This post marks the second rebalance check for my leveraged permanent portfolio. Based on some feedback from Twitter, I am making a small tweak to the volatility targeting overlay, and increasing the lookback period from 1 month to 1 year. The intention here is to make the portfolio less sensitive to sharp, short drawdowns in the underlying assets. The purpose of the volatility and trend overlays is not to avoid these types of drawdowns, but rather to adapt to regime changes.
Here is the current portfolio:
On a 1-year lookback this gives us a 9.2% return and 10.33% volatility.* Below the 12% target for the portfolio, despite being fully invested. You can nerd out on the lookback data versus a global 60/40 portfolio and SPY here. In an ideal world, if I had access to the full investment toolbox, I would actually leverage the portfolio to reach the risk target. But, as a small investor, being fully invested will have to suffice.
So, no changes this month.
Below is net performance since inception versus the S&P 500 (my actual allocation differs from target slightly due to transactional frictions, but not in a material way). Again, I wouldn’t normally expect the portfolio to perform this well against a 100% equity allocation over any arbitrary time period. But I think this time period offers an excellent out of sample test of the strategy’s efficacy and in particular its ability to tamp down risk.
* Fun Fact: 10.33% volatility for the portfolio in spite of the fact that individually, each asset in the allocation had a volatility above 12%. This is the magic of true diversification.
Here is a question I get all the time, either directly or from colleagues on behalf of clients:
“I bought [INSERT RANDOM STOCK]. It is down 50%. Should I sell it or hold it?”
The answer should be obvious and it is that you sell ASAP. I kind of hate to say it (okay, not really), but if you need to ask someone like me this question, you had no business buying the damn thing in the first place. Note that the fact the stock is down 50% is basically irrelevant here. You should not take a position in a security if you have no framework in place for updating your views on the basis of new information.
There are lots of different ways to play the game. You can immerse yourself in 10-Ks and 10-Qs and try to find great businesses selling at reasonable prices. You can take the view that “price is all that matters” and trend follow or whatever. There are all kinds of sensible strategies for making money.
Hope is not one of them.
If you own something that has halved and the only reason you have for holding it is “gee, I really hate the idea of locking in a loss” then you are in trouble. No one will be able to begin helping you until you first help yourself by exiting the position. Hopefully it is at least in a taxable account and you can write it off. You can think of the slightly milder after-tax loss as discounted tuition.
When people talk about “dumb money” or “the suckers at the poker table” they are talking about hope-based investing.
A colleague asked me for my thoughts on this piece by Bob Rodriguez. It is your usual anti-Fed, value investor screed. For example, he writes:
As for optimism, I would have some if I could see the insanity of the present monetary and fiscal policy environments changing for the better. But that seems like a very long, long shot. In the past two years, I’ve grown far more pessimistic, given what I see unfolding.
I have liquidated virtually 100% of my equity holdings and this occurred back in 2016 and 2017. I’ve always been early. I’ve deployed capital into 2-3 year Treasury bonds since I do not want to have any credit risk exposure in this distorted economic environment. As for risk assets, I’ve been acquiring rare, fully paid-for hard assets. I expect the latter to probably get hit in the coming recession but then they may well perform better in the ensuing monetary inflation. At least I don’t have to worry about managements leveraging their respective company balance sheets by buying back stock at elevated prices because the math works with these ultralow interest rates.
I am deeply sympathetic to a lot of this stuff on an intellectual level, but considerably more wary on a practical level. Below are my comments, edited slightly from my original email for clarity…
At a high level I basically agree with all of this.
The portfolio changes he describes are too extreme, in my view. I do think the US market has conditioned us to be overly complacent about equity risk over the last 30 years. But there is a huge potential opportunity cost to sitting in cash. I think there are much better ways to manage the kinds of risks we face in this environment such as vol targeting and/or trend following overlays. The problem with the permabearish approach he describes is that there is nothing to help him get back into the market if he ends up being wrong. He will just sit in cash tilting at windmills forever with the permabear crowd.
