Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Wow!

It's been quite a few weeks since my last post. I haven't really changed my thoughts since then, but maybe the economic impact of this will have more than a blip on the long term charts after all.

So far, the economy seems to be doing much worse (or will soon) than the stock market. The initial decline was shocking, but not at all unexpected. The recovery rally is kind of incredible too.

As I watch all these commentators, I realize nobody really has any idea. The commentators / pundits that survive a long time are masters at saying things that will make them look 'correct' in hindsight later on. You make enough calls and predictions, you will at least be able to pick one and say you were right. Also, they are very careful to word their comments so that they can't be called out for being wrong. 'If this happens, then this will happen, if that happens, then that might happen...' etc. You say enough of that, and you will be right about something, eventually... It's kind of a joke, but whatever.

Buffett and Airlines
A lot of things have happened since my last post, including the virtual BRK annual meeting. Nothing really new or unexpected, as usual, but one thing that may have shocked people was how Buffett dumped all his airline stocks. We are supposed to be long term investors, and are not supposed to be reacting to headlines, however scary.

But if you look at their income statements and realize that their revenues are down 90% and may be down for a year or more, it's hard to imagine them surviving. Most of them will be out of business by the end of the year or long before that. The government will have to bail them out, but that will be costly. Either they will have to take on a lot of debt that will take years to pay off, or they will have to issue a lot of equity, basically wiping out current shareholders.

Many businesses will not survive this, and even if they do, there will be big losses to equity investors.

A lot of restaurants will go out of business too, but mostly the independent ones. Major chains, especially fast food and fast casual should be fine.

Retailers are out too, for the most part. A lot of retailers should probably not even exist, and this pandemic is just accelerating what is going to happen anyway. The Micrsoft CEO, Nadella, said that there was two years worth of virtualization in two months since the pandemic. I think that's the case with retailers. This will just accelerate the demise of retailers with flawed (or out of date) business models.

No Bargains?
One thing Buffett said was that he didn't really see any bargains during the decline in March. We know from the 2008-2009 crisis that Buffett is not really a trader, so he is not going to be buying the lows on big down days, necessarily. So on fast declines with quick rebounds, he is not going to get much done.

If you look at what's going on, the stocks that were really hit are the ones that you don't really want to own, necessarily. Airlines, real estate, retail, travel-related stocks etc. And the ones you want to own didn't really get cheap. I can see Buffett piling into things like Amazon or Google if they were dumped with the bath water, but they weren't, really. Neither was Microsoft. Not sure what he thinks of Netflix, but that wasn't dumped either.

So crappy stocks got cheap, but as Buffett said, the way to succeed in the stock market (or at least not lose money) is "don't buy crummy businesses". And there are a lot of them out there now.

People also view Buffett as being 'bearish' because he sold stocks, and he is still sitting on a growing cash balance. He did mention during the meeting that he has a lot of cash, but he has a lot of equity exposure too. I wrote about it a while back, but his equity exposure is not limited to his listed equity portfolio. Kraft is not included in his list of stock holdings, but he still owns it. Same with Burlington Northern, and his many other operating companies (some of which were listed until recently).  If you add it all up, BRK is still fully exposed and is not as conservative as it seems if one were to look only at his listed equity portfolio and cash balance.

Which leads to the next thing being talked about a lot these days (as it has been for the last few years).


Value Investing is Dead?
One thing people need to keep in mind about value investing is that the way the general press talks about it and the way investors talk about it are completely different. The press just looks at nominal valuation and that's it. There is no concept of what something should be worth, and whether it is trading above or below that. They don't understand the concept of intrinsic value. Indexes split between growth and value don't help either.

Value investing used to be about low P/E's and things like that, I suppose, but the more modern approach is what something is trading at versus intrinsic value. This is not that modern, actually, as Buffett has been saying that for many decades.

Here is something from the second edition of Graham's Securities Analysis. This is in the section where he discusses the difference between investment and speculation.

