Last quarter we wrote about active share and how our portfolios are very different from the index. The strength (both relative and absolute) that we saw in September continued through the end of the year, as our portfolios rose 13.1% in aggregate during the last quarter, bringing our total net USD return for 2019 to 23.5%, while holding roughly 15% in cash.
If in the previous quarter we were reminded of the importance of active share, then this quarter we were reminded of something equally important: Equity returns don’t come smoothly! As of end-August our year-to-date return was only 3.5%.
It’s very easy to lose patience with a stock, an investment strategy or even the whole stock market when returns don’t quickly materialize. So how do we counter this? Is it simply a matter of being patient in every instance? Turns out there’s more to it than that.
Lesson #1: Patience doesn’t pay when you invest in a bad business.
Let’s consider a tale of two stocks – Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Ford – two American heavyweights. Between 2002 and 2012, JNJ’s share price changed by… 0%. A decade of no real return. The same was true for Ford. Since 2012 JNJ’s share price has more than doubled, while Ford’s has languished for almost another decade. Following those 10 years of no return, how could an investor distinguish between these two companies? The answer is to break down those returns into their components: Sustainable return and revaluation. Sustainable return is a persistent source of return, while revaluation tends to cancel itself out over long periods of time.
Between 2002 and 2012, JNJ’s real sustainable return was 165%, while its valuation had dropped 60%. Ford on the other hand had delivered negative sustainable return, and its valuation had more than doubled over the same period. To an investor looking back at 10 year total returns in 2012, these two stocks would have looked the same. To an investor looking at sustainable returns and valuations, these two stocks couldn’t have been more different. JNJ is a high quality business with a proven track record of profitability and a healthy balance sheet, both of which drive strong sustainable return. Ford has always been the opposite.
Lesson #2: Patience doesn’t pay when you overpay, even for a good business.
So now we know we must invest in good businesses. But 10 years is a very long time to earn nothing from a good business like JNJ. So how can we avoid waiting 10 years to earn a positive return? Don’t overpay! In 2002, JNJ was on a 32x PE ratio. In 2012 it was 13.7x. Once you’ve determined that something is a good business, you still need to pay a good price for it to ensure good returns.
There are countless examples of high quality businesses that have delivered fantastic sustainable returns since 2000, but have only recently reached breakeven for their investors that were paying ridiculous prices during the tech bubble. It took 15 years for Microsoft investors (who paid 70x PE in 2000) to breakeven, despite the business delivering 430% real sustainable return over the same period.
Interestingly, Ford has traded on a single-digit PE for most of the last 20 years. Valuation on its own isn’t enough – you still need to buy a good business – remember lesson #1.
But what about the medium term? In 2010, JNJ traded on a 14x PE. It was cheap, it was a good business, but two years later it had delivered no return. This is when patience is required. This is when patience pays.
How can we apply these lessons today?
So let’s come back to 2020 and see how things are set up: The US stock market continues to make new highs. Over the last 10 years the S&P 500 has returned 256%. Why not simply buy the S&P 500 today and be patient?
If we adjust for the abnormally low margins of 2009/10 the S&P 500 traded at a PE of 13.5x a decade ago, vs 22x today. Roughly half of the total return of the last decade has come from revaluation from historical lows to the highest PE since the tech bubble – a non-persistent source of return. If valuations revert to anything near their long-term averages, and sustainable returns remain roughly the same for the next decade, this implies low-single-digit real returns from the S&P 500. Furthermore, these returns aren’t likely to come smoothly! Don’t expect the last decade to repeat itself. Remember lesson #2.
We’re far more comfortable holding a globally diversified portfolio of high quality businesses trading at historically low valuations, with 95% active share relative to the global benchmark index.