Regarding negative rates, the idea of owning negative yielding debt is not necessarily irrational if you believe rates will get more negative. The reason is that there is a non-linear relationship between price and yields (see below). For some reason we are taught all about duration in basic bond math but not convexity (convexity is the curvature). The greater the change in yields and the longer the duration of your bond, the more convexity comes into play.
Even with a negative coupon, you can potentially earn a positive return DEPENDING ON THE FUTURE PATH OF INTEREST RATES. If your view is that nominal yields are headed for -3%, -4%, -5% then it is perfectly rational to own negative yielding debt as from a price perspective you are potentially looking at equity-like returns. Who said fixed income had to be boring?
On top of that, it is possible for the owner of, say, negative yielding German Bunds to earn a positive yield by owning the bonds long and then swapping back to dollars using a currency swap or currency forwards.
That’s not to say I think negative nominal rates will achieve the policy objectives central banks have set out to achieve. In fact, I believe it’s just the opposite and the post-GFC and Japanese experiences provide empirical evidence in support of that view. But I do quibble with comments about owning negative yielding debt being “completely irrational” as I think folks making this argument are either forgetting their basic bond math or are ignorant of it. There is an important difference between merely being wrong about the future path of interest rates and being completely irrational.
I’m a “probably stocks for the long run, most of the time” guy.
See, I’m pretty confident that in order to get rich, you’ve got to own equities. You probably also have to own equities to stay rich (to support drawing cash from a portfolio while preserving purchasing power).
Usually when people say “stocks for the long run” what they really mean is “US stocks for the long run.” And usually what they’ve done to arrive at this conclusion is extrapolate past returns from the US stock market since about 1926 or so.
When we do this with fund managers and stocks it’s performance chasing.
When we do it with asset classes and countries it’s asset allocation.
Particularly since we know major economies and empires have all mean-reverted historically. (There are literally no exceptions I can think of)
Now, I’m certainly not going to argue a bet on US stocks is a bad bet over the next 20 to 30 years. Especially considering the alternatives. In the grand scheme of things, if you’re going to make a massive directional bet, this is probably one of the better ones you can make. But there sure are a lot of assumptions embedded in that kind of allocation.
The ur-assumption is, of course, that asset allocation is an exercise in decision making under risk, like placing bets in casino games where the odds and payoffs are both known and fixed.
Asset allocation is an exercise in decision making under uncertainty.
A metaphor we often use to teach basic probability is that of picking colored balls from a bag. If you know there’s one red ball and nine green balls in the bag and the proportion remains static over time, you’ll always have a 10% chance of pulling a red ball.* This is the world as modeled by modern portfolio theory and mean-variance optimization.
Financial markets work more like this: every time you pull a ball from the bag, you have to turn your back, and the person holding the bag may or may not place another ball, either red OR green, into the bag. You can continue to assume a 10% chance of pulling a red ball, but the true distribution may turn out to be dramatically different over time.**
Most of what we think we know about asset allocation is a noble lie. We treat asset allocation as an exercise in decision making under risk because doing so makes it more amenable to neat and tidy mathematical models (not to mention neat and tidy sales pitches). In reality, we have no idea what the “true” distribution of returns looks like.
In fact, it’s extremely unlikely a “true” distribution of returns exists. Even if it did, it probably wouldn’t remain static. Why would it, given that we know economies and markets are complex, chaotic systems that are constantly changing? It should hardly come as a surprise that fancy statistical models based on decision making under risk repeatedly fail in the wild (see: Long-Term Capital Management; The Gaussian Copula).
As I’ve grown increasingly fond of saying: there’s no there there.
The single biggest change in my personal investment philosophy over time has been shifting from a utility maximization mindset to a regret minimization mindset. To me there are two key components to regret minimization:
(1) Get balanced beta exposure cheaply and efficiently. A little leverage is okay to help balance it all out. Emphasize robustness over maximization.
