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 – 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

The Greatest Time To Build A Fortune Is Now (#investing, #wealth)

From Is Value Investing Broken? by Geoff Gannon:

There’s a tendency for people – people of any time – to see the time they live in as unique, dangerous, different, unlike any other age. In some ways, they are always right. Some things really are different this time from all other times. But, mostly, they’re wrong. And what they are wrong about is reading a golden age of stability into the past. I was talking with a value investor once and this value investor said that sure Ben Graham’s ideas worked in Ben Graham’s times. But Ben Graham invested in simpler times.

Here are the times Ben Graham invested in: the 1910s through the 1950s. He invested during Two World Wars, the start of the Cold War, the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the U.S. and then the testing of nuclear weapons by other countries, The Great Depression, a big explosion (reportedly a terrorist bombing) on Wall Street, and the longest shut down of trading in Wall Street history that I can remember at least (right as World War One started). People talk about political risk today. Political risk in Ben Graham’s time meant Marxists and Fascists. Investors saw hyperinflation in Germany after the war and then they saw deflation after the 1929 crash. These were not simple times. If you go back and read the newspapers from the time – you can see how not simple they were.

Now, yes, they were different from today in some ways. Much of the period investors and economists in the U.S. study were more regulated than today. So, you either had the Gold Standard or Bretton Woods. You had much greater belief in planned and insular economies in a lot of countries. With the benefit of hindsight – and seeing the entire sweep of history – many of these decades seem simple to us. They rarely were. Try to find a decade without too much inflation, too much deflation, too much war, the mania of some bubble, or the bursting of that bubble. At any point in that past, people could have believed value investing was dead. And yet, buy and hold investors – business owners and the like – have been compounding fortunes in the U.S. from the 1800s through today. If there are companies that can make founders and their families billionaires – there are companies that can make shareholders very rich if they buy and hold.

Review – The Intelligent Investor (#investing, #review, #books)

The Intelligent Investor: A Book Of Practical Counsel; The Definitive Book On Value Investing

by Benjamin Graham, published 1973, 2003, 2006

All you need to know about intelligent investing

Graham’s layman’s manual for thoughtful investing in common stocks and bonds is a long book, chock full of useful theory and wisdom-gained-by-experience as well as numerous “case studies” which serve to illustrate Graham’s points. While it’s all worth considering, the truth is that certain parts of the book shine more brightly than others and, following the 80/20 principle, are clearly more valuable overall.

Starting out

The Intelligent Investor is of course a practical guide to sound investment, but it is also a work of philosophy. Buried throughout the book are invaluable caveats that are easy to overlook yet deserve to get full billing because they can spare an amateur a lot of headaches down the road. In the book’s introduction, there are two such provisos quite nearby one another, the first being,

be prepared to experience significant and perhaps protracted falls as well as rises in the value of [your] holdings

and the second being,

while enthusiasm may be necessary for great accomplishments elsewhere, on Wall Street it almost invariably leads to disaster

Subtle, but profound, these two warnings are Graham’s opening salvo on the subject of investor psychology, or more accurately, the investor’s own psychology. It will be a common thread running throughout TII— your biggest risk in investing is yourself and your psychological reaction to events impacting your portfolio.

Translating the first message, Graham is trying to gird the investor for the inevitabilities of the market, where volatility is constant in both directions. The key, as you will see, is to master volatility by recognizing that the upward variety is not necessarily proof of a good decision and the downward variety is not punishment but an opportunity to buy at bargain prices.

The second message is even more important– successful investing requires an even-keeled temperament and reasonable expectations about long-term success. The game is about expecting little and learning to be pleasantly surprised, rather than expecting a lot and constantly being disappointed. Most of your fellow market participants are excitable folks and their optimistic expectations will work with yours to crowd out any chance at realizing value, while you’ll always have plenty of room to maneuver on your own if you seek out the waters everyone of which everyone else has become bored.

The last warning is to be consistent and disciplined, to never abandon your principles in dire times because that is in fact when they become most valuable:

Through all their vicissitudes and casualties, as earth-shaking as they were unforeseen, it remained true that sound investment principles produced generally sound results

This is again a psychological appeal. When everyone else is losing their shirts, and their minds, forgetting what they’re doing and why, it will pay the long-term investor great dividends to be mindful of who he is and by what principles he invests as his conservatism is always in due time rewarded.

Security analysis 101

While the best treatment of Graham’s principles of security analysis are given in great detail in his treatise of the same name, Security AnalysisThe Intelligent Investor does come with several basic recommendations on how to perform basic security analysis for issues under consideration for inclusion in one’s portfolio.

Bond analysis

The key to bond investing is interest coverage, as without it a bond is in default and its principal value is imperiled. Therefore, the primary analytical factor is the number of times total interest charges have been covered by available earnings in years past. Typically two values are consulted:

  1. average coverage for a period of years (7)
  2. minimum coverage in the poorest year

Graham recommends 4x for public utilities, 5x for transportation companies, 7x for industrials and 5x for retail concerns, before income taxes on an average of 7 years basis, and 3x, 4x, 5x and 4x, respectively, measured by the poorest year.

On an after-tax basis, Graham recommends 2.65x for public utilities, 3.2x for transportation companies, 4.3x for industrials, and 3.2x for retail companies on an average of 7 years basis, and 2.1x, 2.65x, 3.2x and 2.65x, respectively, measured by the poorest year.

Additional factors for consideration are:

  1. size of the enterprise – something large and robust, so that depletions in revenue do not imperil the business as a whole
  2. equity ratio – the market price of equity versus the total debt, which shows the amount of “cushion” for losses standing in front of the debt
  3. property value – this is the asset value on the balance sheet, though “experience has shown that in most cases safety resides in the earning power”

Stock analysis

Some basic principles of stock selection and analysis are considered in more detail below, based upon whether one is determined to be a defensive or an enterprising investor. For now, it is sufficient to quote Graham on the subject in the following manner:

The investor can not have it both ways. He can be imaginative and play for the big profits that are the reward for the vision proved sound by the event; but then he must run a substantial risk of major or minor miscalculation. Or he can be conservative, and refuse to pay more than a minor premium for possibilities as yet unproved; but in that case he must be prepared for the later contemplation of golden opportunities for gone

In essence, Graham is outlining the philosophy of “growth” versus “value” investing and stock analysis– attempting to forecast the future, or being content one is not paying too much for what he’s got based on an assessment of the past.

Keeping the shirt you have: the defensive investor

In Graham’s mind, there are two kinds of investors– the defensive investor, who is passive and seeks primarily to protect his capital, and the enterprising investor, who treats his investing like a professional business and expects similarly profitable results for his efforts. First, let’s talk about the defensive investor.

The defensive investor must confine himself to the shares of important companies with a long record of profitable operations and in strong financial condition

Specifically, Graham lists 4 criteria for selecting common stocks for the defensive investor’s portfolio:

  1. diversification – minimum of 10, maximum of 30 separate issues
  2. standing – companies which are large, prominent and conservatively financed (over $10B mkt cap and in the top third or quarter of their industry by market share or some other competitive metric)
  3. dividends – a long record of continuous payments
  4. price – no more than 25x avg earnings of past 7 yrs, nor 20x LTM earnings

Additionally, Graham warns against excessive trading or portfolio turnover:

if his list has been competently selected in the first instance, there should be no need for frequent or numerous changes

Graham also defines risk early on, saying,

the risk attached to an ordinary commercial business is measured by the chance of its losing money

and that further, a defensive investor should never compromise their standards of safety and quality in order to “make some extra income.” Safety first, income/returns second, or you’re likely to wind up with neither in the long run.

