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%|
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.
The largest holdings in GMO's own Quality Fund include Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), Oracle (NYSE:ORCL), and Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL). All three have profit margins above 15%, worldwide operations, and strong respective moats. For Johnson & Johnson, its scale and name brands like Tylenol and Band-Aid lend it power over competitors. Oracle's advantage comes from the lock-in its customers experience, represented by its near-50% market share in database management. And Google's dominance knows no industry bounds. Its search engine holds a 66% market share in the U.S., while its Android mobile phone platform holds 64% market share of global smartphones.
If large-cap and small-cap U.S. stocks revert to the mean and return less than inflation over the next several years, take solace in the fact that great companies can also revert to their own mean of market-beating returns. Even if you don't believe in any link between past performance and future performance, noting the high-quality characteristics of a strong competitive advantage, high profit margin, and diverse revenue sources -- all of which J&J, Oracle, and Google have -- can help you earn a greater return.
Fool contributor Dan Newman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Google and Johnson & Johnson. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Johnson & Johnson, and Oracle. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.