Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The House is Falling

Justin here. When my wife and I moved to Greensboro, we looked at 10 or 15 houses before making an offer on the cheapest one of the lot. After finding out there were two other offers, we paid the asking price ($129,900) for the 110 year old bungalow that had an abundance of charm and lead paint but skimped on the closet space and bathrooms.

Almost four years, one baby, 6 restored windows and a new paint job later, I'm still scurrying across the house at 6:00am to get to my closet, one that was made for a man with much narrower shoulders than me.

Anyway, when the stock market is moving like it is now, we've found it helpful to think about stock prices in terms of home prices. We've often asked clients, "What if you had a ticker running across your screen telling you what your home was worth? What if Jim Cramer screamed about your home price on TV? What if Barron's did a story about how overvalued your house was?" You'd start to believe everything they say.

Enter Zillow, a website that is supposed to track the daily price of your house. Zillow has been out a while, but I only got around to looking up my house in the last few months (below is the 5 year chart, that circle withe the $ is where I bought the house.)

And when I looked at it, do you want to know what I felt? Regret. Seriously. I regretted buying it for more than zillow said it was 'worth' ($115,000) and regretted not selling it in May 2008 when it was 'worth' $164,000.

But, you want to know what else I felt? Relief. Seriously. I was relieved to not have gotten the email, seen the quote, or heard the news that my house was 'worth' only $120,000 in February of 2007. Relieved that I didn't panic and sell out after it "when down" 15% from my purchase price. Relieved that I knew what my house was really worth and didn't sell for less.

And then I realized that looking at Zillow is no different than reading a stock analyst report, listening to a talking head, or checking your stock portfolio daily. The analysts and talking heads might sound slick and have a clean looking chart, but chances are they don't know the real value. And your stock portfolio today is only a snapshot of what someone will pay you right now, not a true measure of what is is worth. We think the prices we'll see in 6, 12, 18, 24, heck even if it takes 36 months (which is still long before the bulk of us will need to use our investments) will tell a much different story that the 'quotes' we're getting today.

Try telling the seller of my house that it was only worth $115,000 the day before he sold it - that's what Zillow said it was worth. I think he'd argue that my bank's check to him for $129,900 is a lot more accurate than Zillow's "quote." For him, his house ended up being worth about 13% more than Zillow quoted. Would it surprise you if we had the same thing going on in the stock market today, but on a much larger scale?

Ben Graham, the father of value investing, Mr. Market, and Warren Buffett's investing career, once said:

"The investor who permits himself to be stampeded or unduly worried by unjustified market declines . . . would be better off if his stocks had no market quotation at all, for he would then be spared the mental anguish caused him by other persons' mistakes of judgment."
Words worth remembering, especially now.

Question: What Are You Doing?

Justin here. American Public Media's Marketplace has been asking different people that question ("what are you doing?") since the start of this financial crisis. Today, they asked one of our favorite people: Dan Ariely

In this three minute 'interview' (listen below) Dan says that he has decided to not look at his investment statements. His motivation is more for peace of mind than anything else. Dan found that when he looked at his dwindling account it put him in a bad mood. In other words, worrying about it didn't add a single day to his life (those are my words, not his . . . well, not really even mine.)

We'd agree with Dan's advice . . . but with a caveat. We think two of the keys to successful investing are 1) finding a person (or process) that you trust and 2) sticking to them (or it.)

The "leg-work" is done in step 1 and "stomach-work" is done in step 2.

So, if you've done your leg-work in step 1 (picking a sound, rational, time-tested person or process), then the stomach-work in step 2 should be easier (not easy, just easier).

However, if you've been willy nilly in step 1 (following the talking heads, the cocktail party stock picks, or the advisor without a process), then step 2, well . . . you better keep that motion sickness bag next to your letter opener.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Class is in Session

I stumbled upon some some great explanations of recent events from martketplace.org (as in "Hi, I'm Kai Ryssdal and you're listening to Marketplace on NPR.)

