Greetings from the Northwest.
I love this time of the year, and I know many of you do too. The welcome relief from the heat, with a cool fresh breeze, soaking rain and magical, mystical fog coming to the rescue of flora baked and broiled through this hot dry summer. Trees turn brilliant colors, salmon leap at the falls, waterfowl get ready for their annual migrations; here and there someone lights a fire in their hearth and shares a warm drink with a friend. All is wonderful, and for now, new and exciting. It’s fall.
On many counts it’s another normal fall. Kids are in school, the stock market is getting choppy, and politicians are back at work doing whatever politicians do. I do hope they choose to continue funding the government. There is that COVID thing, though. I don’t think that last year I thought I’d still be asked to wear a mask at this point, but unfortunately here we are. Whether it’s exhaustion or unwillingness to continue with extreme shutdown measures, or wisdom gained through hard-won experience, we do seem to be weathering this better economically than we did last year, despite the surging infection rates.
There are some economic oddities that we can blame on the pandemic, and one that many of you are experiencing is related to a damaged global supply chain. Try buying new furniture or finding a replacement part for your car. You might be waiting weeks if not months. Aside from the obvious inconvenience and irritation this may cause, it’s also a symptom of supply and demand that are out of sync; probably and hopefully temporarily, since this was caused by a shock event. However, we all know that more demand than supply leads to higher prices. Patrick will again dice and slice this in his section, with some new and intriguing angles.
Another, not unrelated, economic oddity we’re experiencing is the surge in home prices, not just in the predictable core urban areas, but in the far suburbs or “exurbs” as people seek a bit more space between themselves and others or flee urban crime and blight. Freed for now from commuting constraints, high-paid professionals are even driving up prices in cities far from their employers; Bozeman, Montana comes to mind.
With that I’ll hand things over to Patrick:
Financial markets showed more volatility during the third quarter. Large cap stocks were the best performers, rising a modest 0.58%, driven by the biggest cap stocks. Peeling back the skin, performance of equities showed mixed results with large value stocks declining -0.78%, small cap stocks returning -4.36%, and international stocks returning –0.45%. Bonds did their job, showing low volatility and modest returns of 0.05%. In the past two quarters we have written about the effects of inflation on equity markets, the current high valuations of large cap stocks, and how we would manage through a period of higher inflation. In recent months the hard data surrounding inflation, and the commentary from company management, have made it clear that inflation is here, and how quickly it will subside is anyone’s guess. Though The Fed has been adamant that inflation will be transitory due to the pandemic, in their September policy meeting they admitted that inflation has lasted longer at a higher rate than anticipated. I indicated last quarter that the bond market has not been a believer in the inflation narrative. However, the bond market can only turn a blind eye for so long. The prolonged inflation picture could have effects on the following: consumer behavior, how profitable companies will be going forward, and how the equity markets will behave.
First, on the effects of consumer behavior. Here is just one example of the headlines investors and consumers were reading from the Wall Street Journal on September 26th:
I have discussed the inflation topic with many of you over the last 12 months, and one thing I have said is that inflation can take hold because people believe it will take hold, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. As demand for goods continues to be high, while supply of goods is low due to supply chain issues, consumer behavior could change based on the expectation of higher prices, causing the very thing that everyone fears the most, inflation. The chart below is a survey measuring inflation expectations from consumers. As you can see, it is the highest since 2011.
Inflation’s effect on corporate profit margins will be highly dependent on a company’s ability to pass higher input costs to the end consumers. In our analysis of each company we own, we stress test their cash flows, considering negative effects of inflation and profitability when we determine a fair value. One thing is for sure: company executives are talking about inflation. Below is a chart showing the number of S&P 500 companies that are mentioning inflation in their earnings calls.
With nearly 50% of companies mentioning inflation in earnings calls, there seems to be a real concern about inflation amongst companies. Executives are going to have to make some tough decisions about how to allocate capital going forward if costs continue to rise and profits start to come under pressure. This is one of the many reasons why being disciplined in the price you are willing to pay for a company is so important. Paying too high a price during a period of eroding profits is a dangerous recipe.
Over the last few quarters, we have talked about what the effects of inflation would be on equity markets, so I will be brief. The chart below shows corporate profit margins at a national level. As you can see, profit margins are at an all-time high.
The combination of record high equity valuations with record high profit margins could prove to be a challenge for equity market performance if inflation starts to erode profits.
