Duke Students on a Portfolio That Pays

Over the past year, I’ve been reading up on all kinds of investments and trying to determine where I can find some yield. So I enjoyed this New York Times story on Duke students who’ve come up with a “portfolio that pays.” The winning portfolio:

They were bullish on United States stocks, especially those of large companies, based on their predictions of a continuing recovery in housing, rising consumer confidence, strong retail sales and the continuing impact of the Fed’s quantitative easing program. They were also optimistic that Congress would avoid the so-called fiscal cliff and other threatened political calamities. But they were pessimistic about Europe and emerging markets, given the euro zone crisis and what they saw as slowing growth in countries like China and Brazil.

The team’s contest entry called for allocating 43 percent to United States stocks — 30.3 percent to a Russell 2000 index fund and 12.7 percent to a Russell 2000 fund that invests in midsize companies. They made no allocation to international stocks. Like more traditional models, they maintained a large allocation to fixed income, but weighted it heavily toward Treasury inflation-protected securities, or TIPS, whose yields rise with inflation. They allocated 32.1 percent to TIPS and 24.9 percent to an aggregate bond fund.

The result was a 9.7 percent projected annual return, with less volatility than the model funds they examined.

Personally, I think it’s a mistake they’re neglecting the international sector (especially emerging markets). I am also not as bullish on TIPS as these students. I do like the allocation to a more diversified Russell 2000 index than the broader S&P 500 index. Anyway, food for thought.

The Rise and Fall of Medbox

Earlier this week, WSJ/MarketWatch published a piece “How to Invest in Legalized Marijuana.” One of the suggested stocks mentioned was Medbox ($MDBX), a company that creates medical-marijuana dispensing machines:

For regular investors looking to get in on the action — and without having to actually grow or sell drugs — there are several small-cap stocks that stand to gain from marijuana’s growing acceptance. Medbox , an OTC stock with a $45 million market cap, for example, sells its patented dispensing machines to licensed medical-marijuana dispensaries. The machines, which dispense set doses of the drug, after verifying patients’ identities via fingerprint, could potentially be used in ordinary drugstores too, says Medbox founder Vincent Mehdizadeh. Based in Hollywood, Calif., the company already has 130 machines in the field, and it expects to install an additional 40 in the next quarter…

That article propelled the stock to a meteoric rise from roughly $4/share to a whopping $215/share in a matter of two days (thereby increasing Medbox’s market capitalization from $45 million at the start of the week to a staggering $2.3 billion by Friday). So much interest was expressed in the stock that company executives had to go on record to “dampen investor enthusiasm.” It seems to have worked: the stock traded in a wide range today, ultimately finishing at $20/share.

Pretty wild stuff.

Investing Gangnam Style

This is a really interesting piece in The Economist that underscores investor confidence and stock mania:

A MID-SIZED sized Korean semiconductor firm named DI makes products with distinctly un-sexy names like “Monitoring Burn-in Tester” and “Wafer Test Board”. It has lost money in each of the past four quarters. And there have been no changes to its fundamentals that might explain why its share price should shoot up from 2,000 to 5,700 won (from $1.80 to $5.12) in the space of just three weeks—including another 15% gain today.

But DI’s chairman and main shareholder, Park Won-ho is no ordinary mortal. He is the father of Park Jae-sang, better known as PSY (as in “psycho”). “Gangnam Style”, if you haven’t heard, is now number one in Britain’s pop charts and number two in America. Local retail investors—referred with the derogatory gaemi-deul (“ants”) by professionals—are piling into DI shares because of it.

Quite how they expect the horse-dancing YouTube phenomenon of 2012 to help DI sell more of its Wafer Test Boards is a mystery. But convoluted investor logic is of course not a new thing. DI is merely the latest example of Korea’s “theme stock”—the local equivalent of the 17th-century Dutch tulip, Pets.com and the like going into 1999, or the Chinese walnut.

