Review – Common Stocks And Uncommon Profits

Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits: And other writings by Philip A. Fisher

by Philip A. Fisher, published 1996, 2003

Stock market investors who have studied Warren Buffett in detail know that he has cited two “philosophers” of investment theory more than anyone else in being influential in the formation of his own investment approach: Benjamin Graham and Phil Fisher. Graham represents the cautious, conservative, balance sheet-driven Buffett, while Fisher represents the future-oriented, growth-focused, income statement-driven Buffett. If you ask Buffett, while Graham got him started and taught him key lessons in risk management (Margin of Safety and the Mr. Market metaphor), Fisher was the thinker who proved to have the biggest impact in both time and total dollars accumulated. Buffett today, whether by choice or by default due to his massive scale, is primarily a Phil Fisher-style investor.

And yet, in my own investment study and practice, I have dwelled deeply on Graham and did little if anything with Fisher. I tried to read Fisher’s book years ago when I was first starting out and threw my hands up in disgust. It seemed too qualitative, too abstract and frankly for a person of my disposition, too hopeful about the future and the endless parade of growth we’ve witnessed in the markets for several decades since the early 1980s. Surely there would be a time where the Fisher folks would hang their heads in shame and the Grahamites would rise again in the fires of oblivion! After all, “Many shall be restored that are now fallen and many shall fall that are now in honor.”

As my professional career wore on, however, I found there was less and less I could do with Graham and more and more of what Fisher had said that made sense. And if you’re in business, you can’t help but be growth oriented– buying cheap balance sheets isn’t really the way the world works for the private investor. So, I decided it was time to take another look at Fisher’s book and see what I could derive from it as an “older and wiser” fellow. What follows is a review of Part I of the book; I plan to read and review Part II, which is a collection of essays entitled “The Conservative Investor Sleeps Well At Night”, separately.

Keep Your Eye On The Future

One thing I noticed right away is the consistent theme of future-orientation throughout Fisher’s book. Whereas balance sheets and the Graham approach look at what has happened and what is, Fisher is always emphasizing a technique that involves conceptualizing the state of the future. For example, in the Preface he states that one of the most significant influences on his own investment results and those of other successful investors he was aware of was,

the need for patience if big profits are to be made from investment.

“Patience” is a reference to time preference, and time preference implies an ability to envision future states and how they differ from the present and therein see the arbitrage available between the two states. The other key he mentions is being a contrarian in the market place, which sounds a lot to me like the lesson of Mr. Market.

Fisher also says that market timing is not a necessary ingredient for long-term investment success,

These opportunities did not require purchasing on a particular day at the bottom of a great panic. The shares of these companies were available year after year at prices that were to make this kind of profit possible.

While he cites the structural inflationary dynamic of the modern US economy and seems to suggest the federal government’s commitment to responding to business cycle depressions with fiscal stimulus puts some kind of ultimate floor under US public company earnings (unlike in Ben Graham’s time where large companies actually faced the threat of extinction if they were caught overextended in the wrong part of the cycle, Fisher suggests the federal government stands ready to create conditions through which they can extend their debt liabilities and soldier on), he says that the name of the game over the long-term is to find companies with remarkable upside potential which are, regardless of size, managed by a determined group of people who have a unique ability to envision this potential and create and execute a plan for realizing it. In other words, the problem of investing is recognizing strong, determined management teams for what they are, that is, choosing superior business organizations in industries with long runways.

Getting the Goods: The Scuttlebutt Approach

People who know about Fisher typically identify him with the “scuttlebutt approach”. Fisher says scuttlebutt can be generated from:

  • competitors
  • vendors
  • customers
  • research scientists in universities, governments and competitive companies
  • trade association executives
  • former employees (with caveats)

Before one can do the scuttlebutt, however, one has to know where to look. Fisher says that “doing these things [scuttlebutt] takes a great deal of time, as well as skill and alertness […] I strongly doubt that [some easy, quick way] exists.” So, you don’t want to waste your time by going to all the trouble for the wrong idea. He says that 4/5 of his best ideas and 5/6 of the total gains generated over time that he could identify originated as ideas he gleaned from other talented investors first, which he subsequently investigated himself and found they fit the bill. Now, this is not the same thing as saying 4/5 ideas he got from others were worth investing in– the proportion of “good” ideas of the “total” he heard about is probably quite low, but the point again is not quantitative, but qualitative. He’s talking about where to fish for ideas, not how successful this source was.

