In this week's episode of Industry Focus: Financials, Fool.com contributor Matt Frankel, CFP, and host Jason Moser take a look back on the most turbulent and interesting year in recent history. They discuss the year's biggest stories, companies that surprised them, CEOs who stood out, and more. Plus, we'll take a look back at the "bold predictions" article Matt published last December to see how things turned out.
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This video was recorded on December 28, 2020.
Jason Moser: It's Monday, December 28th. I am your host, Jason Moser. On this week's financial show we're taking a look back at the year, and some of the things that stood out. We're also going to take a look back at some of the bold predictions made at the beginning of the year and how that's all worked out. Joining me for our last financial show of 2020, is my friend and yours, Certified Financial Planner, Matt Frankel. Matt, how's it going?
Matthew Frankel: Pretty good. Last week you got me and Mr. Wonderful, this week you just got me. [laughs]
Moser: I mean, you're our Mr. Wonderful, man. Don't sell yourself short. [laughs] Matt, I mentioned in the intro there, we're going to talk about some of the things that stood out here for 2020. We're also going to take a look back at some of the bold predictions that were made at the beginning of the year specifically by you. This is something I've really enjoyed being able to do for years, looking back at the bold predictions that you'll hear about there for the new year, and then take a look back and seeing how that all shook out. So, we'll get to that. But let's open the show here. Let's start with the headline for the year. For you, when you look back at 2020 in our world of financials and all of the stuff we've covered on the show throughout the year, what's your headline for the year in the world of financials?
Frankel: I'd have to say the volatility that we saw and the amount of just bargains for long-term investors. Specifically during March and April, a lot of the stocks that we cover were priced like they were going to go bankrupt.
Moser: You are right, there were a lot of bargains there. That's right.
Frankel: I mean, I had a portfolio and I checked it in late March, and it looked like I owned a bunch of penny stocks. [laughs] I don't know about yours, but I had quite a few in mine.
Moser: Well, I mean, I definitely felt a little bit of pain early in the year. That's for sure.
Frankel: A lot of them were priced like that despite having really solid balance sheets, and solid assets, and no real reason for the panic. I mean, just to name a couple of the ones just from my own portfolio, Tanger Outlets, one we've covered on the show a few times, ticker symbol SKT. They had more liquidity than they had a market cap at one point. I mean, more cash in the bank than they had market cap. They were priced like the value of their assets was zero.
Moser: That's crazy.
Frankel: I mean, Ryman Hospitality, the owners of the Gaylord, RHP. They were trading for something like $14 a share. They went into the year trading for $90. That's insane. Any one of their hotels was worth more than their market cap at that point in time.
Moser: Yes, it was interesting to see especially early on in the year, and certainly as the year progressed, we saw a lot of those real estate investment trusts really taking it on the chin. A lot of that was because businesses were shut down, customers weren't going, businesses couldn't pay rent, net rent was going to a lot of these real estate investment trusts. It just was this chain reaction that it became very unclear exactly what the resolution would be. I mean, obviously we saw a little bit of a low there over the summer where business was able to pick back up and we got some financial aid from Uncle Sam. But it's been a tricky situation for all involved, and it does feel like those stocks in that market were being priced for just the worst-case scenario.
Frankel: There's a fine line between uncertainty and panic.
Frankel: We saw a lot of panic. Like, Empire State Realty is another one. I thought that the biggest no brainer in the stock market at different points in time this year. I mean, the Empire State Building is worth about three times what the company was trading for, and they have a ton of other properties. It's priced like nobody is going to work in an office in New York City again. Which by the way, they said right after September 11th too, and we saw how that worked out.
Moser: Yeah, you're right.
Frankel: So, it's insane how some of these companies were priced like they were going to go away. By the way, Empire State has more than $1 billion of cash to make it through the tough times. So even if their building was vacant, I wouldn't think they were going out of business. There have just been a ton of these, that's really been the story of the year to me, is just how great of an environment it's been in the financial and real estate sectors for long-term stock picking.
Moser: Yeah. I agree, that stood out to me as well. I mean, there are a lot of benefits when you go into stretches like that with a bit of a watch list and an understanding of the businesses that are on that watch list and what makes them tick, because there's a psychology to the market. It's very difficult to quantify, and the only way you can really quantify is what the stock prices are at the end of the day.
