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Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Oracle Corporation (ORCL), Google Inc (GOOG): Don’t Invest Now Unless You Know Quality

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Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ)Weather can be awful, with hurricanes, tornadoes, or other extreme storms. It can also be gorgeous, with a shining sun and a light breeze that cools you off if it’s a touch too warm. But most of the time, the weather sits in between these extremes: Call it average weather. And if it gets to be too windy, rainy, or snowy, you can be certain it will return to average weather sooner or later.

This is the concept of reversion to the mean. And if you apply it to the current stock market, you might find that some of your investments aren’t exactly poised for positive returns.

Jeremy “Mean Reversion” Grantham
A big proponent of this theory is Jeremy Grantham, predictor of the tech bubble, credit bubble, and China’s recent slowdown. Through his investment management firm GMO, Grantham constructs predictions for the next seven years for a variety of asset classes based on current conditions. The latest numbers don’t bode well for some widely held securities:

Asset Class 7-Year Return Forecast
U.S. Large Cap (1.2%)
U.S. Small Cap (2.7%)
U.S. High Quality 3.7%
International Large Cap 3%
International Small Cap 3.1%
Emerging Markets 7%

Table reconstructed from this GMO chart, courtesy of Institutional Imperative.

Both U.S. large- and small-cap stocks are predicted to have negative real returns over the next seven years. The only American asset class predicted to beat inflation is high-quality companies, which typically have large competitive advantages, high profit margins even in poor economic conditions, and diverse sources of revenue. Otherwise, investors will have to look abroad for positive returns, and would have to stomach the higher risk of emerging markets to enjoy a higher return. But even GMO is cautious of emerging markets, due to what they believe is a bubble in Chinese real estate.

But timing is an issue
Back in February, Grantham wrote that most things were “brutally overpriced.” Since then, the S&P 500 has risen more than 10%. At an investment conference in May, James Montier of GMO said that the firm allocated 50% of its holding to cash. Since then, the S&P 500 is up more than 3%. While things may end up reverting to the mean in the long run, figuring out how long of a run is the crucial aspect to this investment theory.

Focusing on quality
However, even if you don’t possess oracle-like timing or a firm grasp of emerging markets, the forecast for high-quality U.S. companies still beats inflation. When interest rates on the most generous savings or checking accounts barely return 1%, and the latest inflation rate was reported at 1.8%, high-quality companies seem like a great place for investments.

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