In terms of selecting individual stocks for the defensive investor’s portfolio, Graham suggests 7 criteria:

  1. adequate size of enterprise – generally speaking, small companies are excluded and medium size companies are included if their market/industry position is robust
  2. sufficiently strong financial condition – 2:1 current ratio, and LT debt < net current assets (working capital)
  3. earnings stability – some earnings for the common stock in each year over the past decade
  4. dividend record – uninterrupted payments for the past 20 years
  5. earnings growth – minimum of 1/3 increase in per-share earnings in the past ten years using three year average at the beginning and end
  6. moderate P/E – no more than 15x avg earnings of past 3 years
  7. moderate P/A – price should be < 150% of TBV, though may be higher if earnings multiplier is below 15, never to be greater as a combined ratio than 22.5 ( P/E * P/B <= 22.5)

The purpose is to eliminate companies which are: too small, with a weak financial position, with earnings deficits or with inconsistent dividend histories. In general, these factors should combine to create a stock portfolio which, in the aggregate, has an earnings yield (earnings/price) at least as high as the current high-grade bond rate.

At all times, remember that the defensive investor is

not willing to accept the prospects and promises of the future as compensation for a lack of sufficient value in hand

and that, generally speaking, rather than emphasizing the “best” stocks,

let him emphasize diversification more than individual selection

Making more and better shirts: the enterprising investor

Like the defensive investor, Graham counsels the enterprising investor to think firstly of not losing what they’ve got. But in this sense, the enterprising investor has a new tool in his kit that expands his realm of possible investment options while still maintaining safety of principal– the search for “bargain” priced opportunities, the idea here being that the price being offered for a security is a steep discount (generally 30% or greater) than the indicated “intrinsic” or underlying value of the security itself based upon its asset or earnings power fundamentals (with any luck, both).

About bonds and preferred stocks, Graham suggests that preferreds never be bought without at least a 30% discount, and a similar discount on a high-yield bond. More importantly,

experience clearly shows that it is unwise to buy a bond or preferred which lacks adequate security merely because the yield is attractive […] it is bad business to accept an acknowledged possibility of a loss of principal in exchange for a mere 1 or 2% of additional yearly income

About IPOs, Graham says to never touch them, however, busted IPOs can present interesting opportunities later on down the line:

Some of these issues may prove excellent buys– a few years later, when nobody wants them and they can be had at a small fraction of their true worth

With regards to selecting equity securities, Graham lays out three “recommended fields” for enterprising investors:

  1. large cap contrarianism
  2. “bargain” issues
  3. special situations

Digging in further, let’s take a closer look at large cap contrarianism. The idea here is to focus on companies that are well-known but are currently experiencing an earnings hiccup or some other negative news or general investor boredom that leaves them unpopular and trading at a lower than average multiple. The value in these companies are that,

they have the resources in capital and brain power to carry them through adversity and back to a satisfactory earnings base [and] the market is likely to respond with reasonable speed to any improvement shown

A good example of this principle in practice would be a situation such as buying well-known, large cap companies whose shares had strongly sold off during the financial panic of late 2008, early 2009.

According to Graham, a bargain issue is one in which the indicated value is 50% higher than the current price. Bargains can be detected one of two ways, either by estimating future earnings potential and applying an appropriate multiple and comparing this to current trading price for shares, or else by studying the value of the business for a private owner, which involves particular emphasis on the value of the assets (or the tangible book value of the shares).

For an earnings-based bargain, Graham adds some further criteria, such as:

he should require an indication of at least reasonable stability in earnings over the past decade or more — ie, no year of earnings deficit — plus sufficient size and financial strength to meet possible setbacks in the future

with the ideal being a large, prominent company selling below its past average price and P/E multiple.

Special situations encapsulate a range of investment activities, from liquidations (workouts), to hedging and merger arbitrage activities. While Graham sees this area as one offering special rewards to dedicated and knowledgeable investors, he advises that the trend is one towards increasing professionalization and thus even the enterprising investor is best to leave this area alone unless he has special confidence and competence in the area.

Of special emphasis is the idea of focus and dedication, that is to say, one is either an enterprising investor or a defensive one, but not some of both:

The aggressive investor must have a considerable knowledge of security values– enough, in fact, to warrant viewing his security operations as equivalent to a business enterprise. There is no room in this philosophy for a middle ground, or a series of gradations, between passive and aggressive status. Many, perhaps most, investors seek to place themselves in such an intermediate category; in our opinion that is a compromise that is more likely to produce disappointment than achievement

When considering individual stock selections for the enterprising investors portfolio, Graham reminds the reader that

Extremely few companies have been able to show a high rate of uninterrupted growth for long periods of time. Remarkably few, also, of the larger companies suffer ultimate extinction

To the last point, it is fascinating to see in the footnote commentary by Jason Zweig how many of Graham’s various example companies used throughout the book disappeared not due to bankruptcy, but because they were at some point acquired and absorbed wholesale into the operations of another business.

Several categories of equity selection stand out as particularly valuable for the enterprising investor in Graham’s eyes:

  1. arbitrages – purchase of one security and simultaneous sale of one or more other securities into which it is to be exchanged under a plan of reorganization, merger or the like
  2. liquidations – purchase of shares which are to receive one or more cash payments in liquidation of the companies assets; should present a minimum of 20% annual return w/ 80% probability of working out or higher
  3. related hedges – purchase of convertible bonds or convertible preferred shares and simultaneous sale of the common stock into which they are exchangeable
  4. NCAV – 2/3 or less of net current asset value (current assets – TOTAL liabilities); portfolios should have wide diversification, often of 100 securities or more, and require patience
  5. contrarian cyclical investing – buying important cyclical enterprises when the current situation is unfavorable, near-term prospects are poor and the low price fully reflects the current pessimism

Graham also recommended a special set of 5 criteria for selecting “bargain” issues of small or less well-known enterprises, which can be generated from lists from a stock guide or a stock screen beginning with companies trading for a P/E multiple of 9 or less:

  1. financial condition – current ratio of 1.5:1 and debt <= 110% of working capital
  2. earnings stability – no deficit in the last five years
  3. dividend record – some current dividend
  4. earnings growth – last year’s earnings greater than 5 years ago
  5. price – less than 120% of TBV

Graham notes that diversity is key to safety in these operations and such companies should be bought on a “group basis”.

A balancing act: the portfolio

As a broad strategic principle, Graham recommended that defensive and enterprising investors alike seek to allocate a minimum of 25% and a maximum of 75% of their portfolio into stocks and the remaining amount into bonds. In most cases, an even 50-50 split is recommended. The rule of thumb used to guide allocations above or below 50% is that, as the investor determines the “general price level” of the market to be higher than is prudent, he should allocate toward 75% bonds and 25% stocks, whereas when he determines this price level to be much lower than is reasonable (say, in the midst of a bear market), he should allocate toward 75% stocks and 25% bonds.

