MONEY investing strategy

The Track Records of Wall Street’s Top Strategists Are Worse Than You Think

fever graph on screen
Richard Drew—AP

Listening to Wall Street's top strategists is no better than random guessing.

This is embarrassing.

There are 22 “chief market strategists” at Wall Street’s biggest banks and investment firms. They work at storied firms such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. They have access to the best information, the smartest economists, and teams of brilliant analysts. They talk to the largest investors in the world. They work hard. They are paid lots of money.

One of their most important — and certainly highest-profile — jobs is forecasting what the stock market will do over the next year. Strategists do this every January by predicting where the S&P 500 will close on Dec. 31.

You won’t be shocked to learn their track record isn’t perfect. But you might be surprised at how disastrously bad it is. I certainly was.

On average, chief market strategists’ forecasts are worse than those made by a guy I call the Blind Forecaster. He’s a brainless idiot who assumes the market goes up 9% — its long-term historic average — every year, regardless of circumstances.

Here’s the average strategist’s forecast versus actual S&P 500 performance since 2000:

Some quick math shows the strategists’ forecasts were off by an average of 14.7 percentage points per year.

How about the Blind Forecaster? Assuming the market would rise 9% every year since 2000 provided a forecast that was off by an average of 14.1 percentage points per year.

Underperforming the Blind Forecaster isn’t due to 2008, which forecasters like to write off as an unforeseeable “black swan.” Excluding 2008, the strategists’ error rate is 12 percentage points per year, versus 11.6 percentage points per year for the Blind Forecaster. Our idiot still wins.

The Blind Forecaster wasn’t a good forecaster, mind you. He was terrible. He missed bear markets and underestimated bull markets. In only one of the last 14 years was his annual forecast reasonably close to being accurate. But he was still better than the combined effort of 22 of Wall Street’s brightest analysts.

And the Blind Forecaster required no million-dollar salary. He worked no late nights. He attended no conference calls, meetings, or luncheons. He made no PowerPoint presentations, and never appeared on CNBC. He has no beach house, and was granted no bonuses. He works free of charge, offering his services to anyone who will listen.

Amazingly, these stories aren’t rare. In 2007, economists Ron Alquist and Lutz Kilian looked atcrude futures, a market used to predict oil prices. These markets were actually less accurate at predicting oil prices than a naïve “no-change” forecast, which assumes the future price of oil is whatever the current price is now. The no-change forecast was terrible at predicting oil prices, of course. But it was better than the collective effort of the futures market.

This raises two questions: Why do people listen to strategists? And why are they so bad?

The first question is easy. I think there’s a burning desire to think of finance as a science like physics or engineering.

We want to think it can be measured cleanly, with precision, in ways that make sense. If you think finance is like physics, you assume there are smart people out there who can read the data, crunch the numbers, and tell us exactly where the S&P 500 will be on Dec. 31, just as a physicist can tell us exactly how bright the moon will be on the last day of the year.

But finance isn’t like physics. Or, to borrow an analogy from investor Dean Williams, it’s not like classical physics, which analyzes the world in clean, predictable, measurable ways. It’s more like quantum physics, which tells us that — at the particle level — the world works in messy, disorderly ways, and you can’t measure anything precisely because the act of measuring something will affect the thing you’re trying to measure (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). The belief that finance is something precise and measurable is why we listen to strategists. And I don’t think that will ever go away.

Finance is much closer to something like sociology. It’s barely a science, and driven by irrational, uninformed, emotional, vengeful, gullible, and hormonal human brains.

If you think of finance as being akin to physics when it’s actually closer to sociology, forecasting becomes a nightmare.The most important thing to know to accurately forecast future stock prices is what mood investors will be in in the future. Will people be optimistic, and willing to pay a high price for stocks? Or will they be bummed out, panicked about some crisis, pissed off at politicians, and not willing to pay much for stocks? You have to know that. It’s the most important variable when predicating future stock returns. And it’s unknowable. There is no way to predict what mood I’ll be in 12 months from now, because no matter what you measure today, I can ignore it a year from now. That’s why strategists have such a bad record.

Worse than a Blind Forecaster.

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel’s columns.

The more you know about the most common mistakes that investors make, the better your likelihood of building lasting wealth. Click here for more commentary on how I think about investing and money.

Contact Morgan Housel at mhousel@fool.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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MONEY Markets

What the Greek Crisis Means for Your Money

Global markets seem safe enough for now, but a so-called “Grexit” could have unpredictable effects.

As government officials in Greece and the rest of the European Union continue to haggle over the terms of its bailout agreement, you may be wondering: Does this have anything to do with me?

If you are investing in a retirement account like a 401(k) or an IRA, the answer is likely “yes.” About a third of holdings in a fairly typical target-date mutual fund, like Vanguard Target Retirement 2035, are in foreign stocks. Funds like this, which hold a mix of stocks and bonds, are popular choices in 401(k)s.

