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 On The Family As Long-Lived Institution

I’ve been doing some thinking about the family as an institution, especially from the standpoints of ideal strategy for a person planning a family and as a social cure to the economic and cultural problems we witness today. I wanted a place to put my notes as I think through these things. This post, or at least the ideas, is by no means complete or comprehensive on the subject and it only captures some of my thinking as it stands right now.

The Family As Brand

A family is a brand and historically it may have been the first brand concept in existence. Families have names and reputations. They have traditions and certain values that are esteemed or deplored and transmitted through space and time across generations. The members of a family may specialize economically, socially or intellectually and develop a reputation for this specialization. The reputation of the family helps to reduce uncertainty for other individuals, families or institutions interacting with the family in knowing what to expect (of course, this reputation could become a weight around the neck of a genetic or otherwise outlier family member who doesn’t fit the mould).

Old families, especially noble or aristocratic families, took the concept of family branding in an explicit direction by adopting a logo, or symbol, of the house, by adopting familiars or animal associations which connoted the spirit or key characteristics of the house (ie, the lion as a symbol of courage or adventure), certain colors and even words or mottos which might today be thought of as the “brand promise”. Certain families which were especially grand came to be known not by their name, but by their property, or by an assumed name that better represented their stature and ambitions.

Rational Family Planning Strategy

Family planning can be done rationally and purposefully, or it can be done irrationally or at random. A rational, purposeful family plan starts with a goal for the family and the goal is associated with a long-term vision or plan. An irrational, at random family plan adopts an attitude of mystery and powerlessness in the face of fate and lets the chips fall where they may. The family isn’t going anywhere necessarily and no special effort is put in place to help direct the family and its energies as a result.

The family plan could be malevolent, but I will excuse that possibility here and focus on a beneficial arrangement. The family plan must include peaceful parenting as part of the framework for developing a long-term cooperative effort. What is peaceful parenting? One way to think of it is parenting without any behaviors you would find would be ridiculous, illegal or mean-spirited when used with an adult– no hitting or physical intimidation, no badmouthing or emotional manipulation, no threats or use of coercion of any kind. In positive terms, it is an approach based on negotiation, empathy, respect for differing needs, communication around means and ends and a willingness to hear and be heard. A peaceful parent models the values of the family plan so they can “be the change” they want to see in their child and in the world; they get buy-in and cooperation on the shared goals of the family plan by explaining their merits and value to all, rather than creating arbitrary strictures and enforcing them with overwhelming parental control.

I’ve outlined our parenting philosophy in an earlier post: to help our children achieve physical, emotional, intellectual and financial independence and to model the value of interdependence. A friend who also blogs about parenting is quick to warn of the “bird parent phenomenon”– prepare kids for life, then push them out of the nest and hope they can fly on their own. As she says, we’re not birds, we’re apes, and apes live in connected troops that are typically multi-generational. And this is true, too. That is the interdependence idea, with luck we will have provided compelling reasons for our children to remain close or even continue to live life together with us as they grow older and even have their own family. Pure independence would be bird parenting, which is not ideal but does contain the merit of giving our children what they need to soar on their own, should they choose to do so. What we definitely don’t want to do is develop a dependence model– bee parenting, where the children are mindless drones for the queen parent(s) and live to serve them and, if not them, than someone else, but never themselves.

What then is the role and purpose of education within this family framework? A great deal of it is still about classic learning such as reading, writing and arithmetic, the simple tools that people need to be able to think for themselves and be self-directed learners capable of researching ideas that interest them as deeply as they would like. Another part of it, missing from public education in this country in large part (and for good reason, at least as far as that system is concerned) is self-knowledge, thinking about things like “Who am I?” “What do I want? What is important to me?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” Ideally, this all happens within the meaningful context of the family, which means that an even bigger part of education is about the family, its values, its legacy and history and its assets and accumulated wealth and the opportunities that come with them. A family education involves “coming along to life”, learning what the family does and how it does it and why it does it to provide itself with the things it has. At age/development appropriate times, it will include “job shadowing” and then apprenticeship within family economic activities. It also involves a specific approach for parents and other elders or existing family members in how they structure their time and responsibilities so they can be around children and share with them about what is going on!

