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

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

Review – Grinding It Out (#books, #review, #business)

Review – Grinding It Out (#books, #review, #business)

Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s

by Ray Kroc, with Robert Anderson, published 1992

Reading through the stories of great entrepreneurs, business people and politicians like Cornelius Vanderbilt or Warren Buffett, it is easy to find a sentiment much like this one from Ray Kroc:

Ethel [his wife] used to complain once in a while about about the amount of time I spent away from home working. Looking back on it now, I guess it was kind of unfair. But I was driven by ambition.

I find this sentiment remarkable for a few different reasons.

The first is how common it is. It seems to suggest that achieving “great things” in a particular field of enterprise is not possible without neglecting one’s family and other personal relationships in favor of the “productive” relationships and activities.

The second is how little awareness of this tradeoff many such people seem to possess, at least until they reach the end of their life and all their glory has already been gotten. Then, as they contemplate their state of affairs, either looking back on the empire they built or ruminating regretfully now that they are deposed (violently or voluntarily), they seem to re-evaluate how they spent their time and decide they came up short in considering family time less important than it should have been. They also seem to be either disconnected from the damage they do to their children and their psyches, or else try to evade such recognition– I think Ray Kroc mentioned his daughter all of two times in this 200 page telling, and while his daughter may not have been critical to the story of building McDonald’s, you’d think she would’ve provided enough value and motivation in Kroc’s life to merit more than a couple passing mentions!

The third is how excusable such high achievers seem to find their behavior to be in retrospect. “But…” is a permission word. It negates what comes before and offers cover. Yes, Ray Kroc was unfair, but… It suggests a different moral framework for studying life or a particular circumstance, one in which the rules don’t really apply and the ends justify the means.

The fourth is what a temptation these great projects must’ve provided to these people, to ignore their family, their health or any number of other values. If I was a successful paper cup salesman but stumbled upon the idea of McDonald’s myself, could I have resisted the temptation to build it and in the process knowingly give up my family, friends, physical well-being, etc.? It is perhaps easy to sit in judgment of another person’s efforts and decisions when the attraction of my own responsibilities is relatively less compelling. It’s easy to go home to my family at the end of the day as they typically offer me more interest and excitement. But would that be the case if millions of dollars and a global business organization hung in the balance? That I don’t know for sure, and perhaps you can’t know until you’re tempted with it.

But that leads to the fifth point, which is to consider whether a story like Kroc’s and McDonald’s could be told any other way. What if in the first 27 pages of the story of this business the quote above was not to be found, nor anywhere in the 173+ pages that followed? What if Kroc didn’t get divorced (twice), didn’t have a string of health issues along the way, came home and kissed his wife and daughter on the forehead five nights a week and spent most of each month at home and around town rather than around the country? What choices would’ve needed to be made differently to support that outcome, and how would the company look different either internally or competitively if that had been the case? How big would Berkshire Hathaway be if Buffett had raised his own children and loved his first wife more considerately instead of reading so many damn books and annual reports?

To ask may be to answer, but it’s frightening (hopeful?) to think otherwise.

Besides neglecting important obligations and personal considerations, what else do stories like these seem to tell us about those who achieve outsize success?

Incredible stamina seems to be part of it. They don’t just work hard, they work all the time. But again, it’s hard to know if this is part of the person, part of the responsibility and opportunity, or both. How would a person not work hard and often at something they didn’t love to the point they were mesmerized by it? Enthralled is a good way to describe the state of mind in relation to the idea of the thing being pursued here.

Also, simplicity. Maybe it’s the bad ghostwriting designed to break the story down for a lowbrow audience but the way these people talk about what it is they did, they rarely come across as great geniuses, though they’re often wits (Buffett is a notable exception here, and Vanderbilt was clearly “sharp”, a word for cunning back then, though it wasn’t clear he was necessarily “intelligent”, while it was clear he was no buffoon). The grand strategy and complexity is often seen in hindsight, knowing how the story ends and having years and years to tell it and thus accumulate various trappings which may or may not be integral to the success. In Kroc’s own words, it was all about Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value and then spreading it across the land. Their financing was complicated, but it’s not clear it needed to be, especially if the company was less levered and less insistent on growing as fast as it did. Being focused seems obvious, yet important enough to mention it.

Where does that leave me? If there’s a way to build a legacy that doesn’t involve neglecting one’s family and health, perhaps by being more patient, moving more slowly or being less obsessed about the outcome, that is the kind of legacy I want to build. And I have to wonder what kind of personal insecurity or individual idiosyncrasy or whatever it is, that I seem not to have, that would not allow a person to make that choice given the alternative.