This is why over time I’ve become increasingly convinced strategies such as risk parity or leveraged permanent portfolio should be core building blocks for folks who want truly diversified portfolios. Grind out 5% real or so in the core. Make your high risk/high reward bets in a dedicated alpha sleeve.
However, I’d be remiss to conclude without noting that regret functions don’t generalize well. Your regret function is probably different from mine. In fact, it’s entirely possible your maximum regret is not maximizing utility (“leaving returns on the table”).
In that case, by all means, go ahead and maximize utility! But it’s still worthwhile to be explicit about the assumptions embedded in what you are doing.
* If we assign a value of 1 to “pick a red ball” and 0 to “pick a green ball” we can compute an “expected return” and standard deviation (“volatility”) for “pick a red ball.” Those values are 10% and 30%, respectively. Assuming T-bills yield 2%, “pick a red ball” has a Sharpe ratio of about .27. Somewhat amusingly, this is not too far off the long-run average Sharpe for the S&P 500.
** You should therefore be updating your views of the distribution over time. And it behooves you to assign low confidence levels to your views. A detailed examination of the math behind this is beyond the scope of this post but you can read an excellent discussion of the issue here.
Today we’re going to talk about how a lot of what is passed off as diversification does not actually provide much in the way of diversification. To illustrate this we will look at two equity allocations. The first is “diversified.” It owns all kinds of stuff. REITs. Developed market international equities. EM equities. Even ex-US small caps. Wow!
The second portfolio, meanwhile, consists solely of vanilla US large cap equity exposure.
You might think the first allocation would show meaningful differentiation versus the second in terms of compound rate of return, as well as drawdown and volatility characteristics.
It’s because correlations across these assets are high.
As you might expect, correlations are especially high across the three US equity buckets. A full 65% of the portfolio is invested across these three market segments. Just because you have exposure to a bunch of different colored slices in a pie chart does not mean you have exposure to a bunch of differentiated sources of risk and return.
Now, I’m not Jack Bogle telling you to invest only in US large cap stocks. Limiting exposure to country and sector-specific geopolitical risks or asset bubbles (see the early 2000s above) is one good reason to own a global equity portfolio. However, I AM telling you if you want to meaningfully alter the risk and return characteristics of a portfolio, tweaking weights at the margins in this kind of allocation isn’t going to do it.
Perhaps you think manager selection will do it.
Maybe if you allocate to three or four managers and leave it at that; and the managers all perform to expectations (well enough overcome any expense drag); and because of that stellar performance you don’t make significant mistakes timing your hiring and firing decisions… maybe then manager selection will move the needle for you.
But most of us don’t build portfolios concentrated enough for it to matter all that much. And most of us pick a few duds here or there. And we are terrible at timing decisions to hire and fire managers.
Much of the time we spend hemming and hawing about the minutiae of asset allocation and manager selection is therefore wasted. Should emerging market equity be a 5% or 7.5% weight in the portfolio? I don’t know. More importantly, I don’t care. It’s a 250 bps difference in weight. Just do whatever makes you (or your client) feel better.
In fact, if you’re going to add EM at a 5% max weight because some mean-variance optimization shows it marginally improving portfolio efficiency, you officially have my permission to avoid it all together. The same goes for your 2.5% allocations to managed futures and gold.
I think there are four main reasons why this state of affairs persists:
Many folks, even professionals, don’t understand how the math works. Most people I’ve shown this kind of analysis are surprised how little difference there is in the above performance characteristics.
Many folks who do understand how the math works see the truth (rightfully) as a potential threat to their job security.
Advisors and allocators sometimes worry if they don’t futz and fiddle with things at the margins or throw in some bells and whistles, clients may question what they’re paying for. (My friend Rusty Guinn refers to this as adding Chili P to the portfolio)
At the same time, advisors and allocators can’t futz and fiddle so much they look too different from their peers and the most popular equity indexes, lest impatient clients fire them and abandon their otherwise sound financial plans during a temporary run of weak performance.
All these are valid concerns from business and self-preservation and behavioral finance perspectives. But they don’t change the math.