Frankel: Some of the prices didn't make -- like, right now I'd say how some of the prices don't make sense in the other direction like Tesla.
Frankel: In March and April, some of the prices were just insanely cheap. The Empire State building was going to get demolished the next day. I mean, and it just doesn't make sense. A lot of the financials. I just mentioned some real estate stocks, but Synchrony Financial was priced like none of their credit card debt was going to get paid, none. I mean, now it's trading for about three times the March lows. For a good reason, it's because there was an irrational panic. That's great, like Buffett says, I wish he had taken more advantage of it. But irrational panics are great if you're trying to buy stocks to hold for 20 or 30 years.
Moser: Yeah, that's the net buyer of stocks idea that we always talked about here. I mean, when you know that you're going to be buying more than you're selling, and you're aiming to collect them, and hanging onto them. Hopefully, a lot of our members and our listeners were able to take advantage of that time. We all did to the amount that we could, but it's not always easy, right? It's easy going there when times are good to say, oh, I'm going to take advantage of the market when the panic hits. But then the panic hits and you start second guessing yourself. I think, with experience, that becomes a little bit easier to do. But it does take that experience. I'd like to go back to your mention of September 11th, but then also even the financial crisis back in 2008-'09. Go through those periods of time as an investor, even though they are painful at the time, they really are just the most invaluable stretches where you can learn the most.
Frankel: Yeah, absolutely. Since I've worked at The Fool, this has been the first major market turbulence that we've experienced. I wasn't with the Motley Fool in the '08 or '09 recession. I think you were.
Moser: No, that was right before I actually got here.
Frankel: You missed it too.
Moser: Yeah. I started in 2010. I was investing. I was a member of The Fool, I just wasn't an employee.
Frankel: I was investing, and that's my point. I was investing in 2008-2009 but I was doing it in a wrong way because I didn't really get the long-term focus as much as I do now, and what to look for in long term investments. I was more, like, what's going to go up the next month, or what looks like a bargain today, but I will sell tomorrow, and things like that. This is the first one, and I really feel like for the most part, I got it right, and a lot of people got it right. Pretty much everything I bought in March and April is still in my portfolio. I'm not planning on selling anytime soon, and I'm pretty sure that you said the same.
Moser: Yeah, I subscribe to that as well. What's one business, stock or business, let's combine the two, what's one of the business performances out there that surprised you the most over this past year? Given the pandemic and everything that's going on, there are a lot of surprises, both good and bad. What's one that really stood out to you? You can go either way, good or bad.
Frankel: Well, let me give you two, I'll give you one each way. One that really negatively surprised me was Howard Hughes Corporation. I know you've talked about them. They were just poorly prepared for this. To be fair, their three biggest markets are Las Vegas, which got absolutely hammered. I mean, Las Vegas is still really suffering. Houston, which is really tied to the oil industry, we know how that's doing this year, and New York City, which they own the seaport district. So, they got hit harder than most, but the fact that they had to do a dilutive equity raise at about 70% less than the stock was before the pandemic. You know who bought most of the newly issued shares?
Frankel: The company's Chairman, Bill Ackman.
Moser: I didn't realize that.
Frankel: So it really sounds like, to me, it felt like a sneaky way for Ackman to buy more of the company. [laughs] Because they sold it to him for $50 a share. Howard Hughes started the year $130-ish. The fact that they had to do that to raise capital, they didn't have a credit line, they didn't have cash in the bank, anything like that, it's kind of a similar situation to how we see the airlines, all they've done is buy back stock, they haven't put anything in the bank. It feels like they were just really poorly prepared for it.
Moser: I think a lot of a lot of folks were. What about the upside? You said you had two, what company surprised you in a good way?
Frankel: It's not a financial, but FedEx. They had a fantastic year. The stock's up about 75% year-to-date for good reason. They invested a lot in recent years in their infrastructure. You remember they've had like a war with Amazon going on?
Frankel: They appear to be winning it. Amazon's not using them anymore. I love this move that FedEx just recently announced. They announced that they are acquiring an e-commerce platform called ShopRunner.
Moser: I didn't realize that.
