Video – Rahul Saraogi On Value Investing In India

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

Notes – Horizon Kinetics 2014 Compendium, Skepticism About Indexation

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 2014 compendium.

The Scourge of Indexation

The single biggest trend that Stahl and Bregman have been criticizing for years is the rise and dominance of indexation as passively-managed ETFs as the practical consequence of widespread adoption of the Efficient Market Hypothesis. I collected comments from several different essays and stitched them together into a meta-commentary on the phenomenon:

We are reliably informed by many academicians that growth, value, momentum, yield and volatility are fundamental attributes for portfolios and, as such, are the determinants of performance. Numerous studies assert this as true. However, the studies were all done on the opportunity set of stocks, not actually on funds organized upon the findings of the research. In other words, these studies predate the implementation of the conclusions of the studies.

The efficient markets hypothesis is subject to no serious scholarly challenge. Indexation is by far the largest investment strategy and it is growing in acceptance by the day.

One could argue convincingly that markets are efficient if the market place is made up of a multiplicity of active managers gathering information and, by their trading, expressing that information in the prices of securities. However, as we saw in the Facts and Figures section, if the majority of the dominant investors, who are also the marginal buyers and sellers, are now passive, and if this dominance is growing, how can one be sure that the efficient market model remains a valid assumption?

What does it mean when one — that is, the investment ecosphere — creates multi-trillion-dollar managers that are valuation indifferent?

You cannot merely have trillions of dollars invested in indexes and assume that everything will be the same as it was before they were investing in indexes.

For 40 years, indexation worked because of four trends. There was a strong fiscal stimulus to promote the demand in most countries. Companies engaged in cost-cutting and eliminated marginal products and divisions, thereby increasing margins. Corporate tax rates have been declining for 40 years, and interest rates have been declining for decades. Companies, however, cannot count on those four benefits anymore.

We are going to replace poor judgment with no judgment whatsoever.

…an unintended consequence of the indexation movement is the creation of quasi-permanent holding companies for [S&P 500 and other major index stocks]

To my mind, the rise of indexation represents something of a corporate governance crisis in this country and any other where passive index funds account for a substantial proportion of the total shares outstanding in the market place (for purposes of this argument, I’ll peg that number at 20% which just so happens to be how much are currently owned by passive funds according to a recent New Yorker piece). Looked at in very simple terms, that is 20% of the shares of the average public company that have no active agency behind them, that is, there is nobody scrutinizing the operations of the company and the efficacy and honesty of its management by or on behalf of the shareholder whose capital is at risk. Given how many individual and even institutional shareholders are already “actively disengaged” from their duty to provide capitalist oversight of the companies they own, this is a troubling context to invest in if you believe that sound corporate governance is a key ingredient for above average investment returns and safety of capital at risk.

It reminds me strongly of one of the quotes from my recent review of Panic, “Underpinning the ideology of modern finance is the notion that the insight, judgment and even diligence of the entrepreneur are irrelevant for investing in public securities markets. These markets, we are told, are special, too powerful and too perfect to allow any entrepreneur’s judgment to matter.”

This indexation phenomenon has gone beyond influencing the markets to the point that it is “making” them, an inevitable consequence of gamification:

BlackRock… has issued a call for reform… [their] paper calls for the standardization of features of newly issued bonds. For example, an issuer would not be free to issue bonds with any features it wanted; it would have to issue them in certain standard packages, which are defined in the paper. BlackRock’s proposed change is an example of how indexation as a business is beginning to reflect the market as it impinges upon the index providers’ business needs.

Bonds have different characteristics because they represent different kinds of risks with different kinds of borrowers and lenders. While it’s possible to standardize anything for most applications, this is decidedly a “new era” where the standardization process is not being driven by the desire to reduce costs and confusion for borrowers and lenders per se, but rather it is being driven by the desire to efficiently index such media whose performance can then be captured in an ETF. It’s an important difference considering the fact that risk can not be standardized away just so that an investor can more easily allocate his funds.

In time, these indexes just end up playing themselves, as Stahl warns:

It is important to keep track of how the indexes are going to be tilted because that has two sets of implications. First, it has implications for the businesses of the index orchestrators, but second, it has implications for the entire marketplace. Whichever way a given sector gets tilted, either positively or negatively, the amount of money involved is so huge that it is going to be either the best-performing sector or the worst-performing sector.

Some Other Strange Side Effects Of Indexation

I captured a few other anecdotes related to indexation and EMH that I thought were memorable. One concerned the changes occurring in the utility industry. Stahl shared numerous statistics demonstrating the rapid rate of increase in solar power production, explained the different economics of solar (especially once installed) compared to gas, coal or nuclear powered generation and then surveyed the effect that the reach for yield and the indexation of the utility industry have created “priced to perfection” conditions in the publicly traded utilities firms. He concluded:

The asset allocation to yield-oriented stocks relies upon historical data regarding stability of dividends, which date back decades. The allocators treat this data as if they are immutable, scientific constants… They are completely unaware that a dividend quality constant is about to manifest a certain degree of inconstancy… This is an important phenomenon happening in the world of utilities, and people should remain very cognizant of it.

He also commented on the role volatility plays in the EMH:

In theory [institutions] are all fleeing volatility, but in reality are they merely fleeing volatility or, said another way, is volatility merely wherever they are going to be?

Connected to that idea is the degree of correlation which many investments are experiencing:

One can sell all of one’s investments and replace them with gaming stocks, and still have a correlation of 0.9726 with the S&P 500. It is an incredible statistic when you think about it.

Why should a presumably rational investor buy the more volatile Russell 2000 Index for a long period of time only to see it fail to outperform, or even underperform, the less volatile S&P 500 index?

And he brought further scrutiny on the idea of boiling down the predictive performance of a stock to one or two variables, such as volatility:

Companies possess many characteristics so it is difficult to assign causative factors to any one of them without knowing the other characteristics in that factor universe.

Miscellaneous Ideas

I also enjoyed Stahl’s commentary on including land in one’s diversified portfolio (again, these comments are stitched together from various essays):

Land held its value during the Great Depression.

Comparing and contrasting land with gold, it is clear that there were many periods when gold did not appreciate.

Government regulations sometimes affect the value of gold, but it is hard to envision government regulations that would affect the vast panoply of land resources in the world in some uniform way. Therefore, land is worth considering as a portfolio asset.