When I thought about this section, I realized the modern day equivalent was investment bloggers. There are many out there, and while some are utter shit (why does this guy keep kidding himself?) some are quite amazing as thinkers, business analysts and generators of potential ideas. I have too many personal examples of my own here to make mention of them all. But I really liked this idea, cultivating a list of outstanding investment bloggers and using that as your primary jumping off point for finding great companies. The only problem for me in this regard is most of my blogroll are “value guys” that are digging in the trash bins (as my old boss sarcastically put it), whereas to find a Fisher-style company I would need to find a different kind of blogger interested in different kind of companies. But that’s a great to-do item for me to work on in this regard and should prove to be highly educational to boot!

So, assuming you’ve got a top notch idea, what’s next? Fisher is pretty clear here: do not conduct an exhaustive study of the company in question just yet. (In other words, don’t do this just yet, though I loved SoH’s follow-up where he explained what kind of things would get him to do that.) What he does do is worth quoting at length:

glance over the balance sheet to determine the general nature of the capitalization and financial position […] I will read with care those parts covering breakdown of total sales by product lines, competition, degree of officer or other major ownership of common stock […] all earning statement figures throwing light on depreciation, profit margins, extent of research activity, and abnormal or non-recurring costs in prior years’ operations

Then, if you like what you see, conduct your scuttlebutt, because,

only by having what “scuttlebutt” can give you before you approach management, can you know what you should attempt to learn when you visit a company […] never visit the management of a company [you are] considering for investment until [you have] first gathered together at least 50 per cent of all knowledge [you] would need to make the investment

This is the part that really gives a lot of investors pause about Phil Fisher’s approach, including me. Can you really do scuttlebutt, as he envisions it, in the modern era? Can the average investor get the ear of management? Does any of this stuff still apply?

First, some skepticism. Buffett’s biographer Alice Schroeder has said in interviews that much of what made Buffett successful early on in his career is now illegal and would amount to insider trading. The famous conversation with the GEICO chief is one of many that come to mind. This was classic scuttlebutt, and it worked amazingly well for Buffett. And even if it wasn’t illegal, most individual investors are so insignificant to a company’s capital base that they can’t expect nor will they ever receive the ear of management (unless they specialize in microcap companies, but even then management may be disinterested in them, even with significant stakes in their company!) And, assuming they DO somehow get management’s ear, they aren’t liable to learn much of value or interest specifically because most managements today are not only intellectually and politically sophisticated, but legally sophisticated and they are well aware that if they say anything more general than “We feel positive about our company” they’re liable to exposure under Reg FD. This seems like a dead end.

But let me try to tease the idea out a little more optimistically. Managements do provide guidance and color commentary on quarterly earnings calls, and if you are already dealing with a trustworthy, capable management (according to the 15 points outlined below), then there is opportunity to read between the lines here, even while acknowledging that there are many other people doing the same with this info. And people who do get managements’ ear are professional analysts employed by major banks. Again, lots of people read these reports, but there is some info here and it adds color and sometimes offers some “between the lines” information some might miss. And while the information you can get from any one company may be limited, by performing this analysis on several related companies you might be able to fill in some gaps here and there to the point that you can get a pretty fair picture of how the target company stacks up in various ways.

I hesitate a little, but I think the approach can be simulated to a fair degree even today. It’s still hard work. It can’t be done completely, or perhaps as Fisher imagined it. But I think it can be done. And it still comes down to the fact that, even with all this info that is out there, few will actually get this up close and personal with it. So, call it an elbow-grease edge.

After all,

Is it either logical or reasonable that anyone could do this with an effort no harder than reading a few simply worded brokers’ free circulars in the comfort of an armchair one evening a week? […] great effort combined with ability and enriched by both judgment and vision [are the keys to unlocking these great investing opportunities] they cannot be found without hard work and they cannot be found every day.