But if the only way to make things great is to trash some other part of your life and leave a smoking crater behind, a crater that’s especially painful in the vulnerability of old age, then I guess I better prepare myself mentally for more humble achievements. I’m just not interested in those kinds of tradeoffs and I don’t understand how such achievements could be satisfying without a family to enjoy them with and the sound mind and body necessary to experience it all.

3/5

Notes – Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (#strategy, #business)

Notes – Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (#strategy, #business)

Following up on my recent review of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, I gave the book a complete re-read and I am now solidly convinced it is a 4/5 title worth the extra effort. There is a lot here to unpack, I ended up taking about five pages of notes as I read and tried to put major concepts into my own words this time around. I am tempted to just copy a list of bullet points but I think that’d be exhausting to read, so instead I will take a fragmented narrative approach.

The Good, The Bad

Good strategy is defined as designing a coordinated and focused group of actions against a critical factor in a given situation (business, military, political, etc.) Bad strategy can be recognized by its hallmarks:

  • ignores problems or obstacles in the way of intended action
  • ignores choice or focus in favor of attempting to accede to conflicting demands
  • embraces language of broad goals, ambition, vision and values (generic versus specific)

A good strategy “selects the path” of how, why and where leadership and determination are to be applied. This path is sketched out with the “kernel”, which consists of three important parts, in this order:

  1. a diagnosis of the challenge to be overcome
  2. a guiding policy describing the area of action to focus on
  3. a set of coherent actions that will be taken to overcome the challenge

A lot of the strength of strategy is gained simply by having a coordinated design for focused action on a single objective, a discipline many competing organizations will lack. Most complex organizations make the mistake of spreading rather than concentrating resources. Leaders need to learn how to say “No!” to a wide variety of competing interests and actions. With focus, one can “use your relative advantages to impose out-of-proportion costs on the opposition and complicate his problem of competing with you.”

Digging in on bad

The author actually has four signposts for bad strategy:

  • fluff, the illusion of high-level thinking created by manipulating language
  • failure to face the challenge, providing no way to direct action at an undefined entity
  • mistaking goals for strategy, stating mere desires rather than creating plans for achievement
  • bad strategic objectives, sabotaging an effort by impracticality or ignorance of critical restraints

In short, “bad strategy is long on goals and short on policy or action.”

Whereas good strategy seeks simplicity and utilizes heuristics to make complex phenomena understandable and addressable, bad strategy purposefully obscures meaningful dynamics by adding layers and complexity and minutiae to the discussion. Many bad strategies reveal themselves as exhaustive lists of hopes, dreams or things people would like to see done (such as, “Create a strategy for X”, a seeming meta-strategy!)

A strategy must define the primary challenge and the major obstacles to a plan for overcoming it.

Applying strategy

One place to look to for applying strategy is the part of your business that is changing, as there may be an opportunity here to get a jump on the competition. While resource plans are valuable because they ensure resources arrive as needed with expected business operations, they are not the same as a strategy which addresses what is dynamic in an operation. As a strategy is a choice of what goals to pursue, it has implications for sub-goals that permeate the different parts of the organization in order for the main goals to be achieved. But goals themselves are not a strategy, because there are many potential ways to achieve a specific goal; strategy is choosing which path to take and why.

If a strategy can’t bridge the gap between objectives and actions necessary to achieve them, it is merely wishful thinking. Underperformance is a result, not a challenge to be met strategically. Strategy needs to address the specific challenges that result in underperformance as an outcome.

Some common sources of bad strategy:

  • avoiding the pain of choice; facing the fact that you must displease someone
  • template-strategy temptation; an appealing substitute for actual analysis
  • New Thought; believing positivity and mindset trump all other real factors in a situation

If you propose a strategy and find everyone is immediately bought in, you probably haven’t made a hard choice which suggests you haven’t actually provided a strategy. Strategies have clear winners and losers in terms of existing and potential interest groups.

Revisiting the core of good strategy

To repeat, the strategy kernel consists of three parts, contemplated in order:

  1. a simplifying diagnosis of the problem
  2. a guiding policy directed at obstacles identified in the diagnosis
  3. a set of coordinated, coherent actions to carry out the guiding policy and address the problem

The guiding policy should be aimed at a source of leverage or should build on existing advantages. It needs to address “how” the diagnosis will be treated. The diagnosis itself should call attention to the most crucial facts– on what items does the balance between life or death hang? There are a few ways the guiding policy helps to create advantage:

  • anticipating actions and reactions (internally and externally)
  • reducing complexity and ambiguity about how to proceed and what is or is not within the scope of action
  • exploiting leverage through concentrated effort
  • building coherence in related actions and decisions so that they serve to reinforce one another

Coherence means that every action strengthens the others and complements them in some way; they do not remain distinct or in conflict with one another. Coherence is the application of centralized intelligence imposed on the “natural” workings of a system. Good strategy imposes only the essential coordination necessary to create large gains, while allowing specialization and decentralization in all else.

