In my column last Friday, in response to an e-mail I had received from an investor asking “what the … ” he should do, I promised to explain what we’re doing with our portfolio. I will, but first let me tell you a story. When I was a sophomore in college, I was taking five or six classes and had a full-time job and a full-time (more like overtime) girlfriend. I was approaching finals, I had to study for lots of tests and turn in assignments, and to make matters worse, I had procrastinated until the last minute.
I felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. I whined to my father about my predicament. His answer was simple: Break up my big problems into smaller ones and then figure out how to tackle each of those separately. It worked. I listed every assignment and exam, prioritizing them by due date and importance. Suddenly, my problems, which together looked insurmountable, one by one started to look conquerable. I endured a few sleepless nights, but I turned in every assignment, studied for every test and got decent grades.
Investors need to break up the seemingly overwhelming problem of understanding the global economy and markets into a series of small ones, and that is exactly what we do with our research. The appreciation or depreciation of any stock (or stock market) can be explained mathematically by two variables: earnings and price-earnings ratio. We take all the financial-climate-changing risks I wrote about a few days ago — rising interest rates, Japanese debt, the Chinese bubble, European structural problems — and analyze the impact they have on the Es and P/Es of every stock in our portfolio and any candidate we are considering.