Mario Gabelli: There Are No Such Things As “Can’t Miss” Stocks. Habits Evolve, Technologies Change, And Companies Mature. It’s A Cycle As Old As Capitalism ItselfThe Acquirer's Multiple
Mario Gabelli recently released his Q2 2018 shareholder letter. Gabelli reported for the quarter ended June 30, 2018, the net asset value (“NAV”) per Class A Share of The Gabelli Value 25 Fund increased 3.2% compared with increases of 3.4% and 1.3% for the Standard & Poor’s (“S&P”) 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
As part of his commentary Gabelli provides an important reminder for investors regarding todays growth stock goliaths – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Microsoft and Apple (Alphabet). He draws some interesting comparisons with the Nifty Fifty stocks of the early 1970’s and their subsequent underperformance over the following twenty five years saying:
“Humans make sense of the present and seek insight into the future by examining the past. Fact patterns and outcomes may differ, but the Nifty Fifty episode offers some lessons.”
“First, there are no such things as “can’t miss” stocks. Habits evolve, technologies change, and companies mature. It’s a cycle as old as capitalism itself. Wal-Mart encroaches upon Sears and Amazon attacks Wal-Mart. Some companies manage to cheat death, but the Apple story, for example, could have been much different if not for the return of Steve Jobs, and these nuances can be difficult to predict.”
Here’s an excerpt from his Q2 2018 commentary:
The New “Nifty Fifty”?
Market returns so far this year have been dominated by the “FANG” – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (now Alphabet). These four stocks accounted for 1.6 percentage points of the S&P 500’s 2.6% first half return; adding tech giants Apple and Microsoft (resulting in a group known by several acronyms, but we’ll use FANGMA) brings the total to 2.5 percentage points, or virtually the entire positive performance of the index.
More broadly, the top ten contributors to the S&P’s return, which includes the six members of the FANGMA, accounted for over 3.1 percentage points, or 116% of the S&P’s return. 2015 played out similarly, with the FANGMA returning 2.3% vs the S&P 500’s 1.4% (172% of the total) and the top ten returning 3.3% or 244% of the S&P’s return.
Much has been written about this apparent level of return concentration – but is it truly unusual? The answer, it turns out, is that while 2015 and the first half of 2018 are outliers, the level of concentration in most other recent years has been run-of-the-mill. Since 1988, the best performing ten and twenty stocks have accounted for approximately 40% and 60% of the total returns of the index. For 2014, 2016, and 2017, the top ten stocks accounted for 28%, 29%, and 31% of returns.
This should not be surprising considering that the concept of contribution to return has two components: price appreciation for the year and the average weight of the stock in the index for the year, the result of which is that large companies that are up a little can contribute far more to returns than small companies that are up a lot. What makes the last few years seem different is that the same companies (i.e. the FANGMA) dominate the top contributors list more than any other group of stocks has in the last thirty years.
In the six years since CNBC personality Jim Cramer coined the moniker FANG, Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet, and Apple have appeared four times (notably, Amazon was among the largest detractors from the S&P in 2014) – Microsoft, the grizzled technology veteran left out of the FANG, appeared all six times.
Adding to the attention given the FANG is the dominance and growth of their respective platforms and the above average valuations that they garner. This has drawn some comparisons to the tech bubble of the late 1990s, but that comparison understates the cash generating power and genuine competitive advantages of the FANG. A more apt, though still imperfect, analogy may be to compare the 1990s tech bubble to the fads and extreme optimism of the mid-1960s “Go-Go stocks” which crashed in the 1970 bear market, only to give way to the “Nifty Fifty” list of stocks compiled by Morgan Guaranty Trust for institutional clients in the early 1970s.
Like today’s FANGMA, this list included industry leaders with strong balance sheets and above average growth rates and P/E ratios (an average of 42x vs the S&P 500’s 19x in 1972) such as Disney, McDonald’s, and Xerox – one-decision stocks that should be bought and held forever. These stocks indeed led the market and were among the last to crash in the 1973-1974 bear market (one, incidentally, precipitated by the fall of the post-war monetary system and a U.S. president), but later ended up declining far more spectacularly than the S&P 500.
In 1998, Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel showed that these Nifty Fifty stocks underperformed the S&P 500 in the subsequent 25 years, though the extent of the underperformance is up for methodological debate. Some of these stocks remain leaders today, while many were subsumed by others or ceased to exist. In any case, their times had passed and they turned out to be vulnerable.
Humans make sense of the present and seek insight into the future by examining the past. Fact patterns and outcomes may differ, but the Nifty Fifty episode offers some lessons.
First, there are no such things as “can’t miss” stocks. Habits evolve, technologies change, and companies mature. It’s a cycle as old as capitalism itself. Wal-Mart encroaches upon Sears and Amazon attacks Wal-Mart. Some companies manage to cheat death, but the Apple story, for example, could have been much different if not for the return of Steve Jobs, and these nuances can be difficult to predict.
Which brings us to the second point: valuation (and by extension, stock picking) matters. A company may have a very bright future, but the stock won’t shine if it already discounts that growth. And, in our view, the higher the growth rate, the less predictable/the higher the variability around that growth rate tends to be. Thus, we would require a greater discount to our appraisal of value to make that investment in growth.
At the moment, (y)our Fund has no exposure to certain members of the FANGMA, not because we are skeptical of their businesses or because we are allergic to owning growth companies, but because in general they have either not met our valuation criteria or they are outside our areas of core competency. Valuations and outlooks change, however, and given the likely staying power of many of these enterprises, they may become more prominent in (y)our portfolio. In the meantime, we have owned many other regular top contributors to S&P returns (e.g. Comcast (0.8% of net assets as of June 30, 2018)), and are always on the lookout for the stocks that will outstrip the FANGMA.
You can read Mario Gabelli’s Q2 2018 shareholder letter here.
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Article by The Acquirer's Multiple