Sunday, December 28

Week 182 - Our Current List of Hedge Stocks

Situation: It has been 32 weeks since we published our list of Hedge Stocks (see Week 150). That list of 17 companies grows shorter due to market volatility and overvaluation. Even so, the idea of owning stock in a company that is relatively immune from “shorting” by hedge funds remains worthwhile. Why? Because the 10-yr Treasury Notes that professional investors typically use to immunize their portfolio against short sales will continue to pay a lower-than-inflation rate of interest, as long as the Federal Reserve continues its policy of “financial repression” (see Week 79). That means any high-quality bond will have a historically low interest rate, limiting its utility as a portfolio protector. In this environment, stocks that have none of the features that attract hedge fund traders gain added value because it is unlikely that such stocks will plummet in a bear market. That means Hedge Stocks don’t need to be backed by high-quality bonds or low-risk bond funds.

Initially, the stocks we were looking for had these features (see Week 150):
        a) low volatility (5-yr Beta less than 0.7);
        b) a P/E of 22 or less;
        c) higher returns over both the past 5 and 14 yrs than our benchmark (VBINX);
        d) higher Finance Value than VBINX (see Column E in our Tables);
        e) an S&P rating of BBB+ or better on the company’s bonds.

With experience, we’ve decided to modify those criteria. One change is that we’ll only consider companies large enough to appear on the Barron’s 500 List, which is published each year in May. That gives us a way to evaluate fundamental metrics year-over-year: “median three-year cash-flow-based return on investment; the one-year change in that measure, relative to the three-year median; and adjusted sales growth in the latest fiscal year.” Another change is that we’ll only consider companies which either appear in the top 2/3rds of that list (i.e., rank in the top 333) for the two most recent years or have a higher ranking in the most recent year. The third change is to measure valuation by EV/EBITDA (Enterprise Value divided by Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization) instead of by P/E (stock price divided by the past 4 quarters of earnings). EV/EBITDA is the market value of all the stock and bond issues that are used to capitalize the company, divided by operating earnings. The use of cash, which is gained from operating earnings plus the issuance of stocks and bonds, is not addressed by EV/EBITDA. We have set the upper limit for valuation of a Hedge Stock at an EV/EBITDA of 13, instead of at a P/E of 22. Finally, to exclude under-analyzed companies, we’ll require an S&P stock rating of at least B+/M.

Bottom Line: Of the 17 companies in our last list of Hedge Stocks (see Week 150), only 9 remain: WMT, MCD, ED, SO, GIS, NEE, XEL, PEP, KMB (see Table). Three companies have been added: Altria Group (MO), Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), and Lockheed Martin (LMT). As it happens, all 12 companies are Dividend Achievers. That should tell you something.

Risk Rating: 4

Full Disclosure: I dollar-average into WMT and NEE, and also own shares of MCD, GIS and PEP.

NOTE: Metrics in the Table are current as of the Sunday of publication; red highlights denote underperformance relative to our benchmark (VBINX).

Post questions and comments in the box below or send email to:

Sunday, December 21

Week 181 - Bond Substitutes

Situation: Our long-term investment philosophy balances the risks of stock ownership by hedging those purchases with bonds, bond substitutes, or non-correlated assets. The idea is to have an investment that is capable of ameliorating a 20+% drop in the S&P 500 Index. Otherwise, it could take 2-6 yrs for your retirement portfolio to recover from a Bear Market. If you’re over 50, that doesn’t leave enough time for you to make up for the loss and still have an adequate retirement income. The best hedges are US Treasuries because those go up a lot in price when stock prices plunge. However, most retail investors currently avoid US Treasuries. Why? Because their interest rate is likely to remain low while the Federal Reserve cautiously emerges from “financial repression” (see Week 76 and Week 79). Financial Repression will probably remain with us as long as world debt is more than twice world GDP, and that is currently at a record high of 212%. This means that you need to learn about other ways to protect your retirement portfolio, starting with bond substitutes.