Assuming a family is functional and manages to acquire assets over time through low time preference and thrift, the succeeding generations of the family will have to contend with a growing inheritance. This means they’ll have to learn specific habits and ways of life and acquire certain knowledge and responsibilities that those before them didn’t need and had no reason to think about. This means the family needs a meta-process for contending with the inheritance and learning to manage it through increasing size and complexity, especially as the potential number of inheritors grows over time as well! Children in each new generation of the family will need to receive instruction, from a very young age, about the family assets, how to grow them and how to manage them as well as ways to benefit from and enjoy their ownership.

And assets must be managed and controlled by someone, so while the children are immature and learning the ropes it is up to the adults to take care of these things. But in time, the adults become the elders, the children become the adults and the next generation of children arrives. A rational family plan accepts this cycle as a necessary part of family life and makes arrangements ahead of time to effect smooth transitions in the ownership and control of family assets from generation to generation. I’m not talking about tax planning here (which I believe in some ways is a futile exercise with no free lunch), but rather the idea of allowing for a financially secure retirement for the elders, complete with a transition in their identity and personal activities which is not disruptive to their enjoyment and fulfillment in life, combined with a “rising” of the next generation to true adult responsibility in having primary control and influence over the next stage in the family’s wealth plan. This next generation might continue the existing growth strategy, or transform the assets by selling them and then buying into a new concern (or starting one up)– these decisions are context dependent.

Here are some other long-term family planning considerations: marriage, genetic optimization, nutrition and fitness, generation of intellectual/human capital

Role of the Family As An Economic Unit

If we think of a family as an economic unit, we can draw parallels in the “life cycle” of the family economically that is similar to that of business organizations. Business organizations experience predictable stages of growth and decline– start-up, high growth phase, slow growth phase, plateau and decline (or, for the more agile, transformative innovation, which is the transition between decline and start-up that skips the end point of death). A family’s economic legacy has similar stages– pioneering, empire building, consolidation and reinvention. The pioneers are the early ancestors who first take a gamble on an interesting economic opportunity with long-run potential and begin accumulating assets. The next generation, if properly instructed, can take the seeds of this early effort and expand it rapidly as they build out an empire and come to dominate an industry or economic niche. The subsequent generation inherits substantial wealth and also substantial risk, namely, has the empire-building generation been successful in instructing them in the ways and means of managing this empire so that they’re up to the task? There usually is not a lot of low-hanging fruit available to continue the growth strategy, the name of the game at this point is consolidating gains and holding on to them. By the fourth generation, risk must be transformed. The growth that can be had, has been had, and the horizon is sloping downward, perhaps rapidly. It’s time for the family to make the hard decision of divesting themselves from the economic circumstances that initially founded their fortune to “go mobile” and pioneer once more by transforming their assets into a different industry or start-up venture. The difference this time is that these pioneers have three to four generations of know-how and human capital behind them that their earlier ancestors did not, which will hopefully prove to be an impressive competitive advantage.

The key concept for the family to master at each stage and through each generation is the discipline of accumulating savings by living below one’s means. For the pioneers, this is obvious, as there is no back-up plan and no rainy day fund save what they can provide for themselves, and being a new risk they must provide their own capital to grow as they will have trouble convincing third parties to participate. For the empire builders, a new risk presents itself, that of the temptation to live flashily and show off, but being so proximate to the pioneers it is likely they will have a deep and fond respect for the frugal habits of their forebears. In the consolidation phase, savings and capital seem so hyperabundant it can be difficult for this generation to understand the meaning and importance of continuing to save. Any time the family entity has required capital to operate, there has been plenty, so why worry too much about this? The innovative generation must be intimately aware of the importance of safeguarding capital and the productive value of its assets, as they won’t be worth anything when they hope to sell them if they’re not careful, and they learn a new appreciation for cash and the optionality it allows in planning family economic strategy into the future.

Within this inter-generational framework of family asset management we can see a unique opportunity for family members to participate as meaningful apprenticeships as they transition from dependent children to independent or interdependent adults contributing to the growth of family assets. The need or desire to gain formal educations and interview for skill-building career opportunities in outside organizations is minimized; the family can be not only a high-quality hiring pool for workers and managers in the family business, but also a source of that training opportunity.

