Corporate Culture Matters — CEOs, Not So Much

Investors often pay lots of attention to who a company’s CEOs is, or should be. But MarketWatch’s Mark Hulbert says they are probably wasting their time.

“In fact, according to Rakesh Khurana, a professor of leadership development at Harvard Business School, a corporation’s internal culture ‘exerts a far greater longer-term influence on the company’s success’ than a CEO,” Hulbert writes. “’Large-scale statistical studies have failed to find any direct causal link between CEOs and firm performance,’ he told me.”

Hulbert says that culture is difficult to quantify. “But one academic study found that a good measure of corporate culture is responsiveness to shareholder concerns — as measured by the presence or absence of governance structures that enable or prevent shareholders to effect change,” he writes. “That study, by Andrew Metrick of Yale University, Paul Gompers of Harvard University and Joy Ishii of Stanford University, found that the shares of companies that were most responsive to shareholders gained an average of 8.5% more per year than companies that were the least responsive.”

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Hulbert: High Sentiment Won’t Cause A Bear

MarketWatch’s Mark Hulbert says that stock market sentiment has recently reached “dangerous proportions”, but also says that means little for longer term market performance.

In a recent column, Hulbert said that the average level of equity exposure among a group of market-timing newsletters he monitors through Hulbert Financial Digest was at nearly 94%, a level that, when reached, has been accompanied almost every time by a short term peak or near-peak in the Nasdaq Composite Index in recent years. “But notice also that, after each of those recent pullbacks, the market’s uptrend resumed,” Hulbert added. “It would have been a bad idea for someone on any of those prior occasions to have declared the bull market over and gone completely to cash.”

Hulbert analyzed historical data and found that up until about ten years ago, sentiment data “had its greatest explanatory power at the three-month horizon. That’s a short enough horizon already, but it has shrunk in recent years — and is now little longer than one month.”

Hulbert says the recent overly bullish mood “now tells us little more than that the market is vulnerable to a short-term decline lasting little more than a month — maybe three.” Sentiment won’t cause a new bear market, he says.

Why Gross Profits May Be More Important than Earnings

Earnings often dominate the investing headlines, but according to a growing body of research, a better indicator of future stock returns may be gross profitability.

The research focuses on gross profits because “a company’s earnings reflect myriad factors having nothing to do with how profitable it is likely to be in future years, says Robert Novy-Marx, a finance professor at the University of Rochester,” Mark Hulbert writes in a MarketWatch column. He says Novy-Marx divides gross profits by total assets in order to compare companies of different size. Research has found that historically, firms in the top 20% percent of the market on that basis have outperformed those in the bottom 20% by 3.5 percentage points annually over the next year.

Hulbert warns not to put all your eggs in one basket, however, noting that valuation is always important. In fact, Novy-Marx has found that the most-profitable companies with the cheapest valuations have outperformed the least-profitable companies with the highest valuations by  an average of 7.4 percentage points a year.

For Most, No Time Is a Good Time for Stock-Picking

While stock correlations have been declining, several researchers say that doesn’t make the current environment any better for stick pickers — whose odds of success remain exceptionally low.

“One factor that has a big effect on stocks’ sensitivity to movements in the overall market: changes in the market’s overall volatility, as measured by benchmarks like the Chicago Board Options Exchange’s Volatility Index,” Mark Hulbert writes in a recent MarketWatch column. ” Yet those fluctuations don’t mean there has been any real change in stocks’ relationships to the overall market, according to Kristin Forbes, professor of management and global economics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. ‘It’s an artifact of the statistics that any time volatility decreases, correlations decrease automatically as well,’ she says.”

Hulbert adds that, “in addition to low market volatility recently, another reason why stocks have been acting more independently of late is that the pendulum has swung so far away from the fear end of the spectrum.” As fear increases, stocks tend to move more in sync with each other, he says. “The investment implication: Stocks — at any time and with no warning — could once again begin moving in lock step with the overall market. As a result, stock selection has no greater odds of success now than at any other time.”

Unfortunately, those odds are quite poor, he says. One researcher tells Hulbert that “less than 1% of individuals who trade frequently can consistently outperform the market through skill. Over the long run, the rest would be better off investing in low-cost index funds benchmarked to the broad market.”

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Hulbert: Buyer Beware

Stocks have been bouncing back strong from their August troubles, but Mark Hulbert says the tone of the rally isn’t a good one.

“Nothing so well illustrates Wall Street’s dangerously exuberant state of mind as its triple-digit rally in the wake of Larry Summers withdrawing from consideration to be the next Federal Reserve chairman,” Hulbert writes in a MarketWatch column. “Do you really believe the outlook for corporate earnings suddenly became much brighter just because Summers is no longer in the running to succeed Ben Bernanke?”

Hulbert says the Summers bounce is just one example of the stock market shrugging off bad news with little or no losses — and then “bouncing back” as though there actually had been a big decline. “According to contrarian analysis, this sentiment situation is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the wall of worry that bull markets like to climb,” he says. “It’s more akin to the slope of hope that bear markets like to descend.”

Hulbert notes that the average recommended equity exposure among the short term market timing newsletters he tracks is 56.6%, according to the Hulbert Stock Newsletter Sentiment Index — 45 percentage points higher than it was in late August. Such a big jump in such a short period is a concern, he says. He thinks the market is being driven more by mood than fundamentals, and says investors could be in for a rude awakening when the collective mood sours.

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Why Syria Isn’t as Bad for Stocks as You Think

Should you be worried about all the headlines saying that the Syrian crisis will pound stocks? Not if history is any guide, says MarketWatch’s Mark Hulbert.

Hulbert says that historically, the market has suffered only minor losses because of geopolitical crises, and has rebounded quite quickly in many cases. He references a 1989 study performed by economics professors David Cutler of Harvard, James Poterba of MIT, and Larry Summers, who is now in the running to be the next Federal Reserve chief. In it, the professors examined how the stock market fared on 49 days in history when major geopolitical events occurred, such as the Kennedy assassination and Pearl Harbor bombing.

“They came up with little evidence that non-economics events had a big effect on the stock market,” Hulbert writes. “On average, across all 49 events on their list, the S&P 500 moved just 1.46%, less than one percentage point more than the 0.56% that prevailed on all other days. Because of this small difference, the professors concluded that there’s ‘a surprisingly small effect of non-economic news’ on the stock market.”

Hulbert says that doesn’t mean wars have little or no impact on economies and markets. “Rather,” he says, “this conclusion is testament to the stock market’s much-vaunted ability to discount the future. The market takes into account what investors see coming down the pike, not just months in advance but sometimes even years. And the Syria quagmire is hardly something that just erupted onto the world scene.”