In Praise of Investor Optimism


My industry is awash in optimism. This makes intuitive sense, for the entire process of investing assumes that the companies you invest in will go up in value. Regardless of how conservative and cautious a portfolio manager is, underlying his dour outlook is an optimist that runs a portfolio of various stocks, each one intended to make money.


For this reason it is incredibly rare to hear outright negativity from professionals, which I suspect contributes to a subtle sense of unease by the average Canadian who must both trust a portfolio manager to look after his money while scratching their heads at a market that can decline significantly in value with no perceivable change to the asset mix they are invested it.

This is Bill Gross. Until 2011 he was a very successful manager with PIMCO, where he headed up their largest fund. Then he made a contrarian prediction about the markets, lost a lot of money and was fired from his fund.
This is Bill Gross. Until 2011 he was a very successful manager with PIMCO, where he headed up their largest fund. Then he made a contrarian prediction about the markets, lost a lot of money and was fired from his fund.

Even when we do get very negative views from portfolio managers, the subtext is still optimism, just for THEIR investment choices. There is never a contrarian market call that doesn’t seem to serve double duty as a marketing plan as well. When Bill Gross famously said that the US was going to tank back in 2011, he was also claiming that his investments wouldn’t and took a contrarian stance that proved to be very costly for his investors. The same is true for Eric Sprott, whose own doubt about the future of stock markets had prompted some very optimistic numbers about the value of gold and junior mining companies.

For the average investor much of this can be quite exasperating as investing shies away from the ways we attempt to establish certainty. Investing is all about educated guesses, and despite many different tweaks the rules for investing remain surprisingly limited: “buy low, sell high” and “diversify”. Professionals have attempted to improve and refine how these two things are done, seeking out the best ways to analyse companies, markets and whole countries, but in the end these two rules still provide the best advice to investment success.

I wish to write to you about a mistake on your billboard...
I wish to write to you about a mistake on your billboard…

But as investment guides go, reveling in the uncertainty of the investments is something that many people don’t want. Instead they would much prefer to hear about what is going to happen in a matter-of-fact manner from an “expert”. This is why there is always a market for doomsayers and contrarian predictions, because of the certainty they seem to offer. It feeds our innate sense that there must be a right and knowable answer about the future that can be revealed to us.

sandwich-board-man-warns-us-of-impending-doomAnd yet like their biblical equivalents, contrarian predictions have all failed to live up to their hype. Just as every “end is nigh” doomsday cult has disappointedly had to move the calendar date for the end of the world, the number of people who have proclaimed loudly the end of traditional investment world is both numerous and filled with failure.

And so, frustratingly, investors are faced with the assuredness of doom-saying predictioners (who are almost certainty wrong), and the cheerfully faced optimistic portfolio managers who routinely remind investors that there is no bad time to invest, that bad markets are “corrections” or “set backs” and that significant price drops are “buying opportunities”.

And yet I doubt we would have it any other way. If we could be absolutely certain about what stocks were going up or down and when there would be no money to make in the markets as companies would always be priced correctly. And whether we realize it or not, it is hugely helpful to remember that there exists no accurate way to divine the future, no Ouija board that can contact the dead, no equation or computer that can process the world’s data to tell us what is happening tomorrow, next week or a decade from now.

I derive great comfort in this, because the optimism that drives the investing world is also a wider optimism about the future. Experts predicted famines wiping out millions in 1970s and 1980s, environmentalists predict the end of all things, and political talking heads bombard us with a daily diet that everything is awful, but our world is healthier, wealthier and kinder than ever before. And unbelievably investors believe in that world, even when they don’t know it.

How Imminent is the Next Market Crash?

image001This past week I received an article from a client regarding ideas about “wealth preservation” that made some good sense, and offered advice about calculating how much money you need for retirement. But while the premise was sound; that it makes sense to pursue investment strategies that protect your nest egg when your financial needs are already met, a one off comment about the future of the stock market caught my attention.

You can read the article HERE, but the issue I wanted to look at was the not so subtle implication that the US markets were now due for a correction. A serious one. Quoting the Wall Street Journal contributing writer William J. Berstein,

“In March, the current bull market will be six years old. It might run an additional six years—or end in April.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this point before. It isn’t unique and sits on top of many other market predictioner’s tools, but its use of averages gives a veneer of knowledge the writer simply doesn’t possess.

Obviously we would all like to know when a market correction is due, and it would be great to know how to sidestep the kind of volatility that sets our retirement savings back. But despite mountains of data, some of the most sophisticated computers, university professors, mathematicians and portfolio managers have yet to crack any pattern or code that would reveal when a market correction or crash should be expected.