Conservatively managed stock/bond mutual funds, like the Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund (VWINX, at Line 28 in the Table), often substitute short-term bets on corporate bonds for longer term bets on US Treasuries. This has helped to maintain remarkably stable and strong returns for that asset class. VWINX has grown ~7.5% over the past 14 yrs and ~10%/yr over the past 5 yrs. You can separately invest in a corporate bond mutual fund at low cost. We like the Vanguard Intermediate-Term Investment-Grade Bond Fund (VFICX at Line 7 in the Table), which is itself hedged with US Treasuries as needed. See the Morningstar report for more information. VFICX has returned over 6%/yr long-term (e.g. since the S&P 500 Index peaked on 9/2000) as well as over the past 5 yrs. Note that the lowest cost S&P 500 Index fund (VFINX at Line 32 in the Table) has returned only ~4%/yr since 9/2000 with dividends reinvested. Without those gains from dividend reinvestment, it hasn’t even kept up with inflation! You get the point: A low-cost, investment-grade, intermediate-term, managed corporate bond fund is the Gold Standard hedge against stock market crashes.

Now let’s look at other options, like gold (see Week 175) and hedge stocks (see Week 150). Gold did well in the Lehman Panic but has terrible volatility (see Line 20 in the Table), and is still looking for the bottom in its current bear market. (Gold bullion has been falling in price at a rate of ~1.4%/mo for more than 3 yrs now.) An easier option is to pick stocks that hedge-fund managers are unlikely to sell short (see Week 150). The 17 stocks we’ve listed in that blog don’t need to be backed with bonds, since they’re unlikely to lose much money in a stock market crash. 

This week, we’ll look at a variation on that theme and screen the 20 stocks we’re aware of that lost less during the Lehman Panic than their long-term rate of return. In other words, they carry a positive number for Finance Value (see Column E in any of our tables). Five of those 20 companies appear on our list of Hedge Stocks (see Week 150): Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), McDonald’s (MCD), and 3 utilities:  Wisconsin Energy (WEC), Consolidated Edison (ED), and Southern (SO). We’ll call those Bond Substitutes. In the Table, we group those with corporate and international bond funds in a category called TREASURY BOND SUBSTITUTES.

Ten of the 20 stocks didn’t meet our criteria for stability, one requirement of which is to have a current price that is less than 10 times Tangible Book Value (TBV - see Column R in the Table). Another is to have an Enterprise Value (EV) that is less than 15 times Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA). EV/EBITDA represents operating earnings relative to the market value of the stocks and bonds that capitalize a company (see column K in the Table). Now we have 5 companies that are hedge stocks (WMT, MCD, WEC, ED, SO) plus an additional 5 that are stable growers but have metrics that could make them attractive for hedge fund traders to “short.” Those 5 are Ross Stores (ROST), JB Hunt Transportation (JBHT), Hormel Foods (HRL), Occidental Petroleum (OXY), and QUALCOMM (QCOM). In the Table, they’re grouped with gold as LESS ATTRACTIVE T-BOND SUBSTITUTES. 

Upon applying the Buffett Buy Analysis (BBA in Column T; see Week 30), only WEC, ROST, QCOM look worthwhile for investment in this overheated market. Caveat Emptor: If you like these stocks, you’ll first need to assess the “story” that supports each company’s prospects for the future. Why? To determine if you want to buy into that story. You might decide the story is “broken” (or about to be), in which case you’ll look for something better to purchase with your retirement funds.

Bottom Line: We’ve introduced the thorny topic of “bond substitutes.” Gold is one such substitute. Stocks with a history of price stability in hard times are another (if they pay a dividend that persistently outgrows inflation). 

Risk Rating: 4

Full Disclosure: I own some Treasury Notes as well as shares of RPIBX, HRL, and MCD. I also dollar-average into WMT each month.

NOTE: Metrics in the Table are current as of the Sunday of publication.

Please leave comments below, or email to:

Sunday, December 14

Week 180 - Reasonably Priced S&P 100 Stocks

Situation: The stock market is overpriced, and will remain so until bonds pay enough interest to compete with stocks toe-to-toe. I doubt that will happen in the next few years, given that inflation-adjusted 10-yr Treasury Notes are selling very well while paying only 0.42% interest, as of 11/1/14. (Full disclosure is needed here: I admit to being a recent buyer.) So, let’s identify and discuss the next best thing to bonds for stabilizing a retirement portfolio. Are there any large-capitalization US stocks left that are reasonably priced?