As Graham says on page 197,

the chief advantage, perhaps, is that such a formula will give him something to do

Remember, you are your biggest risk. Graham was concerned that without “something to do”, an investor might “to do” his portfolio to death with over activity, over-thought or over-worry.

This is a useful insight, but is Graham’s portfolio balancing technique still valid in today’s era of higher inflation risks?

Without stepping on the maestro’s toes too much in saying this, my thinking is that it is increasingly less valid. As Graham himself warns throughout the book, bonds provide no protection against inflation and, while inflation is not “good” for stocks in real terms, the ability to participate in increased earnings is at least better than having a fixed coupon payment in an inflationary environment.

In this sense, an allocation toward 100% stocks makes more sense, assuming we are entering a period of protracted inflationary pressures such as we are.

That being said, Graham’s warning about having something to do is still worth considering. Having kicked the legs out from under the “rebalancing act(ivity)”, perhaps a good substitute would be a continual turning over of rocks in the search for new investment ideas for the enterprising investor. For the defensive investor, the best course of action may be to enjoy the benefits of doing something through dollar-cost averaging, that is, making a little bit of his total intended investment each month or quarter rather than all at once. Another idea might be to allocate 10 or 15% of his portfolio into a MMF or equivalent when he feels the market is rising beyond prudent levels. But the thing that has never sat right with me about Graham’s reallocation technique is that, while in principle it makes sense, in practice it comes down to base attempts at market-timing that always end up generating unsatisfactory results.

Better to focus on Graham’s other major portfolio strategy tenet, which is diversification. Graham is a supporter of diversification for defensive and enterprising investors alike, mostly because it can serve to shield them from their own ignorance or over-enthusiasm. More specifically, many of Graham’s favored techniques (such as special situations, net-nets and bargain securities), while bearing overall pleasing risk/reward balances, nevertheless never bring certainty of either one and for this reason he believes developing a diversified portfolio of such opportunities is the best way for an investor to protect themselves from permanently losing a large part of their capital on one idea.

Saving the best for last: Mr. Market and the Margin of Safety concept

Mr. Market-mania

Markets are made up of people, and people are emotionally volatile. As a result, financial markets are volatile as well. While the vast majority of the time prices tend to move slightly above and slightly below an established trend line, at other times they can swing wildly off course in either direction:

the investor may as well resign himself in advance to the probability rather than the mere possibility that most of his holdings will advance, say, 50% or more from their low point and decline the equivalent one third [ X * 1.5 * .66 = ~X] or more from their high point at various periods in the next five years

Graham also warns against what might be termed the Paradox Of Market Goodwill:

The better a company’s record and prospects, the less relationship the price of its shares will have to their book value. But the greater the premium above book value, the less certain the basis of determining its intrinsic value–ie, the more this “value” will depend on the changing moods and measurements of the stock market

In Graham’s mind, the solution is to

concentrate on issues selling at a reasonably close approximation to their tangible-asset value– say, at not more than one-third above that figure [130% of TBV]

as a general principle of careful investing for the defensive investor. But there is more. Graham represents additional criteria based on the consideration of the firm’s earnings power, outlining what value-blogger Nate Tobik of Oddball Stocks likes to call the “two pillar” method:

A stock does not become a sound investment merely because it can be bought at close to its asset value. The investor should demand, in addition, a satisfactory ratio of earnings to price, a sufficiently strong financial position, and the prospect that its earnings will at least be maintained over the years

In terms of mastering an investor’s own psychology when facing the market, asset values reign supreme, however, because

the investor with a stock portfolio having such book values behind it can take a much more independent and detached view of stock-market fluctuations than those who have paid high multipliers of both earnings and tangible assets. As long as the earnings power of his holdings remains satisfactory, he can give as little attention as he pleases to the vagaries of the stock market. More than that, at times he can use these vagaries to play the master game of buying low and selling high

By Graham’s reasoning, buying a stock close to book value puts him in the same position as an individual offered an opportunity to buy into a private business’s book. Because he has paid a fair, businessman’s price, he doesn’t have to worry about what someone else thinks of his ownership stake, only the operating performance and financial strength of his chosen enterprise.

From a psychological standpoint, it is the high ground and much sought after.

But what is this “master game” of which Graham speaks? It is nothing more than the most masterly metaphor of the entire investing world, Mr. Market.

The idea of Mr. Market is that of a manic depressive business partner who on any given day may offer to buy your stake in the joint business for far more than you think it’s worth, or to sell you his stake for far less than you think it’s worth. The key to taking advantage of Mr. Market is to avoid trying to guess and anticipate why his mood ever suits him, instead relying on your own judgment and thinking about the value of the underlying enterprise regardless of Mr. Market’s various mood swings.

It’s worth quoting Graham at length on this subject:

The true investor scarcely ever is forced to sell his shares, and at all other times he is free to disregard the current price quotation. He need pay attention to it and act upon it only to the extent that it suits his book, and no more. Thus the investor who permits himself to be stampeded or unduly worried by unjustified market declines in his holdings is perversely transforming his basic advantage into a basic disadvantage. That man would be better off if his stocks had no market quotation at all, for he would then be spared the mental anguish caused him by other persons’ mistakes of judgement

Further:

the existence of a quoted market gives the investor certain options that he does not have if his security is unquoted. But it does not impose the current quotation on an investor who prefers to take his idea of value from some other source [such as his own study of the fundamentals]

[…]

price fluctuations have only one significant meaning for the true investor. They provide him with an opportunity to buy wisely when prices fall sharply and to sell wisely when they advance a great deal. At other times he will do better if he forgets about the stock market and pays attention to his dividend returns and to the operating results of his companies

In other words, once you have made your investment, the only value of further quotations is to be appraised of another opportunity to buy (if prices decline sharply from that point) or of an opportunity to sell at a profit (if prices rise sharply from that point).

The rest of the time, you can judge the soundness of your decision by studying whether the operating performance of the business plays out according to your expectations. If the underlying business performs as you anticipated over a long period of time, you only need wait for the market to recognize your good judgment. However, if the business steadily deteriorates in a surprising fashion, you may have a basis upon which to second-guess your original judgment. But a falling stock market price would not be the primary indicator in such a situation, nor would a rising one signal you have done well.

Margin of Safety, the central concept of investment

The intellectual principle of the margin of safety involves “inverting” a stock and thinking about it like a bond.

The margin of safety for bonds may be calculated, alternatively, by comparing the total value of the enterprise with the amount of debt

For example, if a business owes $X, but is valued at $3X, the business could shrink by 2/3rds before imperiling the position of the debt holders.

Similarly,

when a company has outstanding only common stock that under depression conditions is selling for less than the amount of bonds that could safely be issued against its property and earning power

the common stock can be considered to enjoy a margin of safety as large as that of a good bond.

Broadly, margin of safety can be thought of as the consistent earnings power of the equity, wherein

the margin of safety lies in an expected earning power considerably above the going rate for bonds

A proxy measure here would be to look at the earnings rate, or earnings yield (earnings/price) and compare this to the going rate on a similar bond.