Which is why we still rely on rules of thumb like the one mentioned above. Is the age of a bull market a good indication of when we will have a correction? Probably not as good of one as the writer intends. Counting since 1871, the average duration of a bull market is around 4.5 years, making the current bull run old. But averages are misleading. For instance the bull markets that started in 1975, and 1988 (ending in 1987 and 2000 respectively) lasted for 153 months each, or just shy of 13 years. Those markets are outliers in the history of bull markets, but their inclusion in factoring the average duration of the bull markets extends the average by an additional year. Interestingly if you only count bull markets since the end of the second world war the average length is just over 8 years, but that would only matter if you think our modern economy has significant differences from an economy that relied on sailing vessels and horses.


The fact is that the average age of bull markets is only that, an average. It has little bearing on WHY a bull market comes to an end. There was nothing about the age of the bull market in the 2000s, when people had become convinced of some shaky ideas about internet companies that make no money, that had any bearing on its end. The bull market that ended in 2008 had more to do with some weird ideas people had about lending money to people who couldn’t pay it back than it did with a built in expiration date. Even more importantly, the market correction of 1987 (Black Monday) was an interruption in what was an otherwise quarter century of solid market gains.

Taking stabs at when a market correction will occur by using averages like duration sounds like mathematical and scientific rigour, but actually reveals very little about what drives and stops markets. And a quick survey of the world tells us a great deal more about global financial health and where potential opportunities for investment are than how long we’ve been the beneficiaries of positive market gains.

Looking for Dark Clouds Amidst Silver Linings

628x471This year got off to a rocky start. As of writing this post, the S&P 500 is down over -2% year-to-date (YTD), while other global markets have been similarly affected. The MSCI Global Index is down nearly -1%, the MSCI Emerging Markets index is also down -4.5%, as is the FTSE 100 (UK, -1.3%) and last year’s super-performer, Japan (-12.1%). This sudden “frothiness” has brought out the fear mongers and market doom-sayers. So regularly has the drum been beaten that 2014 should see a significant slide in market value that it has become a regular question in every meeting. (note: I did not update these numbers for the current week, however many of these returns have improved. In some cases quite dramatically)

The only problem is that any internet search will easily reveal market calls for a correction EACH and EVERY YEAR! This doesn’t mean that a correction won’t happen, in fact if there is one thing that we know about the markets its that corrections do, and must happen. We also know that the longer you go without a correction the closer you must be to having one. The problem is that we place value on people who claim to be able to predict a market downturn, even when we can’t actually predict when a downturn will actually occur. So the media keeps trotting out people willing to make outlandish market predictions knowing that it will grab headlines and eventually be right.


Except that there are lots of reasons to be cautious in the current market conditions. Not that we can predict when we might actually see a downturn, but there a lot of reasons why it makes sense to have defensive positions in your portfolio. For instance, we are currently at an all time high for IPOs, the most since 1997. There is some evidence that as IPOs peak its not uncommon to see a market correction, as less valuable companies try to cash in on market exuberance and professional investors try and sell their positions in less viable companies to bullish markets.

Other market metrics also seem to favour being on the defensive. Currently there are 84 companies on the S&P 500 with shares that are valued above 10x earnings. This means that investors are incredibly bullish about the future prospects when it comes to income growth. Many of these companies are in hi-tech sectors, like social media firms such as Twitter. For the record that is the most number of companies above this valuation since prior to the tech bubble in 1999.

Share buy backs also play a role here. If you aren’t familiar, with borrowing rates still very low many companies have taken the opportunity to borrow large sums of money and buy their outstanding shares back. Why? As the number of outstanding shares in the market declines the Earnings Per-Share goes up. This means that even if a company isn’t seeing actual growth in sales, it does mean that the the remaining shares receive a greater portion on the earnings, artificially increasing their value. In of itself this isn’t a problem, but it serves to increase the stock market while not seeing much in the way of actual economic growth.

Lastly we have also seen that the flow of money into ETF funds (passive investments that mimic indices) is also adding volatility to the markets. As investors remain concerned over negative surprises in the news, the high liquidity of ETFs causes even greater short term fluctuations in the markets as investors pull back. This is especially true in the Emerging Markets, and has had the unusual side effect of showing that actively managed funds have outperformed comparable ETFs.

In summary then there are four good reasons to believe that the markets may get more turbulent going forward. The lesson however is not to commit to a wholly negative or positive view of the markets, but rather continue to hold a diversified group of assets to deal with all market surprises, both good and bad!