The Infinite Regression Investment Philosophy

Courtesy of the 2012 FRMO Letter to Shareholders [PDF]:

If one were to look at the 100 US public companies with the largest defined benefit pension plans, one would find the likes of Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Pepsi, Verizon and UPS. As of the end of 2011, using these largest 100 as a proxy, American companies recorded perhaps the largest underfunded status ever, certainly within the past dozen years, both in dollar and percentage terms. And this follows a helpful three years of double-digit annualized returns on their plan assets.

Moreover, there is much reason to expect this position to worsen. The discount rates they use to determine the present value of all their future estimated pension obligations is about 3 times higher, at an average 4.8%, than it should be, since we know the average investment grade bond yield today to be about 1.3%. This means that the obligations are actually far larger than currently presented in these companies’ financial statements. Moreover, these pension plans, on average, still presume to earn almost 8% on their plan assets. Yet, over 40% of the plan assets are invested in bonds. Assuming, as one must, that 40% of these pension plan assets will earn 1.3% at best, then those bond portfolios, all else equal, can contribute only 0.5% to the return of the entire plan assets. This leaves the remaining 60%, most of which is invested in equities, to produce the balance of the 8% expected return, which means the balance must produce about a 13% return every year.

First, one is hard pressed to suggest that this reality will come to pass, so that one should expect much larger funding deficits in the coming years and, it follows, much larger contributions to those pension plans, which in turn must detract from shareholder earnings and earnings growth. That pending reality, though, is less interesting than this one: that these companies, by dint of their investment philosophy and practice, place the major portion of their equity assets in the S&P 500 (and other indices representing essentially the same, largest companies in the US), in order to attempt to earn the highest risk-adjusted expected returns. Yet the S&P 500 to a significant degree is composed of the set of companies with the largest pension plans, which are problematic as described above– these companies are investing in themselves for future returns to restore their pension plans, even as they themselves are problematic because of these pension plans. But this is their formulaic process, and the tools by which this process is measured and implemented are these self-same indices.

This is Free Lunch-thinking.

By the way, value investor Geoff Gannon (much beloved on this site) has written a lot about Dun & Bradstreet, a company with an underfunded pension liability sword hanging over its neck. He makes the case for why this is not something to worry about with DNB but I have to say it’s the one thing making me hesitate about jumping in to an otherwise compelling franchise opportunity.

In general, I try to avoid companies with employee pension plans, at least the defined benefit variety. They may be “private” and “voluntary” but to me they smack of socialism-lite. They’re uneconomic and based upon absurd assumptions and unrealistic expectations. They are, like Social Security, promises that can’t be kept and must eventually be broken.

The trouble is, shareholders will almost always be sacrificed first because we exist in a culture today that penalizes capital and sees the equity holder as a villain and cheat.

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Review – Billion Dollar Lessons

Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years
by Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui, published 2008, 2009

The seven deadly business sins

The authors of Billion Dollar Lessons identified seven “failure patterns” that typify the path to downfall of most businesses:

  1. synergy; overestimating the cost savings or the profit-enhancement of synergy
  2. aggressive accounting; becoming addicted to creative accounting practices which eventually invites outright fraud to keep up with
  3. rollup acquisitions; assuming the whole is greater than the sum of the parts
  4. blindness to catastrophe; dancing on the deck of the Titanic, ignoring that the ship is sinking
  5. uneconomic adjacency acquisitions; assuming there are benefits to combining similar businesses which are actually dissimilar
  6. disruptive technology; committing oneself to the wrong technology and betting it all
  7. consolidation indigestion; assuming that consolidation is always the right answer and that it solves all corporate problems

In Part I, each chapter addresses one of these failure patterns, explaining the principles and problems of the failure pattern, giving numerous real-world examples of the pattern in action and finishing with a list of tough questions for managers and shareholders/board members to ask before pursuing one of the potentially flawed strategies mentioned.

In Part II, the authors offer a behavioral/psychological explanation for why companies and individuals routinely make these same mistakes, basing their assertions on the idea of “human universals.” The idea is that being aware of them is not enough– one must also put into place processes and self-check systems that are independent of any one person’s self-honesty (or lack thereof) to allow a company to essentially “check itself before it wrecks itself.” The most important corporate institution suggested is the Devil’s Advocate.

