Padley: “The big one is coming”

Patrick Poke

Livewire Markets

For the last 20 months, the bull market has been chugging along and conditions have been rosy. The most important decision for investors has not been which stocks to own, but just to make sure they’re fully invested. 

But in 2022 (and beyond), Marcus Padley will be watching like a hawk, ready to react if things go awry.

“It's not about the cycle. It's not about spotting inflation or that interest rates are going up. That's all just daily chatter. At some point, the sentiment legs are going to get taken out of the stock market again… That moment is not a disaster, it's a moment of fabulous opportunity to get out and buy stocks lower down and save yourself 10 years of investment returns.”

Padley stresses, however, that this is not about predicting what might happen, but reacting when a crash does occur. 

Getting the timing perfect is not a big decision, he says, because it’s relatively simple to buy back in. Something not so easily achieved by big fund managers and institutional investors.

In this in-depth interview, Marcus explains how he avoids the big drawdowns while still participating in the “big silly bits”, highlights two contrasting approaches to building and maintaining a portfolio, and shares a few stock ideas from his portfolios – including his one and only PA (personal account) holding. 


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Edited transcript

Patrick Poke: Marcus, good to be chatting with you.

Marcus Padley: Patrick, good to be here.

Patrick Poke: I'm sure this probably comes as no surprise to you, but on Livewire you're consistently one of the best performing authors on the platform.

Marcus Padley: No, that's no surprise to me, Patrick.

Patrick Poke: In fact, you're actually the third most followed profile behind yours truly and Buy Hold Sell, of course.

Marcus Padley: Of course.

Patrick Poke: What do you think it is about your style that appeals to people? And is there anything in particular that sparked a passion for writing for you?

Marcus Padley: I love Shakespeare. That sounds a stupid thing to say but I am a writer. If I wasn't writing about the stock market, I would be writing about motorbikes. I wake up in the morning with an empty screen and I'm a creative, it's a picture that needs painting. I have a passion for that. My colleague Henry also has that passion. We love it. And I think that comes through in writing, where someone is enjoying being there rather than having to do it because it's work.

As for the style, that was developed as I moved from institutional broking and retail broking. I realised that the private investor was somewhat uneducated at a time that online broking was just starting and SMSFs were just getting going. There was this real appetite for the stock market that hadn't been there before but nobody really had any financial education.

From my institutional background, I knew how the market worked, and why it existed as a means of raising capital. And I realised that the retail investor didn't know what brokers were up to, why they said “buy” on BHP – because they want a corporate deal. And I started to educate.

I regard the stock market as 99% fluff and marketing and 1% talking to the audience in an honest way. And I just started doing that from the very beginning. My first client was my brother-in-law, I was not going to tell him rubbish. I just started writing to the individual and I wanted to reach out from the screen to people at their desk, in their house, so they felt they had a connection.

You’ve got to make people feel they can trust you and are getting the right advice, not being sold something. And our brand now is building a community of better investors. Sorry, I don’t want to go marketing on you. It’s 99% marketing but that is it. You've got to make people feel they can trust you and are getting the right advice, not being sold something.

Poke: It almost feels like it's gone back in the other direction these days, where there's so much information available. What’s harder: the period when people couldn’t find information, or now, for investors trying to sift the good information from the bad?

Padley: There are many strategists writing articles that won't make you any money, which is fine, it's highbrow stuff that people enjoy.

But if you want to hone it all down, it comes down to one spreadsheet. What stock code you've got, how many shares you hold, whether it's up or down and what the big number at the bottom is after you've added them all up. That is the only thing that matters to an investor.

If you want to shorten your investment journey, focus on what you're buying and selling, rather than emailing Marcus about what Janet Yellen thinks, because that isn't going to make the blindest bit of difference to how wealthy you are when you decide to cash in your portfolio.

Focus on the stocks, it's a simple equation.

Poke: In your almost 40 years in financial markets, what’s a crash that really stands out for you? And can you share a story from one of them?

Padley: They all stand out but 9/11 is an obvious one for me. I was a broker, and, in those days, clients had three days to pay for their trades. I had just taken an order for $30,000 in Qantas call warrants off a client I didn't really know, that had one thumb. I should have known that because someone had obviously got to him before.