If your goal is to harvest an equity risk premium and play the averages as cheaply and tax efficiently as possible… then do that.
If you want to concentrate your bets in hopes of generating massive gains and you’re comfortable with the idiosyncratic risk that entails… then do that.
If you want to employ a barbell or core-satellite structure to balance cheap beta exposure with a selection of (hopefully) substantial, alpha generative bets… then do that.
Because if you waver, and you combine this and that and the other philosophy because you’re simultaneously afraid of looking too different and not differentiated enough… then you’re going to end up with something like the world’s most expensive index fund.
My latest note for Epsilon Theory is a golf lesson we can apply to our portfolios.
The most grievous portfolio construction issues I see inevitably seem to center on basic issues of strategy and commitment. Particularly around whether a portfolio should be built to seek alpha or simply harvest beta(s).
You don’t have to shape your shots every which way and put crazy backspin on the ball to break 90 in golf. Likewise, not every portfolio needs to, or even should, strive for alpha generation.
There are few things more destructive (or ridiculous) you can witness on a golf course than a 20 handicap trying to play like a 5 handicap. And it’s the same with portfolios. For example, burying a highly concentrated, high conviction manager in a 25 manager portfolio at a 4% weight. Or adding a low volatility, market neutral strategy to an otherwise high volatility equity allocation at a 2% weight.
This is a quick post to share an update of this running model of expected S&P 500 returns using Federal Reserve data. As of March 31, the model predicted an 8.12% annualized return over the next 10 years. This has likely come down a bit further since then as the market rallied. As of today, we might be somewhere in the 6-7% range.
Given there’s so much wailing and gnashing of teeth over macro risks these days it’s worth emphasizing a couple points.
First, this model is useless as a short-term timing signal. Don’t try and use it that way. If you’re looking for short-term signals you need to be looking at trend following systems and such.
Where I think there’s some utility here is as a data point you can use to help set longer-term return expectations and guide strategic asset allocation decisions (particularly when used alongside other indicators like credit spreads). When the aggregate equity allocation is close to 40% or above, it signals lower expected returns and argues for taking down US equity risk. Between 30% and 40% it signals “meh.” Probably not worth making any adjustments in this range. At least not on the basis of this model. At or below 30%, however, the model argues for adding equity risk.
Also, what I like about this model is that unlike indicators such as the CAPE or market cap/GDP what you are really measuring here is the aggregate investor preference for fixed income versus equities. When investors are very comfortable owning equities they bid up prices and expected returns fall. When investors are not comfortable owning equities they sell, prices fall and expected returns rise.
That’s the ball game.
No macro forecasting is required.
You don’t have to make any judgment calls on valuations, either.
What I would love to do eventually is run this for countries outside the US. What I suspect is that the ex-US models would show similar efficacy but with different “preferred” bands of equity exposure based on the culture of equity ownership in each country and whether or not there’s a significant impact from “hot money” flows from foreign investors.
I’m not aware of a straightforward way to find the data needed to do this. But if anyone has suggestions, please drop me a line.
May afforded an interesting opportunity to test the leveraged permanent portfolio strategy out of sample. (For previous posts on the permanent portfolio, see here and here) Below is data showing the results for two different leveraged permanent portfolio implementations, compared to the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund (an investable proxy for a 60/40 portfolio) and SPY. You can do a deeper dive into the data here.
NTSX’s laddered Treasuries provided better downside protection than the StocksPLUS bond portfolio here. But the gold exposure was also a major help, with GLD returning +1.76%. Obviously this is just a single month of performance, but the results are consistent with what you might expect based on backtests of the strategy.
Notice that the performance pattern is similar during the 4Q18 drawdown. In each case, the drawdowns are less severe than even those experienced in the 60/40 portfolio due to the diversifying impact of the gold. Because again, where the leveraged permanent portfolio shines is downside protection. You aren’t capturing all the upside of a 100% SPY allocation, but you’re capturing only a fraction of the downside.