Another, more general way to think about Margin of Safety is that it is the difference between how much you pay for something versus the calculated intrinsic value you determine that thing to have. In this sense, the Margin of Safety is always price dependent and will be higher at lower prices and lower at higher prices, relatively speaking.

And the Margin of Safety works in tandem with the principle of diversification:

Even with a margin in the investor’s favor, an individual security may work out badly. For the margin guarantees only that he has a better chance for a profit than for a loss– not that loss is impossible. But as the number of such commitments is increased the more certain does it become that the aggregate of the profits will exceed the aggregate of the losses. That is the simple basis of the insurance-underwriting business

The emphasis is always on finding an adequate margin of safety in order to protect your principal because if you do that, the returns will tend to take care of themselves:

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

Special note on market-timing

There isn’t much more to it than this:

if he places his emphasis on timing, in the sense of forecasting, [the investor] will end up as a speculator and with a speculator’s financial results

In case you’re wondering, that’s a bad thing in Graham’s mind because he is convinced that all but the most talented and luckiest speculators lose out in the end because they do not pay attention to safety of principal.

5/5

 

Notes – The Intelligent Investor Commentary By Jason Zweig (@jasonzweigwsj, #valueinvesting, #bengraham)

The Intelligent Investor

by Benjamin Graham, Jason Zweig, published 1949, 2003

The Modern Day Intelligent Investor

The following note outline was rescued from my personal document archive. The outline consists of a summary of the end-chapter commentary written by Jason Zweig. Zweig did such a good job of reviewing Graham’s lessons in each chapter and practically applying them that I find you can get most of the major principles of The Intelligent Investor by reading the combined commentary chapters as if they were a standalone investment book.

Of course, Graham’s original work is a classic in the value investing tradition and it should be read and savored on its own, as well.

Chapter 1, JZ commentary

  1. What is investing?
    1. You must thoroughly analyze a company, and the soundness of its underlying businesses, before you buy its stock
    2. You must deliberately protect yourself against serious losses
    3. You must aspire to “adequate”, not extraordinary, performance
  2. How to invest
    1. An investor calculates what a stock is worth, based on the value of the underlying business
    2. A speculator gambles that a stock will go up in price because somebody will pay even more for it
    3. You should be comfortable owning the underlying business even if you couldn’t get timely, regular quotes of its market price
    4. Price is what the business is selling for, not what it’s worth. Value is what the business is worth. Money is sometimes made in the arbitraging of the two, but price does not dictate value; in the long-term, value dictates price
  3. Limit your risk
    1. Never mingle speculative accounts and investment accounts
    2. Never allow your speculative thinking to spill over into your investing activities
    3. Never put more than 10% of your assets into your “mad money” account

Chapter 2, JZ commentary

  1. Stocks have not had a perfect record of keeping up with inflation, as measured by the CPI
  2. 20% of the 5year periods from 50s today in which inflation dominated saw falling stocks
  3. Two strategies for branching out beyond stocks during inflation:
    1. REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts)
    2. TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities)
      1. IRS considers an increase in TIPS value to be taxable income

Chapter 3, JZ commentary

  1. “By the rule of opposites, the more enthusiastic investors become about the stock market in the long run, the more certain they are to be proved wrong in the short run.”
  2. The stock market’s performance depends on three factors:
    1. real growth in earnings and dividends
    2. inflation(-expectations) within the general economy
    3. speculative appetite for stocks/risk (increase/decrease)
  3. In the long run, you can reasonably expect stocks to average a 6% nominal return, 4% real return (with inflation calculated at 2% historical rate)
  4. Be humble about your ability to forecast future stock returns– don’t risk too much on a forecast that could turn out to be wrong.

Chapter 4, JZ commentary

  1. Two kinds of intelligent investors:
    1. active/enterprising – continual research, selection and monitoring of a dynamic mix of stocks, bonds or mutual funds (intellectually/physically demanding)
    2. passive/defensive – create a permanent portfolio that runs on autopilot and requires no further effort but generates very little excitement (emotionally demanding)
  2. How to allocate amongst stocks and bonds for defensive investors?
    1. “Age” is arbitrary and pointless
    2. Instead, consider the fundamental circumstances of your life and the financial needs you’ll have for the foreseeable future
    3. For the aggressive investor, 25% in bonds and cash, 75% in stocks
    4. For the defensive investor, 25% in stocks and 75% in bonds and cash
    5. Rebalancing should be done on a predictable, disciplined basis– not when the market dictates, but when the “calendar” or schedule does
  3. Income investing (bond choices)
    1. Taxable or tax free? Choose tax free (municipal) unless you are in the lowest income bracket
    2. Short-term or long-term? Intermediate term bonds of 5-10yrs allow you to avoid the guessing game and see-saw risks of short and long-term bonds
    3. Bonds or bond funds? Unless you have a lot of capital to make minimum purchases, probably more cost effective to buy a bond fund
    4. Watch out for preferred stock, the worst of both worlds
      1. Secondary claim on assets in bankruptcies (junior to bonds)
      2. Offer less potential profit than common equity because they are often forcibly called by businesses when interest rates drop or credit ratings improve
      3. Companies can not deduct the interest payments like they can with bond issuance, ask yourself, “Why would a company that is healthy issue preferred rather than bonds?” Answer is, probably because they aren’t healthy
    5. Sometimes, stocks can offer competitive yields with Treasuries, which can increase income yield while raising potential return (as well as increasing potential risk of loss)

Chapter 5, JZ commentary

  1. Markets are least risky after a crash, most risky at the top
  2. Should you buy what you know? Psychological studies say that we tend to discount risk inappropriately when we feel we are experts on something due to familiarity
  3. Dollar-cost averaging can be a disciplined way to force oneself to invest through bear and bull markets

Chapter 6, JZ commentary

  1. Junk bonds
    1. Graham warned against them because they were difficult to diversify away the risks of default; today, many junk bond funds exist which allow an investor to diversify
    2. While junk bonds have outperformed 10yr UST even with historical default rates factored in, many junk bond funds charge high fees which reduces their appeal
  2. Emerging market bonds
    1. Typically not correlated with US equity markets
    2. Restrict holdings in bond portfolio to 10% (published 2003)
  3. Day trading
    1. The increased transaction costs of day trading is a surefire way to bomb a portfolio
    2. Day trading raises transaction costs to the point where returns must be beyond what one could reasonably expect to make with a conservative estimation of returns, just to break even
  4. IPOs
    1. Most people who have bought-and-held IPOs have been decimated over time
    2. Hard to find value in the mania buying of an IPO
    3. The public excitement of an IPO often leads investors to forget about valuing the underlying business; many investors have paid ridiculous sums for businesses that were not profitable and never had a chance of being profitable
    4. “It’s Probably Overpriced”