Land is not a hedge against political instability, which gold is because gold is mobile. Land is not mobile so it is only a hedge against inflation, not against political instability. Sometimes political instability and inflation come together.

He shared a contrarian view on eliminating an equity from consideration simply because it carries a high earnings multiple:

We cannot merely assert that if a company trades at 57x earnings, we will dismiss it as an investment. That would be an escape from reality… a Google at 15x earnings would be preposterously valued.

As long as it is possible to create companies at this scale of revenue, then not a few companies will trade at high P/Es. it looks like it is going to be a permanent part of the investment landscape.

Google’s valuation at the time it went public was around 57x earnings, and it’s market cap exploded from there. An interesting question is why it wasn’t valued even more highly given its realized potential?

Stahl observed a dichotomy between bond market interest rates and duration:

The interest rate is more or less engineered by the Federal Reserve, but the weighted average life reflects the risk preferences of bond investors.

Finally, I really liked this “bubble” related quote he shared from G.K. Chesterton:

There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.

Getting More Out Of Venture Capital

In “We Have Met The Enemy, And He Is Us” (PDF), the Kauffman Foundation gets radically honest about the world of institutional venture capital investing and their own experiences with the asset class:

Venture capital (VC) has delivered poor returns for more than a decade. VC returns haven’t significantly outperformed the public market since the late 1990s, and, since 1997, less cash has been returned to investors than has been invested in VC. Speculation among industry insiders is that the VC model is broken, despite occasional high-profile successes like Groupon, Zynga, LinkedIn, and Facebook in recent years.

Specifically, they found that:

  • The average VC fund fails to return investor capital after fees.
  • Many VC funds last longer than ten years—up to fifteen years or more. We have eight VC funds in our portfolio that are more than fifteen years old.
  • Investors are afraid to contest GP terms for fear of “rocking the boat” with General Partners who use scarcity and limited access as marketing strategies.
  • The typical GP commits only 1 percent of partner dollars to a new fund while LPs commit 99 percent. These economics insulate GPs from personal income effects of poor fund returns and encourages them to focus on generating short-term, high IRRs by “flipping” companies rather than committing to long-term, scale growth of a startup.

And who is to blame? As hinted at in the title, the authors believe the cause is primarily a fundamental misalignment of incentives and weak governance structures allowed by the LPs:

The most significant misalignment occurs because LPs don’t pay VCs to do what they say they will—generate returns that exceed the public market. Instead, VCs typically are paid a 2 percent management fee on committed capital and a 20 percent profit-sharing structure (known as “2 and 20”). This pays VCs more for raising bigger funds, and in many cases allows them to lock in high levels of fee-based personal income even when the general partner fails to return investor capital.

Their conclusion is utterly damning:

There are not enough strong VC investors with above-market returns to absorb even our limited investment capital.

The Dismal Asset Class

Is the average VC fund manager earning their keep? According to the Kauffman report, “since 1995 it is improbable that a venture fund will deliver better net returns than an investment in the public markets.” The “mandate” for most VCs in terms of investment returns that justify their existence is that they return 3-5% per annum over a typical benchmark like the S&P 500 as a proxy for public financial market returns. But in reality:

Investors are still attracted to the ‘lottery ticket’ potential VC offers, where one lucky ‘hit’ investment like Zynga or Facebook can offer the potential to mitigate the damage done to a portfolio after a decade of poor risk-adjusted returns.

VC is a proxy for gambling and the average fund is consistently not justifying its fees.

3 Ideas For Improving The VC Investing Experience

I took away three ideas for improving the VC investing experience based on the report. I think these three ideas have applicability outside of VC and speak to the need for improved corporate governance in any investment situation:

  1. transparency; eliminate the black box of VC firm economics
  2. incentives; pay for performance, not empire building
  3. accountability; measure fund performance against the “Public Market Equivalent” concept

A venture capitalist considering an investment for his portfolio will demand to know the internal economics of the business he is investing in as a normal part of due diligence. He wants to know this to ensure the business is being operated in a safe and sustainable manner so his investment will be secure. In particular, he puts emphasis on the incentives of managers and other owners of the business as indicated by their ownership stakes and decision-making structure and their compensation agreements. While an LP investor is not technically an investor or owner in the GP that manages the fund, the arrangements and incentives predominating at the management company level WILL have an influence on the way the portfolio is operated. Rather than argue for a right to know, LPs should ask their GPs to defend their right to privacy. If they’re to be business partners and in a relationship of joint risk taking, why shouldn’t their be sufficient trust to share information such as the following?

  • Partner capital contributions (by partner), partnership ownership
  • Partner comp amounts and structure– salary, bonus amounts and structure, and the allocation of carry, management company agreement
  • Quarterly firm financials– balance sheet, income statement, cash flow
  • Full-year firm projected financials, annual budget
  • Partner track records, investment cash flow data for public market equivalent (PME) analysis

Further, LPs should have other value-adds besides the cash they bring to the fund. Often this comes in the form of specific industry or personal experience which could be useful to the GPs in evaluating investments for the portfolio. But active agency in a corporate governance structure is another important value-add, missing in too many firms of all sizes, types and industries. Additional transparency could be achieved by involving LPs in the following:

  • The right to elect LP representatives to fund Advisory Boards
  • Information rights to detailed firm quarterly and annual financials
  • Right to review and approve annual firm budgets

According to the Kauffman report, almost two thirds of VC fund revenues come from management fees, NOT carry on performance generated. This means that most funds are incentivized to maximize assets under management by continually building new funds rather than to maximize performance by making outstanding investments while minimizing losses. Why should VC managers get rich regardless of the performance of their investments? The owner of a wholly-owned business only makes money when his business is profitable. He can’t pay himself a big paycheck forever just because he put a lot of capital at risk.