Since December 2004, the PSPAX/GLD portfolio has captured 60% of the upside of SPY but only 43% of the downside. The asymmetry means PSPAX/GLD slightly outperforms SPY over this time period, but with less volatility. More importantly, the max drawdown is only a little more than half as bad.
Still, in my view the biggest problem the leveraged permanent portfolio presents for investors is precisely that its outperformance comes in down markets. This isn’t a sexy way to make money. It’s not the kind of thing that impresses people at cocktail parties. The behavioral challenges this presents should not be underestimated.
But personally, I’ll take a 10.62% safe withdrawal rate over cocktail chatter any day.
We’re all familiar with the old saw: “correlation is not causation.” Correlation is merely a statistical measure of the strength of the linear relationship between two variables. Correlations can change over time. The fancy stats word for this instability is “nonstationarity.”
Anyway, what I want to suggest in this post is that correlations can often be interpreted as markers of meaning.
For example, stocks and Treasury bonds have been negatively correlated since the financial crisis. The reason is that the meaning of Treasuries to investors, broadly speaking, is “safe haven asset.” A Treasury allocation is an allocation that will perform well in a deflationary environment. And deflation, broadly construed, has topped the list of investor fears for many years now.
A big mistake many investors (particularly younger investors) may make is assuming Treasuries will always be negatively correlated with stocks. This has not always been true historically and will not necessarily be the case in the future. Why? In a highly inflationary environment, both stocks and Treasuries will perform poorly. The two assets classes will become positively correlated.
Another example of this is gold. Traditionally, gold has been viewed as an inflation hedge and has been positively correlated with inflation expectations. These days, however, gold is liable to trade up on deflation fears as well as inflation fears. Why the change in correlation? The meaning of gold has changed. Gold has shifted from a pure inflation hedge to an insurance policy against economic chaos more generally. Gold is now a hedge against policy mistakes by our economic elites (our Ever Wise and Benevolent Central Bankers in particular).
What I’m driving at here is that if you want to better understand the nonstationarity of correlations, you ought to spend some time thinking about narrative.
A stable correlation is a correlation where objective meaning dominates. Objective statements can be proven true or false in a straightforward way. Unstable correlations are correlations where subjective meaning dominates. Subjective statements cannot be proven true or false in a straightforward way. Subjective statements are reflexive.
George Soros described it this way:
Consider the statement, “it is raining.” That statement is true or false depending on whether it is, in fact, raining. Now consider the statement, “This is a revolutionary moment.” That statement is reflexive, and its truth value depends on the impact it makes.
There’s not much subjective judgement required to evaluate a Treasury bond as an investment. It’s a mostly objective process that more or less boils down to your views on the future path of inflation and interest rates.
Now, your views on inflation and interest rates may make Treasury bonds seem relatively more or less attractive to you at any given point in time. But there’s never any real question in anyone’s mind as to how Treasury bonds will perform in a deflationary environment versus an inflationary environment. This is what I’m driving at when I say the meaning of a Treasury bond for your portfolio is going to remain pretty stable over time. A Treasury bond is protection from deflation.
Credit is a bit more subjective than Treasury bonds because now you’ve got defaults and recoveries in the mix. And equity valuation is far more subjective than credit valuation because the timing and amounts of the cash flows associated with equities are highly variable.
The value of gold is an order of magnitude more subjective than even equities because there aren’t any cash flows associated with gold. Gold is a purely speculative asset. Gold has value because, for whatever reason, human beings have arrived at the collective consensus that it’s a store of value over tens of thousands of years.
At the extreme end of this spectrum you have something like Bitcoin. Bitcoin, of course, has no cash flows. On top of that, there’s no broad consensus regarding what Bitcoin means. Sometimes it’s a currency. Sometimes it’s a speculative risk asset. Sometimes it’s a store of value or even a safe haven asset.
You ought to be extremely skeptical of any MPT-style analysis of Bitcoin’s role in a portfolio at this point. You simply can’t know if, when or how its correlation with other portfolio assets is going to stabilize over time. Just because Bitcoin is uncorrelated today doesn’t mean it will continue to be uncorrelated in the future.