Though we view many large cap stocks as being expensive, we are still finding opportunities in select individual companies and certain asset classes. Over the last year, portfolios have been rewarded by having a value and small cap bias. The main detractor to performance has been our allocation to emerging market equities. Though the underperformance of emerging market equities has been disappointing, we believe we will be rewarded in the long term as valuations are much more attractive compared to the United States. Our portfolios continue to have a conservative bias and hold slightly more cash than normal, due to the risks that are present in equities combined with the low opportunity set available. Thank you for your continued trust and support. The topic of inflation and the effects it will have on capital markets is complex, so feel free to reach out to me with any question. —Patrick Mason
Thank you, Patrick. We’re all curious to see how this plays out.
Goodbye for now and Happy Trails,
Tim Mosier, President
Cairn Investment Group, Inc.
Greetings from the Northwest.
Wasn’t that hot spell unpleasant! Who needs temps in the 110s? We’ve already had our first local wildfire prior to the heat kicking in, getting a good whiff of smoke in our neighborhood from a blaze just over the mountains. I’m hoping we don’t have a repeat of that thick, unpleasant smoke last September. Please, be careful out there!
Now and then a new word seeps into our daily discourse; not new in the sense of its creation, but new in the sense of its prevalence and meaning. Often it’s a way to get our attention and describe something that was previously vaguely understood. Remember the word sustainable becoming part of our common language some years ago? It was novel at first, and eventually over-used, but we all came to terms with it in our own way. It now has a certain shared meaning that allows us to better communicate an important concept that’s used for a broad swath of topics.
The word that I want to talk about today is narrative. You know what I mean… it seems that everybody, and every cause, has a narrative. The word “spin” may have been used in the past for some things meant by narrative, but spin sounds too negative to use in most cases. Narrative can be used for topics without sounding negative or dishonest. But let’s be clear: A narrative is a story, and these stories are all told to create reactions to the benefit of the storyteller. Because of this, they cannot be the whole truth, just a subset of the truth that works for the storyteller. In its ugliest form a narrative includes untruths as well. Unfortunately, today, narratives are even masquerading as news in our hyper-informed world.
So why am I bringing up this potentially over-broad and serious topic? Well, first of all, we are being engulfed by narratives daily. Pick a topic and there are competing narratives, and our investing world is not immune. We need to remain alert to this and not let ourselves be too quickly or easily swayed before we have a chance to weigh the facts and draw our own conclusions. Our job here at Cairn is to parse through a barrage of narratives, real news, raw data, and opinion to come up with reasonable actions and advice for our investors. We can’t let ourselves get swept up in a narrative that presents a distorted view of the future and entices us to act in a way that is out of step with reality. These are momentous times as we come out from under the shadow of the virus; it’s equally possible to miss the opportunities that this presents, or to fall into a trap of our own creation.
I want to emphasize that at Cairn we are working hard to remain rational and pragmatic in our vision and actions. Please read carefully though Patrick’s part as he again explains our beliefs and processes to care for your money.
Last quarter we wrote at length regarding the potential for higher inflation, how equities might react to it, and how our disciplined process would manage through it. As Tim correctly points out, we are being bombarded by narratives surrounding the investment and economic landscape on a daily basis. The dominant narrative to start the second quarter said something along the lines of, “inflation is coming, and you better get prepared for it!” While we still see many headlines regarding the topic, financial markets do not seem to be overly concerned. The chart below shows the year-over-year change in Core CPI (Inflation) and the yield on the US 10-year treasury bond.
What is interesting is that the data shows a spike in inflation (partly due to lower-than-normal levels a year ago), but the bond market does not seem to be worried about it. If there was a large concern about persistently higher inflation, the yield on long-dated treasury bonds would be moving HIGHER, not lower as we are witnessing now. This speaks to what Tim discussed; our job is to parse through the noise being created by these numerous narratives to see what the data is actually suggesting. Currently, many data points indicate that inflation is moving higher but could be temporary. We will take the evidence as it comes and act appropriately.
Another popular narrative that we hear these days revolves around valuation. With equity markets continuing to outpace underlying fundamentals, many pundits have started to whisper opinions that valuations are not as important and that elevated valuations are justified, due to higher economic growth, combined with the larger representation of disruptive technology companies. As with any good story, there are some partial truths that make these arguments sound compelling. Yes, technology companies have become more dominant in equity markets and trade at higher valuations due to their disruptive qualities. But the skeptics in us always like to take a look at the actual data to see what that tells us. Below is a chart of the S&P 500 index Price to Sales Ratio.
