Howard Marks Warns On FAANG: ‘Investors Cannot See The Future’

There’s been no shortage of debate this year about the extent to which the current state of affairs is sustainable.

And no, I don’t mean whether central banks can continue to levitate risk assets or suppress volatility, although those dynamics are invariably part and parcel of every other market dynamic one cares to discuss.

Rather, I’m talking about the extent to which benchmarks are dependent on just a handful of tech names that everyone assumes, in what certainly feels like deja vu all over again, are bulletproof and can continue to play Atlas to this market indefinitely.

Consider this brief exchange I had with Josh Brown:

JB1

JB2

JB3

Needless to say, another problem with FANG (or, “FAAMG” I guess is the “proper” acronym now) is that they have become to a certain extent synonymous not only with momentum and growth (which is kind of tautological) but also with low vol.

Fang

That latter point (about low vol.) has Goldman concerned, and indeed that concern was the subject of a now infamous note which catalyzed the June 9 tech selloff. The problem, as Goldman explained, is this:

If FAAMG was its own sector, it would screen as having the lowest realized volatility in the market. How can low vol create a problem? Investors are increasingly focused on “volatility-adjusted” returns as they are deciding which stocks to invest in. We believe low realized volatility can potentially lead people to underestimate the risks inherent in these businesses including cyclical exposure, potential regulations regarding online activity or antitrust concerns or disruption risk as they encroach into each other’s businesses.

Mechanically, we expect that as the realized volatility of a stock drops, more passive “low vol” strategies buy the stock, pushing up the return and dampening downside volatility. The fear is that if fundamental events cause volatility to rise, these same passive vehicles will sell and exacerbate downside volatility.

Ok, so with all of that as the backdrop consider the following from Howard Marks, who reminds investors that when it comes to FANG, you “cannot see the future”…

Via Howard Marks

Bull markets are often marked by the anointment of a single group of stocks as “the greatest,” and the attractive legend surrounding this group is among the factors that support the bull move.  When taken to the extreme – as it invariably is – this phenomenon satisfies some of the elements in a boom listed on page four, including: 

  • trust in a virtuous circle incapable of being interrupted;
  • conviction that, given the companies’ fundamental merit, there’s no price too high for their stocks; and
  • the willing suspension of disbelief that allows investors to extrapolate these positive views to infinity.

In the current iteration, these attributes are being applied to a small group of tech-based companies, which are typified by “the FAANGs”: Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google (now renamed Alphabet).  They all sport great business models and unchallenged leadership in their markets.  Most importantly, they’re viewed as having captured the future and thus as sure to be winners in the years to come. 

True as far as it goes . . . just as it appeared to be true of the Nifty-Fifty in the 1960s, oil stocks in the ’70s, disk drive companies in the ’80s, and tech/media/telecom in the late ’90s.  But in each of those cases: 

  • the environment changed in unforeseen ways,
  • it turned out that the newness of the business model had hidden its flaws,
  • competition arose,
  • excellence in the concept gave rise to weaknesses in execution, and/or
  • it was shown that even great fundamentals can become overpriced and thus give way to massive losses.

The FAANGs are truly great companies, growing rapidly and trouncing the competition (where it exists).  But some are doing so without much profitability, and for others profits are growing slower than revenues.  Some of them doubtless will be the great companies of tomorrow.  But will they all?  Are they invincible, and is their success truly inevitable?

The prices investors are paying for these stocks generally represent 30 or more years of the companies’ current earnings. There are clear reasons to be excited about their growth in the near term, but what about the durability of earnings over the long term, where much of the value in a high-multiple stock necessarily lies?  Andrew points out that the iPhone is just ten years old, and twenty years ago the Internet wasn’t in widespread use.  That raises the question of whether investors in technology can really see the future, and thus how happy they should be paying prices that incorporate optimistic assumptions regarding long-term earnings power.  Of course, this may just mean the best is yet to come for these fairly young companies.

Here’s a passage from one company’s 1997 letter to shareholders: 

We established long-term relationships with many important strategic partners, including America Online, Yahoo!, Excite, Netscape, GeoCities, AltaVista, @Home, and Prodigy.

How many of these “important strategic partners” still exist in a meaningful way today (leaving aside the question of whether they’re important or strategic)?  The answer is zero (unless you believe Yahoo! satisfies the criteria, in which case the answer is one).  The source of the citation is Amazon’s 1997 annual report, and the bottom line is that the future is unpredictable, and nothing and no company is immune to glitches.

The super-stocks that lead a bull market inevitably become priced for perfection.  And in many cases the companies’ perfection turns out eventually to be either illusory or ephemeral.  Some of the “can’t lose” companies of the Nifty-Fifty were ultimately crippled by massive changes in their markets, including Kodak, Polaroid, Xerox, Sears and Simplicity Pattern (do you see many people sewing their own clothes these days?).  Not only did the perfection that investors had paid for evaporate, but even the successful companies’ stock prices reverted to more-normal valuation multiples, resulting in sub-par equity returns.  

The powerful multiple expansion that makes a small number of stocks the leaders in a bull market is often reversed in the correction that follows, saddling them with the biggest losses.  But when the mood is positive and things are going well, the likelihood of such a development is easily overlooked.

Finally, a rationale often arises to the effect that, thanks to market technicals, investors’ powerful buying of the leading stocks is sure to continue non-stop, meaning they can’t help but remain the best performers.  In the tech bubble of the late 1990’s, for example, investors concluded that 

  • stocks were doing so well that they would continue to attract capital,
  • since tech companies and tech stocks were the best performers, they were sure to continue attracting a disproportionate share of the new buying,
  • the superior performance of the tech stocks would cause more of them to be added to the stock indices,
  • this would require index funds and closet indexers to direct a rising share of their buying to tech stocks,
  • in order to keep up with the returns on the indices, benchmark-conscious active managers would have to respond by increasing their tech stock holdings, and,
  • thus tech stocks couldn’t fail to attract an ever-rising share of buying, and were sure to keep outperforming.

You can call this a virtuous circle or a perpetual motion machine.  It’s the kind of thing that fires investors’ imaginations in a bull market.  But the logic that says it will work forever always collapses, sometimes just under its own weight, as was the case in 2000.

Many of the most important considerations in investing are counterintuitive.  One of those is the ability to understand that no market, niche or group is likely to outperform the others forever.  Given human nature, “the best” will always come eventually to be overpriced, even for their stellar fundamentals.  Thus even if the fundamentals hold up, the stocks’ performance from those too-high prices will become ordinary.  And if they turn out not really to have been the best – or if their business falters – the combination of fundamental decline and multiple contraction can be really painful.

I’m not saying the FAANGs aren’t great, or that they’ll suffer such a fate.  Just that their elevated status today is a sign of the kind of investor optimism for which we must be on the lookout.

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One thought on “Howard Marks Warns On FAANG: ‘Investors Cannot See The Future’

  1. great analysis. Low vol seems to be the basis of the Minsky Moment. Complacency breeds excess risk taking. Something inherent in human nature leads to this, or else it wouldn’t be so common in so many different markets.

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