And over time, the close alignment of multiple generations of the family with a particular enterprise and its needed specializations in thinking and experience mean that the business will leave its mark on the family and vice versa. Just as the family might develop a reputation for certain virtues such as “truth” or “loyalty” or “consistency”, it might also develop a reputation for industrial or professional excellence, “the best factory managers there are”, “strategic thinkers without comparison”, “the most knowledgeable people in the food service business”. Reciprocally, the industry might leave an imprint on the family name, “When you see ‘Jones’ on the building, you know they’re developing quality inside.”

Some fear to admit this, but all businesses are like families. In fact, many careerists expect that in giving to their company, their company will give back to them, much like a family, by being concerned for their well-being, providing benefits if they get sick or fall on hard times, and by allowing them interesting new opportunities as they gain in experience and skill over time. The difference is that some businesses pretend at being a family while remaining “faceless corporations” with fairly anonymous employees and rotating, mercenary managers who run the company, while other businesses really are families because they’re owned and operated (and in part, staffed) by them. Many are not fortunate enough to have a family in business, so they’re forced to go looking for another “family” to join when their career starts. Wouldn’t it be better if you could save yourself the trouble and get working where your family is?

In fact, a family running a high-quality, growing organization is going to attract to it just those kinds of people who really want a “home” and a family to be a part of and this is where the idea of a lieutenant, or adopted family member, comes into play. With trust and special contribution, business families might find some people in their organizations growing so close that they come to be seen as junior-family members– they may not be blood, but the level of concern for their comfort and well-being is nearly identical. There are some real benefits to be had, especially with regards to counteracting the mercenary mindset. If a person can achieve junior-family member status, they have a strong incentive to align their actions and conceptions of well-being with that of the family in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

This is probably one of the primary reasons why corporate governance would be expected to be superior under family owner-operators versus a diversified base of small shareholders with an elected board of representatives to oversee professional managers. There are deep-rooted agency problems with the traditional public company governance model, where shareholders don’t have a meaningful stake in the company to have any control or influence over its management, nor real concern for its long-run prospects. It’s always easier to sell and pass the problem off to someone else than to take an organized stand, similar to the problems of democratic political systems. The boards become captured by the managers, just like governments become captured by special interests. The end result is chaos, short-termism and relative instability and insecurity for all involved. Family-based owner-operator management can remedy all of this: concentrated ownership creates unity of strategic vision and needs, especially within the framework of multi-generational planning; the unification of owner demands and management representation ensure the vision will be clearly articulated and enforced, with severe consequences for managers who go rogue; and the lieutenant network or junior-family member approach increases the likelihood that managers can better align their sense of well-being with the family’s and by extension, the company’s.

Revival of the Family as an Alternative to Failed State Institutions

It’s obvious to any objective observer that the modern state has failed in virtually every arena it is presently engaged. Of particular concern to those without security are the failures of the modern state in providing welfare and what is termed the “social safety net” to those who are needy. The revival of the family as an alternative to these failed institutions is not only a perfect answer, it’s the only answer. The State can not provide individuals with comfort and security without first taking it from other individuals, particularly individuals composed as families (for example, the inheritance tax). The charity which the State might provide is derived from the family in the first place. Family should care for its own and must care for its own instead of placing this burden upon “society” with all the terrible social engineering temptations that come with it once politicians get involved in these schemes. And to be in a position to provide these welfare benefits to its members, families must rediscover the art of purposeful planning of their activities and legacies.

We hear of scions of old who were the institutional members of their communities: the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Mellons and so on. Families must reclaim this institutional identity and seek to be the pillars of their own communities. They must build the resources and create the organizations needed to address the challenges specific to the places they live. Families should provide education to their members and the people in their communities, not the State. When there is a social problem, families should get involved to address it, rather than calling for a new law or government program which inevitably they will finance but they will not control. Families, as owners of land and other local resources, should determine land use patterns, not government bureaucracies. And families should be developing the skills and experiences amongst their members necessary to build and develop local businesses and economic entities, rather than raising their children up just to send them away to join somebody else’s. Families can even be in the business of arbitration and peacefully resolving disputes which might arise in the community. This is another way in which reputations and specializations within families can be instrumental in adding value to communities.