Wikipedia has almost 200 (!) references for the article on Gangnam Style. My favorite section is the song’s presence in academia:

According to a blog post published on the Harvard Business Review by Dae Ryun Chang, Professor of Marketing at Yonsei University, one primary factor that has contributed to “Gangnam Style”s international success is the song’s intentional lack of a copyright. This allows people to easily adopt, re-stylize and then spread the song.[6] Brian Gozun, Dean of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business at De La Salle University, writes that the absence of a copyright and the use of crowd-sourcing are just some of the more innovative ways that Psy has marketed his song.

Dan Freeman, Marketing professor at the University of Delaware, remarks that Psy’s achievement is an anomaly which counters the typical trend of successful international artists, because foreign music poses a difficult challenge due to language issues, making it unlikely for a song to catch on “when you don’t even understand the words”. Freeman asserts that Psy owes his success in the United States to YouTube, because of YouTube’s effectiveness in reaching a broad market.

David Bell, marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that “Gangnam Style” lacks a certain aggressive attitude that many find offensive in the rap genre, and “Gangnam Style” is like a classic rap video from a few years ago with girls and cars—”not as offensive and in your face, but with a humorous edge”. Bell argues that it is Psy’s accessible image, not his message, that has made the song so popular.

As per The Economist piece, this entry would be incomplete without the video:

Graffiti Artist to Make $200 Million from Facebook Stock

Facebook announced its IPO yesterday, in an effort to raise $5 billion (perhaps more), which will be the largest internet public offering ever. Many people who hold Facebook shares are poised to become millionaires overnight. The New York Times reports a story of one David Choe, a graffiti artist who painted murals on the walls of Facebook’s first offices in Palo Alto, California. He chose to be paid in stock rather than in cash. Now, he’s poised to become an ultra-millionaire, to the tune of $200 million or more.

Many “advisers” to the company at that time, which is how Mr. Choe would have been classified, would have received about 0.1 to 0.25 percent of the company, according to a former Facebook employee. That may sound like a paltry amount, but a stake that size is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, based on a market value of $100 billion. Mr. Choe’s payment is valued at roughly $200 million, according to a number of people who know Mr. Choe and Facebook executives.

Sounds like Choe has won the lottery (by comparison, a $380 million Mega Millions jackpot in 2011 had a cash payout of $240 million, the largest in the history of the American lottery).

On a final note, what is the artist’s advice for living? “Always double down on 11. Always.”

Is There a Relationship between IQ and Stock Ownership?

Bloomberg reports on an interesting study noting the relationship between IQ and ownership of equities (stocks):

Mark Grinblatt of the University of California, Los Angeles, Matti Keloharju of Aalto University in Espoo and Helsinki, Finland, and Juhani Linnainmaa at the University of Chicago compared results from intelligence tests given by the Finnish military between 1982 and 2001 to government records showing investments the draftees later held. They found the rate of stock ownership for people with the lowest scores trailed those with the highest even after adjusting for wealth, income, age and profession.

It appears the relevant paper is here. However, I am skeptical of the findings. Why look at such a specific populations subset (Finish military, which in this case was only men)? What about confounding factors such as those with higher income having more opportunities to learn about investing in stocks (and hence investing more into equities), or perhaps acting on advice of their peers? Of course, another primary objection is that the IQ exam is highly culture-dependent.

On a related note, some statistics about what percentage of American households invests in stocks:

Economists have debated for decades what they call the participation puzzle, trying to explain why more people don’t take advantage of the higher returns stocks have historically paid on savings. As few as 51 percent of American households own them, a 2009 study by the Federal Reserve found. Individual investors have pulled record cash out of U.S. equity mutual funds in the last five years as shares suffered the worst bear market since the 1930s.

Anyway, I am skeptical of the findings. What do you think?