Good question, and a hard one to answer. The exchange-traded fund for the S&P 100 Index is OEF (Line 19 in the Table). As expected, it has similar metrics to VFINX, Vanguard’s S&P 500 Index fund (see Line 20). But there are interesting differences. OEF can be considered to be a tad less risky because it pays a little higher dividend, has a little lower 5-yr Beta, lost a little less during the Lehman Panic, and has a 15% lower P/E. With respect to the key metric for someone who is saving for retirement, it has 70% higher dividend growth (Column H in the Table). The S&P 100 Index is the place to look for a good retirement stock, particularly when the market is overvalued. Why? Because that’s typically a time when mid-cap and small-cap stocks are even more overvalued than usual.

How can you be sure a stock isn’t overpriced? The best comparison to make is to examine its price in regards to its Tangible Book Value (TBV). If price/TBV is less than 3, the stock isn’t overpriced. We set the cutoff point twice as high in our assessment, at ~6 (see Column O in the Table). Our reason for doing that is to ensure that we identify stocks that have true value. Next, we look at EV/EBITDA: Enterprise Value (market value of all the stocks and bonds used to capitalize the business) divided by Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (i.e., "operating earnings" to an accountant). Cash spent on new projects is not considered in EV/EBITDA, and neither is the cash spent to buy and service loans. EV/EBITDA can be very revealing. For example, Costco Wholesale (COST) has a P/E of almost 30 but its EV/EBITDA is less than half that (see Columns J and K in the Table). 

Another helpful metric is Dividend Payout (Column L in the Table). If a company is sending more than half its profits to shareholders, it won’t have much Free Cash Flow left to produce and market more and/or better products. That means the company’s managers will probably need to borrow money to expand. Issuing more stock isn’t as attractive to them as issuing a bond or borrowing from a bank, since the revenue that will be used to pay interest on that loan isn’t taxable. Choice #1 (using Free Cash Flow to expand) increases TBV, whereas, Choice #2 (borrowing money to expand) reduces TBV.

Bottom Line: After all the number crunching, we find that there are 10 companies in the S&P 100 Index that are reasonably priced and carry high ratings from S&P on both their stock and bond issues.

Risk Rating: 6

Full Disclosure: I dollar-average into WMT and MSFT.

NOTE: Metrics in the Table are current as of the Sunday of Publication.

Post comments below, or email to:

Sunday, December 7

Week 179 - The ITR “Master List” for Fall 2014

Situation: Twice a year, we try to look into the future using the lens of the past. Currently, the US stock market has reached a plateau due to overvaluation. Alan Greenspan, in his recent book “The Map and the Territory” (The Penguin Press, New York, 2013), explains overvaluation by saying that "demand to acquire the stock of a company is sated as the company becomes adequately funded [and such companies] will yield low prospective rates of profit until the excess capital is withdrawn and presumably reinvested in more promising ventures." In other words, there is no such thing as a stock that looks like a good bet year in and year out. That’s why you need to pick stocks wisely and then dollar-cost average your choices.

You’ve no doubt noticed that our Master List keep getting shorter as the risk of a Bear Market increases. We began with 34 (large and small) companies (see Week 5) and now we’re down to 10 large companies (see Table). Those 10 are chosen from our 9 Lifeboat Stocks (see Week 174) and 17 Core Holdings (see Week 172). We eliminate any that aren’t "Dividend Aristocrats" (25+ yrs of dividend growth) or lost more during the Lehman Panic than the 28% that our “risk-on” benchmark (VBINX) lost.

This week, for the first time, we ask whether you’d be better off investing in all 10 of those companies, or would you be better off investing in Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund (VWINX), which is the “risk-off” benchmark that we recommend for retirement portfolios. It is not too difficult to build a portfolio of stocks with a higher dividend yield and/or faster dividend growth rate than the S&P 500 Index, particularly if you stick to companies have grown their dividend annually for at least 25 yrs. Those companies have a long and stable history of rewarding their investors through good times and bad. By owning shares in a few such companies you can look forward to receiving dividend checks in retirement that grow faster than inflation. But will you end up with more retirement assets by doing that? This week’s blog tries to answer that question.