Avoiding Common Family Problems

In the future, it will be useful to explore some common social risks associated with families and family management of social institutions, such as:

  • The risk of nepotism
  • The risk of degeneracy
  • The risk of mutual hatred
  • The risk of incompetence/disability

Review – Father, Son & Co.

Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond

by Thomas Watson, Jr., published 1990

The son of IBM’s founder, Thomas Watson Jr.’s “Father, Son & Co.” is many things: a collection of folksy business wisdom passed down by his father, memories and recollections of his participation as an airman in World War II and later a US diplomatic career in the USSR, a story about the challenges of growing a global business, lessons in leadership and team building, the pitfalls of transforming an business organization from small scale to large scale and, most importantly, a personal reflection on the value of family. It was most interesting and entertaining for me to read when it dealt with business and some of the personal issues of the author in trying to prove himself in the shadow of a legendary father; I found it less enjoyable and less authentic when the author dabbled in politics or retold sappy anecdotes about popular political figures of his era with whom he had had personal relationships.

The Business of IBM

The axis around which the story revolves is not Tom Watson, Jr., and it’s not Tom Watson, Sr. It’s the company which Senior grew and transformed into IBM, and which Junior effected the change over to actual computing technology in the 1960s, that the book is really about. But because Junior’s and Senior’s personalities, families, fortunes and lives were so wrapped up in the affairs of IBM, it becomes about all of those things in turn as well. That is somewhat surprising because the book is ostensibly a memoir by Junior, yet the gravity of IBM is hard to ignore in nearly every chapter of the book.

When Senior joined on with the company as general manager and, shortly thereafter, president, IBM (then Computing-Tabulating-Record Company) was an important concern but not necessarily a large one. Senior had a vision for it and something of an indomitable will, and he had experienced enough success and failure on his own in other ventures that he had an idea of what it would take to create the vision he had for the company. He built a large, organized and polished sales force, instilled high morale and unity of purpose by creating training programs, achievement awards, national sales team conventions and even company songs that everyone had to sing. He also, like many strong-willed founders, created something of a cult of personality around himself, putting his picture up at IBM offices and facilities, writing memos that were distributed widely to all staff and constantly visiting field offices and manufacturing facilities and “pressing the flesh” with company men and their wives and children, creating a kind of endearing aura of patriarchy.

In later years this intuitive, personality-driven approach was deemed problematic by Junior and other successor senior executives who believed that Senior had created a culture and cadre of Yes Men and hadn’t implemented enough standards and professional protocols that could create stability for growth. But for decades of the company’s history (essentially the first half, to date) this approach seemed to work, and fantastically so. Company publications like “Business Machines” and sales achievement distinctions like the “Hundred Percent Club” put the company’s focus on employee well-being and professionalism and incentivized outstanding achievement in the dawn of the era of lifetime commitment to big companies.

Something that shocked me as I read was how much of IBM’s growth could be attributed to solving statistical problems for the US and other national governments:

IBM more than doubled in size during the New Deal… Social Security… made Uncle Sam IBM’s biggest customer.

Wow! I suppose someone else could’ve come up with the technology as well, but it is kind of amazing to think that the evil New Deal and the disastrous Social Security pyramid scheme would have been too burdensome to administer without the existence of IBM tabulating machines which were a major time saver. It reminds me of Palantir Technologies, which helps the NSA, CIA and other foreign governments conduct surveillance work on target populations, another way to profit off of coercive interference in society’s affairs.

This trend didn’t stop with the New Deal but only started there. During WW2 the company converted many of their factories to help produce armaments (a fairly common industrial practice during the time, but still remarkable) and after the war one of the big incentives (and indeed, initial sources of research funding) for switching the company’s focus to electronic computing solutions were the ongoing “national defense” needs of the US military as the Cold War wore on.