Illusions of synergy

According to the text,

A McKinsey study of 124 mergers found that only 30 percent generated synergies on the revenue side that were even close to what the acquirer had predicted… Some 60 percent of the cases met the forecasts on cost synergies

In general, there are three main reasons why synergy strategies fail:

  1. synergy may exist only in the minds of strategists, not in the minds of customers
  2. companies typically overpay for an acquisition, meaning the benefits from synergies realized are not enough to overcome the initial investment cost
  3. clashes of culture, skills or systems often develop following an acquisition, killing the potential for synergies

Double-check your synergy strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • Do you need to buy a company to get the synergies, or could you just form a partnership?
  • How do you know that customers will flock to a new product, service or sales channel?
  • If you think you’re going to improve customer service, then how exactly will that look from the customer’s perspective?
  • What could competitors do to hurt you, especially during the transition while you integrate the company you’re taking over?
  • Who in the combined organization will resist the attempts for revenue synergies? Whose compensation will be hurt?
  • What are the chances you’re right about revenue synergies?
  • What percent of your customer base might go elsewhere following this corporate change?
  • Acquisition cost:
    • What is the target company worth on a stand-alone basis?
    • What would the business be worth if you achieved all synergies mapped out?
    • What would the business be worth if you discounted the synergies, based on the fact that few companies achieve all the synergies planned?

Faulty financial engineering

Many companies find themselves in hot water because they believe their own creative accounting too much. They let sophisticated financial legerdemain conceal the uneconomic nature or riskiness of their business. Managers often become addicted to this accounting, finding themselves stuck on the “treadmill of expectations” and give in to the temptation to commit outright fraud to keep it going, destroying the business in the process.

There are four primary risks to financial engineering strategies:

  1. encourage flawed financial products which are attractive to customers in the short-term but expose the seller to incommensurate risk of failure over time
  2. hopelessly optimistic levels of leverage
  3. aggressive and unsustainable financial reporting
  4. positive feedback loops which cause the system to implode

Double-check your financial engineering strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • Can the strategy withstand sunshine? (Would you be embarrassed if it was widely known and understood?)
  • Can the strategy withstand storms? (Is it fragile and susceptible to being tipped over by less-than-perfect conditions?)
  • Will that accounting generate positive cash flow or just make the profit-and-loss statement look better?
  • Does the strategy make any sense? (ex, does it make sense to offer long-term financing on short-term depreciating assets?)
  • When does it stop?

Deflated rollups

According to business research,

more than two-thirds of rollups fail to create any value for investors

The rollup strategy is initially attractive because

the concept makes sense, growth is unbelievable, and problems haven’t surfaced yet

But they rely a lot on positive momentum to succeed because

Rollups have to keep growing by leaps and bounds, or investors disappear, and the financing for the rollup goes with them

There are four major risks to a rollup strategy:

  1. rollups often wind up with diseconomies of scale
  2. they require an unsustainably fast rate of acquisition
  3. the acquiring company doesn’t allow for tough times in their calculations
  4. companies assume they’ll get the benefits of both decentralization and integration, when in reality they must choose between one or the other

Double-check your rollup strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • Will your information systems break down if you increase the size of your business by a large factor?
  • What other systems might break down at the new scale?
  • How much of senior management’s time is going to go to putting out fires, coordinating activities, etc.?
  • How much business will you lose in the short run as competitors use takeover confusion to try to poach business?
  • What regulations might change and how will they affect the business?
  • Will your cost of capital really decline? If so, how much? How do you know?
  • If you think your pricing power will increase, why?
  • What will you have to spend, both in time and money, to get the efficiencies you expect from a takeover?
  • Who has a vested interest in keeping you from achieving all the efficiencies you expect?
  • How much will prices of acquisitions rise over time, as your rollup intentions become clear?
  • If you’re financing with debt, just how big a hit to your business can you withstand? What if you take a hit to cash flow for a period of years? If you’re buying with stock, what do you do if your stock price falls by 50%?
  • How do you prevent people from cooking the books when the bad times come?
  • Have you discounted the gains you expect to get from integration?
  • How much loss of revenue are you assuming if you replace local managers and systems?
  • What is the end game? How big do you need to get?
  • How slowly can you go?
  • Do you have to be a national rollup, or would a regional one make sense? Can you at least start as a regional rollup and work out the kinks?

Staying the (misguided) course

Businesses often adhere to a failed strategy or a dying technology because they either can’t envision how they’d adapt or can’t admit that they’re on a failed business course.

The three main risks to staying the course are:

  1. tend to see the future as a variant of the present
  2. tend to consider whether to adopt a new technology or business practice based on how the economics compare with those of the existing business
  3. tend not to consider all their options

Double-check your core strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • Are you considering all your options?
  • Declining business model, based upon Michael Porter’s five forces:
    • does your industry have a favorable structure for decline, where, like steel, it will provide profits even as it declines? Or, is your industry like traditional photography, which would mostly disappear once digital took hold?
    • can you compete successfully for the remaining demand, like Kodak, with a great brand? Or do you not only lack a brand but also lack other assets, such as a low cost structure?

