Review – The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck

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

by Mark Manson, published 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Embrace the struggle as necessary and vital.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With great responsibility comes great power.”

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

Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense.

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

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

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

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

Life is about not knowing and then doing something anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This also dovetails with the simplicity mindset of Marie Kondo’s “Life-Changing Magic”. When you live life simply and rid yourself of ill-used possessions, you commit yourself to fuller utilization of the possessions that remain. You commit to a particular use pattern and give up the elusive dream of having and using it all, which is impossible. The things you discard are marginalia, they are unimportant, frivolous things in your life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Family Fortunes

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

by Bill Bonner, Will Bonner, published 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Time To Build A Fortune Is Now

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.

Notes – Horizon Kinetics 2015 Compendium

For the last two years, Murray Stahl and Steve Bregman of Horizon Kinetics have published a “Compendium Compilation” of their various research pieces and market commentaries throughout the year. I recently requested copies of the 2014 and 2015 compendiums and just completed reading through the 2015 compendium. What follows are “stitched together” quotes from several of the essays.

The Indexation Experience

An active manager always can be found to be deficient if underperformance relative to an appropriate index is discovered. In fact, a manager can be found to be deficient if a return generated is equivalent to the appropriate index… one could always purchase the index as the less expensive investment alternative.

How does one judge an index to be deficient?

Since short-term interest rates approach zero in most regions of the world, the valuation environment is very benign… most governments during this period have embarked upon grand fiscal stimulus efforts that are now becoming unsustainable.

When one measures a manager relative to an index, is one measuring investment acumen or marketing ability?

The manager… will purchase a security until the expected excess rate of return is zero. The index… is marketed until the marginal revenue from a product is zero, which is an entirely different concept.

The index is not constrained by valuation.

Most indexes, in the fullness of time, do not earn impressive rates of return.

Problems With Indexation

When indexation excludes the so-called marginal securities, two things happen. The marginal securities are the stocks where the volatility really resides, which means the index is going to lose its volatility. Second, the marginal securities are an important contributor to what would have been the return… their negative impact gets captured on the way down– but the positive return impact does not get captured on the way up.

It is the nature of a market capitalization weighted index that it is always un-diversifying.

Diversification

The problem with such an approach [wide diversification] is that it is quite impossible for any individual, or even a team of individuals, to have a good working knowledge of the individual investments at a security level. The portfolio can only be understood in terms of its statistical attributes… CalPERS… has about 20,349 individual investments.

If a team of 10 analysts were to work eight hours a day for three months, which is 22 business days per month, with no interruptions, the team would have at its disposal 10 x 8 x 3 x 22 man-hours to read 20,349 quarterly reports. This amounts to 5,280 man-hours available to read 20,349 quarterly reports, which equates to slightly more than 15 minutes per quarterly report… It should be obvious that success or failure in this endeavor must depend upon whether the statistical attributes of the portfolio provide the data necessary to make intelligent asset allocation decisions… it is impossible to devise a simple list of fundamental statistics to be used to comprehend a portfolio… because of differences in corporate expenditure practices, depreciation policies, tax laws in various jurisdictions, and GAAP vs. IFRS accounting.

The many diversified funds that purchase the most liquid securities must by definition generally own the same securities, since there is only one set of liquid securities. If the diversified institutions, therefore, own the same securities, when studying the price behavior of those securities, those institutions are, in reality, studying themselves.

If one believes in the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, then securities prices must reflect the beliefs of the holders of the securities. Yet, as shown above, the holders of securities do not study the securities. In fact, given diversification practices, it is not possible to study the securities. It is only possible that the investors study one another. Thus, one is confronted with a feedback loop or a huge self-reference paradox, as one may see in the paintings of M.C. Escher, such as Waterfall or Drawing Hands.

Another interesting case is the Singapore Index… returned 3.2% per annum. The mere fact that the economy of Singapore grew at over 6% per annum for more than 18 years does not correlate well with the stock market return for the simple reason that the Singaporean companies in the index are global companies. These results reflect many factors apart from the economy of Singapore.

Similarly, the Swedish index does not necessarily reflect the economy of Sweden. And the UK index does not necessarily reflect the economy of the UK.

The thrust of these facts is to question, if not actually reject, the geographical form of classification as an asset allocation building block. That calls into question the entire international method of investing. The characteristics of equities have little to do with the legal place of domicile of a given firm. However, on a weekly basis the Investment Company Institute records $3 billion to $4 billion withdrawn from domestic equity funds and deposited into international equity funds in search of diversification and risk control attributes that simply do not exist. As has been the case with many widely held investment beliefs without foundation, this will not have a good outcome.

Inefficient Markets

[Fischer Black] said that there are people who are highly knowledgeable about certain companies– the information traders– and when they trade, they are very well informed. Most others, however, are not so well informed; they are the noise traders.

[Fischer Black’s concept of] efficient markets was that if the bulk of investors were in an index that, as he defined it, would include every stock out there– everything– the noise traders would go there. That would eliminate the bulk of the noise traders from the active marketplace, so only the information traders would be trading. They would not go into the index, because they are highly informed, and the market would be much more efficient in the sense that it would reflect the judgments of informed participants.

If one reflects upon this matter [Carl Icahn’s letter to Apple], one will see that Mr. Icahn has posed an exceedingly profound question to all investors, and especially academics. Apple is the largest company in the world. It is arguably the most ubiquitous company in the world. Billions of people use Apple products daily and are very familiar with those products. If there is any equity in the world that should be priced efficiently, it should be Apple.

Yet, Apple has a lower P/E than companies such as Exxon, Coca-cola, and even Philip Morris International. One might debate the future prospects for Apple, but surely these are more robust than those of Philip Morris International. Does anyone assert that demand for cigarettes will increase?

