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Where to Find Alpha

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Adobe. Akamai. Amazon. Amgen. Apple. Baidu. Bed Bath & Beyond. Biogen. Broadcom. Check Point. Cintas. Cisco. Citrix Systems. Dell. eBay. Electronic Arts. First Solar. Flextronics. Garmin. Genzyme. Gilead Sciences. Google. Hansen Natural. Infosys Technologies. Intuit. Juniper Networks. Logitech. Maxim Integrated Products. Microsoft. NVIDIA. Oracle. Paychex. QUALCOMM. Research in Motion. Seagate Technology. Sigma-Aldrich. Starbucks. Symantec. Urban Outfitters. VeriSign. Xilinx. Yahoo!

What do these companies have in common? Their stocks are all components of the NASDAQ 100 – the “biggest and the best” of the mostly technology-focused companies that make up the overall NASDAQ Composite Index.

Quite simply, this is a list of some of the most dynamic, most innovative, most technological, most forward-thinking, highest “IQ” companies on the face of the earth.

And know what else? If you had been invested in any relevant basket of these stocks in the last ten years, your investment returns would have been HORRIFIC. Here are some sample returns:

In the period from January 1st, 1999 to December 31, 2008, the overall NASDAQ composite index went from 2,192.69 to 1,577.03, or a 10-year return of MINUS 28.1%. Microsoft, down -45%, Yahoo down 71%, Akamai down 86%. Even the winners haven’t down all that hot – Starbucks up only 18% for the decade. Electronic Arts – riding the global gaming wave – up a pretty mediocre 52% for the whole decade.

So the obvious question is - what is going on here? The companies on this list have certainly been innovating and growing these last 10 years. And the #’s here are not overly distorted by the bubble of 1999-2000 and the great crash of 2008. If you normalize for these two factors, the numbers are somewhat better, but still no way NEAR the mid-teens annualized returns that the mutual fund and insurance industries would like you to believe you will get via a standard basket of public stocks investment approach.

Like Mickey Rourke’s character in “The Wrestler,” the stock-picking industry can’t keep themselves from talking about their glory days of the 1980’s and 1990’s. These two decades saw consistent double-digit broad public stock market returns.  In those days, making good, and sometimes great returns, was as simple and easy as buying virtually any index or broad-based market index fund. To illustrate this, let’s look at the NASDAQ return by decade:

  • In the period from January 1st, 1979 to December 31, 1988, the NASDAQ returned 223%. And in 6 years during this 10-year period, the index returned greater than 14% annual returns.
  • In the period from January 1st, 1989 to December 31, 1998, the NASDAQ returned a whopping 475%. And in 8 years during this 10-year period, the index returned greater than 14% annual returns.
  • In the period from January 1st, 1999 to December 31, 2008, again the index returned a depressing -28.1%, with only 2 years (1999 – with a whopping 85.1% and 2003 with 50.01%) returning greater than 14%.


What is interesting, however, was that the last 10 years – the “00’s” – were far, far from a lost decade for the professionals. In fact, while the Main Street investors were left holding the bag, the hedge fund and private equity businesses boomed. Little and sometimes well-known money managers like Bruce Kovner, Edward Lampert, Eric Mindich, George Soros, James Simons, Louis Bacon, Marc Lasry, Paul Tudor Jones, Ray Dalio, Stephen Feinberg, Stephen Schwarzman, Steve Cohen, Steve Mandel, T. Boone Pickens and William Browder earned personal compensation packages that regularly exceeded 10 figures – as in billions of dollars of earnings. And to make it even more of a kick, when the bottom fell out these last 6 months, they didn’t have to give back all of the money they had personally earned over those years. No, conveniently those losses were born by a combination of their investors and the American taxpayer. Nice gig if you can get it.

So what does this all ad up to? A few action points:

  1. NASDAQ market investing is NOT emerging company investing. By the time these companies earn the kind of attention, trading volume, and brand to be NASDAQ-listed, it is simply too late to make breakout returns investing in them. 20 years ago, maybe. But today the combination of free-flowing information sharing in these stocks and having to compete with huge hedge fund players like the above, you don’t stand a chance.
  2. As the famed batsmen Wee Willie Keeler once said about his hitting prowess, I just “hit ’em where they aint.” To make any investment return beyond the averages, you have to fish where the sharks above aren’t. You won’t beat them and unless you have $10 million liquid, you don’t have enough money to join them.
  3. Luckily there is a MASSIVE investing arena where a) the big guys aren’t and b) where market efficiencies haven’t sucked out all of the opportunity for alpha return. It is, of course, the emerging and distressed private company sector. Most of the deal sizes here are simply too small for the big institutional players (hard to put a $1 billion to work in an owner-operated private company). And if you work hard and know where to look, you can exploit a LOT of market inefficiency and find those wrinkles of alpha return that will transform your portfolio.

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