Rather than try to guess what might happen next, we think it more prudent to own a portfolio of market leading companies that earn high returns on capital, boast strong balance sheets and self-fund their growth. We try to invest alongside motivated and ethical management teams and to identify businesses with many years of growth ahead of them. We try to buy these businesses carefully, taking advantage of occasional periods when their stocks seem to be mispriced. Though it contradicts academic theory, we believe a concentrated portfolio of businesses that has been intensively researched and carefully purchased will generate higher returns with less risk over time than a diverse basket of stocks chosen with less care. However, a concentrated portfolio may deliver results in an individual year that do not correspond closely to the returns generated by the broader market.
We have now owned TJX for 12 years and Mohawk for 10 years.
In the fourth quarter of 2012, we were modest net sellers of equities for the first time since 2008, in response to specific situations at several of our portfolio holdings. In particular, we exited Target Corp., the discount retailer we’d owned since 2006, as we became increasingly concerned by its lackluster sales growth and vulnerability to competition from online retailers.
Given the huge run up in equities since early 2009, we are no longer finding compelling valuations, either for our existing holdings or for new ideas we are researching. Our current portfolio seems fairly valued today. That said, anyone who has paid attention over the past 15 years knows equities can trade at extreme levels, both of overvaluation and undervaluation.
Valuations for stocks are heavily influenced by interest rates, and particularly by the risk-free rate of return on 10-year and 30-year United States Treasury bonds. Relative to the current return on Treasury Bonds, stocks continue to be quite attractive. However, the current risk-free rate of return is not a product of market forces. Rather, it is an instrument of Federal Reserve policy. As long as these policies remain in place, and stocks trade at higher levels of valuation, it will be more difficult for us to find individual stocks that meet our criteria for returns on a risk basis that incorporates substantially higher interest rates than exist currently. Just as we think it would be a mistake for investors to buy bonds at current levels, we believe it would be a mistake for us to buy stocks on the assumption that interest rates remain anywhere near current levels.