The headlines scream for an answer to when markets will bottom (see Marketwatch.com article from headline "10 signs of a Floor" here) . But for Phoenix Principle investors, that question isn't even material. Who cares what happens to the S&P 500 – you want investments that will go up in value — and there are investments in all markets that go up in value. And not just because we expect some "greater fool" to bail us out of bad investments. Phoenix Principle investors put their money into opportunities which will meet future needs at competitive prices, thus growing, while returning above average rates of return. It really is that simple. (Of course, you have to be sure that other investors haven't bid up the growth opportunity to where it greatly exceeds its future value — like happened with internet stocks in the late 1990s. But today, overbidding that drives up values isn't exactly the problem.)
People get all tied up in "what will the market do?" As an investor, you need to care about the individual business. For years that was how people invested, by focusing on companies. But then clever economists said that as long as markets went up, investors were better off to just buy a group of stocks – an average such as the S&P 500 or Dow Jones Industrials. These same historians said don't bother to "time" your investments at all, just keep on buying some collection (some average) quarter after quarter and you'll do OK. We still hear investment apologists make this same argument. But stocks haven't been going up – and who knows when these "averages" will start going up again? Just ask investors in Japan, where they are still waiting for the averages to return to 1980s levels so they can hope to break even (after 20 years!). These historians, who use the past as their barometer, somehow forgot that consistent and common growth was a requirement to constantly investing in averages.
When the 2008 market shift happened, it changed the foundation upon which "constantly keep buying, don't time investing, it all works out in the end" was based. Those days may return – but we don't know when, if at all. Investors today have to return to the real cornerstone of investing – putting your money into investments which will give people what they want in the future.
Regardless of the "averages," businesses that are positioned to deliver on customer needs in future years will do well. If today the value of Google is down because CEO Eric Schmidt says the company won't return to old growth rates again until 2010, investors should see this as a time to purchase because short-term considerations are outweighing long-term value creation. Do you really believe internet ad-supported free search and paid search are low-growth global businesses? Do you really believe that short-term U.S. on-line advertising trends will remain at current rates, globally, for even 2 full years? Do you think Google will not make money on mobile phones and connectivity in the future? Do you think the market won't keep moving toward highly portable devices for computing answers, like the Apple iPhone, and away from big boxes like PCs?
When evaluating a business the big questions must be "is this company well positioned for most future scenarios? Are they developing robust scenarios of the future where they can compete? Are they obsessing about competitors, especially fringe competitors? Are they willing to be Disruptive? Do they show White Space to try new things?" If the answer to these questions is yes, then you should be considering these as good investments. Regardless of the number on the S&P 500. Look at companies that demonstrate these skills – Johnson & Johnson, Cisco Systems, Apple, Virgin, Nike, and G.E. – and you can start to assess whether they will in the future earn a high rate of return on their assets. These companies have demonstrated that even when people lose jobs and incomes shrink and trade barriers rise, they know how to use scenario planning, competitor obsession, disruptions and white space to grow revenue and profits.
You should not buy a company just because it "looks cheap." All companies look cheap just prior to failing. You could have been a buyer of cheap stock in Polaroid when 24 hour kiosks (not even digital photography yet) made the company's products obsolete. Just because a business met customer needs well in the past does not mean it will ever do so again. Like Sears. Or increasingly Motorola. Or G.M. These companies aren't focused on innovation for future customer needs, they prefer to ignore competitors, they hate disruptions and they refuse to implement White Space to learn. So why would you ever expect them to have a high future value?
Why did recent prices of real estate go up in California, New York, Massachusetts and Florida faster than in Detroit? People want to live and work there more than southeastern Michigan. For a whole raft of reasons. In 1920 the price of a home in Iowa or Kansas was worth more than in California. Why? Because an agrarian economy favored the earth-rich heartland over parched California. In the robust industrial age from 1940 to 1960, the value of real estate in Detroit, Chicago, Akron and Pittsburgh was far higher than San Francisco or Los Angeles. But in an information economy, the economics are different – and today (even after big price declines) California homes are worth multiples of Iowa homes. And, as we move further into the information economy, manufacturing centers (largely on big bodies of water in cool climates) have declining value. The market has shifted, and real estate values reflect the shift. Unless you know of some reason for lots (like millions) of health care or tech jobs to develop in Detroit, the region is highly over-built — even if homes are selling for fractions of former values.
We seem to have forgotten that to make high rates of return, we all have to be "market timers" and "investment pickers." Especially when markets shift. Because not everyone survives!!!!! All those platitudes about buying into market averages only works in nice, orderly markets with limited competition and growth. But when things shift – if you're in the wrong place you can get wiped out!! When the market shifted from agrarian to industrial in the 1920s and '30s my father was extremely proud that he became a teacher and stayed in Oklahoma (though the dust storms and all). But, by the 1970s it was clear that if he'd moved to California and bought a house in Palo Alto his net worth would have been many multiples higher. The same is true for stock investments. You can keep holding on to G.M., Citibank and other great companies of the past — or you can admit shift happened and invest in those companies likely to be leaders in the information-based economy of the next 30 years!