Of course, what happened to Qantas during 9/11 – when an aeroplane hits a building, the Qantas (ASX: QAN) share prices just collapses and you're dealing with, effectively, an Option. The stock was out of the money, worth nothing, and never going to come back. And this guy disappeared.

This is a great lesson on the stock market: all this clever stuff that's going on always happens in a bull market and, "Oh, we're wise and we're professional. We know what we're doing."

The rubber hits the road when the market periodically has one of its 50% corrections. The common view is that these things are “once in a lifetime.” But it's actually once every 10 years. The market will have a tradable 15% to 25% correction every three years. And it'll have a 10% to 15% correction, which most investors would ignore, every one, two or three years. But those that count are the big ones. The most amazing things will happen that no one's predicted and all the marketing departments or the fund managers will immediately go into “excuse mode”. But the reality is, the market's falling over. And what do you do? And the most surprising things happen.

For example, in broking, people didn't sell their trades. Like other individual advisers, I was responsible for settling my client's trade, which I had to do after three days. And then I went looking for this chap. And I remember knocking on his door and I could hear the shuffling behind the door. It actually ended up being a loss of $85,000 at one point, which was fine, except I was only earning $6,000 a month before tax.

It was a seismic event for me but that's the sort of thing that happens in a crash. For a broker, the first question you ask during a crash is: "What's our debtor's list?" It's about business, it's not about what the stock prices are.

There was another key lesson during the tech boom when I was sitting at Bell Asset Management. There was a chap there who'd been a broker forever – a very smart, experienced chap – whose clients all had a very smooth experience. He told us “It’s all going to end in tears.” And with the hindsight of the other crashes in his mind, he knew it was all rubbish, much as you might suggest there are other areas of our market at the moment that are all “fugazi,” they don't exist. The tech boom was one and this broker told his clients, "No, it's all going to end in tears. I'm not going to take trades.” And of course, he was right but he missed one of the best money-making opportunities in the stock market in decades.

And of course, that's the stock market, isn't it? It's a game. It's about making money in the market, in any time period, in any stock you can. It's about making money, not avoiding all risks.

The tech boom was a fabulous opportunity to make money, and make it quickly. That taught me that the most important thing is not necessarily the crash –. You've got to be involved in the great bits before a crash. They're always the best bits of the market. And those bits feed into the average. The average return of 5.7, 7% per annum for the last 75 years involves all the lunatic bits. And I think with basic discipline and vigilance, you can avoid the big crashes and still play in the big silly bits. But so I learned that the stock market was something to be taken advantage of, not something to be scared of. And let others lose their heads. That's the best bit.

Poke: How do you avoid big drawdowns while still participating in the upside?

Padley: For a fund manager it’s different because they can't respond. You might have an industry super fund that's worth anywhere from $8 billion to $100 billion. It can't respond to these even quite large movements in the equity market, and won't because they've got other asset classes.

And the truth is, the market fell 35% in the pandemic. But the average balanced fund fell about 8% because they've got a spread. Big fund managers don't respond but for individual investors, I feel that they are best served by reacting, not predicting.

We're not in the prediction game. You will fail if you think the stock market is about knowing what's going to happen in the future. It's about waking up in the morning, having a look at what's happened and reacting to fact rather than fantasy because you can't predict the future.

If you look at the GFC for instance, nobody knew that was happening. Nobody knew what mortgage-backed securities were – a cancer in the balance sheets of banks – and it came pretty much out of the blue. You can't predict these things. But the only time you really need to be "unrelaxed" is when you get a precipitous moment. I hate to say it because I sound like a broken record but there are precipitous moments in the market.

And we've started a portfolio called the Really Boring Portfolio, which invests in a couple of ETFs, one over the S&P 500 compounding unhedged, and one of them in the ASX 200 compounding. And those are very hard benchmarks to beat when you're a fund manager. We just have the whole of this portfolio, it's a hypothetical portfolio, the whole of this portfolio in those. And occasionally, I will do what I would do if I was a very wealthy man and was a private citizen rather than a fund manager or a stockbroker or other type of market participant. I would occasionally sell. And so at the moment with Omicron, I don't want to make this video time inappropriate, but Omicron, I thought, was an excuse. You saw the German market fall 5% in a day. This is not normal stuff.