Frankel: Which is essentially an Amazon Prime competitor. They would network with companies, Under Armour's on there, American Eagle's on there, the NBA store's on there. It's like a two-day shipping if you join ShopRunner. It's like an Amazon Prime. You can buy from any of them with free two-day shipping. I love that move. They are a big beneficiary of the e-commerce boom and the fact that the postal service's so backed up, I'm still getting Christmas cards [laughs] that were mailed three weeks ago. They are a big beneficiary of that, because when you have an efficient shipping service like that, it's tremendous pricing power when the alternative takes a month.
Moser: There is no question. Yeah, that's interesting. That ShopRunner, that sounds a lot like the business that Target acquired a little while back, Shipt, which essentially it sounds like the same thing. It's that same type of Amazon Prime competitor, where it's able to not only really Target's purposes, but also they're able to bring retailers from all different walks on that platform as well to give them more of an e-commerce presence and give Amazon a little bit of competition. It seems like it's really, at the end of the day, it's working out really well for investors and consumers.
Frankel: It is. I added a lot of my FedEx investment in 2019. I mentioned it on the show after I did. I had a feeling that they weren't just going to kind of go quietly after Amazon stopped using them, a company like that, and it's paid off.
Moser: Yeah, that's a good move. That's a good move. I like that. There are a lot of different ways you can go with this, because a lot of leaders really did stand out in 2020, but who are you calling out as your best CEO of 2020?
Frankel: I have a few honorable mentions because my No. 1 is not the financial sector, so I want to give you a few honorable mentions. One is David Solomon from Goldman Sachs. I think he's done a great job of growing the consumer banking capabilities of that company even during the pandemic. Another is Willy Walker from Walker & Dunlop. They met their five-year goals in 2020 that they set five-years ago, despite the pandemic. I don't know if you saw their recent Investor Day, he put out a presentation. They basically want to dominate commercial real estate finance in the next five years.
Moser: That's a big market.
Frankel: Right now they're just a multi-family lender. I love the ambition, but my No. 1 for the year has to be Bob Chapek of Disney. I'd say Bob Iger, who was CEO until February, is also worthy of the title. I don't want to just call them co-CEOs during the pandemic. [laughs] Late February 2020 is not a great time to be taking over as CEO of anything. I love that he did right by its employees for the most part. He held off on layoffs as long as possible. We just learned of a big round of layoffs in November just because they can't get that California park open. They kept their employees on payroll for a lot longer than a lot of other people did. The streaming success has just been off the charts. They hit their five-year goal within a year. They now see up to 216 million Disney+ subscribers by 2024. That would make it bigger than Netflix in the U.S.
Moser: Granted, it's a projection and that's what they are aiming for, but when you see the additional markets that they're rolling out, everywhere from Latin America and Eastern Europe, it does feel like they're getting out into markets there where people will really be clamoring for that Disney brands.
Frankel: They have the competitive advantage. There is some original content like The Mandalorian and things like that, but they're doing this a lot of it's with content that they already own. They don't have to develop as much new content as, say, Netflix does. We pay for Disney+ so my daughter can watch Frozen seven times a day. [laughs] I'd say seven times a week, but you know what I mean, and that's not costing Disney a dime. Right now, they're investing heavily in content, but this has the potential to be in the tens of billions of dollars a year in high-margin revenue overtime. They are a stock that should have been crushed. They have a cruise line that's not sailing, they have theme parks that weren't open and are still at, I think, 35% capacity, they have movie franchises that have no theaters to show in. They should have been crushed this year, but they're not. Their management team, you really have to take your hat off to them.
Moser: Yeah. I agree. They've done a stellar job and you're right. That was a very difficult time for him to take over the position, but he's made that his company and I tell you, he's done one heck of a job with it. In order to be a good investor, we need to be humble. We need a little humility. We need a little standard, we all do, no one's perfect. We make mistakes and we get things wrong. What was something that you got wrong in 2020 that stood out to you?
Frankel: The magnitude of the COVID pandemic, hands-down. I was one of the people in January, February saying it's just a flu. It's just the flu, it'll never turn out to be anything here. Not that I quote the president very often, but when he said it'll get warm and go away, I was kind of in that camp for a while in the early part of the year. I had no idea how bad it could get. It cost me to make some investments way too early in February. Then, the market started to drop because we heard about the outbreak in China. There were few, I think it started in the Seattle area where we first got it in the U.S., if I'm remembering correctly.