Misjudged adjacencies

Adjacent market expansion entails attempting to sell new products to existing customers, or existing products to new customers, by building on a core organizational strength to expand the business in a significant way.

But sometimes, businesses expand into markets that seem adjacent, but are not– just because your branded-sunglasses customers like your sunglasses brand, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily like it on their sportscar tires, or on their surfboards, because you imagine your market is “sport lifestyle.”

There are four fundamental risks to an adjacency strategy to be aware of:

  1. the move is driven more by a change in a company’s core business rather than by some great opportunity in the adjacent market
  2. lack of expertise in the adjacent market, causing misjudgment of acquisitions and mismanagement of the competitive challenges of the new market
  3. overestimation of the strengths of importance of core business capabilities in the new market
  4. overestimation of the hold on customers, creating expectations of cross-selling or up-selling that won’t materialize

Double-check your adjacencies strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • How do the sales channels differ in the new market?
  • How do the customers differ?
  • How do the products differ?
  • Are the regulatory environments differ?
  • Do you have at least a 30% advantage on costs before entering the new market?
  • What if the economy goes seriously south?
  • What if the sector you’re moving into goes into decline?
  • What if your expectations about opportunities for efficiency and revenue growth don’t happen?
  • How much do you have to be off in your estimates of cost savings or revenue increases for the adjacency strategy to be a bad idea?
  • What don’t you know about your new market?
  • What don’t you know about making acquisitions?
  • How many of your acquisitions will be lemons?
  • Will your customers really follow you into your new market?

Fumbling technology

Businesses often bet the farm on a technology that turns out to be nowhere close to as profitable and revolutionary as they initially expect it to. Often, market research is created which suffers from “confirmation bias”.

There are three important technological “laws” to be mindful of, which are often ignored, as well:

  1. Moore’s Law; computer processors double in power every eighteen to twenty-four months
  2. Metcalfe’s Law; the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users
  3. Reed’s Law; new members increase a network’s utility even faster in networks that allow arbitrary group formation

There are four major mistakes businesses make when evaluating a technological strategy:

  1. evaluate their offering in isolation, rather than in the context of how alternatives will evolve over time
  2. confuse market research with marketing
  3. false security in competition, believing the presence of rivals equates to a validation of the potential market
  4. design the effort to be a front-loaded gamble instead of developing it piece-by-piece

Double-check your technology strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • What will your competition look like by the time you get to market? What if you’re six months late? A year?
  • How does your performance trajectory compare with the competition’s?
  • Do your projections incorporate Moore’s Law, for both yourself and your competition?
  • Have you allowed for Metcalfe’s Law and what it says about the relative value of networks? Is Reed’s Law relevant?
  • Is the market real?
  • Do you have to do it all at once? Or can you try things a bit at a time and learn as you go along?

Consolidation blues

Consolidation seems to be a fact of maturing industries. As an industry matures, smaller companies go out of business or are acquired. Most business people figure they want to be the acquirer; in the process, they ignore the possibility that they might be more valuable as a target, or by sitting and doing nothing (neither consolidating, nor selling out).

There are four main issues that tend to muck up consolidation strategies:

  1. you don’t just buy assets as a consolidator, you buy problems
  2. there may be diseconomies of scale
  3. assumption that the customers of the acquired company will be held
  4. may not consider all options (being an acquisition target, doing nothing)

Double-check your consolidation strategy by asking yourself the following tough questions:

  • What systems might fail under the weight of increased size? How much would it cost to fix them? How long would it take? What revenue might be lost in the interim?
  • What relationships might be harmed?
  • What departments are too small, or are for some other reason not up to the task of handling the new size? Which people aren’t up to the task?
  • How much will be lost as people jockey for position in the new organization?
  • How much drag will develop as you try to find efficiencies by standardizing processes?
  • Who will resist change? How effective will they be?
  • What are all the reasons why customers might defect?
  • How does consolidation benefit the customers?
  • What percentage of customers do you think might leave? How much do you think you’ll have to pay to entice these customers to stick around?
  • What are some potential results if you sold out or did nothing, instead of consolidating?

