The swarming of AAPL.

Understanding how the shares of Apple Inc. managed to get squashed so badly has much to do with knowing a bit about investor psychology and modern market dynamics. It wasn’t very long ago that shares in AAPL were universally loved – about a year ago now, CNN made it known that Poland, Belgium, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan all had GDPs that were less that Apple’s market value (around $500 billion at the time).

It’s all about probabilities. If absolutely everything is going well, encouraging publicity abounds and everyone you know has both the iPhone and owns the stock, then the only thing that is left to occur is suddenly something (sentiment, earnings disappointments, hurricanes) not-so good-happens which cools investor enthusiasm. When a stock is widely held, the subsequent selling can prove disastrous for all shareholders.

In September of 2012 AAPL traded a tiny bit north of $700 per share and is now in the neighborhood of $420 give or take. Losing 40% of one’s investment in a bull market is painful.

On business television you’ll hear lots of Apple pundits (who still own the stock in their portfolios) say the company is worth far more than the share price would suggest. This may or may not be true, but the fact of the matter is that the share price does represent what it is worth to investors right now! Doesn’t it?

The answer used to be yes, but with the increase in the popularity of short-selling it is difficult to determine nowadays what a company is really worth. In many instances there is absolutely no connection between the actual economic value of a business and its stock price.

Swarming is the term now applied to the crime where an unsuspecting innocent bystander is attacked by several culprits at once, with no known motive. Because swarming at street level involves violence, it is criminal. However in financial markets it is perfectly legal and different because there definitely is a motive. The motive is to rob shareholders of their invested dollars.

In a recent (April 6th, Thomson Reuters: Reuters Insider) interview Bill Ackerman, founder of Pershing Square Capital Management and who is described as an ‘activist’ investor, admitted “There is something inherently shadowy or evil about short-sellers.” Ackerman gained notoriety when he publicly claimed the company Herbalife was nothing more than a pyramid scheme, suggested the stock was worth zero and admitted his company had an enormous short position.

When any company today stumbles (or is perceived to have stumbled) it ignites something akin to a swarming. For example, this quote is from CNBC.com on November 10th, 2012:

“The question has been asked by nearly every Apple watcher following a brutal two-week stretch that began with a worse than expected earnings report, quickened after the ouster of a high-profile executive and culminated with news this week that it had fallen behind competitor Samsung in the smartphone wars.”

Although one might expect the stock to decline under the circumstances, the subsequent pummeling of the share price seems a bit cruel. What happened? Have a gander at this graph of the short interest (the total number of shares that were sold short) since about a year ago. To gain perspective, in April of 2013 the short interest has grown to 20,497,880 shares. The dollar value of this is about the same as the Gross Domestic Product of the entire country of Malta.

In English, short-sellers detected vulnerability, and swarmed AAPL. The irony is that short-sellers borrow the stock from real shareholders (via third parties) in order to sell it on the market. After the selling pressure wreaks havoc on the stock price, the short-seller then buys shares at a much lower price, returns the ‘borrowed’ shares to those real shareholders and keeps the profits.

The irony is that short-sellers claim to be providing a public service. Bill Ackerman was simply exposing a company that he believed (discovered) was misleading its shareholders. He even went so far as to say he didn’t even want the profits – they would be donated to charity. The problem is that it isn’t just some big bad corporation that is punished, but its shareholders and in due course even its employees.

I’ve never claimed to be all that smart, but I just can’t figure out how aggressively attacking a company’s share price, selling stock that the seller doesn’t even own, for the sole purpose of transferring the savings of innocent investors into one’s own coffers (whether it goes to charity of not) is a noble thing. Isn’t it kind of like a bunch of thugs beating someone up and stealing his/her cellphone declaring it was the loner’s own fault for being vulnerable?

How can you stay clear of being a victim?

