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Monday, January 09, 2012

Five year snap-back

Each quarter, Barron's publishes how mutual funds performed by sector.  Sectors in this case refers to how mutual funds are categorized, like funds invested in large, mid-size or small companies, growth or value, bonds, international, gold, real estate, science and technology, etc.

I find this information interesting not because I think quarterly or annual performance is meaningful--it's not.  You have to look at much longer periods, like five or ten years, to get meaningful information, and Barron's publishes that as well.

And, here's where things get interesting.  If a particular sector has done well over the last five years, does that mean it is likely to continue to do so going forward?  Not at all.  In fact, a good case can be made that the sectors that do best over the last five years are seldom if ever the one's that do best over the following five years.

And, that's what I look for in Barron's tables.  I look for the sectors that have done best and worst over the last five years because the best will likely become worst and the worst will likely become best.

The analysis isn't quite that simple, of course (nothing worthwhile in life is that easy), but some interesting data points can be gathered that might prove useful in guessing about the future.

For instance, the best performing sector over the last five years was precious metals (8.09% annualized).  That's not at all surprising given that gold and silver have been on a tear over the last decade.  Will it be best going forward?  I doubt it.  I'd guess precious metals will continue to do well for a few more years and then tank.  Good luck trying to jump off the elevator before it plummets.

What else has done well?  If you guessed U.S. Treasuries, good for you.  They were the second best performing sector out of 103 sectors(!) with an annualized five year return of 6.99%.  If you think that one will be the best performing over the next five or ten years, please don't operate heavy machinery.


The a
bsolute worst sector was short bias funds with a -16.61% annualized return.  It's almost impossible to make money, long term, by going short all the time.  If the world falls apart, short bias funds will perform best over the next five years.  But, then again, you have to wonder whether property rights will be enforced or if the dollars you withdraw will be worth anything.

The Japanese stock market was the next worst sector, with a -13.27% return.  I'd guess that Japan is a very good candidate for a turn-around, but they culturally seem to scorn shareholders so I personally hesitate.  Unlike short-bias funds, I think this one has a good chance of looking brilliant in five or ten years.

The third worst was financial services (-11.09% annualized).  The crash and recovery from 2008 to 2009 makes that unsurprising, and a very likely candidate to out-perform over the next five years.  Like Japan, it has the clear ability to turn around, and everyone hates it, so it's a great contrarian bet.

After looking at the best and worst stand-outs, I look at small versus large and value versus growth.  Anyone who has studied finance knows that, over the long run, small beats large and value beats growth.  The support and records behind that, both theoretically and empirically, are so strong and long that there is very little reason to believe it will change going forward.

However, the long term record also shows that small doesn't--each and every year--beat large, and value doesn't always beat growth.  In fact, long periods of time go by where just the opposite happens.  Such periods are usually followed by a snap-back to historic averages--and profit-making opportunities.

The last five years are very interesting along this dimension, because growth has crushed value and small has beaten large by a much larger margin than is historically usual.  This leads me to believe (and has for several frustrating years now) that value will greatly out-perform growth over the next five years and large will greatly out-perform small.

I'll admit that I don't invest with this approach as my starting point: I don't examine the Barron's tables and then go do research accordingly.  Quite the opposite, the Barron's tables simply verify what I've been seeing in my bottom-up (security by security) research--that precious metals and U.S. Treasuries look very expensive, and that Japan and financials look very cheap.  It also confirms my experience that large companies seem to have much better return prospects than small, and that value looks much better than growth.

Barron's report of five year performance isn't a magic crystal ball, but it does provide some interesting information.  I think we're likely to see a five year snap-back, and my fundamental research confirms that assessment.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

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