How NOT to Think about Your Investments

Many stocks, perhaps most stocks, are trading at prices that do not reflect fundamental value, as determined by traditional methods.  The excellent team at Bespoke Investment Group, one of our featured sites, provides a great list of stocks trading at "crazy" P/E ratios.  (Since P/E is only part of the story, perhaps you should subscribe to their premium service.)  Unfortunately, we own a few stocks on that list.  Our cheap plays got even cheaper.

Bob Pisani's CNBC reports — a good reflection of floor trader opinion — pointed out the disjunction between the fundamentals and the price in stocks like IBM.  Great earnings, good prospects, no proximate link to subprime, but the stock is down 25% from the highs.

Briefly put, current prices are not a matter of analysis, but one of psychology.

It is time to check out our "go to guy" on such questions, Dr. Brett Steenbarger.

Great Advice from Dr. Brett

In any big event, whether it is a football game, the election, or the stock market, there is a nearly inevitable feeling that you "should have known."  He writes as follows:

When markets become unusually volatile, they make unusually large
moves. To the short-term trader or the active portfolio manager, such
moves look like phenomenal opportunity. This creates a kind of
dissonance when their results do not reflect such opportunity. This
dissonance is often expressed as regret: the word "should" becomes a
prominent part of traders' thinking.

Underneath this regret is
what behavioral finance researchers call "hindsight bias": the
exaggerated sense of predictability in retrospect.

After some typical wisdom, which deserves to be read completely, he concludes as follows:

Given the limits of what we know and what is ultimately unknowable, not
all movement is opportunity. The key to trading success is finding the
patience to capitalize on those things you do know and the wisdom to
accept what is uncertain.

Applying Brett's Advice

The most important step an investor can take is to understand what is happening.  Here is our analysis.

  • Our system has created a climate where banks will not lend with each other.  Why not?  After Lehman was allowed to fail, no one knows which financial institutions will get government support.  Why lend to an institution that might not deliver?
  • We are de-leveraging at Warp speed, since any write down at one institution ripples through the entire system as required by FAS 157 mark-to-market rules.
  • The lenders to hedge funds, all becoming regular banks, now have more conservative business models.  Leading fund manager Ken Heebner  made this point tonight on Kudlow.  See the video here and here.  The hedge funds can no longer take a strategy that makes 5 or 6 percent a year and leverage it five times.  This means that hedge funds are selling — forced selling — the good with the bad.
  • Individual investors are dumping their mutual funds, as they always do in times of stress.

What not to do

Do not just make a knee-jerk reaction.  Think clearly.  Think about what is happening and the causes.  That is the only way to spot opportunity.

Somewhere between Miss Moss's Latin class in high school and Neil Browne's excellent instruction in critical thinking, we learned about a prominent logical fallacy.  Once you know it you will see it every day.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

You can look it up, but it means "after this, therefore because of this."  It is one of the most common errors in logic.

The most important application right now, also pointed out by Ken Heebner, is that the market keeps going down after each new government move.  The cause of this has nothing to do with government policy, except perhaps that it was too slow for rapidly changing conditions.  We should have started sooner, since government moves slowly.  It is the de-leveraging, especially in hedge funds.  To those who do not understand, it seems to be an instant verdict that the government plan does not work.

And this verdict is being rendered before the $700 billion has even been deployed…..We suspect that legislators who voted for the Rescue Plan feel somehow betrayed by the market.  It will take some time before the impact of the plan is felt.

And finally, what you should do

Understanding the factors behind the decline is important in finding opportunity.  If one accepts Ken Heebner's observation of reality, there is one set of conclusions.  If one believes that the market is correctly signaling the next Great Depression, there is another.  We shall revisit that dichotomy.  It depends on solving the problem of counter party risk, which we described last month.

Meanwhile, let us consider more great advice from Brett Steenbarger:

The ability to adapt to changing conditions and maintain the search for
opportunity amidst market panic is a great example of how times of
crisis can also be times of opportunity.

We will follow up with more about how we are positioning our clients to take advantage of current conditions.

You may also like


  • Mista B October 10, 2008  

    Looks like a lot of cyclicals and financials on that list. While there has clearly been panic selling, and I’m sure many stocks are mispriced, I recall very well back in 2006 hearing what a great bargain housing stocks were at 5 multiples. They forgot to mention it was a multiple of record earnings that was about to go negative in a big way. Bill Miller thought they were a bargain. That I still don’t get. The guy has decades more experience than I do, and it was plain as day to me.
    I speak with many business owners on a daily basis–and they’re scared !@#$less about their businesses. They are locked out of the credit markets. I fully expect earnings to drop big time. Of course, Wall Street, being myopically focused on quarterly results will then reverse course and award a low multiple to record low earnings. That’s when the true bargains will be had. Imo, we’ve only just gotten to fair value IF earnings hold up.
    We’ll nevertheless hit a temporary bottom once the mass liquidations end. It’s amazing to live through a time like this. First time for me an an advisor. Glad I had kept cash levels so high. There are definitely good companies getting tossed out. Big cap tech and pharma look mighty attractive. I would expect tech earnings to take a hit for a little while, but they have plenty of cash to get through. Pharma is selling to a completely different group, though. I don’t see any dropoff in the need for pharmaceuticals for about thirty years.
    I sure hope the powers that be can find a way to unlock the credit markets, else this is only going to get worse.

  • Mike C October 10, 2008  

    Understanding the factors behind the decline is important in finding opportunity. If one accepts Ken Heebner’s observation of reality, there is one set of conclusions. If one believes that the market is correctly signaling the next Great Depression, there is another. We shall revisit that dichotomy.
    Well, that really is the gazillion trillion dollar question, right? Either this is the greatest buying opportunity for hundreds if not thousands of stocks since 1982, OR we are only halfway through a 1929-1932 slide.
    I’ve talked to and read several (what I consider) really smart people and pros the last few days, and I think the fear is there really is something “this time” to be scared of. I do not know.
    I was cautious/bearish on the overall market for a really, really long time (see my comments on this blog that date back to 2007) and I’ve held a ton of cash for a long time with some accounts funded in 2007 and early 2008 sitting 70 to 80% cash since then.
    I was right, but truthfully I wish I was wrong. All the old rules seem to have gone out the window. Individual stock valuations no matter how low seem meaningless and irrelevant. Technical measures of level of oversold mean nothing as the selling just goes on and on and on. Sentiment measures indicating fear/panic have failed to mark any sort of bottom.
    When valuation appears to mean absolutely nothing, it is close to impossible to step up to the plate and buy anything.

  • RB October 10, 2008  

    On the other side, AGG dumps almost 10% in 2 days. The end of the world must be here. Unbelievable.

  • Alisa October 11, 2008  

    As a new investor, this is an exciting time for me. The buying opportunities seem too good to be true. There lies the problem. Are they? Too good to be true that is. Should I wait for further declines for the stocks on my watch list? Or, should I sell what I have in an effort to retain some of my initial investment. When will this crazy roller coaster ride come to an end?

  • Mike C October 12, 2008  

    “If one accepts Ken Heebner’s observation of reality, there is one set of conclusions. If one believes that the market is correctly signaling the next Great Depression, there is another. We shall revisit that dichotomy.”
    Very interesting Motley Fool post on this dichotomy:
    “But you know it’s not quite Kansas, either.”