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

Sorry, The Economy Is Officially Closed (#investing, #risk, #economy, #recession, #wealth)

One way to describe what I do for a living is “capital allocation.” Really, I am like an internal strategic consultant to a family business (a family of which I am a part) so there is more to it than that, but thinking about where to put our capital is one of the primary functions I serve.

One interesting problem to have when one owns things of value is receiving bids on those things from people interested in buying them when you’re not sure you want to sell. The further above your own estimate of “fair value” their bid goes, the stronger the temptation to take advantage and sell your asset. It seems like a pretty straight forward problem to solve.

The only problem is the market context of the potential sale. Generally, if you’re in a position to get more than fair value for what you’re selling, you’re going to have a hard time finding another asset to buy where the seller isn’t facing the same dynamic. In other words, you can potentially sell one asset at an inflated price and buy another at an inflated price– you’re probably better off just holding on to what you have because there’s no arbitrage in that and it could very well cost you money in terms of frictional costs like brokerage commissions and taxes on imaginary capital gains.

One thing you could do is sell your asset at an inflated value and sit and wait in cash for a better buying opportunity. The problem with that is that cash is, currently, a seemingly barren asset. If you stuff your haul into T-Bills, you’re lucky to earn a few basis points every 90 days– it might as well be zero, and when you factor in the effect of inflation and those damned capital gains taxes once again, it probably is. You could go further out on the yield curve and buy some 10YR Treasury notes, but then you’re exposing yourself to substantial interest rate risk with yields flirting with historic lows.

Meanwhile, most asset owners are earning strong internal returns on their invested capital right now. Say you’re earning 20% a year on your investments, why would you sell them to collect 1.5% over the next 10 years while taking enormous interest rate risk? Or to collect zero for some unknown amount of time sitting in T-bills or cash in a savings account? Every year you stay invested, you get ahead by almost 20% more. Could the value of your investment really drop by that much?

The business cycle is an inevitable fact of owning and operating a business in a modern economy. The question is not could it, but when will it drop by that much, or more? For many business owners and investors, the waiting is the hardest part. Giving up 20% a year for some period of time and avoiding the risk of a 50-60% or greater decline in asset values just isn’t attractive. It isn’t even attractive when thinking about the fact that buying back those same assets at half price could potentially double your return on invested capital during the next boom, an interesting strategy for shortening the compounding time necessary to achieve legendary riches.

For many, this inevitable decline in asset prices is inconceivable. It’s embedded deeply in the fear of selling and going to cash. The implication of this premise is that the economy is officially closed to additional investment. Those who invested earlier in the cycle can stay inside and watch a magnificent show as they earn outstanding returns on their capital while the boom goes on. But for everyone who sold too early, or never bought in, they have to wait outside, indefinitely, and wonder what it’s like– the cost of admission is just too high.

What makes this a stable equilibrium? By what logic has a competitive market economy become permanently closed to new investment, or a change in asset values, or a change in ownership of assets? Under what set of premises could this condition last for a meaningful amount of time and leave people who sell now out in the cold, starving and bitter for returns on capital, forever, or for so long that they would be losing in real terms over time in making such a decision?

To me, this “new normal” is absurd. It is juvenile to believe that the economy is closed and no one else is getting in. It’s silly to think that the people willing to pay those astronomical prices for admission are making a good decision, that they’re going to have a comfy seat and years of entertainment, rather than paying more than full price for a show that’s about to come to an abrupt end. It’s a topsy-turvy world in which the reckless and courageous high-bidders are the ones who get rich. If paying too much for things was the path to riches, we’d all be there by now. I think when everyone’s perception of reality and value skews toward a logical extreme like this, we’re closer to the show being over than the show must go on.

In the meantime, sorry, the economy is officially closed.

Video – Rahul Saraogi On Value Investing In India (#valueinvesting, #India, @manualofideas, #investing)

The Manual of Ideas presents Rahul Saraogi, managing director of Atyant Capital Advisors