The Fisher 15

Fisher also is known for his famous 15 item investment checklist, a checklist which at heart searches for the competitive advantage of the business in question as rooted in the capability of its management team to recognize markets, develop products and plans for exploiting them, execute a sales assault and finally keep everything bundled together along the way while being honest business partners to the minority investors in the company. Here was Fisher’s 15 point checklist for identifying companies that were highly likely to experience massive growth over decades:

  1. Does the company have sufficient market scale to grow sales for years?
  2. Is management determined to expand the market by developing new products and services to continue increasing sales?
  3. How effective is the firm’s R&D spending relative to its size?
  4. Is the sales organization above-average?
  5. Does the company have a strong profit margin?
  6. What is being done to maintain or improve margins? (special emphasis on probable future margins)
  7. What is the company’s relationship with employees?
  8. What is the company’s relationship with its executives?
  9. Is the management team experienced and talented?
  10. How strong is the company’s cost and accounting controls? (assume they’re okay unless you find evidence they are not)
  11. Are there industry specific indications that point to a competitive advantage?
  12. Is the company focused on short or long-term profits?
  13. Can the company grow with its own capital or will it have to continually increase leverage or dilute shareholders to do it?
  14. Does the management share info even when business is going poorly?
  15. Is the integrity of the management beyond reproach? (never seriously consider an investment where this is in question)

What I found interesting about these questions is they’re not just good as an investment checklist, but as an operational checklist for a corporate manager. If you can run down this list and find things to work on, you probably have defined your best business opportunities right there.

In the chapter “What to Buy: Applying This to Your Own Needs”, Fisher attempts to philosophically explore the value of the growth company approach. First, he tries to dispel the myth that this approach is only going to serve

an introverted, bookish individual with an accounting-type mind. This scholastic-like investment expert would sit all day in undisturbed isolation poring over vast quantities of balance sheets, corporate earning statements and trade statistics.

Now, this is ironic because this is actually exactly how Buffett is described, and describes himself. But Fisher insists it is not true because the person who is good at spotting growth stocks is not quantitatively-minded but qualitatively-minded; the quantitative person often walks into value traps which look good statistically but have a glaring flaw in the model, whereas it is the qualitative person who has enough creative thinking power to see the brilliant future for the company in question that will exist but does not quite yet, a future which they are able to see by assembling the known qualitative facts into a decisive narrative of unimpeded growth.

Once a person can spot growth opportunities, they quantitatively have to believe in the strategy because

the reason why growth stocks do so much better is that they seem to show gains in value in the hundreds of percent each decade. In contrast, it is an unusual bargain that is as much as 50 per cent undervalued. The cumulative effect of this simple arithmetic should be obvious.

And indeed, it is. While great growth stocks might be a rarer find, they return a lot more and over a longer period of time. To show equivalent returns, one would have to turnover many multiples of incredibly cheap bargain stocks. So this is the philosophical dilemma– fewer quality companies, fewer decisions, and less room for error in your decisions with greater return potential over time, or many bargains, many decisions, many opportunities to make mistakes but also less chance that any one is critical, with the concomitant result that your upside is limited so you must keep churning your portfolio to generate great long-term results.

Rather than being bookish and mathematically inclined (today we have spreadsheets for that stuff anyway), Fisher says that

the successful investor is usually an individual who is inherently interested in business problems. This results in his discussing such matters in a way that will arouse the interest of those from whom he is seeking data.

And this still jives with Buffett– it’s hard to imagine him boring his conversation partner.

Timing Is Everything?

So you’ve got a scoop on a hot stock, you run it through your checklist and you conduct thorough scuttlebutt-driven due diligence on it. When do you buy it, and why?

to produce close to the maximum profit […] some consideration must be given to timing

Oh no! “Timing”. So Fisher turns out to be a macro-driven market timer then, huh? “Blood in the streets”-panic kind of thing, right?

Wrong.

the economics which deal with forecasting business trends may be considered to be about as far along as was the science of chemistry during the days of alchemy in the Middle Ages.

So what kind of timing are we talking about then? To Fisher, the kind of timing that counts is individualistic, idiosyncratic and tied to what is being qualitatively derived from one’s scuttlebutt. Timing one’s purchases is not about market crashes in general, but in corporate missteps in particular. Fisher says:

the company into which the investor should be buying is the company which is doing things under the guidance of exceptionally able management. A few of these things are bound to fail. Others will from time to time produce unexpected troubles before they succeed. The investor should be thoroughly sure in his own mind that these troubles are temporary rather than permanent. Then if these troubles have produced a significant decline in the price of the affected stock and give promise of being solved in a matter of months rather than years, he will probably be on pretty safe ground in considering that this is a time when the stock may be bought.

He continues,

[the common denominator in several outstanding purchasing opportunities was that ] a worthwhile improvement in earnings is coming in the right sort of company, but that this particular increase in earnings has not yet produced an upward move in the price of that company’s shares

I think this example with Bank of America (which I could never replicate because I can’t see myself buying black boxes like this financial monstrosity) at Base Hit Investing is a really good practical example of the kind of individual company pessimism Phil Fisher would say you should try to bank on. (Duh duh chhhhh.)

He talks about macro-driven risk and says it should largely be ignored, with the caveat of the investor already having a substantial part of his total investment invested in years prior to some kind of obvious mania. He emphasizes,

He is making his bet upon something which he knows to be the case [a coming increase in earnings power for a specific company] rather than upon something about which he is largely guessing [the trend of the general economy]

and adds that if he makes a bad bet in terms of macro-dynamics, if he is right about the earnings picture it should give support to the stock price even in that environment.

He concludes,

the business cycle is but one of at least five powerful forces [along with] the trend of interest rates, the over-all government attitude toward investment and private enterprise [quoting this in January, 2017, one must wonder about the impact of Trump in terms of domestic regulation and taxation, and external trade affairs], the long-range trend to more and more inflation and — possibly most powerful of all — new inventions and techniques as they affect old industries.

Set all the crystal ball stuff aside– take meaningful action when you have meaningful information about specific companies.

Managing Risk

Fisher also gives some ideas about how to structure a portfolio of growth stocks to permit adequate diversification in light of the risk of making a mistake in one’s choices (“making at least an occasional investment mistake is inevitable even for the most skilled investor”). His example recommendation is:

  • 5 A-type, established, large, conservative growth companies (20% each) -or-
  • 10 B-type, medium, younger and more aggressive growth companies (10% each) -or-
  • 20 C-type, small, young and extremely aggressive/unproven growth companies (5% each)

But it is not enough to simply have a certain number of different kinds of stocks, which would be a purely quantitative approach along the lines of Ben Graham’s famous dictums about diversification. Instead, Fisher’s approach is again highly qualitative, that is, context dependent– choices you make about balancing your portfolio with one type of stock require complimentary additions of other kinds of stocks that he deems to offset the inherent risks of each. We can see how Buffett was inspired in the construction of his early Buffett Partnership portfolio weightings here.

For example, he suggests that one A-type at 20% might be balanced off with 2 B-type at 10% each, or 6 C-type at 5% each balanced off against 1 A-type and 1 B-type. He extends the qualitative diversification to industry types and product line overlaps– you haven’t achieved diversification with 5 A-types that are all in the chemical industry, nor would you achieve diversification by having some A, B and C-types who happen to have competing product lines in some market or industry. For the purposes of constructing a portfolio, part of your exposure should be considered unitary in that regard. Other important factors include things like the breadth and depth of a company’s management, exposure to cyclical industries, etc. One might also find that one significant A-type holding has such broadly diversified product lines on its own that it represents substantially greater diversification than the 20% portfolio weighting it might represent on paper. (With regards to indexation as a strategy, this is why many critics say buying the S&P 500 is enough without buying “international stock indexes” as well, because a large portion of S&P 500 earnings is derived from international operations.)

While he promotes a modicum of diversification, “concentration” is clearly the watchword Fisher leans toward:

the disadvantage of having eggs in so many baskets [is] that a lot of the eggs do not end up in really attractive baskets, and it is impossible to keep watching all the baskets after the eggs get put into them […] own not the most, but the best […] a little bit of a great many can never be more than a poor substitute for a few of the outstanding.

Tortured egg basket metaphors aside (why on earth do people care what their egg baskets look like?!), Fisher is saying that the first mistake one can make is to spread your bets so thin that they don’t matter and you can’t efficiently manage them even if they did.

Aside from portfolio construction, another source of risk is the commission of errors of judgment.

when a mistake has been made in the original purchase and it becomes increasingly clear that the factual background of the particular company is, by a significant margin, less favorable than originally believed

one should sell their holdings, lick their wounds and move on. This needs to be done as soon as the error is recognized, no matter what the price may be:

More money has probably been lost by investors holding a stock they really did not want until they could “at least come out even” than from any other single reason. If to these actual losses are added the profits that might have been made through the proper reinvestment of these funds if such reinvestment had been made when the mistake was first realized, the cost of self-indulgence becomes truly tremendous.

