The Long Run

This note was originally published at 8am on June 28, 2011. INVESTOR and RISK MANAGER SUBSCRIBERS have access to the EARLY LOOK (published by 8am every trading day) and PORTFOLIO IDEAS in real-time.

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”

Helen Keller

 

It is difficult to invest for the long term.  In order to do so, the key characteristic an investor must have is permanent capital.  The best example of permanent capital is Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s investment vehicle.  Since Berkshire recently hit a 52-week low, in the short run, it has been a bad investment.  In the long run, of course, Berkshire has been a fabulous investment.

 

From December 31st, 1987 to the close yesterday, Berkshire “A” shares have returned ~3,770%+.   Over the same period, the SP500 has returned ~415%+.  In the long run, it is obviously difficult to debate Buffett’s success as an investor.  Unfortunately, very few investors can operate for the long run because of a lack of permanent capital and an unwillingness of those that provide the capital (limited partners) to suffer volatility. 

 

Naively many investors attempt to emulate Buffett’s performance by purchasing stocks that emulate his criteria.  In aggregate, studies show that cheap stocks with clean balance sheets will outperform over time if bought well.  Obviously, the challenge when emulating Buffett, though, is to assess the moats of a company and barriers to entry of an industry.

 

As Buffett wrote in his 1992 letter to Berkshire Shareholders:

 

“An economic franchise arises from a product or service that: (1) is needed or desired; (2) is thought by its customers to have no close substitute and; (3) is not subject to price regulation. The existence of all three conditions will be demonstrated by a company's ability to regularly price its product or service aggressively and thereby to earn high rates of return on capital. Moreover, franchises can tolerate mis-management.  Inept managers may diminish a franchise's profitability, but they cannot inflict mortal damage.”

 

The challenge of finding a long term economic franchise is that very few exist, or are sustainable.  At one point, the newspaper industry was a prime example of an economic franchise.  The newspaper was needed, in many markets had limited competition (think the Buffalo News), and pricing of newspapers was not regulated by the government.  While arguably the newspaper industry did represent franchise-like investments during periods, those investors that held these franchises in perpetuity are likely not happy today. 

 

The key way to “avoid danger in the long run” is to remain flexible, not duration specific.  I appeared on the Kudlow Report a few months back and one of the other guests was extolling on the virtues of being a long term investor and indicated that his firm has an average holding period of four years.  In theory, that’s fine if you have the process and team to execute on a long term holding period.  If you are investing for the long term, which for this discussion we’ll just consider beyond three years, it requires just as much work, if not more, than if you are an intraday trader.

 

The primary reason investing for the long term requires more work is because in the short term, assets will get mispriced.  Much of this can be attributed to behavioral finance and fear.  When assets get mispriced, such as in the market dislocation during the subprime debacle, it requires strong conviction in the research process to believe the fundamental story and to continue to buy, or even hold, as an investment is dramatically underwater.  While many fund managers claims to be adept at buying while there is “blood in the streets”, very few actually can effectively time purchases.  The world is replete with studies that show both professional and individual investors classically sell at the bottom and buy at the top.

 

Given the challenges with true long term investing and the reality that most cannot do it, we emphasize three investment durations in our research: TRADE (3 weeks or less), TREND (3 months or more), and TAIL (3 years or less).  In theory, at least based on how we analyze timing and risk, they are all related, so a TRADE idea can become a TREND idea and so on. Thus, a rigorous daily research process is critical to our success (hence the early mornings).

 

Shifting to the short term, there are a number of data points from the last 24 hours that I wanted to flag as fundamental to some of Hedgeye’s key investment views:

 

First, the European sovereign bond markets continue to signal that the worst is yet to come for sovereign debt on the continent.  Even as equity markets seem to be lightly cheering positive developments yesterday, bond yields have barely budged.  In fact, Greek 10-year yields are at 16.5%, Irish are at 12.1%, Portugese are at 12.1%, Spanish are at 5.7%, and finally Italian 10-year yields are at 5.0%.  Specific to Greece, civil unrest continues to accelerate as Greek trade unions are planning a 48-hour strike to protest austerity measures that will be voted on Thursday.  We remain long German equities via the etf EWG and short Spanish equities via the etf EWP.

 

Second, Premier Wen Jiabao provided us an early view on Chinese inflation for the full year yesterday.  He indicated on Hong Kong-based Cable TV that while he sees difficulties in reaching a full year inflation target of 4 percent, inflation “can still be kept below 5 percent”. This supports our view that the proactive monetary tightening that China has implemented will lead to steadily decelerating inflation in the back half of 2011 and marginal dovishness out of the People’s Bank of China.  We are long Chinese equities via CAF.

 

Finally, New Jersey officials are purportedly in negotiations to secure a temporary $2.3BN bank loan to cover a state cash shortfall.  New Jersey needs the cash to pay various bills between the start of its fiscal year on July 1st and the mid-summer bond offering.  We’ve been consistently negative on State and Local level finances and this provides incremental support to the view.  While many States are constitutionally obligated to balance budgets, it will be challenging and will likely require additional municipal bond issues as federal government support will be largely non-existent in fiscal 2012.  Further, State and Local level austerity will be a drag on economic growth more broadly.  We currently have no position in the municipal bond market.

 

Good luck “avoiding danger” out there today,

 

Daryl G. Jones

Director of Research

 

The Long Run - Chart of the Day

 

The Long Run - Virtual Portfolio