It may be helpful to elaborate our definition from a somewhat different angle, which will stress the fact that investment must always consider the price as well as the quality of the security. Strictly speaking, there can be no such thing as an “investment issue” in the absolute sense, i.e., implying that it remains an investment regardless of price. In the case of high-grade bonds, this point may not be important, for it is rare that their prices are so inflated as to introduce serious risk of loss of principal. But in the common-stock field this risk may frequently be created by an undue advance in price—so much so, indeed, that in our opinion the great majority of common stocks of strong companies must be considered speculative during most of the time, simply because their price is too high to warrant safety of principal in any intelligible sense of the phrase. We must warn the reader that prevailing Wall Street opinion does not agree with us on this point; and he must make up his own mind which of us is wrong.
Nevertheless, we shall embody our principle in the following additional criterion of investment:
An investment operation is one that can be justified on both qualitative and quantitative grounds

I would look at the opposite of this example and say that many cheap stocks may not necessarily be safe. Would you buy junk bonds just on yield? Nope. Someone showed me years ago a quantitative report basically showing that the valuation of a stock is pretty much determined by it's credit quality (I don't know if there was an adjustment for long-term growth or returns on capital), but it made sense to me. The industrial cyclicals were always 'cheap', like steel, auto manufacturing etc. And consumer stocks were always expensive.

Anyway, today, I think a lot of this gap between value and growth just may be reflecting huge secular changes in the economy. You can say AMZN is overpriced and BBBY is cheap. But really, who would short AMZN and go long BBBY?


MKL Dumping Stocks
On the 1Q earnings call, MKL said they dumped a few stocks they thought would be hugely affected by Covid-19. Here are the stocks they dumped:

Anheuser-Busch Inbev ADR 0    0.00%13,000-13,000-100%
CDK Global Inc 0    0.00%176,897-176,897-100%
Discovery Communications 0    0.00%117,000-117,000-100%
Dollar Tree Inc 0    0.00%123,100-123,100-100%
Hasbro, Inc 0    0.00%364,000-364,000-100%
Kraft Heinz Co 0    0.00%68,000-68,000-100%
Rockwell Automation Inc 0    0.00%140,100-140,100-100%
Scotts Miracle-Gro Co 0    0.00%422,000-422,000-100%
Unilever PLC ADR 0    0.00%1,527,600-1,527,600-100%
United Health Group Inc 0    0.00%599,000-599,000-100%

This is as of end the March, and they may have dumped more things in April. Buffett dumped airline stocks in April, so that dumpage doesn't show up on his 13-F, which is here, by the way:

BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INC

Filing Date: 2020-05-15

Namedollar amt%port#shareschange%chg
APPLE INC 62,340,609    35.52%245,155,566

BANK AMER CORP 19,637,932    11.19%925,008,600

COCA COLA CO 17,700,001    10.09%400,000,000

AMERICAN EXPRESS CO 12,979,391    7.40%151,610,700

WELLS FARGO & CO NEW 9,276,210    5.29%323,212,918

KRAFT HEINZ CO 8,056,205    4.59%325,634,818

MOODYS CORP 5,217,658    2.97%24,669,778

JPMORGAN CHASE & CO 5,196,030    2.96%57,714,433-1,800,499-3%
US BANCORP DEL 4,563,233    2.60%132,459,618

DAVITA HEALTHCARE PARTNERS I 2,897,549    1.65%38,095,570-470,000-1%
BANK OF NEW YORK MELLON CORP 2,686,487    1.53%79,765,057

CHARTER COMMUNICATIONS INC N 2,367,684    1.35%5,426,609

VERISIGN INC 2,307,964    1.32%12,815,613-137,132-1%
DELTA AIR LINES INC DEL 2,050,935    1.17%71,886,963976,5071%
SOUTHWEST AIRLS CO 1,910,218    1.09%53,642,713-6,5000%
VISA INC 1,701,823    0.97%10,562,460

GENERAL MTRS CO 1,551,872    0.88%74,681,000-319,0000%
LIBERTY MEDIA CORP DELAWARE 1,446,433    0.82%45,711,345-240,000-1%
COSTCO WHSL CORP NEW 1,235,572    0.70%4,333,363