The money manager industry is not populated by Homo Economicus, carefully and rationally evaluating different investment opportunities. The money manager can only survive by attracting assets to manage for a fee.

Modern financial theory cannot explain momentum because, if the stock market is efficient, there should be no serial correlation observed in securities… momentum investing is not a new innovation. It is a concept virtually as old as the idea of a stock market, although it has not always been called “momentum.” Technical analysis is essentially a search for securities with momentum.

It is now possible to raise substantial sums for almost any index if the rate of return is sufficiently high. It is nearly impossible to raise money for any index if the rate of return is insufficiently high, let alone if that return happens to be negative. This is not the asset allocation process. This is the momentum process. The industry makes use of a substantial marketing budget, It clearly influences the valuations not only of individual securities but of entire sectors, and it dominates, for the time being, the investment process.

Other Remarks

  • Is modern risk control methodology actually serving to reduce risk or is it merely convincing professional investors to accept, perhaps unwittingly, another type of risk?
  • It should be noted that the real was not always the currency of Brazil. There were cruzeiros, there were cruzadoes, and now we have the real. That in itself should tell the reader something about the stability of the currency.
  • Historically, that is what emerging market debt was: questionable claims against governments.
  • Bonds should be thought of in the following way: they offer risk with no possibility of reward, especially if you are a taxable investor.

 

Sorry, The Economy Is Officially Closed

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.

Notes – Best Practices in Deal Flow Origination

These notes are from an article entitled “Where Are The Deals?” by David Teten. He also has resources on adding value to portfolio companies which are worth browsing. For notes on a related topic, check out the “Notes – Stanford Graduate School of Business Search Fund Primer” post.

  • the median investor in private companies had to review 80 companies in order to close one transaction
  • investments sourced through personal and professional networks have been shown to yield better results
  • in order to train your relationships, it is important that you provide them with simple, clear investing criteria, not lengthy checklists; provide them a narrowly defined niche of interest (“Retail brands with $50M in annual revenues”)
  • on average it can take 1-2 years between the first meeting with a target CEO sourced through a network and the close of the deal
  • market mapping, identifying key macro and micro drivers of an industry and creating a database of all key companies; identify those with greatest growth potential or competitive white space
  • specialization enhances deal origination through deeper knowledge base, ability to add value through enhanced network and likelihood of being top of mind to key deal sources
  •  monitor target sector for cyclical opportunities and structure shifts; M&A creates orphan divisions and downturns cause strategy refocuses; 30-46% of PE returns over last 30 years driven by EBIT arbitrage (market timing)
  • other valuable sources of deal flow:
    • regional surveys
    • “fastest growing company” lists
    • trade association membership lists
    • commercial vendors
      • Amadeus
      • Capital IQ
      • Dun & Bradstreet
      • Hoover’s
      • InfoUSA
      • Lexis-Nexis
      • Thomson-Reuters
      • OneSource
  • set up alerts in a blog reader based on key words important to your target or industry focus
  • “A large portion of my deal flow comes from people I have rejected in the past.” be kind to everyone, even those you don’t do a deal with
  • consider having a dedicated, SEO-optimized website and blog for your acquisition fund/team that explains what you’re looking for, why, what you bring to the table, etc.; many VCs and most PE investors are not using basic internet marketing techniques (competitive advantage opportunity)
  • Accel Partners and Khosla Ventures post detailed analyses of their target investment sectors; blogging and posting of internal analyses is the “VC freemium model”
  • PE investing is a relationship business and the most important relationships are with LPs, entrepreneurs, executives and intermediaries which are relatively few in number
  • blogging is the best tool for VC investing according to one experienced observer; helps investor gain information, credibility and relationships through improved visibility
  • look for access to secondary interests through directly approaching funds (particularly distressed), markets for secondary interests (SecondMarket, NYPPEX, PORTAL Alliance) and approaching ibanks specializing in secondary interests (Cogent Partners, Probitas, Triago, UBS)
  • service providers such as accountants, lawyers, etc., are typically not good sources of deal flow because they require too much education and often have a fiduciary responsibility to their client; on the other hand, connecting with service providers in a specialized domain that is being targeted can be a good source of insight
  • trawl the Q&A portion of sites such as LinkedIn to identify domain experts for further outreach
  • measure your deal origination efforts with activity measures, deal flow by source, pipeline analytics and industry benchmarking measures
  • many professional services firms do not use a global CRM system such as Salesforce.com, Act, Saleslogix, Microsoft Access or Angelsoft (angel/VC network)
  • Key data sources for CRM systems include employee networks (ContactNet Enterprise Relationship Management), business cards (Cardscan, IRIS, Neat, Presto), data from email and files (eGrabber, Gwabbit, Grab-Text, Broadlook), the “cloud” (LinkedIn, Spoke, Plaxo) and direct from target companies’ websites, media, etc.

Key attributes of top originators in order of importance

  1. persistence (every no gets you closer to a yes)
  2. personality (people do business with those they like)
  3. business and financial judgment
  4. adequate financial sophistication
  5. seniority and appropriate title (decision-maker)
  6. internal authority to get transaction executed
  7. creativity

Important deal signals when identifying targets (utilize commercial databases, social media, data mining and targeted phone research to uncover)

  • Status of the major equity owner
    • PE funds motivated to sell due to fully invested, raising next fund or current fund has aged beyond 5-7 years
    • Large corp raising cash by selling subsidiaries
    • Time limited tax incentives
    • Family in midst of succession battle
    • Death, disease and divorce (“three Ds”)
  • Status of CEO
    • retirement
    • age
    • acknowledgement of limited competence
  • Corporate performance
    • growth too rapid for self-funding
    • underperforming/distressed
  • Industry/economic trends
    • industry consolidation
      • competitive pressure
      • seeing competitors liquidating equity for large gains
    • competitors raising capital; pressure to maintain parity
    • growth sector