A couple of thoughts enter my mind when I look at this chart. First, current valuations are roughly 20% higher than they were during the height of the technology bubble when the same arguments were being made about disruptive tech companies. Second, with S&P 500 revenues growing on average in the mid single digits over the last couple of decades and valuations trading at 2x long-term averages, the disconnect between price and underlying fundamentals is not solely explained by disruptive stocks trading at high valuations. So, while the financial media try to spin the narrative that today’s high valuations are justified by the dominance of select companies, when you look underneath the hood at the actual data, high valuations are present in many different sizes of companies, which is how you get valuations so much higher than average.
Our process is built around understanding the price we are paying for an asset and then paying a price we believe is below what the asset is worth, whether that be a specific company, or asset class. We feel that is the best way to deliver consistent long-term results while avoiding the overvaluation we are witnessing in many areas of the equity markets. The last chart below shows the return of value vs. growth during the late 90s and what we are witnessing today.
Just as in the late 90s, value just went through a period of underperformance versus its growth counterpart up until the fall of last year. Since then, value has been staging a comeback, and if history is any guide (it usually is), then this short period of value outperformance since the fall is just getting started. With relative valuations being much more attractive for value companies versus growth, we feel our investment philosophy acts as another layer of safety if market volatility rises, and opportunity if markets continue their march higher in the months ahead.
Thank you for your continued trust and support. Please reach out to me if you want to discuss any of the above topics in greater detail.
Wishing you all a wonderful summer with lots of freedom to gather and travel.
Tim Mosier, President
Cairn Investment Group, Inc
Greetings from the Northwest.
Can you believe that it’s been over a year living with this pandemic, and no clear end in sight? And yet, here we are with financial markets and home prices at all-time highs, leading to a large divergence in fortunes between those who own assets, and those who don’t. We all know that it’s been particularly hard on those whose livelihood depends upon up-close and personal interactions with other humans. Let’s all hope that the stimulus and a well-managed re-opening of the economy relieve much of this burden for them. I believe that almost everyone reading this falls into the category of “those who own assets,” and have seen their personal worth increase during one of the most disruptive events in modern history.
What has happened and what is happening globally should be considered as seminal, an inflection point in history heading towards something new and unknown. One can sense that big changes are afoot, and on many fronts. Indications are that after decades hiding in his bottle, the inflation genie is likely to reappear, fueled by massive government spending, and rising wealth from gains on many types of assets. Interest rates, on a downward path for the better part of 40 years and an entire career for most financial professionals, are very likely to rise in concert with inflation. Both of these have direct implications for asset prices and your investments. In his part, Patrick will give you our thoughts on this and what we plan to do about it.
On the positive side are the emergence of medical and vaccine technologies that promise to improve our response to future outbreaks. One hopes that governments, too, will have learned and adapted to better handle them. Companies globally are adapting to the idea of more worker autonomy and a more dispersed and mobile workforce. What implications can we imagine for urban centers and commercial real estate?
How far will or can this administration go in changing the direction of U.S. policy and practice on a broad array of American interests? It’s working with a clear mandate to pull us through the current crisis, but without such a clear mandate on many of the other issues that we face. How much further in debt will we go, and what will be the impact on our taxes? Will the world see a separation of supply chains and economies divided between the U.S. and China? How far will China’s economic and political rise take it? Will Russia’s global meddling (while its home economy is in shambles) lead to something worse or get checked in the future? Will the European Union come out of the crisis stronger or weaker after its chaotic response to COVID? The way that these and many other issues play out will have lasting effects on our investments and our personal lives. They don’t come with a playbook or a probable outcome, so we’ll adapt as we see them evolve.
With that, here’s Patrick with some practical, measurable observations and what we are doing about them.