Long term, VWINX has been the most stable and rewarding mutual fund. It is balanced roughly 40:60 between high quality stocks and investment-grade bonds, respectively. VWINX has returned 10.6%/yr over the past 35 yrs, which is identical to the return for the lowest-cost S&P 500 Index fund, the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX). Bonds in VWINX go up in value whenever stocks go down. That means VWINX has had only 4 down years in 35 (average loss of 6.3%) vs. 8 for VFINX (average loss of 11%). The lesson here is to hedge your stocks with high quality bonds. We suggest that you use inflation-protected US Savings Bonds because those never lose money and carry all the tax advantages of an IRA. 

We’ve blogged often about the risk of owning individual stocks, and use several metrics like 5-yr Beta (Column I in our Tables) to highlight that risk. But there’s only one sure-fire metric: How much did investors lose during the last Bear Market (Column D in our Tables)? Warren Buffett likes to make analogies about core principles, and his analogy for this one is “You can only tell who’s swimming naked when the tide goes out.” With bonds, risk is easier to gauge because the interest that a corporate bond pays vs. the interest that a US Treasury bond (with the same maturity) pays is a direct measure of credit risk. The difference between those two interest rates is called “the spread” and the higher the spread, the riskier the bond. In other words, you’re paid more interest because you’re willing to take on more of the risk of bankruptcy. US Savings Bonds purchased online at treasurydirect are a zero-cost, tax-advantaged way to invest in 10-yr US Treasury Notes, the safest investment on the planet (according to Warren Buffett). You’ll appreciate having those Savings Bonds available to fund the non-recurring capital expenditures that are bound to appear during the next market calamity. (You certainly won’t want to sell stocks at a loss.) 

The 10 “buy and hold” stocks in this week’s Table include 4 Hedge Stocks (see Week 150): WMT, CB, JNJ, PEP. Those stocks don’t need to be backed with inflation-protected Savings Bonds (ISBs). To answer our question (Is it better to invest in those 10 stocks or in VWINX?), we’ll make a virtual investment of $50/mo in each of the 10 stocks ($500/mo) backed by another virtual investment of $300/mo in ISBs. (Thus, you see 6 entries for ISBs in the Table). We’ve made stock purchases online at a dividend reinvestment sites like computershare or shareowneronline wherever transaction costs can be less than ~2%/yr. If the costs are higher, we’ve resorted to using a discount brokerage like Edward Jones (one of several that are available). For our virtual portfolio, we found it necessary to do that for 3 stocks (GWW, CB, PEP), buying one a year in that order. Our virtual investment then totaled $1800 once a year for 3 yrs with reinvested dividends, which accomplishes the same goal as investing $50/mo for 3 yrs at a dividend reinvestment site online.

Bottom Line: You can construct a 10-stock portfolio and be ahead of VWINX while maintaining the same risk profile (e.g. a 5-yr Beta of ~0.45). Over the past 14 yrs, our virtual portfolio returned ~9.5%/yr vs. ~7.3%/yr for VWINX. However, that ~2.2%/yr advantage is reduced to ~1.8%/yr after you subtract transaction costs of ~0.4%/yr: $321.65 spent during the first 3 yrs (Column R in the Table) divided by an investment of $28,800 = 1.12%, which is ~0.4%/yr. Dividend yield plus dividend growth is also better with 10 stocks than with VWINX (8.6% vs. 2.2%, see Columns G and H in the Table). During retirement, you’ll probably be able to cash those quarterly dividend checks without needing to sell the underlying shares, as opposed to having to sell shares of VWINX to come up with the same amount of cash. Of course, there is greater selection bias in picking 10 stocks than in owning shares of a managed stock/bond mutual fund like VWINX. Getting an extra ~1.8%/yr might justify the additional time and energy you’ll spend managing your portfolio but always consider opportunity costs. For example, a better choice for building retirement wealth might be to invest in VWINX, then use the time and energy you’ve saved to further your education and get a better day job.

Risk Rating: 3

Full Disclosure: I dollar-average into ISBs, WMT, ABT, and PEP. I also own shares of HRL, JNJ, and BDX.

NOTE: Metrics in the Table are current as of the Sunday of publication.

Post comments in the box below or send email to: