Review – The Acquirer’s Multiple

The Acquirer’s Multiple: How the Billionaire Contrarians of Deep Value Beat the Market (buy on Amazon.com)

by Tobias Carlisle, published 2017

I received a free copy of this book from the author.

I spend a lot more time thinking about the best way to introduce people to the world of value investing than I actually get requests for such information, though I do receive occasional requests for advice. The reason is not just because I am a pedantic thinker but because I spent a very long time acquiring my own knowledge on this subject, with many wrong turns and wasted efforts and I have always wondered, “Is there a better way?”

Toby Carlisle’s “The Acquirer’s Multiple” may just be that better way.

But first, let me explain the most up-to-date advice I have been vending, and keep in mind, this advice is not intended as “how to be a good investor/make good investments” because I am not a registered investment adviser nor would I attempt to impersonate one– this is just my opinion of “how best to learn about investing”. I think I can dispense that advice as an opinion without running afoul of the authorities because I am just talking about ways to acquire certain knowledge. At least I hope so!

My suggestion is to read the following titles, in this order:

  1. The Richest Man in Babylon: Now Revised and Updated for the 21st Century (Paperback) – Common
  2. The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy
  3. Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist
  4. The Accounting Game: Basic Accounting Fresh from the Lemonade Stand
  5. The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, Fourth Edition (or more specifically, Buffett’s Shareholder Letters from Berkshire Hathaway, and his private partnerships, available on the Berkshire website)

Perhaps at a later date I will spend some time writing a post explaining in greater detail why I recommend these resources in this order to an aspiring student of (value) investing, but for now I will simply say that the first two explain how to save and how to develop the psychological discipline and personal habits that permit one to save money, and you must have savings if you want to fuel an investment program. The second lesson is in inspiration, to study the life of the greatest master of investing in the modern era to understand both what is possible, and what it takes, to be great at investing. The third lesson is a rudimentary knowledge of accounting, “the language of business” because if you’re going to be investing in businesses you ought to have a clue what is going on.

Only then, young grasshopper, are you ready for your fourth (but not final) lesson, which is to learn the methods and principles of (value) investing itself. And I can think of no greater expositor of these principles than the great master himself once again, Warren Buffett, especially because you can read along as his company develops and see the wondrous workings of these principles in “real time”.

But even this can be an overwhelming introduction for a noobie who doesn’t realize what a deep pool they’re wading into in asking the question. For the action-oriented, then, I offer a 3-Point Plan of Investment Attack which includes:

  1. The Richest Man in Babylon
  2. The Little Book of Common Sense Investing: The Only Way to Guarantee Your Fair Share of Stock Market Returns (Little Books. Big Profits)
  3. The 2013 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter, “Some Thoughts About Investing”

This short list will teach you how to save money so you have fuel for your investment machine, and then it provides the basic knowledge needed to decide if you want to be a humble Sunday-driver investor and do passive index investing, or if you want to be a more racy investor and pick your own businesses to invest in the way a true value investor would.

Pedantic as I am, where the heck does Toby’s book fit into all of this?! Well, I think now I can whittle my 3-Point Plan down to 2-Points: The Richest Man in Babylon, and The Acquirer’s Multiple. And I might be able to turn my original 5 item foundations into a 3 item list, using Richest Man, Accounting Game and The Acquirer’s Multiple as the set of texts. Here’s why.

Toby has done something incredible with this book. He has boiled a deeply studied, highly opinionated, multi-trillion dollar field of human endeavor down to its most essential, best researched and expertly practitioned concepts and he’s done it all in simple language that I am convinced even a complete neophyte would find approachable. He has included a number of delightful graphics that help to illustrate these simple concepts about how typical market participants behave and where investment value comes from that, for the first time in my life, I actually found increased my understanding of what I already knew rather than confused me (note: charts, data tables, etc., usually just distract me and I skip them, I am a mostly verbal knowledge acquirer). You really can’t go wrong jumping in this way.

The best part, however, is that he has curated some dramatic and action-packed biographical stories demonstrating how successful billionaire investors have put these ideas into practice. This checks the “inspiration” box I mentioned earlier because it helps the reader see how these ideas were translated into action and it gives confidence that you, too, could stand to benefit in this way.

And finally, he repeats (yes, the book is repetitious) all the neatly summarized concepts into one final summary list at the end of the book that involves 9 rules for a value investor to live by. I am confident that if a new investor referred to this list again and again at each point in his investment research and portfolio management process and asked himself, “Am I living true to this list?” he would be very satisfied with himself over a long period of time if his answer was “Yes”. And if the answer were “No”, then he’d understand exactly what he needed to do to get back on course.

I know Toby personally. He is a highly intelligent fellow, his passion for these ideas and the subject are intense and, if you ask me, he lands firmly in the “Graham” side of the “Graham-Fisher” spectrum of value investing (discussed a bit in the text) that all value investors and followers of Warren Buffett debate endlessly. And that is why I was so pleased that the conclusion of the book included an admonition to “check yourself before you wreck yourself”, so-to-speak. The Acquirer’s Multiple principle itself couldn’t be simpler, but Toby knows, as do all great investors in the Grahamian-tradition, that true risk lies in the behavior and biases of the investor himself, particularly an investor who can’t follow simple principles he knows to be true because he insists on trying to outsmart them.

Don’t try to outsmart what can be simple (though never easy!)… like reading 5 books on the art of investing when you could maybe get away with just two or three. And I am now convinced that Toby’s book should be one of them.

4/5







A Theory of Corporate Governance

“Good managements produce a good average market price, and bad managements produce bad market prices.”

~Benjamin Graham, the Dean of Wall Street, “The Intelligent Investor”

Introduction

In the world of value investing, which fundamentally concerns itself with securities trading at a large discount to indicated or intrinsic value (the Margin of Safety), one thing investors are always on the look out for is the value trap. A value trap is a company that looks really cheap but turns out to be cheap for a reason, ie, it’s actually fairly valued at its present price. Companies in general become mispriced for a variety of reasons, and while value traps are no different in this regard, one reason stands far above others in generating its unfair share of value traps– bad management.

This essay will explore in greater detail the genesis of bad management value traps via the principle that “corporate value is a function of owner agency.” Companies with bad management tend to demonstrate the least owner agency, sometimes approaching an effective zero. As of the present, the principle of owner agency can be explored across separate 8 sub-domains pertaining to the company’s corporate governance standards.

The 8 Sub-domains of Corporate Governance

Whether a company realizes it or not, it can and must make a decision about its corporate governance policy in at least 8 different areas which affect owner agency and thus corporate value:

  • The Board of Directors
  • Company purpose
  • Communication standards
  • Capitalization/capital structure
  • Reporting
  • Fairness
  • Competence
  • Barriers

Each of these sub-domains and the choices involved will be explored below. At the end, we will summarize the “official positions” with regards to what good corporate governance looks like in light of the theory promulgated in this essay.

The Board of Directors

In a company with a diversified ownership structure, the Board of Directors exists to represent shareholders and direct the behavior of management according to their wishes. In other words, the BoD is the primary tool of agency for shareholders of the company who, without official titles or positions of management themselves, have no direct way to influence the conduct of the company, its strategy or policies as owning individuals. The BoD is similar to a “house of representatives” in an elected republic– the representatives exist to serve not their own interests, or the government’s interests, but the interests of the individual voters who put them into power.

The BoD should have broad authority to put in place an overall competitive strategy for the company (what do we make or sell? how do we do it? who do we compete with?) and to hire and fire key, C-level managers (CEO, CFO, COO, corporate comptroller or treasurer). These managers should be fully “answerable” to the BoD and thus, the shareholders, whose property they are responsible for utilizing and safeguarding in the course of business.

In modern public companies, it is common for these top managers to be represented on the board, for example, the CEO is also often the chairman of the BoD and presides over its affairs. This is an enormous conflict of interest, because the CEO can not hold himself accountable as a member of the board, and the purpose of the board is to be influenced by the shareholders, not the hired management. This is especially problematic when the CEO is not a substantial shareholder himself.

Another common state of affairs in public companies is that the BoD does not represent significant shareholders. Individuals legally important stakes (5%+) or significant economic stakes (10-25%) often do not get offered representation on the boards of the companies they own and sometimes nominally control due to the distribution of share ownership in a company. If the Board of Directors doesn’t include individuals who represent the interests of shareholders, it serves no purpose other than to rubber-stamp the initiatives of the management, which means it serves no purpose at all besides the propaganda value of pretending the company has functioning corporate governance through the existence of a Board of Directors.

Company purpose

Why do companies exist?

Historically, companies were formed for the benefit of their owners in order to turn a profit. Some of the first joint stock companies were engaged in material manufacture or entrepreneurial discovery of new lands and trading routes. Long pre-dating formal joint stock companies of Europe in the early 1500s were numerous merchant combines across cultures and the ages which were formed to pool risk in long-distance hauling of cargoes. Because the owners were the only people who put capital into the company, it was the owners who were the only people expecting to derive a direct benefit from the operation of the company in so far as it generated profits– the agents of the company might earn salary and bonus according to the terms of their employment contract, and of course the prevalent State often wished to interest itself via tax, but otherwise the issue was pretty cut and dry.

The modern era has brought with it many innovations in the area of an answer to that question, but none of them seem to be any good. Today we hear talk of “stakeholders”, where a stakeholder seems to be any economic or political interest, such as customers, communities, employees, vendors, foreign nationals, labor unions, governments, etc. who isn’t an actual equity owner in the company. We hear of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) which is just another way to plead the case of certain “stakeholders” with regards to the deployment of a company’s capital. In vogue since the late 1980s and still popular today is the idea that long-serving management of the company should be the real beneficiaries of the existence of the company and that they should accumulate a lion’s share of the value the company creates because of the key role they play in making the company capital fecund in the first place.

Yes, it seems today that companies exist to serve everyone but those who own them.

Regardless of the answer to this question, it is important to simply have an answer. It becomes a standard of value that a company’s management and employees can be held to in observing their choices and behavior. It can serve to answer the simple question, “Are they doing a good job?” from which many other questions and decisions might emanate.

Without a stated purpose, it is not only impossible to agree to where everyone is going but it is impossible to govern the corporation so that it gets there. Certain purposes exclude certain ends and certain methods while allowing certain others.

Communication standards

With regards to how the company and the Board of Directors communicates with shareholders, there are also certain standards that can be implemented to guide action.

A common policy seemingly in place at many companies is clubsmanship and secrecy– executive management is unwilling to provide basic answers to shareholder questions and requests for information, often going so far as to put up unnecessary obstacles to proving they are in fact a shareholder in the first place. And the Board of Directors, captured by the management, facilitate this by refusing to assist the shareholders in their requests, to bring pressure upon management to provide the information (legally) requested and often times they will even make themselves unavailable or unresponsive to shareholders entirely.

The opposite pole would look like this: the management of the company assumes a goodwill posture and provides answers to any (legal) information request made. If the company is of sufficient size and scale and it is fielding a lot of such requests, it may make a special individual (such as an IR agent) available to help source answers. It might also look for a scalable solution, by putting commonly requested corporate documents (financial statements, records of ownership, minutes from board meetings, etc.) into the public domain via its website, and to also offer an FAQ session for answers to repeated inquiries.

As such information is legally due to shareholders anyway and can’t really harm the company by being shared, it makes sense to offer it to anyone who asks, shareholder, potential shareholder or simply a curious stranger. It is not a redacted espionage memo and it doesn’t require any special classification system or hierarchy of security clearances to access.

The Board can facilitate this process as well by being in regular contact with larger shareholders to understand their needs and concerns for the company they own, and to communicate these thoughts to management in board meetings and report back their findings to shareholders in the process.

Capitalization/capital structure

Public companies are in a unique position in terms of their ability to raise capital and finance their projects. Because of their public nature, it is a relatively simple affair to do a rights offering and issue new shares, debt or other securities. Even more important, if ever the market treats the company unfairly, they have the opportunity to buy back their shares from concerned shareholders at a discount to intrinsic value. The company is always in a better position when it is owned by people who believe in the vision and direction of the company, which can be achieved by buying back shares from those “distressed” sellers who have lost confidence.

One role of the BoD and corporate governance is to determine what the best capital structure is at any given time in a company’s life given its future plans and strategies. This means making high level decisions about the debt to equity ratio, if applicable, and also about the issuance or buyback of shares more generally.

Another thing the BoD can facilitate as an act of corporate governance is being efficient with the company’s capital– dividending it out when the company has more capital than projects, and issuing rights to bring capital back in when it has more profitable projects than it has capital to deploy on them.

This is not a one-time decision. It is something a company should be examining on a periodic basis– either quarterly, annually, or any time a major change in its market price or project pipeline occurs. Companies that hoard capital they don’t need do their investors a disservice because they forgo the economic returns available on the surplus capital, which could be deployed at higher rates of return in other enterprises. And companies that refuse to expand the share base in response to important project opportunities make a similar mistake but inverse.

Reporting

Markets move on information. Without information about a company, investors are left with nothing to make a decision off of and so they can not act rationally. They become forced to gamble and speculate. For a company that is not in a hyped industry, the gamble is often made in fear– shareholders sell out at any price to avoid association with a “black box.” It is a critical aspect of corporate governance to have a consistent reporting policy in place to update shareholders on the performance of the company’s strategy over time and to explain key financial data to them.

This kind of reporting requires: transparency, honesty and articulate capabilities. The chairman, being the head of the Board of Directors which represents the shareholders, is the most likely individual to communicate with shareholders about the state of their company. He might append letters from the CEO and other key executives as well if he so desires, but each of these individuals has an incentive to patronize their reader and focus on what went well. The chairman, having no duty to anyone but the shareholders and reality, is in a better position to see the whole hog and not just the lipstick on the pig.

For reporting to be meaningful, it must take into consideration the entire strategy and how the operations worked to achieve it or fail it. Glossy PR brochures highlighting the charity and good works of the management or employees, of the high level successes that did not translate to the bottom line, or to a stylized, marketing view of the company and its operations that does not drive to the key objectives and how they were met or missed, do not do shareholders any good.

While it’s true that the annual report is a key “marketing” piece in attracting knowledgeable shareholders, its primary purpose is to inform, not to sell. It must focus on the good, the bad and the ugly, not the positive or the bright side.

Fairness

Tied up in the ideas of representation and company purpose is the idea of fairness– are all shareholders treated equally? And are all managers and employees treated the same with regards to their duties to the shareholders?

There are two separate but related concepts of fairness at stake. One is the fairness of decisions between majority and minority shareholders, aka, “taking minority capital hostage.” The other is the fairness of decisions between shareholders and agents of the company, aka, “being subservient to loyalty or tradition.”

It is a sadly common sin amongst many public companies with decisive majority owners, especially owners who are insiders and part of management, that they find ways to employ the company’s capital or govern the company which benefit them at the expense of the passive, minority shareholders. An example of this would be a majority shareholder who is also a manager, who is earning an outsize salary and delivering a subpar return on equity compared to the industry or market, who refuses to “fire” themselves as a manager or scale back their pay. The minority shareholders are in effect subsidizing this poor performance with their capital, which is trapped in the company controlled by the majority shareholder.

This is not “fair” because it doesn’t treat the minority and majority shareholders as economic equals– the majority shareholder enjoys a special benefit or subsidy that the minority shareholder pays for. If the company did not exist, and this arrangement was being proposed as a condition of forming the company, no rational minority shareholder would agree to it. If they wouldn’t agree to it de novo, they can’t be thought of as agreeing to it as part of a going concern. This would be similar in a political system where some citizens are treated as “second class” by the law and discriminated against to the advantage of the privileged class.

The other sin amongst public companies is holding on to operating units or employees or managers who are underperforming in their jobs by some agreed upon, objective standards. These units are typically retained out of a sense of tradition (“We’re an X company, we’ll always be an X company”) or personal loyalty (“Y has been with the company for so many years, we can’t put them out on the street now”). Clearly, these kinds of decisions could easily conflict with a stated purpose such as “To maximize profits to shareholders.” They again represent subsidy. And the fact is that no company has infinite resources or can afford to engage in charity without limit; and if it can’t afford without limit, it can’t afford WITH limits, as the economic consequences are the same– the company is wasting capital on ineffective means.

Adhering to loyalty or tradition at the expense of shareholders means turning the business into a charity. Charity is a private virtue and a public vice and it has no place in a public company in this sense.

Competence

Modern companies are complex organizations with extensive economic resources at their command. The average public company, regardless of market price, has millions to tens of millions of dollars of shareholder capital involved in ongoing operations. There is too much to keep track of, and too much at stake, for a company to allow incompetent people to manage this level of responsibility.

Corporate governance serves another function here in setting standards of value for managers and employees in terms of the competence required in their positions of relative responsibility. Importantly, the Board of Directors can set standards in specific areas, such as financial or economic concepts which have an important bearing on the company’s risk position or the stability and profitability of its operations over time. Internal capital allocation, that is, the determination of how to deploy the company’s capital (buybacks, dividends, the raising of finance, or the investing of capital into operations or liquidating of capital so employed), is a seemingly simple discipline which nonetheless has a magnified impact on the company’s operations and its wealth as a whole– it requires a specific level of competence in the basic concepts and dilemmas involved for a person to add value. Many companies are run by people who do not understand capital allocation, have never studied the issues involved and often aren’t even aware of the momentous decisions they are making with regards to it, instead letting personal prejudice or momentary whim be the arbiter of decisions costing millions of dollars with long-lasting consequences for the company into the uncertain and unknowable future.

The Board of Directors can strongly influence the competence of the company and its management by researching and instituting relevant standards of competence needed in key decision-making areas and working to educate and provide resources to the company’s agents employed in these areas.

Barriers

In economic and business literature the concept of “competitive advantage” often revolves around a related concept of “moats”. A moat is a barrier to entry in a competitive market that preserves the value of incumbent firms by allowing them to spend resources on deploying their business model rather than spending those resources on defending it from competitors looking to do the same.

In the world of corporate governance, a similar phenomenon exists: “shareholder defense” tactics aimed at preventing “takeovers.” However, there is a subtle difference in the nature and virtue of each.

In the business competition sense, moats which provide competitive advantage usually exist as a structural part of the industry– they are embedded in the nature of the economic activity itself or the incentives competitors would face that are innate to margin structure, human behavior, etc. They usually can not be constructed or developed purposefully. Not so with takeover defenses. These are things that a company can or can not choose to employ and which the law often gives power to, implicitly or explicitly.

Competitive advantages protect companies from other companies. But shareholder defense mechanisms do not protect shareholders from other investors– they protect managers from their shareholders!

The actual effect of takeover defense mechanisms, when employed, is to drive a wedge between the people who own the company (the shareholders) and the people who control it (the management) by limiting the authority and control the shareholders have over dismissing or countermanding the management’s decisions.

Staggered boards, for example, help to ensure that change at the board level happens slowly (if at all), rather than as quickly as shareholder ownership changes. If there are 5 board seats and all are held by “insiders” and only 2 come up for bid every few years, then it may be 6 or more years, for example, for a shareholder who manages to obtain a majority of shares of the company to see his majority influence reflected in the composition of the board. That means a long period of time where existing management can work against the shareholder or at cross-purposes.

Poison pills, another common strategy, work to similar effect. A poison pill provision essentially neuters the voting power of a shareholder who manages to accumulate a substantial fraction of the company’s outstanding shares. If the provision says that any shares owned over 10% will vote at 10%, it prevents any specific shareholder from obtaining voting control, which protects the management from being told to change their tune or from being thrown out entirely.

It seems counter-intuitive, but removing barriers to entry for ownership of the firm is an important piece of corporate governance policy to work out. And much like the popular theory of democratic politics or republicanism, reserving the “right to vote” or the legitimate authority of the voters over their political appointees results in a situation where the appointees behave irresponsibly and often build up power and prestige at the expense of the people they were hired to represent.

“Official Positions” of Good Corporate Governance
Outlined below is an attempt at an “official” good corporate governance doctrine that any concerned company, its Board and shareholders could adopt to improve the corporate governance situation at the company. In so doing, it is believed that the company will attract quality, long-term oriented shareholders willing to pay a fair price for a properly managed and profitable enterprise. The items elaborated on below serve to maximize owner agency and with corporate value being a function of that agency, they should also serve the maximize the value of the company.
  • The board of directors should represent — meaning, be constituted of — significant shareholders and/or their agents
  • The company should be run for the purpose of maximizing the present value of expected cash flows to shareholders
  • There should be a constant dialog at the board level which includes larger shareholders about the best way to achieve the stated purpose
  • When the opportunity for capital/equity is low, money should flow out of the company; share buybacks and dividends are the way for money to flow out; when the opportunity is high, capital should flow back in; a rights offering (with transferable rights) is the cheapest and fairest way for money to flow back in
  • The annual report should have an essay or letter by the chairman (who is ultimately responsible for achieving the stated purpose) reiterating the objective, discussing the level of achievement in the prior year and outlining the strategy that has been agreed upon to pursue it going forward
  • It is unfair for a majority or manager to retain employees or operations for sentimental reasons unless they satisfy the purpose of maximizing the present value of expected cash flows to shareholders
  • Anyone responsible for achieving the objective should have the necessary grounding in finance and economics to understand how to carry the work out (study an agreed upon bibliography)
  • Management/corporate “shareholder defense”/takeover defense mechanisms such as staggered boards, poison pills, limits on shareholder meetings and proposals, secrecy/lack of disclosure, etc., destroy shareholder value by driving a wedge between ownership and control

Review – The Intelligent Investor

The Intelligent Investor: A Book of Practical Counsel

by Benjamin Graham, published 2006

What follows are the notes from my third (lifetime) re-reading of Graham’s classic investment treatise. I had planned to re-read this book after a market sell-off, but I realized this was a futile act of meta-market timing self-delusion and decided since I was interested in it I should just re-read it now. I am glad I did!

Introduction

Developing knowledge about past market experience with stock and bond investments is key to intelligent investment; surveying the past with its ups and downs not only makes the future more predictable but helps to create a rational baseline for our own expectations about what is possible with our investment portfolios. Experience shows that enthusiasm almost always leads to disaster. Market conditions can reward, on a relative basis, a passive versus an active approach– sometimes the effort to reward ratio of active management is not worth the trouble.

The investor’s chief problem is likely to be himself. Mastering oneself is a necessary part of mastering one’s investment program.

The future is uncertain. Nonetheless, we must act on the assumption that sound principles will see us through a variety of conditions over time, just as they have in the past.

Chapter 1

In most periods of market experience there is a “speculative factor” in common stock prices due to the enthusiasm of the marketplace. We must keep it within limits and be prepared for short and long-term adverse results in terms of both financial and psychological experience whenever this speculative factor is present. Acknowledging this reality, it’s extremely important to keep speculative and investment positions in separate accounts and never to let them mingle financially or in our thoughts.

Better than average results require promising prospects (in terms of risk versus reward) and a lack of popular following of certain portfolio holdings when purchased.

Chapter 2

There is no close, time-causal relation between inflationary or deflationary conditions and stock earnings and prices (likely because of Cantillon effects). Earnings rates have shown no general tendency to advance with wholesale price increases. The best result to expect from one’s investment program over long periods of time is approximately an 8% per annum return from a combination of dividends and price increases.

It is the uncertainty of the future that makes the lack of diversification (between common equity and cash/fixed income in a portfolio) folly. At one extreme, one might allocate 25% to stocks and 75% to cash or fixed income, and at the other extreme the inverse. The “happy medium” is 50%/50% between the two. Never should one have 100% of one’s capital in stocks or cash/fixed income– the former suggests an irrational optimism about the future and a total disregard for the risk of adverse conditions, and the former suggests an overly pessimistic view that has given in to the unknowable temptation to time the markets.

Chapter 3

Rather than try to time the market, it is more important to follow a consistent and controlled common stock policy and to discourage the impulse to “beat the market” and to “pick the winners”. The work of a financial analyst falls somewhere in the middle of a mathematician and an orator, in that he must be exact where he can, and qualify where he can’t.

Chapter 4

The rate of return sought from one’s investment portfolio should be dependent upon the amount of intelligent effort one is willing (and able) to bring to bear on the task. Passive indexing requires the least intelligent effort and should bring the lowest return expectation; active value strategies entail the most intelligent effort and should have commensurately higher return expectations.

Long experience shows that the average investor should stay away from high yield (junk) bonds. Experience also teaches that the time to buy preferred shares is when prices are depressed by temporary adversity.

With every new wave of optimism or pessimism, we are ready to abandon history and time-tested principles, but we cling tenaciously and unquestioningly to our prejudices. This is a bias of human psychology which must be overcome if one is to have a successful long-term investment record.

Chapter 5

Common stocks have an added degree of security when the average dividend yield exceeds the yield over that which can be obtained from good bonds.

Rules for common stock portfolios for the defensive investor:

  1. Minimum of ten different issues
  2. Large, prominent and conservatively financed companies
  3. Long record of continuous dividend payments
  4. 25x past 7yr average earnings (4% earnings yield) and 20x LTM earnings, at a maximum

Experience shows that large, relatively unpopular companies offer a good hunting ground for the defensive investor to search in.

Chapter 6

Avoid inferior bonds and preferred stocks at prices greater than a 30% discount to pay value; never buy yield without safety. Owners of foreign debt issues have limited legal recourse, which increases their risk. IPOs can be good purchases… years after the fact, at small fractions of their true worth; let others make the quick profits and experience the harrowing losses of recently issued stocks.

Chapter 7

Danger lies in market/public price enthusiasm outstripping earnings growth. Confidence in your investments is a function of proximity and control.

There are 3 primary sources of selection for the enterprising investor’s portfolio:

  1. Large, out of favor companies due to temporary developments; large companies are safer than small companies because they’re more likely to weather the storm; always judge average past earnings, not LTM
  2. 50% discount to BV or greater, due to currently disappointing results or protracted neglect/lack of popularity
    1. require reasonable stability of earnings over past decade
    2. no earnings deficit in the company’s history
    3. sufficient size and strength to meet possible future setbacks
    4. NCAV bargains are safe and profitable method for finding bargains
  3. “Special situations”

The reasons why bargain issues lead to good performance:

  • dividend returns are relatively high
  • reinvested earnings, which are substantial relative to price paid (BV grows rapidly)
  • bull markets are more generous to low-priced issues
  • specific factors contributing to poor earnings may be resolved in the interim

One must choose to engage in either active (enterprising) or passive (defensive) investing, there is no room to do both without becoming speculative in one’s thoughts and actions, ie, can’t be “half a businessman”.

Bargain pricing territory begins at 66% of appraised value, as a return to 100% or fair value indicates a 50% potential upside at purchase price.

If you can control a company, you can safely pay closer to fair value for it.

The investor’s choice as between the defensive or the aggressive status is of major consequence to him and he should not allow himself to be confused or compromised in this basic decision.

Chapter 8

Investment formulas are ephemeral and their popularity is their undoing. Rather than market timing, commit to proportional exposure to stocks and cash/fixed income. Every investor who owns common stocks must expect to see them fluctuate in value over the years. Most holdings will advance as much as 50% above the lows, and fall 33% from highs, so set your expectations accordingly.

The virtue of the proportionality formula is that it gives the investor something to do; often it is the inability to sit still and the propensity to tinker that leads to risky novelty. Ironically, higher quality common stocks have more of a speculative element in their price which contributes to their volatility; it is their very popularity and perceived safety which invites unscrupulous risk-takers to dabble in the trading at the margin where the price is set.

Stocks bought closer to book value allow for greater detachment from price fluctuations. Try to be in a position to buy more, including what you already own, when prices fall, assuming value remains in tact. The stock market is often wrong, far wrong, creating opportunity for courageous and alert investors.

All business quality changes with time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Everything is a trade given circumstances and time. Allowing unjustified price action in one’s holdings to influence one’s actions is to turn the basic advantage of liquidity into a disadvantage. True investors see price fluctuations one way: as opportunity to buy what is cheap and sell what is dear. Therefore, the litmus test for investment versus speculation is this, Do you try to anticipate and profit from market fluctuations, or do you look for suitable securities to acquire and hold at suitable prices?

Good managements produce good average market prices and bad managements produce bad market prices.

Chapter 10

Businessmen seek professional advice on various elements of their business, but they do not expect to be told how to make a profit; investors must be similarly responsible.

Chapter 11

The behavior of a security analyst includes:

  • examine past, present and future of a security
  • describe the business
  • summarize its operating results and financial position
  • explain the strengths and weaknesses of the business, its possibilities and risks
  • estimate future earnings power under various assumptions
  • compare companies, or the same company at different times in its history
  • provide an opinion as to the safety of the security

The more dependent valuation is on an assumption about the future, the more vulnerable that valuation is to miscalculation and error.

When evaluating corporate bond safety, judge it by the total interest charges as a multiple of past average earnings (7yrs) or against the “poorest year” of earnings.

No one really knows anything about the future. A company with a high valuation for good performance is already getting a premium for good management, don’t double count management value separately.

One test of quality is an uninterrupted record of dividends going back a number of years. Dividends can’t be forged.

The multiple on earnings is an implied growth rate, pay attention to this fact. There is no way to value a high growth company in which the analyst makes realistic assumptions of both the proper multiple for current earnings and the expected multiple for future earnings.

An analyst can be imaginative and play for big profits as a reward for his vision (entrepreneurship) or he can be conservative and refuse to pay more than a minor premium for possibilities as yet unproved; but do one or the other.

As an exercise, do a valuation based on past performance and another on expected future performance and compare the two. This can be beneficial because it:

  1. provides useful experience
  2. creates a record of the experience (allowing for self-evalution)
  3. may lead to improved methods of analysis in examining the record

Chapter 12

Don’t take a single year’s earnings seriously, it’s too easy to fudge the numbers with special charges and one-off items. Sometimes large losses in the past create tax advantages which boost earnings unfairly in the present, so remember to adjust earnings for the average tax impact. Using average earnings smooths out special charges and other one-time items which is another reason to use an average as it reduces the work of trying to “normalize” earnings over time.

Chapter 13

High valuations entail high risks.

Chapter 14

You should reject from your consideration companies which:

  • are too small
  • have a relatively weak financial condition
  • have a stigma of earnings deficit in their 10 year record
  • do not possess a long history of continuous dividends

There is an absence of safety when too large a portion of the price is dependent on ever-increasing future earnings. Stock portfolio earnings overall should be at least as high as the rate on high grade bonds.

Even defensive portfolios should be turned over occasionally, if a holding has seen excessive advance and this is a more reasonably priced issue available. It’s better to sell and pay the tax than not to sell and repent the foregone profits.

Do not be willing to accept prospects and promises of the future as compensation for the lack of sufficient value in hand. Leave the “best” stock alone, instead emphasize diversification more than individual selection. If one could select the best unerringly, one would only lose by diversification.

Chapter 15

There are extremely few companies which have been able to show a high rate of uninterrupted growth for long periods of time; conversely, remarkably few of the larger companies suffer ultimate extinction. Competitive advantage in investing lays in focusing one’s efforts on the part of the market systematically overlooked by everyone else.

When Graham owned net-nets, he owned about 100 at a time– “extreme” diversification.

The Graham-Newman playbook included:

  • self-liquidations and related hedges (performed well in bear markets)
  • working-capital bargains (NCAVs)
  • a few control operations

The right time to buy a cyclical enterprise is when:

  1. the current situation is unfavorable (macro)
  2. near-term prospects are poor
  3. the low price fully reflects the pessimism of the market

When browsing the stock guides for opportunity, look for the following characteristics:

  1. P/E of 9x or less
  2. financial condition
    1. current assets >= 1.5x current liabilities
    2. debt <= 1.1x net current assets
  3. earnings, no deficit in the last 5 yrs
  4. some history of dividends
  5. earnings growth, last years earnings > 5 yrs ago
  6. price < 1.2x BV

You can use ValueLine, stock screeners or Google Finance-linked GSheets to filter.

If you were to use a single criteria to pick stocks, two items have worked successfully in the past:

  1. important companies (S&P 500) trading at a low multiplier
  2. a diversified list of net-nets have performed “quite satisfactorily”

When the going is good and new issues are readily saleable, stock offerings of no quality at all make their appearance.

Special situations are the realm of the pro and require focus and dedication to yield results. Do not do them as one-offs.

Chapter 16

The addition of a conversion privilege on a security betrays the absence of investment quality.

Chapter 17

If a company pays no taxes for a long time, it throws into question the validity of reported earnings. Watch out also for “channel stuffing” of special charges into a single year on the income statement.

Chapter 19

When to raise questions with management:

  • unsatisfactory results
  • results which are poor compared to competitors
  • long discrepancy between price and value

As a rule, poor managers are changed not by activism, but by a change of control.

Dividends can be valuable to the owner of a poorly-run company because they allow some value to escape from the clutches of bad management.

There is no reason to believe expansion moves by a bad management will deliver anything other than more poor results.

Chapter 20

The function of the Margin of Safety is to render unnecessary an accurate estimate of the future. In stocks, the Margin of Safety lies in the expected earning power being considerably above the going bond rate. Chief losses come from low quality businesses bought in favorable times. Margin of Safety is totally dependent on the price paid; it is largest at one price, smaller at another and non-existent at a third.

The insurance underwriting process can be thought of as Margin of Safety applied to diversification of bets.

There is no Margin of Safety available in staking money on a market call.

There is no valid reason for optimism or pessimism of the continued function of quantitative methods of analysis.

The Margin of Safety is demonstrated by figures, persuasive reasoning and reference to actual experience.

Do not try to make “business profits” out of securities unless you know as much about their value as you’d need to know about the value of merchandise you proposed to manufacture and deal in. Do not enter into an operation unless a reliable calculation shows it has a fair chance of a reasonable profit. Stay away from situations where you have little to gain and much to lose. Have courage in your knowledge and experience; act on your judgment even when it differs from others. Courage is the supreme virtue when adequate knowledge and tested judgment are at hand.

To achieve satisfactory results is easier than most people realize; to achieve superior results is harder than it looks.

Postscript

One lucky break, or shrewd decision, may count more than a lifetime of journeyman efforts; but those efforts — preparation and disciplined capacity — are what expose you to the good fortune in the first place.

The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville

Think always of price and value.

With a significant Margin of Safety in place, something good might happen to me.

Size is the anchor of performance.

Always buy the business, not the stock, mentally speaking.

The greater the potential for reward, the less risk there is.

Don’t make easy things difficult.

Potential for profit will exist as long as price and value diverge in the market.