Through small bouts of volatility, equity markets continued their forward march during the first quarter. Stocks, measured by the S&P 500, returned 6.17%, while the real drag on capital markets during the quarter took place in fixed income, with Long Dated Treasury bonds dropping 13.92%. The recent negative returns generated in bonds due to rising interest rates have caused a lot of chatter across the investment community. This is a topic we find of high importance as we manage your wealth moving forward. Some might say, “Wait, Patrick; interest rates rose a couple years ago, and bonds did okay.” Or “I don’t own many bonds in my portfolio, so what will this have to do with equity markets?” My simple response: “A lot!” The source of rising rates will have a profound effect on equity markets and returns realized across different investment styles over the coming market cycle. The source is very important, because, unlike 2018 when rates were rising due to the Fed reversing QE, the current narrative and concern of rising rates are not being driven by the Fed tightening monetary policy. Fed officials have been clear that they have no intention of reversing their current course for at least a couple of years. As the two charts below indicate, we are seeing interest rates rise today because market participants, investors, and business managers are becoming concerned that inflation is starting to heat up. This could be for a myriad of reasons, but the most likely culprits are large government spending, combined with strong economic growth, and extremely accommodative monetary policy.
If inflationary pressures and concerns become a reality, the tool kit used over that last cycle (investing in high revenue growth, low current earnings U.S. companies, combined with long dated bonds), will not have the same level of success that investors have become accustomed to. The bullet points below explain the intuition:
As with most things in financial markets, not everything is black and white, so there will be certain areas of the marketplace we will continue to focus on, to find opportunities to combat the threat of higher inflation. First, as we have written about many times in the past, value stocks vs. growth stocks still trade at a large historical discount. The benefit of value stocks over their growth counterpart in a rising inflationary environment is that many of the cash flows and earnings of traditional value companies are realized in the present (think of Costco). So even if inflation is rising, the future value of earnings is not as impaired as in growth companies that realize their earnings many years into the future. Second, companies that have a strong competitive advantage with the ability to pass rising costs on to their customers and consumers should weather inflationary periods with less disruption to profits. Lastly, having exposure to equity markets outside the U.S. will be essential, as the relative value of international stocks is much more attractive, and higher inflation domestically generally comes with a lower value for the U.S. dollar. A lower value of the U.S. dollar versus other currencies is historically a positive to foreign equity markets.
The benefit of our process is that it is built around understanding the value of what we are paying for something, while comparing that to the risks that could be present. Our disciplined approach will only act as another layer of safety during this potentially changing investment landscape. When risks are high, and opportunity is low, we will remain flexible but defensive for when the pendulum eventually swings in the other direction. Currently, we view risks as being high but not so high that defense is the only strategy. This positions our portfolios to hold slightly more cash than normal, while we are actively taking advantage of investments we feel offer compelling return potential during this challenging market environment. As always, thank you for your continued trust, and please reach out if you would like to discuss any topic in greater detail.
In case you’ve missed the website and LinkedIn updates, Cairn has added a key member to the team in the last month. Mark Farrelly CFP®, CDFA® has joined us as Senior Advisor and Director of Financial Planning. It’s exciting to bring on someone as experienced and talented as Mark, who’s been in the business for almost 20 years, specializing in providing detailed and comprehensive financial advice. Mark and Patrick have worked together earlier in their careers, and already have a deep level of trust and respect for the other’s skill set and work ethic, setting up a promising integration of Mark and Cairn. Mark operates out of Northern California and will continue to work remotely. Over time Mark will help us in improving and codifying our financial planning practices, providing a better experience for all of our clients.
As restrictions ease, I hope to see many of you back in the office. In the meantime, we’re happy to provide help by any means that works for you, including Zoom or WebEx meetings.
Tim Mosier, President
Cairn Investment Group, Inc.
I am pleased to announce that Mark Farrelly, CFP®, CDFA® (Certified Divorce Financial Analyst), has joined Cairn Investment Group as Senior Advisor and Director of Financial Planning. Mark’s expertise in specialized Financial Planning promises to elevate our game significantly in the coming years. Check out his bio here.
Mark will continue working with many of his long-term clients as primary advisor and will also collaborate with Patrick and I to fine tune our planning processes, so that we may begin applying those techniques to all of our clients. In the unfortunate event that you or someone you care about must work through the financial aspects of a divorce, Mark can provide very specific guidance that can be quite beneficial.
Mark resides in Northern California, and will continue to work as a satellite office. I hope many of you will get a chance to meet him over time and get to know what a great resource he is to our clients and to our organization.
—Tim and the Cairn Team
Greetings from the Northwest.
Was that a Mack Truck or a herd of reindeer that knocked us off our feet? I didn’t catch a glimpse of the perpetrator, but it sure was nice of him to pick us back up and dust off our coats before he left. I’m talking, of course, about last year. Done with that, let’s move on to better days, and I do believe that better days are ahead.