Moser: It sounds right.
Frankel: There were some fears. There weren't very many on U.S. shores, so I made two investments that I really remember that we're way too early. I bought Occidental Petroleum the day before the market crashed, you don't get much worse timing than that, and Goldman Sachs as well. I bought both of those in February just because I thought it was just an overreaction about nothing and that obviously turned out not to be the case. I quickly changed my tune as soon as the actual spread and the actual outbreaks started. It was clear that I was wrong. I wasn't the only one who was saying it's just the flu.
Moser: No. Hey, listen, I will jump on that. I underestimated it as well, I think we all. I was speaking with physicians early on in the year that felt the same way. This was something that most people underestimated, and folks who don't cop to that I think are just fooling themselves and not being fully honest.
Frankel: Some of our colleagues who admittedly got it right, Brian Stoffel was one that I know was on Twitter in February saying, let's shut everything down now, it's going to get bad. I said, you're crazy. It turns out that tweet didn't age well, that I responded to. We had some people who got it right. I wasn't one of them. I thought it was a lot of fear mongering going on at the time. I regret feeling like that now, but I think I made up for it. I think I got it right in the long run.
Moser: I think a lot of us underestimated it, but hopefully we're turning a corner into a better and more productive year-to-year. Final look back here at 2020, what was the one of the biggest things that 2020 taught you as an investor?
Frankel: That there's no such thing as a recession-proof stock. Before 2020, if you had told me that any recession would cause Realty Income, ticker symbol O, to lose half of its value, I would've said you're crazy or Disney, like we just mentioned. If you told me Disney would be trading for half of what it started 2020 at some point, I would've thought you were crazy. These are recession-proof companies in my mind. The big lesson to learn from 2020 is that every recession is different. Every recession affects certain areas of the market in different ways. We clearly haven't had a pandemic like this for 100 years and the last time we did, things like fintech didn't exist. You can't assume that, just because something is recession-resistant, that it's recession-proof. That's really the lesson that I really learned. Like banks, my portfolio is banks and real estate. That sounds like a pretty recession-proof portfolio. Not so much this year. In March, all you guys at The Fool with all your Zooms and all your DocuSigns and all that were laughing at me in March and April [laughs] for having all my real estate and all that.
Moser: I don't think anybody, I know I wouldn't laugh. I think I've learned enough lessons through the years to try to keep that dose of humility. But to your point, the financial sector really hasn't fully recovered yet either. I was looking at this earlier today actually, the S&P 500 financials index, I think it's 65 of the most relevant financials. I am talking about banks and insurance companies. There aren't any payments companies in this index, but that index is still down about 6% for the year and under-performing most everything else out there. It has been a very tough year for banks and you're right, for an industry that is viewed as fairly defensive even in the toughest of times, it has not fared as well. The flip side of that is, I think actually we could be looking at a pretty good setup for a lot of these financials going into 2021, assuming that the vaccines take hold and assuming that we do see some economic recovery.
Frankel: I'd agree with that, but I think the three recessions that have happened in my adult lifetime have been this year's, the COVID recession, we've had the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and the dotcom bubble bursting in the early 2000s, all three of those affected the market in very different ways. In 2000, 2001, stocks like Zoom and DocuSign would've gotten clobbered.
Frankel: In this recession, they went through the roof. Every recession is different. That's a really important lesson to learn. A lot of people generalize what would happen in a recession. Generally, there are some constants. You get lower interest rates during recessions, for example, for the most part, the Fed generally cuts interest rates when a recession hits, but when it comes to individual stocks, every recession is it's own animal and that's a really important lesson to learn that I found myself learning the hard way this year.