Coda

In summary, the most common problems that result in business failure are:

  • Underestimating the complexity that comes with scale
  • Overstating the increased purchasing power or pricing power or other types of power that come from growing in size (beware of “critical mass” strategies)
  • Overestimating your hold on customers
  • Playing semantic games (any strategy that relies on a turn of phrase is open to challenge)
  • Not considering all the options
  • Overpaying for acquisitions

Avoiding these mistakes: the Devil’s Advocate

How can you avoid these mistakes?

Put in place a process for reviewing the quality of past decisions.

Watch out for cohesive teams who develop the traits of dehumanizing the enemy and thinking they’re incompetent; limiting the number of alternatives they will consider; show even more overconfidence than members would as individuals; create “mind guards” who stomp out dissent.

Probably most important, establish the institution of Devil’s Advocate. Either assign an in-house, permanent DA (who gains experience with each episode, but carries the risk of being labeled as the “naysayer” and ignored) or assign the role on a rotating basis with each new decision (preferable).

The Devil’s Advocate is a powerful tool for avoiding business failure because

More often than not, failure in innovation is rooted in not having asked an important question, rather than having arrived at an incorrect answer

What Does The Future Hold For Gaming? Interview With Gabe Newell

Gabe Newell, head of the innovative and successful game software-plus-gaming platform developer Steam, was interviewed at a recent shindig put on by Silicon Valley venture capital and technologist sponsors (is Valve in play?!).

Somehow, the world of app-gaming and smartphones-as-game-platforms haven’t torpedoed Valve’s growth and financial success. More cold water thrown on that unsophisticated theory. Meanwhile, Newell had some interesting concepts on the future of game distribution and design:

Everything we are doing is not going to matter in the future. … We think about knitting together a platform for productivity, which sounds kind of weird, but what we are interested in is bringing together a platform where people’s actions create value for other people when they play. That’s the reason we hired an economist.

We think the future is very different [from] successes we’ve had in the past. When you are playing a game, you are trying to think about creating value for other players, so the line between content player and creator is really fuzzy. We have a kid in Kansas making $150,000 a year making [virtual] hats. But that’s just a starting point.

Now, this is something Apple has figured out and it’s something Nintendo has figured out but is still in the early stages of implementing– users as content-creators and value-adders. I will have my review of “Nintendo Magic” up soon which goes into this a bit more but one of the most interesting takeaways I had was the fact that Iwata discussed empowering users themselves to create content and experiences with their hardware and software that would add infinite replayability to their games. This was part of their strategy for addressing the main challenge of game-making, which is that over time your game becomes stale and boring.

Related to this, Newell discussed creating open-platforms:

In order for innovation to happen, a bunch of things that aren’t happening on closed platforms need to occur. Valve wouldn’t exist today without the PC, or Epic, or Zynga, or Google. They all wouldn’t have existed without the openness of the platform. There’s a strong temptation to close the platform, because they look at what they can accomplish when they limit the competitors’ access to the platform, and they say ‘That’s really exciting.’

Part of creating an open platform means designing something that is easy to develop for. Nintendo struggled with this with the N64 and Gamecube, systems which were technologically sophisticated and powerful, but not easy to develop games for. Meanwhile, the Sony Playstation and Playstation 2 were relatively simple to develop for. The end result? Much wider software library on the Sony systems. And it is software desirability that drives hardware adoption.

Finally, the Wiimote and its new control scheme was central to the Wii’s success and Nintendo’s strategy to expand the gaming population and allow users to enjoy new experiences. The smartphone/iPad revolution has introduced the value of touchscreen control (which, by the way, the Nintendo DS adopted prior to the smartphone revolution) which has continued with the Nintendo 3DS and which is now coming to the Wii U with the touchscreen, tablet-style game controller to be packaged with the system.

But Newell actually thinks touch is a temporary control measure and that it’s “back to the future” when it comes to the next evolution, which he sees as being more motion control-oriented again:

We think touch is short-term. The mouse and keyboard were stable for 25 years, but I think touch will be stable for 10 years. Post-touch will be stable for a really long time, longer than 25 years.

Post touch, depending on how sci-fi you want to get, is a couple of different technologies combined together. The two problems are input and output. I haven’t had to do any presentations on this because I’m not a public company, so I don’t have any pretty slides.

There’s some crazy speculative stuff. This is super nerdy, and you can tease us years from now, but as it turns out, your tongue is one of the best mechanical systems to your brain, but it’s disconcerting to have the person sitting next you go blah, blah, blah, blah.

I don’t think tongue input will happen, but I do think we will have bands on our wrists, and you’ll be doing something with your hands, which are really expressive.

Was Nintendo ahead of its time? Will Nintendo “return to its roots” on this? Perhaps the design team is already thinking this way? They haven’t abandoned the Wiimote with the next-gen Wii U.