The Financial Markets in 2011

The best summary of what happened in the financial markets in 2011 comes courtesy of James Surowiecki at The New Yorker:

In 2011, the S. & P. 500 finished the year where it started. (To be precise, it fell 0.003 per cent.) But it was anything but a placid year in the stock market. Instead, there was extraordinary tumult throughout 2011, with a series of sharp rallies and brutal selloffs, the biggest of which sent the market down seventeen per cent in a couple of weeks. Even on a daily basis, stocks were startlingly volatile: the Dow Jones Industrial Average moved more than a hundred points on forty per cent of trading days, and there were more than sixty days on which the S. & P. index moved about two per cent or more (which in 2005, for example, it didn’t do once). Ordinary investors, who have watched the value of their 401(k)s yo-yo seemingly at random, have been left feeling understandably dazed and confused as they head into the new year.

Traders and professional money managers don’t seem to have any real clue about what’s going to happen, either. You might think that volatility would allow people with superior information and market sense to get ahead. But last year money managers did a very poor job of playing the market. According to estimates made by Goldman Sachs, as of the last week in December seventy-two per cent of core large-cap mutual funds had underperformed their market indexes. The average stock-market mutual fund was down almost three per cent for the year. And hedge-fund managers, who are supposed to thrive on volatility, did even worse, with hedge funds that focus on stocks falling more than seven per cent. Strikingly, some of the biggest flops came from superstars: Bruce Berkowitz, whom Morningstar named one of the money managers of the past decade, saw his flagship fund fall more than thirty per cent; the hedge-fund manager John Paulson, whose bet against mortgage-backed securities a few years ago has been called “the greatest trade ever,” saw one of his funds drop nearly fifty per cent.

Surowiecki then mentions that ordinary investors “chase performance” and suggests:

The sensible solution would be for investors to put their money into low-cost index funds and just keep it there. But that’s hard to do when the market is extremely volatile. Most of us find it difficult enough in normal times to take a long-term approach. So when prices are rising and falling two per cent a day, and when it seems like getting in or out of the market could be worth ten per cent of our portfolio’s value, the temptation to try to time the market is hard to resist.

Here’s where I don’t agree with Surowiecki. What’s so hard about choosing to allocate a certain percentage (or a set sum of your savings/salary) per year to index funds (regardless of market volatility)? You can’t time the market, so you might as well invest in an index (or a fund) that tracks the S&P 500 and let your cash sit there for as long as possible.

I had a positive return on my portfolio in 2011, the majority of which consists of index funds. The key is diversification and a “buy and hold” strategy.

You Can’t Explain the Market

Chao Deng, in his piece “Memoirs of a Market Reporter,” gets it (mostly) right about analysts/reporters trying to explain the short-term movements in the market:

[The] drudgery of writing the market-close story—stocks up on this; stocks down on that—began to make me wonder whether chasing the inevitable day-to-day ups and downs of markets was worth anyone’s time. Some critics say markets reporters must suffer from A.D.D., because short-term fluctuations in stock indices really don’t matter much in the long run. They say it’s absurd to pin a single narrative on spot news involving countless individual decisions, many of them made by robots. Too often, coverage favors one slant if stocks are up and another if stocks are down when, in fact, nobody really knows.

The depressing part is that markets beg for an explanation, and the public desires one. As if an explanation can assuage our fears:

[A] volatile turn in the markets simply begged for an explanation, sending thousands of extra readers my way.

Here’s the kicker: there is no good explanation for why the markets are down today(a must-read piece by Felix Salmon):

As a general rule, if you see “fears” or “pessimism” in a market-report headline, that’s code for “the market fell and we don’t know why”, or alternatively “the market is volatile and yet we feel the need to impose some spurious causality onto it”.

This kind of thing matters — because when news organizations run enormous headlines about intraday movements in the stock market, that’s likely to panic the population as a whole. They think that they should care about such things because if it wasn’t important, the media wouldn’t be shouting about it so loudly. And they internalize other fallacious bits of journalistic laziness as well: like the idea that the direction of the stock market is a good proxy for the future health of the economy, or the idea that rising stocks are always a good thing and falling stocks are always a bad thing.

Trying to put a reason behind short-term fluctuations is ultimately useless. Remember: you can’t time the market. And don’t believe anyone that tells you they can.