Instead of the standard “2 and 20” model, a VC could manage under an operating budget and a sliding carry system. Under this system, rather than charging a fixed 2% on all AUM regardless of how much or how little it is (and regardless of how many funds paying 2% have been raised historically), the GP tries to estimate its operating expenses needed to manage various levels of scale in advance, including office, support and vendor expense, travel and reasonable salaried compensation for the investment professionals in the firm. This budgeted expense would be spread across all funds and would likely decrease as a percentage of total AUM over time. To enhance the incentive and reward for strong performance, a sliding carry could be instituted in which the GPs are compensated at higher levels of total profits generated as they achieve increasing levels of outperformance against Public Market Equivalent hurdles. (Of course, this system could also employ hurdles such as returning some minimum multiple of invested capital net of fees before performance carry participation, ie, 1x, 1.1x, etc.) An additional recommendation for aligning incentives from the Kauffman report was constructing the VC fund as an “evergreen” fund:

Evergreen funds are open-ended and therefore not subject to the fixed timeframe of a ten-year fund life or the pressure and distraction of fundraising every four to five years. Without the pressure of regular fundraising, evergreen funds can adopt a longer timeframe, be more patient investors, and focus entirely on cash-on-cash returns, rather than generating IRRs to market and raising the next fund.

The final idea is to utilize the Public Market Equivalent (PME) concept to gauge investment performance, versus an indicator such as Net IRR or Net Multiple. The PME is calculated as a ratio of the value of capital in the strategy to the value of capital in a public market equivalent (such as the S&P 500, Russell 2000 or other comparable index based on risk, market cap, volatility, etc.) For example, if an investment was worth $15M at the end of the fund’s life, but would’ve been worth $10M in the Russell 2000 over the same time period, the PME is 1.5, or a 50% out performance. This is useful because it can reveal relative underperformance even when the VC fund achieves a high IRR or other performance metric but the public markets achieve a growth rate still higher. It is also useful because it can put a loss of capital in perspective when the public markets lose even more. The PME measures investment skill relative to the market environment. For Kauffman, “we have used PME to prioritize our best-performing funds, and to concentrate our investment activity and increase our investment amounts in those partnerships.”

Closing Thoughts

After their grand survey, the Kauffman fund managers have become more skeptical about VC as an asset class:

If they are not top-tier VCs, you are very unlikely to generate top-tier returns… Being a better investor in VC for most LPs will translate into being a much more selective investor.

Kauffman suggests there may be as few as 10 (!) such funds worthy of investment in the entire VC universe.

Part of that selectivity involves choosing to invest only with the most talented managers. Another part of the selectivity is sticking to funds whose total committed capital is not so enormous as to make them unwieldy and unsuited for the initially small, risky ventures they’re supposed to back:

Big VC funds fail to deliver big returns; we earned an investment multiple of two times our invested capital only from venture funds whose commitment size was less than $500 million.

According to a study conducted by Silicon Valley Bank, having a discipline about relatively small size is an important determinant of future investment returns:

  • The majority (51 percent) of funds larger than $250 million fail to return investor capital, after fees;
  • Almost all (93 percent) of large funds fail to return a “venture capital rate of return” of more than twice the invested capital, after fees.
  • Small funds under $250m return more than two times invested capital 34 percent of the time; a rate almost six times greater than the rate for large funds.

Incentives matter, and rather than serving as a failed example of economic and investment theory, the VC industry is efficiently responding to the incentives created by LPs who lack the discipline or data to make informed investment decisions.

Review – Panic: The Betrayal Of Capitalism By Wall Street And Washington

Sadly, Panic: The Betrayal Of Capitalism By Wall Street And Washington does not appear to be in print any longer. Luckily, I found a good used copy on Amazon and will cherish its now-secret message all the more.

As I read through this book several months ago, instead of summarizing my thoughts I just want to record a few key ideas and quotes for later reference.

“The Anti-Entrepreneurs”

In any modern state the government will always be the banks’ biggest client and therefore will always make most of the rules, even if it pretends not to.

The ideologues of modern finance offered to make any fool rich if only he renounced the first obligation of the capitalist, the burden of judgment.

This process of confronting uncertainty and successfully resolving it usually by dint of hard work, diligent analysis, and sound judgment is the only source of what many economists have called “entrepreneurial profit” or sometimes “true profit”.

Underpinning the ideology of modern finance is the notion that the insight, judgment and even diligence of the entrepreneur are irrelevant for investing in public securities markets. These markets, we are told, are special, too powerful and too perfect to allow any entrepreneur’s judgment to matter.

If the ideology of modern finance had a motto, it might be “thinking doesn’t work.”

Capitalism demands free markets because it needs free minds.

The bureaucrat of capital dreams of a world in which failure is impossible.

Crony capitalists on the right and socialists on the left united as always behind their most fundamental belief, that wealth is to be captured by power and pull rather than created in the minds of men.

“New Risks in Old Bottles”

The great mission of modern investment theory is to replace all idiosyncratic risk with systemic risk.

The primary skill for finance, under this theory, becomes diversification, which becomes an advanced statistical methodology for making sure a relatively small number of securities accurately represents a much larger class of securities.

If I know nothing, my need for diversification is infinite.

All investment is reduced to insurance.

Ignorance is the father of panic.

“The Misinformation Economy”

One way to think about panic is as a general, nonspecific response to a poorly understood particular and specific problem.

“To build a perfect model of the universe would require all the matter and energy in the universe, because the only perfect model, the only model that shed no information and made no compromises in order to achieve its object, would be the universe itself.”

The mortgage meltdown can be understood as an instance of model failure.

information is differentiation; information is what comes as a surprise against the background of knowledge already possessed.

If uncertainty and risk are nearly synonyms. then information and risk are nearly opposites.

It is not particularly unusual for all thirty stocks in the Dow to go up and down at the same time; that rarely happened when market participants were interested in the value of individual companies.

“The Reign of Risk”

Modern portfolio theory was a late bloom of the great eighteenth and nineteenth century impulse to explain human society by mechanical or “scientific” principles as regular as those of classical physics.

If economics were about entrepreneurship, it would not look like physics. It would look a little like philosophy. Mostly it would look like literature. [The Lion’s note: if you ascribe to the Austrian school, it does!]

To treat investment as a quantitative exercise relying on the efficiency of markets and advanced mathematics to eliminate the hazards of human judgment. [the ambition of investors under Modern Portfolio Theory]

MPT created a field for which PhDs could be granted and journal articles published. Before MPT, investment theory had been mere reflection upon experience, a wisdom literature dominated by amateurs like Benjamin Graham.

[MPT…] can be deeply attractive to those trying to support capitalist lifestyles with only bureaucratic talents.

The most important question any investor can ask: For what are investors paid? MPT’s answer: For accepting risk.

risk is not the foundation of profit but its most dreaded enemy.

