In The Picture of Dorian Gray, novelist, Oscar Wilde wrote “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I am mindful of how applicable this quote is to investor behavior over the past few years. We have the price of everything available instantly on our mobile devices, but we’ve lost our curiosity about the true value of things. When this bull market ends, investors who have grown complacent in this area will pay a hefty financial price.
This is the lesson of market volatility. We have experienced nine years of consistent, increases in the broad stock market averages with little in the way of normal corrective price action along the way. There are sound arguments about the suspect nature of this low volatility bull market. Most of these observations cast a critical eye toward the powerful yet secretive Federal Reserve Bank system. The Federal Reserve’s unprecedented use of “creative” techniques after the housing bubble contributed to the bull market in ways that will take decades to understand. The deluge of stock buybacks which were often funded by corporations' ability to borrow money at near zero interest rates are one example of suspect behavior that the Fed's policies promoted.
Long bull markets also tempt investors to consider two familiar forks in the behavioral road. Without the occasional price correction to jolt slumbering investors, they can drift into lazy thinking and numbly follow herd behavior. They forego the hard work of calculating the true value of their financial assets and simply trust in the masses. Other investors take the fork to blind hubris. They misinterpret market action as an affirmation of their intellect and ability to discern future price action. These investors adopt the mindset of short-term traders, churning through tweets, blog posts and charting software. They begin to trade higher risk instruments that they have little experience or understanding of but, as the bull rages, their risks pay off frequently enough to amplify their behavioral miscalculations.
We highlighted Tesla and Netflix in January as prime examples of the price/value conundrum. Netflix generates revenue but returns no money to shareholders. In fact, the company is burning through billions of dollars creating original shows with little expectation for how profitable the shows will be. The price of Netflix stock increased from $190 in January to $423 per share in June. Now (October 2018) it is on the verge of breaking $300.
This 122% jump followed by a 29% decline demonstrates the gap between the price of the company and the value of it’s shares. Placing a tangible value on Netflix requires making many unknowable assumptions about the future. Investors are left following a price trend that could reverse violently at any time.
I have a name for opportunities like Netflix and Tesla – uninvestable. There are other examples of companies whose stock price bears little resemblance to the intrinsic value of their products, services and financial assets. The Federal Reserve started reversing the housing crisis recovery experiments a couple of years ago. Stock investors were slow to understand the Fed’s persistence. Price volatility this year is an indication that investors are beginning to examine the price they have paid versus the value they bought. We have further to go before this price/value gap returns to historical norms.
Once they acknowledge the disconnect between prices and values in domestic stocks, investors can look at foreign markets where the price/value ratio is more favorable to long term appreciation. Pursuing value is our preferred path to build long term wealth.