Further,

Sales should always be made of the stock of a company which, because of changes resulting from the passage of time, no longer qualifies in regard to the fifteen points… to about the same degree it qualified at the time of purchase […] keep at all times in close contact with the affairs of companies whose shares are held.

One vogue amongst certain investors is to be continually churning the portfolio from old positions to the latest and greatest idea, with the assumption being that time has largely run its course on the earlier idea and the upside-basis of the new idea is so much larger that liquidity should be generated to get into the new one. Fisher advises only using new capital to pursue new ideas rather than giving in to this vanity because,

once a stock has been properly selected and has borne the test of time, it is only occasionally that there is any reason for selling it at all

The concept of “investment” implies committing one’s resources for long periods of time. You can’t emulate this kind of trading activity in the private market, which is a very strong indication that you should try to avoid this behavior in public markets. A particularly costly form of this error is introducing macro-market timing into one’s portfolio management, ie, this stock has had a big run up along with the rest of the market, things are getting heady, I will sell and get back in at a lower cost. I’ve done this myself, most recently with Nintendo ($NTDOY) and even earlier with Dreamworks ($DWA). Fisher says it’s a mistake:

postponing an attractive purchase because of fear of what the general market might do will, over the years, prove very costly […] if the growth rate is so good that in another ten years the company might well have quadrupled, is it really of such great concern whether at the moment the stock might or might not be 35 per cent overpriced? That which really matters is not to disturb a position that is going to be worth a great deal more later.

It plays to a logical fallacy that a company that has run up has “expended” its price momentum, while a company that has not had a run-up has something “due” to it. On the contrary, Fisher points out that many times the material facts about a company’s future earnings prospects change significantly over time from the original purchase, often to the good, such that even with a big run-up, even more is in the offing because the future is even brighter than before– remember, always keep an eye on the future, not the present or the past!

And similarly, if one has an extremely cheap cost basis in a company, one has an enormous margin of safety that should give further heed to trying to jump in and out of the stock when it is deemed to be overvalued.

He adds that, like wines, well-selected portfolio holdings get better with age because,

an alert investor who has held a good stock for some time usually gets to know its less desirable as well as more desirable characteristics

and through this process comes to develop even more confidence in his holdings.

If you’ve read some of my thinking about the philosophy of building multi-generational wealth through a family business, you’ll see once again the direct parallel to private market investing in Fisher’s conclusion:

If the job has been correctly done when a common stock is purchased, the time to sell it is– almost never.

Conclusion

Distilling Part I down to its essence, I concluded that the most important skill for generating long-term gains from one’s investing is still about having a disciplined and consistent investment program followed without interruption and in the face of constantly nagging self-doubt (“In the stock market a good nervous system is even more important than a good head.”) The particular program that Fisher recommends be followed is to:

  1. Create a network of intelligent investors (bloggers) from which to source ideas
  2. Develop a strong scuttlebutt skill/network to develop superior investment background
  3. Check with management to confirm remaining questions generated from the 15 step list
  4. With the conviction to buy, persevere in holding over a long period of time

If you can’t do this, you probably shouldn’t bother with the Fisher approach. Whether it can be done at all is an entirely separate matter.

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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.

 

Review – Losing My Virginity

Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way

by Richard Branson, published 2011

Spoiler alert– this book is choppy and inconsistent in the pacing and entertainment factor of its narrative. You really need to read between the lines a bit to get the most value out of it. That being said, it’s surprisingly literary for a dyslexic former publisher of a student magazine and I found Branson’s repeated reference to his high-altitude balloon voyage trials to be an outstanding metaphor for his life as a businessman and entrepreneur.

You see, in Branson’s ballon journeys, the key factors of any consistency were that: a.) Branson was knowingly and openly taking what he perceived to be a potentially life-threatening risk b.) Branson was almost always underprepared for it, or decided to go ahead with his attempt despite early warnings that something was amiss and c.) nonetheless, he somehow managed to survive one disaster after another, only to try something bigger and bolder the next time around.

And this is quite similar to the way he comported himself as an entrepreneur on so many occasions. Again and again, he’d make a daring foray into a business, market or industry he didn’t quite understand, the company would stumble after an early success leaving them all on the brink of failure and yet, each time they’d double down and somehow win.

In that sense, Branson is a perfect example of survivorship bias. On the other hand, having so many narrow misses that turn into massive accelerators of a person’s fortune start to make you wonder if isn’t mostly luck but rather mostly skill.