Personally, what Newell is saying makes sense to me. I think touch has been innovative, and for certain applications it is both clean, intuitive and as complicated as control need be. But it is not deep enough. You will not be playing Call of Duty or a modern shooter with touch alone. RPGs could be handled with touch but it would restrict some. A 3D platformer would be a boring disaster with touch. I don’t think critics of Nintendo (gamers and non-gamers alike) pay attention to details like this.

Geoff Gannon Digest #5 – A Compilation Of Ideas On Investing

Why I Concentrate On Clear Favorites And Soggy Cigar Butts

  • Graham and Schloss had >50 stocks in their portfolio for much of their career
  • They turned over their portfolios infrequently; probably added one position a month
  • To avoid running a portfolio that requires constant good ideas:
    • increase concentration
    • increase hold time
    • buy entire groups of stocks at once
  • With his JNets, Gannon purchased a “basket” because he could not easily discriminate between Japanese firms which were both:
    • profitable
    • selling for less than their net cash
  • Portfolio concentration when investing abroad is based upon:
    • which countries do I invest in?
    • how many cheap companies can I find in industries I understand?
    • how many family controlled companies can I find?
  • Interesting businesses are often unique

How Today’s Profits Fuel Tomorrow’s Growth

  • To elements to consider with any business’s returns:
    • How much can you make per dollar of sales?
    • How much can you sell per dollar of capital you tie up?
  • Quantitative check: Gross Profit/ ((Receivables + Inventory + PP&E) – (Payables + Accrued Expenses))
  • Once an industry matures, self-funding through retained earnings becomes a critical part of future growth; it’s the fuel that drives growth
  • A company with high ROIC isn’t just more profitable, it can more reliably grow its own business
  • Maintaining market share usually means increasing capital at the same rate at which the overall market is growing
  • Higher ROIC allows for the charting of a more reliable growth path
  • Industries where ROIC increases with market share present dangers to companies with low market share or low ROIC
  • The easiest place to get capital is from your own successful operations; tomorrow’s capital comes from today’s profits

Why Capital Turns Matter — And What Warren Buffett Means When He Talks About Them

  • Capital turns = Sales/Net Tangible Assets
  • Buffett nets tangible assets against A/P and accrued expenses; gives companies credit for these zero-interest liabilities, rather than assuming shareholders pay for all of a company’s assets
  • Buffett’s businesses tend to have higher sales per dollar of assets
  • Companies with higher sales per dollar of assets have higher ROIC than competitors even if they have the same margins
  • There’s more safety in a business in an industry with:
    • adequate gross margins
    • adequate capital turns
  • Industries dependent upon margins or turns open themselves to devastating attacks from the player who can maximize key variables you control:
    • price
    • cost
    • working capital management
    • etc.
  • Companies often compete on a specific trait; it has to be a trait that is variable and can be targeted for change

How to Lose Money in Stocks: Look Where Everyone Else Looks — Ignore Stocks Like These 15

  • It’s risky to act like everyone else, looking at the same stocks everyone else looks at, or by entering and exiting with the crowd
  • Don’t worry about which diet is best, worry about which diet you can stick to; find an adequate approach you can see through forever
  • Having Buffett-like success requires every day commitment
  • You should aim to earn 7% to 15% a year for the rest of your investing life if you aren’t going to fully commit like Buffett did
  • A good investment:
    • reliable history of past profitability
    • cheap in terms of EV/EBITDA
    • less analyst coverage
  • A list of such stocks:
    • The Eastern Company (EML)
    • Arden (ARDNA)
    • Weis Markets (WMK)
    • Oil-Dri (ODC)
    • Sauer-Danfoss (SHS)
    • Village Supermarket (VLGEA)
    • U.S. Lime (USLM)    
    • Daily Journal (DJCO)
    • Seaboard (SEB)
    • American Greetings (AM)
    • Ampco-Pittsburgh (AP)
    • International Wire (ITWG)
    • Terra Nitrogen (TNH)
    • Performed Line Products (PLPC)
    • GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT)