Of those foreign stocks, only a small number are Greek companies. Vanguard Total International Stock (which the 2035 fund holds), for example, has only about 0.1% of assets in Greek companies. But about 20% of the foreign holdings in a typical target date fund are in euro-member countries, and if Greece leaves the euro, that could affect the whole continent.

What’s the worst that could happen? For one, investors and citizens in some troubled economies like Spain and Italy could start pulling their euros out of banks. Also, borrowing costs could go up, and that could hurt economic growth and weigh down stock prices. And if fear of European instability drives investors to seek out safe assets like U.S. Treasuries, then bond yields and interest rates could keep staying at their unusually low levels.

There are some market watchers who see a potential upside to the conflict over Greece, however.

“If you believe the euro is an average of its currencies, it could actually rise if Greece leaves,” says BMO Private Bank chief investment officer Jack Ablin. A higher euro would make European stocks more valuable in dollar terms.

Additionally, he says, if Athens is thrown into pandemonium, then it’s actually less likely other countries will want to follow Greece out of the currency union.

The Greek situation will also have an impact on the bond market. If fear of European instability drives investors to seek out safe assets like U.S. Treasuries, then many bond funds will do well, and yields and interest rates would stay at their unusually low levels.

Perhaps the most insidious thing right now, says Ablin, is uncertainty. Again, a Greek exit from the euro would be unprecedented, and that makes the effect unpredictable—and potentially very scary for the global market. So investors would be wise to keep in mind the possibility of “black swans,” a term coined by statistician Nassim Taleb to describe market events that seem unimaginable (like black swans used to be) until they actually occur.

MONEY Markets

Oil Prices: Freaking Investors Out for 150 Years and Counting

Oil derricks moving up and down
Getty Images

The entire oil and gas industry has pretty much maneuvered from crisis to crisis since its inception.

Whenever I read or watch financial media coverage of oil prices lately, the image that comes to mind is a bunch of kids who just ate half their weight in candy, washed it down with a gallon of Red Bull, and then run around the playground at warp speed. They both move so fast and sporadically that is almost impossible to keep up with them.

Here is just a small example of headlines that have been found at major financial media outlets in just the past week:

  • Citi: Oil Could Plunge to $20, and This Might Be ‘the End of OPEC’
  • OPEC sees oil prices exploding to $200 a barrel
  • Oil at $55 per barrel is here to stay
  • Gas prices may double by year’s end: Analyst

What is absolutely mind-boggling about these statements is that these sorts of predictions are accompanied with the dumbest thing that anyone can say about commodities: This time it’s different.

No it’s not, and we have 150 years worth of oil price panics to prove it.

Oil Prices: From one hysterical moment to another

The thought of oil prices moving 15%-20% is probably enough to make the average investor shudder. The assumption is that when a move that large happens, something must be wrong with the market that could change your investment thesis. Perhaps the supply and demand curves are a little out of balance, maybe there is a geopolitical conflict that could compromise a critical producing nation.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s just what oil prices do over time.

Ever since 1861 — two years after the very first oil well was dug in the U.S. — there have been:

  • 88 years with a greater than 10% change, once every year and a half
  • 69 years with a greater than 15% change, or once every 2.25 years
  • 44 years with a greater than 25% change, once every 3.5 years
  • 13 years with a greater than 50% change, once every dozen years or so

Also keep in mind, these are just the change in annual price averages. So it’s very likely that these big price pops and plunges are even more frequent than what this chart shows.

Investing in energy takes more stomach than brains

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of basing all of your energy investing decisions on the price of oil and where it will go. On the surface it makes sense because the price of that commodity is the lifeblood of these companies. When the price of oil drops as much as 50% over a few months, it will likely take a big chunk out of revenue and earnings power.

As you can see from this data, though, the frequency of major price swings is simply too much for the average investor to try to time the market. Heck, even OPEC, the organization that is supposed to be dedicated to regulating oil prices through varying production is bad at predicting which way oil prices will go.

The reality is, being an effective energy investor doesn’t require the skill to know where energy prices are headed — nobody has that skill anyways. The real determining factor in effectively investing in this space is identifying the best companies and holding them through the all the pops and drops.

Let’s just use an example here. In 1980, the price of oil — adjusted for inflation — was at a major peak of $104. From there it would decline for five straight years and would never reach that inflation adjusted price again until 2008. For 15 of those 28 years oil prices were one-third what they were in 1980. If we were to use oil prices as our litmus test, then any energy investment made in 1980 would have been a real stinker.

However, if you had made an investment in ExxonMobil in 1980 and just held onto it, your total return — share price appreciation plus dividends — would look a little something like this.

XOM Total Return Price Chart

So much for all those pops and drops.

What a Fool believes

The entire oil and gas industry has pretty much maneuvered from crisis to crisis since its inception, we just seemed to have forgotten that fact up until a few months ago because we had two years of relative calm. The important thing to remember is that the world’s energy needs grow every day and the companies that produce it will invest and make more money off of it when prices are high and less money when prices are low.