5/5

Review – The Snowball (#investing, #books, #business, #review)

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

by Alice Schroeder, published 2008, 2009 (condensed and updated)

This is my second reading of The Snowball. I enjoyed it almost as much as the first, five years ago, and definitely took away different things from this reading than I did last time. At that time, I was just finishing my “personal MBA”  deep-dive into value investing and was interested in Schroeder’s Buffett bio mainly for the information and insight it would yield into Buffett’s approach and track record as an investor. I was surprised to come away from that reading realizing that the book was a moral parable in the form of a man’s life (an incredibly successful, well-known and near-worshipped man) and my second journey through the book was more focused on the question “How should I think about living my life?” than the question “How should I think about investing?”

I found the book most exciting to read and most interesting personally in the exploration of Buffett’s origins and the detailed narrative about the first twenty years of the partnerships that proceeded his investment in Berkshire Hathaway. As the story wore on and it became more about managing what he had and dealing with the consequences of choices wrought long ago, I found myself losing interest, particularly as the Salomon and Long-Term Capital Management sagas carried on for a mind-numbing fifty-plus pages in total.

Buffett’s childhood was far more unusual than I cared to notice in my first reading. He was obsessed with business, investing and the impact of statistics in life not just from a young age, but in ways that were extraordinary even for someone to be described as “doing X from a young age” would imply by itself. Obsessed is not a word I use lightly here. The young Buffett was probably an odd creature to be around, even for people who loved him or found him interesting or were of unusual talent and ability themselves. This seems confirmed in later years when so many people familiar with him describe feeling exhausted after spending just a few hours with him. It helped me to realize how unfair and pointless trying to compare yourself to a person like Buffett is.

When asked by Bill Gates, Sr., at a dinner what single word they’d use to describe the outcome of their life and their success, Buffett said, “Focus.” As Schroeder describes in many places in the book, and especially at length in the final chapter, “focus” means something completely different when Buffett says it versus anyone of lesser ability and different personality. When Buffett says “focus” he means “to the exclusion of all else, with relentless, all-consuming energy, without tiring or being distracted.” There is no balance working behind the scenes. He gave up a lot of “normal” things most other people would insist on or desire in distinction to that which they were focused on, not as a sacrifice but as an inevitability of his personality.

The most obvious and tragic is his relationship with his family and his relationship with himself. Most other people who are driven towards success in their field and the monetary rewards that typically come with it offer up the excuse of their family as their motivation, honestly or not. This wasn’t the case for Buffett, and achieving supremacy in his profession and in his personal net worth really didn’t do anything to enhance his relationship with his family or the way he cared for them. It is indicated on numerous occasions what kind of tradeoff he would’ve had to make to be more involved with his family, and he never did it. It’s an excellent reminder for someone who sees themselves as driven to achieve that these tradeoffs are real and accepting a “lower rate of return” in one’s efforts is a necessary (and happy?) price to pay to maintain a relationship with one’s family, which itself is valuable.

Buffett’s relationship with himself is also instructive in this regard. Many people wonder how money can’t solve most problems, and why people who are super wealthy continue to eat poorly, exercise infrequently and maintain the same limited psychological state and insecurities they possessed before they achieved glory. The answer again is simple– in the drive toward massive wealth, things get set aside and often it is the improvement of the self as a holistic unit that is set aside first in order to claim excess in one aspect.

Of course, we can’t expect Buffett to be perfect. Nobody is, and the point of mentioning this isn’t to point out the man’s flaws, but to explain them. You can’t have Buffett and have these issues resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. They come with the territory. If you want to be “focused” like Buffett, plan on neglecting your family and yourself, quite a bit. That’s only a judgment if you think those things are objectively more important than wealth or self-actualization in the area of generating wealth. That’s not really a judgment I want to make here and I think it misses the point.

Yet, Buffett’s flaws make for a fascinating lesson in a different way. Though Buffett was unusual, and exceptional, and completely driven toward a single-minded purpose from a young age, the path was far from certain that he would need to tread to get to wherever it was that he would end up going. It’s easy to sit here today reading a book published almost ten years ago, recounting events that unfolded over the past eighty, and see what was inevitable as inevitable. But Buffett made mistakes. Many of them, along the way. That’s what’s truly remarkable, that he made mistakes and still arrived where he did. It’s a good salve for a person carrying around the perfectionist fallacy. Give it a rest and get going, you can make some mistakes and still end up alright if Buffett is any example.

I love reading stories like this, stories of flawed people of unusual ability who managed to achieve something heroic even if their life wasn’t truly ideal. I love knowing it can be done. I love knowing what the pitfalls and the tradeoffs are, so I can be mindful of them myself. I love the way I can give myself permission to not achieve what they achieved (in kind or in magnitude) having the benefit of hindsight to see what it truly took that I can’t give, or won’t.

But most of all, I just love watching someone create something from nothing. That creative energy is uniquely human and what I admire most about our species and this little project called “civilization” that we’re all tinkering away on. The Snowball is not as great an investment manual as I originally thought it was (for that, I’d recommend Buffett’s BRK shareholder letters, along with or after reading Graham’s Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor), but it is an epic moral profile and a captivating read overall because of it.

4/5

What I Learned Selling My Nintendo Stock (#investing)

I’ve been giving some thought to what I have learned from my experience with investing in and subsequently selling Nintendo stock over the last 5 years.

The story begins in 2012, when I noticed that this beloved company, one whose products I was intimately familiar with growing up, was trading at a price that valued the company little beyond the enormous pile of cash on its balance sheet. This cash stockpile was the result of an enormous run of success with the company’s smash global hit game console, the Wii, and its conservative corporate practices. The Wii-era resulted in the coining of a new term amongst the company’s followers and managers, “Nintendo-like profits”, which translated into layman’s terms simply means “insane profitability.”

Investors came to expect “Nintendo-like profits” from Nintendo as a right, when the reality of looking at the company’s business in the past would’ve shown that it was a cylical business with unpredictable fads and discouraging failures. The Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicom, as it was known outside the US) put the company on the map as a home gaming company, the Game Boy handheld gaming system proved to be revolutionary and a success and the follow-up 16-bit era console, the Super NES, was also commercially successful.

But the follow-on systems in the Game Boy line, while commercial successes, were not global phenomena like the original. And the home console business took it on the chin two generations in a row. While fondly remembered by fans, neither the Nintendo 64 nor the Gamecube saw wide install bases in the era of the Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox, an era that also saw the downfall of SEGA and other one-off competitors. Like clockwork, this led to critics and investors questioning the Nintendo model, which had emphasized creativity and pushing the cutting edge of technology whereas Sony and Microsoft competed on the basis of raw hardware power emulating a home PC and captured the coming-of-age “hardcore gamer” market demographic. Nintendo seemed like kid stuff, for people who weren’t serious about gaming.

Of course, that is precisely where Nintendo scored its home run with the Wii, a console aimed at casual players. I rehash all this history only to demonstrate that the company never was and likely never will be a “blue chip”, steady eddy company with a predictable earnings stream built on a permanent plateau. The nature of creative offerings (like a movie studio) and the insistence on being fresh, original and looking for new ways to play (“blue ocean strategy”) is inherently cyclical and prone to incredible volatility in earnings and expense.

Luckily, Nintendo has a super strong culture that knows and understands their own business strengths and weaknesses and engages in corporate planning accordingly. They don’t carry debt and, as mentioned before, they held on to their massive cash stockpile earned in the boom years, knowing it would be valuable to them in getting through the inevitable lean years. Most companies would go on an acquisition spree after this kind of “windfall”, not knowing what to do with it. And their mercenary management team would be looking for another big score to increase their glory before driving the company off a cliff– and rolling out the door of the vehicle and on to their next disaster before it plummets to its fiery death.

But Nintendo is served by extremely-long tenured managers and creative designers, many of whom have been with the company before it was a dedicated gaming company and was a purveyor of cheap toys and other mishmash business lines.

Additionally, Nintendo has built a powerful library of IP over the years with their character and game world properties, which they have done little to monetize in ways outside of traditional gaming through other creative licensing. And it wasn’t even until recent generations of their game systems, such as the Wii, where they even had the technology or willingness to monetize their own game library for nostalgic customers.

So, let’s review some items discussed so far:

  • Nintendo is a cyclical company prone to booms and busts in its fortunes
  • Nintendo has a strong culture, driven by its long history and dedicated creative and marketing strategy
  • Nintendo has long-tenured leadership with experience and comfort with the cyclical nature of its business
  • Nintendo has a pristine balance sheet driven by its conservative corporate culture
  • Nintendo has an extremely valuable IP library it has barely worked to exploit

Because the company has a cyclical model, it was available at an unreasonable price when I came upon it, trading for little more than the value of the cash on the balance sheet. While it is true that the cash is “phantom” because the company will need it to fund its continued R&D and marketing during off years, that didn’t make it a value trap but rather valuable– outsize success is as predictable as disappointing failure for this company, and over time value is accruing to stockholders on average.

This is a strong franchise business, one that will be worth more and more over long periods of time because of its IP-based business model. And when you’re able to buy it so cheaply, the Margin of Safety is enormous, because the company has so much positive optionality because of its strong culture, strong IP library which remains unexploited and its conservative corporate practices. There are so many things that can go right for it which are surprising and hard to predict, while there are relatively simple and certain threats or things that can go wrong which are already accounted for and factored into the price– a poorly-received system, a change in the industry that makes dedicated home consoles a less valuable offering, etc.

What I did wrong is I got scared and I got greedy. From the lows at which I purchased stock in Nintendo, the company rocketed upward over the next 4 years, in spite of the massive depreciation of the Yen (which actually caused major forex headaches, because a lot of the company’s cash has been repatriated and held as Yen), in spite of the sudden death of its beloved and talented president, Satoru Iwata, and in spite of the abysmal fortunes of the Wii U. The company followed its strategy very faithfully and began exploiting its IP in new ways, as predicted– movie studio partnerships, licensing to theme parks, strategic partnership with a mobile gaming company (DeNA) to release official Nintendo smartphone games, the opening up of the company’s game library IP to more “virtual console” sales, greater emphasis on digital product distribution at higher margins, renewed success with the 3DS handheld gaming platform, the rollout of the wildly popular Pokemon GO and most recently, the release of the greatly anticipated Nintendo Switch, which has met both critical and commercial acclaim during its first two, non-holiday sales period months on the market.

I decided to “take profits” during the Pokemon GO craze, thinking this bubbly atmosphere was not sustainable and people would soon come to their senses. I was worried about the Nintendo Switch (still code-named “NX”) being a flop. I was worried about a global recession taking the wind out of consumers’ sails and reducing discretionary income for gaming. I was worried about the lack of news about Nintendo’s “Quality of Life” division. I was noticing a big gap between Nintendo’s new valuation and its actual reported earnings, creating a multiple I wasn’t comfortable with.

I am not trying to engage in hindsight based off of recent price movements. While the company’s stock is off its most recent highs during the Pokemon GO craze, it is still “lofty” compared to where I bought it (as of this posting, the stock trades for about Y29,000 per 100 block unit, and I bought around Y9,800 per 100 block unit). What I am trying to do is evaluate a decision to sell a company that is just now hitting a predictable stride when I bought it at a price closer to it seeming like it was going out of business.

What I have learned from this experience is that when you buy something valuable cheaply, you can afford to wait. You can afford to be patient. You can afford to watch it run up, and potentially run back down again. It doesn’t matter. You make your money in buying it below what it’s worth, not selling it when it’s “too far gone.” That low cost basis becomes an absurd comp for future dividend streams, embedding a high cap rate in the initial purchase, and then you get whatever further corporate value the company generates in the meantime as a bonus.

I really regret selling Nintendo, not because the stock didn’t crash like I thought it would (it was silly for me to think I could “time” it, but that’s a separate issue), but because I had owned it so cheaply, it has done everything I expected it to and I could’ve afforded to be patient.