You saw the VIX volatility index spike out of the usual bull market range. These precipitous things happen very quickly and it's just insurance. We switch the whole thing into a high-interest ETF. We've got out of the equity market in this Really Boring Portfolio, which is how we communicate strategy calls. And I think that's appropriate occasionally. We are pumped, ready to correct, and the sentiment is very positive. Prices are high, the US market, in particular, is trading at the top end of its very long term – even logarithmic – trading range. The market cap of the US stock market relative to US GDP is way above where it was even in the tech boom. We are primed for some sort of correction, so I'm currently very sensitive to it. But people would say "You can't sell. You can't keep cashing out." This is a couple of ETFs, "Oh, swap it into another one."

We might be back tomorrow when they work out Omicron's irrelevant and we'll stick it back in. All we did was take an insurance policy out, but I think those precipitous moments are the most important moments for individual investors because they do happen in calamitous ways these days. The herd is so big, it's got such good information. It will move very, very quickly. And just to get out occasionally, try and avoid that 50%. You'll save yourself 10 years in returns.

Poke: It feels to me as though Omicron was very weak reasoning for a market that's been facing COVID for a year and a half, to trigger a sell-off. What do you think?

Padley: Yes, that's well said. It's weak reasoning in hindsight but we're now a week and a half after it first appeared and after the European markets fell 4% to 5% in a night and we're now realising Omicron is part of the natural development of a virus that becomes less deadly but more transmissible and eventually morphs from pandemic into seasonal flu.

But we learned that in the last week-and-a-half and a lot of stuff could have happened between now and then. We may well rotate back into equities after this but yes, we're looking for an excuse and we may well find another one. The glass will go half-empty from this level much easier now. And what is the next one, a focus on inflation or the US jobs numbers, which were weak? Something will come along but Omicron looked like the left-field bolt that could just puncture the bubble as it is, didn't it?

Poke: What stock would you buy and hold forever if you had to? I understand you've got a portfolio that focuses on a similar idea, could you tell us a little bit about that?

Padley: I might have to rebrand it because it's not gaining traction, but we called it the FUFU portfolio, which is F-U-F-U, "forever, unless it Fs up,". It really changed my thinking because normally, would you include BHP in a forever portfolio?

It probably seems a bit too cyclical. If you're going to think about buying a stock forever, I've realised that there are headache stocks and there are forever stocks and headache stocks are difficult stocks that need to be traded. It may be long-duration trading, they may stay in upcycle for five years, but as we've seen, BHP and Rio and Fortescue skew off over 40% in a very short period of time. These are headache stocks, they're not forever stocks. And they're stocks that I will put in this portfolio because they're too big to ignore and I think there's a great opportunity. They're on the lowest PEs they've ever been, the highest yields they've ever been. At some point, they're going to turn around. I'll include them but they're not genuine forever stocks.

In the newsletter, we use orange charts for relative performance. If you see an orange chart in our newsletter, it's showing you the performance relative to the ASX 200. And if you put the top 100 stocks all on one screen with an orange chart, you would very clearly see the forever stocks. They're the stocks that consistently outperformed and they're going bottom-left to top-right under all circumstances. My son is the best chartist I know. He's 18, he knows nothing about the stock market but I used to play this game with him on the screen where I would roll a chart forward and say to him, "Where's that price going next?" And he would go, "Oh, duh. It's going up."

Because it was going up. And then you'd roll the chart forward and see what it did. But if you do the “Archie technical analysis”, which is to stand back, blur your eyes, see where the trend is on relative performance over a long period of time, the forever stocks just jump straight out at you. And clearly, it's not BHP or Fortescue, but stocks like Aristocrat Leisure, Realestate.com, Carsales. There are a lot of retailers in there, things like Nick Scali, companies that are ploughing a particular furrow, pretty much on their own, and doing a really good job at it. And the most obvious one to me, if I was to name one stock I think is a forever stock forever, that would be Macquarie. In the US, the competition among investment banks is just vicious. Here, if you are a smart, finance-orientated, want-to-be-in-the-market graduate, where'd you go and work? Well, there's only one place. You go and work at Macquarie, you don't go and work in a very institutionalised bank. You work in a bank that has got 14,000 of the smartest financial brains in Australia with one goal in mind: make money. And I think that's a pretty good investment.

