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Imagine two stock investments. We will call them Exciting Company and Boring Company. Exciting Company has lots of new and exciting prospects but faces lots of uncertainties. By contrast, Boring Company is a steady operator with some growth, but more is certain.

YearExciting CompanyBoring Company
Year 1+50%+10%
Year 2-50%-10%
Year 3+50%+10%
Year 4-50%-10%
Year 5+50%+10%
Year 6-50%-10%
Year 7+50%+10%
Year 8-50%-10%
Year 9+50%+10%
Year 10-50%-10%

Exciting Company: There were five years of 50% positive returns and five years of 50% negative returns. The average annual return was 0%, calculated by adding each return and dividing the sum by 10.

Boring Company: Five years of 10% positive returns and 10% negative annual returns. By the same math above, the average annual return was also 0%.

Not So Fast!

This is not how investing math works, unfortunately. A return of 50% in year one, followed by a 50% loss in year two, does not leave you back where you started — a zero return. If you start with $1 and it grows by 50% to $1.50 but then falls by 50%, you end up with $0.75, a 25% decline. If you start with $1.00 and it grows by 10% to $1.10 and then falls by 10% from that high-water mark, you end up with $0.99, a 1% decline.

Investing Math & The Power of Compounding

An average return over time in investing is not a simple average. It is actually equal to the average return minus the variability of the returns. Now, it is not essential to know the formula for a math test. Still, it is vital to appreciate how volatility can drag on returns. Over time, this volatility drag can be costly. In the example above, a 10-year investment in Exciting Company became worth $0.24 while the same investment in Boring Company turned into $0.99. The only difference between the two investments was volatility, not the size of returns.

The value of avoiding significant losses cannot be overestimated.  The magnitude of gains required to offset losses is a textbook example of the power of compounding. As losses increase, the subsequent gain necessary to recover your losses increases exponentially. The underlying message is that the secret to wealth accumulation is not to simply generate returns but to generate consistent returns.

A Plan for Tough Markets

While some market risk is inevitable, other risks can be mitigated, at least to some extent. Specifically, we find that focusing on quality and price can go a long way to address such risk. The graphs below show how focusing on high-quality and low valuations can pay off, especially during challenging markets.

Valuations Are Important

Chart A shows how attention to valuation helped during the 2000-2002 bear market. In the years that led up to that debacle, technology stocks soared in value, far outpacing growth in sales and earnings. As prices soared, the S&P 500, a market capitalization-weighted index, became more and more exposed to very highly valued stocks. Left behind were less glamorous stocks with lower valuations. In this context, we define lower valuation companies as those stocks in 1999 that occupied the lower one-fifth of a listing of U.S. stocks ranked by their enterprise value to sales ratio (EV/Sales). The EV/Sales ratio is a standard valuation metric that compares the total value of a company’s stock, plus any net debt, to underlying sales.

Chart A
Low Valuation Company Returns vs. S&P 500
(2000-2002 Tech Bust)

What happened after the tech bubble burst? The S&P 500 fell by 40%, while the lowest 20% of companies by valuation generated a small positive return from 2000-2002.

Quality is Even More Important

During a challenging market, owning stocks that swing more than the market can spell trouble. But what makes one stock more volatile than another? We have found a strong connection between fundamental quality and the relative risk of a stock price (Chart B, below). Risk is measured by “beta,” which measures the degree to which a stock tends to swing with the market. Riskier stocks have a high “beta,” and less risky stocks have a low “beta.”

By “quality,” we are getting at the ideas of fundamental flexibility, predictability, and durability. We looked at the largest 1,000 domestic companies from 1999 to today and divided the market into quality “grades.” The criteria centered on debt levels, consistency of operations, and profitability of assets. The chart below shows that “A”-Quality companies (high quality) are far less risky than “F”-Quality companies.

As you can see, the lower debt, more consistent, more profitable “A-Quality” companies had a far lower risk (“beta”). By contrast, “F-Quality” companies with more debt, less consistent operations, and less profitability had much more significant risk (“beta”). This pattern holds true during bull and bear markets. Still, it proves especially valuable when low-quality beta unexpectedly rises during bear markets.

Note the following about the chart below:

  1. As quality deteriorates, the absolute level of risk (“beta”) rises in both bull and bear markets;
  2. The bigger the erosion in quality, the bigger the gap between bull and bear market risk (“beta”);

Thus, we observe that price increases in bull markets tend to be smaller in magnitude than price declines in bear markets. This “asymmetry” is more pronounced for low quality companies than high quality. Investors who look to avoid surprises, especially negative ones, should therefore carefully consider the fundamental quality of investments.

Chart B
Risk (Beta) by WCA Quality Score (2000-2020)

One last important point about quality has to do with the range of uncertainty surrounding risk (“beta”). Chart C below clearly shows how the level of risk varies among companies within each quality group. “A” quality companies tend to not only be lower risk, but more consistently so. By contrast, “F” quality companies not only tend to have a higher degree of risk, but also offer much less consistency around that higher level of risk. The combination of higher risk and less consistency and predictability have the potential to raise portfolio volatility which, as we said before, can significantly harm wealth accumulation over time.

Chart C
Dispersion of Risk Across Quality Categories

In Summary

Investing is not just about creating high returns but consistent returns. Therefore, we must contemplate how to address risk well in advance of demanding markets. For us, a fundamental approach emphasizing quality at a reasonable price offers a sound answer to this most difficult question.

As we continue to enjoy a bull market that has driven stock values to record highs, we think it makes sense to focus now on these essential investing basics.

Kevin R. Caron, CFA
Senior Portfolio Manager

Chad Morganlander
Senior Portfolio Manager

Matthew Battipaglia
Portfolio Manager

Steve Lerit, CFA
Client Portfolio Manager

Paul Clark, CFA
Senior Portfolio Manager
Municipal Fixed Income

Rick Marrone
Senior Portfolio Manager
Municipal Fixed Income

Daniel Urbanowicz
Senior Portfolio Manager
Municipal Fixed Income

Suzanne Ashley
Internal Relationship Manager

Eric Needham
External Sales and Marketing

Jeffrey Battipaglia
External Wholesaler


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