Steve Clapham: picking stocks is fun, but you need to do your homework

John Stepek talks to Steve Clapham, investor, analyst and author of The Smart Money Method, about the dangers in picking individual stocks and why you need to know what you're doing; plus, the shift from growth to value; and why the next ten years will be very different from the last.

To get a 30% discount on Steve's book The Smart Money Method, go to https://harriman-house.com/smartmoney and enter the code MW30OFF at checkout.

Transcript

John Stepek: Hello, and welcome to the MoneyWeek podcast. I'm John Stepek, executive editor of the magazine. Merryn's away this week so I'm on hosting duties today and I'm pleased to say I'm joined by our very special guest, Stephen Clapham. Steven, welcome to the show.

Steve Clapham: Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to it.

JS: Now, Stephen's a highly experienced investor and analyst with a long background in the finance industry, as we'll get to in a moment. But he's joined us today mainly because I've just finished his book, The Smart Money Method, which came out last year, and – yes, I know, apologies – I'm a slow reader.

Regular readers will know I don't often do book reviews or recommendations, but I heartily recommend that you buy The Smart Money Method the minute you finish this podcast. It's genuinely one of the vanishingly few books that I'd recommend to investors of any level of experience. Even if you're a confident stock picker, there are so many ideas per page that you will certainly discover some angle or strategy or metrics that you hadn't considered before.

And alternatively, if you're just starting out, and you're wondering if you should invest in individual stocks or not, Stephen's book will give you at the very least an idea just how much work goes into being a genuine active investor, and whether it's for you or not.

So rush out and buy it, it's The Smart Money Method. And it's published by Harriman House. So Stephen now that I've bigged you up, can you tell us a bit about your background? And what inspired you to write the book in the first place?

SC: Well, John I've been an equity analyst for over 25 years, I started out as a stockbroker. I was an analyst in the sell side, covered various sectors, was always rated in the surveys, and then I was asked to move to the buy side by one of my clients, and I was a partner head of research at two multi billion dollar hedge funds.

And latterly, I started a training business in the middle of 2018. And now I do two things: I train professional investors; so analysts at major institutions – the Schroders, Baillie Giffords, Legal & Generals of this world – and I've got an online school, and online school is mainly for private investors, it's got quite a few institutional investors doing courses. What we're trying to do is we're trying to help people understand how to invest in equities.

There's a lot of nonsense talk: the problem with finance, right, John is that everybody involved in finance has got a vested interest in making it sound really difficult, because they want to sell you something. And they want to sound clever.

And what I decided to do was, look, if you want to learn about finance, it's quite difficult. What I wanted to do was to make it more accessible for everybody. The idea behind the book was to take some of the content from the courses, and make it in a more digestible, easier to assimilate form. The course is great because you can only get so much out of reading a book. And the courses are helpful, because you get to practise and you get to listen, and it's more involved.

But obviously, not everybody wants to spend the time or the money to do a course. So I thought, well, let's write a book. And I've always wanted to write a book, you know – I don't know who it was that said, “everybody's got a book in them”, but I thought, oh, yeah, I'd like to write a book. And this was a good excuse.

You know, I've been really encouraged – and thank you for your kind words –but many people have said the book has been really helpful and useful. And this is people from all levels of experience. I had an incredibly nice compliment from Neil Veitch of Scottish Volume Management, who said something like it was the book that he wished he had had when he started out. Various people have said that the book's been really, really helpful to them. There’s no better thing you can do as an experienced investor, than – especially doing what I'm trying to do, trying to educate people – than to help people. And that was that was the idea behind the book.

JS: Yes, you're right – this is extremely accessible. What is interesting about it is it doesn't remotely downplay the amount of effort that goes into stock picking, but at the same time, I would say even for an of amateur or somebody that's only just got into investing, there really aren't many concepts that they're going to have to go away and look up on Wikipedia. It's impressively done.

But in terms of this idea of the democratisation of finance, it does seem to be a big theme in the market right now, if not necessarily in exactly the same way as we are talking about. We've had the likes of GameStop and the Reddit traders, we've had retail investors just had the opportunity buy into the Deliveroo IPO, although they probably now wish that they hadn't. What would your message be to investors who are feeling like they should just be getting into this, they should be starting on the journey of picking individual stocks? What do they most need to know before they even think about doing that?