Top considerations for deal intermediaries in directing deal flow

  1. Possibility of future revenue
  2. Integrity
  3. Timely responses
  4. “Fair” treatment of sellers
  5. Experience with the industry or owner type
  6. High certainty to close
  7. Friendship
  8. Feedback and referrals
  9. Maintaining a single point of contact

Most valued aspects of acquiring companies by the acquired

  1. Added operational value
  2. No extra costs
  3. Fair treatment of employees post-transaction
  4. Brand
  5. Long holding periods (no buy-to-flip)

Leading databases of institutional investors (use principles of SEO to optimize your profile here)

  • Galante’s
  • Grey House
  • VentureXpert
  • PE funds
    • Eurekahedge
    • Pitchbook
  • VC funds
    • Angelsoft
    • CrunchBase
    • PWC MoneyTree
    • TheFunded
    • VentureDeal

Market Mapping steps

  1. choose industries and geographies of initial interest
  2. define your proprietary point of view
  3. translate into investment theme (industries/geographies of interest)
  4. list major players in target industry/geography
  5. improve market map with feedback from industry contacts and investment targets
  6. determine which activities offer the highest return and outsource the rest
  7. identify areas of future growth
  8. asses fit with your overall strategy
  9. regularly update the market map with additional feedback and lessons

10 Simple Steps to Improve Your Origination

  1. Analyze your network
  2. Use market mapping to develop deep, proprietary insights about your target
  3. Monitor target ecosystem for cyclical/structural opportunities
  4. Align internal interests
  5. Divide and conquer
  6. Centralize data and become an information sponge
  7. Develop a network with limited overlap
  8. Take control of your virtual presence (marketing)
  9. Join the in-person and virtual communities of your target market
  10. Take a leadership role; find a way to stand out and attract others to you

Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part V, Chap. 43-52

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder (buy on Amazon.com). This post covers Part V: The King of Wall Street, Chap. 43-52

The modern Buffett

In Part V of the Snowball, we see Buffett’s transformation from the early, cigar butt-picking, Grahamian value-minded Buffett, through the filter of his Fisherite partner, Charlie Munger, into the mega cap conglomerator and franchise-buyer Buffett who is popularly known to investors and the public the world round.

It is in this part that we also see Buffett make one of his biggest missteps, a stumble which almost turns into a fall and which either way appears to shock and humble the maturing Buffett. It is in this era of his investing life that we see Buffett make some of his biggest rationalizations, become entangled in numerous scandals he never would’ve tolerated in his past and dive ever deeper into the world of “elephant bumping” and gross philanthropy, partly under the tutelage of his new best friend and Microsoft-founder, Bill Gates.

The lesson

Buffett made a series of poor investments but ultimately survived them all because of MoS. There will be challenges, struggles, and stress. But after the storm, comes the calm.

The keys to the fortress

From the late seventies until the late nineties, despite numerous economic and financial cycles Buffett’s fortune grew relentlessly under a seemingly unstoppable torrent of new capital:

Much of the money used for Buffett’s late seventies spending spree came from a bonanza of float from insurance and trading stamps

This “float” (negative working capital which was paid to Buffett’s companies in advance of services rendered, which he was able to invest at a profit in the meantime) was market agnostic, meaning that its volume was not much affected by the financial market booming or crashing. For example, if you owe premiums on your homeowner’s insurance, you don’t get to suspend payment on your coverage just because the Dow Jones has sold off or the economy is officially in a recession.

The growth in Buffett’s fortune, the wilting of his family

Between 1978 and the end of 1983, the Buffetts’ net worth had increased by a stunning amount, from $89 million to $680 million

Meanwhile Buffett proves he’s ever the worthless parent:

he handed the kids their Berkshire stock without stressing how important it might be to them someday, explaining compounding, or mentioning that they could borrow against the stock without selling it

Buffett had once written to a friend when his children were toddlers that he wanted to see “what the tree has produced” before deciding what to do about giving them money

(he didn’t actively parent though)

Buffett’s private equity shop

Another tool in Buffett’s investment arsenal was to purchase small private companies with dominant franchises and little need for capital reinvestment whose excess earnings could be siphoned off and used to make other investments in the public financial markets.

Continuing on with his success in acquiring the See’s Candy company, Buffett’s next private equity-style buyout involved the Nebraska Furniture Mart, run by a devoted Russian immigrant named Rose Blumkin and her family. And, much like the department store chain he once bought for a song from an emotionally-motivated seller, Buffett beat out a German group offering Rose Blumkin over $90M for her company, instead settling with Buffett on $55M for 90% of the company, quite a discount for a “fair valuation” of practically an entire business in the private market, especially considering the competing bid.

An audit of the company after purchase showed that the store was worth $85M. According to Rose Blumkin, the store earned $15M a year, meaning Buffett got it for 4x earnings. But Rose had buyers remorse and she eventually opened up a competing shop across the street from the one she had sold, waging war on the NFM until Buffett offered to buy her out for $5M, including the use of her name and her lease.

One secret to Buffett’s success in the private equity field? Personality:

“She really liked and trusted me. She would make up her mind about people and that was that.”

Buffett’s special privileges

On hiding Rose Blumkin’s financial privacy: Buffet had no worries about getting a waiver from the SEC

Buffett got special dispensation from the SEC to not disclose his trades until the end of the year “to avoid moving markets”

The gorilla escapes its cage

Another theme of Buffett’s investing in the late 1980s and 1990s was his continual role as a “gorilla” investor who could protect potential LBO-targets from hostile takeover bids. The first of these was his $517M investment for 15% of Tom Murphy-controlled Cap Cities/ABC, a media conglomerate. Buffett left the board of the Washington Post to join the board of his latest investment.