MASTERCARD INC 1,192,040    0.68%4,934,756

AMAZON COM INC 1,039,786    0.59%533,300-4,000-1%
PNC FINL SVCS GROUP INC 880,431    0.50%9,197,984526,9306%
UNITED CONTL HLDGS INC 699,073    0.40%22,157,608218,9661%
SIRIUS XM HLDGS INC 654,149    0.37%132,418,729-3,857,000-3%
KROGER CO 570,475    0.33%18,940,079

M & T BK CORP 556,665    0.32%5,382,040

AMERICAN AIRLS GROUP INC 510,871    0.29%41,909,000-591,000-1%
GLOBE LIFE INC 457,278    0.26%6,353,727

LIBERTY GLOBAL PLC 434,229    0.25%26,656,968-481,000-2%
AXALTA COATING SYS LTD 415,689    0.24%24,070,000-194,000-1%
TEVA PHARMACEUTICAL INDS LTD 384,248    0.22%42,789,295-460,000-1%
RESTAURANT BRANDS INTL INC 337,782    0.19%8,438,225

STORE CAP CORP 337,425    0.19%18,621,674

SYNCHRONY FINL 323,860    0.18%20,128,000-675,000-3%
STONECO LTD 308,410    0.18%14,166,748

GOLDMAN SACHS GROUP INC 296,841    0.17%1,920,180-10,084,571-84%
SUNCOR ENERGY INC NEW 236,195    0.13%14,949,031-70,0000%
OCCIDENTAL PETE CORP 219,245    0.12%18,933,054

BIOGEN INC 203,440    0.12%643,022-5,425-1%
RH 171,638    0.10%1,708,348

JOHNSON & JOHNSON 42,893    0.02%327,100

PROCTER & GAMBLE CO 34,694    0.02%315,400

MONDELEZ INTL INC 28,946    0.02%578,000

VANGUARD INDEX FDS 10,183    0.01%43,000

SPDR S&P 500 ETF TR 10,155    0.01%39,400

UNITED PARCEL SERVICE INC 5,549    0.00%59,400

PHILLIPS 66 0    0.00%227,436-227,436-100%
TRAVELERS COMPANIES INC 0    0.00%312,379-312,379-100%
Total175,485,996


Insurance Companies
By the way, insurance companies are going to hurt for a while. People keep saying that business disruption doesn't cover pandemics, or that it requires physical damage etc. But the way things work in this country, that doesn't matter. We have enough lawyers with a poorly structured incentive system so insurance companies can get bogged down in years and years of lawsuits. Even if insurance companies win, who knows how much all of that is going to cost.

Plus, interest rates are now 0% all the way out to 5 years, and 1% to 20 years. That's going to be painful, and makes BRK's float basically worthless. Yes, this may be temporary, but we have been saying that for more than 10 years now. I have always suspected we will follow Japan in terms of interest rates. I didn't expect a pandemic to cause rates to go to zero, though.

I still think BRK, MKL and others are great investments for the long haul, but there are serious issues for them out there for sure.

Banks
JPM and other banks are going to take some huge credit losses. There is no way around that. One rule of thumb is that credit card losses will follow the unemployment rate. Unemployment got up to 10% during the financial crisis, and sure enough, JPM's credit card charge-offs peaked at 10% or so. Total charge offs were 5%, I think, back then.

Unemployment is now over 15%, and headed to 20%. JPM has $160 billion in credit card loans, so credit card charge-offs can get over $30 billion. Total credit losses may get to 10% and they have around $1 trillion in loans outstanding. Who knows, really.

JPM is still the best managed big bank and they will get through this for sure, but they face some very serious problems. I think the view expressed during the 1Q conference call (expecting rebound in second half of the year) is way too optimistic.

Even if we start to reopen the economy, we can't really have a real recovery as a lot of events won't come back, and restaurant / bars / retailers will run at 30-50% capacity.