The Trouble With Indexing, A Reader Comments (#investing, #finance, #indexation)

Reader CP had this succinct analysis of the trouble with indexing as an investment strategy:

I think that, in practice, index investing means:

“Treat cash like it’s toxic and buy a little bit of everything at the asking price.”
It’s an idea which has happened to enter a positive feedback loop and thereby generated attractive retrospective returns since 2009. (Although the price appreciation of the S&P since 2007 has only been about 4% a year not counting dividends!)
Buying everything at the asking price would not work or be considered a valid strategy in any type of wholly owned and operated business. Imagine if you just bought every [retail operation] at the asking price.
Actually, people do this from time to time, it’s called a roll up and the stock price chart looks like the market chart now – a parabola followed by a huge crash. Dendreon’s problem was that they levered up and bought every pharma company they could for asking price.
So I don’t see why or how buying pieces of businesses at asking price will do anything except transfer value to the sellers, i.e. result in losses, which will be crystallized someday, for the buyers.

A Summary Of Horizon Kinetics’ Arguments Against Indexation (#investing, #theory, #indexing)

Murray Stahl and Steven Bregman of Horizon Kinetics have written an ongoing series examining the theoretical and practical flaws of indexation as an investment strategy. As the series is long and the arguments are many, I’ve decided to try to summarize each of their major essays into a single summary sentence to make the argument easier to follow. All links below come from the “Under the Hood: What’s In Your Index? series:

  1. International Diversification – Bet You Don’t Know How Much You’ve Got, investors seeking diversification with their indexing strategies are ignorant of the fact that almost 30% of the revenues of S&P 500 companies come from outside the US, and many international companies in non-US indexes derive substantial parts of their revenue from the US; therefore political diversification of economic risk is illusory in index allocation strategies
  2. Not Your Grandfather’s S&P, the calculation of the S&P 500 was adjusted for available float (non-inside held shares) beginning in 2005, meaning that much of expectations about its return built on past price performance is no longer analagous because earlier index returns were purely market cap-weighted and thus the index got the full benefit of great, insider-owned growth stories such as Wal-Mart and Microsoft
  3. Your Bond Index – Part of the ETF Bubble; valuation-agnostic institutional investors following a “diversified” asset allocation model use tools such as international bond ETFs to gain exposure, and the liquidity constraints of the underlying issuance create perverse results wherein war-torn, criminally fraudulent and economically unstable foreign regime debt ends up with lower yields than stable, profitable US corporate debt
  4. How to NOT Invest in the Dynamism of Emerging Markets: Through Your Emerging Markets ETF; using India ETFs as an example, it is shown that the concentration of market caps, lack of trading liquidity and concentration of the largest firm’s revenue sources outside the home market imply that one can not reliably get exposure to an emerging market by buying emerging market ETFs, meaning that the “diversification” available with such tools is illusory
  5. How Liquid is YOUR ETF, or What Does This Have to Do With Me?; in a “virtuous circle”, the liquidity of index ETFs has attracted long-term asset allocators whose allocation decisions have created even greater liquidity in the ETF, but the events of August 24th, 2015, show that it’s possible for this circle to operate in reverse, creating sharply-divergent share price performance between an ETF itself and its underlying holdings
  6. The Beta Game – Part I; allocation models favor low-beta strategies (historical price risk relative to broader market) over high-beta strategies, such that high-beta strategies are being allocated out of existence and low-beta strategies are being allocated into a bubble, even when the underlying strategy itself seems to imply higher risk and volatility than the broad market
  7. A New Bubble Indicator; Is One of Your Stocks In a Momentum ETF?; “the appearance of billion-dollar momentum ETFs means that the most expensive stocks are being bid higher, and those that have not done well – that is, their relative momentum has abated, as it ultimately must – are being sold short, so the cheap are being sold cheaper”, “The index universe has become, simply, a big momentum trade. It is the most crowded trade in the history of investing.”
  8. The Beta Game – Part II; when the beta-trade goes in reverse because peak beta-driven demand is reached, index ETFs which are primarily purchased because of their beta will fall in value and funds will flow into contrarian, non-indexed securities which will also have constrained supply (illiquid) resulting in sharper price increases
  9. The Robo-Adviser, Part I: What Does Rebalancing Mean to You?; asset allocation patterns, especially the robo advisor-driven variety, create a structural need for outsize turnover volumes of ETFs versus the turnover of their underlying stocks as portfolios are more aggressively rebalanced, in the future a cascading rebalancing effect could create dramatic selloffs in underlying securities just as cascading demand seems to drive price increases on the way up
  10. The Robo-Adviser, Part II: What’s in Your Asset Allocation Program?; robo-advisor portfolio recommendations seem to make similar investment allocations despite different inputs, creating a herd momentum in index ETFs
  11. How Indexation is Creating New Opportunities for Short-Sellers, And Why This Should Alarm Ordinary Buyers of Stock and Bond ETFs; historically low interest rates and growth of indexing as a strategy have made short-selling a punishing exercise, but sudden and unpredictable price volatility will force low-beta ETFs to dump their holdings in favor of other securities, opening up opportunities for short-sellers to profit
  12. Why Utility Stocks Should Concern Income-Oriented Investors; qualitative analysis reveals a worrisome risk picture for the utility industry, yet ETF flows and the search for yield have combined to create high P/Es for the industry as a whole
  13. The Exxon Conundrum; despite a massive decrease in the price of oil and thus $XOM’s per share earnings, its share price was relatively unimpacted and it remains an overweight position of numerous ETFs, suggesting it is $XOMs pre-existing size and liquidity which generates its (over-)valuation, and not the other way around
  14. 5000 Years of Interest Rates (Part I); interest rates in 5,000 years of recorded human history across the globe have never been near zero or negative as they predominantly are in Western economies at present, meaning equity valuations are built on truly unprecedented circumstances while most financial logic involves historical pricing as a basis constructing behavioral models
  15. 5000 Years of Interest Rates (Part II); interest rate increases would result in painful adjustments to the value of fixed-income (bonds) and fixed income-like ETFs (REITs, utilities), and a safer bet would be in non-indexed securities whose prices are already somewhat depressed and whose underlying businesses represent idiosyncratic risks versus the broad market
  16. What’s in Your Index? The Value of Cash; cash is deemed to be a liability in a low interest rate environment, creating a drive to acquire assets regardless of valuation, when in reality cash might be the very thing investors need to survive the coming tide of rising rate-induced market crashes
  17. What’s in Your Index? Gold Miner ETFs; leveraged ETFs in the gold miner space seem to be creating price movements divorced from the underlying fundamentals of gold itself, indicating this is not an efficient market despite the fact that it is being indexed (or rather, because it is being indexed)
  18. The Indexation That Is, Versus The Indexation That Should Be; the commodity nature of index strategies implies that most fund providers who face the same profit motives as active managers of the past will promote diversification strategies to “index investors” that will cause them to underperform the broad market for the same reasons active managers did

The Argument (So Far), Summarized:

  •  Modern indexation is primarily practiced via allocation to various thematic ETFs
  • The construction of the thematic ETFs is often inconsistent with their stated theme and therefore unable to provide the sought after diversification, due to liquidity constraints
  • The price behavior and valuation of the holdings within these ETFs seem divorced from underlying economic reality and are largely explainable through the feedback mechanism of high inflows to indexation/ETF-based strategies themselves
  • Myopic focus on beta (a measure of relative volatility) and momentum (tendency for price trend to continue, a characteristic which shouldn’t exist in an efficient market) have created herd mentalities and currently dominate index-driven strategies
  • Indexation as a strategy requires and logically replies upon historical price data, but the data being relied upon was gathered in an interest rate environment that was historically normal but entirely dissimilar to recent interest rate paradigms, bringing into question the validity of this data to present strategies
  • Indexation relies upon the existence of an efficient market to operate, but the indexation phenomenon itself seems to be driving persistent inefficiencies in the market, bringing into question the stability of the indexation phenomenon
  • Most current index investors do not follow the historic and academic recommendations for executing an index strategy, nor can they given the profit motives of investment marketers offering ETFs outside of the broad market index theme, ensuring underperformance relative to the index benchmark for the same reasons active managers underperformed in the past

BONUS, Horizon Kinetics Q4 2016 Market Commentary, summarized:

  • When the total available pool of index-driven funds reaches its limit, index strategies which are valuation-neutral will no longer set the marginal price for the underlying securities they own, and that price will be set by value-conscious active managers, implying a sharp correction downward for indexed security prices in general
  • Indexation as a strategy has a place in certain portfolios in a “normal market”, but this is not that market and therefore indexation seems to carry undue risk
  • There is no such thing as an “inadequate index return”, so index investors have no logical basis for being unhappy with the returns they get
  • If index investors did try to pull their money all at once, there is no logical alternative to active asset managers because bonds are priced too high to offer a greater return and there is not enough money in money market funds to change places with the index fund outflows at current prices
  • Returns to large cap equities from 1926-2015 have averaged between 9% and 10% a year; returns to equities from 1824-1924 averaged 7% a year, but most of that return came in the form of dividends, not price appreciation
  • In an age of indexation, true diversification comes from analyzing individual securities and finding the one’s whose share price performance is not dictated by broader market trends, as indexed ETF securities are
  • The age of analyst-driven active management may again be upon us

Review – Common Stocks And Uncommon Profits (#investing, #stocks, #growth, #business)

Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits: And other writings by Philip A. Fisher (buy on Amazon.com)

by Philip A. Fisher, published 1996, 2003

Stock market investors who have studied Warren Buffett in detail know that he has cited two “philosophers” of investment theory more than anyone else in being influential in the formation of his own investment approach: Benjamin Graham and Phil Fisher. Graham represents the cautious, conservative, balance sheet-driven Buffett, while Fisher represents the future-oriented, growth-focused, income statement-driven Buffett. If you ask Buffett, while Graham got him started and taught him key lessons in risk management (Margin of Safety and the Mr. Market metaphor), Fisher was the thinker who proved to have the biggest impact in both time and total dollars accumulated. Buffett today, whether by choice or by default due to his massive scale, is primarily a Phil Fisher-style investor.

And yet, in my own investment study and practice, I have dwelled deeply on Graham and did little if anything with Fisher. I tried to read Fisher’s book years ago when I was first starting out and threw my hands up in disgust. It seemed too qualitative, too abstract and frankly for a person of my disposition, too hopeful about the future and the endless parade of growth we’ve witnessed in the markets for several decades since the early 1980s. Surely there would be a time where the Fisher folks would hang their heads in shame and the Grahamites would rise again in the fires of oblivion! After all, “Many shall be restored that are now fallen and many shall fall that are now in honor.”

As my professional career wore on, however, I found there was less and less I could do with Graham and more and more of what Fisher had said that made sense. And if you’re in business, you can’t help but be growth oriented– buying cheap balance sheets isn’t really the way the world works for the private investor. So, I decided it was time to take another look at Fisher’s book and see what I could derive from it as an “older and wiser” fellow. What follows is a review of Part I of the book; I plan to read and review Part II, which is a collection of essays entitled “The Conservative Investor Sleeps Well At Night”, separately.

Keep Your Eye On The Future

One thing I noticed right away is the consistent theme of future-orientation throughout Fisher’s book. Whereas balance sheets and the Graham approach look at what has happened and what is, Fisher is always emphasizing a technique that involves conceptualizing the state of the future. For example, in the Preface he states that one of the most significant influences on his own investment results and those of other successful investors he was aware of was,

the need for patience if big profits are to be made from investment.

“Patience” is a reference to time preference, and time preference implies an ability to envision future states and how they differ from the present and therein see the arbitrage available between the two states. The other key he mentions is being a contrarian in the market place, which sounds a lot to me like the lesson of Mr. Market.

