Martin Capital Management 2015 Investor Letter – Why We Worry Top Down But Invest Bottom UpVW Staff
“Remember that there is nothing stable in human affairs; therefore avoid undue elation in prosperity or undue depression in adversity.” —Socrates, 399 B.C.
“In the economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause— it is seen. The others unfold in succession— they are not seen: it is well for us if they are foreseen.” —Frederic Bastiat, That Which Is Seen, That Which Is Unseen, 1850
“Res nolunt diu male administrari. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Though no checks to a new evil appear, the checks exist, and will appear.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1844
“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”—Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1912
Martin Capital Management: Why We Worry Top-Down and Invest Bottom-Up
“A rising tide lifts all ships” is bandied about in our profession like a shuttlecock at a garden party badminton game.
It seems that whenever an analogy is that simple and quaint, there must be a catch. And there is: the waves. In their endless repetition they mask the invisible but prodigious ebb and flood tides. The daily headlines are almost always about the waves, particularly, even if unnoticed, when the tide is rising.
Those of us who worry top-down are keenly aware of those signs that may give us an early indication of an impending change in phase (i.e., from when the flood tide peaks at high tide and begins to reverse its flow or vice versa). If we are patient and aware, a rising tide is today’s ally, and within an ebbing tide is tomorrow’s opportunity. Because security markets are the outward expression of an endless stream of millions of individual decisions—all along the continuum from brilliant to banal —that is both cause and effect of the market’s ups and downs, they lack anything approaching the harmonic symmetry of the tides. As random as they seem from day-to-day—or even year-to-year—there is nonetheless a rhythm to them, as there is to all of nature.
This year’s letter seeks to identify the tidal ebbing and flooding of the markets since the turn of the 20th century. The endeavor is simple in concept, yet anything but easy in implementation. Like the changing effect of the sun and the moon on the amplitude and duration of the tides’ rising and falling, the forces impacting the markets are forever changing as well. The crucial difference is that with the latter, these forces are unpredictable. We invariably find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma: We may have a general idea about the stage of the tide, but we know it’s a fool’s game to attempt to predict when or at what level high or low tide will occur.
The macro-worrier is not powerless in resolving this tension. When, in his or her reasoned judgment, the flood tide reaches a water level above which the prevailing risks begin to overshadow the prospective returns, capital can be reallocated so as to minimize the effect of, and sometimes profit from, the eventual shift in phase.
As for the not-so-easy part, unlike the regularity of the tides, the ebbing of markets is typically disorderly—sometimes utterly chaotic—making it difficult to distinguish the waves from the tides. Occasionally the ebb current is so strong that even the best are swept out to sea. Aware of this propensity, macro-worriers are invariably early to seek a safe mooring—sometimes so early as to look the very fool they so diligently sought not to become. (See asset allocation chart on Page 2.) Why do we put ourselves through this agony? Because it works!
Macro-agnostics minimize the psychological discomfort of cognitive dissonance by avoiding situations and information that might cause it. Using backward-looking models—a common coping tool—computing the probability of something disastrous that has never happened before usually produces a number close to zero. With a probability that slim, most become disaster myopic. They don’t even think about it. Equally troubling, studies have shown that new information conflicting with one’s worldview is most often rejected.
Such macro-agnosticism has become mainstream. This development is dangerous and hubristic in our view. This year, by taking you on a whirlwind tour of 114 years of market history, we want to arm you with better tools to judge where we stand. Benjamin Graham, deservedly the “Dean of Wall Street,” urged that an investor should “have an adequate idea of stock market history, in terms, particularly, of the major fluctuations. With this background he may be in a position to form some worthwhile judgment of the attractiveness or dangers … of the market.” As pundits continue their refrain of “this time is different,” we hope you will share our conclusion. Despite the deceiving/distorting “waves” caused by unprecedented Fed policies which have currently stretched asset valuations to near-bubble levels, the tide is still ebbing, following the once-in-a-lifetime 20-year flood tide that set a new high watermark in 1999. Those who mistake the waves for the tide may be in for a cruel awakening.
One thing we know for sure is that, in time, once the ebb tide has run its course, the next flood tide will follow. With liquidity, patience, a contrarian streak, a steely temperament and a willingness to seize opportunity within our spheres of competence, we are ready. While thought to be crazy at the time, only Noah is part of history. Others may have talked about it, but he’s the only one who actually built an ark!
Martin Capital Management – A Data-Driven Story: The Ebb and Flood Tides from 1900
Unlike last year’s annual report, the principal essay in this the 2014 effort will concentrate on low degree-of-difficulty worrying—the kind that requires a rational mind, common sense, an awareness of historical proportion and that pays disproportionately large psychic and financial dividends. The condensed findings of an examination of a sea of data stretching over a century of market history follow. Going back to 1900, we have subdivided history thematically into consecutive eras of rising and ebbing tides, based on the returns investors earned, alternating between long-term secular peaks and troughs. Shorter-term cyclical bull and bear markets occurred within these grand secular trends—the waves within the tides—to which we will turn on another occasion. By seeking to identify the conditions that precede both types of eras, one might find oneself happily on the right side of history.
See full PDF below.