male wants is not in the interest of the female (and vice versa). These differences create the tensions which affect evolutionary direction.
This leads to a conversation about Bateman’s Principle, namely, the general idea that females are pillars of virtue, while males are cads. Olivia’s book suggested this isn’t necessarily true. Meb asks for more details. Olivia starts by redefining the term “promiscuous,” digging deeper into the word in light of the term “choosy.” It turns out certain females can benefit from having multiple partners, though the reasons can vary. In any case, this awareness is much more prevalent than thought 40 years ago.
A bit later, Meb asks about homosexuality in the animal world, including questions regarding procreation and genes. Olivia gives us a fascinating answer that includes the concepts of “genetic component,” “exclusivity,” and “commonality” and how these factors might affect homosexual genes remaining in the population.
There’s way more in this fun, totally different episode: A dating party where women smelled men’s T-shirts to determine which scent they found most appealing… the male Australian Redback Spider, who actually tries to get eaten by the female during sex… Meb’s surprising discovery from his 22 and Me test that he has more Neanderthal genes than 95% of the population… Olivia’s views on gene editing… Camping on the side of a volcano in Antarctica… and whether we’ll find life beyond our world.
We end with asking Olivia about her most memorable experience in all of her research. What is it? Find out in Episode 105.
In Episode 104, we welcome the legendary, Ken Fisher.
Meb starts with a quick word of congratulations to Ken, as his firm just passed $100B in assets under management. The guys then discuss Ken’s interest in fishing with a bow and arrow, which eventually morphs into a conversation about a millionaire who allegedly hid a million dollars somewhere in the Rockies, leaving clues to treasure-hunters searching for it.
The guys then jump into investing, discussing Ken’s early days in launching Fisher Investments. They touch upon one of Ken’s early claims to fame, championing the price-to-sales ratio. This leads to a conversation about being factor agnostic, which includes some interesting takeaways from Ken on capital pricing.
Soon, Meb brings up Ken’s book, Debunkery, and asks about one of its points: namely, the misbelief by so many investors that bonds are safer than stocks. What follows is a great commentary by Ken about short-term volatility risk versus opportunity cost risk. When you look at longer, rolling time periods, it becomes clear that stocks are far less risky than bonds. And in the long term, stocks are less risky than cash. Ken tells us that in his business, it’s his job to focus his clients on the longer-term.
Next, the conversation takes an interesting turn, touching upon the explosion of tech science, and how it’s affecting our lives, as well as the capital markets. It bleeds into Meb suggesting that older investors tend to become more conservative or pessimistic, and so they tilt away from equities, and whether that’s a behavioral challenge Ken has to address with his clients. Ken gives us his thoughts, concluding with that idea that people need to be relatively comfortable in capital markets with things that are generally uncomfortable.
The conversation then veers into politics and the effects on the market. Ken tell us that when you look at presidents and market history, our system gives presidents much less power to affect markets than most people believe.
Meb jumps to Twitter questions, bringing up one that wonders how to position yourself in the end of a bull market. Ken gives us a fascinating answer which I’m going to make you listen to in order to hear, but it tends to focus on large cap and quality.
There’s way more in this great episode: capital preservation and growth… volatility (a great quote from Ken “volatility is your friend, it’s not your enemy, if you use it correctly”)… the media’s impact on investor perception… the Fed and sovereign balance sheets… the senate bill trying to eliminate the ability of public companies buying back their own stock in the marketplace… housing (and the need to account for the full housing costs when calculating returns)… and of course, Ken’s most memorable trade.
What are the details? Find out in Episode 104.
Episode 103 is a solo-Meb show.
We just finished a short paper that references the old nutritional “Food Pyramid” published by the FDA a couple decades ago. Given what we’ve learned about health-conscious eating in the years since, that old guideline now seems a bit off-base. In the same way, the investing wisdom of yesteryear now seems similarly misguided. Meb walks us through the white paper that delves into these ideas in this short, just-Meb episode, identifying how his “Investment Pyramid” looks today.
Also, most of Meb’s books are now free! Just click here.
Get all the details in Episode 103.
Episode 102 has a radio show format. In this one, we cover Meb’s Tweets of the Week, some write-in questions, Twitter questions, and our first-ever call-in question.