The modern theory conceptually severed financial markets from the rest of the economy. [My note, ” Macro is to Micro as Financial is to Real”]

“The Romance of Risk”

Men and societies become richer precisely as they employ insight, skill and experience, effort and discipline to reduce risk.

Investors are paid for being right, not for the possibility of being wrong.

In life, men who make one good judgment tend to make more good judgments; men who make one bad judgment tend to make more bad ones.

the most important but the most difficult-to-identify ability in business management (or investment) is the ability to judge other men’s ability to judge. [meta-judgment]

“Zoom, Zoom, Zoom”

What modern capital markets do very well is raise large amounts of capital from a broad base of investors who are persuaded to give their money to perfect strangers with precious little idea of what those fortunate recipients are going to do with it. [And, I’d add, little control or legal right to have any say in such decisions; “crowd-sourcing”]

different markets make different trade-offs between liquidity and price discovery one one hand and confidence about value on the other.

Public equity investors demand liquidity in large part because they are unsure about value.

Humor is surprise

It is reasonable to call markets better or worse depending on how much surprise they can absorb before convulsing in dramatic disequilibrium

Lacking a more substantial basis on which to make decisions, financial markets set prices to an astonishing extent by watching– prices!

The most dramatic resolution of this conflict is to eliminate most of the shareholders altogether by taking public companies private

public companies have no owners

Companies, like most assets, do better with strong owners than weak owners.

“Strategic Ambiguity”

When New Dealers tried to set up a banking system immune to panic, their top priority was to remove Mom-and-Pop from their role as bank police.

“Insolvent Immunity”

Here is the quickest way to determine whether you are operating in an honest capitalist system or a corrupt imitation thereof: check the bankruptcy rates.

“Black September”

“Things are somewhat amiss when a country’s finance minister plays bond salesman for a supposedly privately owned company.”

By this time the government had: (a) intimated that deficits in the financial sector were so large and widespread that “anyone could be next” (b) terrified private investors from making investments that might preserve the solvency of deteriorating institutions (c) assumed unprecedented responsibility for investment banks outside the Federal Reserve system and then abandoned that responsibility and (d) made clear that its policy would change on an ad hoc basis. [on the US federal government’s initial response to the financial panic of 2008]

To assume that the buying and selling of shares amounts to managing the firm is the most extreme form of efficient market worship.

“Capitalism Without Capitalists”

The term for someone who rests his economic fate on unknowable future events is not “owner” or even “investor,” but “speculator.”

the government, the biggest player and the weakest owner of all. [criticizing the present ownership of major banks]

Another great review of this book was posted by “CP” at CreditBubbleStocks.com.

And after reading this book, I was inspired to purchase Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty and Profit for my library for further study.

 

Another Battle In The Long War: The Solitron Shareholders Meeting

Something that has been impressed upon me over the years as I learn more about business and investing has been the invaluable role that bullshit-detection plays in money dealings. The jungle is everywhere and while man may have found a way to tame his baser desires and impulses enough to enjoy a broad civilization, individual men will always tease the edges of appropriateness by attempting force by other means, namely deceit, misdirection, opacity, feigned confusion, intentional blundering, etc. If you can’t smell bullshit and if you have no means to fight back against a bullshit-peddler, he will run you over and probably try to take you for all you’re worth along the way.

Some people say, “That’s just business!” but that’s been invalidated by numerous contrary, personal experiences where no bullshit occurred and business occurred nonetheless, and more efficiently and for more wealth for both parties, overall. Bullshit is just a grey-area form of aggression, a remnant of the jungle from which we can never fully emerge.

My attendance at the first annual Solitron Devices shareholders’ meeting in nearly 20 years was a descent into that jungle. Here I and several other shareholders came face-to-face with Shevach Saraf, President, Chairman of the Board, CEO, CFO and, among many other titles and distinguishments I should say, a highly intelligent, sophisticated bullshitter.

My personal predisposition is to assume a person is trustworthy until they demonstrate they clearly are not. This is a little different than treating a person as trustworthy– I maintain skepticism and try to be alert at all times, but I don’t start a person at 0 and then work up to 100 on a “trustworthiness” scale, but rather the opposite. As a result, in dealing with Saraf and other representatives of the company in the past, I tried to explain various indiscretions, unkindness and general belligerency displayed by these parties in terms of misjudgments, misperceptions and a potentially historical apprehensiveness, rather than some kind of malintent.

At this point, the veil has been lifted for me and I believe I can confidently state that the bullshit is a calculated tactic and it is laid on, thick, with due purpose.

In the particular case of the shareholders’ meeting, the bullshit started with the “rules for the meeting”, which restricted each participant to a maximum of two questions no longer than one minute in length, with a twenty minute maximum duration. As with most bullshit, this was done in the name of “giving everyone a chance to speak”, but was really a rather naked attempt to intimidate shareholders and prevent them from stating their minds and engaging in significant follow-up questioning. No shareholder present (all 9 of us!) ever demonstrated any concern about domination of the Q&A period by any other shareholder. At the end of the Q&A, Saraf attempted to enforce the twenty minute maximum but was ultimately stymied by a shareholder who requested a longer, informal, follow-up Q&A period, which after 5 minutes of deliberation outside the room with counsel, was ultimately granted.

The second strand of bullshit is woven through the scandalous insinuations that Saraf made of his shareholder base. He deemed it fit to specially remind the gathered investors that he had no plans to do anything illegal and so he would not offer any insider info during the meeting. This is a strawman Saraf seems to trot out often– ask the man anything about the company at all, no matter how innocent and legally-sanctioned it may be, and he proceeds to launch into accusations of villainy aimed at getting an illegal upper hand while putting himself and the company in legal jeopardy. He also made a warning about supposed shadowy elements that were spreading false rumors and lies about the company on the internet, but he did not think to mention who was doing this or what specific claims were made which he could clarify as to their falsity. The impression one is left with is that there are no false rumors or lies being spread and this is yet another attempt to intimidate via bullshit.

Then we had to wade through Saraf’s numerous self-contradictions and general evasiveness in answering questions, most of which began with the expression, “Let me put it this way…”, which in my experience has always preceded a barely-obscured threat, as in, “Let me put it this way, if you don’t do what I am asking you to do, someone might get hurt.” The infamous EPA liabilities which have left the company hamstrung to do anything with the company’s excess capital and which according to regulatory filings earlier in the year seemed to have been extinguished, or due to be extinguished completely, by or around March or April of 2013, were suddenly at one point 30, another point 60 and another time some 72 days away from being resolved.

