What it will take for Tesla’s stunning rise to end with a successful landing.
“Wow, Elon Musk!”
That was the cathartic cheer and cry of relief in millions of American homes on May 30, after two months of forced confinement, when the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon Capsule lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying two American astronauts bound for the International Space Station. It was the first ever manned SpaceX mission and the first time since 2011 that an American-made rocket had taken Americans into space. SpaceX is of course one of Elon Musk’s companies.
As if on cue on the very next day, Musk’s other monster rocket, Tesla stock, blasted off again and shot out of its range, adding nearly 8 percent to reach $898.10, a level that was more than double its March low of $361.20. Days later, the boosters fired again and lifted the stock above $1,000 and then once more, after a two-week pause, to $1,500, where it is now taking a brief respite in the orbit of companies valued at $300 billion.
There in the stratosphere, the stillness of space envelops the investor as it does the astronaut. Escape velocity has been achieved for shareholders, some with many, many millions in profits, leaving the earthbound shorts (people who bet against the stock) but a small and distant memory to be mockingly blotted out of view.
These shorts, hopelessly weighed down by what’s left of traditional investment discipline, have (so far) lost a cumulative $18 billion in vain expectation that the Tesla rocket would reverse, crash, and burn. All they can do now is stare at their screens and argue to whomever will still listen that this stock rocket will eventually come back to Earth.
Not necessarily. Consider Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, launched long ago and now heading deeper and deeper into the trillion dollar galaxy.
The question then is whether Tesla, though much smaller today, can one day join the outer reaches traveled by these companies, or whether it will crash as so many hot stocks have in the past. Tesla bulls are confident that it can maintain its current trajectory, a belief that is owed in no small part to the faith that they have in Elon Musk. Read the rest at National Review.
America’s anemic recovery can be explained by its slowing demographics.
Politicians tend to overstate the positive impact of their policies on the economy and to also exaggerate the negative impact of their opponents’ policies. In all likelihood, there are other more potent factors at work.
Instead of GDP, we look at wealth creation as the main measure of the economy. GDP measures economic activity which means that building roads to nowhere is a positive contributor to GDP in the near term because of the jobs provided and the material and services purchased. But building roads to nowhere is a waste of money. By contrast, wealth creation accounts for the return on invested capital and differentiates between good and bad projects.
And wealth creation has three main drivers: innovation, demographics and the economy’s institutional framework.
To illustrate the importance of innovation, consider a country where there is little innovation and therefore little creation of intellectual property assets. The main assets in such an economy are hard assets, such as real estate, natural resources and the like. Unless there is strong demand for these assets from foreign markets, the economy of that country would stagnate or grow slowly with its population. Good examples of such countries today are commodity economies like the leading oil producers, industrial metal producers etc.
Now consider a country where there is innovation but where the population is small. Here the amount of wealth created by innovation would be quite small unless there is strong foreign demand for the products and services brought about by that innovation. A new iPhone that can only be marketed to a small population would create a lot less wealth than one marketed to a large population. Good examples are Switzerland and Finland which are quite innovative, have relatively small populations but export their products in large quantities.
Finally, consider a country that has lots of smart innovators and a large population but that suffers from a poor institutional framework. It is a country where the government and citizens are corrupt, where contract law is nonexistent, where capital markets are small, where property rights are not protected. There would be little wealth creation in such a country because the innovators would emigrate to another country where they could more readily prosper from their innovations.
Since 1945, the United States has been blessed by all three major contributors to wealth creation: strong innovation, strong demographics and a stable and supportive institutional framework. The same has been true for Europe, albeit with slower innovation and slightly worse demographics. The same has been true for Japan, with still worse demographics.
So where do we stand today? Of the three main engines in the US, innovation and the framework are still going strong. But demographics have weakened in several ways. First, after declining for several decades, the dependency ratio (number of dependents per worker) has been rising since 2005. Second, the number of Americans aged 30-60, arguably the most economically active age bracket, has stagnated at a little over 120 million people. Previously, the 30-60 group had grown steadily in every year from 1978 to 2005.
Presidents Reagan and Clinton are credited with a successful economy but their years in office also benefited greatly from a falling dependency ratio. The same is true for the second President Bush until mid-decade when the dependency ratio bottomed out and started to rise.
The anemic recovery since 2008 can largely be explained by our deteriorating demographics. The US population used to grow by 1 to 2% every year, which meant that companies could count on real growth of 1 to 2% and another 2 to 4% of inflation. But since 2007, annual population growth has fallen below 1% and inflation has also fallen. So what used to be safe annual domestic revenue growth of 3 to 6% is now looking more like 1 to 3%.