Another white knight scenario involved Buffett’s investment in Ohio conglomerate Scott Fetzer, which Berkshire purchased for $410M.

Then Buffett got into Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street arbitrage shop that was being hunted by private equity boss Ron Perelman. Buffett bought $700M of preferred stock w/ a 9% coupon that was convertible into common stock at $38/share, for a total return potential of about 15%. It even came with a put option to return it to Salomon and get his money back.

But Buffett had stepped outside of his circle of competence:

He seemed to understand little of the details of how the business was run, and adjusting to a business that wasn’t literally made of bricks-and-mortar or run like an assembly line was not easy for him… he had made the investment in Salomon purely because of Gutfreund

Buffett’s disgusting ignorance and hypocrisy

Buffett:

I would force you to give back a huge chunk to society, so that hospitals get built and kids get educated too

Buffett decides to sell the assets of Berkshire’s textile mills– on the books for $50M, he gets $163,122 at the auction. He refused to face his workers and then had the gall to say

“The market isn’t perfect. You can’t rely on the market to give every single person a decent living.”

Buffett on John Gutfreund:

an outstanding, honorable man of integrity

Assorted quotes

Peter Kiewit, a wealthy businessman from Omaha, on reputation:

A reputation is like fine china: expensive to acquire, and easily broken… If you’re not sure if something is right or wrong, consider whether you’d want it reported in the morning paper

Buffett on Wall St:

Wall Street is the only place people ride to in a Rolls-Royce to get advice from people who take the subway

Notes – Stanford Graduate School of Business Search Fund Primer

Notes on “A Primer On Search Funds” produced by the Stanford Graduate School of Business

“The Search Fund”

  • Greater than 20% of search funds have not acquired a company
  • Stages of the Search Fund model:
  • Raise initial capital (2-6mos)
  • Search for acquisition (1-30mos)
  • Raise acquisition capital and close transaction (6mos)
  • Operation and value creation (4-7+ years)
  • Exit (6mos)
  • SFs target industries not subject to rapid tech change, easy to understand, fragmented geographic or product markets, growing
  • Highest quality deals are found outside broker network/open market due to lack of auction dynamics
  • Research shows that partnerships are more likely to complete an acquisition and have a successful outcome than solo searchers (71% yielded positive return, 15 of top 20 performing funds were partnerships)
  • Principals budget a salary of $80,000-120,000 per year w/ median amount raised per principal $300,000~
  • Majority of the economic benefit of SF comes through principal’s earned equity; entrepreneur/partners receive 15-30% equity stake in acquired company in three tranches
  • Investors typically receive preference over the SFer, ensuring investment is repaid, with return attached, before SFer receives equity value
  • Individual IRR from 2003-2011 median was not meaningful, heavily skewed toward 75th percentile where median was 26% in 2011; 57% of individual IRRs were not meaningful in 2011; the median fund destroyed capital in 2009 (0.5x) and 2011 (0.8x); 58% in 2011 broke even or lost money
  • Half of the funds that represent a total or partial loss were funds that did not acquire a company; biggest risk is in not acquiring a company at all
  • Median acquisition multiples: 1.1x revenues; 5.1x EBITDA
  • Median deal size, $8.5M

“Raising a Fund”

  • Search fund capital should come from investors with the ability and willingness to participate in the acquisition round of capital raising

“Search Fund Economics”

  • Search fund investors often participate at a stepped up rate of 150% of original investment in acquired company securities

“Setting Criteria and Evaluating Industries”

  • Desirable characteristics for a target industry: fragmented, growing, sizable in terms of revenues and number of companies, straightforward operations, early in industry lifecycle, high number of companies in target size range
  • Desirable characteristics for a target company: healthy and sustainable profit margins (>15% EBIT), competitive advantage, recurring revenue model, history of cash flow generation, motivated seller for non-business reasons, fits financial criteria ($10-30M in revs, >$1.5M EBITDA), multiple avenues for growth, solid middle management, available financing, reasonable valuation, realistic liquidity options in 3-6 years
  • Key challenge is “know when to take the train” lest a SF never leaves the station waiting for the perfect opportunity
  • Ideally, seller is ready to transition out of the business for retirement or personal circumstances or has something else they’d like to do professionally
  • Experience shows it is better to pay full price for a good company than a “bargain” for a bad one
  • Idea generation: SIC and NAICS codes, Yahoo! Finance, Thomson Financial industry listings, Inc. 5000 companies, public stock OTC and NASDAQ lists and even the Yellow Pages; generate a list of 75 potential industries to start
  • Target industries buoyed by a mega-trend
  • Can also target an industry in which the SFer has worked and possesses an established knowledge base and network
  • Some focus on 2-3 “super priority” industry criteria (eg, recurring revenues, ability to scale, min # of potential targets, etc.)
  • Objective is to pare down the industry target list to 5-10 most promising
  • Basic industry analysis (Porter’s five forces, etc.) is then used to narrow from 10 to 3; SFers use public equity research and annual reports for market size, growth, margin benchmarks; also Capital IQ, Hoover’s, Dun & Bradstreet and One Source
  • Industry insiders (business owners, trade association members, sales or business development professionals) and industry trade associations or affiliated ibanks and advisory firms are primary methods of research and often have general industry research or white papers available
  • Next step is to create a thesis to codify accumulated knowledge and compare opportunities across common metric set in order to make go/no-go decision
  • In order to become an industry insider, SFers typically attend tradeshows, meet with business owners, interview customers and suppliers and develop “River Guides”

“The Search”