SC: Well, where to start? I mean, the GameStop saga is very concerning to me. I wrote an email to my email list a few few days after the saga started, and pointed out, look, if you went back two months, this share price was 5% of what it is today. And without knowing anything about the details of the valuation of GameStop, it doesn't seem far fetched to imagine that you could lose 95% of your money. And if you think about that, that's highly risky and highly dangerous. So you want to know what you're doing.

Equities are an important way of people securing their future, safeguarding their wealth and providing for themselves in retirement. And I think everybody should be able to have the opportunity to do that. But the fact of the matter is that investing in individual equities is not plain sailing. If you don't know what you're doing it's incredibly risky. I've observed people that don't know what they're doing that made money in bull markets. And as long as the bull market continues there, they're fine. But as soon as the correction happens, they're wiped out. It seems to me much more sensible to understand what the equity markets represent.

Maybe you don't want to do a lot of investing yourself, maybe you want to invest in some funds, or some ETFs. But do a little bit yourself on the side, and learn. It's a great, fun endeavour. And the fact that you can also make money at it is a real bonus. But you shouldn't do it unless you've got the aptitude. And unless you've got the psychological makeup that will allow you to do it successfully.

You can just go and buy an index fund. Some people should buy funds but use the knowledge that they accumulate about equities to decide which fund manager to invest in, because there's a lot of charlatans out there who will take your money and won't make you money. And there are a few really great managers, where understanding a bit about equities will help you decide which manager to choose. And then if you're really excited by it, and you really enjoy it, spend more time, understand what you're doing and invest directly in individual equities yourself.

JS: See, that's an interesting point about fund managers. You’re right, buying individual stocks isn't for everyone. But if you are looking to choose an active fund manager, that's a pretty tricky process in itself. Is there anything that you would say stands out to you about the successful ones? That an ordinary investor can consider when they're trying to choose. How do I sort the Nick Trains of the world from the also-rans, and the people that don't achieve over the long run?

SC: Well, they always say past performance isn't necessarily a guide to the future, but I find it difficult to find a better guide. I mean, the past performance thing is very dangerous because styles go in and out of fashion. So buying somebody who's been really successful in the last year or two is usually a recipe for disaster. Because the reason that they're successful is a stylistic drift, stylistic emphasis, rather than an innate skill.

But there are people like Nick Train who have been successful over many, many years. And you can take that as a useful indicator that they are more likely to do better in future years. There's always the risk that, if you go and buy Nick Train's fund or Terry Smith's fund, they've got a very high proportion of high return stocks, which are highly valued. And there's always the risk that they may have a temporary period that they'll underperform, because the market switches to value, because we're coming out of a recession and it's the value stocks that go up.

There's always that risk. But there are certain features that are persistent in markets over time. And that's what we teach in the course and I talked about in the book – invest in quality companies. You’ve just got to be careful, though, because, we had the “Nifty 50”. And if you invested in the Nifty 50 quality companies in 1973, by 1974 you'd have lost 80%-90% of your money. So you know, investment always carries a risk.

And if you pay too much for a particular feature, there's a risk. Buying cheap stocks or lowly rated stocks has been a recipe for good performance over many decades, but hasn't been a recipe for good performance in the last decade. So that's why you need to understand a bit about what you're doing and a bit about what the market is currently looking at, in order to make successful equity investments.

JS: On that point, I was going to come at his bit later, but as you brought it up –one of the big stories at the moment is the idea of the rotation from from growth and tech type stocks that have benefited from low interest rates, towards the value stocks that have really taken a pounding for the last 20 years or so. Do you think that is something that has legs? Or do you think that this is just a temporary thing?

SC: I, to be honest, I don't know. I've switched some of my own money –, I tweeted about it yesterday – I've sold some of my growth stocks, or sold down my interests in some of the growth stocks, and have been investing in bonds at UK value, simply because I'm sitting there with much larger positions than I started with.