Based on the historical trends of oil, analysts will continue to go on their sugar-high proclamation streak and say that oil will go to absurd highs and lows so they can get their name in a financial piece, and they will try to tell you that this time it’s different because of xyz. We know better, and they should as well.

There’s 150 years of evidence just waiting to prove them wrong.

MONEY financial crisis

By This Measure, Banks Are Safer Today Than Before the Financial Crisis

150209_INV_BanksSafer
iStock

At least from the standpoint of liquidity, the nation's banks have come a long way over the last few years to build a safer and more stable financial system.

If you study the history of bank failures, one thing stands out: While banks typically get into trouble because of poor credit discipline, their actual failure is generally triggered by illiquidity. Fortunately, banks appear to have learned this lesson — though we probably have the 2010 Dodd Frank Act to thank for that — as lenders like Bank of America BANK OF AMERICA CORP. BAC 1.08% and others have taken significant steps over the last few years to reduce liquidity risk.

It’s important to keep in mind that banks are nothing more than leveraged funds. They start with a sliver of capital, borrow money from depositors and creditors, and then use the combined proceeds to buy assets. The difference between what they earn on those assets and what they pay to borrow the funds makes up their net revenue — or, at least, a significant part of it.

Because this model allows you to make money with other peoples’ money, it’s a thing of beauty when the economy is growing and there are no warning signs on the horizon. But it’s much less so when things take a turn for the worse. This follows from the fact that a bank’s funding could dry up if creditors lose faith in its ability to repay them, or if they need the money themselves. And if a bank’s funding sources dry up, then it may be forced to dispose of assets quickly and at fire-sale prices in order to pay its creditors back.

This is why some funding sources are better than others. Deposits are the best because they are the least likely to flee at the first sign of trouble. Within deposits, moreover, insured consumer deposits are preferable, at least in this respect, to large foreign, corporate, or institutional deposits, which carry a greater threat of flight risk because they often exceed the FDIC’s insurance limit.

The second most stable source of funds is long-term debt, as this typically can’t be called by creditors until it matures. Finally, the least stable source consists of short-term debt, including overnight loans from other banks as well as funds from the “repo” and/or commercial paper markets. Because these must be rolled over at regular intervals, sometimes even nightly, they give a bank’s creditors the option of not doing so.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the biggest bank failures in history stemmed from an over-reliance on either short-term credit or on large institutional depositors. This was the reason scores of New York’s biggest and most prestigious banks had to suspend withdrawals in the Panic of 1873, during which correspondent banks located throughout the country simultaneously rushed to withdraw their deposits from money center banks after panic broke out on Wall Street. This was also the case a century later, when Continental Illinois became the first too-big-to-fail bank in 1984. It was the case at countless savings and loans during the 1980s. And it’s what took down Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Washington Mutual in the financial crisis of 2008-09.

A corollary to this rule is that one way to measure a bank’s susceptibility to failure — which, as I discuss here, should always be at the forefront of investors, analysts, and bankers’ minds — is to gauge how heavily it relies on short-term credit and institutional deposits as opposed to retail deposits and long-term loans. If a bank relies too heavily on the former, particularly in relation to its illiquid assets, then that’s an obvious sign of weakness. If it doesn’t, then that’s a sign of strength — though, it’s by no means a guarantee that a bank is otherwise prudently managed.

One way to gauge this is simply to look at what percentage of a bank’s funds derive from short-term loans as opposed to more stable sources. As you can see in the chart below, for instance, Bank of America gets roughly 16% of its funds from the short-term money market. That’s worse than a smaller, simpler bank like U.S. Bancorp, which looks to the money market for only 9% of its liquidity, but it’s nevertheless better than, say, Bank of America’s former reliance on short-term funds, which came in at 31% in 2005. Indeed, as William Cohen intimates in House of Cards, one of the “dirty little secret[s]” of Wall Street companies prior to the crisis was how much they relied on overnight repo funding to prop up their operations.

A second way to measure this is to compare a bank’s funding sources to the liquidity of its assets, and loans in particular, as loans are one of the least liquid types of assets held on a bank’s balance sheet. This is the function of the loan-to-deposit ratio, which estimates whether a bank’s deposits can singlehandedly fund its loan book. If deposits exceed loans — though, remember that not all deposits are created equal — then a bank could theoretically withstand a liquidity run by pruning its securities portfolio or using parts thereof as collateral in exchange for cash. This would protect it from the need to unload loans at fire-sale prices which, in turn, could render the bank insolvent.

Overall, as the chart above illustrates, the bank industry has aggressively reduced its loan-to-deposit ratio since the crisis. In 2006, it was upwards of 96%. Today, it’s closer to 70%. It can’t be denied that some of this downward trend has to do with the historically low interest rate environment, which reduces the incentive of depositors to alternate out of deposits and into low-yielding securities. But it’s also safe to assume that banks have intentionally brought this number down to shore up their balance sheets, and in response to the heightened liquidity requirements of the post-crisis regulatory regime.