More bullshit: Solitron has a “sunset technology”, but there’s also the possibility they spend $5M+ of the company’s cash stockpile retooling their factory for new silicon wafer standards; the sequestration has been bad for business, but the company has also gobbled up marketshare from competitors who have gone out of business; the company is at 50% of plant utilization, but wars in Syria and elsewhere are good for business because it means equipment will need to be replaced that Solitron services; the company has struggled with rising inputs costs, but they build everything on spec and have a guaranteed profit-margin built in by the Pentagon; shareholders are now “welcome to contact any board member and ask them questions about the company” but in the past “PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT ALL INVESTOR COMMUNICATIONS SHOULD BE DIRECTED TO THE CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF SOLITRON DEVICES, INC.”; Chinese and COTS parts have created huge price competition for the firm, but the firm’s buyers actually require specially-tested, high quality parts only Solitron can produce, and new DNA-marking of chips prevents the use/substitution of foreign knockoff parts, etc. etc.

I could go on and on. The point is it’s just a bunch of bullshit.

And Saraf isn’t the only one peddling it. His vaunted board showed their own knack. Saraf was asked, as a large shareholder, if he was concerned about the price of the company in the open market hovering around cash value. Not only did he evade the question and not answer it, but his new appointee, Mr. Kopperl, piped in with the pithy “Does anyone really know what moves stock prices?” When asked how he makes his investment decisions, Mr. Kopperl said, “Sometimes I buy value, sometimes growth.” But if no one really know whats moves stock prices and you’re philosophically agnostic as to what kind of decisions a company could make that would be good or bad from a valuation standpoint, how could you even invest?

And how would this bolster the company’s claim that the current composition of the board represents people capable of maximizing shareholder value?

It was suggested to Saraf that more disclosures from the company about its business would help the market better understand the company and its prospects and arrive at a fairer valuation. Saraf did not acknowledge whether this transparency would be beneficial to shareholders interested in seeing the marketplace better assess the company’s prospects, but he did say that he wasn’t interested in putting out a press release every time the company got a new certification or secured a contract. Bullshit!

The most puzzling event of the day was the withholding of votes for Schlig and Davis (and their subsequent dismissal with no replacement nominees named), and the approval-by-vote of the two new directors, Gerrity and Kopperl. These guys are black boxes as far as I am concerned. They sound like country club buddies and there was no explanation as to why they were qualified to represent SHAREHOLDER interests though, Saraf was quite clear, their industry experience made them qualified in his mind to represent company interests, which essentially means Saraf’s interests as things have been run so far.

Large shareholders seem to be more confident. They’re convinced Saraf is more cooperative than he seems and that he will do the right thing when it’s the right time to do so. I think the laws of the SEC are a legal cover for bullshitmongers. From where I stand, it’s an almost impenetrable fog. But maybe when you own 5% or more, you have other methods of cutting through the bullshit.

It is indeed going to be a Long War without them.

If you want more, here’s Nate Tobik’s take at OddballStocks.com.

A Record Of Some Misgivings

I’ve had a little back and forth with some other value investors recently on my concerns about some of DreamWorks Animation’s outstanding corporate governance and capital allocation issues. I figured it was probably time to put pen to paper and formally record some of these thoughts.

Capital mis-allocation

To start, I want to mention the capital allocation issues. Over the last four years (2008-2011), DWA generated approximately $508M in operating cash flow, or about $127M/yr. In that same period, DWA invested $217M in their business, or about $54M/yr, while it bought back $389M, or about $97M/yr, worth of stock and finally they retired $73M worth of debt, which occurred in one year (2009) and represented the last of their LT debt on the books at that time.

As you can quickly surmise, there was only $291M of FCF or about $73M/yr over that period to support $462M in buybacks and debt paydown, a deficit of $171M which appears to have been financed by drawing down cash on the balance sheet and potentially leaning on the revolving credit facility as well.

I see a couple problems here:

  1. This is a growth company but the company will not be able to finance its growth ambitions on its own now because it has used a ton of its own financial resources buying back stock, which means it’ll have to either issue substantial new equity at low prices or take on more debt to finance its future growth
  2. The buybacks occurred at a range of prices and therefore market valuations of the company, with many of them clustered at the high end of that range, implying the company is not good at determining its own value and buying back only when the company is on sale

The first issue concerns me especially so given the nature of DreamWorks Animation’s business– in the end, it is highly speculative and could easily fail, meaning the most appropriate financing type is equity, not debt. Debt is more appropriate for a low-risk, predictable, consistent enterprise (such as financing a real estate venture). Equity provides the kind of flexibility and endurance one needs to weather the potential storms in a business like DWA’s.

But by using up much of its cash, DWA has put itself in the position where it will have to either dilute existing shareholders at potentially disadvantageous prices, or else it’ll have to raise debt which I believe adds substantial extra risk because of the way it mismatches with their business fundamentals.

The second issue concerns me because I think it directly explains a lot of the apparent value destruction that has occurred at DWA over the last 4 years as communicated by the fluctuating market capitalization and I think it sets a precedent that is in the long-run bad for minority shareholders, not good, as people of the “buybacks are good no matter what” school of thought seem to believe.

In 2008, the peak price of DWA was $32/share and with 91M FDSO at the time, that amounted to a market cap of $2.9B. In early 2010, the company climbed to an all-time peak price of nearly $43.50/share and with 87M FDSO that amounted to a market cap of nearly $3.8B. The shares now linger back below their 2009 low of $18.56/share and very close to the all-time low of $16.52/share reached in January of 2012, trading around $17/share for a total market cap of about $1.43B.

Slice it how you like it but according to the market the company has conservatively destroyed almost $1.5B of value in that time and I’d say that’s primarily due to spending $460M on buybacks and debt reduction that could’ve been spent on growing the business or waiting for opportunities to grow the business. If you add that capital back into the business you’d get a market cap closer to $2B right now.

Most of the buybacks occurred near the $30/share range with relatively little of the buybacks occurring near the lows of around $17/share. This kind of capital allocation “discipline” can not be put to bed by arguing that “share buybacks are good if they happen at all”– the latter price represents a 50% discount to the former (or the former a nearly 100% premium to the latter, depending on how you want to look at it)! Are we supposed to be comforted by the fact that DWA’s management and board seem to think the company is cheap anywhere between $3B and $1.5B in market cap?