So I put a certain allocation in my portfolio into some growth names. One of the names in Europe was Zooplus. Let's leave aside the US ones. I bought Zooplus. And I thought I had a great opportunity – pet food, a really good area to be in, selling pet food on the internet should be attractive. The US comp is done extremely well, was much more highly valued. But I wasn't very comforted by the management strategy. And I felt that they weren't doing the things that I wanted to see them doing. But their stock went up significantly, It made a huge return for me. So I'm sitting there now with a much larger position in a stock, which I don't have as much faith in as I would like to and at a much, much higher valuation. So it seems only sensible to me in that circumstance to take a big chunk of the money in that stock off the table.

And then well what am I going to reinvest it in? I'm not going to reinvest it in these growth names that are not at prices that I want to pay. So I invested instead in some bonds, UK value stocks, and in fact I bought a bond at a UK value fund. That’s gone up quite a lot, but is run by a friend of mine. But will I change my mind in six months’ time? Perfectly possible. I don't know.

Today, the growth versus value looks a very interesting trade and being short growth and long value looks right right now. But in six months’ time, that could change very dramatically, particularly if growth retreats a bit. Valuations, generally speaking, in certain pockets look, spectacularly expensive, once you take into account things like stock based comp. But across the board growth doesn't look that cheap. And value obviously looks very cheap. So I think this has legs for a while. Will it have legs for another 10 years? I suspect not.

I can't imagine that we won't be looking again at the opportunities in some of the growth areas. But at what price that becomes interesting again is difficult to see. Hopefully, I'll know it when I see it.

But, if you're a private investor, you don't need to be ahead of these trends. If you're working in a big hedge fund, you can't react to trends, you need to be ahead of it, because you're deploying so much capital. But as a private investor, you can wait for the trend to turn, you can say, okay, I'm going to be in value for a while, and then just watch the relative valuations of growth and value. And then, when this current trend ends and people start going back into growth, you can do the same. That's a very sensible philosophy to me.

And that's what I teach in the course: you don't need to be ahead of the game, just watch what's happening in the market. And then when you see these things happening and you feel uncomfortable at the valuations, and you're going to see that there's smart people who are selling out growth and buying value, just follow them.

JS: That's a really interesting point. Because the other thing that struck me about the book, and I've noticed about my time writing about investment, is that it's not just sectors but valuation techniques and metrics that go in and out of fashion. And you often find investment books fixate on one or the other, whereas one thing I found refreshing about yours is that there's no specific magic number, you've got to tie it to different sectors or different periods. Is there anything that you try and pull out first before you, you start digging into something in depth?

SC: Well, as I explained in the book, at a big hedge fund you're going to deploy a lot of capital in a special situation. So you want to do a great deal of work, you want to make sure that you haven't missed anything, because once you're in, it's very expensive to get out. So you need to do your homework first.

But because it takes so long to do the research, what I, what I developed was a shorter, quick look, kind of approach. So I would have maybe ten ideas I was interested in. And how do I know which one is going to be worth spending the time on? Or which will be the best one?

And so what I did was I used to do half an hour, one-hour, two-hour quick looks, depending on the complexity of the situation, where I looked at various facets of the company, the sector and investment, to decide if it merited a further study, and was worth prioritising.

Because if you're going to spend several weeks looking at a company, you can only do a certain number of new stocks a year. You know that you've got to spend quite a lot of time monitoring your existing portfolio, you've got to spend quite a bit of time looking at new issues, new IPOs. You’ve got to spend a certain amount of time looking at your sells and your shorts, which tend to be more active, shorter durations. So you won't hold them for as long so you need more of those ideas.

You can't do that many new longs in a year, so you want to make sure that the ones you start to investigate are good. And so I explained in the book that process where I would have a quick look.

Now, obviously, some of the things you can do when you've got a Bloomberg screen, and the world's brokers queueing up at your door to sell you their research. It's a lot quicker to do it if you're sitting in a big hedge fund, because you can just get on your Bloomberg terminal and look at the last few notes that have been written and get a good idea of what the street is thinking about the stock. But I explain in the book, there are various things that you can do.

One of the things that I think people don't pay enough attention to is who's on the shareholder register. Knowing who's invested in a company is a really good guide to what investments that might be. So I would always advocate looking at the shareholder register and saying who are the big owners of this stall? Because that tells you something,

JS: Are there any specific types of buyers that you look for that make you think, these guys are smart, I should be at least looking at this more closely.

