The Free Capital Blog Digest (@guy_thomas, #valueinvesting)

The following is a digest of posts from Guy Thomas’s Free Capital blog from Feb 2011 through Jan 2012.  Each post provides a link to the parent article with bullet-pointed lists of key-takeaways from each. For the complete discussion by the original author, please click the link to the parent article.

How important is analytical intelligence in investing?

  • Equity trading is not as reliant on raw mental strength (IQ, analytical ability) as fixed-income trading; instead, equity trading is more dependent upon mental characteristics such as:
    • Actively seeking information from dis-confirming sources
    • Adjusting for one’s biases
    • Accepting uncertainty for long periods
    • Deferring decisions for as long as possible
    • Calibrating your certainty to the weight of evidence
    • Responding unemotionally to new information
    • Indifference to group affiliation
  • The mental characteristics which are helpful in investing are not universal positives and may be useless or negative characteristics in other endeavors

Max, min and average payoffs

  • Most activities can be categorized as max payoff, min payoff or average payoff
  • Max payoff means the activity is “positive scoring”, your payoff is your highest or best result and failure carries no lasting consequences
  • Optimal traits for max payoff are:
    • high energy
    • irrational optimism
    • persistence
  • Examples of max payoff activities include:
    • selling
    • leadership
    • most sports
  • Min payoff means the activity is negative scoring, your payoff is your lowest result and even a single failure may have lasting consequences
  • Optimal traits for min payoff are:
    • meticulous care
    • good judgment
    • respecting your limitations
  • Examples of min payoff activities include:
    • flying a plane
    • driving a car
    • performing brain surgery
  • Average payoff activities combine elements of both max and min; investing is an average payoff activity, with particular emphasis on the min aspects
  • A lot of success in investing comes from simply avoiding mistakes (min payoff)

Discussion of diversification (posts 1, 2, 3 & 4)

  • Diamonds and flower bulbs
    • Diamonds are companies with exceptional economics and long-term competitive advantages that you’d be happy to hold if the stock exchange closed tomorrow for the next five years
    • Flower bulbs are companies which are cheap at the moment but which have no exceptional business qualities (they often make a good quantitative showing but not a strong qualitative one); they can usually be counted on to bloom but should be bought in modest size because they require liquidity to get back out of the position and realize the value
    • Which should you buy? Diamonds are exceptionally rare and require outstanding foresight of long-term durability; flower bulbs are more common, simpler to spot and merely require patience and a strong stomach
    • “Investing is a field where knowing your limitations is more important than stretching to surpass them”
  • How many shares should an investor hold? Some theory…
    • The optimal number of stocks to hold, N, is a function of…
      • quality of knowledge about return dispersions (decreasing)
      • $ size of portfolio (increasing)
      • volatility of shares (increasing)
      • capital gains tax rate (decreasing)
    • Exceptional investors with exceptional quality of knowledge should hold a concentrated portfolio; Buffett from 1977-2000 appears to have held approx. 1/3 of his portfolio in his best idea and changed it annually
    • With a small portfolio, liquidity is not a concern but as your portfolio scales a large number of holdings becomes optimal to maintain your liquidity which enhances your optionality by giving you the opportunity to change your mind without being trapped in a position
    • If the companies you target have highly volatile share prices, it becomes attractive to switch frequently so that you can “buy low and sell high”, thus you want to restrict your position sizing (higher number of positions) and maintain liquidity
    • If the capital gains rate is high you are penalized for turnover so you want to keep your total number of positions low and hold them for longer
  • How many shares should an investor hold? Some practicalities
    • There is clearly a trade-off between the number of positions you have and your quality of knowledge
    • A portfolio which is higher in diversification may hold many lower quality businesses (flower bulbs) but the certainty of the analysis of each might be significantly higher than a concentrated portfolio of several high quality businesses (diamonds) whose analysis is extremely sensitive to long-term forecasting accuracy
  • Concentrated investors often “come a cropper”
    • Many investors eventually disappoint because they have concentrated their bets on companies the world turns against
    • This has happened even to great investors like Warren Buffett (ex., WaPo, which now looks like a horse-and-buggy investment)
    • The danger of concentration is that nothing grows forever, and concentration + illiquidity often make it hard to escape mistakes

Meeting management

  • Opportunity cost of time: is it better spent speaking to management or investigating other ideas?
  • Getting an edge: sometimes speaking with management helps to understand the picture in a way that gives you an edge
  • Buffett: if you need to talk to management, you shouldn’t own the stock
  • Don’t be schmoozed

Analytics versus heuristics; why I don’t use DCF models

  • Time is precious and DCF models take too long
  • A good buying opportunity shouts at you from the market; if you need a calculator, let alone a spreadsheet, it’s probably too close
  • Robustness is more important than refinement; it’s easy to find apparent discrepancies in valuation, but most are false– it’s more important to seek out independent insights which confirm or deny the discrepancy than to calculate its size; when info quality is good, focus on quantifying and ranking options, but when it is poor, focus on raising it
  • Non-financial heuristics are often quicker and sufficiently accurate to lead to correct decisions; you may make more errors than the rigorous analyst but you can work much faster and evaluate many more opportunities which is usually a good trade-off

A Tale Of Two Kart Tracks (#business, #customerservice)

The following is a talk I gave to a retail sales team on the subject of customer service:

Today I want to share a “Tale of Two Kart Tracks” with you. The two kart tracks are “Simraceway” in Sonoma, CA at the Sonoma Raceway, and “CalSpeed Karting” in Fontana, CA, at the Fontana Auto Club Speedway. I visited Simraceway with some friends a couple weekends ago, and I visited CalSpeed last year with a group of employees across our organization.

First, let’s talk about what it was like to arrive at each facility. At Simraceway, we entered the main gate for the Sonoma Raceway and informed the gate attendant that we were here to do some gokarting. He looked at us with a puzzled expression and admitted he wasn’t sure if there was any karting going on. After going back and forth, he suggested that, if there was a place to do gokarting, it might be inside and up at the top of the hill inside the track, but he emphasized he really didn’t know what we’d find up there.

At the Fontana Speedway, the gate attendant knew exactly where the kart track was, offered us a map and explained where we were on the map and which way to go down the road to get to the kart track without getting lost.

Next, let’s talk about checking in and paying. At Simraceway, we pulled up and parked in a general parking lot and wandered around for a bit trying to figure out, due to poor signage, where we needed to go to get karting. An employee finally noticed us and asked if she could help and then pointed at a shed some ways off from where we were standing as the place to go to buy our race admission. She didn’t seem particularly busy, but she was apparently too busy to escort us. I had seen on the internet that the track was offering a buy 3, get two races free package. When I asked the employee about this, she informed me that she didn’t know about that deal because it “Wasn’t her department.” Please keep in mind that over the course of the day we saw THREE employees total at the track, so this didn’t appear to be a mega corporation. When we made it to the cashier’s booth, the employee on duty seemed frustrated to have to explain the pricing options to us. When we attempted to upsell ourselves on an icy cold beverage in the refrigerator, he seemed confused as to how to process the transaction. He didn’t seem very excited for us to be there doing business with him. Keep this young man in mind because I will say more about him in a bit.

At the Fontana Speedway, we arrived in a clearly demarked holding pen. Uniformed employees came out, greeted us and set our expectations about filling out required paperwork and waiting for the track marshals to be ready to get us for orientation. Everyone smiled and offered their help as we waited. There were about four or five employees just handling checkins for our large group.

When everything was ready and the attendees were assigned to heats w/ separate colored arm bands, we were invited in, one team at a time, to the training room to receive a welcome from the track marshals, who described the kind of karts we’d be driving, the organization of our practice, qualifying and racing sessions, safety standards of the track, flags and signalling on the track and a basic walkthrough of the best line to take on the track. Then, everyone suited up with jumpsuits, headsocks, helmets and neck braces which were in good condition and of a similar brand and style to avoid confusion.

Can you guess how this was handled at Simraceway? There was no orientation. There was no explanation of the karts, of signalling on the track nor of safety. We were shown to a small, dingy closet and left to figure out the equipment on our own. When my friend emerged with a helmet that was clearly too big for his head and shook his head back and forth to show how the helmet swiveled, the track attendant told him it “should be fine.” When I asked what the best line was on the track, the track attendant told me, “I don’t know, I am sure you’ll figure it out.”

We were led outside to our karts and the young man who first took our money. He looked sullen and pointed at the karts we should ride in which were lined up side by side in the pit. I noticed there were just enough karts for our group of 5– what if other customers arrive? I asked, looking at another set of 7 karts pulled off on the gravel. “You’ll probably be the only ones” we were told. We climbed into our karts (without any explanation of the safe way to do so, for kart and driver alike) and then, as we waited for our engines to get started, I chatted with the young man. Did he live around here? Does he like it out here? Etc. He complained, “I have to work 3 jobs right now, one of them is bartending in town. I am really tired.” I took mental note of that.

At CalSpeed, the attitude was fun, but serious. The track marshals demonstrated how to safely climb in and out of the karts. Where not to put hands and feet, at rest or in motion. What to do if they stalled out on the track. We had a group of about 45, and there were enough karts for everyone (3 heats of 15). The track marshals led the teams in the first couple laps out on the track in their own karts to demonstrate a good racing line and how to drive the track. Then we were “off to the races!”

At Simraceway, I asked if the track attendants could help us line up and do an organized start so we could race for position. Despite being their only customers, this seemed like an inconvenient request and after some badgering, the young man finally accepted that if we lined ourselves up as we came down the final straight away, he’d wave a flag to signal the race was on. It wasn’t exactly what you’d call organized, and it didn’t seem like he cared much if we had the experience we wanted. In our 5 races, he didn’t manage to start us the way I had asked even once– and in the first lap of the first race, two of our racers stalled out trying to line up for the final straightaway start.

Needless to say, our small party went off the track and into the dirt, weeds and brambles quite a bit over those 5 races. In each race we had at least one complete stall out where a driver’s kart died on the track and he had to pull off to the side and wait for someone to come out and jump it. On one occassion, that driver was me and my friends completed four or five laps before an attendant got to me, then another 3 while the attendant tried and failed to pull the jump cord (no offense to our female friends, but she just didn’t appear strong enough and somehow was surprised by this fact despite not being able to jump start anyone’s karts in the pits, either). I essentially sat on the outside of the track for half a race! When one of my friends complained about this happening to him and asked for a partial refund, the track attendant first argued and told him “Well, you only missed 5 minutes”… of a 12 minute race! And when he asked to speak to a manager, she got on her walkietalkie right in front of him and made it sound like he was asking for the world and the manager denied the request. Then, when he asked to see the manager in person, she got back on the walkie talkie and the manager could be heard saying, “Alright, just give him $10” It was ridiculous and arbitrary! During each of the 5 races, one driver had to rotate through the kart that we all agreed was slower by half than the other karts– despite my consistently turning over faster lap times in the first four races, I could not make this kart go any faster, which my friends gleefully told me was a sign of my hubris for thinking I could beat them in the “slow kart.”

How was this handled at CalSpeed? Needless to say, there were very few problems to address, because the staff was prepared and they had prepared us in return. Most problems that could’ve occurred, were avoided. And when someone’s kart did become inoperable occassionally, they were promptly moved off the track, returned to the pits and put in a new kart and sent back out into the melee. Simraceway couldn’t even do this because more than half of their karts were in disrepair!! Overall, CalSpeed was extremely accomodating of our needs and wants. We were their “only customers for the day” and they treated us like we were special and created structure and order to our race activities that really enhanced the fun. No one seemed surprised at anything.

The last thing I noticed was about how we left. I noticed a race podium near the cashier shack, but no one on duty ever offered to take our pictures there afterward to commemorate the days events at Simraceway. Instead, our final memory of the place is one of absurdity– after never receiving a safety briefing the entire time we were there, one of my friends was scolded in the pits about some hand movement he had made out on the track because, as the employee said, “Safety is our number one priority here and that just isn’t safe.” She said this as we were climbing out of our karts after the FINAL RACE OF THE DAY. Talk about bad timing!