We discuss the “Stay Rich” portfolio, and the unfortunate reality that even the safest portfolios can suffer ~25% drawdowns.
Next, there’s discussion of stock buybacks and a recent push from Senator Tammy Baldwin to introduce a bill that would prohibit companies from repurchasing their own shares (she claims it’s exacerbating the wealth gap).
Then, with volatility showing some life in the market, there’s discussion of volatility clustering. Next up is the investing service, Robinhood, which is now referring to calls and puts as “going up” and “going down.” Also, an ETF for companion pets filed by Gabelli.
We then dive into questions. Some that you’ll hear Meb address include:
All this and more in Episode 102.
In Episode 101, we welcome the great educator, Paul Merriman.
We start with Paul’s background; specifically, the story of an early trading experience with commodities. He doubled his money in days…and then lost everything on the very next trade.
Then the guys dive in, with Meb bringing up something Paul wrote called “The Ultimate Buy & Hold Portfolio” and asking for more detail. Paul starts with the S&P which, even with all its up-and-downs, has done great over the years. But then he walks us through some tweaks – adding large cap, then small cap – he notes the various percentage returns added by each, as well as the effect on volatility. He eventually arrives at a final portfolio, showing us the power of this diversification.
Meb points the conversation toward the behavioral benefit of diversification and says how some listeners will wonder how much money to put into each of the asset classes Paul had identified. Paul tells us he originally put 10% into 10 different asset classes – after all, if each asset class is worthy, then he wants it to be in his portfolio; especially because there’s no way to be certain which one(s) will shine going forward.
Agreeing, Meb touches on being “asset class agnostic” and notes that the problem with being, say, a “gold guy” or any die-hard type of investor, is you get wedded to that asset class. This emotional bond can lead to bad behavior. This leads to a discussion about implementation and the challenges of emotional investing. Paul tells us “I don’t want my emotions to have anything to do with how (my) money is managed.”
The conversation drifts toward the benefits of investing early, yet the challenges of educating young people as to its importance, as well as different investing needs over a lifetime. The guys note how the best thing for a young person would be the markets tanking for 10 years. Of course, that would be terrible for an older investor in/near retirement. This bleeds into a conversation about formally educating the younger generation about investing.
A bit later, Meb asks about the older investor who might have been burned in ’08, is now near retirement, thinks the U.S. market is expensive, yet needs results. What about him? Paul walks us through the realities of losses and gives us his overall thoughts. This morphs into a common question we get – invest everything at once, or drip it in over time? Paul has some thoughts on how to do this in a way that balances math and emotions.
There’s tons more in this episode (it’s one of our longest to date): the challenge of investing in the “shiny object”… how to avoid getting screwed by your advisor… investment newsletters… buy-and-hold versus market timing… the critical nature of understanding past performance… giving money to grandkids… and of course, Paul’s most memorable trade; his involves the ’87 crash.
What are the details? Find out in Episode 101.
To celebrate the milestone of reaching 100 episodes, we’re thrilled to welcome Professor Elroy Dimson, author of Meb’s favorite investing book of all time, Triumph of the Optimists.
Per Meb’s request, Elroy starts by giving us a summation of his research history which led to Triumph of the Optimists. He had a heritage in producing indexes and began reaching out to researchers across the globe in hopes of accessing different data sets. Looking at all the aggregated data, it became clear that from a long-term perspective, people who had invested in risky securities at the beginning of the century had done very well. People who had bought bonds and T-bills had not performed as well. The optimists had triumphed.
Next, Meb brings up a quote from Elroy about a controversial finding regarding the lack of correlation between economic growth and stock market performance. If anything, the relationship was reverse. Elroy expounds upon this, telling us that if it’s obvious that a market is growing, that’s public information. You can’t trade that since everyone else knows too. So, if you investing in countries where GDP has been growing, that could mean you’re too late.
Meb steers the conversation toward valuation, market cap weightings, and home country bias. Elroy walks us through the market cap concept, touching on the historical Austrian empire as well as the Japanese bubble. This leads to a lesson in finance, which includes real yields today, the Gordon Model, the multiple people are willing to pay today (which is higher), and the takeaway that “high valuations don’t necessarily mean that we’re going to see asset prices collapse” – they’re a reflection of the low interest rates we have today.