As an entrepreneurial profile, “Losing My Virginity” is full of all kinds of great successes and astounding failures. With regards to the failures, something I found of particular interest was the fact that Branson’s company were victims of some of the most common pitfalls of other businesses throughout its early history: taken for a ride by indomitable Japanese owners/partnerships in the 80s, repeated victim of the LBO-boom and the private/public buyout-cycle in the 80s and 90s. When you read these stories in the financial press it always seems to happen to the rubes of the business world, but Branson’s foibles help one to realize even rather sophisticated types can get taken in now and then.

The volatility in Branson’s fortunes do leave one with a major question though, namely, why did Branson’s company ultimately survive?

This isn’t a Harvard Business School case study so I don’t mean to pass this off as a qualified, intelligent answer to that question, but I will attempt a few observations and, in typical HBS fashion, some or all of them may be contradictory of one another and none will be provided with the precise proportional contribution they made to the end result:

  • the group had a cultural commitment to change and dynamism; they were not so much their businesses, but a culture and group of people who did business a particular way, a true brand-over-merchandise, which allowed them to reinvent themselves numerous times
  • the group strategically focused on being the low-cost provider in their industry, usually while simultaneously attempting to pursue the seemingly mutually exclusive goal as being seen as the highest quality offering as well
  • the group focused on serving customers but equally saw treating its employees with concern as an important value
  • the group consciously created a brand that could be applied to diverse businesses (see point #1)
  • the group pursued businesses that seemed “interesting” or sensually appealing to it, which ensured that everyone involved was motivated to do well because they liked the work they had chosen

Another thing I noticed about Branson and the development of his company was the attention he paid to the composition of management and owners and his dedication to weeding out those who were not good fits in a charitable way. Channeling the “best owner” principle, Branson made a conscious effort to buy out early partners whose vision and tastes did not match the current or future vision of the group. In this way, the company maintained top-level focus and concentration on a shared strategic vision at all times, sparing itself the expense and distraction of infighting and wrangling over where to go next and why.

Another aspect of the company’s resilience had to do with its operational structure. Branson built a decentralized company whose debts and obligations were kept separate. In an environment where new ventures were constantly subject to total failure, this arrangement ensured that no one business failure would bring the entire group down.

The final lessons of the Branson bio were most instructive and had to do with the nature and value of forecasting.

The first lesson in forecasting has to do with the forecasts others make of us, or the world around us. For example, Richard Branson had no formal business training, he grew up with learning disabilities (dyslexia) and he was told very early on in his life by teachers and other adult and authority figures in his life that he’d amount to nothing and his juvenile delinquency would land him in prison. Somehow this worthless person contributed a great deal to society, through business and charity, and by most reasonable measures could be considered a success, making this forecast a failure. If one had taken a snapshot of the great Warren Buffett at a particular time in his adolescence, when the young boy was known to often take a “five-finger discount” from local department stores, it might have been easy to come up with a similar forecast about him.

I’m not sure how to succinctly sum up the concept there other than to say, “Things change.” Most forecasts that involve extrapolating the current trend unendingly out into the future will probably fail for this reason.

The second lesson in forecasting has to do with how we might attempt to forecast and plan our own lives. When we have 50, 60, 70 or more years of a person’s life to reflect on, it is easy to employ the hindsight bias and see how all the facts of a person’s life were connected and led them inexorably to the success (or infamy) they ultimately achieved. And certainly there are some people, again using Buffett as an example, who from an early age were driven to become a certain something or someone and so their ability to “predict their future selves” seemed quite strong.

But the reality is that for the great many of us, the well-known and the common alike, we really don’t have much of a clue of who we are and what we’ll ultimately become. The future is uncertain and, after all, that’s the great puzzle of life that we all spend our lives trying to unravel. Richard Branson was no different. He was not born a billionaire, in a financial, intellectual, personal or other sense. He had to learn how to be a businessman and how to create a billion dollar organization from scratch. Most of the time, he didn’t even know he was doing it. In other words, HE DID NOT KNOW AHEAD OF TIME that he would become fabulously wealthy, and while he was hard-working and driven, it doesn’t even appear he purposefully intended to become so.

Maybe we should all take a page from Branson’s book and spend less time trying to figure out what’s going to happen and more time just… happening. We could sit around all day trying to figure life out, or we could follow the Branson philosophy where he says, “As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on with it.”