Strategic nuances

Foresight diminishes with increased time (uncertainty about the future) to an objective, so proximate objectives are most important when facing the highest amount of uncertainty.

Chain-link systems are one’s whose efficacy is defined by their weakest link. The threshold for improving the system is usually holistic in nature, as the weakest link “shifts” as the system is transformed.

Strategy as a design problem implies the need to make mutual adjustments, resulting in high peaks to gains or sharp costs and losses if wrong. Tighter integration of design requires higher costs/tradeoffs. The degree of integration in a design needed is proportional to the intensity of the challenge faced.

It is human nature to identify current profit with current actions, when really the seeds of present loss and profit were sown long ago.

To identify a company’s strategy, start by examining the business models of competitors. You can also study the business’s policies which are different from the competition and try to think about what that implies about what kind of coordination they’re aiming at.

Forgetting about whether traditional competencies apply to new paradigms is a classic strategic misstep.

Growth, by itself and for itself, is not a strategy. Growth doesn’t create value by acquisition unless you buy below fair value or can increase the value through operational control. Healthy growth usually comes commingled with higher market share and higher profitability as a result of greater cleverness, creativity, efficiency or skill. It can’t be engineered by an acquisition or a merger.

Thinking about competitive advantage

Advantage in competitive settings is rooted in differences which create asymmetries. No one has advantage in everything, so choose your battles wisely.

Competitive advantage is “interesting” when one can find ways to increase its value by creating greater strategic coherence. Having a competitive advantage by itself isn’t valuable because you’re likely to pay a premium to own it, but if you know how to increase or enhance the advantage you gain, then it is valuable to get control of it. Some ways you can increase the value of competitive advantages you possess via strategy include:

  • deepen the advantage
  • broaden the extent of the advantage
  • create higher demand for advantaged products or services
  • strengthen the isolating mechanisms that block competition

Advantage is deepened by increasing value to the buyer over cost, reducing expenses involved in providing the advantaged product or service, or both. To find ways to reduce costs, start by closely examining how work is being done in provisioning the product or service in question (ie, sources of waste or inefficiency in process).

Extending advantage means using it in new fields and against new competitors. Exploiting a wave of change means adapting your business and organization to where the high ground is shifting to before it can be occupied by others. To recognize industry change, consider these potential forms as guideposts:

  • rising fixed costs, often leading to consolidation
  • deregulation, price fixing and subsidies are eliminated creating “cost chaos”
  • prediction biases, trends and industry change rarely follow expected, smooth patterns but are more random
  • incumbent response, successful firms of the old paradigm will dig in and try to resist change
  • attractor states, think about how the industry “should” work as it moves to a state of higher efficiency

The inertia (unwillingness to change) of rivals can reveal the most effective strategic opportunities. Looking for inertia within your own operation can often result in the same opportunity, if you’re the first competitor to break free of your own orbit! This strategic opportunity is usually centered around renewal and refocus generated by a new guiding policy in a complex organization.

Inertia typically arises due to:

  • routine, firms can insist on playing by old rules in a new game because it worked in the past
  • culture, attitudes and behaviors seen as core to the organization’s identity, often masked by complexity
  • proxy, customer inertia translates into business inertia through still-profitable business lines

In responding to change, don’t make the mistake of building strategies around assumed competencies which aren’t actually present.

Entropy can eat up profitability; de-clutter your organization and operation for increased profitability.

Thinking about thinking

When studying change and theorizing about a response, pay attention to anomalies (situations where experience doesn’t confirm predictions or theories), which represent the frontier of knowledge. Resolving anomalies is where strategic advantage lies.

Improve your diagnosis to improve your strategy. Define problems in need of solutions. Attempt to undermine proposed alternatives to find their weak points. Create a virtual panel of experts and consult with them by imagining what their commentary would be on a specific proposal or circumstance. Pre-commit your judgment in writing to develop the habit of making decisions and not re-rating your analysis after the fact.