Meb asks about bonds, and whether Elroy has seen another historical period of negative yielding sovereigns. When you look at real rates, how does it play out for future returns?
Elroy tells us that real (inflation adjusted) rates are better to consider than nominal rates. And it turns out, real rates have been lower. Negative real rates are not all that rare – what is rare is so many countries experiencing them at the same time. This dovetails into a conversation about inflation and currency hedging. Elroy provides some color on currency issues but notes that hedging is not required if you’re a long-term investor.
There’s plenty more in this centennial episode: factors… growth stocks versus value stocks… historical returns of housing… even stamps, musical instruments and the investment returns of a good Bordeaux.
How does it compare to that of equities? Find out in Episode 100.
Episode 99 is a radio show format. We start discussing some of Meb’s “Tweets of the Week.” The first involves a presentation from Rob Arnott at Research Affiliates, which Meb considered “required reading for financial advisors everywhere.” It involves the amount of extra alpha you’d need to generate in order to offset taxes given various market approaches.
Next, we discuss another Tweet from Meb in which he asked readers to guess at the largest drawdown in US bonds in real terms between 1900 and 2010. Turns out, the majority of respondents were far off. Meb gives us the results and takeaways.
Then there’s a discussion of taxes in light of crypto gains (and losses). It seems lots of people may not be factoring tax payments into the equation. Not sure the IRS is going to look favorably on that…
We then jump into listener Q&A. Some of the questions you’ll hear answered include:
There’s plenty more, including why Meb is still very bullish on emerging markets, the realities of mutual fund investing with fees/taxes included, and Meb’s upcoming travel plans.
Check it all out in Episode 99.
In Episode 98, we welcome a true market veteran, Dr. Ed Yardeni.
The episode starts with a fun story about Ed’s school days, studying off Janet Yellen’s notes in James Tobin’s class. But Meb soon brings up Ed’s new book, Predicting the Markets. In it, he writes that if books had theme songs, the appropriate song for his would be the 80s hit, “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Ed explains this is because, when looking back over the past 40 years, the market has been extraordinarily bullish as a whole. There were plenty of reason to worry along the way, but all in all, the market rewarded brave investors.
This eventually leads into a conversation about valuations today that appear somewhat grim, and what Ed’s thoughts are looking forward.
Ed tells us it’s okay to be bearish, but don’t forget to get back into the market. He says, “history shows the smartest thing to do is just to invest over the years as you’re getting old, keep putting more money into the markets…recognizing that sometimes you’re going to get bargains and sometimes you’re not.”
The conversation drifts toward making macro predictions and the effect of Washington DC on the market. Ed tells us we’re overwhelmed with information and news, which is all the more reason to try to find the fundamental truth that’s out there. Washington doesn’t matter as much as Washington likes to think it matters. Ed gives us more of his thoughts on the market response to Obama, Trump, and the Fed, as well as what he believes actually creates jobs.
The conversation turns toward bonds, with Meb asking why bond movements can be challenging to predict. Ed points toward inflation, taking us back to the 50s to discuss bond yields and how they’ve moved in the years since. He brings in nominal GDP and central bankers into the mix.
A conversation about negative yielding sovereigns brings various central bankers into the spotlight. Ed walks us through a look back at some of the effects of Fed involvement. He has some interesting thoughts on what the Fed does well – and not so well.
This is a great show, melding market history, implementable market wisdom, and Ed’s fascinating career. There’s way more, including where Ed sees the biggest changes coming in technology, and how it will affect markets… Ed’s favorite three indicators… which period over Ed’s 40-year career stands out the most… Ed’s movie reviews… and of course, his most memorable trade.
What are the details? Find out in Episode 98.
In Episode 97, we welcome one of the most successful syndicate leads in angel investing, Phil Nadel (he also happens to be Meb’s favorite syndicate lead on Angel List).
After Phil runs us through his background, Meb asks about Phil’s group, Forefront Venture Partners and its connection to Angel List. Phil gives us the run-through, noting how when Angel List announced its syndicate feature, he felt it was a great way for smaller angels to get involved, so he signed up. Today, he’s one of the largest/most active leads on Angel List.