SC: Yes, absolutely. There's all sorts of really successful hedge funds, that, that you hear, oh, if he owns it, then I definitely want to have a closer look. I mean, obviously none of these schemes are foolproof, because a big hedge fund could be in it this quarter and out of it next quarter, even with a big position. But there's a group of very, very successful investors who have compounded very, very high rates of return for extended periods. If they're in a stock, and they've been in it for a long time, that tells you that they've got faith in the business, its management, and presumably, its valuation. And that's a big tick in the box, as far as I'm concerned. I don't know why people don't pay more attention to this, because it's a really useful piece of information that is freely accessible.

JS: I suppose the temptation is always to get sidetracked by stories though, isn't it? As a journalist writing about finance, one of the first things that journalists look at is the story of the stock. And I think that that can quite often end up being what registers first, particularly for private investors as a result. So that's a really good point. The other thing you do talk about a bit in the book, that you've a lot of experience of, is short selling. And know that that's obviously trickier for private investors to do. But are there any red flags that you look out for when you're looking for short candidates that might warn a private investor that they shouldn't touch that stock, with a ten-foot pole?

SC: Yes, well, funny you should ask that. Because I've just been doing a few videos – I've started this YouTube channel.It's quite fun doing the videos, and it's quite quick to do. There's a bit of faffing around with actual filming. And I'm not very good at that – I'm sure I'll improve. But we did this series called Accounting Red Flags. And if you go to the Behind The Balance Sheet YouTube channel, I think there's five or six of them up.

And it's very straightforward, simple things like looking at the company's cash generative capacity. Is it generating cash in line with reported earnings, looking at working capital ratios? If a company's got steadily rising debtors every year and/or, steadily rising inventory every year, that usually suggests that there's been some acceleration of revenue recognition. So the sales aren't as real as you would hope, or there's channel stuffing; they bring forward sales from the following year.

This is so common, that it's almost a feature of business today. And people look at me when I mention this, but if you discount aggressively a product towards a year end, usually what happens is your customers will bring forward their purchases from next year into this year, which means that next year's sales aren't going to be as high. And you've got a double impact, because not only have you taken the 2022 sales into 2021, increasing the base, but the 2022 sales will be lower. So the growth rate will be significantly adversely impacted, unless you do this again, and even to a greater extent.

And, of course, when the sales disappoint the profits will disappoint even more, and in the market, the share price will really get hurt. This is particularly true of growth stocks companies which have got high growth. When the growth starts to slow or falter, the stockmarket gets really nervous about it. So you can see a very bad result, paying a high multiple for a growth company and it doesn't deliver on the growth. You saw what happened to Deliveroo. You mentioned the Deliveroo IPO –that hasn't even disappointed yet. And goodness knows what happens when it disappoints. So these high growth, highly valued businesses can be really dangerous to investors.

JS: I do have to ask you, did you look at Deliveroo before it listed? Did you have any strong impression of it? Obviously it was fairly lukewarmly received by and large anyway, but was there anything specific that jumped out to you about it?

SC: I've always got to be slightly careful about this. Because –you laugh, but my wife said, are we buying Deliveroo? And my wife has got a limited input into our shared portfolio. She sometimes comes up with some quite good observations on her experience as a customer. But although some people believe that your experiences as a customer should guide your stock picking, I'm not in that camp. I think it can be useful to identify interesting products that you might not otherwise have thought of. But I always look at what's the business doing? What's the valuation?

And the case of something like Deliveroo, it's a very new business. I don't know what the exact numbers are, but I would imagine that it has never made any money. And to get these fancy valuations at very high multiples of sales it's been a super successful formula for the last, well, for throughout 2020, clearly and until January, February of this year.

But the problem with paying up a high multiple sales for a loss-making company is you've got to assume that sales carry on growing, and that they can turn off the marketing tab. Now it's not exactly an area in which there is no competition. And Uber Eats –Uber is desperate to try and improve its financial performance.

And the actual barriers to entry here –what are the barriers to entry? I'm not sure. What do you need to have? You need to have an app, and a team of people with a motorbike. I'm sure it's a well run business. I've been a reasonably happy customer –, not entirely happy when I bought a very expensive delivery meal from a Michelin starred restaurant, and it was delivered by somebody in a bicycle. So by the time it got to my house, it was cold. It wasn't the restaurant, the restaurant were very concerned about it. Deliveroo didn't seem to care: I got my food, what was I worried about?

