A Long Term Theme Or Trend Doesn’t Necessarily Yield Good Returns
Several subscribers have asked us to discuss thematic investing. BlackRock defines thematic investing as follows:
Thematic investing is an approach which focuses on predicted long-term trends rather than specific companies or sectors, enabling investors to access structural, one-off shifts that can change an entire industry.
Basically, you would invest in companies that are involved in a specific (long-term) trend and hope that long term trend enables these companies to reap huge returns in their stock prices. Very often, people can find many examples to support this thesis. These include Amazon in internet e-commerce, Tesla in electric vehicles, etc.
However, an emerging industry doesn’t automatically translate to good long term returns for its participants. In this newsletter, we look at these in more details.
Fidelity Select Funds
We examine Fidelity Select funds as they are relatively complete and many have long enough history. These funds usually focus on a specific narrow industry. So they are old style thematic funds. In recent years, thematic funds have been extended to include companies in multiple industries as long as they are involved in a specific trend. We will discuss this in more details shortly.
Among Fidelity select funds, FWRLX (Fidelity Select Wireless) stood out in its long term returns. The fund started on 11/2/2000 at the height of the internet/tech bubble. That was a bit before the iPhone/smart phone revolution. In terms of timing, it was almost perfect, just as the dawn of the gigantic smart phone/wireless trend. So whoever latched on to this fund at its early stage would have gotten (huge) returns, right?
Unfortunately, this fund has lagged behind a broad base stock market index by huge margins. The following chart compares it with VFINX, Vanguard S&P 500 index fund:
The fund’s top 10 holdings as of Aug 31, 2021:
One would have thought that given Apple’s phenomenon return, this fund should have done much better. Unfortunately, two major factors contributed to its underperformance:
- The fund started as an extremely elevated valuation, especially for those (wireless) communication stocks at the peak of the internet/communication bubble in 2000.
- The huge infrastructure cost undertook by telecommunication companies like AT&T and Verizon severely diluted their returns. For example, both Verizon and AT&T spent billions in fiber optic and other wireless towers.
The first factor is related to timing of the investments. The second factor is related to business fundamental. It’s a very good example to show that an innovative technology or mega trend doesn’t always yield good results in terms of investments. Of course, we all know that wireless infrastructure and other related products have fundamentally changed our lives in recent years. But again, good social and economic impacts don’t necessarily equate good business profits.
We can find more examples like this like the famous airline industry or even automotive industry. A more extreme example is the energy sector. Remember in 80s, the middle east oil crisis and the peak oil theory all predicted a mega trend: energy/oil deficit or tight supply. The theory goes that as supply is depleted or tightened, energy sector companies will enjoy higher profit margin and reap huge benefits. Who would have thought about the energy sector’s dismal returns 30/40 years later, compared with VFINX:
Fidelity Select Energy vs. S&P 500 since 1981
Or the following return table:
|1Yr AR||3Yr AR||5Yr AR||10Yr AR||15Yr AR||Since 1/30/87 AR*|
|FSENX (Fidelity Select Energy)||64.4%||110.5%||0.3%||-0.9%||0.8%||1.4%||7.3%|
|FSESX (Fidelity Select Energy Service)||44.2%||113.4%||-16.9%||-12.6%||-7.6%||-4.7%||4.5%|
|VFINX (Vanguard 500 Index Investor)||22.6%||33.8%||20.3%||18.4%||16.1%||10.4%||10.7%|
*NOTE: FSESX Fidelity Select Energy Service started on 1/30/1987. We add this fund as Fidelity Select have two funds in energy related industry.
For subscribers who follow model portfolio P Composite Momentum Scoring Fidelity Select Funds, these two funds are familiar. In fact, their recent huge returns have helped their long term performance.
Again, years over investments haven’t yield good returns at all for these energy companies. Of course, their business has been serious affected by other factors such as environmental concern/cost and geopolitical (un)stability, many of which were not foreseen at the height of the energy crisis in 1970s and 1980s.
Thematic ETFs across multiple industries
Another concern is that many thematic funds like ETFs invest in multiple industries, so long companies are related in the theme. A good example is the ARK Space Exploration & Innovation ETF ARKX. Based on ARK Invest, its top 10 holdings include the following:
PRNT’s main business is 3D printing, Unity Software (U) is actually in software while JD Logistics is in logistics. This fund’s holdings span several industries. A software industry has distinct business characteristics from an aero plane maker: for example, software has much lower capital expenditure while demanding higher human capital.
The problem is lumping companies from different industries is that they don’t necessarily enjoy or are affected by common factors in that specific trend. This thus makes it hard to be able to tell how much contribution is from that trend.
To summarize, we note the following:
- It’s not a good idea to hold a (narrow) theme based ETF or mutual fund for a long time. If one really wants to invest in these theme based ETFs, a tactical or dynamic fund rotation portfolio/strategy such as P Composite Momentum Scoring Fidelity Select Funds or P Composite Momentum Scoring Industries ETFs on Advanced Strategies is more appropriate.
- It’s also important to look into a theme based fund to understand how its components/holdings are actually related to that specific trend. It’s not necessarily a good idea to lump many companies with some relation to a trend together as a theme investing fund, in our opinion.
Investors so far have not been disappointed by the Q3 earnings: among 23% of S&P 500 companies reporting actual results as of last Friday, the blended Q3 earning growth was 32.7% (Factset), showing a rising trend from previous weekly figures: 30%, 27.6%. However, it was also noted that a bit more companies issued negative earnings guidance:
At this point in time, 12 companies in the index have issued EPS guidance for Q4 2021. Of these 12 companies, 8 have issued negative EPS guidance and 4 have issued positive EPS guidance. The percentage of companies issuing negative EPS guidance is 67% (8 out of 12), which is above the 5-year average of 61%.
Of course, it’s still early for the earnings report season. We’ll just need to be cautiously optimistic.
As always, we advocate the following practice:
- For strategic allocation (buy and hold) investors, ignore the current market behavior. Remember, as what we have emphasized numerous times, when you choose and commit to a strategic portfolio, you essentially know and commit that your investment horizon (or the time you need to utilize this capital) is 20 years or longer. As we pointed out, if your investments are those diversified (index) funds such as an S&P 500 index fund (VFINX, for example), you know your money is in some solid ‘business’ that eventually (20 years later) will deliver some reasonable returns. As long as you are comfortable with this thesis, you should sit tight and forget about the current gyration.
- For tactical investors, again, you have to ignore the current market noise. Furthermore, you should follow your strategy rigorously, especially in a time like this. Human emotion, both optimistic and pessimistic, and human desire, both greedy and fearful, are your worst enemies. This has been shown to be true time and time again.
Stock valuation is still extremely high by historical standard. For the moment, we believe it’s prudent to be cautious while riding on market uptrend. However how serious a correction might be, we have confidence in the US economy in the long term and thus in the stocks in aggregate. We just need to manage through interim losses carefully.
We again would like to emphasize that for any new investor and new money, the best way to step into this kind of markets is through dollar cost average (DCA), i.e. invest and/or follow a model portfolio in several phases (such as 2 or 3 months) instead of the whole sum at one shot.
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–Thanks to those who have already contributed — we appreciate it.
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