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • Referring to Klarman, finding ideas and doing the analysis is a small part of investing; the two most critical factors to succes in any investment as a minority shareholder are corporate governance and capital allocation
  • Good corporate governance means a dominant shareholder who treats minority shareholders like an equal business partner: even aside from egregious fraud and legal violations, you can face situations where dominant shareholders use the company like a piggy bank or to promote personal agendas
  • Once you’ve cleared the corporate governance hurdle you must consider capital allocation: many times companies follow the same strategy that got them from 0 to a few hundred million in market cap, which will not work to get them to the next level; often by this time the dominant shareholder is sufficiently wealthy and loses interest in capital allocation to the detriment of minority shareholders
  • India’s investment universe:
    • Indian GDP close to $2T
    • Indian market cap $1.5-2T
    • 80-85% of India’s market cap is represented by the top 150 firms: mega-cap banks, steel producers, etc., that trade on ADRs and everyone knows of outside of India
    • Thousands of listed companies below this with market caps ranging from $2-3B to a couple million dollars
    • Rahul finds the next 1200-1300 companies below the top 150, with market caps ranging from $50M-$2B, to be the most interesting opportunity
  • Corporate governance is binary: either a company gets it, or it doesn’t
  • Case study: 1998, invested in a sugar manufacturer trading for $20M generating $20M in annual earnings with a 14% tax free dividend yield, virtually debt free, strong moats, dominant player in its field, grew from $20M to $900M market cap, the owners were very focused on growing capital, no grandiose desire to build empires, not trying to grow the top line at all costs or gain rankings, just allocating capital wisely
  • Every investor is looking for shortcuts and binary decisions, ie, “Should I invest in India or not invest in India?”; the reality is it’s a lot of work, it’s about turning over as many stones as you can– what Buffett has done well is finding people who can compound capital and then staying with them through market cycles
  • You can do what Buffett did in any market but you must dive into it, get your hands dirty, do the work it takes and then maintain the discipline to stick with what you’ve found
  • Home-market bias: most people are going to allocate most of their capital in their home-market, because by definition anything that is not familiar or proximate is considered risky; consequentially, “locals” will disproportionately benefit from economic and financial gains in their local markets
  • India can not and likely will not become a dominant allocation in a foreign investors portfolio; without devoting 100% of your time and energy to understanding that market, or having someone invest on your behalf who does, you will likely not understand the culture, motivation and habits of the people in that market
  • “It is imperative that in any market you go with people who understand it and are focused on it full time because investing is ultimately bottom-up”
  • Accounting, financial reporting and investor relations practices are modeled off the US and UK so they’re similar; however, many businesses are run by one or two entrepreneurs and they’re often too busy to be available to speak with outside investors, but persistence pays off when they realize you’re interested in learning about their business
  • Access to capital in Indian markets has improved, meaning it has become easier for Indian companies to scale
  • Why does India have high rates of capital compounding? India is a 5,000 year old civilization and has had borrowing, lending and private markets for capital that entire time meaning people are aware of capital compounding; that being said, India has companies and management that understand ROC, those that don’t, and those that are essentially professional Ponzi-schemes, issuing capital at every market peak and then trading for less than the issued capital at the trough because they’re constantly destroying wealth
  • Rahul sees the government as incapable of providing the public infrastructure needed by the growing economy; he sees the economy turning toward a “private-public partnership” model that is more private than public– enlightened fascism?
  • As companies rushed into this private-public space, a lot of conglomeration and corporate mission-creep occurred, resulting in systemically low ROC for companies in the infrastructure space as most as poorly run; failure of top-down investing thesis
  • “I’m looking for confirmation in facts, not in other investors’ opinions”
  • I can comment on whether valuations for individual companies make sense, but I can’t make a judgment on the value of a broad market index, I just don’t think that number means anything
  • Risk management: develop assumptions about the company’s business and then periodically analyze what the company is doing relative to original investment hypothesis; if your assumptions prove to be wrong or something changes drastically with the company, that is when you hit a “fundamental stop-loss” and corrective action needs to be taken immediately, even if the stock has done well and the price has risen

Why do we travel? 4 (#travel, #philosophy)

This may be the last in the series as our trip is coming to an end and my interest in blogging about it may be as well, I fear.

Today we got a late start. We work up around 7 but didn’t really get our act together and find food until around 830. We ended up picking up some bagel sandwiches and cappucinos (called a white here, as opposed to a black or straight coffee) from Two Men Bagel House. The bagels were outstanding, crispy on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside as promised in the reviews and the sandwiches themselves were creative and filling. Our quality coffee escapades continued, I found my cappucino extremely satisfying as did the Wolf.

We ended up watching the rest of “Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark” on Netflix with breakfast and by the time we finished it was almost 1030. The day was fast getting away from us and we hadn’t decided what to do yet and were seriously considering just staying back and relaxing. But somehow this felt like a copout. We came all this way and we still knew so little about the city. The Gardens by the Bay and Cloud Forest seemed interesting but we just didn’t feel much excitement about potential sun and heat exposure… It’s really, really warm here.