Another practical application of all this relates to factor investing.
Patterns of correlations are the building blocks for factor-based investment strategies (they are literally what the math going on under the hood is measuring). It’s well-known that factor strategies go through extended periods of outperformance and underperformance that are difficult, if not impossible, to time. Factor performance comes and goes in irregular regimes. Regimes are driven by a mixture of objective and subjective factors that influence one another in feedback loops.
If you’re trying to figure out when the relative underperformance of value stocks will end, you need to be thinking about what in the zeitgeist and market regime needs to change so that investors will want to buy stocks with “value” characteristics (how you choose to define “value” is important here). For example, in late 2016 the election of Donald Trump triggered a massive rally in cyclical industrial and financial services stocks. If you’re a long-suffering, old-school value investor who owns a lot of these stocks, what you want at a high level is higher growth, (modestly) higher inflation and (modestly) higher long-term interest rates.
If you’re a growth-oriented investor, such as a VC, who owns unprofitable, high-growth businesses that will not generate free cash flows for many years, what you want is a regime with solid growth but even more importantly with low inflation. More specifically, low interest rates. The value of your equity ownership is extremely sensitive to the cost of capital because your investments are very long duration. Much like a zero coupon bond, their cash flows lie far out in the future.
So anyway, when you’re considering factors such as value and growth what you want to be thinking about when evaluating their potential persistence over time are the drivers of the underlying patterns of correlation. And if you go through this exercise enough, I think you’ll find you keep coming back to investor preferences for different cash flow profiles.
Investment returns are always and everywhere a behavioral phenomenon.
Because, in the words of Marty Whitman, we’re pretty much always looking for a “cash bailout” when it comes to our investments. And our ability to exit an investment almost always ends up depending on a sale to another party. Marty wrote a wonderful explanation of this in an old investor letter (I’ll end on this note because I think it’s a fitting conclusion for this post):
From the point of view of any security holder, that holder is seeking a “cash bailout,” not a “cash flow.” One really cannot understand securities’ values unless one is also aware of the three sources of cash bailouts.
A security (with the minor exception of hybrids such as convertibles) has to represent either a promise by the issuer to pay a holder cash, sooner or later; or ownership. A legally enforceable promise to pay is a credit instrument. Ownership is mostly represented by common stock.
There are three sources from which a security holder can get a cash bailout. The first mostly involves holding performing loans. The second and third mostly involve owners as well as holders of distressed credits. They are:
Payments by the company in the form of interest or dividends, repayment of principal (or share repurchases), or payment of a premium. Insofar as TAVF seeks income exclusively, it restricts its investments to corporate AAA’s, or U.S. Treasuries and other U.S. government guaranteed debt issues.
Sale to a market. There are myriad markets, not just the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ. There are take-over markets, Merger and Acquisition (M&A) markets, Leveraged Buyout (LBO) markets and reorganization of distressed companies markets. Historically, most of TAVF’s exits from investments have been to these other markets, especially LBO, takeover and M&A markets.
Control. TAVF is an outside passive minority investor that does not seek control of companies, even though we try to be highly influential in the reorganization process when dealing with the credit instruments of troubled companies. It is likely that a majority of funds involved in value investing are in the hands of control investors such as Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, the various LBO firms and many venture capitalists. Unlike TAVF, many control investors do not need a market out because they obtain cash bailouts, at least in part, from home office charges, tax treaties, salaries, fees and perks.
I am continually amazed by how little appreciation there is by government authorities in both the U.S. and Japan that non-control ownership of securities which do not pay cash dividends is of little or no value to an owner unless that owner obtains opportunities to sell to a market
I sold my Gazprom ADRs yesterday. The shares popped nearly 22% after the company proposed a 60% increase in its 2018 dividend. If you are unfamiliar with Gazprom, it is Russia’s state-owned natural gas behemoth. It is also probably one of the cheapest non-distressed stocks in the world on an absolute basis.