Moser: Well, Matt, back in December of 2019, December 9th to be specific, you published an article on Fool.com called Five Bold Predictions for the Stock Market in 2020. You do this every year, you published these predictions, it's fun. You take it all with a grain of salt. It's fun, it gets you thinking a little bit outside the box, and we always have fun previewing them and then we're getting ready to do it here, we're going to review these five bold predictions that you laid out for us back in December of 2019, see how everything has worked out. Now clearly, when you wrote this article, there was really no anticipation that we would be running into the pandemic. But the lesson there is that you can never really predict the future, you just got to go with whatever you're brought. Let's go ahead and jump into this, because I want to take these one at a time and cover each five of them here, and just give you a chance to revisit. We'll go ahead and start with No. 1. This first bold prediction I think is interesting, because it kind of came to fruition, but then it also kind of didn't and I'm going to let you explain.
Frankel: No. 1, I said the stock market will have a rough year. In mid-year I think that was very accurate.
Moser: It still feels it's been a rough year.
Frankel: It's been a rough year, I feel like 2020 has been going on since I was 10 years old. [laughs] It's been an interesting year, and that was a very bold prediction at the beginning of 2020. For the most part, the market had been going straight up for a decade, and everybody was predicting the same in 2020. They were predicting that the biggest catalyst was Donald Trump saying tax reform 2.0, remember that? That was supposed to happen during 2020, which for obvious reasons got put on the back burner as the year went on. There was really no reason, in most people's mind, to think that the market was going to have a tough year, but in my mind, I had no crystal ball that predicted the pandemic. I would have rather been wrong had the pandemic not happen. My point was that there was a lot more that could go wrong and right at that point. There was the trade war that was still going on, interest rates were heading downwards, which is usually indicative of a recession. The yield curve had just inverted, to be specific. But there was just a lot more that looked like it was going to go wrong than right. And so that's one of them that I'm not happy I got right.
Moser: Well, listen. You can only do what you can only do. Let's look here at No. 2, and this involves a certain, I guess octogenarian still, and may or may not have involved an elephant gun. I don't know. What happened here?
Frankel: No. 2 was Warren Buffett will make his biggest acquisition yet. I'm going to tell you a secret, Jason, if I put this on the bold prediction list every year, I'm going to be right eventually.
Moser: [laughs] Eventually you will.
Frankel: Warren Buffett is going to have $500 billion to work with at some point, and he'll buy Apple or something like that. [laughs]
Moser: I guess he didn't really make a big deal this year, did he?
Frankel: No, it really disappointed people, including me, in March and April, when we found out that he literally did almost nothing in the second quarter when the market crashed. The biggest move he made was selling his airline stocks at big losses. Towards the second half of the year, he looked like he was finally putting some money to work. He bought some more Bank of America stock. He acquired Dominion's natural gas assets, but he didn't make any big acquisitions and he didn't fire the elephant gun, like he likes to say. You've said you can't remember his big acquisitions this year, it's because he didn't make any. His biggest acquisition recently is still Precision Castparts, which was 2015. I'm leaving this off the list, I just wrote my 2021 piece. [laughs] I'm leaving this off the list for next year, watch now it's actually going to happen.
Moser: [laughs] That's the way he usually was.
Frankel: He still was trying to cash and supposedly wanted to make a big deal but valuations there just were a big obstacle. Now that the market's at all-time highs again, I don't see how that's going to change.
Moser: No. 3 is a subject that I feel you and I talk a lot about. We've talked about it, I think we talked about it every year, but we talked about it probably every month, it's just in regard to the financial sector in general and more acquisitions, perhaps, that could be on the way.
Frankel: Yeah, 2019 was a pretty big year for acquisitions in the financial sector. BB&T and SunTrust that's when that merger happened, TD Ameritrade and Schwab, that's when that was announced. I predicted a lot more of that in 2020, obviously the pandemic got in the way that somewhat, because the financial sector was a little hard hit. We still saw some: E*TRADE was acquired by Morgan Stanley, that was probably the biggest financial deal of the year. There were a few smaller ones, but I'd have to mark that one half right.
Moser: Well, half is better than none. [laughs] What about No. 4? Because this goes in tandem with No. 1 here. But I guess technically you did get this one right, I think, yeah?
Frankel: I did. It says the U.S. economy will fall into a recession, which did happen into my knowledge, we're not out of a recession yet.
Moser: Well, now, I guess we got to wait till we see the numbers but I think you're right, it's still going on.