We were working on narrowing down a short list of air conditioned history and art museums when my friend from LA started texting me. It led to an interesting exchange which I thought I’d partially relay here as its relevant to the subject of why we travel.

The first thing he asked is if I think this is Asia’s century. I’m borrowing some logic from a book I read on the way over, “Asian Godfathers” by Joe Studwell, but my answer is not really. Taipei is an industrious, commercial environment but I didn’t see much in the way of economic trends noticeable back home and I didn’t see any brands or businesses I could imagine dominating the US or Europe. It seems their role in the value chain is to add manufacturing technology exports to branded finished products and serve their domestic markets with largely unconsolidated product and service businesses, at least for now.

When it comes to Western brands in HK and Singapore, financial services dominate but there are also some inroads being made most conspicuously by McDonald’s, Starbucks and purveyors such as Marks and Spencer. Global fashion brands have done an outstanding job of penetrating all of these markets. There is a 3story Apple store in HK in the IFC Mall but I don’t know where one is in Singapore or Taipei, probably somewhere though as I saw authorized resellers.

Again in HK and Singapore, I don’t see anything that looks like it could become an emergent global brand. So this is Studwell’s point– these economies are dominated by raw materials monopolies granted to local cronies and their near captive financial institutions, and none of these businesses face competition from global firms which also means the local entrepreneurs aren’t being challenged to produce brands that are exportable.

No exportable brands mean no “Asian century”. The demographics may be on their side but the political systems are trapped in the mercantilist past. That’s weird to say as a person who is skeptical of the idea that the West in general and the US in particular have not seen their power and prestige eclipsed.

But for now I’ll say, based off the limited experiences of this trip the Asian century is not upon us. But I don’t know what is. It also doesn’t mean I’m calling for stagnation or economic collapse in this part of the world (China the possible exception, that place is weird.)

I also was raving about some of the food we had had so far, here and the previous locales and my friend asked if I’d consider it best in the world or how I’d rank it. I think that question kind of misses the point. We decided to skip an opportunity to eat at one of the “Top 50” restaurants in the world here in Singapore despite securing a reservation months before our trip. That kind of restaurant caters to food innovation and the experience of dining. I’ve been to places like that– they’re amazing, you often feel entranced and delightfully confused about how food can be what it is on your plate or in your bowl or what have you. But that isn’t about eating so much as it is about imagining, in my mind. There’s a time and a place for it but I wouldn’t judge a place and its food culture by trying to rank it against experiences like that.

What I am after in eating is intensity of flavors and simple food made from timeless, cultural recipes that speaks to the incrementally developed genius of a people and their place and how they turn their culture into what they eat. I’m talking about the stuff people eat day in, day out, that I’d be happy eating with similar frequency. Some people call this “local”, whatever you call it, it’s not cuisine and it can’t be ranked.

Some of the meals we’ve had in this sense have been superb. The purveyors aren’t trying to impress or win accolades. But they sometimes do both in the course of making their traditional dishes.

Another thing we discussed was the purposelessness of this trip. We didn’t come for work. We didn’t come to see friends or family. We really don’t know much about the history or culture of these places. It is a bit of an existential crisis initially to arrive somewhere without anything to accomplish besides “seeing” it, and then, not knowing much about what you’re seeing or what you might keep an eye out for.

Having visited these three cities now and noticed their similarities and differences, both compared to one another and to places and ways of life back home, I feel confident in saying we could live here if we wanted to and we’d be quite comfortable. I’m sure of that. But at this point I’m still not certain why we’d want to move.

There are some things that are far ahead of where were from that are wonderful– the cleanliness and efficiency of mass transit, the cheapness and ubiquity of mobile communications technology, the attitude of cooperation and community. And there are some things that are unique, like some of the food spots that it will just be hard to find something of similar quality back home even in a diverse place.

But other than that, I haven’t seen anything that really appeals to me in some deep way, that I can’t get where I come from. These places aren’t freer. It isn’t any easier to start a business. Or even to grow wealthy– no El Dorado here, as far as I could see. Why pack up and go across the globe for what would essentially be an economic and financial reset?