Fisher also says that market timing is not a necessary ingredient for long-term investment success,

These opportunities did not require purchasing on a particular day at the bottom of a great panic. The shares of these companies were available year after year at prices that were to make this kind of profit possible.

While he cites the structural inflationary dynamic of the modern US economy and seems to suggest the federal government’s commitment to responding to business cycle depressions with fiscal stimulus puts some kind of ultimate floor under US public company earnings (unlike in Ben Graham’s time where large companies actually faced the threat of extinction if they were caught overextended in the wrong part of the cycle, Fisher suggests the federal government stands ready to create conditions through which they can extend their debt liabilities and soldier on), he says that the name of the game over the long-term is to find companies with remarkable upside potential which are, regardless of size, managed by a determined group of people who have a unique ability to envision this potential and create and execute a plan for realizing it. In other words, the problem of investing is recognizing strong, determined management teams for what they are, that is, choosing superior business organizations in industries with long runways.

Getting the Goods: The Scuttlebutt Approach

People who know about Fisher typically identify him with the “scuttlebutt approach”. Fisher says scuttlebutt can be generated from:

  • competitors
  • vendors
  • customers
  • research scientists in universities, governments and competitive companies
  • trade association executives
  • former employees (with caveats)

Before one can do the scuttlebutt, however, one has to know where to look. Fisher says that “doing these things [scuttlebutt] takes a great deal of time, as well as skill and alertness […] I strongly doubt that [some easy, quick way] exists.” So, you don’t want to waste your time by going to all the trouble for the wrong idea. He says that 4/5 of his best ideas and 5/6 of the total gains generated over time that he could identify originated as ideas he gleaned from other talented investors first, which he subsequently investigated himself and found they fit the bill. Now, this is not the same thing as saying 4/5 ideas he got from others were worth investing in– the proportion of “good” ideas of the “total” he heard about is probably quite low, but the point again is not quantitative, but qualitative. He’s talking about where to fish for ideas, not how successful this source was.

When I thought about this section, I realized the modern day equivalent was investment bloggers. There are many out there, and while some are utter shit (why does this guy keep kidding himself?) some are quite amazing as thinkers, business analysts and generators of potential ideas. I have too many personal examples of my own here to make mention of them all. But I really liked this idea, cultivating a list of outstanding investment bloggers and using that as your primary jumping off point for finding great companies. The only problem for me in this regard is most of my blogroll are “value guys” that are digging in the trash bins (as my old boss sarcastically put it), whereas to find a Fisher-style company I would need to find a different kind of blogger interested in different kind of companies. But that’s a great to-do item for me to work on in this regard and should prove to be highly educational to boot!

So, assuming you’ve got a top notch idea, what’s next? Fisher is pretty clear here: do not conduct an exhaustive study of the company in question just yet. (In other words, don’t do this just yet, though I loved SoH’s follow-up where he explained what kind of things would get him to do that.) What he does do is worth quoting at length:

glance over the balance sheet to determine the general nature of the capitalization and financial position […] I will read with care those parts covering breakdown of total sales by product lines, competition, degree of officer or other major ownership of common stock […] all earning statement figures throwing light on depreciation, profit margins, extent of research activity, and abnormal or non-recurring costs in prior years’ operations

Then, if you like what you see, conduct your scuttlebutt, because,

only by having what “scuttlebutt” can give you before you approach management, can you know what you should attempt to learn when you visit a company […] never visit the management of a company [you are] considering for investment until [you have] first gathered together at least 50 per cent of all knowledge [you] would need to make the investment

This is the part that really gives a lot of investors pause about Phil Fisher’s approach, including me. Can you really do scuttlebutt, as he envisions it, in the modern era? Can the average investor get the ear of management? Does any of this stuff still apply?

First, some skepticism. Buffett’s biographer Alice Schroeder has said in interviews that much of what made Buffett successful early on in his career is now illegal and would amount to insider trading. The famous conversation with the GEICO chief is one of many that come to mind. This was classic scuttlebutt, and it worked amazingly well for Buffett. And even if it wasn’t illegal, most individual investors are so insignificant to a company’s capital base that they can’t expect nor will they ever receive the ear of management (unless they specialize in microcap companies, but even then management may be disinterested in them, even with significant stakes in their company!) And, assuming they DO somehow get management’s ear, they aren’t liable to learn much of value or interest specifically because most managements today are not only intellectually and politically sophisticated, but legally sophisticated and they are well aware that if they say anything more general than “We feel positive about our company” they’re liable to exposure under Reg FD. This seems like a dead end.

But let me try to tease the idea out a little more optimistically. Managements do provide guidance and color commentary on quarterly earnings calls, and if you are already dealing with a trustworthy, capable management (according to the 15 points outlined below), then there is opportunity to read between the lines here, even while acknowledging that there are many other people doing the same with this info. And people who do get managements’ ear are professional analysts employed by major banks. Again, lots of people read these reports, but there is some info here and it adds color and sometimes offers some “between the lines” information some might miss. And while the information you can get from any one company may be limited, by performing this analysis on several related companies you might be able to fill in some gaps here and there to the point that you can get a pretty fair picture of how the target company stacks up in various ways.

I hesitate a little, but I think the approach can be simulated to a fair degree even today. It’s still hard work. It can’t be done completely, or perhaps as Fisher imagined it. But I think it can be done. And it still comes down to the fact that, even with all this info that is out there, few will actually get this up close and personal with it. So, call it an elbow-grease edge.

After all,

Is it either logical or reasonable that anyone could do this with an effort no harder than reading a few simply worded brokers’ free circulars in the comfort of an armchair one evening a week? […] great effort combined with ability and enriched by both judgment and vision [are the keys to unlocking these great investing opportunities] they cannot be found without hard work and they cannot be found every day.

The Fisher 15

Fisher also is known for his famous 15 item investment checklist, a checklist which at heart searches for the competitive advantage of the business in question as rooted in the capability of its management team to recognize markets, develop products and plans for exploiting them, execute a sales assault and finally keep everything bundled together along the way while being honest business partners to the minority investors in the company. Here was Fisher’s 15 point checklist for identifying companies that were highly likely to experience massive growth over decades:

  1. Does the company have sufficient market scale to grow sales for years?
  2. Is management determined to expand the market by developing new products and services to continue increasing sales?
  3. How effective is the firm’s R&D spending relative to its size?
  4. Is the sales organization above-average?
  5. Does the company have a strong profit margin?
  6. What is being done to maintain or improve margins? (special emphasis on probable future margins)
  7. What is the company’s relationship with employees?
  8. What is the company’s relationship with its executives?
  9. Is the management team experienced and talented?
  10. How strong is the company’s cost and accounting controls? (assume they’re okay unless you find evidence they are not)
  11. Are there industry specific indications that point to a competitive advantage?
  12. Is the company focused on short or long-term profits?
  13. Can the company grow with its own capital or will it have to continually increase leverage or dilute shareholders to do it?
  14. Does the management share info even when business is going poorly?
  15. Is the integrity of the management beyond reproach? (never seriously consider an investment where this is in question)

What I found interesting about these questions is they’re not just good as an investment checklist, but as an operational checklist for a corporate manager. If you can run down this list and find things to work on, you probably have defined your best business opportunities right there.

In the chapter “What to Buy: Applying This to Your Own Needs”, Fisher attempts to philosophically explore the value of the growth company approach. First, he tries to dispel the myth that this approach is only going to serve

an introverted, bookish individual with an accounting-type mind. This scholastic-like investment expert would sit all day in undisturbed isolation poring over vast quantities of balance sheets, corporate earning statements and trade statistics.

Now, this is ironic because this is actually exactly how Buffett is described, and describes himself. But Fisher insists it is not true because the person who is good at spotting growth stocks is not quantitatively-minded but qualitatively-minded; the quantitative person often walks into value traps which look good statistically but have a glaring flaw in the model, whereas it is the qualitative person who has enough creative thinking power to see the brilliant future for the company in question that will exist but does not quite yet, a future which they are able to see by assembling the known qualitative facts into a decisive narrative of unimpeded growth.

Once a person can spot growth opportunities, they quantitatively have to believe in the strategy because

the reason why growth stocks do so much better is that they seem to show gains in value in the hundreds of percent each decade. In contrast, it is an unusual bargain that is as much as 50 per cent undervalued. The cumulative effect of this simple arithmetic should be obvious.

And indeed, it is. While great growth stocks might be a rarer find, they return a lot more and over a longer period of time. To show equivalent returns, one would have to turnover many multiples of incredibly cheap bargain stocks. So this is the philosophical dilemma– fewer quality companies, fewer decisions, and less room for error in your decisions with greater return potential over time, or many bargains, many decisions, many opportunities to make mistakes but also less chance that any one is critical, with the concomitant result that your upside is limited so you must keep churning your portfolio to generate great long-term results.

Rather than being bookish and mathematically inclined (today we have spreadsheets for that stuff anyway), Fisher says that

the successful investor is usually an individual who is inherently interested in business problems. This results in his discussing such matters in a way that will arouse the interest of those from whom he is seeking data.

And this still jives with Buffett– it’s hard to imagine him boring his conversation partner.

Timing Is Everything?

So you’ve got a scoop on a hot stock, you run it through your checklist and you conduct thorough scuttlebutt-driven due diligence on it. When do you buy it, and why?

to produce close to the maximum profit […] some consideration must be given to timing

Oh no! “Timing”. So Fisher turns out to be a macro-driven market timer then, huh? “Blood in the streets”-panic kind of thing, right?

Wrong.

the economics which deal with forecasting business trends may be considered to be about as far along as was the science of chemistry during the days of alchemy in the Middle Ages.

So what kind of timing are we talking about then? To Fisher, the kind of timing that counts is individualistic, idiosyncratic and tied to what is being qualitatively derived from one’s scuttlebutt. Timing one’s purchases is not about market crashes in general, but in corporate missteps in particular. Fisher says:

the company into which the investor should be buying is the company which is doing things under the guidance of exceptionally able management. A few of these things are bound to fail. Others will from time to time produce unexpected troubles before they succeed. The investor should be thoroughly sure in his own mind that these troubles are temporary rather than permanent. Then if these troubles have produced a significant decline in the price of the affected stock and give promise of being solved in a matter of months rather than years, he will probably be on pretty safe ground in considering that this is a time when the stock may be bought.

He continues,

[the common denominator in several outstanding purchasing opportunities was that ] a worthwhile improvement in earnings is coming in the right sort of company, but that this particular increase in earnings has not yet produced an upward move in the price of that company’s shares

I think this example with Bank of America (which I could never replicate because I can’t see myself buying black boxes like this financial monstrosity) at Base Hit Investing is a really good practical example of the kind of individual company pessimism Phil Fisher would say you should try to bank on. (Duh duh chhhhh.)

He talks about macro-driven risk and says it should largely be ignored, with the caveat of the investor already having a substantial part of his total investment invested in years prior to some kind of obvious mania. He emphasizes,

He is making his bet upon something which he knows to be the case [a coming increase in earnings power for a specific company] rather than upon something about which he is largely guessing [the trend of the general economy]

and adds that if he makes a bad bet in terms of macro-dynamics, if he is right about the earnings picture it should give support to the stock price even in that environment.

He concludes,

the business cycle is but one of at least five powerful forces [along with] the trend of interest rates, the over-all government attitude toward investment and private enterprise [quoting this in January, 2017, one must wonder about the impact of Trump in terms of domestic regulation and taxation, and external trade affairs], the long-range trend to more and more inflation and — possibly most powerful of all — new inventions and techniques as they affect old industries.

Set all the crystal ball stuff aside– take meaningful action when you have meaningful information about specific companies.