Notes – A Compilation Of Ideas On Investing

How To Think About Retained Earnings

  • Grab 15 years of data from EDGAR and compare receivables, inventory, PP&E, accounts payable and accrued expenses to sales, EBITDA, etc.; E.g., if receivables rise faster than sales, this is where “reinvestment” is going
  • For a quick comparison, look at:
    • Net income
    • FCF
    • Buybacks + dividends
  • Compare debt (total liabilities) between the start of the period and the end and subtract the difference to get growth in debt
  • Then, sum all dividends and buybacks over the period, and all net income over the period
  • Then, subtract the change in debt from dividends/buybacks; what is left is dividends/buybacks generated by the business, rather than growth in debt
  • Then, compare this to net income to see the ratio of earnings paid out to shareholders
  • You can compare the growth in net income to retained earnings to get your average return on retained earnings
  • Look at the change in net income and sales over 10 years and then the ratio of cumulative buybacks and dividends to cumulative reported earnings
  • You’re looking for the central tendency of return on retained earnings, whether it is approx:
    • 5%, bad business
    • 15%, good business
    • 30%, great business
  • Companies with single products easily generate high returns on retained earnings, but struggle to expand indefinitely

One Ratio to Rule Them All: EV/EBITDA

  • EV/EBITDA is the best ratio for understanding a business versus a corporate structure
  • Net income is not useful; FCF is complicated, telling you everything about a mature business but nothing about a growing one
  • General rule of thumb: a run of the mill business should trade around 8x EBITDA; a great business never should
  • Low P/E and low P/B can be misleading as it often results in companies with high leverage
  • P/E ratio punishes companies that don’t use leverage; they’re often worth more to a strategic buyer who could lever them up
  • The “DA” part of a financial statement is most likely to disguise interesting, odd situations; if you’re using P/E screens you miss out on companies with interesting notes on amortization
  • Control buyers read notes; why use screens that force you to ignore them?
  • FCF is safer than GAAP earnings or EBITDA because it’s more conservative and favors mature businesses
  • EBITDA misses the real expense in the “DA”, but FCF treats the portion of cap-ex that is an investment as expense, so they’re both flawed; investment is not expense
  • No single ratio works for all businesses in all industries; but to get started, EV/EBITDA is the best for screening
  • Example: cruise companies have huge “DA”, but no “T” as they pay no taxes
  • “Only you can calculate the one ratio that matters: price-to-value; there is no substitute for reading the 10-K”
  • Empirical evidence on ratios:

Blind Stock Valuation #2: Wal-Mart (WMT) – 1981

  • There is something wrong with believing a stock is never worth more than 15 times earnings
  • “Growth is best viewed as a qualitative rather than a quantitative factor.”
  • Buffett’s margin of safety in Coca-Cola was customer habit– repeatability
  • Buffett looks for:
    • Repeatable formula for success
    • Focus
    • Buybacks
  • “The first thing to do when you’re given a growth rate is not geometry. It’s biology. How is this happening? How can a company grow 43% a year over 10 years?”
  • Stable growth over a long period of time tells you a business has a reliable formula; look for businesses that behave like bacteria
  • Recognizing the value of changes after they happen is important, not predicting them ahead of time
  • You can’t post the kind of returns Wal-Mart did through the 1970s without a competitive advantage
  • Buffett gleans most of his info from SEC reports, things like 10-year records of gross margins, key industry performance metric comparisons, etc.

GTSI: Why Net-Net Investing Is So Hard

  • The challenge of net-nets is you often have no catalyst in sight and no wonderful future to visualize as you hold a bad business indefinitely
  • Graham’s MoS is integral– you can be off in your calculation of value by quite a bit but Mr. Market will often be off by even more
  • Focusing too much on time could be a problem in net-net investing
  • Two pieces of advice for net-net investing:
    • Put 100% of focus on buying and 0% on selling
    • Put 100% of focus on downside and 0% on upside
  • Money is made in net-nets not by the valuing but by the buying and holding
  • “You want to be there for the buyout.”
  • The hardest part of net-net investing: waiting
  • Graham and Schloss were successful likely because they built a basket, so they were always getting to buy something new that was cheap instead of worrying about selling
  • Focus on a process that keeps you finding new net-nets and minimizes your temptation to sell what you own

Can You Screen For Shareholder Composition? 30 Strange Stocks

  • Shareholder composition can help explain why a stock is cheap
  • A company’s shareholder base changes as the business itself changes; for example, a bankruptcy turns creditors into shareholders
  • Shareholders often become “lost” over the years, forgetting they own a company and therefore forgetting to trade it
  • Some companies go public as a PR ploy, so investors may be sleepy and inactive
  • Buffett understood this and understood that a stock could be a bargain even at 300% of its last trade price– National American Fire Insurance (NAFI) example
  • Buying a spin-off makes sense because many of the shareholders are stuck with a stock they never wanted
  • An interesting screen: oldest public companies with the lowest floats (in terms of shares outstanding); a lack of stock splits combined with high insider ownership is a recipe for disinterest in pleasing Wall St