Review – Iacocca: An Autobiography (#books, #review, #business)

Review – Iacocca: An Autobiography (#books, #review, #business)

Iacocca: An Autobiography

by Lido “Lee” Iacocca with William Novak, published 1986

What would the world of Big Business look like if it was owned and controlled by rational, intelligent capital allocators?

Before we try answering that question by reviewing a major episode in the business career of Lee Iacocca, let’s take a step back and talk a little bit about that man’s history before he arrived on the stage at that moment.

Iacocca was born to Italian immigrants in the early 1920’s. He lived through the Great Depression as a child and had the good fortune to develop a case of rheumatic fever in his adolescence. In that era, rheumatic fever could be and often was fatal, and frequently led to chronic health problems even after the infection was beat. He was lucky to get it because it resulted in him receiving a medical deferral during WW2. Instead of being blown up over some city in Germany like many of his peers, he worked hard on his studies in high school and college and had the benefit of such small class sizes during his industrial engineering classes at Lehigh University that he practically received a private tutorial for most of his four years.

After graduating from Lehigh, he got an offer to join the Ford Motor Company as one of 50 hand-picked students, but decided to pursue a masters at Princeton after receiving a fellowship. His luck continued when he got invited back to the company upon completing his studies despite the company forgetting it had promised to hold his spot two years earlier and then decided to hire him again anyway even though all the spots were filled.

Despite being hired on as an engineer, Iacocca quickly grew bored with his duties and petitioned for a role in field sales, which he was granted. His big break in the company came a few years later, not due to his engineering prowess but because of a slick local marketing campaign, “56 for ’56”, which was soon adopted nationally and to which the company attributed a big boost in sales. He was promoted incessantly, all the way up to president of the company in 1970, on the heels of a string of other successful promotions including the introduction of the Ford Mustang, Pinto, Escort and Fiesta, the Lincoln Continental Mark III and the revival of the Mercury brand and Cougar car.

If you’re reading this review anytime after 2017 when it was first published, you’re a bit puzzled at this point and don’t understand why you should be impressed with Iacocca. That’s because you have the benefit of hindsight and know how the story ends for these particular product lines and for the American auto industry in general. You also can’t appreciate how stupid sales and finance gimmicks like “56 for ’56” could not only meaningfully move the needle in a massive company’s sales, but could be placed like a laurel wreath on the head of one young man and allow him to propel himself up the ladder all the way to the company presidency. All I can say is it was a different time and America was a different place, and all the horrible stereotypes of the simplicity and innocence of the era seem, sadly, to have been true.

There’s one more bit of the story worth mentioning before we try answering our question. In being nationally-recognized initially, Iacocca was in practice being recognized by Henry Ford II himself, and it was Henry Ford II’s favoritism which allowed him to keep ascending the ranks. Later, like all good auto manufacturers seemingly must do when they find a talented executive with a string of successes accumulating (see the Hyundai/Krafcik saga most recently), Iacocca ended up on Ford’s shitlist and after carrying out a secretive investigation and waging a war of company politics against him for three years aimed at getting him to resign, he finally fired him in 1978.

Rather than being incredibly thankful for the amazing luck he’d had so far in his life and the astounding speed with which he had climbed the corporate ladder due to this initial favoritism, Iacocca developed major sour grapes. His heart filled with hate and disgust and he let Ford’s personal failings as a man become his own. He couldn’t give up and move on with his life and instead signed on to be president of Chrysler, Ford’s 2nd tier competitor, in what he thought would be a major “fuck you!” to Hank the Deuce. Now, here is where the story gets interesting and how we might attempt to answer the question first posed by demonstrating the disaster that is the present state of affairs.

In a chapter called “The Shah Leaves Town”, Iacocca the newly appointed president of Chrysler finds himself in a seeming perfect storm. Already in trouble because of a dysfunctional, hyper-decentralized operating structure, non-existent enterprise-level financial controls, last place product quality, poor sales volume, a debt-heavy balance sheet and out of control expense structure, Chrysler meets the same shocking set of macro events that every other major global auto manufacturer had to contend with at the time period, as well as the US economy in general– the Shah of Iran is deposed, the price of gasoline skyrockets and a terrible recession takes ahold of the US economy.