But the problem with these sorts of stocks is you've got a huge amount of hope value built in, and the hope value may or may not crystallise, and I don't really have a good view on who's going to win the food delivery, restaurant delivery war. Will it be Uber? Will it be Deliveroo? Or will it be some new entrant? Will Alibaba like a piece of this action and come in? And if you've got valuations of $8bn-$10bn for these companies, well, guess what, it's going to be worth somebody coming in. So I just think these stocks are really quite difficult.

And I'm actually going to look at Deliveroo now, because it's collapsed by 25%. My curiosity is aroused, and maybe I should have a look at this, because maybe there will be some money to be made. But I won't go in with both feet. I might take a position and I genuinely haven't looked yet, but when I look at it, I might a small position and see how it goes.

But these stocks are inherently risky, because they aren't profitable and they're reliant on future sales growth. And guess what? We might all be back in restaurants. And we might think, oh, being in restaurants is much nicer than having the food delivered. Because you get the ambience, you get the food delivered to your table hot. And you don't have to do the washing up.

JS: On that point, at the very end of your book, you wrote an epilogue, which was written in April 2020. So just smack in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. And although you don't talk about macro a huge amount, you discussed how you thought we might come out of the crisis and what might happen. Now about a year on from then how do you feel your views have shifted? If at all? Because, to be fair, a lot of the things you said don't seem to have changed a lot. But what's your take on that?

SC: Well, I To be honest, I wish I hadn't included it because it's a very time sensitive chapter. And I don't quite know why I did. The publisher didn't ask me to, I just thought it seems a bit daft to be bringing out a book in the middle of a pandemic without mentioning the pandemic. So I thought, well, I better write something about it. And I had a blog on it, which I'd re-written to make it a bit more elegant for the book, because I tend to do blogs quite quickly.

But I think it's all very hard to predict, because I was too cautious on the outlook for the markets because I was very worried about the economy. And I underestimated the government's willingness to throw money at the problem. And obviously, they've done a reasonable job of that. But what happens when we come out of this? There's huge swathes of small and medium enterprises that are going to be very seriously affected.

When I look at the share prices of the cruise lines in America, it completely baffles me, because last time I looked, Carnival Cruises was valued more highly than it was going into Covid. And that's complete, completely insane, isn't it? How can it be worth more? So I'm looking not just at the share price, but looking at the total value of the business, including the debt. So the share price has halved. So you might think, Oh, that looks good Carnival will get back to normal, we'll buy the shares. But the actual valuation of the business, the total valuation of the business, is much higher than it was pre Covid. And that seems to me a very, very difficult challenge. And there's lots of businesses in that position because they've had to take on a lot of debt simply to survive.

And that one very important lesson which I didn't make sufficiently clear in the book or in the Covid chapter certainly was that you need to pay regard to the whole volume. I cover it in the book, but this is particularly relevant for Covid. Because if you've taken on debt in the pandemic, then the business will not be nearly as attractive going forward, because you're going to repay all that debt over time, and that leaves less left for the shareholder. So I'm not sure I'm not sure how it will all pan out.

It seems to me that we're looking at everything in a very positive light, we're looking at going back to normal, and everybody's got a very positive frame of mind. Interest rates are very low, and are probably only going to go one way. And I believe that inflation could come back, and certainly is likely to come back in the short term. And I think once it's back, it might be difficult to put that genie back in the bottle.

And if we've got an environment of higher inflation, that's really what central banks want, because they want to inflate away their debts. But higher inflation has not been conducive to strong equity performance. When inflation has gone above 4% equities have been significantly de-rated.

Now, it may not happen this time, because there won't be the same response to inflation in terms of raising interest rates. And it may have been the fear of higher interest rates that causes the de-rating, rather than something inherent in inflation. And clearly equities are a good hedge against inflation. So that would argue against people flocking out of equities.

And obviously, where are they going to go? Bonds don't look a very attractive prospect. So there doesn't seem to be much alternative to equities. But I think we're going to see a very different environment in the next nine years from the one we've seen in the last ten years. And it's very difficult to predict, because we don't have any experience to go back on.