  • Median # of months spent searching, 19
  • 54% spend less than 20 months searching, 25% spend 21-30 months, 21% spend 30+ months
  • Track acquisition targets with CRM software such as Salesforce, Zoho, Sugar CRM
  • Bring up financial criteria and valuation ranges as early as possible when speaking to potential acquisition targets to save everyone time
  • A company that is too large or too small as an acquisition target may still be worth talking to for information
  • You must immediately sound useful, credible or relevant to the owner; deep industry analysis should already have been performed at this stage
  • Trade shows can be a critical source of deal flow
  • If a particular owner is not willing to sell, ask if he knows others who are
  • “River Guides” are typically compensated with a deal success fee, usually .5-1% of total deal size
  • Boutique investment banks, accounting firms and legal practices specializing in the industry in question are also a good source of deals
  • The business broker community itself is extremely large and fragmented; could be a good rollup target?
  • Often, brokered deals are only shown if a private equity investor with committed capital has already passed on the deal, presenting an adverse selection problem
  • Involve your financing sources (such as lenders and investors) early in the deal process to ensure their commitment and familiarity

“Evaluating Target Businesses”

  • Principles of time management: clarify goals of each stage of evaluation and structure work to meet those goals; recognize that perfect information is an unrealistic goal; keep a list of prioritized items impacting the go/no-go decision
  • Stages: first pass, valuation/LOI, comprehensive due diligence
  • It is in the best interest of the SFer to tackle core business issues personally during due diligence as it is the best way to learn the details of the business being taken over
  • Adding back the expenses of a failed product launch rewards the seller for a bad business decision; adding back growth expenses gives the seller the double benefit of capturing the growth without reflecting its true cost
  • Due diligence may also uncover deductions to EBITDA or unrealized expenses that reduce the “normalized” level of earnings (undermarket rents, inadequate insurance coverage, costs to upgrade existing systems, etc.)

“Transitioning Ownership and Management”

  • Create a detailed “Transition Services Agreement” with the seller, a legal contract where specific roles, responsibilities, defined time commitments and compensation are agreed prior to the transaction close
  • The first 100 days should be dedicated to learning the business
  • Businesses consist of people, and people need communication; great leaders are always great communicators
  • “Don’t listen to complaints about your predecessor, this can lead to a swamp and you don’t want to be mired there.”
  • The goal is to learn, not to make immediate changes
  • Outwork everyone; be the first person in and the last to leave
  • Many SFers insert themselves into the cash management process during the transition period by reviewing daily sales, invoices and receipts and signing every check/payment made by the company
  • The company’s board should be a mix of deep operational experience, specific industry or business model experience and financial expertise
  • The seeds of destruction for new senior leaders are often sown in the first 100 days

Review – Good To Great

Good To Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t

by Jim Collins, published 2001

The G2G Model

“Good To Great” seeks to answer the question, “Why do some good companies become great companies in terms of their market-beating stock performance, while competitors stagnate or decline?” After a deep dive into varied data sources with a team of tens of university researchers, Collins and his team arrived at an answer:

  1. Level 5 Leadership
  2. First Who… Then What
  3. Confront The Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)
  4. The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity Within The Three Circles)
  5. A Culture Of Discipline
  6. Technology Accelerators

The first two items capture the importance of “disciplined people”, the second two items refer to “disciplined thought” and the final pair embodies “disciplined action”. The concepts are further categorized, with the first three components representing the “build up”, the ducks that must be gotten into a row before the second category holding the last three components, “breakthrough”, can take place. The entire package is wrapped up in the physical metaphor of the “flywheel”, something an organization pushes on and pushes on until suddenly it rolls forward and gains momentum on its own.

This book found its way onto my radar several times so I finally decided to read it. I’d heard it mentioned as a good business book in many places but first took the idea of reading it seriously when I saw Geoff Gannon mention it as part of an essential “Value Investing 101” reading list. I didn’t actually follow through on the initial impulse until I took a “leadership science” course recently in which this book was emphasized as worth covering.

I found G2G to be almost exactly what I expected– a rather breathless, New Age-y, pseudo-philosophical and kinda-scientific handbook to basic principles of organizational management and business success.  The recommendations contained within range from the seemingly reasonable to the somewhat suspect and the author and his research team take great pains to make the case that they have built their findings on an empirical foundation but I found the “We had no theories or preconceived notions, we just looked at what the numbers said” reasoning scary. This is actually the opposite of science, you’re supposed to have some theories and then look at whether the data confirms or denies them. Data by itself can’t tell you anything and deriving theory from data patterns is the essence of fallacious pattern-fitting.

Those caveats out of the way, the book is still hard to argue with. Why would an egotistical maniac for a leader be a good thing in anything but a tyrannical political regime, for example? How would having “the wrong people on the bus” be a benefit to an organization? What would be the value in having an undisciplined culture of people who refuse to see reality for what it is?

What I found most interesting about the book is the way in which all the principles laid out essentially tend to work toward the common goal of creating a controlled decision-making structure for a business organization to protect it from the undue influence of big egos and wandering identities alike. In other words, the principles primarily address the psychological risks of business organizations connected to cult-like dependency on great leaders, tendency toward self-delusional thinking and the urge to try everything or take the easy way out rather than focus on obvious strengths. This approach has many corollaries to the value investing framework of Benjamin Graham who ultimately saw investor psychology as the biggest obstacle to investor performance.

I don’t have the time or interest to confirm this hypothesis but I did wonder how many of the market-beating performances cataloged were due primarily to financial leverage used by the organization in question, above and beyond the positive effects of their organizational structure.