In response to these circumstances which are truly beyond Chrysler’s control, Iacocca concludes he is forced to:

  • slash major product R&D expenses, further exacerbating their low product quality
  • layoff thousands of plant employees and sales and administrative staff
  • sell off foreign divisions of the company that are deeply in the red
  • sell off the company’s valuable franchise real estate at fire sale prices (and later repurchase it at multiples of said prices)
  • sell off some of the company’s only profitable, “evergreen” divisions, such as its US military tank supplier, because “Chrysler was in the business of selling cars and trucks, not tanks” despite C&T losing millions annually and tanks being guaranteed a $50 million profit annually by the Department of Defense
  • ultimately, going hat in hand to the government begging for $1 billion in loan guarantees to avoid a Chapter 11 bankruptcy based on some whiny logic about “Free enterprise and survival of the fittest, except when my cock is on the chopping block” (paraphrasing)

The chapter is truly astounding in that it reads like a tell-all of a manager’s total incompetence in the face of adversity, doing all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons and still having the nerve to blame bad luck and the government as if the crisis was created in one day and not over a long period of time beforehand. Truly, considering the amazing string of good fortune that Iacocca had over his previous thirty year career with Ford and the jarring inability to think creatively when faced with a headwind, it begs a lot of questions about what of the success he and Ford experienced during his earlier tenure was due to their own genius versus random happenstance.

And it certainly begs a lot of questions about what the hell Chrysler’s board of directors was doing in the decades leading up to these freak events, while the company’s competitive position was eroding, its organization degrading and its risk growing to the point that a devastating calamity was all but inevitable.

That is what is so regretfully consistent about the way these episodes are depicted in books and in the press, whether we’re talking about the fate of one rundown company like Chrysler or the “sudden” onslaught of a national financial panic, like in 2008. To hear the people in charge tell the story, no one could’ve seen it coming and it was all someone else’s fault and due to a unique sequence of shocks that unfortunately all happened at once.

For people with no principles and no real understanding of complex events, such as major corporate failures requiring bailouts/government guarantees, or business cycle busts, these things are always surprising in magnitude and mystical in nature. But for people who read and think deeply about them and can trace the interplay of multiple phenomena over a long time series, another picture develops. Here, we can see that luck has little to do with what results beyond simply tipping over something that was already unbalanced. And actually, it is a series of poor decisions, often made in utter ignorance of what it is that is being decided for or against in each episode, that logically coalesce into a disaster masterpiece as fragility grows with the increasingly complexity of time.

If Iacocca was anything, he was a decent, hard-working salesman and marketer, a promoter, especially of himself. But he knew nothing of risk and how to manage it and gave little thought to managing a sound capital structure and the way all the operational pieces of the puzzle contributed to it, or didn’t– that’s probably why he was always referring to the accountants in the book as “bean counters.” This diminutive phrase for the people whose jobs are to provide an accurate state of the company’s financial health and system and thus allow rational capital allocation to take place in full light of the organization’s risks really tells you all you need to know about why things turned out as they did for Chrysler.

Although Iacocca can’t be blamed entirely for the mess he inherited at Chrysler, his response and strategy for fixing it certainly gives us a place to start in thinking about what not to do when master of a universe like this, and thus how a rational allocator of capital might do differently.

In the first place, a rational capital allocator would not rest on his laurels and allow good times, and especially boom times, to delude himself into thinking that all was well and no drastic improvements could be made in the business’s operations. In fact, this seems like the best time to consider making such decisions, because the company operates from a position of strength and thus will feel, and actually have, the maximum of alternative choices to make. A rational capital allocator would want to avoid at all costs finding themselves in a position where they are trying to decide which assets to dispose of, for example, while the clock is ticking on a debt bomb.

Second, a rational capital allocator would never fool themselves into thinking that the circumstances witnessed today were the consequence of recent events or decisions. Rather, he would look to the past, and further into the past the more complex and the larger in scale the operation in question is, for clues as to where the actual problem originates and therefore what the proper remedy might be.

Third, when faced with a crisis, a rational capital allocator would not rally around emotional identities such as “We’re a car and truck company at heart” but would instead contend with the logic of where profitability lies– if the only division making money is tanks, then it turns out you are in fact a “tank company”, in which case you better make haste in selling off and disposing of all non-tank related divisions, such as cars and trucks. The sub-section to the third point is that before it even got that bad, a rational capital allocator would’ve been asking questions like, “What does making tanks have to do with making cars and trucks, besides freak accidents of history?” and with no reasonable answer to be found, he would’ve worked to separate the capital and reporting structures of these activities long before the crisis struck.

Fourth, the rational capital allocator would realize that debt holders stand in direct opposition to equity holders and could easily set them aside given the right circumstances, and so he would be extremely hesitant to use debt in his capital structure, if at all. He’d also be a bit more eager to pile up cash rather than use it on silly, ego-driven things like acquiring an empire of assets in foreign markets just to be able to make the claim that he is operating a “globally diversified operation.”