Whatever the motivations are behind these trends, one thing is certain: At least from the standpoint of liquidity, the nation’s banks have come a long way over the last few years to build a safer and more stable financial system. This doesn’t mean we won’t have banking crises and liquidity runs in the future, as history speaks clearly on the point that we will. But it does mean that, for the time being anyhow, this is one less thing for bank investors to worry about.

TIME finance

The S&P Settlement Is Odious—And Business as Usual

S&P Index Reports Record Drop In U.S. Home Prices
David McNew—Getty Images GLENDALE, CA - NOVEMBER 27: A reduced price sign sits in front of a house November 27, 2007 in Glendale, California. U.S. home prices plummeted 4.5 percent in the third quarter from the year before. It is the biggest drop since the start of Standard & Poor’s nationwide housing index 20 years ago, the research group announced. Prices also fell 1.7 percent from the previous three-month period in the largest quarter-to-quarter decline in the index’s history. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The settlement is huge news and proof that the shady arrangement between Wall Street and Washington is back to business as usual

The bill finally came due for Standard & Poor’s Financial Services: $1.37 billion. That’s what the company will pay to the federal, state and D.C. governments to resolve the culpability of its ratings agency in draining trillions of dollars from our bank accounts, 401ks and home equity not to mention contributing mightily to the global financial crisis.

As Attorney General Eric Holder put it: “As S&P admits under this settlement, company executives complained that the company declined to downgrade underperforming assets because it was worried that doing so would hurt the company’s business. While this strategy may have helped S&P avoid disappointing its clients, it did major harm to the larger economy, contributing to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

But S&P got off cheap and the fact that none of the people in charge of the company at the time are going to jail tells you it’s business as usual between Washington and Wall Street. It’s just a speeding ticket, people. Move along. The company was quick to point out that it wasn’t guilty of what it admitted to: “The settlement contains no findings of violations of law by the Company, S&P Financial Services or S&P Ratings,” the company’s press release asserts.

Nope, just a level of odiousness that still resonates eight years later.

S&P, part of McGraw Hill Financial, Inc. rates bonds for a living—it still does—and it was living well up to the financial crisis by rubber stamping its top, AAA rating to tranche after tranche of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOS) from 2004 to 2007. The way this works is that the bond issuers pay the ratings agencies to rate them. No conflict there, right? Triple-A is the rating reserved for the best of the best. But RMBs and CDOs that S&P was rating were partially underwritten by the vast number of no-doc, “liar loan” and other mortgages being handed out by equally sleazy outfits such as Countrywide Financial.

It all collapsed like the Ponzi scheme it was when these unfit buyers started to default on their mortgages and the value of the bonds crashed. It would lead to cascading calamities including the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the bailout of AIG, Freddie and Fannie Mac (quasi-government mortgage agencies) not to mention widespread contagion in the auto industry. S&P will also pay $125 million to calPERS, the California pension fund that, like many other pension funds, bought some of these AAA bonds under the guise that they were safe.

Nice work, that. For years, S&P was able to fend off lawsuits by claiming that its ratings were merely statements of opinion protected by the First Amendment, which particularly ticked me off. Don’t use our free-press/free-speech amendment to shelter your atrocious behavior. But that defense finally collapsed after the government took another tack: alleging that S&P committed fraud. “As S&P knew,” read the Justice Department’s lawsuit, “these representations were materially false, and concealed material facts, in that S&P’s desire for increased revenue and market share in the RMBS and CDO ratings markets led S&P to downplay and disregard the true extent of the credit risks posed by RMBS and CDO tranches in order to favor the interests of large investment banks and others involved in the issuance of RMBS and CDOs.”

S&P continued to resist, despite the DOJ uncovering emails that showed S&P employees knew they had clearly underestimated the risk of the RMBs and CDOs. Here’s my personal favorite: “Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.” (Some, in fact, did and are.) S&P’s other defense is essentially that the bankers all knew we were full of it.

In the agreement that S&P signed with prosecutors it admits to the fact that the company was selling garbage. The DOJ also made S&P eat the company’s assertion that the lawsuit was retaliation for S&P’s downgrading the debt of the United States in 2011. S&P was wrong about the quality of its bonds and wrong about the quality of U.S. treasuries. Treasuries have never been more desirable.

So now S&P is free to go about its business, which is an oligopoly that it shares with Fitch and Moody’s, the same threesome that controlled the rating market in 2007. In its reregulation of the financial industry, Congress left the ratings agencies alone. Which means that at some point in the future you can expect the same problems to crop again.

TIME Companies

This Brilliant 29-Year-Old Has the Hardest Job in Silicon Valley

Box, Inc. Chairman, CEO & co-founder Aaron Levie, second from right, gets a high-five during opening bell ceremonies to mark the company's IPO at the New York Stock Exchange on Jan. 23, 2015.
Richard Drew—AP Box, Inc. Chairman, CEO & co-founder Aaron Levie, second from right, gets a high-five during opening bell ceremonies to mark the company's IPO at the New York Stock Exchange on Jan. 23, 2015.