Plus of course, Macquarie once interviewed me and I didn't get the job. So they must be good. I failed their personality test, Henry passed it. I failed it because I was too aggressive and not a team player. And yes, that's pretty much right. And so they wouldn't want me fitting in their team because I'd be pushing at something. They didn't employ me – and this is a sideline – but you have a company that has consistently outperformed. Their goal is exactly what you want it to be. And they've got every single corporate deal, M & A, IPO. If you haven't got Macquarie on your beauty parade, you're an idiot in this country. They are getting a look at every decent deal in this country; that has to be a good investment. That's one of my forever stocks.

Poke: Does its enduring competitive advantage, over at least 20 years now, come from the quality of the people or is there something else going on there?

Padley: It's surely because they are the only major investment bank in Australia. UBS does a very good job over here in terms of deals, corporate deals and competing with them. But every time you sit down in New York to pitch for an IPO or pitch for an M&A, you've got Goldman Sachs over your shoulder with its big bag of tricks. And Morgan Stanley and Citibank, it's a completely different environment over here. It's not a level playing field. Macquarie has to be on your list. And consequently, the business does fabulously. It's got a much higher return on equity than the other banks.

It is more cyclical, it does have a much bigger element of sentiment in its share price, so it goes wrong very quickly. The moment the market falls over, Macquarie's a high beta stock, it'll fall more. We're prepared to sell our forever stock and get it lower down if the precipitous moment happens. That's just something you have to understand.

In Australia’s own little taper tantrum in 2018, when the market fell 15%, all the good stocks fell 35, 40% and got absolutely nailed for holding all the best stocks because they are high beta. There's a large element of sentiment in the share prices. You have to be very careful with them, even though they are great stocks. But if you go back and look at the forever chart 10 years later, you'll see, whatever blip it was, it was the best stock to buy at the bottom as well.

And they come back as quickly. The forever stocks, you actually end up with almost all industrials, rather than cyclical resources stocks, and you do end up mostly at the big end of town. And I have included some smaller stocks in this portfolio. And within months, they're giving me headaches. Forever stocks aren't headache stocks, and it's a fairly easy list to build. And as I say, we run the portfolio in the newsletter.

Poke: Are there any other metrics, alongside those you've mentioned, that you can share with this? Is there a qualitative angle to it as well?

Padley: There is. One newsletter was famous for creating this idea of a moat. And that is a very important part of it. When you look down the list, you go, "Oh, yeah. No one else does it as well as them. No one else does it as well as Carsales or Realestate.com. Nobody else really does it as well as Woolworths and Coles." Everyone's always wondering about which one they should be. And they're both ploughing a furrow there. And Macquarie has also got this moat, I suppose you would call it. Other things are the numbers have to be right. You don't outperform for 10 years because you've got a very volatile earning stream. Generally, you'll find it's backed up by a steady progression, a stable but high-ish return on equity. If you were talking 5%to 10%, you're probably talking about a utility or infrastructure stock. We're not looking at that, we're looking for 15% plus. And most of them you'll find are in there, if not 45% plus. You look at names like Nick Scali, and their return on equity can be 65% because they're making furniture in the very high margin - and very high market - business.

It’s like, "Oh, look at my lovely Italian sofa, it cost me nothing but you're going to pay a lot for it." Some of them are very, very good at their business and they're not really concerned with dominating the market or other companies. They're just going to keep ploughing, much like markets today. We just keep putting it out there every day, do a good job. And the growth comes and the performance is stable. Other people in our industry are going up and down. And these are the stocks that turn up.

Poke: As a bit of holiday fun, do you have a short term trading idea you'd be willing to share with us?

Padley: I'll tell you a little secret about the stock market, which isn't a secret to anyone who's in the stock market but may come as a surprise to some of your watchers or listeners. My brother-in-law first joined stock broking back in the mid-1990s, and he sat next to an iconic name in the stockbroking industry in Melbourne. And this chap had ignored him until 10:00 AM. And he said, "Come with me. We're going for a coffee."

They went for a coffee in Rosati's at the back of 101 Collins Street. And he said, "I'm going to teach you how stock broking works."

"What you do is you find a stock that's less than a cent with half an idea. You buy millions of it and spend the rest of your career marketing it."