Fifth, a rational capital allocator would try to qualify and quantify the major predictable threats to his model and not only manage his operations to them, but have anticipated his own response were such risks to actually manifest themselves. For example, if you run a major auto manufacturing enterprise, some big risks you might keep on the radar would be gas prices (affecting your demand), labor and steel prices (affecting your cost of production) and major geopolitical instability which might impact those primary risks (such as a major oil exporting country becoming politically unstable). Regime change is pretty frequent throughout history, and it’s not like there were no signs the Shah was unpopular in Iran prior to his departure. It should’ve been conceivable to major decision-makers like Iacocca that such events could take place and would have a negative impact on his operations.

3/5

What I Learned Selling My Nintendo Stock (#investing)

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)

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.
How We Plan To Develop The Confidence To Let Our Children Be Free (#parenting, #childhood, #risk)

How We Plan To Develop The Confidence To Let Our Children Be Free (#parenting, #childhood, #risk)

A friend of mine once told me that I would not know true terror until I had had a kid. And he didn’t mean that children were terrible or terrifying– he was talking about the sense of dread one carries around being responsible for another human’s life and security. You invest so much time and energy and concern into your child and it seems so very easy for something to go wrong and snuff it out in one awful instant.

That is why I read with interest a blog on “Free Range Kids” that another friend linked me to a few months ago. The premise of the blog is that helicopter parenting and other approaches to child development and risk management are grossly flawed. The author argues that the risks of accidental death, molestation by sexual predators, etc., are overblown and parents tend to do more harm than good in trying to shield their children from such threats rather than raising them to be conscious of the risks and competent to deal with them on their own. It’s another classic example of the intervention versus interdependence mindset.

Reading the blog got me thinking about my own experiences with navigating childhood risk, and how the Wolf and I might approach this subject with our Little Lion and any other issuance in our line. But first, a quick anecdote.

The Wolf and I live near the ocean, and two weeks ago we went down to an area on the water for a morning dog walk. As we passed by the various docks and inlets, we stopped to admire three young boys (probably about age 10 or 11) sitting in small motor dinghy by the shore, clearly about to begin a fishing expedition. The boys were all wearing life jackets and seemed appropriately attired for a somewhat chilly expedition on the water. One boy was working vigorously to start the uncooperative outboard motor while the other two boys chatted and gave him backseat driver advice. It was a beautiful sight!

There were no adults in sight. In fact, on our little walking path there weren’t even any other passersby at this particular moment. While I don’t KNOW that the boys arranged, dressed and transported themselves to their shared outing, it certainly didn’t look like anyone was responsible for the get together but them. And while ten year olds are not toddlers, they’re still quite immature in many ways, but they seemed to be plenty capable to handle the logistics of a fishing trip, the mechanics of motorized water conveyance and the social grace of maintaining a civil and friendly atmosphere in the confined space of a small boat. And they paid attention to safety, wearing their life jackets even on the tranquil waters of the inlet with no scolding adult nearby to remind them.

Such a sight is common where we live. Many young people enjoy surfing, sailing and other water sports and can often be seen biking themselves down to the water and conducting these kinds of outings with limited or no adult supervision. For many water-born children, especially boys, it is something like a rite of passage to either get permission to use the family watercraft, or to be given a small watercraft of one’s own at a certain stage in one’s youth. In fact, it is one of the very special things about living where we live, that this kind of activity is available to young children and that the local culture seems to support it. The harbor patrol stayed in their berths that morning, like many others, as thankfully the neighbors didn’t feel the need to call the cops on a few kids out to have a good time by themselves.

 

The Wolf and I were quite pleased with this entire thing and thought about it as an ideal for our Little Lion to achieve one day as well. We really admired the (unseen) parents for having the good sense and the trust in their children to simply sleep in and let them do their thing! How would children who can go on a fishing trip on their own at age 10 ever become a burden to themselves, their parents or society?

Still, so much could go wrong! The boys could scald themselves with the hot engine and its liquids. They could shred their hand on an exposed propeller. They could get a fish hook in the eye, or topple over into the water and float out to sea. They could get hit by a larger boat. They could get too cold! I’m being facetious, but it is still scary for me on some level to think about the simple things that could go wrong. Then, I started thinking about my own childhood experiences, and those of my parents.

Growing up in the same community, I didn’t spend much time on the waterfront, but I did manage to have an active and independent play life. I spent a lot of time riding my bike around the neighborhood, sometimes with friends nearby and other times by myself. I liked doing “jumps” off the curb, where a driveway sloped up to meet the angled curb in the street. I also liked riding up on steep driveways and then using the momentum to get speed on the way down, often ending in a “jump”. I played “soldier” with neighborhood kids, army crawling over people’s lawns and through their hedges, which they probably didn’t appreciate but we sure thought was a blast.