Well, one of the hardest. The CEO of recently IPO'ed Box faces tough competitors and a quickly changing market

Well, so much for that first-day pop. After pricing at $14 a share on Jan. 22, Box saw it stock rise as much as 77% on its first day of trading. In the six trading days since then, it’s lost more than a quarter of its peak value, closing just above $18 a share on Monday.

The first-day pop is both an honored Wall Street tradition and a sucker’s bet that individual investors keep falling for. Most tech IPOs that start out the gate overvalued yet with momentum behind them are as a rule trading significantly below those initial highs several months later. It only took Box a matter of days, not months.

The success of Box’s IPO isn’t important just for the company’s shareholders, buy for other tech companies – especially those in the enterprise market – planning on going public in coming months. The thing is, the outlook for Box is devilishly hard to predict because it’s a grab bag of challenges and opportunities, of promise and peril alike.

Box is a company growing revenue by 80% a year but it’s lost in aggregate nearly half a billion dollars, mostly on sales and marketing costs to win customers. It has one of the most respected young CEOs in Silicon Valley, influential partners and blue-chip customers but it’s toiling in a market that’s fragmented, changing quickly and growing more competitive by the week.

The bear case on Box is easier to articulate and so it may be gaining the upper hand among investors right now. First there are the losses, shrinking but still substantial. Net loss totaled $129 million in the nine months through October, down from $125 million in the year-ago period.

The hope is that as Box grows, losses will keep declining and eventually disappear as the company pushes into the black. But that may not happen as quickly as some expect. In the most recent quarter, net loss grew by 21% from the previous quarter, nearly double the 10% growth in revenue for the same period.

Then, there’s the valuation. Without profits, defenders point to the price-to-sales ratio but even here Box’s valuation is high. Box’s market value of $2.2 billion is equal to 11 times its revenue over the past 12 months. Even at its $14 a share offering price, Box was priced at 9 times its revenue.

Finally, in a stock market where the most coveted private tech companies are delaying IPOs, Box’s approach to the public market had more than its share of glitches. The company disclosed its IPO plans last March then delayed the offering until this year. Box initially planned to raise $250 million in the offering, then lowered the take to $175 million.

And yet there is reason to think that, if enough goes right for Box in the next year or so, Box could still have a bright future ahead of it. That’s because – unlike IBM, Oracle and other enterprise software giants – Box is well positioned to benefit from the inevitable shift from bloated, aging old business productivity software to an era where content is not just stored securely in the cloud but is created and collaborated there.

One unusual twist about Box’s long journey to its IPO is that, even while people disparaged the company’s worrisome financials, few if any had bad things to say about its CEO. Aaron Levie has a knack for seeing market shifts in advance. He founded Box in 2005 after seeing that online storage was finally ready to take off.

As Box competed with popular startups like Dropbox and, increasingly, with giants like Microsoft, Levie pushed Box away from simple online storage to areas of the enterprise cloud that will grow. Lower costs and stronger security are enticing companies in most industries to conduct more internal communications on the cloud as opposed to local networks that have been vulnerable to outside hackers.

Of course, Dropbox, Microsoft and others are also gunning toward this online-collaboration market. So rather than a generalized service like Office 365, Box is pushing to tailer its offerings to individual industries. In October, it bought MedXT, a startup working to allow sharing of radiology and medical imaging with doctors and patients. Box is also working on other industry-specific software for retail, advertising and entertainment.

To move quickly and reach out to customers in these industries, Box has had to spend more on sales and marketing than it was bringing in in revenue. That meant burning through about $23 million a quarter, which meant tapping public and private markets quickly to finance the sales push.

So Box, as ugly as the financials look now, is also an bet that the company is sitting on the edge of a big shift in the way companies communicate internally and externally -from desktops to mobile, from LANs to the cloud – and can provide a platform that helps them do it privately and securely. That bet is expensive and risky, but the payoff is possible.

That first-day pop was meaningless, as they so often are. Box will need time to prove its mettle, but it may well do so. For now, the uncertainty surrounding its prospects is likely to bring its stock price lower over the coming months. But for investors who are inclined to believe Box can execute on its vision, a cheaper stock may make taking the risk more worthwhile.

Read next: Amazon’s Plan to Buy Old RadioShacks Is a Brilliant Master Stroke—If It Happens

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Companies

S&P to Pay Nearly $1.4 Billion to Settle Financial Crisis-Era Suits

Standard Poors Settlement
Henny Ray Abrams—AP 55 Water Street, home of Standard & Poor's, in New York City.

Lawsuit alleged the ratings firm had defrauded investors by issuing inflated ratings

Standard & Poor’s Financial Services has agreed to pay $1.375 billion to settle a Justice Department-led lawsuit that alleges the ratings firm had defrauded investors by issuing inflated ratings in the years preceding the financial crisis.

Under the terms of the settlement, the company agreed to split the settlement, paying $687.5 million to the Justice Department with an equal amount paid to 19 states and the District of Columbia, which filed their lawsuits after the federal government. The settlement contains no findings of violations of law by the company, notes McGraw Hill Financial, the parent company to ratings firm S&P.