That isn’t a reasonable way to manage capital. You’ll never catch Warren Buffett making that kind of argument and I highly doubt you’d have much money to manage on your own if you adhered to that philosophy for long.

One of the replies I got back from another investor (see below) on this was that “what’s done is done.” That is an unacceptable response. What’s done is not done because it could very easily happen again and it is more than likely to do so given that the pattern set, the discipline demonstrated so far, is that the management and board of DWA is incompetent when it comes to allocating capital to share buybacks. This is a red flag and a way they could continue to destroy whatever value they create through their growth strategy in the future.

Golden parachutes for the pilot and the flight crew, but not the passengers

At the behest of another money manager with a value-based approach I had been communicating with, I decided to review the Form DEF-14A filed 4/11/12 for DWA. I had (admittedly) skim-read the thing when first performing due diligence several months ago, but I had not read it line-by-line as he had urged me to do, more on that fact in a bit.

As I read through it, I noticed a few things.

For one, I noticed that FRMO-owned companies own 9,614,089 shares or 13.1% outstanding, ostensibly for their ETF products. I am impressed with the strategic thinking of this organization and for the purposes of their own business they seem to be great capital allocators (of course, I have no idea at what prices they accumulated their position). But then it dawned on me that most of their products are passively-managed index ETFs and that took the wind out of my sails. I’m not necessarily under the impression at this point that they hold a stake because they think it’s a great buy, but just because it fits some strategy or theme for one of their proprietary indexes. So, that’s about 13% of the company potentially owned by “dumb money” in this case.

Then I noticed that the company utilizes Exequity and Frederic W. Cook & Co., compensation consultants, to determine executive pay. I’m working on a “digest” post of articles I’ve been reading about corporate governance and activism over at a now-defunct website nominally belonging to Carl Icahn (man, that guy seems a bit ADD at times the way he starts and stops investments, grass roots activism platforms, etc.) and I came across this post on compensation consultants which really set off alarm bells for me.

Think about it for a second– the managers are using company money, which belongs to shareholders, to hire consultants (multiples in this case) who charge millions of dollars and spend hundreds of hours trying to outdo each other in justifying outlandish executive compensation packages. In other words, they use your money to figure out how much they should pay themselves at your expense. It’s kind of like gilt-edged unionism for corporate executives. Why the hell is this such a mystery? Why do you need consultants to figure stuff like this out for you?

This is a corporate governance red flag– this is not treating minority shareholders like equal partners but rather treating them like the sucker at the table. After all, Katzenberg owns about 15% of the company and because of the dual class share structure (another red flag, by the way), effectively controls the company himself which makes him an owner-operator (to be fair, a good thing)… you think he can’t figure out how much to pay his other executives in terms of what’s good for K-man and what’s not?

Preposterous!

Then I get to the actual executive compensation itself. Katzenberg is now paid a $1 annual salary, choosing to receive most of his compensation via stock options and other perks. Other executives are compensated quite generously and compensation has been growing. The value of options grants is $17M annually, or over 1% of market cap each year. Long-term incentive compensation is worth another $9.2M. Combined, that is $26M or almost 2% of the company’s market cap for a handful of top execs and board members.

Other things of note:

  • Lew Coleman, president and CFO, recently exchanged higher annual cash salary structure in return for decreased long-term incentive awards, does this show lack of faith in the long-term value of the company?
  • Ann Daly, the COO, has part of her compensation tied to performance of the company’s stock price, which is an idiotic practice given that it incentivizes her to manipulate the company’s operations to game short-term numbers meanwhile the company’s management has no direct control, in the long-run, over what the investing public thinks of the value of the company (yes, their actions will translate into better or worse valuations but in the end it’s like tying someone’s compensation to the weather)
  • Overall, tons of golden parachutes for just about everyone in the case of a change of control or a termination with or without cause, which are more blatant red flags and give minority shareholders an unfair shake

Then there’s the income tax savings-sharing agreement with Paul Allen, a former shareholder and financial enabler of the company which the proxy explains constitutes “substantial” payments to Mr. Allen over time (this fact being confirmed by the multi-hundred million dollar payable on the balance sheet). To put it simply, I don’t get this or how it works and so far no one has been able to explain it to me. It could be harmless, it could be disastrously unfair to minority shareholder. I really have no clue, it’s beyond my accounting and income tax liability knowledge.

My overall impressions were thus: it takes 66 pages to explain/justify DWA’s compensation practices and related-party special transactions. The company hires compensation and other consultants with shareholder money to determine what management should be paid. And shares are locked up and all change of control decisions will be made by Katzenberg. This company gets maybe a C in terms of corporate governance, which is average in relative terms but sucks in my absolute opinion.

In general, I am concerned about my own ability to understand the accounting behind the company’s compensation practices. And this dovetails with my lingering concern that neither I nor anyone else seems to be able to confidently and accurately model just how much cash specific or even any single movie title in DWA’s library generates for the company at different points over its life.

Bringing it full circle

A few days ago I posted a video interview of Rahul Saraogi, a value investor operating in India, along with my notes of the interview. I found the interview surprisingly impactful (I’ve been watching other interviews from the Manual of Ideas folks and unfortunately none of them have come anywhere close in terms of profundity) and the item that stuck out the most from the whole thing was Saraogi’s comments on the importance of corporate governance and capital allocation for the long-term investment results of minority shareholders.

To reiterate, according to Saraogi good corporate governance means dominant shareholders who treat the minority shareholders like equal partners, who do not treat the company like a personal piggy bank or a tool for furthering their own personal agendas at others’ expense. He says good corporate governance is binary– it either exists or it doesn’t, there are no shades of grey here. The issues I’ve cited above make it clear that DWA does not have good corporate governance practices. The fact that the Form 14A discloses the fact that both David Geffen and Jeffery Katzenberg are essentially using the company resources to the tune of over $2M per year to subsidize their ownership and maintenance of private aircraft is another good example– it is one thing to have the company reimburse them for expenses occurred in doing business but it is quite obvious from the way this agreement is structured that the company is basically paying for the major costs of ownership while they are deriving the personal benefits and exercising discretion as owners in name and title.