And this is how the industry works. People may not realise that but when you see a fund manager talking at a conference or writing an article, the micro-cap stock you have to own, it's because he holds it. And the job for most fund managers, they're too big to trade stocks. They send an analyst out for a month on 200 grand a year to have a look at a company. And he does more work than you'll ever do in your life and knows more about it than you ever will know about a stock, and he'll decide to buy it. Now, they're not going to do that so that they can then tell you to buy it so they can sell it. They're doing it because they expect to hold it for five or 10 years. But the game after discovering an undiscovered stock, is to let everybody else discover it. You start to tell everybody about it. So, I will tell you about my only personal account holding, which is Poseidon Nickel, which has got a fabulous name because it's going to go nuts no doubt, but it's an electric vehicle play.

Padley: Nickel prices are still going up. It had a period there where it collapsed and a lot of projects went out of business, like Poseidon Nickel. And just to be upfront here, the CEO is the godfather to my daughter and I think he's onto a good thing. He turned a project from in Sally Malay, I remember it listed at 20 cents and he rang me at 14 cents on the first day and said, "Marcus, please buy some of these shares. My dad and I are the only ones holding it up."

And I didn't buy any. They were 14 cents, they went to $6 because they went from a project to a producing mine. And Poseidon Nickel is going to do something similar over the next year. There'll be a scoping study out soon, a feasibility study done and they should be back in production next December. And it's that transition that really can transform a share price as well as stock. I'll give you that but it's really a nickel play. There is plenty of other nickel plays out there. They'll all pretty much do the same. And despite the skills of Peter Harold, the CEO, the truth of the matter is all these stocks have very high correlations with their underlying commodity price anyway. It really depends on the nickel price continuing to go. It's a slow burn nickel play.

Poke: If you know the CEO, you're going to have to find something out for me. I've always wondered whether Poseidon Nickel was related to the Poseidon Nickel from the 70s that was behind the infamous Poseidon bubble. Next time we catch up, you'll have to tell me, okay?

Padley: Yes. Well, well I will lie and tell you because I hold the shares. It's exactly the same one, it's going to do the same thing. No, I don't know. I don't know.

Poke: We're coming up to Christmas and New Year's not too far behind it. A lot of people obviously use this time to pause and reflect on what's happened over the past year and also look ahead. What's something you think you could have done better over the last 12 months?

Padley: That's easy. We've got a newsletter business which has done fabulously, but we have got a funds management business as well. And we could have performed better. And the lesson over the last year was we did particularly well in the pandemic because I picked that precipitous moment and the moment it bottomed as well, absolutely perfectly. And we achieved 20% outperformance in 20 days but then we underperformed and we underperformed because I kept cashing out. And also, because we were trying to be smart, we did things like the following. It was a growth portfolio. We thought the banks weren't growth stocks, didn't hold them. They had their rerating. We just were being too smart, too clever. And what we've learned over the last year is that the people who run big money in the funds' management world are the people who are the most predictable. And the people who are the most predictable are those that do the least. It might sound silly but the big industry funds, which are running billions and billions, they're not doing anything radical at any point. They're not taking any major views.

And the more views you take, the less money you'll end up running because the more volatile an experience you'll provide for people. We saw an asset consultant last year and they said they couldn't tell us what was going to happen. "Oh, we can call ...This is how you call a precipitous moment or this is how you call the banks and ... "

They just did not tell us what to buy, when to buy, but they told us how you do fund management and provide a less volatile experience for your investors. And I hope one day you'll come back and find Marcus Today running billions, and it won't be because we were super smart, because we were doing things that were a little bit off the wall and we knew more than anybody else – because no one's going to be able to do that over a long period of time. It'll be because we provided a trustworthy system and process, that's repeatable, reliable, explainable, and we will do that over a long period of time and consequently provide our investors with low risk, low volatility return, which doubtless will be similar to the market, and not try and be too clever. And that's what funds management's all about.

I hate to tell you that that's what funds management is all about because I felt hemmed into averageness by the advice. But it is absolutely clear that you cannot be a cowboy in funds management. Yes, we called a couple of things right early on but it's long term, it's a long term business and you have to provide reliable returns. And that now is our goal. And since we started doing that, we've been outperforming a really quite aggressive benchmark ASX 300 accumulation index. And it's suddenly come together as, "Okay, that's what we need to be doing because our horizon's out there, it's not this month."

And that was what I learned last year: being too short-term clever in funds management is never going to work over the long term.