On a global scale, private enterprise has figured out how to operate while hampered by the confusing regulations and ever-present risks. Consumers are consuming, homebuyers are buying, etc. People and companies everywhere have pulled forward their use of technology for communicating, shopping, and more, by several years; yet it seems like we all still want to visit Costco and Fred Meyer between our Zoom meetings. As the health crisis eases with the coming vaccines, we’ll find out just how much pent-up demand exists. My sense is that it’s high. When we get the green light, we’ll be eating out, shopping, and traveling in vast numbers.
Continuing in a more positive vein, I am so impressed by the people iour community who have, throughout the crisis, kept on task, helping those in need, whether that be financially, emotionally, medically, or all the above. We’ve seen strong giving from our clients and can see the good this spreads in the community. Similarly, I’ve observed an unabated commitment to important environmental projects in our state and elsewhere, with people giving their time and money trying to make a positive impact. Thank you.
There will be challenges; we’ll all learn the tax impacts of the election in coming months, and we’ll all adapt. The stock market itself has already celebrated some of this success, so its performance may not be so rosy.
I’ll leave it to Patrick to explain our thoughts on that in more detail. Speaking of Patrick and a brighter future, I want you all to know that as of January 1, Patrick is officially on the ownership team at Cairn. This is an important step for him, for your relationship with Cairn, and our ongoing growth, health, and continuity. Welcome, Patrick!
Equities posted a strong finish to 2020 with most indices up low double digits for the quarter. Investors continued to focus primarily on positive vaccine news versus a still muddling economy with lofty equity valuations. Small-Cap stocks were the biggest winner, rising 31.37% during Q4, while bonds posted a modest 0.67% gain. During our Q3 letter and our mid-quarter update we discussed where we are finding opportunity based on the large mis-pricing in small cap and value stocks, and though the first quarter of the year did not meet our expectations, portfolios have benefited from the change in market participation we are currently witnessing. One of our favorite indicators to track market participation (breadth), is the S&P 500 Equal Weight Index over the S&P 500 Cap Weight Index. When this indicator is moving down, market participation is narrow and being driven by a few large companies (like FAANG stocks). When it is moving up, the smaller companies are carrying more of the load and participating in a meaningful way, which is the current trend as you can see in the chart below.
We have written quite a bit about high valuations and risk over the last few years. Though our concerns about valuation have not receded, observing more broad participation in the equity markets is a positive.
With the rebound in equities that took place in April, we are now witnessing sentiment indicators at optimistic levels. One of our favorite sentiment indicators is the Smart Money vs. Dumb Money Spread released by our friends at SentimenTrader.com. This indicator measures money flows based on large option trading versus small speculative option trading. This is a contrarian indicator based on the logic that large institutional hedgers and participants have more knowledge and therefore are the “Smart Money.” As you can see from the chart below, when “Dumb Money” is at extremes, this tends to be a warning sign for the coming months.
We are witnessing a tale of two markets summarized by: better participation across asset classes, and companies that will benefit from further economic improvement. Countered by equity markets that exhibit excessive valuation and frothy sentiment dampening future return potential. We have positioned portfolios accordingly, to take advantage of markets that are rewarding attractively valued companies and asset classes, while maintaining some extra cash and fixed income to act as a ballast in case more turbulent times arrive.
Thank you for your continued trust. I always enjoy conversations with clients regarding any of these notes or the data we analyze, so please drop me a line if you care to discuss in greater detail.
Here’s to a happier 2021.
Tim Mosier, President
Cairn Investment Group, Inc.
A lot has happened since our last note! The virus is running rampant, but the election is behind us and multiple vaccines appear to be effective and on the way. The markets have interpreted the sum of these events to be positive and we’ve seen an amazing uptick in November, with broad participation across sectors, companies, and asset classes, lifting our account values. The shift of interest towards stocks that may benefit from a “re-opening” is notable and we own many of these.
In our third quarter letter, we discussed the risks we are witnessing in large-cap technology stocks, the opportunities in small-cap stocks relative to large-cap stocks, and value versus growth stocks. In November it seems other market participants have started paying attention to the large valuation gaps of these two groups with small cap stocks having its third best relative performance month versus the S&P 500 in the last 20 years, and value stocks having their best absolute performance month in over 20 years. Although it is still too early to call this a permanent change in trend, it is encouraging to witness more broad participation across the market instead of only a handful of overly expensive companies producing the majority of returns.