Chapter 7, JZ commentary

  1. Market timing is essentially a fools errand: Life can only be understood looking backwards, but it is lived forwards.
  2. Growth stocks– the faster the companies grow, the higher goes their stock multiples
    1. A $1B company can double its business fairly easily, but how will a $50B company double itself?
    2. A great company is not a great investment if you pay too much for it
    3. When growth companies expand beyond 25-30 times earnings, they’re expensive and should not be bought
    4. One way growth companies could become temporarily attractive is when they suffer a setback or disclosure of upsetting information, creating “the relatively unpopular large company.”
  3. Most great fortunes in the world are made through concentration into one industry or business idea; similarly, most great fortunes are lost this way as well
    1. Because markets are sometimes cyclical, people who got rich in one industry as it boomed will likely lose their fortunes in that same industry when it busts
  4. Bargain hunting for stocks can be a winning strategy; consider stocks that are selling at or for less than their net working capital (Current Assets – Total Liabilities, including preferred stock and long-term debt)
    1. One way to quickly find these stocks can be to search for companies that have recently hit new lows for the past 52 weeks
  5. Diversifying outside the US (or home market) is adviseable because national economies suffer booms and busts as well as specific industries do
    1. If you had been Japanese in 1989, you would probably think it foolish to invest in America; however, you would lose 2/3 of your equity value over the ensuing decade as a result
    2. The country that you live and work in is already a multilayered bet on the economic prospects of that country’s economy; buying foreign stocks (including emerging markets) provides insurance against the possibility that your home market might be a laggard

Chapter 8, JZ commentary

  1. Do not let the movement of Mr. Market, up or down, affect your decision on whether to buy or sell a particular company or stock at a particular time
    1. Don’t buy just because the market is going up
    2. Don’t sell just because the market is going down
  2. Graham: “The primary cause of failure is that they pay too much attention to what the stock market is doing currently.”
  3. Investing intelligently is about controlling the uncontrollable
    1. your brokerage costs
    2. your ownership costs (mutual fund fees)
    3. your expectations (keep them reasonable)
    4. your risk (how much of your total assets do you put into each investment)
    5. your tax bills (short vs. long term cap gains)
    6. your own behavior
  4. “To be an intelligent investor, you must also refuse to judge your financial success by how a bunch of total strangers are doing”
    1. You haven’t lost if everyone else has won
    2. You haven’t won if everyone else has lost
    3. Focus on your own absolute performance
  5. Remember: market quotations are what other people think the value of a stock is– not what the true value of the stock is in relation to underlying intrinsic value
  6. Selling into a bear market can occasionally make sense in relation to taking a realized loss for tax purposes; consult a tax professional before doing so

Chapter 9, JZ commentary

  1. The pitfalls of mutual funds:
    1. avg fund does not pick stocks well enough to overcome the costs of researching and trading them
    2. the higher a fund’s expenses, the lower its returns
    3. the more frequently a fund trades, the less it tends to earn
    4. highly volatile funds tends to stay volatile
    5. funds with high past returns are unlikely to remain winners for long
  2. Why don’t more winning funds stay winners?
    1. migrating managers; top mgrs get picked off by higher paying companies or go on to start their own funds
    2. asset elephantitis; when a fund is too large, it reduces the types and size of investments it can possibly make, reducing its nimbleness
    3. no more fancy footwork; many fund “incubate” before going public and whatever advantages they had during incubation are generally lost afterward, yet they use the incubation period performance to promote the fund
    4. rising expenses; it often costs more to trade in size than to trade smaller because markets become illiquid when trading in size
    5. sheepishness/herding; fund mgrs who have been successful and attract higher fees grow accustomed to these fees and their reputation and don’t want to take any risks that might jeopardize either one, so they trade like other fund mgrs
  3. The solution for the individual investor is boring, low cost index funds– they won’t beat the market, but they won’t get beaten by it either
  4. How to pick good mutual funds?
    1. managers should be the biggest shareholders
    2. they should be cheap/low fee; high returns are temporary, high fees are permanent
    3. they should be run creatively and “dare to be different”
    4. they shut the door before they get too big
    5. they don’t advertise much if at all
  5. Expense fee guidelines:
    1. taxable and muni bonds, .75%
    2. US equities, 1%
    3. high-yield bonds, 1%
    4. US equities (small stocks), 1.25%
    5. foreign equities, 1.5%
  6. When to sell a mutual fund?
    1. a sharp and unexpected change in strategy
    2. an increase in expenses
    3. large and frequent tax bills (caused by excessive trading)
    4. suddenly erratic returns (big gains or big losses)

Chapter 11, JZ commentary

  1. Five decisive elements for determining price multiples
    1. the company’s “general long-term prospects”
      1. Warning flags
        1. the company is a serial acquirer, gaining revenues and profit growth through the acquisition of other businesses
        2. the company is addicted to OPM and is continually floating debt or issuing new stock
          1. cash from operating activities negative, while cash from financing activities positive, on a general or recurring basis, means the company is not profitable in its own line of industry
        3. the company relies on one or only a handful of important customers to generate a significant share of its revenues and profits
      2. Positives in company analysis
        1. the company has a wide “moat” to competition
          1. brand identity
          2. monopoly or near-monopoly
          3. economies of scale
          4. unique intangible asset
          5. resistance to substitution
        2. the company is a marathoner, not sprinter
          1. revenues and income should grow steadily, not in spurts
          2. less likely to attract and then offend “hot stock” money
        3. the company sows and reaps
          1. the company should be spending on R&D to develop new lines of growth in the future
          2. 3-6% of revenues by industry is a typical measure
    2. the quality of its management
      1. is it looking out for #1?
        1. executives should not be paid too much
        2. company should not be reissuing or repricing stock options constantly
        3. use fully-diluted share totals when calculating EPS
        4. insiders should not be selling the company
      2. are they managers or promoters?
        1. mgrs should spend most of their time managing, not being in the media promoting the company’s stock
        2. watch out for accounting opaqueness, recurring non-recurring charges, ordinary extraordinary items and the focus on EBITDA rather than net income, etc.
    3. the financial strength and capital structure
      1. it should generate more cash than it consumes
      2. cash from operations should grow steadily over time
        1. use “owner earnings” (Net Income + Amortization + Depreciation – Cost of Stock Options – Unusual/Nonrecurring Charges – Company Pension Fund “Income”)
      3. capital structure considerations
        1. total debt ( + preferred stock) should be under 50% of total capital
        2. is debt fixed-rate or variable, exposing the company to interest rate risk (check footnotes)?
        3. check annual reports for “ratio of earnings to fixed costs” which can demonstrate if the company is able to make interest payments
    4. its dividend record
      1. the burden of proof is on the company to prove they shouldn’t issue you a dividend because they can grow the company better with the retained earnings
      2. the stock should not be split constantly
      3. stock buybacks should occur when the company’s shares are cheap, not at record highs
    5. its current dividend rate

Chapter 12, JZ commentary

  1. Accounting gimmickery
    1. make sure capitalized expenses really ought to be capitalized
    2. watch out for firms realizing revenues on their accounting statements that they have not actually earned
    3. inventory write-downs should not be occurring regularly if the company is using proper inventory accounting methods
    4. “net pension benefit” should not be more than 5% of the company’s net income
  2. How to avoid accounting fraud
    1. read backwards; the dirty secrets are buried at the end
    2. read the notes; never buy a stock without reading the footnotes in the annual report
      1. look for terms like “capitalized”, “deferred” and “restructuring”
    3. read more; check out Financial Statement Analysis (Fridson and Alvarez), The Financial Number’s Game (Comiskey), Financial Shenanigans (Schilit)

