Sunday, 18 June 2017

Fundamentals of Stock and Bond Picking

You have probably heard of the study in which monkeys throwing darts on a dartboard with stock names on it could produce portfolios that outperform those picked by professional investors. A few reasons were given for the outperformance, such as size of the companies, Price-to-Book valuation of the stocks, etc. I wonder if the same study were to be repeated for bond picking, would monkeys still outperform professional investors?

There is no study on the above, but my answer to it is probably not. When you pick a stock to buy, you are expecting it to change in the future, whether it is the earnings or dividends increasing or the Price-to-Earnings valuation improving. In essence, you are forecasting the future. This can be seen from the various models for valuing stocks. The Dividend Discount Model, for example, estimates the intrinsic value of a stock as the summation of all future dividends discounted to the present. The Discounted Cash Flow Model does so similarly, using free cashflows instead of dividends. The present matters less in stock valuation, and yardsticks based on present assets such as Price-to-Book ratio do not feature much in investors' minds. There are good reasons for this, because if the assets cannot produce good future earnings, the assets have to be discounted from book value. 

The corollary is that, if things are not expected to change in the future, you should not pick the stock (except for dividend stocks, which have similarities with bonds). Also, since nobody can predict the future accurately, it is not surprising that monkeys can beat professional investors in stock picking. Likewise, professional investors underperform their respective stock benchmarks when they carry out tactical allocations according to their outlook for the future.

Bond investment is quite the mirror opposite of stock investment. When you pick a bond (or dividend-paying stock) to buy, you are expecting it to continue paying the same amount of coupons or dividends until they mature. In other words, you are expecting it not to change in the future. Hence, bond valuation starts with present assets and earnings and computes a margin of safety to cater for unexpected changes in the future. While the future is still important, the present plays a bigger role in bond valuation. Thus, bond valuation deals with yardsticks such as the debt-to-equity ratio, interest coverage ratio, etc. which are found in the present income statements and balance sheets.

Hence, when you compare stock and bond valuation methods, stock valuations are more of an art, because it is based on forecasts for the future, which everybody will have different opinions of. Whereas bond valuations are more of a science, because that they are based on figures in the income statements and balance sheets, which people rarely dispute. 

Hence, on the above question on whether monkeys will outperform professional investors on bond picking, my answer is probably not, since monkeys cannot analyse income statements and balance sheets. Also, based on the above argument, more professional bond investors should outperform their benchmarks compared to their stock counterparts. This is true. S&P publishes annual SPIVA (S&P Indices Versus Active) reports on whether active fund managers outperform their benchmarks. In all equities categories, active fund managers underperform their respective benchmarks. In bonds, active fund managers outperform their benchmarks in the investment-grade short and intermediate, global income and general municipal categories on a 5-year basis (see SPIVA report for US Year-End 2016).

Thus, on the question whether you should buy the stocks or bonds of a particular company, it depends on your outlook for the company in the future, summarised as follows.

Company Outlook Bonds Stocks Conclusion
Changes for the Better Good Best Best for Stock Investment
No Change Good No Good Best for Bond Investment
Changes for the Worse Bad Worst Both Investments are Bad

When things do not change in the future, bonds are better investments than stocks. When things change for the better in the future, bonds are good investments, but you can perform better by buying the stock. When things change for the worse, both are bad investments, but stocks are worse than bonds.

The above also has implications on the types of stocks we should buy. If there are no catalysts for changes such as improved earnings or dividends, asset sales or a bull market in the future, an undervalued stock will continue to remain undervalued. A growth stock will be a good investment, but only until the day its growth starts to slow down, from which it becomes a bad investment. A dividend stock is good provided things do not change or change for the better.

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