We are pleased with the recovery that markets have staged, but we cannot forget about the risks that are still present. We have written about valuations at length, and especially valuations surrounding large cap US stocks. With the recent run up, valuations for the S&P 500 stand at highs last witnessed in the year 2000 and right before the great depression. Economic activity and Company earnings, though improving, are still mired in recession from our battles with COVID-19, with company earnings showing a -6.3% decline from the previous year during the third quarter.
Analysts estimate that earnings are not expected to reach their 2019 levels until the start of 2022. We know the market is a forward indicator but basing today's price on the hope of an earnings recovery in 2022 shows how much optimism is built into this equity market. As you can see from the chart below, the return of the S&P 500 to date, is comprised almost entirely by multiple expansion (investors paying more for an undetermined amount of future earnings). A risky proposition in our view.
We are very excited about the possibilities of vaccines being distributed as we start the new year. I think everyone is ready to get back to a more “normal” way of life, and many of our equity positions are being held at the right price to benefit from further recovery, or expectation of it. However, we must always remain focused on what is already reflected in current prices so that we can understand the risks and opportunities that the markets are presenting. The good news is we are still finding some opportunities. Walking this tightrope, we still hold extra cash and fixed income in the portfolios to protect against the market going through another bout of pessimism.
We hope you and your families have a safe and happy holiday season. Thank you for your continued trust and please reach out if you want to discuss any topic in greater detail.
Your Cairn Team
So, what happens to the markets on November 3rd? It’s likely to be noisy with the first moves being quite reactionary. Focusing too much on this event, even if the outcome is ugly, is not a great use of one’s time. Here are the things that we think will cause more substantial moves in the next several months:
This may be the reason why anybody has a stock portfolio that’s not down significantly in 2020. Without it we’d be in a real mess. Most financial experts and politicians believe that another stimulus package is necessary for the nation to avoid a worsening financial and social crisis.
This view is shared, through differing lenses, by both political parties, so I think we’ll have more stimulus. It’ll be bigger if the Democrats win the White House and the Senate; potentially a $3T deal with aid to the States and Municipalities. Republicans will likely want to stick with something like the $1.9T offer we saw earlier this month. Either one will help. The outcome of the election may impact the timeline for additional stimulus.
Mixed scenarios, like a Biden win and a Republican Senate, or a Trump win and a Democratic Senate would add some twists, but I believe they will still result in a new package. The longer the process takes, the more nervous the markets will be.
2. Stock Valuations
Many of the stocks that have driven the indices higher are at extreme valuations by historical norms. No one says they can’t go higher, but it’s likely that there will be a reckoning, and some have a long way to fall before they’ll become a good buy. On the bright side, many individual stocks are offered at more reasonable valuations and may find some upside with stimulus and a solution to the health crisis.
3. Vaccine or Cure
Not much to say here other than when it happens it will be a good thing. We’ll be able to begin building our post-COVID economy and maybe find a new group of winning companies. This will be very helpful to “main street.”
Looking out past the above topics, we must address another collection of challenges, too long to go into much here, but I’ll list a few:
All of that stimulus comes at the cost of massive debt. How we deal with this over the next decade will determine how we fare as a nation and as investors. It’s looking more and more like we are swallowing the Magic Pill of “Modern Monetary Theory” leaving little choice but to have faith inflation and interest rates will be tamed over time. This will impact our long-term growth prospects, potentially in a negative way.
Taxes are likely to change; sooner if Mr. Biden is elected and the Senate falls to the Democrats this year. You can look up Biden’s thoughts on taxation on his campaign website. It mostly focuses on high earners, the wealthy, and corporations. This will change spending behaviors in unanticipated ways and is likely to slow growth to some degree. It’s also likely that all working Americans will see a tax increase in the future as we deal with the aftermath of additional debt generated by COVID and fiscal spending.
Financial markets face many challenges, but we also believe that they present opportunities. For instance, as we mentioned in our most recent quarterly letter, valuation spreads between value to growth stocks, and small cap to large cap stocks has reached historic highs. So even with the broad markets being priced to perfection, investors that are willing to do their homework (like us) can find opportunities in companies and asset classes that have not participated to the extent as the “glamour” stocks have. Our disciplined process and focus on risk management will allow us to navigate the equity markets, no matter the victor of next week’s election.