How My Investing Philosophy Has Changed Over Time

  • Info about Geoff Gannon
    • high school dropout
    • bought first stock at 14
    • read [amazon text=Security Analysis (1940 Edition)&asin=007141228X] and [amazon text=The Intelligent Investor (1949 Edition)&asin=0060555661] at 14
    • over time, became more Buffett and less Graham
    • made most money buying and holding companies with strong competitive positions trading temporarily at 6, 10 or 12 times earnings
  • I like a reliable business with almost no history of losses and a market leading position in its niche
  • Geoff’s favorite book is Hidden Champions of the Twenty-First Century, which is part of a set of 3 he recommends to all investors:
    • You Can Be a Stock Market Genius (by Joel Greenblatt)
    • The Intelligent Investor (1949 Edition)
    • Hidden Champions of the Twenty-First Century
  • Everything you need to know to make money snowball in the stock market:
    • The Berkshire/Teledyne stories
    • Ben Graham’s Mr. Market metaphor
    • Ben Graham’s margin of safety principle
    • “Hidden Champions of the 21st Century”
  • Once you know this, if you just try to buy one stock a year, the best you can find, and then forget you own it for the next 3 years, you’ll do fine; over-activity is a major problem for most investors
  • Bubble thinking requires higher math, emotional intelligence, etc.; that’s why a young child with basic arithmetic would make a great value investor because they’d only understand a stock as a piece of a business and only be able to do the math from the SEC filings
  • There are always so many things that everyone is trying to figure out; in reality, there are so few things that matter to any one specific company
  • One key to successful investing: minimizing buy and sell decisions; it’s hard to screw up by holding something too long
  • Look for the most obvious opportunities: it’s hard to pass on a profitable business selling for less than its cash
  • Extreme concentration works, you can make a lot of money:
    • waiting for the buyout
    • having more than 25% of your portfolio in a stock when the buyout comes
  • I own 4-5 Buffett-type stocks (competitive position) bought at Graham-type P/E ratios
  • “There is a higher extinction rate in public companies than we are willing to admit.”
  • Most of my experience came through learning from actual investing; I wish I had been a little better at learning from other people’s mistakes

Notes – A Compilation Of Ideas On Investing

Is Negative Book Value Bad?

  • Negative equity itself is meaningless (could be good or bad)
  • Compare net financial obligations to EBITDA
  • Think of borrowed money as the price of time; ask yourself if you’d rather they borrow money or spend time
  • Stocks in Geoff’s portfolio tend to:
    • have positive FCF
    • have unusually high ratios of FCF to reported earnings
    • buy back shares
    • pay dividends
    • have excess cash after the above
  • “I have found I do not make good decisions when I have to juggle 10 or more opportunities in my head at once”
  • “I don’t believe in taking a risk where I think if everything goes perfectly the upside is still going to be in the single digits”
  • How much debt is too much debt is a separate issue from whether the debt is being used productively
  • When soaring over the market trying to find bargains, these are useful as screening tools:
    • tangible book value
    • EV/EBITDA
  • If an entire country’s market has a low P/TBV or EV/EBITDA, this is important to know; you can buy indexes on this info alone
  • However, ultimately the following matter more:
    • liquidation value
    • market value
    • replacement value
    • Owner Earnings
  • Move beyond being a record keeper — an accountant — and become an appraiser
  • The assets that matter most on the balance sheet:
    • cash
    • investments
    • land
    • intellectual property
    • tax savings
    • legal claims
  • Cash flow protection is much better than asset protection
  • Businesses with special assets that are not separable from the operating business are most likely to not be reflected on the balance sheet and present hidden value
  • Being in a strong, safe liquidating position does not necessarily mean you are in a strong, safe operating position
  • Working capital needs and capital spending needs are part of the DNA of a business; “you can’t turn a railroad into an ad agency”
  • Negative equity itself is not a risk; poor interest coverage is
  • Non-aggressive long-run return assumptions:
    • stocks – 8%
    • bonds – 4%
  • When looking at companies with negative equity and stock buybacks, ask yourself the following:
    • Earnings yield of stock buybacks > interest rate on borrowed money?
    • Need to adjust financial obligations (such as unfunded pension liability) to determine true extent of liabilities?
    • Are net financial obligations (debt and pensions minus cash) a low enough multiple of their EBITDA?
    • How many years of FCF would it take to pay off all financial liabilities?
    • Is the price of the entire company in terms of EV/EBITDA low enough to justify investment?
    • How reliable is EBITDA, FCF, etc?
  • Common concerns in these situations:
    • Moat not wide enough
    • High risk of technological obsolescence
    • No pricing power/cost cutting potential to support margins
  • The right company can have negative equity and be investable if it is a wide moat business with almost no need for tangible investment:
    • Negative working capital
    • Minimal PP&E
    • A wide moat

Is It Ever Okay For A Company To Have No Free Cash Flow?