An interesting thing to look at is Sweden. They didn't have a hard lockdown like the U.S. and European countries, but their economy is taking a hit anyway. Reopening the economy doesn't mean we are all going to go back to the way we were right away. Many people tell me that they won't change anything even if the economy reopens until they get a vaccine. This could be years away.

I tend to believe things will normalize when we get a treatment that makes Covid-19 far less fatal. If we take that off the table, people will start to get back to normal.

I have no idea about these things, but I tend to think the odds of us finding a treatment is far higher than us finding a vaccine (there is a chance we may never find a vaccine).

Anyway, the mitigating factor to the above bank credit disaster is the amount of money being injected into the economy. I don't know if people are going to use their stimulus / Covid-19 help checks to pay off their credit card (they seem not to be paying their rent), but it will have some positive impact on bank credit, I assume (and hope).  Well, but don't assume because...

Is the Market Being Rational?
So, people are saying that the market is being too optimistic about a return to normal, but it's hard to tell. The market is full of stocks with different exposure. If the airline stocks got back to their highs, I would agree that the market is being too optimistic. But that hasn't happened; not even close. Same with retailers. And restaurant stocks.  OK, Amazon, Netflix, and others are going to new highs, but I doubt that is reflective of the market's optimism about a return to normal.

So when the markets move, I think we have to look by sector, and by stock, to see what they're expecting. It makes no sense to look at the index itself.

What to do?
When this started, I told people the same thing I always told them. Ignore the headlines and just think 3-5 years ahead. This works, though, for people with diversified portfolios. I wouldn't know what to say if they owned a lot of airlines, hotel and other travel related businesses, or other areas that may not recover so quickly. I have no idea.

I haven't owned any retail stocks in a long time (except BRK, which is the closest thing to a retailer I own), and the only restaurant stocks I own are CMG, QSR and SHAK.  Well, SHAK was never cheap so it's a token position that is not significant; it's more of a moral support, I like this company, kind of position. CMG was a large position that I scaled back and had to do again as it went over $1,000. It's not a cheap stock, and I have no idea why it's above $1,000; maybe they are going to take market share after many of their competitors go out of business within a few months). Oops, after writing this, I just realized I do own Costco. So I lied. I own Costco and have no problem with it. I will hold on to it. Yes, it's expensive, but I really like the business for all the reasons we've all heard already a gazillion times.

If you own the S&P 500 index, it doesn't really matter. Many companies will go bust, but that happens all the time. Some big banks, AIG and FNM went bust (or was massively diluted) during the financial crisis and yet the S&P 500 index was fine. It should be fine over the long term this time too, but many of the components won't be.

As usual, just don't invest based on the headlines. OK, evaluating your holdings on long term potential incorporating Covid-19 might not be a bad idea (like Buffett's dumping of airlines), but I would be careful about that too.

One thing is for sure. You really don't want to go chase Covid-19 stocks. You can buy AMZN, NFLX, MSFT thinking these are the pandemic-proof stocks, but the worst time to buy stocks is when everyone piles into them for the same reason (I wouldn't short them either!). For example, I wouldn't touch Zoom stock, of course.


Things are Interesting
I have to admit I have sort of been lazy about my investments over the past few years, kind of just let it go... Looking for things to do wasn't all that interesting as things got expensive.

But things are getting interesting again. I haven't read through so many conference calls and 10-Q's in a long time, and it's been fun. I have to say, though, that the 10-Q's only reflect a small portion of what's happening as the 1Q included the relatively healthy January and February. NYC shut down in mid-March. So there was only 2 weeks of really bad data included in 1Q. The 2Q reports are going to be really scary, but I can't wait to sift through that stuff.

Maybe this will lead to more blog posts. That would be fun, as I do enjoy this process. Until now, though, things are more interesting, but nothing really stands out to me. The really devastated industries are just 'too hard' for now, like cruise lines, airlines, casinos, and the solid businesses that you want to own are not cheap (AMZN, MSFT, COST etc...).