P and I have remarked several times how fun it would be to raise children in a foreign place and let them learn new cultures and languages from their friends. But it would also be great to raise them in a uniform culture were familiar with, hopefully amongst a community of like-minded progressive parents like us (not big P progressive, mind you!!) Those are tradeoffs to pick one over the other and I’m not sure why we’d come all this way for that particular trade-off.

Living and working in Hong Kong and Singapore in particular seem like a young man’s game. If we turned back he clock ten or fifteen years and I was just about to make a go of it, and I knew of these places, I’d probably head this way and try to make my fortunes on my own, especially if there was greater opportunity for a Westerner looking to take that risk. Without a spouse, without family obligations and without a routine and a financial basis for myself back home I’d quickly set out for a place like this and see if I could try. The only reason I didn’t when that was the case was that these places simply weren’t on my radar.

But now, it makes less sense. Without some compelling economic reason, why come here versus continue on roughly where we are? That choice seems rather arbitrary.

One of the reasons we travel, and here in particular, is to see if we feel like we could make a go of it some place else. And I guess I’m a little disappointed to realize these last few times that we could, that we’d be happy, but I can’t find a compelling reason to jump.

Four Views On Gold And Gold Miners (#gold, #investing, @atyantcapital, @valresproj)

1.) Atyant Capital, “What is gold saying?”:

Gold stocks lead gold and gold leads currencies and currency moves correlate with stocks and bonds. Gold stocks have been declining for two or so years now. This is in part due to unavailability of capital and credit for gold mining projects, but in our assessment, not the whole story. We believe gold stocks are also correctly forecasting lower gold prices.

Long term readers know my gold pricing model puts fair value at $1100 per ounce (Alpha Magazine Aug 24, 2011). So at $1700-$1800, gold was about 60% overvalued, floating on a sea of credit. Gold declining now tells me the sea of credit is receding here and now. This should translate to a higher US Dollar and pressure on asset prices globally.

2.) Value Restoration Project, “Gold miners – Back in the Abyss – An Update“:

Gold mining stocks remain cheap by almost any objective measure.

One way to look at mining stocks is to compare them to the price of gold itself.

Comparing miners to the price of gold itself, show miners are cheaper today than they have been in decades.

[…]

Today, gold appears undervalued relative to the growth in the monetary base that has occurred up to now, and in light of the monetary expansion the Fed and other central banks are currently undertaking, gold appears more undervalued. The Fed’s current quantitative easing program probably won’t be curtailed until households stop deleveraging and the government can handle the rising interest expense on its expanding debt.

Yet, in the face of all this, many gold mining stocks are now selling at valuations that suggest the market has priced in a decline in the price of gold back to 2007 levels, before the Fed began expanding its balance sheet during the financial crisis. Many gold mining stocks are now selling near or below their book value, which is the market’s way of saying that these businesses won’t be able to add shareholder value in the coming years by mining gold and silver. If the price of gold were to decline below $700 or so, it would certainly be the case that most mining companies wouldn’t be able to profitably sell gold. Yet such a decline in gold is the main implied assumption being priced in by the market today, and this has sent valuations of gold mining stocks to their lowest levels since the current bull market began.

3.) Robert Blumen, “What is the key for the price formation of gold?“:

The gold price is set by investor preferences, which cannot be measured directly. But I think that we understand the main factors in the world that influence investor preferences in relation to gold. These factors are the growth rate of money supply, the volume and quality of debt, political uncertainty, confiscation risk, and the attractiveness (or lack thereof) of other possible assets. As individuals filter these events through their own thoughts they form their preferences. But that’s not something that’s measurable.

I suspect that the reason for the emphasis on quantities is that they that can be measured. Measurement is the basis of all science. And if we want our analysis to be rigorous and objective, so the thinking goes, we had better start with numbers and do a very fine job at measuring those numbers accurately. If you are an analyst you have to write a report for your clients, after all they have paid for it, so they have to come up with things that can be measured and the quantity is the only thing that can be measured so they write about quantities.

And in the end this is the problem for gold price analysts, you’re talking about a market in which it’s difficult to really quantify what’s going on. I think that looking at some broad statistical relationships over a period of history, like gold price to money supply, to debt, things like that, might give some idea about where the price is going. Or maybe not, maybe you run into the problem I mentioned about synchronous correlations that are not predictive.

Part of the problem is that statistics work better the more data you have. But we really don’t have a lot of data about how the gold price behaves in relation to other things. The unbacked global floating exchange rate system has never been tried before our time. How many complete bull and bear cycles has the gold/fiat market gone through? My guess is that when we look back we will see that we are now still within the first cycle. Our sample size is one.