A science is possible in all realms of human inquiry into the state of nature. Man and his business organizations are a part of nature and thus they fall under the rubric of potential scientific inquiry. I don’t think we’re there yet with most of what passes for business “research” and management or organizational science, but here and there the truth peeks out. “Good To Great” probably offers some clues but it’s hard to know precisely what is the wheat and what is the chaff here. Clearly if you inverted all of the recommendations of the book and tried to operate a business that way you’d meet your demise rather quickly, but that is not the same thing as saying that the recommendations as stated will lead in the other direction to greatness, or that they necessarily explain the above-average market return of these public companies.

I took a lot of notes in the margin and highlighted things that “sounded good” to me but on revisiting them I am not sure how many are as truly useful as they first seemed when I read them. I think the biggest takeaway I had from the book was the importance of questioning everything, not only as a philosophical notion but also as a practical business tool for identifying problems AND solutions.

Review – Quantitative Value

Quantitative Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Automating Intelligent Investment and Eliminating Behavioral Errors + website

by Wesley R. Gray and Tobias E. Carlisle, published 2012

The root of all investors’ problems

In 2005, renowned value investing guru Joel Greenblatt published a book that explained his Magic Formula stock investing program– rank the universe of stocks by price and quality, then buy a basket of companies that performed best according to the equally-weighted measures. The Magic Formula promised big profits with minimal effort and even less brain damage.

But few individual investors were able to replicate Greenblatt’s success when applying the formula themselves. Why?

By now it’s an old story to anyone in the value community, but the lesson learned is that the formula provided a ceiling to potential performance and attempts by individual investors to improve upon the model’s picks actually ended up detracting from that performance, not adding to it. There was nothing wrong with the model, but there was a lot wrong with the people using it because they were humans prone to behavioral errors caused by their individual psychological profiles.

Or so Greenblatt said.

Building from a strong foundation, but writing another chapter

On its face, “Quantitative Value” by Gray and Carlisle is simply building off the work of Greenblatt. But Greenblatt was building off of Buffett, and Buffett and Greenblatt were building off of Graham. Along with integral concepts like margin of safety, intrinsic value and the Mr. Market-metaphor, the reigning thesis of Graham’s classic handbook, The Intelligent Investor, was that at the end of the day, every investor is their own worst enemy and it is only by focusing on our habit to err on a psychological level that we have any hope of beating the market (and not losing our capital along the way), for the market is nothing more than the aggregate total of all psychological failings of the public.

It is in this sense that the authors describe their use of “quantitative” as,

the antidote to behavioral error

That is, rather than being a term that symbolizes mathematical discipline and technical rigor and computer circuits churning through financial probabilities,

It’s active value investing performed systematically.

The reason the authors are beholden to a quantitative, model-based approach is because they see it as a reliable way to overcome the foibles of individual psychology and fully capture the value premium available in the market. Success in value investing is process-driven, so the two necessary components of a successful investment program based on value investing principles are 1) choosing a sound process for identifying investment opportunities and 2) consistently investing in those opportunities when they present themselves. Investors cost themselves precious basis points every year when they systematically avoid profitable opportunities due to behavioral errors.

But the authors are being modest because that’s only 50% of the story. The other half of the story is their search for a rigorous, empirically back-tested improvement to the Greenblattian Magic Formula approach. The book shines in a lot of ways but this search for the Holy Grail of Value particularly stands out, not just because they seem to have found it, but because all of the things they (and the reader) learn along the way are so damn interesting.

A sampling of biases

Leaning heavily on the research of Kahneman and Tversky, Quantitative Value offers a smorgasbord of delectable cognitive biases to choose from:

  • overconfidence, placing more trust in our judgment than is due given the facts
  • self-attribution bias, tendency to credit success to skill, and failure to luck
  • hindsight bias, belief in ability to predict an event that has already occurred (leads to assumption that if we accurately predicted the past, we can accurately predict the future)
  • neglect of the base case and the representativeness heuristic, ignoring the dependent probability of an event by focusing on the extent to which one possible event represents another
  • availability bias, heavier weighting on information that is easier to recall
  • anchoring and adjustment biases, relying too heavily on one piece of information against all others; allowing the starting point to strongly influence a decision at the expense of information gained later on

The authors stress, with numerous examples, the idea that value investors suffer from these biases much like anyone else. Following a quantitative value model is akin to playing a game like poker systematically and probabilistically,

The power of quantitative investing is in its relentless exploitation of edges

Good poker players make their money by refusing to make expensive mistakes by playing pots where the odds are against them, and shoving their chips in gleefully when they have the best of it. QV offers the same opportunity to value investors, a way to resist the temptation to make costly mistakes and ensure your chips are in the pot when you have winning percentages on your side.

A model development

Gray and Carlisle declare that Greenblatt’s Magic Formula was a starting point for their journey to find the best quantitative value approach. However,

Even with a great deal of data torture, we have not been able to replicate Greenblatt’s extraordinary results

Given the thoroughness of their data collection and back-testing elaborated upon in future chapters, this finding is surprising and perhaps distressing for advocates of the MF approach. Nonetheless, the authors don’t let that frustrate them too much and push on ahead to find a superior alternative.

They begin their search with an “academic” approach to quantitative value, “Quality and Price”, defined as:

Quality, Gross Profitability to Total Assets = (Revenue – Cost of Goods Sold) / Total Assets

Price, Book Value-to-Market Capitalization = Book Value / Market Price

The reasons for choosing GPA as a quality measure are:

  • gross profit measures economic profitability independently of direct management decisions
  • gross profit is capital structure neutral
  • total assets are capital structure neutral (consistent w/ the numerator)
  • gross profit better predicts future stock returns and long-run growth in earnings and FCF

Book value-to-market is chosen because:

  • it more closely resembles the MF convention of EBIT/TEV
  • book value is more stable over time than earnings or cash flow

The results of the backtested horserace between the Magic Formula and the academic Quality and Price from 1964 to 2011 was that Quality and Price beat the Magic Formula with CAGR of 15.31% versus 12.79%, respectively.