Meb asks how the syndicate process works. Phil tells us that accredited investors can register and sign up with syndicate leads like Forefront. This enables them to see the deal-flow of the lead, and invest on same terms. There’s no management fee, instead, investors pay a 20% carry on the backend if there’s a profit. You can invest small amounts – sometimes as little as $1K, yet you get all the same due diligence and legal review as a big investor.
Meb notes how syndicates have removed so much of the hassle and made the entire process simpler – which is both good and bad.
Next, Meb asks about Phil’s syndicate and the average investor. Phil tells us the average investment in a company is roughly $300K. And they’ve invested in about 44 deals since inception. The average investment per person is around $4-5K. This dovetails into a conversation about how to approach angel investments. Phil tells us a “portfolio” approach is important. He’s against picking only a few companies, as most will go out of business. He tells us “if you try to pick winners, and you only invest in a handful of companies, odds are you’re going to lose your money.” Phil recommends picking companies diversified by industry and stage.
The conversation then drifts into timing. Do you invest all at once, or drip in over time? Phil gives us his thoughts. Then it’s Phil’s rule of thumb about success rates. He tells us that out of 100 investments, 70 will go out of business. About 20-30 will stagnate, or exit as a single to a triple. Maybe one or two will turn out to be home runs.
Meb asks how Phil finds his deals. Turns out, lots of referrals. The guys then dive into what Phil looks for in a company – it includes post-revenues and capital efficiency. But he’s industry and geography-agnostic. His sweet spot is a valuation in the $5-12M range.
Next up, the guys discuss KPIs, or “Key Performance Indicators.” Phil discusses burn and runway, then customer acquisition cost and lifetime value. Phil wants to see that the company knows how to acquire and monetize customers in an efficient and scalable way. He then also looks at margins.
There’s plenty more in this angel-themed episode: the extent of Phil’s involvement in a startup after funding… the critical role that updates from founders play in the startup process… some “bad investor behavior” which Phil has seen over the years… what Phil learned from Barbara Corcoran of the show, Sharktank… and of course, Phil’s most memorable trade.
What are the details? Find out in Episode 97.
In Episode 96, we welcome two of the brightest guys in real estate, Craig Leupold and Jim Sullivan of Green Street.
After touching on Craig’s and Jim’s backgrounds, the guys jump into real estate, with Meb asking about Green Street’s approach to the real estate markets (public and private) and how they think about valuation.
Craig gives us an overview, referencing Green Street’s REIT research (focusing on the public markets), their real estate analytics (focusing on private markets), and their advisory consulting group. Craig touches upon lots of ideas – understanding the value of the properties owned by the various companies… identifying the associated premiums or discounts at which the companies might be trading… a deeper dive into their real estate analytics lineup… looking at how to allocate capital…
Meb asks how the real estate world looks today, and what’s the outlook for 2018. Craig tells us that with the exception of retail real estate, most sectors are seeing increases in rents and occupancies. But fundamentals have moved from “great,” to “good,” to now, “okay.” He goes on to give us his growth forecast over the next four years, as well as what he expects for commercial pricing over the next 12 months.
When Meb brings up “returns,” the guys make the distinction between public and private markets and how there’s a divergence. Private real estate is generally fairly valued today, yet in the public market, REITs are trading at an 11% discount to their unleveraged asset value.
Jim dives into greater detail on this topic, telling us how the average REIT should trade at a modest premium to NAV. The reason for this is that an investor should be willing to pay the fair market value for the property owned by the REIT, but then there’s the added benefit of the management team and the liquidity of the REIT structure; both deserve a premium. But again, today, we’re not seeing this premium today – quite the opposite, in fact.
Meb brings up valuation, asking about how to distinguish between buying opportunities and value traps. Jim tells us it’s situational, and depends on the property type. This dovetails into a discussion about pessimism in the mall sector.
Soon, the conversation turns toward rising rates. The common opinion is that rising rates are bad for real estate, but Jim tells us it’s more complicated than that. If rates are rising due to our economy accelerating, then that could be positive for commercial real estate, leading to higher occupancies and rising rents.
There’s far more in this episode: activism in the real estate space… how the real estate market looks around the world… the challenge of figuring out what risk-adjusted returns should be in different global locations… which geographies look particularly attractive today… farmland REITs… and Craig’s and Jim’s one piece of advice to investors looking to allocate to the REIT space.