Frankel: I'll defend myself a little bit and say that my first line under that was "Here's one that I hope I'm wrong about." [laughs] I listed a few reasons there. Economic growth has noticeably softened, which was true that the Fed had started to lower interest rates before the pandemic. The trade war wasn't showing signs of progress, there was just a big standoff going on between the U.S. and China. Election risk was definitely a thing. Before the pandemic, I would've viewed a democrat win as a negative for the market. It generally is, when you go from a republican controlled government to a democrat one. It's usually a negative reaction at first. Prospect of higher taxes, more business regulation, things like that, without a pandemic going on. That kind of threw a wrench on that. Like I mentioned earlier, the yield curve had just inverted during 2019. That's usually a pretty reliable predictor of a recession. I actually don't know how bold that prediction was. It's a pretty reliable indicator, but I cited a statistic there in December 19th, Bloomberg put the chance of a recession in 2020 at 26%, and they were wrong.
Moser: Wow, [laughs] holy cow.
Frankel: Most other prediction models I saw were in that neighborhood, so that's what made that a bold prediction, is that pretty much everyone was calling for just business as usual in 2020.
Moser: Remember those good old days where the headlines were just dominated by China trade tensions, the whole relationship there trade disputes with China? That seems so tame now.
Frankel: It seems such a non-issue at this point.
Moser: I know. I want to get back to those days. [laughs] Let's get back to those days. Hopefully, 2021 will [laughs] take us back to those days. [laughs] No. 5 here, another interesting one, and I can tell you, I know this worked up because I think a lot of people refinance their homes throughout the year, but lead us in a No. 5 here.
Frankel: I'd actually be curious to hear from anyone listening who hasn't refinanced their mortgage and why. [laughs] No. 5 was that interest rates will fall. Like I said, this goes along with the prediction of a recession in a rough year for the markets. Those usually come with interest rate cuts, but I also said that mortgage rates and all consumer interest rates would get really low. I didn't go so far as to predict negative interest rates, which didn't happen, but were certainly talked about at the start of the year.
Moser: Yeah. Well, they've happened elsewhere around the world.
Frankel: It started to happen here. We have record-low mortgage rates right now, federal funds rates are zero, and probably will be for a while. If you have a credit card, your credit card interest rate is usually linked to the Federal funds rate, so that's lower than it started this year. If you're borrowing money or buying something big, 2020 is, I'm not saying to spend beyond your means, but 2020 is a good time to be borrowing money if that's what you need to do. I've refinanced, I know someone who refinanced twice [laughs] because the rates went down to about 3% and then they went down to about 2.5%. It was worth doing it again.
Moser: The numbers don't lie, that is one of those same grid, you can just look at the numbers and they make sense. Well, let's do it again. It's a hassle, but still, at the end of the day it's saving money.
Frankel: I'm not going to lie, I've looked into refinancing again because [laughs] the rates have dropped since I did it in June.
Moser: I know. It's been amazing.
Frankel: I got quoted a 30-year mortgage at 2.3%. That's pretty crazy.
Moser: Yeah. It really is. You figure they've got nowhere to go but up from here, but we've been saying that for the past several years, so it's going to be fascinating to see how that interest rate environment plays out here over the coming year.
Frankel: Once it hit 3%, I told my wife it's not getting any lower, we need to refinance [laughs] and I was wrong.
Moser: Timing is everything, like they say. Well, Matt, that is an excellent review of your bold predictions for 2020, I appreciate you digging into that for us. Listeners, you can rest assured that we will be digging into Matt's bold predictions for 2021 here on an up-and-coming episode of Industry Focus, so don't worry, we'll be digging into those, and we'll have a lot of fun with that.
But Matt, I think that's going to do it for us this week, we've been together at this show now, we've been doing the show for the better part of two years now together, and I hope it just goes without saying that I really enjoy and appreciate we get to do these shows with you. Thanks for another great year, and I'm really looking forward to 2021.
Frankel: Absolutely. I hope it's a less eventful year in 2021, [laughs] but then we had some good shows.
Moser: Yes, Sir, we did. Remember folks you can always reach out to us on Twitter @MFIndustryFocus, or you can drop us an email at email@example.com.
As always, people on the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks made solely on what you hear.
Thanks, as always, to Tim Sparks for putting together the show for us, for Matt Frankel, I'm Jason Moser. Thanks for listening, we'll see you next year.