  • Avoid owning stocks that have become darlings. When it seems nothing at all can go wrong, it will ,and when it does there’s sure to be a swarming.
  • If there’s evidence of a growing short interest in a company, best not own the stock.
  • Instruct your financial institution that your shares are not to be available for securities lending purposes.
Mal Spooner

 

 

Mutual Fund Mania – Choose wisely during RRSP season!

Usually the first vehicle of choice for new investors is a mutual fund. In days of yore, which in the investment industry is more than five years ago, investors usually bought equity funds but in more recent times balanced funds have grown more popular and even bond funds have attracted money.

Oftentimes, the first mutual fund experience is a disappointing one. There’s a reason for this. People intuitively want to be associated with success, so their first mutual fund will have these characteristics:

  • A great track record of top quartile performance over at least three to five years.
  • Billions of dollars invested in it, so it is “safe.”
  • Offered by an investment firm with a long and “distinguished” history.

Many years ago, there was much less data readily available and few statistical tools at one’s disposal, but I was curious and decided to examine a group of funds over time to see what their performance looked like. What I discovered is represented in the chart. There were no exceptions; every fund in my sample followed this same pattern.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to interpret a picture. If you invest in the fund when it’s a dog (ranks very poorly compared to other funds), the odds are great that given time it will be a top performer soon enough.

The problem is that most investors will pick a top performer. However, the top performer will soon become a dog, and the investor will be unhappy.

A great track record might actually guarantee poor performance.

When it comes to your money, intuition sucks. You “intuitively” steer towards something that “feels good.”

There is enough publicly available data nowadays to help you find a few funds that suit your tastes and examine their performance patterns. What suits your tastes may include funds that are easy to buy in and out of, those you have read about in the press, whose portfolio manager sounds smart on TV, or you may prefer socially responsible funds. When one of the funds that does occasionally perform very well has been in a slump over the past year or two, buy it. After the performance has improved over the course of a couple of years and you’re happy with the results, consider selling (or redeeming) it when the fund is in the top of the rankings (or wins an award) and buy a different fund that is in a temporary slump.

Being a curious sort, I once had the urge to see if award-winning funds followed the same pattern. After all, if someone wants a top-performing fund, wouldn’t they head straight for the ones that have just won awards for their outstanding performance?

I looked at the award-winning funds in any given year, and then checked their performance just one year later. Rather than examine every category (there are just too many nowadays) I stuck to basic Canadian equity, U.S. equity, small cap, international equity. Included were “thematic” funds popular at the time, such as ‘precious metals’ and the ‘dividend and income’ funds. Here are a couple of examples of what I usually found:

Results:

  • 100% of the winners were either 1st or 2nd quartile funds. The next year, 88% of these had fallen to 3rd or 4th quartile.
  • All the former 3rd quartile funds (dogs) rose to 1st quartile (stars) in the following year.

Winning an award (being a top performer) is not an indication of how that fund will rank in terms of its future performance, even in the following year. In fact, the odds are awfully good that your 1st or 2nd quartile pick will be below the median or worse one year later. Interesting! If there’s a lesson, I suppose it’s simply that funds should be bought because they meet your objectives, not because they’ve been performing well recently.

It’s not important to understand why this roller coaster occurs for mutual funds, it just does. Markets change, so, for example, when a growth fund invested primarily in technology stocks suffers, it’s no doubt because the upward trend in technology stocks, or their popularity among the herd, has either stopped or deteriorated. Apple is a prime example in the news right now.

Portfolio managers are just people working for people. I’ve witnessed the following scenario occur time and again:

  • Fund performance begins to soar.
  • Fund attracts lots of new money.
  • Marketing folks want more and more time from portfolio manager for meetings.
  • Money pours into the fund in droves.
  • Portfolio manager’s head swells (the “I’m a genius” syndrome).
  • Performance begins to deteriorate.
  • Money leaves the fund in droves.
  • Portfolio manager has to sell the fund’s best stocks (there are still buyers for these).
  • Performance sucks, and it takes two to three years for things to get back to normal.

Size really doesn’t matter…unless the fund is humongous.