The case, which stems from a 2013 lawsuit filed by the Justice Department, put the ratings firm at odds with the U.S. government over allegations that S&P had issued inflated ratings that misrepresented the true credit risks of the residential mortgage-backed securities and other ratings it weighed in on. Most media reports say that the feud was triggered by the ratings firm’s surprise downgrade of the U.S. government’s sovereign credit rating in 2011, a move that shocked observers. S&P still rates the U.S. at double-A-plus, which is one level below the prized triple-A rating held by Canada, Australia and a handful of wealthy European nations.

The complaint alleged that S&P falsely represented that its ratings were objective and uninfluenced by the firm’s relationship with investment banks. The Justice Department further contended that S&P was swayed by its desire to boost revenue and profits by winning business from those banking institutions.

S&P, along with Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings, hold a near monopoly on the credit ratings business, issuing ratings that can help investors determine if it is safe to buy bonds. The ratings are supposed to be objective, but banks pay for the business and that creates a conflict of interest according to some critics of the practice. The Justice Department, when it filed its suit in February 2013, said that it believed the S&P’s rosy ratings played “an important role in helping to bring our economy to the brink of collapse.”

McGraw Hill’s settlement is related to ratings issued between 2004 and 2007. The settlement will be reflected in McGraw Hill’s fourth-quarter results, which are due to be reported on Feb. 12. The company also reached a separate settlement with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or Calpers, to resolve some ratings claims. That settlement totaled $125 million.

S&P said it agreed to settle the matter to “avoid the delay, uncertainty, inconvenience, and expense of further litigation.” With that settlement now secured, the government is reportedly investigating Moody’s for the favorable ratings it allegedly issued before the financial crisis.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

MONEY Food & Drink

Why Shake Shack’s IPO Is Too Rich for My Blood

Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer (3rd R) and Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti (2nd R) ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate their company's IPO January 30, 2015. Shares of gourmet hamburger chain Shake Shack Inc soared 150 percent in their first few minutes of trading on Friday, valuing the company that grew out of a hotdog cart in New York's Madison Square Park at nearly $2 billion.
Brendan McDermid—Reuters Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer CEO Randy Garutti ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

I used to think Shake Shack might be undervalued. Not anymore.

Last week, I wrote a positive article on burger chain Shake Shack’s SHAKE SHACK INC SHAK 5.4% IPO on the basis that, “in [the indicative $14 to $16] price range, the shares could significantly undervalue Shake Shack’s growth potential.” The shares began trading today, and I’m much less excited about the offering. In fact, I think investors ought to avoid the stock entirely. What’s changed?

Is no price too high?

It’s not unreasonable to think a stock that is attractive at $15 may well be repulsive at more than three times that price — which is where Shake Shack shares are now trading. (The stock was at $48.62 at 12:30 p.m. EST.) Indeed, the underwriters raised the price range to $17 to $19 — and the number of shares being sold — before finally pricing the shares at $21.

Apparently, that did nothing to deter investors once shares began trading in the second market this morning – they opened at $47, for a 124% pop! Despite solid or even outstanding fundamentals, a business will not support any valuation. Price matters.

Last week, I compared Shake Shack to Chipotle Mexican Grill CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL INC. CMG 0.89% . Let’s see how the share valuations of the two companies on their first day of trading now compare:

Number of restaurants operated by the company at the time of the public offering Price / TTM Sales
(based on closing price on first day of trading)*
Chipotle 453 4.4
Shake Shack 26 16.1

*Shake Shack’s price-to-sales multiple is based on the $48.62 price at 12:30 p.m. EST. Source: Company documents.

That’s a huge gap between the two price-to-sales multiples! Given the massive appreciation in Chipotle’s stock price since the close of its first day of trading — a more than fifteenfold increase in just more than nine years! — there’s a good argument to be made that the shares were undervalued at that time.

However, had Chipotle closed at $160 instead of $44 on its first day of trading — which would equalize the price-to-sales multiples — subsequent gains would have been significantly less impressive.

Buy potential performance at a discount, not a premium

Furthermore, with Chipotle, we are looking back at performance that has already been achieved, both in terms of the stock and the company’s operations. The Mexican chain has executed superbly well during that period.

With regard to Shake Shack — however likely you think a similar business performance is — it remains in the realm of possibility instead of certainty. I don’t know about you, but when I buy possibility, I like to buy it at a discount to the price of certainty.

Although I think Shake Shack’s brand positioning is comparable, and possibly even superior, to that of Chipotle, I’m not convinced the business fundamentals are as attractive.

For one thing, Shake Shack faces stiffer competition in its segment than Chipotle did (or does) in the likes of Five Guys and In-N-Out Burger. For another, Shake Shack’s same-store sales growth is significantly lower than Chipotle’s was, at just 3% for the 39 weeks ended Sep. 24 versus 10.2% for Chipotle in 2005, which was followed by 13.7% in 2006.