Managing Risk

Fisher also gives some ideas about how to structure a portfolio of growth stocks to permit adequate diversification in light of the risk of making a mistake in one’s choices (“making at least an occasional investment mistake is inevitable even for the most skilled investor”). His example recommendation is:

  • 5 A-type, established, large, conservative growth companies (20% each) -or-
  • 10 B-type, medium, younger and more aggressive growth companies (10% each) -or-
  • 20 C-type, small, young and extremely aggressive/unproven growth companies (5% each)

But it is not enough to simply have a certain number of different kinds of stocks, which would be a purely quantitative approach along the lines of Ben Graham’s famous dictums about diversification. Instead, Fisher’s approach is again highly qualitative, that is, context dependent– choices you make about balancing your portfolio with one type of stock require complimentary additions of other kinds of stocks that he deems to offset the inherent risks of each. We can see how Buffett was inspired in the construction of his early Buffett Partnership portfolio weightings here.

For example, he suggests that one A-type at 20% might be balanced off with 2 B-type at 10% each, or 6 C-type at 5% each balanced off against 1 A-type and 1 B-type. He extends the qualitative diversification to industry types and product line overlaps– you haven’t achieved diversification with 5 A-types that are all in the chemical industry, nor would you achieve diversification by having some A, B and C-types who happen to have competing product lines in some market or industry. For the purposes of constructing a portfolio, part of your exposure should be considered unitary in that regard. Other important factors include things like the breadth and depth of a company’s management, exposure to cyclical industries, etc. One might also find that one significant A-type holding has such broadly diversified product lines on its own that it represents substantially greater diversification than the 20% portfolio weighting it might represent on paper. (With regards to indexation as a strategy, this is why many critics say buying the S&P 500 is enough without buying “international stock indexes” as well, because a large portion of S&P 500 earnings is derived from international operations.)

While he promotes a modicum of diversification, “concentration” is clearly the watchword Fisher leans toward:

the disadvantage of having eggs in so many baskets [is] that a lot of the eggs do not end up in really attractive baskets, and it is impossible to keep watching all the baskets after the eggs get put into them […] own not the most, but the best […] a little bit of a great many can never be more than a poor substitute for a few of the outstanding.

Tortured egg basket metaphors aside (why on earth do people care what their egg baskets look like?!), Fisher is saying that the first mistake one can make is to spread your bets so thin that they don’t matter and you can’t efficiently manage them even if they did.

Aside from portfolio construction, another source of risk is the commission of errors of judgment.

when a mistake has been made in the original purchase and it becomes increasingly clear that the factual background of the particular company is, by a significant margin, less favorable than originally believed

one should sell their holdings, lick their wounds and move on. This needs to be done as soon as the error is recognized, no matter what the price may be:

More money has probably been lost by investors holding a stock they really did not want until they could “at least come out even” than from any other single reason. If to these actual losses are added the profits that might have been made through the proper reinvestment of these funds if such reinvestment had been made when the mistake was first realized, the cost of self-indulgence becomes truly tremendous.

Further,

Sales should always be made of the stock of a company which, because of changes resulting from the passage of time, no longer qualifies in regard to the fifteen points… to about the same degree it qualified at the time of purchase […] keep at all times in close contact with the affairs of companies whose shares are held.

One vogue amongst certain investors is to be continually churning the portfolio from old positions to the latest and greatest idea, with the assumption being that time has largely run its course on the earlier idea and the upside-basis of the new idea is so much larger that liquidity should be generated to get into the new one. Fisher advises only using new capital to pursue new ideas rather than giving in to this vanity because,

once a stock has been properly selected and has borne the test of time, it is only occasionally that there is any reason for selling it at all

The concept of “investment” implies committing one’s resources for long periods of time. You can’t emulate this kind of trading activity in the private market, which is a very strong indication that you should try to avoid this behavior in public markets. A particularly costly form of this error is introducing macro-market timing into one’s portfolio management, ie, this stock has had a big run up along with the rest of the market, things are getting heady, I will sell and get back in at a lower cost. I’ve done this myself, most recently with Nintendo ($NTDOY) and even earlier with Dreamworks ($DWA). Fisher says it’s a mistake:

postponing an attractive purchase because of fear of what the general market might do will, over the years, prove very costly […] if the growth rate is so good that in another ten years the company might well have quadrupled, is it really of such great concern whether at the moment the stock might or might not be 35 per cent overpriced? That which really matters is not to disturb a position that is going to be worth a great deal more later.

It plays to a logical fallacy that a company that has run up has “expended” its price momentum, while a company that has not had a run-up has something “due” to it. On the contrary, Fisher points out that many times the material facts about a company’s future earnings prospects change significantly over time from the original purchase, often to the good, such that even with a big run-up, even more is in the offing because the future is even brighter than before– remember, always keep an eye on the future, not the present or the past!

And similarly, if one has an extremely cheap cost basis in a company, one has an enormous margin of safety that should give further heed to trying to jump in and out of the stock when it is deemed to be overvalued.

He adds that, like wines, well-selected portfolio holdings get better with age because,

an alert investor who has held a good stock for some time usually gets to know its less desirable as well as more desirable characteristics

and through this process comes to develop even more confidence in his holdings.

If you’ve read some of my thinking about the philosophy of building multi-generational wealth through a family business, you’ll see once again the direct parallel to private market investing in Fisher’s conclusion:

If the job has been correctly done when a common stock is purchased, the time to sell it is– almost never.

Conclusion

Distilling Part I down to its essence, I concluded that the most important skill for generating long-term gains from one’s investing is still about having a disciplined and consistent investment program followed without interruption and in the face of constantly nagging self-doubt (“In the stock market a good nervous system is even more important than a good head.”) The particular program that Fisher recommends be followed is to:

  1. Create a network of intelligent investors (bloggers) from which to source ideas
  2. Develop a strong scuttlebutt skill/network to develop superior investment background
  3. Check with management to confirm remaining questions generated from the 15 step list
  4. With the conviction to buy, persevere in holding over a long period of time

If you can’t do this, you probably shouldn’t bother with the Fisher approach. Whether it can be done at all is an entirely separate matter.

4/5

Review – The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck (#books, #review, #self-help, #philosophy, @IAmMarkManson)

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

by Mark Manson, published 2016

How much deep wisdom can you expect from a recently published book written by a youthful individual who writes a blog about his opinions for a living? Not much, if you’re reasonable, and in that sense this book managed to be both exactly what I expected it would be and enjoyable nonetheless.

My basic gripe with this book is that it doesn’t manage to fully develop or even adhere to its titular theme, the idea of “giving a fuck.” It’s a cheeky way of stating something more profound, and while Manson manages to explore the profundity I don’t think he does it thematically which creates a disconnect between the marketing of the book and its ideas, and the actual philosophy itself. I think this book would’ve been more interesting if it was not called “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck”, which is a not very subtle way to appeal to a potential audience at the cost of the integrity of the book itself, which is otherwise sound.

But I am “not going to give a fuck” about that, because it’s irrelevant in light of what value I did take away from the book, which is notable. There are many pithy concepts in Manson’s work, I will list some of those that I found myself dwelling upon and try to share why they were meaningful to me.

Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience […] The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.

The concept here is not that struggling towards achievements gives achievements their meaning, but rather that it is unavoidable to struggle towards achievements in life. Furthermore, attempting to avoid the struggle is irrational because the avoidance of struggle is a struggle. Instead of one struggle (toward an achievement) you now face two– the avoidance of struggle as struggle, and the struggle towards achievement itself. Or, even worse, you face one struggle with no reward, the avoidance of struggle as struggle.

Embrace the struggle as necessary and vital.

No matter where you go, there’s a five-hundred-pound load of shit waiting for you. And that’s perfectly fine. The point isn’t to get away from the shit. The point is to find the shit you enjoy dealing with.

“The solution to one problem is merely the creation of the next one.” […] hope for a life full of good problems […] Happiness comes from solving problems. Happiness is […] a form of action; it’s an activity. […] Happiness is a constant work-in-progress, because solving problems is a constant work-in-progress […] True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to head a small retail sales organization in need of a turn around. It was hard work, the hardest work I’ve done to date. And I was successful in my work, but most of the time it didn’t feel that way to me because of my inexperience.

The thought I remember having most often was, “Am I doing something wrong?” My problems seemed to multiply without end. Every time I fixed something, something else broke. Every time I thought I had configured the organization, our processes, anything, into some kind of stable equilibrium, it would start tilting in another direction all over again. I became very discouraged because I associated this inability to find stability as some symptom of my incompetence or inadequacy as the man in charge.

I brought this up with more senior people in the organization during several sit downs and the reply I got each time was, “That’s business– there are always more problems to solve.” I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it’s also life, life is a series of challenges and obstacles to overcome. There is no equilibrium, no final resting state besides death. Everything in prelude is constant turmoil and flux. You can accept that and get on with it, or you can invest a lot of time and energy in being bitter and resentful about it (speaking from experience here!) and you will succeed wildly in this failure of imagination if you want to do that.

It took about a year of struggling with that sense of self-doubt before I came to terms with the inescapable nature of recurring problems. At that point, I came to appreciate the concept philosophically– there were always going to be problems to solve, no matter whether you screwed things up or batted it out of the park. And once I had that piece, I realized the next piece was to find problems you like to solve. If you’re going to deal with problems, you might as well have fun with them.

This connects to my theory of investment, as well. I believe the ideal for investment is control, ownership, being in a position to add value by being a change agent. And so from that standpoint I believe the most fundamental investment value, besides price, yield, future prospects, etc., is that you select investment problems you enjoy solving. You be an owner where you can add value with your solutions to the problems the company faces, and where you enjoy providing those solutions.

Real, serious, lifelong fulfillment and meaning have to be earned through the choosing and managing of our struggles.

Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for. People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who run triathlons and have chiseled abs and can benchpress a small house. People who enjoy long workweeks and the politics of the corporate ladder are the ones who fly to the top of it. People who enjoy the stresses and uncertainties of the starving artist lifestyle are ultimately the ones who live it and make it.

This ties together the ideas of avoiding entitlement by embracing the necessity of struggle, and selecting struggles you enjoy. It provides explanatory value for the outcomes we witness in other people, particularly people who excel in certain fields. It helps us appreciate where their success comes from– their embrace of particular struggles. It helps us to understand that it is unreasonable to expect to enjoy those same rewards without the same affinity for those struggles.

We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond.

“With great responsibility comes great power.”

A lot of people hesitate to take responsibility for their problems because they believe that to be responsible for your problems is also to be at fault for your problems.

Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense.

Many years ago I became interested in the thinking of the psychologist and philosopher, Nathaniel Branden. One of the books I read which had a big impact in my life was his not-so-subtly titled How To Raise Your Self-Esteem. It is a humongous work inside a small package, a title I can easily recommend to anyone, and there is one sentence in the book that hit me like a person you’ve always respected and admired admitting they can’t stand you: “No one is coming to the rescue.”

I made a lot of excuses for myself back then. I don’t know if it was a sense of self-pity or a sense of cosmic divinity (how could I of all people be meant to suffer or be anything but perfect?!), but I was good at sitting around waiting for everyone else to get clued in on how great I was. I spent A LOT of time trying to figure other people out and rationalize why, despite my brilliance and benevolence, they didn’t like me, weren’t attracted to me, didn’t enjoy my company, etc. What I didn’t do much of was think about what I could do differently to get different results in my life. My attitude was, “This is just the way I am, if the world doesn’t appreciate it, then fuck ’em!”