So to those who feel that ETFs and the indexing bubble has lead to a lack of differentiation in the evaluation of individual stocks, it is quite obvious that this is not the case at all. I've always maintained that this is not the case. Sure, there may be excess valuation in some large cap index stocks where index funds are 'forced' to buy regardless. I think overall, crummy stocks are cheap and higher quality stocks are expensive.

OK, banks and insurance companies are cheap now, and not all of them are crummy. But there are massive uncertainties they are facing now. The market is probably wrong and these stocks are probably too cheap.


Monday, March 2, 2020

Who Cares What Mr. Market Thinks!

So, the market has gone crazy. People ask me about the market and the impact of the COVID-19 and I keep saying it doesn't matter. But with the market acting like this, it's hard for people to agree with me. The markets make the news, the market creates the sentiment etc.  and I can't fight that. That's OK, as it doesn't really matter to me.

But I had a really interesting conversation recently, and I did some illustrative work and thought it was interesting so decided to make a post about it.

Every time people worry about these things, whether it's a trade war, Brexit, 9/11, fiscal cliff, coming recession/depression, war or whatever, I say the same thing. If something is not going to have a long term impact on the intrinsic value of businesses, it doesn't matter.

If you own a restaurant on a beach and the weather forecast shows a hurricane approaching, are you going to rush to sell the restaurant before the hurricane hits? Are you going to lower the selling price because you know the hurricane is going to hit and you are going to lose a few days or possibly weeks of business? Of course not! So why would you do the same with stocks?

I think most will agree that COVID-19 is temporary. We just don't know how bad it's going to get before we get it under control (I still think there is way more COVID-19 even here in NYC than anyone thinks, because frankly, people are just not being tested. Plus I don't think the government is going to be truthful about this; I was living in Battery Park City during and after 9/11 and the EPA lied to us about the safety of the air. Christy Whitman admitted she lied to us about the safety of the air (she denies knowing the truth at the time, but I don't believe that at all). Forgot who, but someone said that the government had to balance the risk of causing a panic and the abandonment of downtown NYC (to the detriment of real estate prices downtown) with the 'minor' risk of people getting sick from inhaling toxic fumes. This is especially true when the known risks were also known to be far off into the future, long after elected politicians are out of office (so won't need to take any of the heat). So this was not really about public safety but more about social control.  Not that different from China, are we?)

But in my recent discussion, I had trouble getting across that the intrinsic value of the restaurant is not going to be impacted by the coming hurricane. Yes, they will lose business, and will probably have to repair some damage (even though that should be insured).  Of course, in the hurricane example, there is a possibility that it wipes out the whole beachside town and it takes years to rebuild. But most market exogenous events in the past ten or twenty years weren't of the magnitude to destroy everything (in aggregate) for years.

Current P/E
So when I say it doesn't matter about COVID-19, I don't mean to say there will be no impact. I just mean that there is no impact on the intrinsic value of businesses in general 5, 10 or 20 years out.

If people value stocks on current P/E ratios, then yes, there will be an impact on stock prices. If you value a stock at 10x P/E and think it's going to earn $1 this year, but COVID-19 will cause it to earn $0.50 instead, then you might think the stock is only worth $5.00 instead of $10.00. But if you think this dip in earnings is temporary, you would still think the stock is worth $10.00.

P/E ratios are just a short-cut to calculating future discounted cash flows, so it sort of makes no sense to price a stock on current year estimates if there is a one-time factor involved.

Intrinsic Value
So this is the part I had a hard time describing. I guess non-financial people (unfortunately including many in the financial press) have a hard time grasping the idea that intrinsic value of a business is the discounted present value of all future cash flows. This person argued that the market looks only at earnings over the next year or two, but not fifty years out. Yes, this is true. But intrinsic value has nothing to do with what the market is looking at. Intrinsic value is a mathematical truth as long as the inputs are correct (or reasonable enough). Intrinsic value is 100% independent of Mr. Market's opinion. Well, Mr. Market does set the discount rate to some extent.