Don’t swallow these shares

Shake Shack may produce a premium burger — founder Danny Meyer refers to this segment as “fine casual dining” — but the stock is currently selling at a super-premium price. Paying that price is the equivalent of eating “empty calories” — it could end up being detrimental to your financial health.

Alex Dumortier, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

 

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MONEY Oil

Why Oil Prices May Not Recover Anytime Soon

A worker waits to connect a drill bit on Endeavor Energy Resources LP's Big Dog Drilling Rig 22 in the Permian basin outside of Midland, Texas, U.S., on Friday, Dec. 12, 2014.
Brittany Sowacke—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Things could get worse for the oil industry before they get better.

Oil prices have collapsed in stunning fashion in the past few months. The spot price of Brent crude reached $115 a barrel in June, and was above $100 a barrel as recently as September. Since then, it has plummeted to less than $50 a barrel.

Brent Crude Oil Spot Price Chart

There is a sharp split among energy experts about the future direction of oil prices. Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal recently stated that oil prices could keep falling for quite a while and opined that $100 a barrel oil will never come back. Earlier this month, investment bank Goldman Sachs weighed in by slashing its short-term oil price target from $80 a barrel all the way to $42 a barrel.

But there are still plenty of optimists like billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who has vocally argued that oil will bounce back to $100 a barrel within 12 months-18 months. Pickens thinks that Saudi Arabia will eventually give in and cut production. However, this may be wishful thinking. Supply and demand fundamentals point to more lean times ahead for oil producers.

Oil supply is comfortably ahead of demand

The International Energy Agency assesses the state of the global oil market each month. Lately, it has been sounding the alarm about the continuing supply demand imbalance.

The IEA currently projects that supply will outstrip demand by more than 1 million barrels per day, or bpd, this quarter, and by nearly 1.5 million bpd in Q2 before falling in line with demand in the second half of the year, when oil demand is seasonally stronger.

That said, these projections are built on the assumption that OPEC production will total 30 million bpd: its official quota. However, OPEC production was 480,000 bpd above the quota in December. At that rate, the supply-and-demand gap could reach nearly 2 million bpd in Q2.

Theoretically, this gap between supply and demand could be closed either through reduced supply or increased demand. However, at the moment economic growth is slowing across much of the world. For oil demand to grow significantly, global GDP growth will have to speed up.

It would take several years for the process of lower energy prices helping economic growth and thereby stimulating higher oil demand to play out. Thus, supply cuts will be necessary if oil prices are to rebound in the next two years-three years.

Will OPEC cut production?

There are two potential ways that global oil production can be reduced. One possibility is that OPEC will cut production to prop up oil prices. The other possibility is that supply will fall into line with demand through market forces, with lower oil prices driving reductions in drilling activity in high-cost areas, leading to lower production.

OPEC is a wild card. A few individuals effectively control OPEC’s production activity, particularly because Saudi Arabia has historically borne the brunt of OPEC production cuts. Right now, the powers that be favor letting market forces work.

There’s always a chance that they will reconsider in the future. However, the strategic argument for Saudi Arabia maintaining its production level is fairly compelling. In fact, Saudi Arabia has already tried the opposite approach.

In the 1980s, as a surge in oil prices drove a similar uptick in non-OPEC drilling and a decline in oil consumption, Saudi Arabia tried to prop up oil prices. The results were disastrous. Saudi Arabia cut its production from more than 10 million bpd in 1980 to less than 2.5 million bpd by 1985 and still couldn’t keep prices up.

Other countries in OPEC could try to chip in with their own production cuts to take the burden off Saudi Arabia. However, the other members of OPEC have historically been unreliable when it comes to following production quotas. It’s unlikely that they would be more successful today.

The problem is that these countries face a “prisoner’s dilemma” situation. Collectively, it might be in their interest to cut production. But each individual country is better off cheating on the agreement in order to sell more oil at the prevailing price, no matter what the other countries do. With no good enforcement mechanisms, these agreements regularly break down.

Market forces: moving slowly

The other way that supply can be brought back into balance with demand is through market forces. Indeed, at least some shale oil production has a breakeven price of $70 a barrel-$80 a barrel or more.

This might make it seem that balance will be reasserted within a short time. However, there’s an important difference between accounting profit and cash earnings. Oil projects take time to execute, involving a significant amount of up-front capital spending. Only a portion of the total cost of a project is incurred at the time that a well is producing oil.

Capital spending that has already been incurred is a “sunk cost.” The cost of producing crude at a particular well might be $60 a barrel, but if the company spent half that money upfront, it might as well spend the other $30 a barrel to recover the oil if it can sell it for $45 a barrel-$50 a barrel.

Thus, investment in new projects drops off quickly when oil prices fall, but there is a significant lag before production starts to fall. Indeed, many drillers are desperate for cash flow and want to squeeze every ounce of oil out of their existing fields. Rail operator CSX recently confirmed that it expects crude-by-rail shipments from North Dakota to remain steady or even rise in 2015.