When I read that no one was coming to my rescue, I first thought, who would come to my rescue if someone was coming to my rescue? It wasn’t god, as I didn’t believe in it. It wasn’t my parents– my parents love me, and they didn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to rescue me from my struggles so far, so it seemed safe to assume they weren’t just waiting for the right occasion. It wasn’t my friends, they were struggling with some of the same things I was. And it wasn’t some random stranger, they don’t know me and couldn’t care about my struggles. By process of elimination, it dawned on me that the only person who could come to my rescue, was me, and even I wasn’t getting off my ass to do the deed. So, Branden was right, no one was coming to my rescue.

That’s when I stopped the unsatisfying game of assigning fault, and took up the mantle of responsibility for my own life. It’s been an imperfect practice, and it always will be, but it’s made all the difference in my life since then.

Life is about not knowing and then doing something anyway.

“If you’re stuck on a problem, don’t sit there and think about it; just start working on it. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, the simple act of working on it will eventually cause the right ideas to show up in your head.”

Action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s also the cause of it.

This is a great reminder for me because I am a cerebral person. The thing I struggle with the most is overthinking my problems. This was again something I had to learn on the job while heading the retail operation. I would face a problem and try to find the “perfect” solution for it, which inevitably meant thinking and thinking and thinking again. I received another bit of wisdom in one of those senior manager sitdowns: “You’re never going to have the time or the ability to implement the perfect solution. Consider a couple options and then pick the one you’re most comfortable with and accept that you might make another mess that you can clean up later.”

Again, the lesson applies to life in general. You can think your problems to death, literally (see Buridan’s ass). You’ll get more places by simply doing, and dealing with the consequences. Consequences are unavoidable and there are always more problems to solve whether you get the current one right or wrong. There is also a parallel to investing practice here– facing a sound investment with a 10% return potential, should you hold out and wait for one that could return 20%? No. Invest whenever you can find a safe return and worry about whether you’ll have free resources for the 20% return when you come to it. If you do otherwise, you may give up even the 10% return chasing a phantom 20%.

Commitment gives you freedom because you’re no longer distracted by the unimportant and frivolous.

I’ve been kicking this one around a lot with friends recently. During the financial crisis, I was enamored with the idea of living with no flag, traveling around the world as a lifestyle, being a “citizen of the world.” It’s a sexy, exciting dream, but it makes no sense. Part of what makes being a “citizen” of any place enjoyable is the commitment you make to that place which allows you to have deeper connections and experiences than a mere tourist. It can be captured in the metaphor of the traveler who wants to know where the locals eat. You can’t eat like a local when you’re always on the move. You can live the life of a citizen when you’re an uprooted, uncommitted nomad.

This also dovetails with the simplicity mindset of Marie Kondo’s “Life-Changing Magic”. When you live life simply and rid yourself of ill-used possessions, you commit yourself to fuller utilization of the possessions that remain. You commit to a particular use pattern and give up the elusive dream of having and using it all, which is impossible. The things you discard are marginalia, they are not important, frivolous things in your life.

With your limited “fucks to give” in life, you must draw a close bead on the things you’re aiming to achieve.

Death is the only thing we can know with certainty […] it must be the compass by which we orient all of our other values and decisions.

And then there’s that. It’s great that the book tries to wrestle with the issue, because we have an anti-death culture, this diseased belief that “death can’t happen here.”

Yesterday I was re-reading the preface of Phil Fisher’s Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits. The preface is written by Phil’s son Ken, who is also part of the investment industry. At the time Ken was writing, his father was suffering from dementia and slowly dying. Ken reflected on the former vitality of his father which had now diminished, and lamented the fact that he tried to continue the game of investment even in his old age, which Ken argued was a young man’s game.

One example he provided was a time when his then eighty-year-old father told a group of people of some stocks he was picking which he looked to own “for the next thirty years.” The people he was speaking to thought this was cute, but Ken thought it was depressing and nonsensical. It was extremely unlikely his father would be around another thirty years and so his behavior and values were mismatched for what was appropriate to his stage of life. In effect, he was squandering what little time he had left, because he would not be honest about the inevitability of his impending death.

Ken suggested he would’ve been better off visiting with family, traveling or just taking it easy. And I agree. There’s a wisdom here in understanding death and keeping it, in some sense, in the forefront of one’s mind. We should be making the best plans we can with the time we think we have left, but we should never kid ourselves about how much time that is likely to be and what kind of plans are appropriate for the occasion.

3/5

Review – Family Fortunes (#wealth, #family, #investing, #business)

Family Fortunes: How to Build Family Wealth and Hold on to It for 100 Years

by Bill Bonner, Will Bonner, published 2012

What kind of habits and modes of thought separate Old Money families from everyone else? How do you build a family fortune? How do you get a family to work together toward a single purpose as the “core” is continually invaded by new spouses and children? How do you invest your prodigious wealth at high rates of return? How do you hold on to your family fortune for 100 years? Why does 100 years seem like a long time when it’s really only 3-4 generations of people?

Frustratingly (maddeningly?), the answer most often given in this book to questions like these is, “We don’t know, but here’s our guess.”

What I didn’t get from this book, then, were many specific, useful ideas for implementing with my own family enterprise– or family-as-enterprise. What I did get, and what will be the focus of this review, are a lot of questions, principles to ponder, and general strategic problems in need of robust solutions. This is not a how-to manual for putting together the essential structure of long-lived family institutions such as tax and estate planning, family organization and branding, household management.

Most people will not have a family fortune to contend with. It is not something that can be acquired through a known formula, but rather it is the outcome of an entrepreneurial process that is, epistemologically speaking, random. Just as one can not predictably create a family fortune, one can not predictably control the size or scope of the family fortune, within certain bounds. In other words, your family may have the good fortune to stumble upon a business opportunity with a significant market capitalization. That’s the first hurdle, and there’s no formula for getting there. Then, that fortune might turn out to be worth $50M, $100M, or $5B. That’s another hurdle, and there’s no formula. Failing to seize every opportunity you are presented with might limit your total fortune, and being eager and observant for those opportunities might extend the limit. But there is no recipe for turning something that is worth $50M into $5B unless it was the kind of opportunity that can scale that big in the first place.

Some market opportunities are worth a lot to one person who owns them (“he made a fortune!”), but they’re still not worth a lot to the market or economy as a whole (limited scale). This is an important point because of the gilded cage nature of family fortunes– once you have one, you’re kind of stuck with it, but it’s really tempting to think you have a lot more control over it than you do, or that it’s a lot more durable than it might be.

Imagine you’re the guy with the $50M fortune. You’re pretty happy with your luck, assuming everything else is right in your life, but you’re aware of people with $5B fortunes. If you can generate a $50M fortune, why can’t you generate a $5B fortune? Are those people smarter? Better connected? More productive? What’s the difference?

Luck, and leverage, but using leverage without blowing up is really just a residue of luck.

So you’ve got this $50M fortune. What can you do with it? If you have it invested in the business that created it, you enjoy a nice income stream from it each year (maybe that’s worth $2.5M, maybe it’s worth $5M if you’re really lucky) and you reinvest where and when you can. If your business doesn’t scale easily though, you can’t put it back in and make more. You’re stuck at $50M. What if you take the $50M out by selling the business? Now you have $50M in cash with no annual return and an investment problem. Where are you going to put $50M to work such that you can, say, spend $5M per year and still have $50M left over to do it again next year? Know any hot stocks? You didn’t make your fortune in investing the first time around, what makes you think you’re going to make it there the second time around just because you have $50M now? (Note: you are statistically and logically unlikely to achieve this outcome if you so desire it.) Know any good businesses for sale? Oh, that’s right, you just sold one!

That’s the gilded cage. You’re stuck with a $50M fortune. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s still a problem. And nothing changes at scale besides the difficulty of the problem. It isn’t easier but actually harder to achieve yield at higher increments of invested capital due to the economic phenomenon of diminishing marginal returns (if this were not the case, you could infinitely scale things by always adding more resources to every project; DMR ensures that the more you add over time, the less incremental gain you get to the point that you get no return or a negative return, ie, waste). If you had $5B, you’d have even fewer places to put it and you’d have given up an even rarer business opportunity in selling.

Unless your business value is about to become permanently impaired and you can see the writing on the wall when no one else can — technological change, regulatory change, some kind of disastrous political or economic event — your business will never be as valuable to you on the market as it is under your ownership, assuming you’re a competent operator. I’m not going to explore what you do if you’re incompetent because that’s a special case, although it follows the same general logic and leads to the same general investment problems.

I think what this means is that the primary challenge for a family with a fortune in terms of managing their business is to be sensitive to the innovation required over time to maintain the economic value of the assets, to manage the capital structure of their business intelligently (ie, not too much debt) so they don’t lose control because of the volatility of the business cycle, and to build cash up and keep their eyes peeled for a truly unique investment opportunity, the kind that made the first family fortune possible. That means it’s more important to avoid doing the wrong things than it is to try to be finding the right things to do. It also means it requires great patience. If we’re talking about building multi-generational wealth, patience is implied in the premise, but it’s still worth repeating. Bonner emphasizes this frequently– find ways to let time work for you, not against you. He believes luck, advantages and businesses all tend to grow over time so the idea is to set things up so those advantages will accumulate in your favor.

Smart investing is not the way to build a fortune. Some people will build a fortune building an investment business (ie, a wealth manager), but it will not be the investing itself that makes them rich but the operational leverage they gain through their fee structure. Because Bonner is a skeptic of “investing” as a tool for wealth building, he would land squarely on my side of the skeptic’s divide about the value public capital markets play in economic growth. Why should a person find it necessary or valuable to contribute capital to a company building things in other people’s towns instead of investing in opportunities in their own town, right “down the street”? Profit signals and differing equity returns will attract capital from disparate areas and thereby indicate relative value across an economy, but I am skeptical that this process and the capital markets in general would be as big a part of the economy overall as they are presently if we were in anything more closely approximating free market conditions without crony capitalist interventions.

So, you may get lucky and find yourself with a fortune, small or large, from a family business. If you do, hold on to it, appreciate it, care for it, tend to it responsibly and hope you or one of your descendants has an opportunity to take another swing at an uncertain point in the future. But don’t try to force it, and don’t think there’s anything you can do to greatly enhance your opportunity beyond what it is. And understand that it will never be as valuable to you as a pile of cash as it is invested in your business.

The other big topic in the book is building the institutional framework of a long-lived family that can participate in this family business over the generations and can also be “true” to the family culture and values. Family planning is an idea that attracts me, and I have spent considerable time on my own with the concept of creating a family brand (what the ancients’ termed a coat of arms) to identify the family and its enterprises.

The trouble I have with family planning is the same trouble I have with all planning, particularly that of the central variety– what if the individual members of your family don’t really find value in your plan? Obviously, raising them with certain values and viewpoints creates a better chance for a kind of coalescing around this identity and direction. But is that how I want to raise my children, by telling them what is important? I think they can figure that kind of stuff out on their own, just as I did. Hopefully I can lead by example, and provide a demonstration of the virtue of the family virtue. But I think a potentially frustrating consequence of putting this emphasis on building multi-generational institutions together is you might find out your family just doesn’t see the use in them. That’s kind of worse case, though, and doesn’t necessarily argue against the project in general.

Yet, what if you’re successful at this? Building a business and building wealth is a coordination problem resolved by growing trust. Who can you trust more than members of your own family? Creating a family organization based on shared values and common identity and linking that organization to a business entity could allow for a uniquely successful competitive strategy and management continuity over a significantly longer timeline than the average public or private competitor– in other words, huge competitive advantages over time. Simultaneously, this arrangement could solve one of the common problems of families and their constituent members, that being how each as an individual and the family as a whole can achieve security, success and satisfaction with one’s productive efforts and life. As I’ve argued in the past, I believe the family is the best institution for accomplishing this task and it is certainly far superior to the currently dominant model of public corporations (for-profit and nation-states/institutional gangsterism).

3/5