When people slap a P/E ratio on a stock, they are basically discounting all future cash flows back into the price of the stock; they may just not know it or understand it. The P/E ratio is just a shortcut valuation method.

If you value a stock at 10x earnings, you are basically pricing in a 10% earnings yield going out into perpetuity.

So first of all, we have to understand that regardless of what the 'market' is looking at, or what the pundits say on TV, a business is simply worth the present value of all future cash flows. We can argue whether that's earnings, dividends, free cash flows or whatever. But the idea remains the same.

Here's the thing I did to try to illustrate how non-eventful recessions and exogenous events are to the intrinsic value of businesses in general (but alas, this illustration failed to get the point across in this case even though the person is a highly trained engineer! No wonder why Mr. Market is so irrational!).

Simple Model
So, here's the illustrative model. Let's say the market has an EPS of $10/year, and the discount rate is 4%. In this table, I just took the earnings for the next 10 years and discounted it back to the present at 4%, and then added a residual value at year 10 based on a 25x P/E ratio (or 4% discount rate), and discounted that back to the present and added them together. Of course, this would give the market a present value of 250.


I think most of you have no problem with any of this. For illustrative purposes, the details don't really matter, and I have no earnings growth built in here either.

Now, let's say COVID-19 causes the global economy to stop for 3 months, and companies earn no money at all for three months. Of course, many businesses will lose money (retailers, hotels, airlines), but others will continue at a lower rate but may not lose money in aggregate. Remember, the S&P 500 (and predecessors) has shown a profit every single year since the 1800s, and that includes the great depression, world wars, great recession etc. So this is not a stretch.

Plugging in $7.50 for year one earnings instead of $10.00 would negatively impact intrinsic value of the market for sure. There is no doubt about it.

Let's quantify that. I copied the above table into another one so we can look at it side-by-side.

If the above scenario holds, the intrinsic value of the market would go down less than 1%.

First Year Earnings $7.50 Instead of $10.00


Way too optimistic you say? OK, so let's say the S&P companies make no money for six whole months. What does that do to intrinsic value?

Let's take a look!

 First Year Earnings $5.00 Instead of $10.00


This scenario would dent intrinsic value by less than 2%.

OK, screw that. Too optimistic. Let's say that the economy is wiped out for a whole year, and the S&P companies make no money for a whole year. Remember, this didn't happen even during the great depression or great recession (or during the 1918 flu etc.).

First Year Earnings $0.00 Instead of $10.00


Still too optimistic? OK. Zero earnings for two years, then.

Zero Earnings for First Two Years


Ah, now we are starting to hurt the market. With zero earnings for the first two years, intrinsic value is knocked down by 7.5%. Ouch. That hurts.

Here are some more:

Zero Earnings for First Three Years

Zero Earnings for First Four Years


So, with the market down more than 12%, it is like the market is discounting no earnings for the next four years!  Nuts!
When the pundits say that the market is or isn't done discounting the risk of COVID-19 or a coming recession, you can see how that sort of comment is total nonsense. It is based on Keynes' beauty contest. They are just saying that people didn't expect a recession or negative event earlier this year, and now these things are here so the market therefore must go lower as the market lowers their expectations.

But this has nothing, really, to do with intrinsic value or expectations thereof. It is just based on pundits guessing what Mr. Market would do based on the headlines.

Of course, I would be the first to admit that if an event did occur that would cause the S&P500 companies to not earn any money for a whole year, two years or three years, it would cause a drop in the market far in excess of the decline in intrinsic value. That would have to be quite a scary event!

Again, this is just a simple illustrative model. There are other reasons why the market can be down. The market may simply have been overly optimistic / overvalued, and this has triggered a 'normalization' of valuations. Maybe the market needs to increase the discount rate to account for the increasing risks that were not considered in the past. Maybe this will actually cause some sort of permanent reduction in the profitability of corporations in general going forward.

But remember, we all had the same thoughts every time something happens. We all see some permanent negative change that explains a lower stock market. For example, after 9/11, the thought was that the world would never be the same, and that increased security measures will permanently reduce global growth potential and profitability.

