Thursday, November 15, 2018

Why I Shorted the S&P500

The S&P 500 now has returned around 0% this year-to-date. This is Trump's second year in office and the euphoria from his economic policy changes has worn off. As I mentioned throughout much of the year I have had a significant short position on the S&P 500 index. So I have luckily come out slightly ahead in this position. So effectively I am running a long-short portfolio. Counting only my long positions, I am very much at less than 100% invested in stocks. And counting the short position, I am at even less exposed to the market. So, the purpose of the short is to remove my exposure to stocks since my primary market, the S&P 500, is way way overpriced. In this way I can still play the stock picking game while at the same time shield myself from the correction that I feel is just around the corner.

I have seen two major US corrections and I have come to realize, by living in the US, that the euphoria for the markets is bound to come once or even twice every generation. I am seeing another case now. The US is simply at an unsustainable level. My reason for this is grounded on the principle that a stock investment should be based on the value of the company. And this value is the present value of all future cash flows. This is a basic value investing principle.

So the S&P500 index should be priced at the present value of the cash flows from of its constituent companies. The latest TTM earnings of the S&P 500 is only 122 whereas the index is at around 2700 today. That means the entire index is trading at PE of 22! This is way over the normal traditional range of 15. And 15 is being very generous. I want to use this latter PE multiple to help get an estimate of the potential return of the S&P500 over the near future, say 10 years.

The future cash flows of a stock, which reflects the value, is somewhat reflected by the earnings of that stock. If the earnings grow by a certain percentage every year, then the value of the stock should grow by that amount also. I will be generous and say that the S&P500 will grow earnings by 5%. I will also be generous and say that the S&P500 will yield 2%. Therefore, from just this data, we can see that the S&P500 will return around 7%. Not bad but not great either considering I keep hearing returns have traditionally been around 10-12%.

But there is still a flip side to the investing reality: the index is at a very high PE multiple now. It must return to more normal levels. Say it returns to a more traditional, albeit still elevated, level of 15. That means for the same earnings, the stock prices will have to drop to 68% of the elevated level! If this happens in 10yrs that is an annual drop of 2.5%. That is a lot considering that the return I just derived was only 7%.

And wait, it gets worse.

All investors will constantly face three impediments: inflation, taxes and fees. So far, I have not mentioned them in calculating returns. Firstly, there is inflation. Inflation is a fact of life and is often ignored when talking about returns. The reason for this is that inflation varies from year to year and to simplify discussion, we talk in terms of nominal returns. Nominal returns are the opposite of real returns which factor in inflation. The 10-12% return commonly touted is always the nominal amount.

The second impediment is taxes. We can avoid this temporarily by investing in tax-sheltered retirement accounts, but there is a limit to how much we can put in such accounts. We can also reduce it by holding stocks for a long time, if not forever. And there must be many other creative ways of avoiding it, for example by cheating on taxes. Because of this variability, I will only look at dividends, which is forcibly taxed. Suppose the tax rate on dividends is 30% and suppose that half of one's portfolio is not tax sheltered. Then using the 2% dividend number, we will pay 0.3% of our portfolio into taxes.

Earnings growth +5%
Dividend yield +2%
PE shrinkage -2.5%
Taxes on dividends -0.3%
Net return 4%
10 yr net return 48%

Thirdly, there is the fees. This is the most manageable impediment. How much one saves depends on how much effort one expends. I depend on myself for all my financial decisions, I hardly own any funds or ETFs. Therefore, the only fees I pay are transaction fees, currency exchange fees and travel costs to visit companies. All this I estimate is only 0.2% of my portfolio. And subtracting all this up gives me a net return of 4% per annum or 48% per decade. See table. I bet this will be an incredibly low number compared to the average retail investor's expectations. In the long term, stock prices will be grounded by the PE ratio. When the current euphoria subsides and reality sets in, the mood of the market will probably cause prices to fall significantly below the 4% estimate, maybe it could even turn negative at the end of ten years! In the given calculations, I said that the PE shrinkage from 22 to 15 would reduce returns by 2.5%. If the PE goes from 22 to 11.5, the nominal return would not be 4% but 0%!

It is easy to see why I shorted the S&P500.