Review – The Intelligent Investor

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

by Benjamin Graham, published 1973, 2003, 2006

All you need to know about intelligent investing

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

Starting out

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

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

and the second being,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Security analysis 101

While the best treatment of Graham’s principles of security analysis are given in great detail in his treatise of the same name, [amazon text=Security Analysis&asin=0070140650], The Intelligent Investor does come with several basic recommendations on how to perform basic security analysis for issues under consideration for inclusion in one’s portfolio.

Bond analysis

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

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

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

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

Additional factors for consideration are:

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

Stock analysis

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

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

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

Keeping the shirt you have: the defensive investor

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

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

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

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

Additionally, Graham warns against excessive trading or portfolio turnover:

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

Graham also defines risk early on, saying,

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

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

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

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

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

At all times, remember that the defensive investor is

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

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

let him emphasize diversification more than individual selection

Making more and better shirts: the enterprising investor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A balancing act: the portfolio

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

As Graham says on page 197,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Market-mania

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

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

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

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

In Graham’s mind, the solution is to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further:

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

[…]

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

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

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

Margin of Safety, the central concept of investment

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

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

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

Similarly,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special note on market-timing

There isn’t much more to it than this:

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

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

The Free Capital Blog Digest

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

How important is analytical intelligence in investing?

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

Max, min and average payoffs

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

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

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

Meeting management

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

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

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

Thoughts On Diversification & Ideal Portfolio Management: Why Are You Diversified?

I’d like to talk today about diversification as a strategy within the theory of portfolio management.

What is portfolio management?

In portfolio management, you have two possible extremes between which most actual portfolios lie– own one thing, or own everything.

The classic example of a person who owns one thing is the owner of a small business, of which the proprietorship makes up his entire personal equity capital in relation to the total investment universe. Most people wouldn’t even consider this person to have a portfolio because he holds nothing else. His business is his portfolio.

Consequently, portfolios imply diversification, and vice versa. The moment you take equity in more than one venture, you have created a portfolio and you are simultaneously diversified. This is the mild hypocrisy of people who warn against diversification (calling it “deworsification”) and counsel investors to maintain a concentrated portfolio. A portfolio may be concentrated to a small number of holdings (let’s say, five or less to pick an arbitrary point of distinction), but this is not a non-diversified portfolio– the very fact that it is a portfolio implies it is diversified.

The standard argument for diversification

Proponents of diversification (or, what we might term “portfolioization” to come up with an even more complicated and hard to speak/spell nomenclature for the phenomenon) argue that diversification is a way to limit risk in equity ownership. It is the “multiple egg baskets” theory, the idea being that if you drop one basket you only lose the eggs inside of the dropped basket, whereas if you carry all your eggs in one basket and drop it, there goes dinner.

But it’s a bit of trickery, because risk can’t be eliminated, only exchanged. In effect, as you diversify (portfolioize), you exchange business risk for market, or economic, risk. The larger your portfolio becomes in terms of total positions, the more it comes to resemble the total universe of equity opportunities in its performance.

With diversification, you are not limiting risk, you are exchanging it. You’re determining how much of your equity will be exposed to each kind of risk in existence, not how much risk you will be exposed to in total (that question is settled by what particular risks you do put into your portfolio).

To summarize, two risk equations:

  • business risk vs. market risk
  • which business risk?

Standard counter-arguments to diversification (or, why it’s really deworsification)

The case for diversification isn’t complicated and neither is the case against it. There are two main points to consider:

  • diversification limits exposure to particular risks, but also limits potential rewards (no free lunch)
  • diversification may introduce an altogether separate risk– lack of focus

The first point is fairly self-explanatory. If you only invest X% of your portfolio in a particular risk, you ensure that your maximum loss is never greater than X%, but you also ensure that your maximum gain is never greater than X% * Y, Y being the return of the underlying investment.

So, if you invest 20% of your portfolio in ABC Company and the stock falls by half, thanks to the magic of diversification, you actually only lose 10% of your portfolio (-50% * 20% = -10%). On the other hand, if the stock rises by half, thanks to the magic of diversification you actually only make a return equal to 10% of your portfolio (50% * 20% = 10%).

