Sunday, 11 February 2018

Are There Stocks That Can Withstand A Crash Better?

Stocks tanked this week. When I was mulling over whether I should move 22% of my money into 1 stock, Global Logistic Properties (GLP), in Nov 2015, I wondered what would happen if the stock market were to crash. Are there stocks that could better survive a market crash of the same magnitude as the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis or the 2007 Global Financial Crisis? In the end, I reasoned that there are 2 categories of stocks that could withstand a crash better than others: undervalued (or at least not overvalued) growth stocks and dividend stocks.

Growth stocks are stocks of companies that are growing over the long term. If a company could grow over a long period of time, it is a matter of time before the company doubles or triples its earnings and/or book value. Hence, even if a severe market crash were to happen and wipe off 50% of the stock price, the stock price at the bottom of the crash would not be too far off the price that you bought, since the earnings or book value would have doubled. As an example, GLP managed to grow its book value from USD1.33 in 2011 to USD1.78 in 2016, representing an annual growth rate of 6.0%. At this growth rate, it will double its book value in 11.9 years. If a crash were to happen 11.9 years later and cut the prevailing Price-to-Book (P/B) ratio by 50%, I still would not have lost money. Thus, it was with this thinking that I decided to take the risk of moving 22% of my money into GLP. 

Having said the above, there are a few important things to note. Firstly, the company must be growing over the long term. It is no use if the growth is limited to a few years only. The company would not be able to grow its way out of a severe stock market crash. Secondly, the holding period must be long enough. As the example above shows, it will take 11.9 years for GLP to double its book value, assuming it can maintain the growth rate at 6.0%. If the stock were to crash the day after I bought it, I would be losing a lot of money. Thirdly, the growth stock must not be overvalued in the first place. Using P/B valuation as a example, if the average historical P/B ratio is 2.0 but the stock is purchased at 3 times book value and the stock falls to half of the average historical P/B ratio (i.e. 1 times book value), it will take more than 11.9 years to grow its way out of the crash.

There are other psychological benefits of investing in a growth company in a market crash. Even though the stock price might be declining, if you know that the management is doing a good job growing the company, you will feel assured and not sell the stock in a panic during the crash. This is very important in countering the fear that most investors feel when the market crashes.

Having undervalued growth stocks is relying on the company management to get out of trouble. If you do not have a company with good management, you will need to rely on yourself. This means bargain hunting at the depth of the market crash, which requires additional capital beyond what you have already invested. This additional capital can come from either (1) your salary, (2) war chest, or (3) accumulated dividends. The first 2 methods do not need further explanation. For the third method, you just save the dividends collected from the stock during good times and re-invest them when the market crashes. For example, if the stock pays 4% dividend yield and the stock crashes to half its original price, you will need to collect and re-invest 12.5 years of dividends to maintain the value of your investment in the stock. Obviously, the higher the dividend yield, the less number of years of dividends you need to accumulate.

Similar to the growth stock approach, there are a few important factors to note. Firstly, the dividends should be fairly constant in good times and bad times. There are stocks that have high dividend payout ratios but volatile earnings. The dividends they pay are equally volatile and contribute to the volatility in stock prices. In contrast, a stock with fairly constant dividends behaves like a bond and reduces the volatility of its stock price. The lower the stock price goes, the higher is the dividend yield, which would attract other investors to buy into the stock. See What Can We Learn About Stocks From Bonds for more information. Secondly, the stock should not be overvalued in the first place. The more overvalued it is, the lower its dividend yield is, the more number of years of dividends you need to accumulate.

What about other stocks? Can they withstand a market crash equally well? Undervalued stocks will fall less, since they are already undervalued compared to other stocks. However, for an undervalued stock to rise to its intrinsic value, it will take many years and likely requires a catalyst. For cyclic stocks, in all likelihood, the industry downturn will coincide with the stock market crash and you end up with a double whammy -- low earnings, dividends and limited interest from investors.

Thus, before you invest in a stock, have a plan to decide what you would do with it in case the market crashes. It will save you from panic. Good luck!

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