Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Executive & Star Employee Compensation

There was an interesting juxtaposition of positions on executive and 'star employee' pay today from two staffers of the Wall Street Journal.

Alan Murray spoke on CNBC regarding Sirius radio's payment of many millions of dollars to Howard Stern. Mr. Murray provided stock price and recent product sales information to demonstrate that Stern is, in fact, proving to be worth the immense compensation package he received for switching employers to Sirius.

Meanwhile, in this morning's Wall Street Journal's Money & Investing section, on page one, Jesse Eisinger babbles about the need for hedge funds to be responsible for policing exhorbitant executive pay. He includes some formative academic research results to bolster his case that too much of net after-tax profits of some companies are going, on a percentage basis, to the CEOs of those companies.

Personally, I believe Alan Murray is on the right track. I think Jesse Eisinger has lost perspective.

As portfolio management has been my primary occupation for some time, I have reflected on so-called "corporate governance" issues, executive compensation being one of them, for years. I even have had discussions about it with a friend who is a noted retired Fortune 50 CEO and sometime-speaker on the topic.

As a portfolio manager, I will say that you only really have one effective lever- buy/hold/sell a stock. Period. As my father used to advise me when I was a child, "son, we live in a democracy. But your dollar vote counts much more than your ballot box vote, because you vote more times each year with your dollars while buying things than you ever vote in a year."

And that, dear readers, is what being in a mixed-free economic democracy is all about. Ultimately, dollar votes reflect reactions to political or moral dilemmas.

In this case, after all the brouhaha over executive and key employee compensation, the truth is that you buy or sell stocks of companies based upon relative expected performance. Frankly, so long as a stock is likely to exceed everybody else's expectations, and, thus, earn an above-average return, I could care less what they pay the janitor, the CEO, or anybody else at the company. It's up to the CEO and his team to figure out what levers to pull. I just hope I've bought the right teams of leaders and managers in the right sectors.

In my opinion, people who debate this compensation issue are sadly misinformed as to how much power or control they have over the issue. They would likely be better off accepting that they have none, and stick to selling poor performers, and buying those with good prospects of out-performance. Leave the operating management and board of directors to affect compensation, and stop spilling so much ink, real or cyber, over this red herring.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

2005 Equity Markets and Portfolio Strategy Observations

This year has demonstrated once again that our portfolio strategy consistently out-performs the market, despite our infrequent trading and sometimes concentrated positions. We reselected the portfolio once in January and in July. The portfolio’s focus on home building, energy supply and distribution, and retailers, returned 15.2%, which was 10.3 gross percentage points above the S&P500 index for the year.

Despite several mediocre months at the year’s outset, the portfolio actually gained in 8 out of the 12 months of 2005. This is a typical year’s performance pattern. When the portfolio and the index both gained or lost, the portfolio had a greater return in the same direction as the index, with the exception of February’s modest gains. This confirms our conviction that the portfolio’s declines during periods of mild market pessimism are inevitably compensated by its greater gains in the subsequent months of positive market performance. For instance, note the portfolio’s April decline, followed by May’s 8% return, the year’s largest.

This year’s major stories centered around economic weakness, the imminent collapse of what has been termed a “real estate bubble,” two natural disasters, and the effects of energy prices on the economy. Our patient maintenance of portfolio positions paid off handsomely when the pessimists were proved wrong throughout the year.

Last year may be portrayed as one in which the market staggered under a variety of negative forces, bumping along for much of the year with effectively no return at all, as displayed in the chart below.

Early in the year, inflation worries and repeated stories of an economic “soft patch” depressed the market for large cap equities. In a pique of contrariness, good job growth numbers were seen as baiting the Fed to raise rates, and thus choke off any US economic growth. Sell-side analysts’ reports of $100/bbl oil and raw material price inflation added to the malaise. Throughout the period, we remained long, confident that our long/short allocation signals correctly saw no major market decline coming. We felt that reports of energy “paper trading” pressures were partially responsible for energy price spikes, and raw materials price rises reflected economic growth, not pure inflation. We noted that, despite the Fed’s continued tightening, Treasuries were still not yielding above 5%, a level at which the economy is certainly capable of performing robustly. Our expectation at this time was for a modest S&P500 index performance for 2005 in the neighborhood of 5-8%.