All this, as well and Craig’s and Jim’s most memorable trades, in Episode 96.
Episode 95 is a radio show format. We start with a recap of Meb’s recent travels to Nicaragua and San Francisco, but then dive into a discussion about volatility. With the VIX spiking at the beginning of the month, some short-vol funds suffered massive losses. We discuss the short-vol trade, then the long-vol trade.
Next up, Meb gives us a quick (overdue) update on his trip to see Van Simmons, including which coins he purchased. But we quickly dive into a different topic – a recent offering from Wealthfront that’s raising some questions for Meb. The conversation touches upon a risk parity market approach, robo fees, and general transparency.
We then jump into listener Q&A. Some of the questions you’ll hear answered include:
All this and more in Episode 95.
In Episode 94, we welcome entrepreneur, author, and SEC filings expert, Michelle Leder.
We start with Michelle’s background. She was a business journalist – a self-professed “document geek.” She wrote the book Financial Fine Print: Uncovering a Company's True Value and decided to launch a website as an accompaniment to the book. Here we are, 15 years later.
Meb asks Michelle to give an overview of what she’s looking for in the various filings. She tells us that changes are important. She doesn’t necessarily look closely at the numbers because it’s more about the language. Also, the forward-looking statements can be big. Michelle mentions an example of one that used a significant amount of extra language.
This dovetails into a discussion about the process – is it a keyword search or is there software? Michelle uses both, as keywords alone don’t always work. She gives the example of when Goldman Sachs was subpoenaed, the language used to describe it in the filings was something like “an invitation to respond to the DOJ.”
Meb asks for examples of red flag behavior in the filings. Michelle looks for unusual compensation or stock grant amounts. Also, lots of extra language used to describe earnings or adjusted EBITDA. She mentions a company called GT Advanced Technology, which used to be an Apple supplier. In one particular filing, they added new disclosure language, identifying their dependence on Apple, and their vulnerability if that relationship soured. Some time thereafter, Apple ended the relationship.
Next, Meb and Michelle discuss the “Friday Night Dump.” This is the 90 minutes after market close on Friday, when there’s no major trading. Companies tend to dump all their bad info here. Michelle mentions recent examples using Tesla and Wynn. But her most memorable disclosure dump was Chesapeake Energy, revealing it had paid over $12M for a map collection.
Meb asks if Michelle has ever been contacted by a company she’s profiled, trying to defend or explain itself. She mentions Dell. Apparently, the company once purchased a company from Dell’s own brother and something seemed a tad off. After Michelle covered it, Dell reached out to tell her she had gotten it all wrong.
This is a fun episode with plenty more in it – what sort of time commitment this would take the average investor… the atmospheric changes Michelle has seen in the last 10-15 years… the story of Meb stealing someone else’s disclosure language for his own blog but forgetting to remove the other company’s name…
There’s even a discussion of something Twitter did recently that grabbed Michelle’s interest. If you’re a Twitter investor, you might want to listen.
All this and more in Episode 94.
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.
In Episode 87, we welcome market veteran and ETF expert, Mike Venuto.
Mike briefly walks us through his background, which includes a fun story about a baffling situation years ago when the gold mining company, Newmont Mining, was falling in price despite gold rising in price. Mike tells us the culprit turned out to be the new ETF “GLD” – Mike realized he needed to learn far more about ETFs.
Next, the guys dive into ETFs. Meb starts broadly, asking where we are in the ETF evolution.
Mike tells us we’re still quite early. The growth rate has been largely the same over the last 10 years (a little over 20%); but that growth rate is compounded over a larger base now, so it feels like the growth is greater. And in terms of where ETFs are going, free beta is getting saturated. The next move in ETFs will be people thoroughly detailing the differences between two ETFs that appear largely the same at first blush (nowadays, people tend to see similarly-themed ETFs as somewhat the same).
Meb pushes deeper on this idea, wanting to know more about this next evolution in ETFs. Mike tells us that myriad factors are a part of any given ETF beyond its expense ratio. For instance, there are the spreads, how well an ETF tracks its index, whether the ETF lends out its shares and what it does with that revenue, then there’s the share price itself. All these factors can make two ETFs that appear similar on the surface actually quite different.