Similarly, capital allocation is critical in Saraogi’s mind and many companies and their management don’t get it– they either don’t understand it’s importance or how to do it, or they don’t care because they’re rich enough. I think a little bit of both is operating here. Certainly Jeffery Katzenberg is “rich enough” at this point. He’s worth several hundred million dollars at least, he has the company paying for his private aircraft and other perks and he has even said in interviews I’ve read that he’s got all the money he could need or want at this point and continues to work out of passion and interest. Normally that’s a good thing but in this respect it’s a bad thing because a person who operates as an artist rather than a businessman probably doesn’t care what their ROC looks like as long as they get to put their name on the castles they build.

And people who get capital allocation don’t pay prices that range nearly 100% in value for shares they purchase, unless of course they’re absolutely convinced the intrinsic value still far exceeds such prices. I note here that while there is no evidence from the company that this isn’t the case, there’s similarly no evidence that there is, and I don’t think faith is a good basis on which to form a valuation. As an aside, none of the grade-A elite Wall St analysts on the earnings calls ever ask about this, and my e-mail to DWA’s IR on this topic and numerous others went completely unanswered, which is another embarrassing black mark for the company in terms of corporate governance.

Other voices in the wild

For those who are interested, there are now two recent write-ups on DWA over at Whopper Investments, the first on the value case for DWA and the second analyzing the company’s potential takeover value when compared to Disney’s acquisition of Pixar in 2004.

I really enjoy Whopper’s blog for the most part but I consider these two posts to be some of his weaker analytical contributions to date (which should be obvious from my remarks in the comments section of each, 1 and 2) and if anything that makes me even more queasy with this one– he mimicked a lot of my own unimpressive reasons for investing and I don’t generally find the sound of my own voice that soothing in cases like these, and he seemed unable to answer some of my deeper concerns, which could be evidence of his own shortcomings as an analyst or it could be evidence that these are questions with unsatisfactory answers by and large (I prefer to believe the latter at this point).

In a nutshell, at this point my major concern is that, even if the company successfully executes on its grand growth strategy it might not mean as much for minority shareholders as we might like due to outstanding corporate governance and capital allocation concerns. I seriously wonder if I and many other value investors like me are not blinding themselves to these “binary” concerns because the potential home-run hit possibility of getting in near all-time lows on “the next Disney” is just too exciting to resist.

Whatever I do, I’ve now written this post and put it in the public domain so I won’t be able to excuse myself later on by claiming I hadn’t thought about these issues.

More Thoughts On Lone Ranger Investing, Informational Asymmetries And “Going Private”

A few days ago I linked to a post from Hedge Fund News in which the author expressed some deep skepticism and reservations about common stock investments in the present era. The primary concerns were that the market is “rigged” to a large extent via Fed front-running and black-box trading algorithms. Stock market investing is largely about an informational edge. Without friends in high places, an army of analysts and a mainframe computer, how is the little guy supposed to have an edge anymore?

First, a contrarian take on the contrarian take.

Front-running the Fed works, until it doesn’t. Many try to front-run the Fed without any real, personal insight into what’s going on there (aka, having a whisper network that’s tapped in to the Fed) and those people get steamrolled in periods like the one we just witnessed in August 2011, when many market participants hit the “Eject” button all at once and the Fed isn’t there with a trampoline to catch everyone. Some do have those networks and their front-running is largely successful (though you have to wonder what the hell happened at PIMCO over the last two months with Alan Greenspan on retainer) and to that I have no response besides to observe that “Life isn’t fair, deal with it.” Some people are born with a Golden FRN lodged between their butt cheeks and some aren’t. It’s obviously not the majority of the market because if it were that’d defeat the whole purpose of having that kind of informational advantage.

For the average, little guy investor, all the Fed does is introduce extreme volatility into the picture. And volatility isn’t risk. In fact, volatility provides true opportunities for the value investor that he otherwise might never have gotten as the inevitable panics that ensue tend to drag down the good companies with the bad. Then, you buy good companies cheaply.

I look at the black-box trading the same way. So what if there are black-boxes? They add volatility to markets. Volatility is opportunity, not risk. Use limit orders if you’re worried about getting manipulated by these robots putting out false bids.

The concern about informational asymmetries caused by institutionalism and hedge fund analyst armies is more substantive. But it still doesn’t mean doom for the little investor (or maybe better to call him the “lone ranger investor”, because he might have a few thousand or he might have a few million). I am going to paraphrase a few points from Jason Zweig’s commentary from chapter 8 of The Intelligent Investor:

  • Institutions (and hedge funds) have billions of dollars under management; this massive AUM forces them to gravitate towards the same large-cap stocks
  • Investors tend to pour money into institutional vehicles as markets rise, and pull it out as it falls; this forces these players to buy high and sell low
  • Many institutions are obsessed with relative benchmarks, the performance and composition of which shape their trading patterns and selections; their creativity and independence is stifled as a result
  • Many institutions box themselves in with an arbitrary mandate or theme which forces them to make their investment decisions within a confined space, often without regard to absolute value found elsewhere in the market place

Now, let’s flip each of these points around to see how the lone ranger investor is advantaged by each:

  • The lone ranger has comparatively little AUM so he has the flexibility to allocate his portfolio into nearly any stock he wants, from nano-cap to mega-cap
  • The lone ranger is in sole control of his buying and selling as he doesn’t face redemption requests or sudden influxes of hot money like institutions do
  • The lone ranger doesn’t have to compete with any benchmark if he doesn’t want to, instead he can just chase absolute returns and not worry about how he measures against a given index or benchmark over a given period of time
  • The lone ranger is free to choose any style, theme and type of investment strategy he likes and never has to worry about a regulation or outside investors having a problem with it

A video of Ray Dalio over at Credit Bubble Stocks features Dalio riffing on the high degree to which average hedge fund returns are correlated with the broader markets. The implication is that hedge funds aren’t being creative and independent in their strategies and trades. What good is an army of analysts, in other words, if you’ve got them looking at the same exact companies (AAPL, NFLX, BAC, etc.) that everyone else is looking at? What good is it to be a hedge fund when all this really means is you can hold more than 5% of your portfolio in something like AAPL and then lever the hell out of it and cross your fingers hoping Ben Bernanke’s got your back?