There’s no free lunch. You only would get to capture the full 50% rise if you had the full 100% of your portfolio exposed. You essentially provide yourself downside insurance because, while your overall gain is capped, your overall loss is capped as well as it can never be higher than the 20% you exposed (provided you aren’t using leverage or shorting).

Perhaps more nefarious, some investment thinkers point out that by diversifying your portfolio, you spread your attention thin and could end up not understanding the individual risks your various positions hold as well as you might if you had one position (or two, or five…) and so, in a quest to limit business risk you actually enhance it because the quality of your analysis falls. Similarly, if you do poor analysis, you might be more prone to rationalize it because, “Oh well, ABC didn’t work out, but I’ve still got bets on DEF and XYZ, I’m sure they’ll turn out okay and make up for the loss– I’m diversified!”

The scarcest thing most investors have is attention they can devote to their investing, not capital.

Is one ever justified in diversifying?

Diversification by itself is not a terrible thing. As discussed above, it really doesn’t confer any advantages beyond the psychological– diversification by itself can’t improve the absolute returns of your portfolio, on net.

It also doesn’t have to be a purposeful strategy. Diversification can happen “by accident” in the following scenarios:

  • it would be inappropriate to invest 100% of your capital in a position due to market cap constraints
  • you have received new capital inflows following commitment of 100% of your previous capital
  • the market moves against you in the middle of taking a position

In the first case, imagine an investment opportunity in a company with a market cap of $100M, in which case the maximum appropriate position one could take without “bidding against oneself” is $5M, but one’s full capital represents the amount of $10M. In this situation, you would only invest half your capital in the idea because investing any more than this might destroy some of the value available. Diversification would be a natural consequence of a situation like this, whether diversification itself was desired or not.

In the second case, imagine you have $10M of total capital in period 0, which you fully invest in X. However, some time later, in period 1, you receive additional inflows of capital of $1M (perhaps you have earned a 10% dividend on your earlier investment in X). Unfortunately, the price of X has risen in the interim and no longer represents the value proposition it once did, although you’re still happy to have your earlier capital invested at the price available in period 0. In this case, you might invest the $1M in opportunity Y and, again, diversification would occur as a natural consequence of these developments whether it itself was desired or not.

In the final case, imagine you have total capital of $10M and have found an investment opportunity which could utilize your entire capital. However, you plan to accumulate in blocks because the investment is not liquid enough to take the $10M at once, and you do not want to make it obvious what you’re doing. You begin by investing $2M. Unfortunately, shortly after you do so a big-mouth blogger lets the whole world know about this great opportunity and the price of the investment opportunity rises to the stratosphere, pricing you out of any meaningful additional accumulation. You’re stuck with 80% of your capital uninvested and must look elsewhere. Again, diversification has occurred as a natural consequence even if it has not been actively sought after.

Ideal portfolio management implies no intended diversification

We’ve seen that diversification can result of two different catalysts– an investor can purposefully seek diversification in order to make a tradeoff between business risk and market risk (to self-insure his own decision-making process by giving up total return potential), or diversification can occur as the natural, unintended consequence of the general investment process.

Ideally speaking, the best situation for any investor to find themselves in is having one idea that has so much return potential relative to risk, that they are so confident about, that they are able to invest 100% of their capital in the idea, thereby avoiding diversification, or portfolioization, entirely. Ideally, one would have all their money at any given time in one idea and only one idea, and when that idea had either fruited, or a more profitable opportunity had arisen elsewhere, the investor would then sell the entire position and look to his next opportunity.

Outside of this ideal, portfolioization may occur inadvertently in pursuit of these very circumstances, in which case there is nothing to be upset over or critical about.

However, if diversification is pursued as a purposeful strategy outside the context of an individual contending with liquidity constraints (ie, perhaps investing 100% of capital in his best idea would put him in a bad position if outside demands for this capital, which are unpredictable, would require him to liquidate at an inopportune time), it stands to reason that an investor might ask himself, or be asked by another, “Why are you investing in something you’re not completely confident about in the first place?”

In other words, perfect confidence is unachievable (although it is the ideal), but it is hard to imagine why an investor would be justified in spreading his bets out across things he was less than as-confident-as-he-could-be about and consoling himself that he was doing well to mind risk thanks to diversification, when he could instead wait for an opportunity where his confidence about the risk-reward picture was as-confident-as-he-could-be and then invest all his capital in that one idea.

And of course, as almost always, I’d be wise to consider and hopefully even heed my own advice!

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.