Chapter 14, JZ commentary

  1. Investing for the defensive investor
    1. Substantially all of ones stock picks should be limited to a total stock market index fund; or, 90% total stock market index fund and 10% individual stock picks
  2. Graham’s criteria for stock selection:
    1. adequate size; market cap > $2B, unless owned through a “small cap mutual fund” that allows for diversification
    2. strong financial condition; 2:1 current assets:current liabilities ratio
    3. earnings stability; some earnings for the common stock in each of the past ten years
    4. dividend record; the company should pay a dividend, even better if it increases over time
    5. earnings growth; 33% cumulative EPS growth over ten years, or essentially, 3% annual EPS growth
    6. moderate p/e ratio; current price should be no more than 15x avg earnings over past 3 yrs
    7. moderate price-to-book ratio; price-to-assets/price-to-book-value ratio of no more than 1.5
    8. alternatively, multiply p/e ratio by price-to-book and the number should be below 22.5
  3. Do the due diligence
    1. do your homework; read at least 5 yrs worth of annual and qtrly reports and proxy statements disclosing managers’ compensation, ownership, and potential conflicts of interest
    2. check out the neighborhood; check for institutional ownership ratios, over 60% probably means the company is overowned and overpriced
      1. if one sells, they’ll all sell; could be a time to find bargains in that stock
      2. check who the biggest holders are, if they’re money mgrs that invest like you, you could be in good hands

Chapter 15, JZ commentary

  1. You can practice stock-picking for a year, without investing any real money, and see how you do
    1. if you beat the S&P500, maybe you are good enough to pick stocks
    2. if you don’t, stick to index funds
  2. How to pick stocks for the enterprising investor
    1. Start with stocks that have recently hit 52 week lows
    2. use the ROIC method of analysis; ROIC = Owner Earnings / Invested Capital, where Owner Earnings is:
      1. Operating Profit + Depreciation + Amortization of Goodwill – Federal Income Tax – Cost of Stock Options – Maintenance (Essential CapEx) – Income Generated By Pension Funds
      2. Invested Capital = Total Assets – Cash and ST Investments + Past Accounting Charges That Reduced Invested Capital
      3. ROIC can demonstrate, after legitimate expenses, what the company earns from its operating businesses and how efficiently it has used shareholders’ money to generate that return
      4. ROIC of 10% is attractive, 6-7% in special occasions with strong brand name, focused management or the company being temporarily unpopular
    3. you can also look for comparable companies that have been acquired recently for valuations for the company you are looking at
      1. check the “Business Segments” (or “Management Discussion and Analysis”) section of the company’s annual report for industrial sector, revenues and earnings of each subsidiary
      2. then, check Factiva, ProQuest or LexisNexis for examples of other firms in the same industry that have been acquired
      3. then, look at past ARs for these companies for information about purchase price to earnings for those companies before acquisition
      4. this might reveal a “60-cent dollar”, a company whose assets and earnings are selling for 60% or less than the businesses might be worth to an acquirer

Chapter 20, JZ commentary

  1. The first objective of investing: “Don’t lose.”; this is Graham’s “margin of safety” concept in a nutshell
  2. Consider a market that is returning 5% a year, while you have found a stock that you think can grow at 10%; if you overpay for it and suffer a capital loss of 50% in the first year, it will take you 16 years to overtake the market, and nearly 10 years just to break even again
  3. The biggest financial risk we face is ourselves; ask yourself the following questions:
    1. How much experience do I have? What is my track record with similar decisions in the past?
    2. What is the typical track record of other people who have tried this in the past?
    3. If I am buying, someone is selling. How likely is it that I know something they don’t know?
    4. If I am selling, someone else is buying. How likely is it that I know something they don’t know?
    5. Have I calculated how much this investment needs to go up to cover my taxes and trading expenses?
  4. Then, make sure you have considered the consequences of being wrong by asking yourself:
    1. How much could I lose if I am wrong?
    2. Do I have other investments that will tide me over if this decision turns out to be wrong? Am I putting too much capital at risk?
    3. Have I demonstrated a high tolerance for risk by continuing to invest after large losses in the past?
    4. Am I relying on willpower alone to prevent me from panicking or have I made preparations in advance by diversifying and dollar-cost averaging?
  5. “In making decisions under conditions of uncertainty, the consequences must dominate the probabilities. We never know the future.”
  6. Never make the mistake of following investment crazes or putting all your eggs in one basket; if you make one error, you will have wiped yourself out
  7. Instead, diversify, and always protect yourself from the consequences of being wrong just as much as you hope and plan to enjoy the benefits of being right

Review – Scientific Advertising (#advertising)

Scientific Advertising

by Claude C. Hopkins, published 1923

The “Benjamin Graham of advertising”?

Claude C. Hopkins was not only a contemporary of Benjamin Graham‘s, but apparently a man after his own heart, for if the essence of “Scientific Advertising” were to be boiled down to one phrase it would be:

Advertising is most successful when it is most business-like

Anyone who follows the writings of Benjamin Graham should immediately understand what that means. For those who are unfamiliar with Graham, the idea is that advertising has its biggest impact when its goals and results are examined as to their practical effect– your advertising is a sales person for your organization and it should earn its keep; advertising is not about being witty, creative or memorable, it’s about buying customers at the lowest cost possible.

This has much in common with Graham’s concept of value investing, whereby the objective is to buy future investment returns potential at the lowest cost possible. Just as Graham would advise us not to overpay for anticipated business growth and the eagerness of the investment crowd, Hopkins advises us to study our costs and profits from our advertising campaigns scientifically, to ensure we’re getting the most bang for the buck without wasting money on entertaining and amusing those who never intended to buy from us in the first place.

Advertising as sales force multiplier

The role of advertising within a business organization is best thought of as a sales force multiplier. Accordingly, Hopkins stresses that,

The only purpose of advertising is to make sales… treat it as a salesman

This line of reasoning anticipates some self-check questions when considering an advertising campaign, namely:

  • Would this help a salesman sell the goods?
  • Would it help me sell them if I met the buyer in person?

When crafting an ad campaign, it’s important to think of an individual buyer of your product, what they look like, what they need and want, how they like to be communicated with, etc. You should consider how you would entice them if you were selling them face-to-face. Ultimately, it may be “the masses” who create volume markets for your products, but it is individual buyers who will read your ads and actually place orders.

The making of a great ad

The best ads:

  • based on the service rendered by the product in question
  • offer wanted information
  • cite advantages to users
  • often do not quote a price

They play to the ego of the individual buyer, because “whatever they do, they do to please themselves.”

Headlines are about grabbing the attention of people who are interested in your product. Not everyone is going to be a buyer of your product. You only have to get the attention of people who actually might buy.

The use of psychology is critical to ad programming. Human psychology is mostly constant and has been “since the time of Caeser”:

  • “Americans are extravagant. They want bargains, but not cheapness”
  • create a feeling of possession, ownership of property; when people feel something belongs to them, they’ll go out of their way to obtain it, even if it’s a trifle
  • limited offers applicable to restricted classes are more appealing than general offers available to anyone; “those seemingly entitled to an advantage will go a long way not to lose that advantage”
  • invite comparisons to your rivals, which demonstrates you do not fear them

Specificity is also another powerful tool in the advertiser’s arsenal– whereas an advertisement is a sales force multiplier, specificity is an authority multiplier for an individual ad.

