Sunday, July 23

Week 316 - 2017 Barron’s 500 List: A-rated “Defensive” Companies That Moved Up In Rank During The Commodity Recession

Situation: A stock-picker can’t beat the market, given that transaction costs and tax inefficiencies reduce returns by 1-3%/yr compared to the lowest-cost S&P 500 Index fund  (VFINX), which returns 7-8%/yr. To effectively compete with that, stock picks would need to return 9%/yr. That’s one of the reasons why we use a discount rate of 9% when calculating Net Present Value. 

In business school, I was taught that there are only two ways to beat the market: Plan A is to trade on “insider information” (patently illegal); Plan B is to take outsize risks (i.e., run a portfolio where the capitalization-weighted 5-Yr Beta is greater than 1.0). Those of us who are employed full time in Financial Services may become good stock-pickers because we know a particular industry very well, the result being that we overweight our picks in that industry. In other words, we’re engaged in a legal form of insider trading. For example, doctors and dentists are often savvy traders of health-care stocks. 

The stock-picker who had the longest run beating the S&P 500 Index was Peter Lynch, who managed Fidelity’s Magellan Fund from 1977 through 1990. He relied on diversification, running ~1000 stocks with the help of a dozen analysts, but focussed on retail stocks. He claimed that the insights his wife shared with him after a day of shopping were pivotal to his success. You get the point: Invest in what you know.

But what about Plan B (risk taking)? Like Plan A, that approach requires you to run a portfolio concentrated in particular industries. But unlike Plan A, those stocks have to be in boring “Defensive” industries, i.e., the ones where sales grow only as fast as the population grows (Consumer Staples, Healthcare, Communication Services, and Utilities). By overweighting defensive industries, you insulate your portfolio. When the market crashes, those industries tend to keep on growing their earnings. Than means you’re following Warren Buffett’s Rule #1: Never Lose Money.

Mission: Analyze the recent Commodity Recession (see Column D at Line 26 in the Table), which was almost severe enough to keep both GDP and the S&P 500 Index from growing. 

Execution: see Table.

Administration: Commodities are a key driver of the economy, so the Commodity Recession gave us a rare opportunity to see which companies out-perform without that key driver. You’ll need some background information. Of the 22 commodity futures contracts that compose the Bloomberg Commodity Index, the 5 classified as “Energy” are strongest, with a combined weight of 30.57% (Natural Gas, Brent Crude Oil, West Texas Intermediate Crude Oil, Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel, and Unleaded Gasoline). When those are down ~20%, the S&P 500 Index will barely rise even though GDP might keep going up. Whether we like it or not, the prices of petroleum products will be the best predictors of the stock market for the next 10+ yrs. To be successful, a stock-picker has to anticipate the ups and downs in prices for energy commodities, and be positioned to reap good returns from stocks of A-rated S&P 500 companies that maintain or improve their valuation metrics during a commodity recession. 

Key metrics relate to cash-flow based ROIC, specifically the most recent year vs. the 3-Yr median, as well as sales growth for the most recent year. The Barron’s 500 List (published each May) ranks the largest 500 companies on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges in terms of those 3 metrics. We’re interested in knowing the names of ALL the A-ranked S&P 500 companies that moved up in rank. Most of those will be in “Defensive” industries. The few that are in “Growth” industries either have a business plan that allows them to be “hardy perennials,” or enjoy a special situation that allows them to take advantage of a Commodity Recession. This week we cover “Defensive” industries. Next week we’ll cover the few “Growth” industry out-performers.    

Bottom Line: The costs associated with owning the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (VFINX) are nil, whereas, the costs of owning (and trading) stock in a few dozen companies are substantial. And, the capital gains taxes that you’ll pay each year for trading those stocks are erratic and immediate vs. what you’ll pay upon eventually selling your VFINX shares. Your stock portfolio has to outperform the S&P 500 Index by 2-3%/yr to equal the returns you’d realize from owning VFINX shares. Invest smart, by knowing that the market goes down eventually and doing something about it ahead of time. Either stick to industries you know, or hedge by overweighting the stocks of companies in “Defensive Industries.” The 14 shown in the Table are a good place to start your research. Pay close attention to Columns P-S because even these companies can swoon in a market crash if they have messy Balance Sheets (messiness is highlighted in purple).

Risk Rating: 6 (where 1 = 10-Yr Treasury Notes, 5 = S&P 500 Index, 10 = gold)

Full Disclosure: I dollar-average into JNJ and KO, and also own shares of HRL and WMT.

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