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May, 2003


Investment readers may have guessed from the title that I'd be here discussing the famous hemline indicator, which used to depend on a close but inverse correspondence between the size of women's skirts and the prices of equities in the major stock averages. Indeed, recently we have heard of chic clothing retailers advertising the importance of the miniskirt in most every woman's wardrobe, which may be suggestive of good things to come in stock returns.

However, lately this indicator has been much less reliable than decades ago when, before computers and a mutual fund industry, the most active securities traders were retired male individual investors who would congregate in the offices of big brokerage houses to socialize, sip coffee, conduct their investment business, and watch the young lady clerks rapidly and efficiently reaching up and down with pieces of chalk to manually update in large print and numerals onto nearby wall-length blackboards the latest of the New York Stock Exchange prices off the stock ticker.

Presumably under these conditions the old guys were the most stimulated when fashions dictated that the sweet young things cavorting closely before them displayed rising hemlines, and were then more prone to optimistically throw caution to the winds, placing far more buy than sell orders. Is it any wonder that when ladies' attire was a lot smaller bull markets tended to ensue?

Actually, though, in this issue we are focusing on other aspects of the wisdom that "small is beautiful" where good investing is concerned.

To avoid significant disappointment and risk taking, is may be wise to recall that several analysts predict the returns we may realistically expect from stock investing in the next few years are likely to be small. So as not to get into difficulty, we shall need to adjust our retirement planning or nest egg management accordingly. Generally, this means one or more of a variety of accommodations to the new reality, including giving less in gifts, curtailing other discretionary spending, keeping fees or commissions low, taking seriously the risks to our remaining assets, working more or longer (perhaps including employment after a traditional retirement), and so on.

In addition to the concern with lowering expectations, it may be noted that one's best prospect of returns similar to those to which investors had earlier been accustomed derives from a careful purchase of very small companies' stocks.

Researchers have long thought that small-cap equities had higher returns than those of their large-cap brethren. Now the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) has further evidence supporting this idea. For ten years they managed a "Beginner's Portfolio" of exclusively micro-cap stocks with quite low price to book value ratios. This actual portfolio, despite taking into account both commissions and the losses due to bid-asked spreads on quite small companies' securities meeting their criteria, has outperformed the S & P 500 Index by an annualized 4+% through that period (13.3% vs. 9%, respectively, through 12/31/02). On a cumulative basis, this means that, exclusive of taxes, each $1 invested in the Beginner's Portfolio ten years before, with assets replaced, as they no longer met the criteria, by those that do, would have been worth $3.49 at the end of 2002, despite the ravages of the recent bear market. During the same period, exclusive of taxes, each $1 invested in the Standard and Poors 500 Index would have risen to $2.37. (Source: "AAII Journal," the April, 2003, issue, "The AAII Beginner's Portfolio: An Annual Performance Review," pp. 33-36.)

It seems clear that small- or even micro-cap equity holdings should be a major part of everyone's long-term nest egg.

Here are a few assets I like currently. They meet several of the criteria of the AAII Beginner's Portfolio plus some margin of safety screens.

Price to Earnings12318
Recent Price$10.48$7.05$7.65
Price to Book.48.42.56
Debt to Equity.14.22.17
Payout Ratio33%19%34%
Dividend Yield1.8%.6%2.0%
Market Cap. (millions)676261

Meanwhile, a few comments on keeping commissions and fees small. Depending on the size of your nest egg, if you decide to manage your portfolio assets yourself and do not buy and sell them frequently, but agree to pay your broker a 1% or more fee, in lieu of commissions, you may be short-changing yourself. The services provided are often offered for free or at minimal cost by discount brokers, such as Charles Schwab, which also have stock trade commissions generally half or less those of the full service financial institutions. (Discount service commissions for online trades are usually only a small fraction of normal full-service charges for buying or selling securities.) Frequently the sum of the commissions you're avoiding would not equal the fee, unless you are churning stocks like a professional stock trader. If your well allocated portfolio will only be averaging about 5-6% a year before such fees, they will subtract 16% or more from your annual total return.

If your broker will be directing the portfolio for you, it's a different story, of course. A reasonable management fee then is quite appropriate. You have a right to expect in that case that he or she has a good record of money management, beating the averages for several years, relative to the corresponding risk-adjusted benchmarks. (For instance, through 12/31/02 and over the last decade, per AAII, the average annual return of a 40% Lehman Aggregate Bond Index and a 60% S&P 500 Index was just slightly below 8.9%. A $10,000 investment, so allocated and left invested for the decade ending 12/31/02 would then be worth $23,546. Source: The Vanguard Group, "In the Vanguard," p. 5.) Otherwise, your fee might be better spent on an investment in successful, tax efficient, no load index funds. There are a number of these with yearly management fees as low as .3% or less. (Of course, the decision to use a full service broker and/or to pay him or her a standard fee may have other motivations, which I do not mean to denigrate. One might, for instance, simply wish the reassurance of a trusted relationship, which very well might count for more than a precise calculation of costs vs. benefits.)

Besides index funds, a few carefully selected managed mutual funds offer records of superior returns over many years. These, particularly if they have a low total of loads and/or all fees (generally 1.5% or less a year), deserve serious consideration. Some of the best of them provide the manager a small higher fee incentive payment for beating the averages, with a reduction in his or her fee if this goal is not achieved.

In a lower overall rate of performance scenario, keeping fees or commissions small will be more important than ever and will pay large dividends over the long-term.


Larry is not a professional. Don't take him seriously!

Actually, the investment article provided here is for general information only and should not be considered as professional advice, a solicitation to buy or sell any security, or the Word of God. Investors are encouraged to do their own research while considering their personal goals and circumstances, or consult their own professional financial advisors, before making investment decisions. Neither Larry nor LARVALBUG will be liable for any losses sustained by any visitor to this site.

(Disclosure statement: Larry and Val have holdings in some of the suggested assets but do not "make a market" in any of them and do not derive any direct benefit from recommending them, except perhaps for a bit of smug self-satisfaction.)

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