Indeed, during the week ending Jan. 9, U.S. oil production hit a new multi-decade high of 9.19 million bpd. By contrast, last June — when the price of crude was more than twice as high — U.S. oil production was less than 8.5 million bpd.

One final collapse?

In the long run — barring an unexpected intervention by OPEC — oil prices will stabilize around the marginal long-run cost of production (including the cost of capital spending). This level is almost certainly higher than the current price, but well below the $100 a barrel level that’s been common since 2011.

However, things could get worse for the oil industry before they get better. U.S. inventories of oil and refined products have been rising by about 10 million barrels a week recently. The global supply demand balance isn’t expected to improve until Q3, and it could worsen again in the first half of 2016 due to the typical seasonal drop in demand.

As a result, global oil storage capacity could become tight. Last month, the IEA found that U.S. petroleum storage capacity was only 60% full, but commercial crude oil inventory was at 75% of storage capacity.

This percentage could rise quickly when refiners begin to cut output in Q2 for the seasonal switch to summer gasoline blends. Traders have even begun booking supertankers as floating oil storage facilities, aiming to buy crude on the cheap today and sell it at a higher price this summer or next year.

If oil storage capacity becomes scarce later this year, oil prices will have to fall even further so that some existing oil fields become cash flow negative. That’s the only way to ensure an immediate drop in production (as opposed to a reduction in investment, which gradually impacts production).

Any such drop in oil prices will be a short-term phenomenon. At today’s prices, oil investment will not be sufficient to keep output up in 2016. Thus, T. Boone Pickens is probably right that oil prices will recover in the next 12 months-18 months, even if his prediction of $100 oil is too aggressive. But with oil storage capacity becoming scarcer by the day, it’s still too early to call a bottom for oil.

MONEY stocks

Here Are Ways to Tell If Stocks Are Overvalued

Different metrics can show polar opposite views of market valuation.

The S&P 500 has more than tripled in value since early 2009.

It’s one of the best five-year periods in market history, roughly matching the 1995-2000 bull market that created one of the largest bubbles ever.

What’s that mean for market values today?

Depends who you ask.

James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, noted last week that the median S&P 500 company now trades at the highest price-to-earnings ratio since his records began in 1950.

The only reason the market as a whole doesn’t look as overvalued as the median component is because some of the S&P 500’s largest companies that carry the most weight in the index, like ExxonMobil EXXONMOBIL CORPORATION XOM -0.56% and Apple APPLE INC. AAPL 0.49% , are still fairly cheap.

The median company is also near a record high measured on price-to-book value and price-to-cash flow.

These are eye-opening statistics that show how much the rally of the last five years may have borrowed from future returns.

But then again…

There are all kinds of ways to value the market. None is necessarily right or wrong, because what matters — what moves markets — is whatever investors care about at a given moment.

And what do people care about right now? Dividends, for one.

With interest rates at rock-bottom levels, dividends have become wildly popular as one of the last remaining places you can earn a yield above the rate of inflation. They became viewed as bond substitutes for income-starved investors. Boring, low-growth sectors that emphasize dividends, like utilities, trade at a higher valuation than high-growth technology stocks. The clamor for dividends in the last five years has been insatiable.

Two things happened recently to help that trend:

  • Interest rates on Treasury bonds have plunged. Ten-year Treasuries now yield 1.8%, from 2.9% a year ago.
  • Dividend payouts have surged. The S&P 500 is up 72% since 2010, but S&P 500 dividends are up 84%.

Combine the two, and 51% of S&P 500 companies now have a dividend yield above the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds. That’s the highest going back 15 years, above even the levels of early 2009, when the market bottomed:

 

Relative to bonds, S&P 500 companies may be about as cheap as they’ve ever been.

The S&P 500 as a whole now yields more than Treasury bonds. That doesn’t happen very often, but history says stocks tend to do extraordinary well when it does.

Is this a better measure of market value than Paulsen’s metric? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does.

But it may be more relevant to the average investor today — right now — who is deciding how to allocate his or her money. You can increasingly find more yield in the stock market than you can the bond market. As long as that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine flocks of investors giving up on stocks and running to the “safety” of bonds.

The big point here is that different metrics, both of which seem reasonable, can show polar opposite views of market valuation. That’s dangerous, because no matter how you feel about stocks you can find data to back yourself up. This is as true for Paulsen’s metric as it is my own.

Depending on what metrics you want to use, today’s market looks somewhere between dirt cheap and bloody expensive. I really don’t think it’s obvious which side is right. My feeling is dividends are one of the biggest forces driving stocks right now, but someday that will change. Maybe people will start caring about Paulsen’s metric — or something else entirely.

“There are no rules about what a stock, bond, currency, commodity, house, car, dog, cat, diamond, bicycle, soap dish, refrigerator, concert ticket, plane ride or glass of wine are worth,” James Osborne, president of Bason Asset Management, wrote recently. “They are worth what people are willing to pay for them, which is what markets are all about. That’s the value.”

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel’s columns.

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