With March Madness just kicking into full gear, there’s a chance that your gluteal assets may be parked on a stool in the next two weeks. When leaning on a bar countertop, while seated on a stool, we often take for granted the vital support this device provides, so we can shovel our favorite beverage and pile of nachos into our pie holes. OK, maybe I speak for myself when it comes to my personal, gluttonous habits. But the fact remains, whether you are talking about your rump, or your investment portfolio, you require a firm foundation.
The main problem, when it comes to investments, is the lack of a tangible, visible stool to analyze. Sure, you are able to see the results of a portfolio collapse when there is no foundation to support it, or you may even be able to ignore the results when they remain above water. But many investors do not even perform the basic due diligence to determine the quality of their investment stool. Before you place your life savings in the hands of some brokerage salesman, or in your personal investment account, you may want to make sure your stool has more than one or two legs.
In the money management world, investors typically choose to buy the stool, rather than build it, which makes perfect common sense. Many people do not have the time or emotional make-up to manage their finances. If left to do it themselves, more often than not, investors usually do a less than stellar job. Unfortunately, when many investors do outsource the management of their investments, they neglect to adequately research the investment stool they buy. Usually the wobbly industry stool operates on the two legs of performance chasing and commission generation (see Fees, Exploitation, and Confusion). For most average investors, it doesn’t take long before that investment strategy teeters and collapses.
If the average investor does not have time to critically evaluate managers that take a long-term, low-cost, tax-efficient strategy to investing, those individuals would be best served by following Warren Buffet’s advice about passive investments, “A very low-cost index is going to beat a majority of the amateur-managed money or professionally-managed money.”
The Four Legs of the Investment Stool
For DIY-ers (Do-It-Yourself-ers), you do not need to buy a stool – you can build it. There are many ways to build a stool, but these are the four crucial legs of investing that have saved my hide over my career, and can be added as support for your investment stool:
1.) Valuation: I love sustainable growth as much as anything, just as much as I would like a shiny new Ferrari. But there needs to be a reasonable price paid for growth, and paying an attractive or fair price for a marquis asset will improve your odds for long-term success.
“Valuations do matter in the stock market, just as good pitching matters in baseball.”
-Fred Hickey (High Tech Strategist)
2.) Cash Flows: Cash flows, and more importantly free cash flows (cash left over after money is spent on capital expenditures), should be investors’ metric of choice. Companies do not pay for dividends, share buybacks, and capital expenditures with pro forma earnings, or non-GAAP earnings. Companies pay for these important outlays with cash.
“In looking for stocks to buy, why do you put so much emphasis on free cash flow? Because it makes the most sense to me. My first job was at a little corner grocery store, and it seemed pretty simple. Cash goes into the register; cash comes out.”
-Bruce Berkowitz (The Fairholme Fund)
3.) Interest Rates: Money goes where it is treated best, so capital will look at the competing yields paid on bonds. Intuitively, interest factors also come into play when calculating the net present value of a stock. Just look at the low Price-Earnings ratios of stocks in the early 1980s when the Fed Funds reached about 20% (versus effectively 0% today). In the long run, higher interest rates (and higher inflation) are bad for stocks, but worse for bonds.
“I don’t know any company that has rewarded any bondholder by raising interest rates [payments] – unlike companies raising dividends.”
-Peter Lynch (Former manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund)
4.) Quality: This is a subjective factor, but this artistic assessment is as important, if not more important than any of the previous listed factors. In searching for quality, it is best to focus on companies with market share leading positions, strong management teams, and durable competitive advantages.
“If you sleep with dogs, you’re bound to get fleas.”
These four legs of the investment stool are essential factors in building a strong investment portfolio, so during the next March Madness party you attend at the local sports bar, make sure to check the sturdiness of your bar stool – you want to make sure your assets are supported with a sturdy foundation.
Wade W. Slome is a CFA and CFP® at Sidoxia Capital Management.
Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management SCM and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article.