Humbly yours, the Cairn Team
Greetings from the Northwest.
Well, it’s Fall at last and it’s beginning to cool off a bit, although more slowly than usual, as it’s still been in the 80s when the smoke’s not too thick. We did kick off October with the first foggy mornings of the season and that seems to make a cup of coffee just a little more enjoyable. I look forward to the wonderful, natural changes that happen this time of the year, in stark contrast to some of our human constructs. Below, I’ll dig into some of my thoughts about our man-made world, but first I’ll share a moving personal experience with you.
Some weeks ago, I woke up along the banks of the Madison River in Montana, having spent a few days fishing and revisiting one of the favorite memories from my youth. Wow, had it changed! Trophy homes are perched on every hill and a very active tourist/fishing racket drags paying customers down the river in small armadas, slapping the water continuously with their bright strands of fly line, all hoping to catch the same fish that had successfully ignored the prior dozens of presentations. Having had enough of that, I packed up camp early and headed east to Wyoming, through Yellowstone Park. I always enjoy Yellowstone, but unless one can stay awhile and explore, it’s just a slow drive through some pretty country, albeit a bit smoky this time.
Midway through the drive, along the banks of the Yellowstone River, I found myself coming to a halt behind a line of stopped cars and a scene straight out of an apocalyptic movie, with drivers abandoning cars mid-road, grabbing cameras and optics, while lunging towards the river with much excitement.
What I witnessed was one of nature’s greatest and most brutal spectacles. A very large grizzly had chased a mature bull elk into the river and was dispatching him as I arrived. Despite the elk’s long powerful legs and massive pointed antlers, he was no match for the bear’s practiced approach and agility. By entering the river, he had unwittingly sealed his fate. I watched as the bear finished this task, essential to his survival, and then slowly, working with the current, brought the elk to shore. Having assured survival for another week or so, he sat on his haunches, resting and considering his victory. This entire episode, from well before I arrived on the scene and for days thereafter, has been photographed and recorded by many, and you can easily find this on YouTube if you’re interested.
While this is a cool story and a great memory for me, I think it also has some instructional value when it comes to our lives, our decisions and our investing behavior.
The outcome of this event was not preordained. Why did the elk give up its advantage and play into the strengths of the bear? My theory is that in this case the bear was much more experienced at killing than the elk was at not getting killed. The elk lived in a predator-rich environment, being on guard at all times and occasionally experiencing the loss of a herd member, but it probably had not been in such close proximity to death and had an exaggerated sense of his ability to escape.
He was the amateur in this fight. Seeking safety was his undoing. By contrast, the bear, evidenced by his mere existence, was a professional. Each and every meal not scavenged, was preceded by a successful hunt. He is an expert at the end game.
I draw a parallel from this to our own behavior: what we think and do when we’re afraid, and again when we’re confident. Our current human environment is unprecedented. To some extent we are all amateurs today. Who could imagine a year when the impeachment of the President of the United States is page three news? I cannot claim that we here at Cairn have some special insight into the future, or that we’re even smarter than the average bear, but I can tell you that we have a process and that process works much better than running into the river for safety. Please take a moment and consider what Patrick has to say about what we do and what we plan to do to keep your money in a good place.
It was only a few short months ago that we were writing about the deep recession and corresponding market correction. Contrast that to today where we’re witnessing exuberance in parts of the equity markets that resembles the tech bubble that took place 20 years ago. The US stock market, not to mention Robinhood traders, must be fans of the late musician Prince because it is partying like it is 1999. My apologies if that song is now stuck in your head. The difference being, in 1999 you had stock tips on AOL message boards and discount brokerage firms that would take your trades 24 hours a day. Today, you have a slew of new traders with Twitter and a phone app that lets you trade stocks like a video game.