My truest investing self is a Ben Graham-style bottom-feeder who is happiest scooping up feared and loathed investments at significant discounts to book value. This is stuff that’s gotten so cheap all you need is for things not to deteriorate too significantly and you will make some money. Meanwhile, if things break even a little bit your way you stand to make a lot of money. It is the kind of stuff that sometimes actually makes people angry when you tell them you own it.
There are not many places in the world today where you can find non-distressed businesses trading at massive discounts to book value or on 5x earnings or whatever.
But you can find them in Russia.
To me, it is beyond question that Gazprom trades at a massive discount to the value of its net assets. You don’t exactly have to be an accounting wonk to understand that. Gazprom controls almost 20% of global natural gas reserves and supplies nearly 40% of Europe’s natural gas. It trades at 0.3x book value.
The problem you have is that the market has to believe there is a realistic path to unlocking that value in order for the stock to trade up.
Read that again. Slowly.
It is critical to understand Gazprom doesn’t have to actually unlock any value for the stock to work. The market just has to believe it will. In fact, if the market begins toassign even a modest probability to management unlocking value, the stock will start to work.
This is still not straightforward for a company like Gazprom, where it’s pretty obvious the company is being looted and the Russian state is at a minimum complicit in the looting, if not itself the architect of the looting. There was a Sberbank equity analyst, Alexander Fak, who made a compelling case Gazprom is being looted primarily via its capex. (A bit too compelling a case, apparently, as Mr. Fak was fired soon after issuing his report)
Which brings me to the reason I am content to sell my Gazprom ADRs now, despite the fact they may trade up further in the short-term. Because of all its capex, Gazprom is free cash flow negative. By my calculation, management is proposing paying out something like RUB 380 billion of dividends for 2018. Fine and dandy on a net income of RUB 1,456 billion but not so much on free cash flow of RUB -22 billion.
My take on this is that the Russian state is engaged in some first-class financial engineering: loot the company via capex and plug any holes with borrowing. Dividend Recap: SOE Edition!
As an investor, it’s never a good idea to rely on fat dividends that aren’t backed by robust free cash flow to support an investment case. Us bottom-feeders tend to learn this the hard way early on in our investing, by averaging down value traps.
Could Gazprom play this financial shell game forever? Sure. The company is a quasi-sovereign entity. But there is a price above which I am less and less thrilled about entrusting the fate of my investment to the amity and goodwill of the Russian state and for me that threshold was about $5.65 per ADR.
Maybe some day Gazprom’s capex will come down and the financials will make a bit more sense. If so, I may happily own it again. But for now this is one of those cases where “money talks and bullshit walks.”
My Larger Point
For those of you who are also Ben Graham-style bottom feeders, I cannot emphasize the importance of catalysts for these types of investments enough. In this day and age, stuff that gets this cheap tends to be cheap for a reason. To the extent you’re not looking at a value trap you are almost certainly looking at something where there is a major impediment to value realization.
One of the things I spend more and more time thinking about on the up-front now is how those impediments might be cleared. I must admit I didn’t spend enough time thinking about this with Gazprom when I initially invested.
Shareholder activism is one obvious solution. If an activist is involved, congratulations! You’ve got a catalyst. Whether the activist’s agenda is aligned with your own, and whether the activist will succeed in implementing that agenda, are different things all together. But you’re not dead in the water.
Another potential solution is a management team that’s good at capital allocation. Management teams that are thoughtful about capital allocation will take action to close obvious value gaps. In Gazprom’s case, what a thoughtful management team not involved in looting the company would be doing would be cutting back on capex to whatever extent possible and buying back stock hand over fist.
Be wary of situations where a stock is cheap but management is entrenched and is engaged in looting the business. Gazprom is an example of this in Russia. Biglari Holdings is a great example in the US.
Then again, to paraphrase Seth Klarman, everything’s a sell at one price and a buy at another. So maybe sometimes take your chances.