Poke: Looking forward to next year, what are your biggest expectations, be they stock or sector specific, thematic, macro. What are you looking out for next year?

Padley: I certainly don't want to scare anybody because I don't know but I think the big one's coming sometime. Now, it may not be in my lifetime but the valuations may well be it's all justified. In fact, if you look at the PEs of some of these big technology stocks in the US, they've actually gone down. A lot of this massive rise in the market is justified on earnings. We've entered a period in which technology stocks can reach a global audience and the growth in share price is backed by earnings, in which case that's absolutely fine.

One of the charts I look at all the time is the PE, which is a terrible indicator really but the forward PE compared to history. And you can see that there are some of our industrial stocks that are still way up there compared to where they've been over the last five, 10 years.

There is definitely some overvaluation in our market. You probably heard Charlie Munger at the Hearts & Minds Conference recently saying there is some overvaluation there. While there's a bull market on, everything is fine. You can just keep tapping away every day, buying and selling things, trying to get things right. But the main decision over the last 20 months, as you know, has not been which stock, it's been just making sure you're fully invested. And that will remain as long as the market behaves. My biggest focus next year will be maintaining the daily chatter and some good ideas and which are forever stocks and keep all that going. But as a thematic, it's not about the cycle. It's not about spotting inflation coming or the interest rates going up. That's all just daily chatter.

At some point, the sentiment legs are going to get taken out of the stock market again, hopefully not in my lifetime, but the most important service I think you can provide to retail investors at this point, is an education about how fickle the market is and education in what the signs are that will create that moment that is not a disaster, it's a moment of fabulous opportunity to get out and buy stocks lower down and save yourself 10 years of investment returns. And unfortunately, most people will see the daily, normal chatter of the strategists and the media and the commentators will just tell them. Because these people will do nothing come the correction, they will just tell you it'll be okay in the long term.

And I think we can be a bit smarter than that. My service to our members is I am, eyes and ears, looking next year, every day now, looking or trying to spot - with what experience I've gotten, Henry's gotten, my team has gotten – the precipitous moments rather than ignore them. And I'll try and take advantage of them rather than suffer them because they will be fabulous opportunities when they come.

Poke: Next year, if you find yourself in a situation where the market has actually fallen 5% over a few days. What will you be looking at to decide whether you think it's a serious fall that you need to be worried about and take action, or whether it's one that you can maybe ignore and leave the money on the table?

Padley: There is an assumption in your question that it really matters when you sell, that it's a big decision. As per now in our Really Boring Portfolio, where we've cashed out of equities to make a point. It's just timing the pivot points in the market. The signs are already there in many ways, valuations. You can look through it stock by stock, PE sentiment is high, PEs are high, valuations are high, where you are in the trading range. How many stocks are overbought? A lot of ingredients are already there. What you've now got to watch for are those moments which are telling you it's happening. And they're not clear.

We had one the other day, European markets falling 4 to 5%, all of them. And that was a sign, so we cashed out. And at the same time, the VIX volatility index people talk about a lot, I'm not a big fan of that as a predictor but it's ... It's not going to tell you that it's a nuclear thing. It like a Geiger counter, it's telling you there's a hell of a lot of radiation. And so that has spiked again, that's always going to spike at a beginning of a correction. That's another warning. And it did that as well. And it really is a gauge of sentiment and there is no scientific gauge.

I think our coverall is selling isn't that big a deal, because we can always buy back in. But a lot of the ingredients were there a week and a half ago, so we cashed out. The trend's still down. There's still a lot of uncertainty. The US market's moving 500 points a night again. I think we've done the right thing. And let's just see what happens, shall we? But if Omicron goes away tomorrow and the market has a big update, we'll probably think, "We better get back in."

Nobody knows, do they? But some of the signs are there. The other thing to do of course, read the newsletter. Subscribe to the Marcus Today newsletter Patrick, and then you'll find out what we're thinking about those precipitous moments.

Poke: Well Marcus, thanks for chatting to us today. It was great to hear your insights.

Padley: Thanks, Patrick. It was a pleasure.



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Managing Editor
Livewire Markets

Patrick was one of Livewire’s first employees, joining in 2015 after nearly a decade working in insurance, superannuation, and retail banking. He is passionate about investing, with a particular interest in Australian small-caps.

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