In Europe too, the dependency ratio bottomed and started to rise in the middle of the 2000s decade. In addition, Europe has been less innovative than the US in the past ten years, which explains its stock market lagging the US market. The rise of Google, Facebook and others and the resurgence of Apple have all taken place in the new millennium. Europe has had no such large success stories. Worse, one of its former superstars, Nokia, has nearly disappeared. So Europe still has a strong institutional framework but its other two engines of wealth creation are sputtering.
Japan’s dependency ratio bottomed in the early 1990s which may explain the country’s stagnation since then. It remains highly innovative but perhaps not sufficiently so in new focused companies with higher returns on capital.
The lesson of recent years is that US innovation may be strong enough to counter the effect of weakening demographics, but not strong enough to produce strong GDP growth. In addition, revenue growth in several industries has become highly dependent on exports to emerging markets. The economy and markets will do well if export demand continues to grow. But if emerging economies experience an important slowdown, our worsening demographics means that there will not be sufficient demand at home to pick up the slack.
For more data on US and world demographics, please refer to these previous posts:
Research suggests that when investors influence each other, the stock market becomes less efficient.
Conventional theory holds that the stock market is efficient and that it does a good job pricing stocks at or close to their fair value, in particular the stocks of large widely followed companies. But could the opposite be true? Could it be that the larger and more followed companies are the less efficiently priced by the market? Could it be that their market value is chronically 20%, 30%, or 40% off from their fair value?
Here is the theory. Assume that there is a finite number of investors, say 1,000 investors, who are active in the stock market and that they each independently derive a value for each stock in the S&P 500. ‘Independently’ here means ‘without sharing thoughts with each other and without letting themselves be influenced by other sources’. Under these admittedly improbable circumstances, the resulting level of the S&P 500 would be quite close to ‘intrinsic value’. We could say that the market would be ‘efficiently’ priced.
Now assume instead that the 1,000 are not working independently but that they influence each other, sharing valuation models, qualitative opinions, price targets, etc. Under these circumstances, the level of the S&P 500 would deviate, in some cases significantly, from its intrinsic value. The market would be inefficiently priced.
When can we expect a crowd to head us in the right direction, and when can’t we? Recently, researchers have begun to lay out a set of criteria for when to trust the masses.
Democratic decision-making works well when each individual first arrives at his or her conclusion independently. It’s the moment that people start influencing each other beforehand that a crowd can run into trouble.
Philip Ball, writing for BBC Future, describes a 2011 study in which participants were asked to venture educated guesses about a certain quantity, such as the length of the Swiss-Italian border:
“The researchers found that, as the amount of information participants were given about each others guesses increased, the range of their guesses got narrower, and the centre of this range could drift further from the true value. In other words, the groups were tending towards a consensus, to the detriment of accuracy.”
“This finding challenges a common view in management and politics that it is best to seek consensus in group decision making. What you can end up with instead is herding towards a relatively arbitrary position.”
If the research is valid, it debunks the idea that a widely followed stock is efficiently priced. It is not uncommon to hear someone say: “this company is followed by so many people that I have no edge investing in it”. The opposite is almost certainly true: the more widely followed a stock is, and the more ‘influence’ is traded between the participants, the more certain you can be that its market price is wrong, and possibly wrong by a substantial margin.
Take Apple stock for example which is followed by a large number of analysts and investors. When it comes to AAPL price targets, can we say, to paraphrase the article, that the “range of their estimates got narrower, and the center of this range has drifted further from the true value?” And are investors as a group “tending towards a consensus, to the detriment of accuracy?” Investors tend to cluster their price targets not far from the current price which is now $95. But we can theorize that Apple’s intrinsic value is not $100 or $90. It is probably much further from its current market price, say $70 or $120, or indeed much lower or higher.
Another conclusion can be drawn. When discussing their investment process, fund managers tend to put emphasis on the individual expertise of sector analysts and on their team’s collaborative discussions. In a typical model, the sector analyst will initiate an investment idea and pitch it to a fund manager or to a team who will then reach a decision on how to proceed. In this case, the sector analyst may have been influenced by his peers, by the sell-side and by other sources. And the deciding team members, while searching for a consensus, may have been influenced by each other, by the analyst, and by some willingness to defer to the analyst’s expertise.
If you believe the research described above, this is not the best approach to choosing investments for a portfolio. A better approach would be to have 5 or 10 analysts value the same stock independently, without looking at other sources. It might also be better if these analysts were generalists instead of sector specialists who may be biased in favor of their sector. Once the work is done, there is no point in having any discussions which may prove to be counterproductive. In theory, ‘discussion’ means ‘influence’ and it would result in more bad decisions. It is better to simply look at the valuations derived by these independent analysts. If the average of their price targets is way off the market price, it would be worth initiating a position.