But Quality and Price is crude. Could there be a better way, still?

Marginal improvements: avoiding permanent loss of capital

To construct a reliable quantitative model, one of the first steps is “cleaning” the data of the universe being examined by removing companies which pose a significant risk of permanent loss of capital because of signs of financial statement manipulation, fraud or a high probability of financial distress or bankruptcy.

The authors suggest that one tool for signaling earnings manipulation is scaled total accruals (STA):

STA = (Net Income – Cash Flow from Operations) / Total Assets

Another measure the authors recommend using is scaled net operating assets (SNOA):

SNOA = (Operating Assets – Operating Liabilities) / Total Assets

Where,

OA = total assets – cash and equivalents

OL = total assets – ST debt – LT debt – minority interest – preferred stock – book common equity

They stress,

STA and SNOA are not measures of quality… [they] act as gatekeepers. They keep us from investing in stocks that appear to be high quality

They also delve into a number of other metrics for measuring or anticipating risk of financial distress or bankruptcy, including a metric called “PROBMs” and the Altman Z-Score, which the authors have modified to create an improved version of in their minds.

Quest for quality

With the risk of permanent loss of capital due to business failure or fraud out of the way, the next step in the Quantitative Value model is finding ways to measure business quality.

The authors spend a good amount of time exploring various measures of business quality, including Warren Buffett’s favorites, Greenblatt’s favorites and those used in the Magic Formula and a number of other alternatives including proprietary measurements such as the FS_SCORE. But I won’t bother going on about that because buried within this section is a caveat that foreshadows a startling conclusion to be reached later on in the book:

Any sample of high-return stocks will contain a few stocks with genuine franchises but consist mostly of stocks at the peak of their business cycle… mean reversion is faster when it is further from its mean

More on that in a moment, but first, every value investor’s favorite subject– low, low prices!

Multiple bargains

Gray and Carlisle pit several popular price measurements against each other and then run backtests to determine the winner:

  • Earnings Yield = Earnings / Market Cap
  • Enterprise Yield(1) = EBITDA / TEV
  • Enterprise Yield(2) = EBIT / TEV
  • Free Cash Flow Yield = FCF / TEV
  • Gross Profits Yield = GP / TEV
  • Book-to-Market = Common + Preferred BV / Market Cap
  • Forward Earnings Estimate = FE / Market Cap

The result:

the simplest form of the enterprise multiple (the EBIT variation) is superior to alternative price ratios

with a CAGR of 14.55%/yr from 1964-2011, with the Forward Earnings Estimate performing worst at an 8.63%/yr CAGR.

Significant additional backtesting and measurement using Sharpe and Sortino ratios lead to another conclusion, that being,

the enterprise multiple (EBIT variation) metric offers the best risk/reward ratio

It also captures the largest value premium spread between glamour and value stocks. And even in a series of tests using normalized earnings figures and composite ratios,

we found the EBIT enterprise multiple comes out on top, particularly after we adjust for complexity and implementation difficulties… a better compound annual growth rate, higher risk-adjusted values for Sharpe and Sortino, and the lowest drawdown of all measures analyzed

meaning that a simple enterprise multiple based on nothing more than the last twelve months of data shines compared to numerous and complex price multiple alternatives.

But wait, there’s more!

The QV authors also test insider and short seller signals and find that,

trading on opportunistic insider buys and sells generates around 8 percent market-beating return per year. Trading on routine insider buys and sells generates no additional return

and,

short money is smart money… short sellers are able to identify overvalued stocks to sell and also seem adept at avoiding undervalued stocks, which is useful information for the investor seeking to take a long position… value investors will find it worthwhile to examine short interest when analyzing potential long investments

This book is filled with interesting micro-study nuggets like this. This is just one of many I chose to mention because I found it particularly relevant and interesting to me. More await for the patient reader of the whole book.

Big and simple

In the spirit of Pareto’s principle (or the 80/20 principle), the author’s of QV exhort their readers to avoid the temptation to collect excess information when focusing on only the most important data can capture a substantial part of the total available return:

Collecting more and more information about a stock will not improve the accuracy of our decision to buy or not as much as it will increase our confidence about the decision… keep the strategy austere

In illustrating their point, they recount a funny experiment conducted by Paul Watzlawick in which two subjects oblivious of one another are asked to make rules for distinguishing between certain conditions of an object under study. What the participants don’t realize is that one individual (A) is given accurate feedback on the accuracy of his rule-making while the other (B) is fed feedback based on the decisions of the hidden other, invariably leading to confusion and distress. B comes up with a complex, twisted rationalization for his  decision-making rules (which are highly inaccurate) whereas A, who was in touch with reality, provides a simple, concrete explanation of his process. However, it is A who is ultimately impressed and influenced by the apparent sophistication of B’s thought process and he ultimately adopts it only to see his own accuracy plummet.

The lesson is that we do better with simple rules which are better suited to navigating reality, but we prefer complexity. As an advocate of Austrian economics (author Carlisle is also a fan), I saw it as a wink and a nod toward why it is that Keynesianism has come to dominate the intellectual climate of the academic and political worlds despite it’s poor predictive ability and ferociously arbitrary complexity compared to the “simplistic” Austrian alternative theory.

But I digress.

Focusing on the simple and most effective rules is not just a big idea, it’s a big bombshell. The reason this is so is because the author’s found that,

the Magic Formula underperformed its price metric, the EBIT enterprise multiple… ROC actually detracts from the Magic Formula’s performance [emphasis added]

Have I got your attention now?