We have written in previous quarters on some of the reasons investor enthusiasm is at its peak (Fed intervention, low interest rates, etc.). This optimistic behavior has driven valuation metrics across the board to historic highs. One of our favorite valuation metrics is the Price to Revenues (P/S) ratio. It gives a clear picture of what investors are willing to pay for a stream of revenues before costs and other accounting factors. It has been observed that there are now more companies in the S&P 500 trading at 10 times revenues (37) than there were in March of 2000 (30). This data point reminds me of a quote from former Sun Microsystems Founder and CEO, Scott McNeely, when he discussed the investor euphoria that was taking place prior to the tech bubble bursting:
The recent price performance of Tesla showcases a current example of investor euphoria when their share rose 50% after the company announced a stock split on August 11th. A stock being split may sound like a good thing, but there is no economic value created with a stock split! The market value, earnings, revenues, and cash flows of the company remain the same. There are simply more shares outstanding being offset by a lower price. Tesla’s 50% increase in market cap in the two short weeks following their split announcement generated more wealth for investors during that period of time than any of their car designs have ever done.
Wonderful companies (many of which we own) that create essential products and services have seen their share prices shoot past the fair value of the underlying business. However, this means that the prospects of these companies have been accounted for in the high share price. This potentially leaves little room for growth and heightens risks if the prospects fail to materialize. Down the road many investors may be looking back on this period asking themselves, “What was I thinking?”
With the levitation in growth stocks, investors have ignored other well-run businesses and asset classes. This is where we are finding opportunities for new investments. As value investors, our primary focus is not looking for new investments based on what has previously done well, but rather we look for companies and markets that are under appreciated that will do well in the future. The current divergence in price returns has been shown to reward some companies too much while punishing others too harshly. Mean reversion is a powerful phenomenon and the evidence suggests that such anomalies tend to reverse.
Below are charts showing the relative valuation of value stocks vs growth stocks, and small company stocks vs large company stocks.
Looking at these charts together tells a strong message. While focusing on risk, the opportunity for investors to earn returns is found by looking at value over growth and smaller companies over larger companies. The companies and asset classes we are investing in fit this criterion as investor enthusiasm has swung the pendulum to extreme levels in both instances. Unfortunately, no one can predict precisely when the pendulum will lose momentum and swing back in the other direction. We continue to focus on what we can control: being disciplined, patient, having a historical perspective, and straying away from the herd when opportunities or excessive risks are present. Thank you for your continued trust and please reach out if you would like to discuss any topic in greater detail. Stay safe and healthy.
Wishing you all good health and dry feet as the Autumn soaks in.
Tim Mosier, President
Cairn Investment Group, Inc.
Just a quick late summer note to keep you up to date with some of our thoughts and observations. While some of you are off fighting wildfires, watering lawns and gardens, or hanging out at the beach, we’ve stayed put through this summer of the virus, making investment changes as we see opportunity or risk.
The stock market has rallied off of the March lows and is now officially in a new bull market, with the S&P 500 having hit a new all-time high. This has been the fastest recovery in history following such a decline; following the fastest drop ever from an all-time high into a bear market.
That said, this has not been a broad market rally, with multiple sectors still languishing just a few percentage points above their lows. These are generally businesses awaiting word on when the COVID recession will end, triggering increased product demand and a clearer path to safety. Financials, Retail, Energy, Real Estate and Utilities, often stalwarts of the economy (and great dividend payers) are either in bear market terrain or are noticeably lagging the indexes. The driving force behind the new records has been primarily big tech; not just any tech, but BIG tech. These firms (Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook), represent only 1% of the S&P 500 by count, but about 25% by value; and this increases as they continue to get media and buyer’s attention. This is the largest bias towards outsized firms ever.
It’s understandable with current circumstances that all five of these giants have and will continue to reap outsized rewards due to our dependence on e-communication and e-commerce. We could not run Cairn without the products that Microsoft and Apple provide. That being said, it’s quite possible that (some of) these leaders are too far ahead for their own good, as momentum can push the markets far past fundamental support. Traditional value metrics are beyond stretched, investor behavior indicators are flashing warning signs that should be noticed, and at this point greed should be taking a back seat to caution as we have more months of recession ahead.
Another, less publicized area of risk is in the bond markets, particularly with low to medium quality corporate debt. Defaults are rising, and this probably will continue for some time into the future. In some parts of the country municipal bonds pose a risk. I think that we’re well positioned here, with very little exposure to at risk debt. Our Oregon munis are primarily covered by property taxes and have so far proven to be resilient.
We’ve taken all of this under consideration while making our investment choices and will continue to do so. If you have a desire to discuss any of this, or any other concerns that you may have, please give us a call, and either Patrick or I will be happy to have that chat.
Here’s to a few more weeks of sun and then a glorious fall.
Your Cairn Team