Whitney Tilson’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Investment ($NFLX)

Whitney Tilson, famed value investor and manager of T2 Partners, has had a tumultuous and sordid affair with NFLX, a company he first failed to romance as a spectacular ever-rising short and which he now may very well fail to romance as a spectacular ever-cheapening long (Bloomberg):

Tilson had bet against Netflix from at least December, when he first wrote about shorting the stock, until February, when he disclosed to investors in a letter that he covered the short and was no longer confident that his investment thesis was correct. Tilson said he decided to buy shares today because he deemed them “cheap.”

“It’s been frustrating to see our original investment thesis validated, yet not profit from it,” Tilson, 44, said in a statement e-mailed from his New York hedge fund. “The core of our short thesis was always Netflix’s high valuation. In light of the stock’s collapse, we now think it’s cheap and today established a small long position. We hope it gets cheaper so we can add to it.”

Netflix plunged 35 percent to close at $77.37 in New York trading, its biggest drop since Oct. 15, 2004. The shares have declined 56 percent this year.

This is every investor’s worst nightmare and I am not calling attention to this to slander or heap ridicule on Tilson. Far from it– I don’t know if I’d have the cajones to go long a stock (at nearly 18x earnings) that I was previously trying earnestly to short.

That being said, let’s review this performance. If he started shorting in December he probably did it around $165-170/share. If he covered in February it was probably anywhere from $205-220/share. Let’s say $165/share short and $210/share cover. That’s a 27% loss.

The good news is the stock went as high as approximately $298/share, so he dodged that bullet. But then it plunged dramatically since then and is now trading at about $77/share. Assuming Tilson had just held his short (and kept making margins calls, or better yet, kept adding to it), he would’ve ultimately made a 53% gain!

What’s interesting about this? One, it would’ve taken Tilson nearly a year to be vindicated in his thesis. Value investors typically think of themselves as “long-haul” capital allocators. But in the world of shorting, time scales are compressed and a period like a year is more like a decade. A lot more seems to change. The moral of the story, perhaps, is to focus on shorts where you have identified an immediate, short-term catalyst that will cause the market to abandon its effort to push the stock higher. Simply recognizing a stock is overvalued doesn’t appear to be robust enough.

Two, investor psychology appears to be completely different between shorts and longs and with good reason. With a long, many value investors (like Tilson) invite the position to go against them, at least temporarily, rationalizing that this just makes it cheaper and easier for them to make money when their investment plays out. But with a short, where your potential loss is infinite, no investor ever has nor I assume ever will invite the position to go against them. Nobody ever says, “I hope the stock rises substantially from here because it just means another opportunity to short it more and make more money when it finally crashes.” Instead, many end up throwing in the towel, often at the worst possible moment.

Three, this episode demonstrates the need for humility. It’s possible Tilson will eventually make a good bet with his decision to go long NFLX. But if he doesn’t, he’s going to look doubly foolish, rather than singly. And, because he’s had a poor experience with this company once before, he risks making rash, emotional decisions about it in the future out of a subconscious effort to conquer his fear or slay the wild beast that marred him in battle once before.

If I was a big T2 investor, I’d be wanting to know what kind of safeguards Tilson and his team have put into place to prevent emotional bias from getting in the way of their analysis of NFLX going forward. And frankly, I’d have a hard time fighting my urge to tell Tilson to just leave the damn thing alone and reminding myself that I invest with him because I trust his judgment and if I were the expert I wouldn’t be paying him to manage part of my wealth.

The good news is Tilson is an experienced, grizzled value investor with an outstanding track record so even if he ends up totally boffing this one again it’ll likely be far from his undoing. For every potentially poor decision like this Tilson has demonstrated he can make many more superior ones and he doesn’t make the kind of levered, concentrated bets that could lead to a one-position wipeout that some of the less savvy figures like John Paulson have suffered in recent months.

Say what you will about value investors but one thing is for sure, they’re generally more prudent than the average bear, and I mean that metaphorically, not descriptively. Then again, this whole episode makes me wonder how Tilson defined his risk, then and now.

One Consequence Of Law Divorced From Economic Scarcity: $308MM Death Sentences

This latest travesty of criminal and economic justice courtesy of The Atlantic:

Their report showed that since the current death-penalty statute was enacted in 1978, [California] taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion on only 13 executions, or roughly $308 million per execution. As of 2009, prosecuting death-penalty cases cost upwards of $184 million more each year than life-without-parole cases. Housing, health care, and legal representation for California’s current death-row population of 714—the largest in the country—account for $144 million in annual extra costs. If juries continue to send an average of 20 convicts to San Quentin’s death row each year, and executions continue at the present rate, by 2030 the ranks of the condemned will have swelled to more than 1,000, and California’s taxpayers will have spent $9 billion to execute a total of 23 inmates.