The trouble is that the Magic Formula equally weights price and quality, when the reality is that a simple price metric like buying at high enterprise value yields (that is, at low enterprise value multiples) is much more responsible for subsequent outperformance than the quality of the enterprise being purchased. Or, as the authors put it,

the quality measures don’t warrant as much weight as the price ratio because they are ephemeral. Why pay up for something that’s just about to evaporate back to the mean? […] the Magic Formula systematically overpays for high-quality firms… an EBIT/TEV yield of 10 percent or lower [is considered to be the event horizon for “glamour”]… glamour inexorably leads to poor performance

All else being equal, quality is a desirable thing to have… but not at the expense of a low price.

The Joe the Plumbers of the value world

The Quantitative Value strategy is impressive. According to the authors, it is good for between 6-8% a year in alpha, or market outperformance, over a long period of time. Unfortunately, it is also, despite the emphasis on simplistic models versus unwarranted complexity, a highly technical approach which is best suited for the big guys in fancy suits with pricey data sources as far as wholesale implementation is concerned.

So yes, they’ve built a better mousetrap (compared to the Magic Formula, at least), but what are the masses of more modest mice to do?

I think a cheap, simplified Everyday Quantitative Value approach process might look something like this:

  1. Screen for ease of liquidity (say, $1B market cap minimum)
  2. Rank the universe of stocks by price according to the powerful EBIT/TEV yield (could screen for a minimum hurdle rate, 15%+)
  3. Run quantitative measurements and qualitative evaluations on the resulting list to root out obvious signals to protect against risk of permanent loss by eliminating earnings manipulators, fraud and financial distress
  4. Buy a basket of the top 25-30 results for diversification purposes
  5. Sell and reload annually

I wouldn’t even bother trying to qualitatively assess the results of such a model because I think that runs the immediate and dangerous risk which the authors strongly warn against of our propensity to systematically detract from the performance ceiling of the model by injecting our own bias and behavioral errors into the decision-making process.

Other notes and unanswered questions

“Quantitative Value” is filled with shocking stuff. In clarifying that the performance of their backtests is dependent upon particular market conditions and political history unique to the United States from 1964-2011, the authors make reference to

how lucky the amazing performance of the U.S. equity markets has truly been… the performance of the U.S. stock market has been the exception, not the rule

They attach a chart which shows the U.S. equity markets leading a cohort of long-lived, high-return equity markets including Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Norway and Chile. Japan, a long-lived equity market in its own right, has offered a negative annual return over its lifetime. And the PIIGS and BRICs are consistent as a group in being some of the shortest-lifespan, lowest-performing (many net negative real returns since inception) equity markets measured in the study. It’s also fascinating to see that the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Japan and Spain all had exchanges established approximately at the same time– how and why did this uniform development occur in these particular countries?

Another fascinating item was Table 12.6, displaying “Selected Quantitative Value Portfolio Holdings” of the top 5 ranked QV holdings for each year from 1974 through 2011. The trend in EBIT/TEV yields over time was noticeably downward, market capitalization rates trended upward and numerous names were also Warren Buffett/Berkshire Hathaway picks or were connected to other well-known value investors of the era.

The authors themselves emphasized that,

the strategy favors large, well-known stocks primed for market-beating performance… [including] well-known, household names, selected at bargain basement prices

Additionally, in a comparison dated 1991-2011, the QV strategy compared favorably in a number of important metrics and was superior in terms of CAGR with vaunted value funds such as Sequoia, Legg Mason and Third Avenue.

After finishing the book, I also had a number of questions that I didn’t see addressed specifically in the text, but which hopefully the authors will elaborate upon on their blogs or in future editions, such as:

  1. Are there any reasons why QV would not work in other countries besides the US?
  2. What could make QV stop working in the US?
  3. How would QV be impacted if using lower market cap/TEV hurdles?
  4. Is there a market cap/TEV “sweet spot” for the QV strategy according to backtests? (the authors probably avoided addressing this because they emphasize their desire to not massage the data or engage in selection bias, but it’s still an interesting question for me)
  5. What is the maximum AUM you could put into this strategy?
  6. Would more/less rebalancing hurt/improve the model’s results?
  7. What is the minimum diversification (number of portfolio positions) needed to implement QV effectively?
  8. Is QV “businesslike” in the Benjamin Graham-sense?
  9. How is margin of safety defined and calculated according to the QV approach?
  10. What is the best way for an individual retail investor to approximate the QV strategy?

There’s also a companion website for the book available at: www.wiley.com/go/quantvalue

Conclusion

I like this book. A lot. As a “value guy”, you always like being able to put something like this down and make a witty quip about how it qualifies as a value investment, or it’s intrinsic value is being significantly discounted by the market, or what have you. I’ve only scratched the surface here in my review, there’s a ton to chew on for anyone who delves in and I didn’t bother covering the numerous charts, tables, graphs, etc., strewn throughout the book which serve to illustrate various concepts and claims explored.

I do think this is heady reading for a value neophyte. And I am not sure, as a small individual investor, how suitable all of the information, suggestions and processes contained herein are for putting into practice for myself. Part of that is because it’s obvious that to really do the QV strategy “right”, you need a powerful and pricey datamine and probably a few codemonkeys and PhDs to help you go through it efficiently. The other part of it is because it’s clear that the authors were really aiming this book at academic and professional/institutional audiences (people managing fairly sizable portfolios).

As much as I like it, though, I don’t think I can give it a perfect score. It’s not that it needs to be perfect, or that I found something wrong with it. I just reserve that kind of score for those once-in-a-lifetime classics that come along, that are infinitely deep and give you something new each time you re-read them and which you want to re-read, over and over again.

Quantitative Value is good, it’s worth reading, and I may even pick it up, dust it off and page through it now and then for reference. But I don’t think it has the same replay value as Security Analysis or The Intelligent Investor, for example.