God is a Capitalist

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Dao of Investing - It's time to sell

I recently finished Mark Spitznagel’s book The Dao of Capital: Austrian Investing in a Distorted World and highly recommend it. Spitznagel is the founder and President of Universa Investments, which specialized in equity tail-hedging, or as the book jacket says, “profiting from extreme stock market losses.”

The author began his career trading in the futures bond pits at the Chicago Board of Trade and works closely with the Black Swan, Nassim Talib. At one point he was head of proprietary trading at Morgan Stanley.

Nuts and bolts trading advice doesn't begin until chapter nine of ten. I recommend reading those chapters first so that the reader won’t hurry through the very interesting preceding eight chapters trying to get to the caramel nugget at the center.

He begins with the Chinese philosophy of Dao because Murray Rothbard once wrote that the Daoists were the first Austrian style thinkers. That may be so, but in a forthcoming book I show that Moses created the first libertarian society and laissez-faire economy, which makes him very Austrian. 

Spitznagel divides his Austrian investing into sections I & II. Investing I is about timing the market. In Financial Bull Riding I recommended that investors pay attention to reports of historically high profits as precursors to a crash. Investors should abandon the stock market before profits collapse and then re-enter in the depths of a recession. Spitznagel offers another tool that he calls the Misesian Stationarity (MS) index.
“...the MS index is very well represented by what is known as the (Tobin’s) Equity Q ratio – Total U.S. corporate equity divided by total U.S. corporate net worth – which is readily available online through numerous sources...”
The basic idea behind the MS index is that Fed monetary policy distorts the economy and thereby the prices of stocks until the distortion can continue no longer, at which point the market collapses. The author tested what might have happened to an investor who sold when the index rose above 1.6 and bought when it fell below 0.7. He bought treasury bills each time he sold out of the market. His hypothetical portfolio outperformed the S&P 500 by more than 2% per year from 1900 through 2012.

Over say 30 years, even such a small outperformance would mean a huge increase in total dollars returns, but keep in mind that by avoiding the major collapses in the market, hedge funds that underperform the S&P 500 still can almost double actual dollar returns to investors. I go into more detail in Financial Bull Riding about this seeming contradiction.

Next, Spitznagel performs a hypothetical “tail hedge strategy” on the same portfolio.  Instead of selling out at high MS index values, he  bought 2-month ahead out-of-the-money puts as insurance against a stock market collapse. As before, he divided returns according the level of the MS index at the start of each one year period. The resulting increase in returns was even more impressive:
“When the MS index is in the upper quartile (as it is as I write), there has been an approximate 4 percentage-point outperformance of the Austrian Investing I strategy (or a tail hedged index portfolio) over only owning the index (an outperformance that fades as the starting MS index level falls).”
At the time Spitznagel wrote the book the MS Index was above the sell signal and has only gone higher since.

Spitznagel’s strategy doesn’t end with timing the market. The Austrian school suggests advice for picking individual companies instead of owning an index and Spitznagel employs that in Austrian Investing II, which also has two parts:

1.       Pick stocks of companies with high returns on invested capital (ROIC), “...best calculated by dividing a company’s EBIT (operating earnings before interest and tax expenses are deducted) by its invested capital (the operating capital required to generate that EBIT).

2.       Buy stocks of companies with low Faustmann ratios, “...meaning a low market capitalization (of common equity) over net worth (or invested capital plus cash minus debt and preferred equity) ratio.”

The author explains the rationale behind part 1:
“On theoretical grounds, we expect a firm with high ROIC to remain in such standing, as its managers will continue to reinvest in the firm (why wouldn’t they?), and this will only further solidify their positions of competitive advantage.”
“The data match up with our theoretical deduction. It turns out that high ROICs have been sustainable... we see that the Siegfrieds...- defined as firms realizing 75 percent or higher ROIC at the start of each 10-year period – have tended to persist as Siegfrieds – or have retained their elevated ROIC by the end of each 10-year period.”

From 1978 to 2012 the Siegfrieds returned avg 25% annually while the S&P returned 11%.

Investors who grasps the main principles of Austrian economics and especially the Austrian business-cycle theory will not only earn much higher returns on their investments, they will be able to sleep better because they understand how the stock market works and know they are not taking large risks with their funds. Of course, I’m using “risk” in the Austrian sense of uncertainty and not the mainstream economics definition of just volatility.

PS: That the MS Index shows that investors should have exited the market in 2012 shows that investors need to be willing to be wrong for a couple of years and be OK with that. Spitznagel proves that in the long run investors will make more money by following the Index and being wrong for a few years. But that takes a special kind of personality.