At CalSpeed, the day was not complete before the top three finishers of each heat were stood up on the podium and cheered by the entire group. Pictures were taken and everyone chattered excitedly about all the fun they had and all the interesting things they learned about racing that day.

What lessons can be learned in comparing these two facilities?

First, let’s consider the value of preparedness. With appropriate levels of trained staff, a fleet of well-maintained karts and an organizational structure for the day, the CalSpeed group demonstrated that they were professionals who expected our business and were prepared to deliver us an excellent experience. At Simraceway, the poorly trained staff, with rundown and inoperable karts and no real racing structure or organization for their services (we were told at various points that our race sessions would be 10, 12 and 15 minutes long… they ended up being about 13 minutes) demonstrated that they were surprised to have customers and not really in a position to serve more than the 5 of us who happened to show up.

Second, let’s consider the value of consistency. From arrival and check in to departure, the smiles, attitudes and helpfulness of the CalSpeed group were consistent. It gave us the sense we working with one team, who loved their jobs and were dedicated to our enjoyment at their facility. It was, of course, just the opposite at Simraceway, where the gate attendant didn’t even know there was karting on site, the track attendants didn’t know their roles only what they weren’t responsible for (apparently, customer service…) and the fun and excitement of karting was always tempered by the disillusionment and cluelessness of the staff serving us.

Third, let’s talk about opportunity. If the people at CalSpeed are working other jobs, I didn’t hear about it. Their sole focus was on the job they had to do right then, in that moment, with us, their customers. They probably don’t have to work other jobs because CalSpeed is a successful operation that keeps them all busy. It is hard to feel sorry for the young man at Simraceway working three jobs to get by. He is standing on top of what Earl Nightengale would call a “Field of Diamonds”, he just doesn’t seem to recognize the opportunity.

In parting, I’d like to ask you to think about the following:

Of these two kart tracks, which do you think is more profitable?
Of these two kart tracks, which do you think has an easier time with marketing and generating new and referral business?
Of these two kart tracks, which do you think has higher customer satisfaction and loyalty?
Of these two kart tracks, which would you rather visit as a paying customer?
Of these two kart tracks, which would you rather work at as an employee?
Of these two kart tracks, which would you be most proud to own?

Final thought: both of these kart tracks are on the grounds of a larger race operation; both have access to the same go kart technology and safety systems; both of these kart tracks have the opportunity to charge the same amount to their customers; both of these kart tracks are in California and both of these kart tracks are selling the same service at the end of the day– the experience of racing with friends.

So what is it that makes these two kart tracks different?

In my mind, the “Tale of Two Kart Tracks” is really “The Tale of Two Attitudes Toward Customer Service.”

Video – Mohnish Pabrai On Forbes (#valueinvesting)

Intelligent Investing with Steve Forbes presents Mohnish Pabrai, managing partner, Pabrai Funds

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • Attitude is the most important attribute of any investor
  • The value investor’s attitude advantage is the ability to wait for the right opportunity
  • “All man’s miseries stem from his inability to sit in a room alone and do nothing” channeling Pascal into an investor appropriate format: “All investment managers’ miseries stem from an inability to sit alone in a room and do nothing”
  • Ideal investment industry: gentlemen of leisure who go about their leisurely tasks and when the world is severely fearful is when they put their leisurely tasks aside and go to work
  • People think entrepreneurs take risk; in reality, they do everything they can to minimize risk– low risk, high return bets
  • Pabrai Funds has a “moat” by mirroring Buffett’s 25% performance after 6% hurdle because it aligns his interests with his clients; total fund expenses are 10-15 basis points, with Pabrai’s salary and staff paid for out of performance fees
  • Shorting makes no sense because maximum upside is a double and maximum downside is bankruptcy
  • Do not talk to company management because they are high charisma sales people and will pitch you on optimism, not realism
  • Big fan of the Checklist Manifesto, has a checklist of 80 items he looks over before making an investment
  • Pioneers are the people who get filled with arrows