In the second quarter, May’s sharp gains for both our portfolio and the index signaled the turnaround in investor confidence. By remaining patiently long, we avoided missing key days of large gains by being on the sidelines. As frequently happens in these circumstances, when investors return to a belief in future healthy economic growth, the portfolio gains even more than the index.

After a –4% return in April, the strategy had its best month in May, for a 7.9% gain, since November of last year. Unlike the index, however, in June, it continued to show strength with a 2.6% return. The various forces reacting to global geo-political and economic news seemed to have achieved a confused and confusing result as the second quarter ended. Oil prices continued to fluctuate at high levels. Interest rates, while higher over the second quarter, were still not high historically.

Rising rates may shift the growth prospects of various economic sectors, but they do not mean the end of growth per se. Most companies have business models designed to profit in conditions with interest rates above current levels. The levels have been rising ever since Alan Greenspan decided that the post-bubble liquidity provision by the Fed needed to be reversed. However, they were and are still not anywhere near the levels of the late 1970s, when the US economy experienced stagflation.

The third quarter featured one negative return month out of three for the S&P 500 index, like the second quarter, resulting in a return of 3.6%. The Pathfinder portfolio returned 12.3% for the quarter. It was the best quarter of 2005 for both the index and Pathfinder.

The Pathfinder portfolio for the second half of this year, which was the portfolio predominantly in place in the third quarter, was markedly different in its sector focus than the January selections.

Taken together, the portfolio indicated an expectation of continued profitability and market price rewards for energy producers and distributors, upscale retail goods, housing and lodging. It fit with a healthy, growing economy that is consuming more energy to fuel such growth—and can afford it. Consumer retail demand was expected to move from the Wal-Mart style discounters to upscale retailers and products.

In July, the S&P500 index posted the third of three consecutive positive months. However, the effects of hurricane Katrina dampened the August performance of the index. As hurricane Rita turned out to be milder than expected, and the aftermath of Katrina began to be clearer in September, the market eked out a small gain that month.

Taken together, however, it still resulted in the market’s best quarter of the year thus far.

The portfolio outpaced the market in July, as pre-hurricane energy concerns began to drive our energy and utility holdings higher. Home builders came under almost immediate pressure again, due to concerns over energy prices and interest rates. August saw the same directional results in these sectors, only more so. With hurricane Katrina, energy prices and the stocks of companies in those sectors skyrocketed. In Katrina’s aftermath, and with hurricane Rita affecting natural gas production and distribution, September added more stimulus to the same sectors.

As a result, the portfolio’s energy and utility holdings more than compensated for softness in the home building, retail, entertainment and upscale luxury brands holdings.

Did the continued rise in interest rates and energy prices again signal an end to growth, as they were expected to do in every quarter of this year? Similar to prior quarters, economic growth fundamentals—specifically, job creation and profits—continued to show strength. So, we believed the answer to this question to be “no,” and remained confidently long in our positions.

Our expectation was that the equity market was positioned for a continued healthy rise over the last quarters of 2005. Not stratospheric, like 2003, but more like the gentler gains of 2004. Our exposure signals remained, at this time, “long.”

The fourth quarter featured one negative return month out of three for the S&P 500 index, like the second and third quarters, resulting in a return of 2%. The Pathfinder portfolio returned 1.4% for the quarter, as October’s –5.4% loss dampened its performance.

Three major forces drove the market in the last quarter of 2005; the fallout from September’s hurricanes, fears of Fed action coupled with economic impacts of its tightening, and then, as always, retail holiday sales. Thus, October was the worst month for both the index and our portfolio since April. However, as the year ended, Greenspan remarked on the US economy’s robust strength in accommodating natural disasters and higher raw material and energy prices, while still continuing its modest, healthy growth. In fact, home building did not completely collapse and energy prices moderated. Inflation was not running away and both job and overall economic growth—despite media insistence to the contrary—remained and finished strong.

For the year overall, we feel our portfolio management approach served to ideally weather the uncertain psychological conditions of 2005. Attempting to time last year’s equity market could have been disastrous. After May, the S&P500 had only one significant positive month until November, but our portfolio had three solid months of performance in that period. We correctly remained long all year and easily out-performed the market.

Our disciplined management of a superior equity selection process resulted in another solid year of performance during an unusually choppy and uncertain year in the US equity markets. The process’ selection of energy-related, home building, luxury goods, basic materials and selected medical-related equities proved effective in capturing healthy growth. This was amidst an uneven response by the market to the year’s various pressures and their effects on various economic sectors.