Platitudes and generalities roll off the human understanding like water from a duck

Specific claims imply engagement with truth; something which is precise and “tested” demonstrates accuracy and experience which is usually accepted. To make a specific claim, one must have made tests and comparisons. This is why they have more force in the buyer’s mind. Further, standard, essential ingredients or functions of a product’s make or capabilities can be addressed in a specific way which creates a sense of differentiation (eg., two beer makers use the same pure, filtered water but one advertises that he “drilled 4,000 feet into the earth” to obtain the proper purity for his product).

Another principle of good advertising is “telling your full story”:

When you once get a person’s attention, then is the time to accomplish all you ever hope with him. Bring all your good arguments to bear

Think of the readers of your ad as new customers. Those who use your product don’t read your ads and you don’t care if they do anyway as they’re already happy customers.

The use of art in advertising should be made according to similar guidelines as those followed for writing headlines. Art, like headlines, use critical and costly advertisement real estate; they should be used in such a way, if at all, that they pay for their cost. Art should only be used to attract those who can profitably be sold to, and then only when the same message could not be conveyed as efficiently through a similar-sized amount of text.

Information, strategy, samples and more

It’s important to know your market, how big it is and what it’s worth. You never want to make the mistake of spending more than you could ever hope to earn because you were ignorant of the market you were advertising into.

You must also keep in mind your competitors: what do they have to offer? What kind of price, quality or claims can they weigh against your own? How can you win trade from them, and how can you hold it once you’ve got it?

We cannot go after thousands of men until we learn how to win one

Further, never forget that people don’t change their habits without a reason. And that it’s costly to create a non-specific market through your advertising that can be served by others than just yourself– then you make the mistake of advertising for your competition.

As far as samples are concerned, they are ineffective if wasted on people who have no intention or no ability to purchase your product. Give them only to those who show and interest, and then, make them exhibit that interest by exerting some effort.

Test campaigns can be used to establish the effectiveness of particular strategies on a small scale (say, thousands versus millions); then, using the law of averages, we can expect the results to hold at greater scale if the campaign is to be expanded or incorporated into the standard strategy set.

Whenever possible, introduce a personality into your ads and then, stick to it. If you change the personality, you’ll force people to continually refamiliarize themselves with your product and you’ll give up all past prestige you’ve managed to build up.

Negative advertising is not a good strategy:

  • never attack the competition
  • show the bright side, happy side, attractive side
  • beauty, not homeliness; health, not sickness; envied people, not the envious; tell people what to do, not what to avoid

Unless you have a catchy name that has become a household replacement word (like Kleenex, Vaseline, etc.), remember you’re advertising the service of the product, not the name.

Conclusion

When you think of your advertising efforts, imagine a rapid stream passing by in front of you. Without scientifically testing the results of your advertising efforts, the potential power of your advertising effort is wasted like the water rushing past. Scientific measurement and testing of your ad campaign is akin to placing a water wheel in the middle of the stream and channeling all that potential energy into actual energy which can be useful as a multiplier to the efforts of your sales force and your business organization as a whole.

4/5

Review – The Art of Execution (@harriman, #investing, #books, #review)

The Art of Execution: How the world’s best investors get it wrong and still make millions

by Lee Freeman-Shor, published 2015

Note: I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for sharing my thoughts AFTER reading it.

Professor Failure

What can we learn from failure? Aside from the fact that there’s an entire industry of business literature fetishizing the idea that it has much to teach us (as a kind of doppelgänger to the decades of success literature that took a person or business’s success as given and tried to look backward for an unmistakeable pattern that could’ve predicted it) I’m personally skeptical of what failure might teach. Life is complex and there is often little to separate the failure and the success but timing and luck in certain endeavors.

So, I approached Freeman-Shors book with some trepidation as the subtitle of the book suggests this is a study of failure. Au contraire, what we have here is actually a psychological or behavioral study, somewhat in the vein of Benjamin “you are your own worst enemy in investing” Graham, which studies not failure per se, but rather how investors respond differently to failure and thereby either seal their fate or redeem themselves.

A Behavioral Typology

The book recounts the investment results of several different groups of portfolio managers who were categorized, ex post facto, into various groups based upon how they reacted to adverse market conditions for stocks they invested in. The Rabbits rode most of their failed investments down to near-zero before bailing out and taking the loss. The Assassins had a prescribed set of rules for terminating a losing position (either a % stop-loss, or a maximum time duration spent in the investment such as a year or a quarter). The Hunters kept powder dry and determined ahead of time to buy more shares on a pullback (ie, planned dollar-cost averaging).

While I am suspicious of backward-looking rule fitting, I do think the author’s logic makes sense. What it boils down to is having a plan ahead of time for how you’d react to failure. The Rabbits biggest mistake is they had none whatsoever, while the Assassins managed to protect themselves from total drawdowns but perhaps missed opportunities to profit on volatility rebounds. The author seems most impressed with the Hunters, who habitually started at a less than 100% commitment of funds to a planned position and then added to their investment at lower prices when the market gave them an opportunity to do so.

Freeman-Shor’s point is that when the price falls on your investment you need to decide that something material has changed in the story or facts and you sell, or else you need to be ready to buy more (because if it was a good buy at $10, it’s a great buy at $5, etc.) but you can not just hang tight. That isn’t an investment strategy. This is why I put this book in the Benjamin Graham fold, the message is all about being rational ahead of time about how you’d react to the volatility of the market which is for all intents and purposes a given of the investing landscape.

Learning From Success, Too

The author goes over a couple other behavioral typologies, Raiders and Connoisseurs. I won’t spoil the whole book, it suffices to say that this section is worth studying as well because it can be just as nerve-wracking to try to figure out whether to take some profit or let a winner ride when you have one. Freeman-Shor gives some more thoughts based on his empirical observations of other money managers who have worked for him on when it’s best to do one or the other.

More helpfully, he summarizes the book with a winner’s and loser’s checklist.

The Winner’s Checklist includes:

  1. Best ideas only
  2. Position size matters
  3. Be greedy when winning
  4. Materially adapt when losing
  5. Only invest in liquid stocks

The last bit is probably most vital for a fund manager with redeemable capital.

The Loser’s Checklist includes:

  1. Invest in lots of ideas
  2. Invest a small amount in each idea
  3. Take small profits
  4. Stay in an investment idea and refuse to adapt when wrong
  5. Do not consider liquidity

Free e-Book With Purchase!

It is hard for me to decide in my own mind if this book is a 3.5 or a 4 on a 5-point scale. I think of a 5 as a classic, to be read over and over again, gleaning something new each time. This would be a book like Security Analysis or The Intelligent Investor. A 4 is a good book with a lot of value and a high likelihood of being referenced in the future, but not something I expect to get a new appreciation for each and every time I read it. A 3 is a book that may have been enjoyable overall and provided some new ideas but was overall not as interesting or recommendable.