A thinking person should be able to figure out that it doesn’t take a big fund or a big fund company to provide good performing funds. Think about it. Do you shop at the big box stores because the level of service is better? Is the quality of the merchandise better? No. You shop there because the economy of scale for the store allows them to buy products at a lower cost. They can order in bigger volumes and squeeze their suppliers. They then pass these savings to their customers.

Larger financial institutions enjoy similar economies of scale. Of course, the transactions and administration costs of the bank or insurance company are lower, and these benefits might come your way in the form of lower fees and expenses, but we’re not talking about buying lawnmowers. Rates of return on funds managed nimbly and intelligently can make those fees and expenses pale by comparison.

Bigger is safer possibly when you’re banking, but legitimate capital management companies are structured so that they never really touch your money. The custodial (where the money is physically held) and administrative (recordkeeping) functions are usually provided to these firms by big banks or huge financial institutions anyway—for safety and regulatory reasons and it makes the potential for fraud near impossible.

The reason why large financial services companies got into the fund management business was simply economics. They were providing banking, custodial, and administrative services to mutual fund and other asset management companies anyway, so why not also earn management fees by offering their own mutual funds and private wealth management services?

Take it from someone who knows from experience. Managing a massive quantity of money in one fund is much more difficult for a portfolio manager. You can only buy big companies. A portfolio manager will try to buy the best big companies, but since everyone else with big portfolios is doing the same thing, it’s not like you can outsmart them. It’s sort of like playing poker with jacks, queens, and kings being the only cards in the deck. If the three other players see three kings on the table, everyone knows you still have one in your hand.

Applying some discipline is important when directing your savings and will spare you much grief. For several years since the financial crisis, investors have swarmed into bond (see chart – it shows the net Sales of bond mutual funds) and balanced funds because of their strong relative performance and are considered to be less risky. Even today buying into income-oriented funds ‘feels good’ – everyone else is doing it, past performance is good and the fright we all experienced during the financial crisis still stings a bit.

Equity funds have been avoided for years – constantly redeemed – despite the fact the stock market returns have been outstanding since the crisis more or less ended (or at least stabilized). Now that the past returns are looking better, investors will be shifting money out of the bond funds (and perhaps balanced funds as well) and chasing the top performing equity funds.

This is an inferior strategy. If you examine the best ‘rated’ funds you will find they hold more dividend paying and income securities and will likely drop in the rankings very soon after you buy them.

With RRSP season comes a plethora of marketing campaigns and firms will be pushing us to buy their best performing funds (we are so quick to buy what ‘feels good’). Since you won’t see many advertisements for those not doing so well today, but are likely to do very well tomorrow, it would be wise to do a bit of homework before buying in. Good luck!

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

Analysts are worng about Apple

I normally don’t recommend tech stocks to investors. I have found them to be too volatile for a value investor like me. However in the case of Apple (AAPL) and its recent fall from grace I am making a big exception. I think the analysts who monitor Apple are dead wrong in giving it a sell rating. The stock price has dropped from $700 a share to (as I write this article) $444.76 a share. Why has this happened? Because the analysts feel without Steve Jobs (Apple’s creative genius) the company has nowhere to go but down as more and more i-phone knockoffs hit the marketplace thereby shrinking Apple’s margins.

I disagree, I’m pretty sure the current management team at Apple knows they must maintain the innovative edge they have had over the past decade. I’m also pretty sure that with the $137 billion in cash and marketable securities Apple has at its disposal they will be able to maintain their innovation advantage.
Here are some key statistics to help support my opinion:
PE Ratio 10.07
Return on Assets 20.58%
Return on Equity 38.41%
Profit Margin 25.35%
Free Cash Flow 34.38 Billion
Dividend Yield 2.30%
EPS 44.11

Is AAPL bruised or beginning to rot?