One of my best friends growing up lived about three miles away from me, in a part of town that was most easily accessed by riding one’s bike through an unpaved semi-wilderness area. Today, that area has an asphalt-paved trail with hundreds of people on it daily, but back then it was dirt (heavily irregular and eroded by rainfall and drought conditions) mixed with tall grass and flowering weeds, strewn with cactus, patrolled by skunks and other odd wildlife and not well traveled by others. Meaning, if you fell or ran into a “bad guy”, it was unlikely anyone would know about it right away. Yet, I made that 3 mile bike ride once a week, sometimes riding home before dark and other times getting picked up by my parents if it got too late. I never had any problems and they always trusted me to be careful.

In another part of town where this semi-wilderness existed, you could ride your bike around dirt jumps and giant puddles created by the high school kids, avoid homeless bums squatting out in the bush and if you wanted to, ride your bike right off a steep cliff into the ocean below. There were no fences or guardrails at the time, although today it is covered with a housing development and a proper, paved and fenced walking trail. My parents never worried I’d become a casualty, and I never heard of anyone else becoming one. The most regretful thing that happened to any young people growing up was a drunk-driving incident on prom night on the paved curve road in town in which these poor kids flipped their vehicle and many fell out and died or had severe brain trauma.

Thinking about my parents, I know Grandpa Lion was a boy scout. Although boy scouts typically go on their camping expeditions in groups, the act of camping in the wilderness itself is basically an invitation to unnecessary risks that don’t exist back in “civilization”. My dad raced dirt bikes, go carts and other motorized contraptions as a child. I don’t know what Grandma Lion did that was risky for a young girl, but I know her brother tells tales of throwing lit firecrackers at other children and shooting pellet guns across his balcony at his friend next door and vice versa. I certainly wouldn’t condone firing pellet guns, even with eye protection, but the point is that young people seemed to do all kinds of dangerous stuff back then and they managed to survive.

 

When the Wolf and I talk about how we hope to handle our anxiety with our Little Lion, a few themes present themselves again and again. First, the goal we have in mind, as mentioned above, is to give him the opportunity to be trusted and provided resources to explore life on his own or with friends and not to create a paradigm of control and “protection”. Second, our plan is to actively look for opportunities to build his knowledge of risk and measure his awareness and responsiveness to it. In other words, building trust in him, and competence to manage risks he will face, will be an ongoing process learned on a case-by-case basis. Finally, we do not feel comfortable just sending him off into the world and seeing what happens but rather, we will observe his level of maturity and personal capability over time and provide him exposure to settings and circumstances, with our supervision, he seems to be ready for and see how he does. If he demonstrates he’s got it, he earns more leniency, and if he demonstrates he is still figuring it out, we will keep working with him on it until both parties can feel secure that the level of responsibility involved is met by and appropriate level of mastery.

That being said, that mastery is always going to be something he will have to create for himself through a bit of his own risk-taking. He can never know HIS limits if he has ever only had the opportunity to deal with OURS. That’s a fact of life we need to be aware of and learn to accept!

Why Do We Write This Blog?

Why Do We Write This Blog?

A few months ago a friend asked me why we write this blog. They wanted to know if we thought we were an expert or an authority on the subjects we talk about, and thus felt it appropriate to share our views. It’s a good question that I was thinking more about and had been meaning to turn into a blog post in reply. So, here’s why we write this blog.

Not experts or authorities, but popularizers

While our level of study and experience with the primary subject matter of this blog varies from quite intensive to novice, we don’t see ourselves as experts and don’t believe we have any special authority on the subject. We don’t write about things we’re interested in to try to provide an “official” analysis or to convey the idea that we ought to be listened to just because we know what we know. Instead, our goal is only to popularize the ideas that interest us and that we consider important.

We popularize for three reasons. One, it improves our lives if more people are interested in the things we are interested in. Two, we find talking about the things we’re interested in to be entertaining and thus enjoyable in and of itself. And finally, we think we’re good at popularizing.

In our experience, we are typically the “gateway drug” of various ideas in our friend network. In other words, we are the first point of contact for many of our friends, on many subjects, to first learn of the existence of a particular idea. That isn’t because we’re super smart, or super knowledgeable, or they are the opposite– it’s simply because we happen to have eclectic tastes that are often orthogonal to our friends own cultivated interests. And because we’re passionate about what we believe in and find ourselves talking about such things quite frequently, there are many opportunities for our friends and other people we know to get exposed to our ideas.