Again, the market makes the news, and the market creates the explanations, not the other way around. We all try to model the facts to explain what is going on in the market to maintain the two illusions that 1. the market is always right, and 2. that we know what's going on. We wrap the market volatility tightly into these rational-sounding wrappers, pleased at having figured it out, secure in the knowledge that we know what's going on.

Conclusion
OK, so I lied. The above tables clearly show that there is a negative impact on intrinsic value by even temporary business interruptions. But the magnitude is not nearly as much as the market usually moves.

Index arbitrage traders make money because the futures contract fluctuates much more widely than the fair value of the contract. Debt / credit traders make money because credit spreads fluctuate (or at least used to) much more widely than the credit quality of companies. And value investors make money because stock prices fluctuate much more widely than intrinsic value of the underlying businesses.

Of course, I am not calling a bottom in the market, or trying to say that markets won't or shouldn't fluctuate based on the headlines. We can be pretty sure there will be more wild days to come. Markets can be up or down 1000, 2000 points on news. I still expect photos of empty streets in NYC at some point before this is over with the market down a lot on those images. NYC is only starting to test this week, so when more cases are found, subways will be empty too, and of course the market will be down on that.

But I have no idea, actually. It's sort of what I expect (and have been expecting since early February).

On the other hand, check out the VIX index. In my trader days, this was my favorite indicator. As Munger says, always invert. You don't usually make money being short in a market with the VIX at a high level, and it's as high as it's been in the past few decades. This is no guarantee that the market can't go lower, of course.




But anyway, who cares what Mr. Market thinks!


Friday, February 14, 2020

Coronavirus, Munger etc.

Munger
Munger is looking and sounding great at the DJ annual meeting (I wasn't there; just watched the video). His 'wretched excess' seems to be more about private equity and venture capital than the public stock market. In fact, he said that tech stocks now are not like the Nifty Fifty stocks (he mentioned Home Sewing (?) trading for 50x earnings, and said that the current big tech companies are better businesses).

TSLA
Munger also said he would never buy or short TSLA. As I wrote in a response somewhere on this blog, I can't believe how many people got caught in a short squeeze on this stock. If people don't care about the valuation of a company, then obviously, a really expensive stock can get much more expensive. Trying to short that is like trying to short soybeans during a drought. You know with 100% confidence that the price will mean revert at some point, but there is no way to tell when it will revert and how high it can get before reverting. I saw this in Japan in the 1980s, in the U.S. in the late 1990s etc.

Bubble
I've said this here many times before, but for the stock market to be in a real bubble, at these interest rates, the P/E ratio would have to get up to 50x or some such. Who knows, this might even happen. One of the greatest traders of all time recently said that this might happen; the NASDAQ could double from here if we have another late 1990s-type bubble, which is possible with the current, ongoing massive stimulation combining low rates and huge budget deficits. How can this massive stimulation on a historical scale not be matched by an equivalently massive bubble?

Of course, I would not invest with that expectation, but if it happened, it would not surprise me at all. Remember, from my previous analysis, I would find it completely normal and not at all out of line if the market P/E averaged 25x over the next 10 years... and that may include times the market trades at 50x P/E, and times it trades at 10x P/E. But we just can't know when these levels are reached; only that it is probable that they will be reached.

Again, this is not my prediction at all; I would not invest expecting such an outcome. I am just making a single statement that seems reasonable from the data I've seen.

Coronavirus
The market seems to fluctuate with each breaking news about the coronavirus, but I view it as a non-event. As value investors, we care about what a business is going to be worth five, ten years out, so it doesn't matter how bad this coronavirus gets. Well, unless it gets really, really bad. I didn't take any action, but my instinct during SARS was to just buy all the Asian stocks that were hit hard, especially airlines (Cathay etc.).

I feel the same way now. If the market tanks further on coronavirus (well, I know we are at highs recently but...), just stay sane and buy what becomes cheap and available. As Munger says, keep your head as others lose theirs (well, he was quoting Kipling).