JS: Yes. The thing that I always think about is that we've had 40 years of falling interest rates and falling inflation. And that means that there's almost no one alive really that has seen a very inflationary period during their investment lifetimes. And certainly, probably no one that's still working in The City.

So yes, this is going be interesting from here. I'm going let you go in a minute Steven, because we've run up towards the end of our time. But the only other thing I did want to ask you about was do you have any thoughts on signs of, for want of a better word, mania, things like crypto currencies, and NFTs specifically – these non fungible tokens that everyone is trying to sell on online? You know, like digital pictures going for $69 million, that kind of thing?

SC: Well, art is a very subjective asset class. So I like art and I would collect art. Would I collect art via an NFT? I think I'd have to have more money than I knew what to do with before I spent $69 million on a piece of art that I could replicate identically. But who knows, maybe that will be a new medium, but it does seem symptomatic of a frothy market.

And there's all sorts of indications –the SPACS, the GameStop saga, the Redditors, cryptocurrency, bitcoin’s increase in value. There is a case for bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, and it's very difficult to know what the right valuation is. But the general enthusiasm and embrace of all these – I hesitate to call cryptocurrency a fad because obviously it's not just a fad, but the fashion. Investing is often about embracing fashions.

I've been doing a module earlier before I came on to talk to you on ESG, and ESG is a very fashionable investment term today. And these things tend to go in and out of favour. And I think you've always got to be careful when you're buying an asset, whose valuation has been propelled by a fashion because things go into fashion and out of fashion.

I’m very wary of stocks like Dr. Martens. Before it came to the market, I said, well I don't know how to value this business at this level, because the share price – or the valuation they were talking about pre the flotation – seemed to be quite challenging. But I was then told, well, actually, Doc Martens is a staple consumer brand that isn't going to go out of fashion, you don't need to worry about it, it's a growth stock. OK, well, that shows if you could see me now, you would know how little I know about fashion.

But yes I think there's a whole load of indicators that tell you that we're in a bubble. Now, whether the bubble actually gets burst, or whether the bubble just grows bigger, because it's fueled by central bank liquidity, low interest rates, etc, etc, I think it's more difficult to judge. And I'm not of the view that equities are going to collapse tomorrow, either, because I don't see what the alternatives are. But I'd be very nervous about investing my own money in any of these more speculative areas, because I think there's potentially quite a lot of downside.

As I said earlier I might change my mind in six months time. But when I sit here today, there's growth stocks in a downtrend or rolled over, value picked up, the indicators, the portends aren't great for some of the more speculative, frothy areas of the market. And so, I think it's right to steer clear of those areas.

It's always good to steer clear of things that are very speculative and very risky unless you're a professional investor and good at that thing. For most people, the best thing to do is not to get involved. You watch your neighbour making a lot of money, but in the end, will they hold on to it? If they sell and bank their profits, fine. But if they carry on rolling them over? Well we know how that story ends.

JS: Yes and that’s the problem because in their mania, hardly anyone banks profit; everyone chases it until it pops and then you end up carrying the losses.

But Steven, we’ve run to the end of our time. Thanks again for coming on, I really appreciate it.

For anyone who didn’t catch it at the beginning, you should definitely go out and buy Steven’s book, it’s published by Harriman House, it’s The Smart Money Method. Steven, thanks again for coming on, hopefully I’ll speak to you again soon, and good luck with the courses. If you’re interested in finding out more, where can people find you online?

SC: Thank you so much for having me, it’s been great fun talking to you. You can find me on Twitter at @SteveClapham and my website is behindthebalancesheet.com, and you can find on there I’ve got a blog, I’ve got a club which if you join you can get a newsletter which is monthly – I won’t bombard you – and we also have some great investing resources in that website. We’ve got a library with 1,500 articles, fund letter and so on, and some free training material, and you can also find me on YouTube, please subscribe to my YouTube channel. I’ve got a bet on with my son that I’m going to get to a certain number of subscribers so please help.

JS: Go and visit his YouTube channel and help Steven beat his son. Thanks very much Steven, take care.

To get a 30% discount on Steve's book The Smart Money Method, go to https://harriman-house.com/smartmoney and enter the code MW30OFF at checkout.

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