[…]

I do think we will have a bubble in gold, although it may take the form of a collapse of the monetary and a return to some form of gold as money in which case, the bubble will not end, it would simply transition over to the new system in which gold would go from being a non-money asset to money.

I have been following this market since the late 90s. I remember reading that gold was in a bubble at every price above 320 dollars. I very much like the writings of William Fleckenstein, an American investment writer. He has pointed out how often you read in the financial media that gold is already in a bubble, a point he quite rightly disputes. Fleckenstein has pointed out that the people who say this did not identify the equity bubble, did not believe that we had a housing bubble, nor have they identified the current genuine bubble, which in the bond market. But now these same people are so good at spotting bubbles that they can tell you that gold is in one.

Most of them did not identify gold as something which was worth buying at the bottom, have never owned a single ounce of gold, have missed the entire move up over the last dozen years, and now that they’re completely out of the market, they smugly tell us for our own good that gold is in a bubble and we should sell.

So, I don’t know that we need to listen to those people and take them very seriously.

4.) Me:

I don’t know what the intrinsic value of gold is. I don’t think gold mines are good businesses (on the whole) because they combine rapidly depleting assets with high capital intensitivity and they are constantly acquiring other businesses (mines) sold by liars and dreamers and schemers. And I don’t think this will end well, whatever the case may be. So, I am happy to own a little gold and wait and see what happens.

I wonder what the short interest is on gold miners?

Video – Hugh Hendry Interviewed By Steven Drobny At LSE (#macro)

Hugh Hendry interviewed by Steven Drobny at the London School of Economics, 2010

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • How he got his start: began at an eclectic asset management firm in Edinburgh, which rotated its young associates; began at age 21 in the Japanese stock market the year after it peaked in 1990; the next year rotated to UK large companies; the next year US equities; moved to London in 1998/9 and no one would employ him because he was a jack-of-all-trades, master of none
  • 1929/1930 marked a “revulsion with debt” period, which changed very slowly, ultimately eradicated from society in 1973/74; then the opposite cycle occurred, with society massively leveraging; during this upswing, it has paid to be optimistic and the financial economy has become the economy; we appear to be on the verge of a generational shift again, where farmers will reign over hedge fund managers
  • Macro opportunities are created by the interactions of economics and the abilities of politicians to try to fudge them
  • “The best trade is the one where you don’t fear the consequences of being wrong”
  • China
    • China’s economic development strategy is not unique, it’s just large-scale; economy is being directed toward sovereign-profit, not corporate-profit
    • Pursuing sovereign power over economic power results in building your economy on foundations of sand; Japan tried the same thing and it appeared to work until it was revealed to have not worked; Confucius saying, “Wise-man not invest in over-capacity”
    • China is like the sun, you can’t get too close or you’ll melt (can’t short equities in China, HK, or commodity futures or equity derivatives in the West); used the “satellite”, bought CDS on a basket of Japanese industries, as Japan is very reliant on trade with China– steel, for example
  • If we’re going to have hyperinflation and the dollar loses its value, you need something profoundly negative to shake the course of economic growth globally, because only if that happens will the central bankers respond with this dramatic decision of hyperinflation
  • Slowdown in China, economic restructuring in Europe would be the economic equivalent of a meteor hitting Earth
  • Market call: the Yen and the USD could appreciate greatly, because there is so much borrowing in those currencies, if asset values take a hit, you have a shortage of dollars or Yen to pay against the collateral values of that lending; combined with calls on the Nikkei at 40,000, 50,000 (want to be very long equities at that point)
  • Good hedge fund managers give great weight to the consequence of their actions and are fearful of them, so they won’t be hurt too much if they’re wrong
  • Being plasticine: we spend so much time trying to see the future, we’re deluding ourselves because we have no chance to see the future; better to be careful and flexible, avoid dramatic injury and maintain optionality to respond to whatever the future holds
  • Be a centipede, not a mountain climber; have a hundred legs so you can let one or two go if you have to do so
  • Strategically, it’s not rational to try to outsmart bright people; bright people are encouraged to be logical in their constructions; my business franchise is trying to get opportunities from the arcane world of paradox, disciplined curiosity, the toolset of the maverick

Video – Hugh Hendry Visits The Milken Institute (#macro)

Hugh Hendry interviewed in a panel discussion at the 2012 Milken Institute Global Conference

