One of the winningest mutual fund managers ever is warning investors to back off of recent popular buys like commodities and emerging market stocks, and embrace old-fashioned blue chips.
Bill Miller is the manager of the Legg Mason Value Trust Porfolio. He's broken records by beating the Standard & Poor's 500 Stock Index for 15 years straight, and now he's betting some of that reputation on the assertion that recent runups in metals and energy prices are nearer their end than their beginning.
People want to buy today what they should have bought five or six years ago; call it the five-year psychological cycle, he wrote in his most recent commentary.
Today people want commodities, emerging market, non-U.S. assets, and small- and mid-cap stocks. Those were all cheap five years ago and had you bought them then you would be sitting on enormous gains, he wrote.
But five or six years ago, everyone wanted tech and internet and telecom stocks, and venture capital and U.S. mega-caps, he continued. The time to buy them was in 1994 or 1995, when they were cheap. But in 1994 or 1995, people wanted banks and small- and mid-caps, which should have been bought in 1990, and well, you get the picture.
Miller makes a compelling case. At its current price of $675 an ounce, gold is at 25-year highs and has practically tripled in five years.
Oil, selling over $70 a barrel now, couldn't find buyers in 1999, when it was priced at $10 a barrel. Small cap stocks are in the seventh year of outperforming big company stocks, quite long in the tooth by historic standards, according to Miller.
Measured by the Small Cap Russell 2000 Index, those stocks are at record highs. And foreign stocks, especially those of emerging markets, have been on a tear. Emerging market funds are up 60 percent in a year and Latin American funds are up 95 percent in a year.
Investors sent more than $2 billion of fresh money into emerging market mutual funds in the last week in April alone, according to Emerging Portfolio Fund Research in Boston.
It does seem a bit frothy, no?
The theory behind Miller's words is called contrarianism. It's the idea that if you zig when the crowd zags, you'll eventually make money.
This isn't that far from the bedrock advice most investors get to rebalance their portfolios regularly. If they sell those winners that have grown to the point of making up too much of their investment mix, and use the money to buy the beaten-down losers, they'll do well over the long term.
Folks who invest like Miller talks are the opposite of momentum investors who pile on once a trend is identified. Momentum investors say things like the trend is your friend. They make money, too, but they don't beat the SP500 15 years running.
The old-fashioned blue chips that Miller likes now have been the only sector of the market to underwhelm for all of the 2000s. They basically got thrown out with tech stocks at the beginning of this decade and haven't come back into favor since. That's a long time.
Moreover, the mega-cap stocks may become more popular soon, because of changes in the world economy. The Federal Reserve is nearing the end of its tightening cycle, but other lagging countries still have a ways to go with theirs.
Global liquidity may be diminishing, as other countries battle their own economic and political problems. And U.S. markets, with higher interest rates, a cheap dollar and the best liquidity in the world, might start attracting more of that cash.
I think the most liquid market in the world, the U.S. market, will become more attractive, and within that market, money will flow to the largest, most liquid names, which also happen to be the cheapest part of our market, writes Miller.
He concludes, Given the choice of buying Commodities with a capital C, or buying capital C -- Citigroup (whose ticker symbol is C) -- at current prices, I'll take the latter.
Check back in 5 years.
That long view is what has made Miller successful. If you follow his lead, you might miss the top of the commodities market and the bottom of the large cap market.
But if on balance, you move closer to buying at the bottom and selling at the top, you'll be doing better than most follow-the-pack individual investors.