While I enjoyed this book and did gain some insight from it, and I think the editorial choices in the book were bold, it’s closer to a 3 in my mind than a 4 just in terms of the writing and the ideas. I’ve found a lot of the content in other venues and might’ve rated it higher on my epiphany scale if this was one of the first investment books I ever read. But something that really blew me away is that the publisher, Harriman House, seems to have figured out that people who buy paper books definitely appreciate having an e-Book copy for various reasons and decided to include a copy for free download (DRM-free!!) in the jacket of the book. This is huge. I read my copy on a recent cross-country flight and was really agonizing about which books from my reading stack wouldn’t make the trip for carry-on space reasons and then realized I could take this one with me on my iPad and preserve the space for something else. So in terms of value, this book is a 4.

3/5

   

 

Review – Deep Value Investing (#contrarian, #investing, @HarrimanHouse)

Deep Value Investing: Finding bargain shares with big potential

by Jeroen Bos, published 2013

Benjamin Graham’s Principles Applied

Although it provides a summary introduction to the theory of Benjamin Graham’s classic deep value (net-net and discount-to-book value) strategy, Bos’s “Deep Value Investing” is decidedly a practitioner’s guide, not a philosophical work. More accurately, it’s a collection of case studies for observation and analysis– what did and didn’t work in various key examples from Bos’s own investment portfolio.

This is the book’s strength, and weakness. It is a strength because any opportunity to peer into the portfolio of a working money manager and see not only what he’s done, but why he has done it, is often worth the price of admission. Bos gets hands on with the reader and provides the relevant information in each case study, including the start and end date and price of each trade, the relevant balance sheet information and per share calculations and a helpful chart of price movements over time to put it in perspective.

Most importantly, though, Bos provides a lot of qualitative detail that helps to flesh out the simple quantitative analysis. Many curious students of value investing will be happy to see Bos not only explains what piqued his initial interest in each security, but that he also talks about how long and why he waited to get involved in each opportunity and how he interpreted business developments in each case (positive and negative) along the way. He also provides an explanation as to why and how he exited each investment, whether it was a winner or a loser.

This is something that’s missing in most investment case study discussions and it’s a real value add with this book. Another value add is the online support materials for the book, including a record of all relevant publicly available information for each investment that Bos used in his analysis (so you can follow along and see if you can see what he saw), as well as a free eBook version of the title accessible with a special link.

As mentioned, the weakness of the book lies in the fact that it’s mostly a collection of case studies with little else to structure it. In that sense, while the material is approachable and certainly not technical or difficult by any means to comprehend, this is not a “beginner’s book” but better for a reader who has already read a more philosophical work such as Graham’s “The Intelligent Investor” or “Security Analysis”. After reading those, revisiting Bos’s “Deep Value Investing” should yield many profitable insights and appreciation for what he has managed to accomplish.

Additionally, a bit of information that is normally found in these “how I do what I do” guides, that being whether or not the author supports diversification or concentration of portfolio positions and how he sizes his positions and manages his portfolio as a whole in general, are noticeably absent. The mere addition of this insightful information might have pushed this book into the “4-star” range in terms of usefulness and candor. As it is, it’s a “3-star”, though a strong 3-star candidate. A good read, but not essential in any library and by no means a classic like “Security Analysis”, though of course it has no pretensions of being so.

If you’re “deep” into deep value strategies, or want to watch over the shoulder of a talented operator, Jeroen Bos’s “Deep Value Investing” is well worth picking up! Even veteran value guys have something to learn from Bos’s “qualitative-quantitative” combined approach and especially his criteria for exiting a successful investment as it “transforms” over time from a balance sheet to earnings play.

Other Notes

Some of my other favorite observations worth noting:

1.) Liquid assets are what we’re really interested in, for the strongest margin of safety

2.) Share prices tend to be volatile, but book values tend to be stable over time

3.) Service companies tend to offer good value opportunities because they’re light on fixed assets and heavy on current assets; they also have flexible business models that can quickly scale up or down depending on business conditions

4.) Cyclical stocks always look cheapest on an earnings basis at the top of their cycle and most expensive at the bottom of their cycle (which is ironically when they’e a best buy)

5.) To better understanding accounting statement terms, compare treatment of confusing items across different companies in the same industry

6.) When evaluating trade receivables, it’s important to understand who the company’s clients are

7.) Check lists of new 52-week lows for good value investment candidates

3/5

Does Net-Net Investing Work In Japan? (#JNets, #valueinvesting, #Japan)

If you took a look at the companies I purchased off my Japanese net-net (“JNet”) worksheet about six months ago, you’d probably conclude net-net investing doesn’t “work” in Japan, at least not over a six month period. The cheap, crappy companies I bought then are cheaper, still crappy companies today.

However, if you took a look at all the companies I didn’t buy from my list, you might get a different impression altogether. While there are a few companies of this group whose fundamentals worsened and/or whose stock price fell, most are up anywhere from 10-15% with several up substantially more, 30-50%. About 10% of the total list seems to have gone private as you can’t find financial info nor trade the symbol any longer, which in my experience in JNet-land typically means they received an MBO.

And if you look at an entirely different list of JNets I generated about two months ago (because all my original picks were no longer JNets), which I finished researching one month ago and which I failed to do anything about until yesterday, the story is even better (or worse, if you’re me). How would you like to see the top pick on your list closed up 25% the day prior and about 40% total since you composed your list? How would you like to see the average company on your list priced 15% or more higher from where you first researched it, meaning you could’ve locked in your 15% annual return for the year in a few months time?!

Once again, this list also had several symbols which no longer trade, presumably because they received buyouts or other going private transactions.

So, in the last few days I learned a few things about JNets:

  1. They “work”
  2. The “M&A activity in Japan, particularly in the small cap space, is a non-starter” claim, is a myth
  3. Even crappy businesses with cash-rich balance sheets are moving like hotcakes in Abenomic Japan
  4. The strengthening of the dollar against the Yen does impact your $ returns, but so far Yen prices on JNets have outpaced the move of the Yen against the dollar
  5. Contrary to my belief that I could take my time allocating idle capital in Japan, it now appears that time is of the essence

My old motto for JNets was, “Steady as she goes.” My new motto is, “Churn and burn” or “Turn and earn.” I’m going to be watching things much more closely than I had before.

To be clear, my experience so far has been frustrating, but it hasn’t been catastrophic as I suggested in my introduction. I have captured some of the windfall moves myself although I continue to have laggards in the portfolio, at least in dollar terms. Very few of the original companies I picked are trading lower than when I bought them, though some have not moved up enough yet to make up for the exchange rate loss. My first portfolio of JNets was bought when the Yen/$ rate was 79. It’s now almost 99 Yen to the dollar and I made my second portfolio purchase around 94 Yen to the dollar.

Overall, in dollar terms my first portfolio is up 5%, with one MBO and apparently another just recently as I found out the stock is up 43% with no ask but I haven’t found a news item explaining why yet. Several others traded above NCAV so I am culling them and putting them into new opportunities. I have not yet determined what the “secret formula” is for picking the JNets that will really take off– oddly, it was mostly the companies whose prospects seemed least fortunate that I neglected to purchase and was in shock to see their stock prices 35% higher or more. As a result, I plan on wider diversification and a more random strategy in choosing between “best” companies and cheapest stocks.

I’m sure many investors have done much better than 5% in Japan in the last half year, and many more have done better still in the US and elsewhere. This isn’t a contest of relative or absolute performance. This is simply an opportunity to settle the score and point out that yeah, Benjamin Graham’s philosophy is alive and well in Japan.