There’s a huge difference between Apple the company and AAPL the stock.  Back in July when the stock seemed to headed to the stratosphere I began to get concerned.  At the risk of seeming ridiculous (which has never stopped me before fyi) I will quote myself at the time:

 “The market value of Apple Inc. has ballooned.  It really hasn’t mattered that Android devices are kicking butt; rapidly gaining market share and being adopted by the more technology-savvy consumers (the nerdy trailblazers).  Until now?” July 29th, 2012

Apple’s 2nd quarter results had just been released and were considered disappointing by most analysts.  However my misgivings were based more on experience than the company fundamentals.  Over decades I’ve watched stock market darlings follow a pattern time and again.  At the outset it’s product itself that folks fall in love with, but eventually it’s the company’s stock they become infatuated with.

Admittedly the rewards to the company are plentiful if the product catches fire, especially in the middle stages of the lifecycle (pricing power and growing demand), but gradually management is obliged to focus on producing more and more of the product; which can mean skyrocketing revenues and economies of scale (reduced costs of manufacturing) – good for the company and its investors.  Eventually competition rears its ugly head, and the company is forced to innovate rapidly (rising expenses) to keep market share.  Competition (Android devices offered by the likes of Samsung, Research in Motion) will inevitably cause prices and profit margins to fall.

Finding a new hit ‘premium-priced’ product is difficult to do unless the company is managed by a tyrannical genius like Henry Ford or Steve Jobs (who can be oblivious to the rantings of those myopic stakeholders who’d rather have dividends than invest in research and development).

One might think that the stockprice should mirror the fortunes of the company.  But there are periods when this just isn’t the case.  This is the chart I was looking at (back in the summer months) when I began to get the heebeejeebies.  The financial results weren’t that impressive, but the share price had gathered its own momentum.

A GOOD  THING: Lineups to buy iPhones and iPads.  DANGEROUS: Lineups to buy shares.

I like to think the stock market  is like a party.  When my daughter was a teenager, she asked if my wife and I could disappear for a few hours one evening so she could invite some friends over for a party (I’m sure this has happened to many of you).  Things went fine until a contingent of uninvited guests began showing up.  No doubt a few more youngsters added to the fun, but once the house was too crowded bad things began to happen – items got broken, drinks were spilled on hardwood floors and carpets, there were empty bottles scattered all over the property and suddently her little party turned into into a nightmare.

When uninvited people (not really investors) scramble to own a stock it usually ends up like my daughter’s party.  At first a few more (uninvited) investors drives up the price which is great for existing shareholders and the company.  Indeed, AAPL shares continued to ramp up into the final quarter of 2012.  But just like my daughters party, things began to get ugly for the stock once it got too crowded.

 There is much speculation concerning the causes of the rapid decline in the price of AAPL shares:  Weak demand for the iPhone V, the threat of Android market penetration and so forth.  Some of this might be true, but pure speculation doesn’t ordinarily impact the price of a company’s shares this radically.  Hard evidence will hurt the stock to be sure but my own experience is that as soon as people realize they’re at a party that just isn’t as much fun as they’d hoped for then they all try to leave at the same time.  There is a great deal of risk associated with buying into stock market darlings.

I mentioned above that there can be a huge difference between the fortunes of the company and the behavior of the stock.  It could very well turn out that Apple (the company) will continue to thrive despite the decline in the share price.  After all there are a great number of people that still plan to buy iPhones.  No doubt there are also many planning to buy other Apple devices.

A recent survey suggested that 50% of those asked what smartphone they intend to buy over the next ninety days said they wanted an iPhone.  This is the same result Apple has enjoyed for that past couple of years.  There will come a time when the company will have to come up with another big hit product or re-invent itself.  After all the company was nearly banktrupt once (1987) and survived.  The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 certainly gave Apple another shot of adrenalin.

There’s no evidence to suggest Apple the company is beginning to rot just yet, but AAPL the stock was due to take a bruising.  Can Apple continue to take advantage of its solid franchise indefinitely without Steve Jobs?  Well that’s the billion dollar question isn’t it?

Mal Spooner