Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When, Not If

Now that the S&P 500 has hit my full year target of 1050 (made last December 30 as published in the Wall Street Journal’s “MarketBeat” blog) - with 3 months still left to go, I might note, cyclical bulls (like me) who have turned increasingly more cautious over the past two months (as stocks moved well passed their fair value targets) continue to sell into the rally. The portfolio consequences of this sell-into-strength decision are two fold – reduced profits and reduced exposure to a pullback.

As stocks moved higher into overvalued territory, the first course of action was to maintain a portfolio’s equity exposure (assuming it was less than 100%) to the total assets managed, which for accounts managed by my company was in the low 90% range. When stocks continued to march ahead these past few weeks, the course of action shifted to reducing the equity exposure, which now stands in the mid to upper 80% range.

This modified market timing (a/k/a sector and style tilting) works best in portfolios geared for the long term and subscribe to the diversification with a tilt approach to managing money*. Eventually, stocks that have taken a shine to the stratosphere will feel the gravitational pull of profit taking, common sense, and a cooling down of the animal spirits momentum “investing”. A correction then ensues.

On the assumption that a correction will eventually occur (and it will), the timing of the correction may be domain of the foolish and the insightful but the process is not. From experience investors should assume that one of the following will likely occur:

Air pocket – investors rise one morning to find stocks gap open to the downside in a big way. Volatility rises as price action becomes more erratic with many whipsaw movements. Bye bye steady up, hello wild and wooly.

Sudden but moderate – a decline starts and continues as market pundits proclaim the healthy qualities such a Goldilocks version of corrections exhibits.

Erosion – the decline sneaks up on you. Slow, steady, and highly corrosive. The flip side of the past several months.

Of the three possibilities listed above, I would opt for #1, the air pocket. However, whatever correction does emerge, investors are best served by being clear about their portfolio strategy action steps before, during, and into a correction. I have articulated the general outlines of my approach. What’s yours?

Investment Strategy Implications

Eventually, stocks will experience a pullback. The gravitational forces of profit taking, common sense, and a cooling down of the animal spirits momentum “investing” will help markets absorb and reflect on where the fair value for an asset class belongs. At 1050, expectations now put stocks at 1170 (10% discount factor) 12 months hence, which means that operating earnings need to reach $78 by 3Q10 – a number that only the most optimistic of forecasters has recorded. Alternatively, there are those who argue that a higher than normal times P/E (15 times) is appropriate (e.g. due to low inflation, good rates of return on equity, large amounts of liquidity still sitting on the sidelines), despite the fact that so much remains highly uncertain.

All things considered, When, Not If appears to be a good investment conclusion to reach at this time. And being a contrarian investor (as opposed to a follow the crowd momentum “investor”) means taking money off the table is a prudent course of action at this time. As the performance results to your left show, this has been a fruitful course of action to follow.

*see my August 27 Minyanville article


Anonymous said...

1050 was your full year target, but as the market approaches 1050 it is "well past fair value" and "moved higher into overvalued territory". Does that mean that your price target was not based on the fair value of the market, but rather is based on the market becoming overvalued?

Vinny Catalano, CFA said...

Good question. Thanks.

Yes, it is partly true but not completely.

The end of the year levels (as opposed to the end of the third quarter) better justifies 1050.

I expected a certain level of anticipatory speculation, which has been somewhat overdone hitting the full year target 3 1/2 months early. Hence, the correction call.