  • Four cash flow measures:
    • Owner’s Earnings (most important)
    • EBITDA
    • CFO
    • FCF
  • You can get a hint where a company is tripping up in delivering cash to shareholders (FCF) when:
    • EBITDA is positive
    • CFO is positive
    • Net income is positive
  • EBITDA measures the capitalization independent cash flow of the business; it doesn’t take into account spending today for benefits that won’t be realized until tomorrow; also misses working capital changes
  • Look for companies that are growing quickly in an industry that is not
  • Avoid companies that are fast growing in a fast growing industry; it will face more competition every year
  • To judge the future ROI of FCF reinvestment with a company that has no FCF, look at:
    • Will they be competitive?
    • Will competitors over expand?
    • Do they have a moat?
  • When a company spends so much on growth for so long, you really are betting on what the ROI will be way out in the future
  • “There isn’t necessarily a prize for being the last one to succumb to the inevitable. It’s usually more of a moral victory than an economic one”
  • Don’t short a great brand; if you want to short something, short a company:
    • with a product with inherently poor economics
    • a bad balance sheet
    • with deteriorating competitiveness
    • preferably in an industry with a high morality rate
  • When a company reinvests everything, you need to worry about what they’ll earn on their capital many years out

Value Investor Improvement Tip #1: Settle For Cheap Enough

  • A lot of people look for:
    • lowest P/Es
    • lowest P/Bs
    • highest div yields
    • new lows
  • This creates lists of companies that are quantitative outliers, instead of companies you know something about
  • You should feel comfortable throwing out 7/10 names found on a screen
  • Better to cast a wider net and then focus on companies you can learn a lot about by reading 10-Ks
  • Try a screen that combines (Ben Graham-style):
    • above average div yield
    • below average P/E
    • below average P/B
    • fewest unprofitable years in their past
  • Start with the company that sounds simplest, then move out slowly and carefully to those you understand less well; stop when you find something cheap that you know you can hold as long as it takes
  • Another screen:
    • EV/EBITDA < 8
    • ROI > 10%
    • 10 straight years of operating profits
  • You need a good reason for picking stocks that don’t meet this criteria
  • It’s hard to figure out companies with a lot of losses in their past; so don’t try
  • Familiarize yourself with a few stocks; what insiders have is familiarity
  • You want to find companies where you can think more like an insider
  • For long-term investing health, it’s better to find a slightly less cheap — but still cheap enough — stock you can get familiar with than a super cheap one that is a mystery
  • Anything less than NCAV is cheap enough
  • “Some of value investing is in the buying; most of value investing is in the holding; almost none of value investing is in the selling”

Gary North: If You Wouldn’t Buy A Company With Multiple Bankruptcies In Its Past, Don’t Buy Government Bonds

Having a historical perspective can open your eyes to risks and trends. According to Gary North on government bonds:

Today, governments issue bonds. They have been doing this in the West for three centuries. They have been defaulting on these bonds ever since, just as they have been doing on all other forms of debt since at least the fourth century B.C. The rate of defaults has escalated over the last two centuries.

Have you ever stopped to think about that? That the formal issuance of government bonds in the “West” is a practice which is only 300 years old? And that over that entire period, the rate of default has been rising?

In the grand scheme of things, government bonds are equivalent to a recent IPO with a pro-forma operating history of consistent unprofitability.

Why do governments issue bonds?

The ability of the government to extract wealth from rich people through taxation has always been limited. Rich people know how to hide their money. They know how to get it out of the country, and they know how to get it into markets that are less easily taxed.

So, politicians learned half a millennium ago to get their hands on rich people’s money before rich people started hiding their money. They did this by promising to pay a rate of interest on the money. Government bonds are ways of extracting money in advance, especially from rich people, which politicians would have preferred to tax directly, but which they did not tax directly because they knew that rich people would hide the money.

The whole point of the bond market is to enable the government to expand its operations beyond what would be possible by collecting taxes today. Politicians are able to get more money to expand operations today, because they promise to repay lenders a specific rate of interest. But, of course, this does not promise that the government will not repay with debased money.

The specific risk of government defaulting on debt while you own it changes over time.

The risk of government defaulting on debt is constant throughout time and is always guaranteed.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.