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • Global economy is “grossly distorted” by two fixed exchange regimes: the Euro (similar to the gold standard of the 1920s) and the Dollar-Renminbi
  • China is attempting to play the role of the “bridge”, just as Germany did in the 1920s, to help the global economy spend its way into recovery
  • Two types of leverage: operational and financial; Germany is a country w/ operational leverage; Golden Rule of Operational Leverage, “Never, never countenance having financial leverage”, this explains Germany’s financial prudence and why they’ll reject a transfer union
  • Transfer of economic rent in Europe; redistribution of rents within Europe, the trade is short the financial sector, long the export sector
  • Heading toward Euro parity w/ the dollar, if not lower; results in profound economic advantage especially for businesses with operational leverage
  • “The thing I fear” is confiscation: of client’s assets, my assets; we are 1 year away from true nationalization of French banks
  • Theme of US being supplanted as global leader, especially by Chinese, is overwrought
  • Why US will not be easily overtaken: when US had its “China moment”, it was on a gold standard…
    • implication, as an entrepreneur, you had one chance– get it right or you’re finished
    • today is a world of mercantilism, money-printing, the  entrepreneur has been devalued because you get a 2nd, 3rd, 4th chance
    • when the US had its emergence on a hard money system, it built foundations which are “rock solid”
    • today, this robust society has restructured debt, restructured the cost of labor, has cleared property at market levels
    • additionally, “God has intervened”, w/ progress in shale oil extraction technology; US paying $2, Europe $10, Asians $14-18
  • Dollar is only going to go one way, higher; this is like early 1980/82
  • “I haven’t finished Atlas Shrugged, I can’t finish it”: it’s too depressing; it reads like non-fiction, she’s describing the world of today
  • The short sale ban was an attack on free thought; people have died in wars for the privilege to stand up and say “The Emperor has no clothes”; banned short selling because truth is unpalatable to political class; the scale and magnitude of the problem is greater than their ability to respond
  • We are single digit years away from a most profound market-clearing moment, on the order of 1932 or 1982, where you don’t need smarts, you just need to be long
  • Hard-landing scenario in Asia combined w/ recession in Europe would result in “bottoming” process, at which point all you need is courage to go long

How Does Amazon Avoid Creating It’s Own Mini-Depression? ($AMZN, #economics)

According to a new article at Slate, Amazon will soon (within the next 12 months) be offering it’s Kindle e-reader device for “free.” Here’s the part of the story that interested me the most:

Every time Amazon drops the price of the Kindle, sales of the device and sales of Kindle books increase dramatically.

This is curious. According to conventional economic views of the business-cycle, depressions occur when nominal price shocks occur in the economy which reduce the amount of aggregate spending, promoting further price decreases by businesses, which lead to even more reductions in spending as consumers become convinced that if they just wait a little bit longer, they can buy what they need at a lower price.

Next thing you know, spending has collapsed into the notorious and much-feared “death spiral” and the economy grinds to a halt. Mass unemployment, the fall of social morality and Huns impaling the babies of screaming mothers on top of their bayonets. The yooj.

But at Amazon, every time they lower prices, people spend more.

How come when Amazon does it, it creates more business and an environment where everyone (consumers and Amazon as a business) prospers, but when it happens in the economy at large, we get a death spiral and impaled babies?

Somewhere, there’s a disconnect between micro and macro. The secret (that the Keynesians never share and refuse to explain) is how and why this necessarily happens. Good luck figuring it out, I still haven’t!

The Total Vapidity Of Modern Economic Thinkers (#economics)

Here are three responses to the prompt, “Identify the biggest unanswered questions in economics and predict what breakthroughs will define it a decade or two hence” from some of the so-called brightest young minds in economic thinking today. But beware– one of the three is a parody, not a sincere response.

Response #1

I see a big payback to integrating psychology, anthropology, and history into economics more directly, using real-world data to understand how prices, output, and inequality relate to institutions, norms, education, and taxes. And vice versa.

Response #2

The modeling of agents with bounded rationality will help us build economic models (in particular, macroeconomic and financial models) and institutions that better take into account the limitations of human reason.

Reason #3

In an increasingly globalized world, the search for answers will necessarily require a much deeper understanding of three areas that interest me. One, we need a better understanding of the interlinkages across countries in trade, finance, and macroeconomic policy.

Which is which? For the answer, visit Eric Falkenstein’s blog.