But wait, I am no expert, so let's just say this does get really bad, like the 1918 Spanish Flu.  That was bad. 50 million people died around the world back then including 675,000 Americans.  Quick googling shows that the world population at the time was around 2 billion, and the U.S. population was around 100 million. So the flu killed 2.5% of the world population and 0.7% of the U.S. population. A similar event now would kill 193 million people around the world, and 2.3 million Americans. 

That would be quite a shocking event.  By the way, did you know that the flu has killed 12,000-61,000 per year since 2010 in the U.S.? Between 291,000 - 646,000 people die of the flu around the world each year. I don't mean to trivialize the coronavirus. We have to do what we can to stop it, of course.

Anyway, let's take a look at the economic impact of such a worst case scenario (well, I know, there can be worst cases than 1918, of course. I am a big fan of The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, World War Z, Shaun of the Dead etc... )

This is the chart of deaths from the 1918 flu from the CDC website. Not easy to read, but I think the deaths peaked in the 4th quarter of 1918.

Deaths from the 1918 Flu

Now, hold this image in your head while you look at the next chart. I couldn't find anything to take a close-up view of this, but if you look at GDP from 1915-1920, there is no real visible blip.




Same with the stock market. Close-up views of the market between 1915-1920 also doesn't really show much worth responding to in terms of stock market activity.  There really is no visible or actionable blip as far as I can see. Again, you can google for a close-up and you won't really find anything, I don't think.


Of course, coronavirus is a terrible thing and it is disrupting a lot of people's lives. There is no doubt there is a huge impact to many people all over the place.

But as investors, we have to keep our cool and not freak out over every new data point. There is no doubt that the numbers will rise over time, and I honestly don't believe at all that there is no coronavirus in NYC, for example. I think the odds of that are ZERO. There is no way that there is no coronavirus here. It's just that we don't know yet how many we have, as apparently, NYC still doesn't have a test for it so has to send samples down to Atlanta. Plus, most people I know do NOT go to the hospital for a fever and a cough. I certainly don't, unless there is a reason to do so, or else I am told to.

So honestly, nobody knows how much is already here in NYC, and how much it is spreading. We won't know for a long time, and we may never know.

This can get worse, may peak out soon, or they may come up with a vaccine soon too. Who knows.

Many argue that the globalized supply chain will make the impact of this flu worse than previous cases, but there are positives about globalization too, like communication and technology, that might make responding to the virus much more effective. But again, who really knows.

I just don't think it's worth spending too much time on.

Bullish
Well, actually, I am not bullish or bearish. I just am. But if I had to guess, I tend to think these 'events' are hugely bullish. This is sort of true for most exogenous events. Why? Because governments / central banks tend to overreact. We are so afraid of negative economic impacts that they will overcompensate. This often leads to bubbles, which is usually not good.

Think about the bubble in Japan in the 1980s; much of that was a response to the yen-shock (Plaza accord of 1985); the fear that the strong yen will destroy the Japanese economy contributed to the bubble in the late 1980s there. In fact, the same sort of FX bickering between the US and the UK contributed to the 1920s bubble. Greenspan's fear of Ravi Batra's Great Depression contributed a lot to the bubble in the late 1990s (and the various meltdowns from Russia, Turkey, Asia, LTCM etc. all of these contributed to the bubble as the Central Bank(s) overcompensated).

This happened again after the Great Recession, and will now happen again due to fears that the coronavirus will plunge us into a recession (and was sort of happening due to fears that the trade wars will kill the economy).

So every time something bad happens, it has just been enormously bullish, every time. Of course, this can't go on. At some point, we will start pushing on a string, and the old tricks will stop working. That is also a certainty. And bubbles will pop every now and then, but only after a bubble becomes a real bubble, usually.

But, we can't really know when this (the end) will happen. Unless you are sure that we have reached the end of the line, you have to asssume that these negative events will just be hugely and incorrectly overcompensated for resulting in huge rallies everywhere.

Anyway, this is not really a bullish proclamation on my part. I will remain neutral (but invested), but just an observation.