Informational advantages come in three flavors:

  1. Investments no one else is interested in, ensuring you have little to no competition for information (for example, a micro-cap with no institutional sponsorship and no analyst coverage)
  2. Investments in which you have a special relationship with insiders or other connected people, ensuring you have better quality information
  3. Investments in which you have a unique perspective or framework for understanding, ensuring that even if information is fairly distributed amongst all participants, only you will know what to do with it

Number two is damn near impossible (and extremely legally risky) to get in the current era of financial market regulation for most people. But there is nothing to stop the lone ranger investor from focusing on numbers one and three. In fact, this is where he should be focused.

The real risk, and this was suggested in the Hedge Fund News piece, is that number two might be so pervasive in particular situations that it overwhelms number one and number three. But for the most part, those situations are fairly obvious and can be avoided. For example, don’t buy AAPL if that’s what everyone is trading.

So, that’s some of the advantages the lone ranger has, in spite of it all. But the HFN piece wasn’t total fluff and he’s right to still be skeptical. I was particularly struck by his suggestions about corporate governance. This is a big problem as I see it.

Yesterday I spent some time listening to Albert Meyer talk about his experience with uncovering numerous well-publicized frauds and accounting shenanigans of the last decade ($KO, $TYC, Enron and the New Era Philanthropy Ponzi). The way Albert made it sound, corporate governance in this country is in shambles and a true embarrassment to the idea of free and honest markets.

Albert talked about the problem with option issuance overhang. Even though these items are now expensed following a FASB rules change, Meyer insists that the true costs of executive compensation for many (most?) companies listed on US exchanges is severely understated. He called into question the practice of huge stock buybacks by most companies, which he said is really just the way in which companies cover up the inevitable dilution that would otherwise occur from executive stock option exercising– and it all comes at the expense of shareholders and mutual fund investors whose mutual funds buy the new shares of recently exercised options. One example he gave was $EBAY, which he said reported income of $800M in a particular period but should’ve reported an $800M loss (a swing of $1.6B) once you had factored in the option issuance and subsequent buybacks to prevent dilution.

Albert said there were only 7 companies in the US that do not compensate executives with stock options. He cited numerous examples of Congressional and regulatory (SEC) corruption with regards to the protective relationship these cretins have with American corporate boards and C-level management teams and the stock option issuance scam. He said there is a lot less of it going on outside of the US which is yet another reason why he finds himself seeking out investment opportunities there.

I’m getting into a digression here when I don’t mean to be, but I assure you this is all related. The point is this: the predominating corporate structure for business in this country, specifically amongst publicly-listed companies with career professional management teams who are not also owner-operators of the company, creates a uniquely perverse set of incentives that truly pits the interests of shareholders (the actual owners of the company, its assets and cash flows) against management and even their own boards! The reality in many cases is that executives and obedient, captured boards work together the milk the wealth of the company for themselves with outsized compensation packages based primarily on stock option issuance, leaving shareholders with all the risks and none of the rewards.

And as the HFN piece points out, the entrepreneurial spirit is particularly absent in these kinds of arrangements because it must be. There is no real connection between the performance of the business (good or bad) and the compensation of the board and management. In the event that the company does well, the gains are secretly dissipated through executive stock option exercising and subsequent colossal buybacks. In the event that the company does poorly, management and the board issue themselves numerous stock options at rock-bottom prices with long duration expirations, virtually guaranteeing that should the business ever turn around they’ll be there to siphon off all the gains for themselves and leave shareholders with nothing.

In effect, it’s a game, and a dirty one that the lone ranger investor doesn’t have many tools besides selectivity that he can use to win. It’s such a widespread practice that you really have to either get in at the absolute bottom or find a company where the corporate governance is much more shareholder aligned (high percentage of insider ownership, predominance of cash compensation for executives without major options issuance, share buybacks that occur at market lows not at market highs when management is cashing in their chips and exercising options, low percentage of institutional sponsorship and a truly independent board where ideally executive management doesn’t have many or any seats) if you ever hope to win it.

That is why I’ve been thinking a lot about “going private.” By going private, I don’t mean taking companies that are public, private, though that might be a good start as I honestly think that in many ways having access to public financing is simply an excuse for poorly managed companies to engage in Ponzi finance without it looking like such.

Instead, what I am talking about is being an enterprising, entrepreneurial investor primarily within the private investment space. This means not only starting your own businesses, but making contacts and seeking out investment opportunities that are not party to the public capital markets. In many cases, it means investing locally and investing in what you know about. It also potentially means outsize returns via informational asymmetries and reduced competition (amongst yourself and other potential investors).

In that vein, I was struck by this comment from Mark Cuban that I saw quoted on Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Blog in a post about rethinking investing:

YM: Do you have any general saving and investing advice for young people?

CUBAN: Put it in the bank. The idiots that tell you to put your money in the market because eventually it will go up need to tell you that because they are trying to sell you something. The stock market is probably the worst investment vehicle out there. If you won’t put your money in the bank, NEVER put your money in something where you don’t have an information advantage. Why invest your money in something because a broker told you to? If the broker had a clue, he/she wouldn’t be a broker, they would be on a beach somewhere.

Cuban’s sentiment echoes my own here and I find myself sharing this perspective with friends and family members who ask me for investment advice or what to do with their 401k.

The first thing I tell people is, don’t put your money in your 401k if you don’t know what you want to do with it once it’s there. People get taken in by the idea of pre-tax investing and employer matching, but ultimately those advantages are wasted if you are just going to make clueless, doomed-to-fail investments with that money. What good is having 6% matching or investing with 35% more money because you don’t pay taxes on the principal when you put it in, if you’re just going to lose 100% of it anyway?

The second thing I ask them is, what kind of options do you have and what kind of informational advantages do you have when you put your money into your 401k or the stock market in general? Most don’t have a clue. That’s a warning sign! If you don’t know what your informational advantage is, you don’t have one and you’re basically investing blind. Meanwhile, your opponents not only aren’t blind, they’ve got Lasik. They will take your money and run the first chance they get.

The final recommendation I make is, instead of investing in the stock market or a 401k (which the person admittedly knows nothing about), I suggest they save up to start their own business or invest in the business of a friend or family member who they know, trust and have tangible proof of their success. It would be much better to make private arrangements to invest equity or loan money privately in a situation like that than it would be to dump their hard-earned wealth into a Wall Street rucksack and then wake up 20 years later wondering where it ran off to.

When I make those suggestions to others I start to wonder if we would all be better off if we did the same.