We haven’t had an original idea, ever, though we’ve synthesized a few good notions by mashing unrelated concepts together. We’re not trying to create a scientific revolution or move humanity forward with an invention. We’re content to merely spread what we think are good ideas to other people. More importantly, we think there are common logical threads woven through the core principles of our most important ideals such that there is a coherence to being interested in all of them simultaneously. We’re interested in showing more people how subjects seemingly as diverse as economics, politics, philosophy, nutrition, corporate governance, parenting and family formation can all be linked together by common ideas.

Part of our family’s inheritance

If we produce a premium product on this blog in terms of a collection of ideas, experiences and opinions which together are valuable, we can do a lot of “work” in terms of human capital for our family, including our children. We can pass this resource on to them not only in their present intellectual endeavors, but to future generations who may come to know us only by the written record we’ve left behind. This blog will serve as part of the treasure of our family and we hope it will provide compound interest all its own!

A research emporium

We read a lot. We ask a lot of questions. We spend a lot of time thinking about the things we become interested in. And we have limited memory with which to serve all of these activities and thoughts. Our blog is an extension of our accumulated memory on various subjects. What’s more, it’s searchable with an algorithm, and it is open to the public. We enjoy contributing to the collective intelligence of humanity in this small way, particularly our own! We are always amazed to look back on something we’ve written about in the past and go, “Oh, so that’s what we think about that subject!” And it makes it easier to answer people’s questions or have a deeper discussion when we can reference our previous thinking to others by linking them to a blog post.

A tool to aid in concrete thinking

The practice of writing one’s thoughts down, particularly for public consumption, focuses the mind. It requires one be more thoughtful about what is essential to the idea. It demands one hone one’s rhetorical blade. It just produces better thinking over all to go through an idea enough to try to explain it to others. Our ideas always get better when we try to write about them. Better thinking means better doing.

And a tool to aid our writing

Of course, practicing writing one’s thoughts also means practicing one’s writing. We think we make improvements in that area by writing this blog as well.

It’s fun!

We think we’re good writers. And we like our own ideas. And we enjoy humoring ourselves with our own thinking. Even if no one else comes by to look at what we’re doing or gaze in awe at our commanding knowledge on certain subjects, we’ll be entertained by looking back on what we wrote.

Review – The Rational Optimist (#books, #optimism, #reason, #evolution, #economics, #development)

Review – The Rational Optimist (#books, #optimism, #reason, #evolution, #economics, #development)

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

by Matt Ridley, published 2011

Why, for the last 300 years, has “everything” been getting better and better in terms of just about any human outcome you can come up with? Human beings are getting better at exchanging ideas and thus generating new and better ideas. In addition, the total stock of life improving ideas humanity can build from is compounding at an increasing rate. The benefits of free exchange extend beyond the economic realm and into the philosophic, and then back again.

The author charts a surprising course through humanity’s shared hunter-gatherer history. He argues that it was economic trade which allowed the division of labor to develop, and the division of labor which allowed for the transition from hunter-gatherer subsistence living to agricultural subsistence, and from there to a compounding of capital and an increasing division of labor and economic specialization that allowed for mankind to finally break free of the Malthusian trap in many parts of the globe (and more every year).

In addition, he says we are never going back. The genie is out of the bottle and rather than the division of labor being fragile, it is far more robust than any social structure yet experienced and gets stronger the more specialized it becomes.

Because of this, and because when surveying history up to this point in the broadest terms possible there is evidence of things getting better and better for more and more people, not the opposite, the author concludes that the rational thing is to be an optimist and expect this trend to continue.

There are several convenient leaps of logic built off flimsy premises that would startle and upset an opponent of markets and industrialized societies, but there is such a preponderance of hard logic and even harder evidence that there isn’t enough here to tip over the apple cart. But the value of this book is less in its rhetorical force for free markets and industrial development and more in its sweeping survey of a number of seemingly unrelated historical data and economic phenomena into a coherent picture of hopefulness about humanity’s future. I found myself joyfully surprised by the idea that in the chicken-egg quandry of agriculture and trade, the author contends that trade came first and produced all the surplus we moderns have enjoyed since then.

Going “back to the land” or seeking out de-urbanized, atomized communities seem to be doomed to bring their proponents a lower standard of living overall, idealizing a past reality that never actually existed or rejecting the very thing (the division of labor) which is necessary to enjoying a desirable standard of living with modern securities and comforts.

3/5