Investing or speculating? Making money in a tough marketplace
I've never met anyone who says they speculate in the stock market. My colleagues always say they are investors; people who know what they were doing and savvy about the market. But, reality is that most people speculate. Because they don't invest on underlying business value. Instead, they rely on words from "gurus" and follow trends. That, unfortunately, is speculating.
Back on 12/21/08 (just a couple of months ago) the DJIA was at 8960, the S&P 918. Looking at The Chicago Tribune for that day, the primary recommendation by analysts for 2009 was "Keep an eye on long-term horizons" and "weather out the storm". The markets were down, but don't panic. Famed investment maven Elaine Garzarelli recommended if you had $10k in cash to invest $2k in tech stocks, $2k in Citigroup Preferred, $2k in GE and $2k in an income-oriented fund. Then put $2k into a short fund to hedge your risks! She couldn't have been more dead wrong on the only two named companies - GE and C. Both are at modern, or all time, lows. Don Phillip, managing director at Morningstar, recommended investing all $10K in equities because "they've taken an unprecedented hit and are very cheap."
When you hear investment gurus, on TV or elsewhere, tell you to "stay the course, the market always recovers" they are basing their opinions on history - not the future. This isn't last year, or the last recession, or the last economy. Will all economies eventually recover? Maybe not. Will the U.S. economy recover in your lifetime? Not assured - Japan has been in a recession for over a decade! Does that mean American companies will be the ones to lead the world in the next upmarket? Not assured. These "gurus" have been dead wrong for almost a year - and at the most important time in your investment history. If they were so wrong for the last year, why are they still on TV? Why are you listening?
In the short term, stock markets are driven by momentum. When most people are buying, the markets keep going up. Even for individual stocks. Sears had no reason to go up in value after being acquired by Ed Lampert's KMart corporation. Sears and Kmart were overleveraged, earning below-market rates of return, and with assets that had long lost their luster. But because Jim Cramer of CNBC Mad Money fame knew and liked Mr. Lampert he kept talking up the stock. Other hedge fund operators thought Mr. Lampert had been clever in the past, so they guessed he knew something they didn't and they speculated in his investment. The value went up 10x - and then came down 90%. Wild ride - but in the history of markets unless you are a speculator, you should never have invested in Sears. When you hear "don't be a market timer" remember that the only way to make money in Sears was to be a market timer - you had to buy and sell at the right time because the company wasn't able to increase its value. Sears' Success Formula was out of date, and there was no sign of a plan for the future, nor obsession about market changes and competitors, nor willingness to Disrupt old behaviors nor White Space. From the beginning this was a bad investment, and it has remained that way.
Today the market remains driven by momentum. Who wants to say they are buying stocks when the major averages keep falling? What CEO wants to say he's optimistic when it's popular to present "caution"? Who wants to discuss opportunities for markets in 2015 being 3x bigger when right now demand for industrial products like cars is down 20-40%? When momentum is up, you can't find a pessimistic CEO. Nor a pessimistic investor. So the likewise is equally true.
Reality is that there are good investments today, and bad. If a business is firmly locked into the industrial economy, such as GM and Ford, making the same products in much the same way to sell to pretty much the same customers, but with new competitors entering from all around - those companies are not good investments. Regardless of the rate of economic growth or debt availability. Their Lock-in to outdated Success Formulas means that their rates of return will not improve, even if overall economic growth does. Markets have shifted, and keep shifting. Businesses that were not profitable in the old market aren't going to suddenly be better competitors in a future market. Just the opposite is more likely. Even if they survive in a foxhole for a year or two, when they come out the market will be filled with new competitors just as vicious as the old ones.
But there are businesses positioning themselves for the markets of tomorrow. Apple with its iPod, iTunes, iPhone is an example. Google with its near monopoly on internet ad placement and management as well as search. And companies that are moving toward new markets rather than remaining frozen in the old model and exacerbating weaknesses with cost cutting. Like Domino's pizza.
GM will never again be a great car company. So what's new? That was clear in 1980 when Chairman Roger Smith said the company had a limited future in autos operating as it always had. That doesn't mean GM couldn't again be a growing, healthy company if new management sent the company in search of new markets with growth opportunities. Like Singer getting out of sewing machines to be a defense contractor in the 1980s. By purchasing an old-fashioned mortgage bank, and an old fashioned investment bank/retail brokerage, Bank of America is not strengthening its position for future markets. Instead, it is fighting the last war. But any company can change its competitive position if it chooses to focus on, and invest in, new markets. And those who do it NOW will be first into the new markets and able to change competitive position. When markets shift, those who move to the new competitiveness first gain the advantage. And their position is reinforced by competitors who dive for cover through cost cuts not tied to business repositioning.
Why is GM still on the DJIA? They should have been removed years ago. That's how the Dow intelligentsia keeps the average always going up - by taking off companies like Sears and replacing them with companies that are more closely linked to where markets are going (at the time, Home Depot). If we swapped out GM for Google, and Kraft for Apple, the numbers on the DJIA would be considerably better than we see today. And if you want to make money as an investor, you have to do the same thing. You have to dump companies that are unwilling to break out of Lock-in to outdated business models and invest in companies who are heading full force into future markets. In all markets there are good investments. But you have to find the companies that plan for the future, not the past - obsess about competitors - are not afraid to Disrupt themselves and markets - and utilize White Space to test new products and services that can create growth no matter what the economy.