They have a number of videos by Senior Editor Paddy Hirsch. The stick-figure-on-white-board lessons are great primers on what is going on. In the short (5 minute) videos he touches all sorts of terms acronyms you hear on a daily basis but might be a little (or a lot) fuzzy on such as: CDOs, naked shorting, CDSs, The TARP, margin calls. You can find them all here.

I think the most enlightening one is on CDOs (below):

Crisis explainer: Uncorking CDOs from Marketplace on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

No good news?

I was listening to Squawk Box while shaving this morning. I know better than to listen to CNBC while shaving, or anything, for that matter. Driving, shaving, or operating machinery while listening to CNBC is, in my opinion, about as dangerous as gets, dangerous as texting, reading email or blabbing away on your PDA while driving. I have been stupid enough to shave and listen to Squawk Box before; I've got a styptic pencil, too.
This morning was sort of different.  After Ned Riley, of Riley Asset Management, said a few wise words (he’s as baffled as anybody is over why investors, who couldn’t get enough of Stock A at 21 times earnings yielding 2.5%% a year ago wouldn’t want to buy shares of Stock A by the truckloads, now that it’s down 50%, at 11 times earnings and yielding 6%).  After Ned wrapped up his talk, Joe, Becky, and Carl (above) said they had scoured everywhere this morning, (everywhere to them was the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, and Investors’ Business Daily) and couldn’t find anything good, anywhere. 

Done with shaving and all the Squawk Box I could stand, I finished dressing, took the dogs out, and headed to my 7:00 am meeting.  Justin and I were first on the agenda at a meeting of the board of directors of Gate City Rotary Club, to which I belong.  To build up an endowment to provide capital to reinvest in the people, projects, and values we hold dear, we formed our own 501(c)(3) corporation.   Although we've been buying investments for a little less than a year (a non-meaningful span, performance-wise), the board wanted a progress update.  And so with the help of the Investment Committee, we did our best to explain why what we owned was in alignment with our value philosophy, and to say that our relative outperformance, in this period way to brief to be meaningful, was not due to any brilliance on our part, but to our slow to act style, plus a healthy dose of good luck.  And while many investors, I am sure, watched and worried through the remainder of Squawk Box, wondering when this unrelenting, ravenous bear market would find a bottom, 11 Rotarians committed to service above self reflected on what 80 years of wealth creation looked like through all the wars, invasions, recessions, crises, and panics. One steps back, takes a deep breath, and feels a sense of gratitude upon realizing a value approach is inherently sound and that a long-term investment policy for maintaining and growing wealth will remain long after we're all gone. And despite Joe, Becky and Carl saying they couldn't find anything good this morning, we knew this was good.

When I got in to work, I overheard Anne saying she too had heard Joe, Becky and Carl on Squawk Box this morning report how they couldn’t find anything good anywhere. 

And there it was, the first thing I saw, and in honor of Veteran’s Day, too, Service Dogs Give Hope, and Help to Wounded Veterans.  Be sure to check out the slideshow.

Gratitude, the healthiest of human emotions, seems to have a way of finding whatever is good.   Maybe that’s why good news is so scarce.  If you know a Veteran, why don't you call or write them this week and tell them how grateful you are for them, and that you live in a free nation. And the next time someone says they can't find anything good anywhere, don't believe them.

Friday, November 07, 2008

. . . so, what are we doing?

Justin here. This is from our most recent market commentary, (here):

One of our clients called, saying he had a question: “I’m just curious as to what you are doing to insure that I won’t lose a lifetime of savings?” . . . I’m going to take a cue from my old high school algebra teacher and assume that if someone in the class asks a question, chances are that other folks in the room are wondering the same thing.
In the commentary, we include an excerpt from Warren Buffett's 1987 letter to shareholders, which features his explanation of the way he thinks about the stock market - what he calls Mr. Market.

Buffet's words are so clear and helpful that is should be required reading before anyone opens a brokerage account (maybe I'll include that on my "suggestions box" form for President Elect Obama.)

As a side note, you can find all of our past commentaries here. If you'd like to be added to our quarterly mailing list, send me your mailing address and we'll be happy to send it to you the old fashioned way.