5 ways to lose your money forever

Share markets have shot up despite COVID-19 wrecking the real world. When will the party end and how can you avoid a hangover?
The post 5 ways to lose your money forever appeared first on The Motley Fool Australia. –

business man wearing box on his head with a sad, crying face on it representing bad investment in asx shares and fall in asx share price

The share market has defied the real life gloom and doom to take investors upwards since March this year.

But eventually government stimulus will end, interest rates will rise, and the party will wind up.

So who will be left with a massive hangover afterwards?

Evans & Partners head of international equities Bob Desmond warned that there’s always a serious risk some investors could see their capital “permanently impaired”. 

Even in a bull market, some shares have certain hints that make it more likely that a devastating loss could come.

Desmond pointed out the 5 biggest warning signs to look out for:

Big debt

Borrowing money is a perfectly legitimate way to grow a business. 

But Desmond suggests keeping an eye on how much is borrowed and how the money is used.

He uses American Airlines Group Inc (NASDAQ: AAL) as an example to demonstrate how foolish some companies can be.

“In the five years to 2019, the company ‘returned’ US$13 billion in buybacks. This was despite the fact there was no capital to return, as free cash flow over the period was a NEGATIVE US$3.2 billion!” he said on Livewire.

“The ratio of debt to earnings before income, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) was 4.2 times in 2019 at the peak of the cycle.”

Share buybacks are a common way for US companies to return capital to shareholders, similar to how dividends are regularly used in Australia.

Desmond was scathing of an airline borrowing this much money only to give it away.

“In our opinion this is highly irresponsible, given the industry already has a high degree of operational gearing, has a large amount of off-balance sheet debt in the form of leases and is vulnerable to rising oil prices,” he said.

“And then when tough times hit, these companies go cap-in-hand to the government and/or shareholders to repair balance sheets at very depressed equity prices, resulting in severe value destruction.”

Relying on accurate forecasts of something that’s hard to forecast

There is always some risk when a stock is hyped up on a future assumption.

It’s fair enough if the forecast is reasonable, but it could spell disaster if it’s something that’s hard to predict.

“We deliberately avoid businesses that rely on us correctly forecasting commodity prices, interest rates, elections, drug discoveries, economic growth or political outcomes,” said Desmond.

“Experience has taught us that very few people are able to do this on a consistent basis.”

For example, he recalled back in 2016 very few investors expected Donald Trump to win the US presidential election.

“And for those who did, how many predicted that markets would rally?” Desmond said.

“Or in March of this year, who would have thought the market would be at an all-time high in December, when the global economic contraction has been the largest since the Great Depression?”

No moat

A proper competitive advantage is a basic investment axiom. But it can get lost in the fervour of a bull market.

“Superior returns on capital normally arise from some form of competitive advantage – be it a brand, network effect, scale, reputation, data, client relationships, IP or technology,” Desmond said.

“Over time, competition does a pretty good job of taking away excess returns for most businesses. And over time, it is very hard for an investor to earn a return much different than the underlying economics of the business one owns.”

Poor management burning through cash

Terrible business decisions can cost even the biggest of companies dearly.

Desmond takes the example of General Electric Company (NYSE: GE). It was for many decades an industrial giant, but then started diversifying into finance, real estate, insurance and media.

“The end result was to take a AAA rated balance sheet and turn it into one that is now barely above junk status.”

GE shares sold for about US$57 in the year 2000, but now trades for US$10.56.

In Australia, Desmond cites Woolworths Group Ltd (ASX: WOW) and Wesfarmers Ltd (ASX: WES)’s very expensive diversification attempts a few years ago.

“Who can forget Woolworths’ ill-timed home improvement venture against the toughest of competitors, or even Bunnings themselves and their venture into the UK?” he said.

“Would it not have made sense to focus capital on the competitive advantage that made the company a market leader in the first place and then return excess capital to shareholders?”

Expensive share price

Buying shares cheaply sounds obvious. But again, in a mad ‘fear of missing out’ scramble, human nature can easily ignore ‘fair value’.

“Even the most disciplined can be lured into paying inflated prices, especially in the upper reaches of a bull market,” Desmond said.

“The narrative always follows a similar pattern that excess growth will last forever, interest rates will never rise, the company has changed (very few do), the company deserves a lower beta and the list goes on.”

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Motley Fool contributor Tony Yoo has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia owns shares of Wesfarmers Limited and Woolworths Limited. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

The post 5 ways to lose your money forever appeared first on The Motley Fool Australia.

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