This dovetails into the idea of “active share” – basically, the measure of an active ETF that differs from its index. Mike tells us about a tool at Toroso called Smart Cost that helps embrace ETF transparency. The tool helps answer the question “how much am I paying for the smart portion of an ETF?” Mike goes on to tell us that the overall expense ratio is not the most important cost consideration – instead, it’s how much am I paying for the smart portion? He gives us an example, comparing it to its benchmark, then calculate its “price per unit of difference.” The tool shows the amount of the ETF you’re buying that is different – and this helps determine the true value of any given ETF.
Meb echoes much of this, saying that in order to justify actively managed fees, an investor wants an ETF that looks truly different than its benchmark. Otherwise, you’re just paying top dollar for cheap beta.
The conversation bounces around a bit, including some other tools Mike uses, but eventually Meb asks about something Mike is doing that’s on the forefront of tracking the entire ETF space.
It turns out, Mike has created an index that enables investors to track the growth and exposure of the overall ETF ecosystem. This includes not just the issuers, but the exchanges, the data and index providers, the back-office companies, and so on – the entire overall ecosystem. So, Mike has created an index that tracks the growth of all these companies.
Next, the guys move into the “fringe ETF” space. Mike predicts we’re going to see more “characteristic” based indexes. Rather than capture a factor, they systemize how to target characteristics – e.g. a spin-off, or insiders buying a stock, or great brands. This leads into a conversation about “structural” factors, where you create a different form of behavior. An example would be a put-write fund.
The guys touch on a few topics before moving onto cryptos. They discuss whether crypto has any real legs, and what the potential could be. Mike has some interesting thoughts here.
As the interview begins to wind down, Meb asks for Mike’s favorite ideas going into 2018.
Mike tells over the next 10 years, it could prove difficult to achieve the type of beta returns we’ve enjoyed over the last 10 years, so he suggests seeking out high active, global growth themes. Find a PWC or McKinsey study about “things that are going to change the world” then invest in those industries (think robotics). Mike goes on to mention the Internet of Things and the electrification of cars.
Meb agrees on the potential for a challenging return environment. He walks us through why using the 60/40 portfolio with current bond yields, and what equities would have to return to keep us at “average” returns. Given our lofty valuations today, that seems tough.
There’s way more in this episode: The Permanent Portfolio… whether gold bugs should be concerned about the rise of crypto… how Meb has a new army of enemies in the form of Litecoin crypto investors… and how one of Mike’s friends bought a pizza years ago with Bitcoin – probably the most expensive pizza that friend will ever purchase. And of course, there’s Mike’s most memorable trade.
Hear about it in Episode 87.
Episode 85 is a radio show format. Meb starts with a recap of his latest travels – this time he was off to New York then Europe. Then, it’s onto Q&A. Some of the questions and topics you’ll hear are:
As usual with the radio show formats, there are plenty of rabbit holes including the Big Mac Index, why you shouldn’t go into a sauna in Zurich wearing clothes, Meb’s old econometric models, and why expectations for the traditional 60/40 appear unrealistic all around the globe.
All this and more in Episode 85.
Episode 86 is a solo-Meb show.
It’s been 10 years since Meb wrote “A Quantitative Approach to Tactical Asset Allocation” which is the top-downloaded paper of all time on SSRN. In the coming weeks, we’re going to publish a retrospective on that paper in the Journal of Portfolio Management. So Meb thought this episode would be a good opportunity to revisit the original paper and perform his 10-year post mortem.
Here’s the abstract of the new paper, and the backbone for what you’ll hear in this episode:
“In this article, the author revisits his seminal paper on tactical asset allocation published over 10 years ago. How well did the market strategy presented in the original paper – a simple quantitative method that improves the risk-adjusted returns across various asset classes – hold up since publication? Overall, the author finds that the model has performed well in real-time, achieving equity-like returns with bond-like volatility and drawdowns. The author also examines the effects of departures from the original system, including adding more asset classes, introducing various portfolio allocations, and implementing alternative cash management strategies.”
If you’re not familiar with Meb’s original “A Quantitative Approach to Tactical Asset Allocation” don’t miss Episode 86. In many ways, this paper is foundational to the various market approaches Meb has adopted since.