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

 

 

You want back into stocks…but should it be growth or value?

Decades ago, the academic community and financial services industry, in an effort to better understand what causes good versus bad rates of return in stock markets, began studying differing styles of investment management. There isn’t a hope of my staying awake long enough to cover even a sampling of the variety of styles that are out there, so I’ll keep it simple. Two styles in particular get plenty of attention: growth and value.

With the growth style, portfolio managers use their ingenuity to identify companies that are growing most rapidly. Since I carried around a BlackBerry (aka CrackBerry) for many years, I’ll use its creator Research in Motion (RIM) as an example. When the company was first getting its legs, it offered me and other research analysts a free trial of a little device with a monochrome screen that allowed you to send and receive text messages. We became addicted to them overnight and believed that this kind of service would catch on. Early movers can grow businesses very quickly with sufficient research depth, management expertise, and capital. We professional money managers provided the capital to RIM and the rest is history.

Early on, RIM was a growth company because even though they weren’t profitable and wouldn’t be making money for many years, the company kept selling more and more units. Revenues grew like crazy and, with some occasional disruptions (a market crisis, the technology bubble bursting), so did the stock price.

Portfolio managers who specialize in companies such as RIM are commonly called growth managers. The funds they manage are “growth funds.” The portfolio will usually have many stocks in various industries. They can be fast growing companies in slow growth industries or companies benefitting from an industry that is suddenly growing. Growth stocks can be very expensive. Investors expect the company to grow fast and so are willing to pay a higher price. However, you’ll have to buy a book explaining price/earnings (P/E) ratios, P/E to growth rate ratios, price/sales (P/S) ratios if you really want to get into security analysis yourself.

A value manager is more interested in buying and owning cheap stocks. Some companies grow slowly but pay their shareowners high dividends as compensation. A stock can be in an industry that is out of favour with the investment herd, or an industry can be out of favour entirely, making all the stocks in the sector cheaper. There are measures such as price/book ratios (P/B) and price to net asset value ratios that analysts use to gauge whether a stock is cheap or not.

Growth funds are considered riskier or more volatile than value funds. For instance, if the market is going higher because of a particularly strong economy, then the growth fund should go even higher still. A value manager might not perform as well as a growth manager in a bull market but won’t do as poorly in a bear market. A value manager is therefore considered more conservative.

A strategist friend of mine of TD Newcrest Research allows me to use his charts on occasion.  One of the most telling charts compares growth stocks in the S&P 500 Index to Value stocks.  The adjacent chart is an older one.  When the line is rising, growth stocks are significantly outperforming value stocks.  You can see vividly the technology bubble – growth stocks skyrocketing relative to value stocks – prior to the bubble bursting in the year 2000.

The shaded areas are periods of economic stimulation (US Federal Bank monetary easing).  During these periods it’s not unusual for growth funds to perform much more strongly than value-oriented funds.

Conventional wisdom says that conservative investors who can’t stomach as much volatility should use value funds and that investors who don’t mind a wild ride should use growth funds. Alternatively, you can invest most of your money into a value fund while also putting some into a growth fund so that you might occasionally get more returns in a buoyant market with at least a portion of your savings.

Why not growth when growth is performing and value at other times?

There are portfolio managers like me who hate being pigeonholed into either one of these styles. However, it is inevitable that one label or the other will be associated with a money manager because of the way consulting services are compensated and the way mutual funds are marketed (when growth is sexy, it only makes sense to promote the growth manager).

A maverick investor who understands the ebbs and flows of market sentiment will want to be invested in their favourite growth fund at the right time and to switch into a value fund at other times.

Whenever I’ve recommended a more active approach to selecting mutual funds in print or on television, such as using a growth fund and switching into a value fund when appropriate, I always get the same question: “How do you know when to switch?”

There is an easy answer, but nobody likes hearing it. The answer is: “You will know!” You should switch when your intuition or emotions tell you not too. It is that simple. If the fund you own has been doing extremely well and drifted up towards the top quartile or is now in the “best performing funds” category (rankings are available from a wide variety of publicly available services) and so you’ve begun to love it dearly, it’s time to switch into a different style of fund.

Here is a more current chart.  In this case the shaded areas are periods of recession, and we are all aware that for the past few years monetary stimulus has been the norm.  Not surprisingly then, growth stocks – avoided by most investors like the plague – have been outperforming value stocks.

As investors divest their income biased stocks (and bonds) they will naturally be tempted to move the money into the better performing growth style.  However if history (and experience) is any guide, they’d be well advised to focus their attention on stocks and funds that have not yet participated in the recent market rally.  In the event that government policy, encouraged by the rebound in the housing market, strong corporate earnings and slowly improving employment outlook, becomes less stimulative then value will in all likelihood become the place to be.

Mal Spooner