Law and the legal system is part of the economy, that is, it falls under it, not outside of it. The law is a means to a particular end (justice). It is irrational to turn the means (law) into an end itself by placing it outside the economic calculation nexus. When you do, the result is arbitration and punishment costs which far exceed any reasonable estimate of the actual damage the convicted has caused along with the potential settlement cost of future torts following a potential “vigilante” solution to the problem.

Value Idea: Japanese Net-Nets

Japan seems awfully cheap these days:

A study made under the authors’ direction (covering some 3,700 stocks traded on the Japanese exchanges), found 512 stocks selling for less than net current asset value (includes long-term investments) and 212 selling below ⅔ of net current asset value (Graham’s famous “66% net-net” threshold). Equally interesting, 763 of the businesses were selling for less than cash plus short and long term marketable securities. Suffice it to say, there are large parts of the Japanese market selling for extremely cheap.

Based on the studies previously referenced, we would anticipate this basket of cheap Japanese stocks to similarly outperform the market indices. If the 30 businesses were afforded a modest multiple (8-times earnings before interest and taxes) + net cash, similar to what businesses typically sell for in private-party transactions, the average valuation for the 30 businesses would be $191 million vs. a market-cap-inferred-price of $86 million. You’re theoretically getting $191 million worth of private-party businesses for the public market price of $86 million. This represents a tremendous upside potential when the market’s sentiments toward Japan become normal again– offering a handsome potential reward for those brave enough to test their resolve in the face of threatening headlines.

Individual securities can be attained through most brokerage houses without too much fuss. Although the trading costs can be steep (we’ve paid $100 per trade through one of the bigger name houses), we feel the potential upside justifies the transaction costs, depending on the size of your portfolio. For smaller amounts of money and certainly increased liquidity, WisdomTree’s Japan SmallCap Div Fd ETF (NYSE:DFJ) may be a good way to participate in Mr. Market’s mispricing of Japan. Although the DFJ is not as cheap as a readily-attainable basket of individual stocks (Price-to-Book of ~.77 vs. much less), the liquidity and diversification is quite attractive.

I like the idea of investing in Japan. It’s strongly within the econo-legal orbit of Western countries and Western attitudes toward law and commerce. There is definitely fraud and corruption, as there is anywhere in the world, but it’s probably less worrisome in Japan than it is in a place like neighboring China.

The challenges to investing in Japan are:

  1. Cost of trading
  2. Language barriers in studying company publications
  3. Convenient access to reliable market data
I am not sure how affected Japan will be by a China slowdown. I am not sure how much a person should worry about the fact that many of these Net-Nets appear to be in the engineering and construction consultancy business– this was an area that was a focus of corruption and overspending during the boom years in Japan and it’s questionable how many of these businesses are kept alive now or in the future by political connections.

Finally, at some point Japan is going to have a day of reckoning related to their massive government debts. For the average Japanese business with earning power and some growth prospects the implied inflationary solution to that problem seems like a tailwind. But for a Net-Net with no real exciting business prospects and a lot of cash on the balance sheet, that seems like it could destroy a lot of value, if anything.

Austrian economist Gary North insists that won’t happen, but I’m not sure what will take place instead.

The best strategy, were someone to attempt to take advantage of this scenario and these low prices relative to net current assets, would probably be to build some kind of a basket of the best of the best, as the author suggests.

I read a good article by Geoff Gannon on How to Pick Net-Nets, and he argues the main idea is to protect yourself from the downside, not to worry about the upside, when it comes to Net-Nets. He says the main risks to look out for are:

  1. Fraud
  2. Solvency
  3. Ownership dilution
I’m going to keep my eye on the Japanese NCAV situation, but for now it might be cheapest and easiest for me to find a few issues in the US, first. Meanwhile, I wonder what’s going on in Europe as far as Net-Nets go?

Exercises In Imagination

A friend sends along the following video:

Ignoring the pitch for Ron Paul’s political campaign at the end of it, that’s about as good as a libertarian video comes. The key is the identification of one moral standard for all people. It is hypocritical to expect any other person or persons to appreciate a “foreign policy” that you yourself would not appreciate if applied to you.

Here’s another good video about libertarian philosophy from Stefan Molyneux:

The reality of government financing is exploitation of its citizens. The people are not fully and fairly compensated for their labor as the exchange being made (via taxation) is not voluntary and deemed to be mutually beneficial.

I’d like to help produce more videos like these. I think YouTube is a powerful medium for spreading the message of individual liberty through the use of economies of scale.