Words of wisdom

I enjoyed the many old-timey nuggets of wisdom and rules about manners sprinkled throughout the book which were mostly remembrances of Junior of things Senior had said to him as he raised him or mentored him in the business. For example, Junior talks about the first time he road a cross-country train with his father on a business trip and the way his father taught him to clean up the wash basin in the bathroom of the railroad car to be considerate of others. “The person coming after you will judge you by how the place is left,” he tells him as he uses a towel to wipe down the basin before and after shaving in it. He talks about the importance of leaving the basin in a clean state so that the next person will have “the same chance you had”. There is a deep moral lesson here that goes well beyond the world of men shaving– this is a version of the Golden Rule, not just considering how upsetting it would be to have someone leave a place in a state of disarray for you, but then following that logic through to performing a service voluntarily for other people in trying to leave the world a little bit nicer than you found it.

In another instance, Senior lectures Junior about the practical reasons for treating even the “lowly” members of society in a kindly and generous fashion:

There is a whole class of people in the world who are in a position to poor-mouth you unless you are sensitive to them. They are the headwaiters, Pullman car conductors, porters and chauffeurs. They see you in an intimate fashion and can really knock off your reputation.

Those who enjoy shows like Downton Abbey are familiar with the idea that the “servants” of the world end up having an interesting amount of power and leverage over those they serve because they are so familiar with them they know their weaknesses, secrets and bad habits. There is something noble and self-aware in Senior’s advice here– a cultivated awareness of the reality of power and influence, mixed with a genuine empathy for treating even the relatively less fortunate with respect and concern. It might be read as “These people could really knife you if you don’t pay attention” but I think it is also honestly read as “Don’t forget these are people, too, and they want and need kindness regardless of their station in life.”

Another endearing moment comes when Senior teaches Junior about how he manages his executives:

“Well, I haven’t shaken up So-and-so for a while. So I’ll get him in and ask some questions about his department and in the process part his hair a little. He’ll get a pat on the back if I find something good or a kick in the tail if I find something bad.”

The imagery of “parting someone’s hair” says a lot about the relative authority of the two people in this “process” and while kicking someone in the tail sounds like bullying, it was clear that Senior gave quite a few pats on the back, as well, and when he dished out the ass-kickings, they might have been deserved– these were grown men dealing with a multi-million dollar business, after all, and if they weren’t bringing their problems to Senior’s attention but rather waiting for him to discover them, shame on them.

In teaching Junior about how to be an executive, Senior advised “what a chief executive does outside his business is just as important as what he does at his desk”, which was another idea I found interesting. I’ve been skeptical in the past of chief executives who seem to spend more time glad-handing than running the business. But I’ve come to appreciate that a lot of running a business simply is taking care of relationships– with customers, employees, vendors and even members of the local community. IBM’s business was dependent upon political grace, so there is perhaps a more sinister side to this advice from the standpoint of simply being a businessman but it was an interesting idea to ponder, nonetheless, that the chief executive’s identity and role extend beyond his office hours.

Senior was clearly a hard-driver and a hard-charger himself. So I was interested to hear about his daily routine:

He had his day set up so that he got up at seven, played tennis from seven-thirty to eight-thirty to stay in shape, got to work on time, did his work, went home, read great books for an hour, had dinner, listened to classical music for a while, and went to bed.

Senior ended up dying of starvation; his stomach was so scarred from stress-induced ulcers that it essentially closed up and wouldn’t let enough food in, and he didn’t want to go under the knife and so chose a fairly painful death by starvation (more on health issues in a moment). But despite this, he lived to age 82! I think that’s still considered a long time to live and I am always curious what a person’s habits were when I hear of such longevity, so it was pleasing to see that he put emphasis on daily physical activity as well as daily relaxing, contemplative activity (reading and music listening). Interestingly, breakfast didn’t seem to play a large part in his routine although Junior recounts many times when he had lunch brought in despite it being ignored in this telling.

A few other choice ideas, on restraint:

What you haven’t said, you can say anytime.

And on the value of friendship:

Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.

The son also rises

So, Senior had a knack for keen insight, but what about Junior?

While Senior was the builder, Junior was the administrator and manager. He seemed to take what he learned from Senior and build on it, so many of his notions seemed like continuations of the thoughts of Senior. For example, consider Senior’s advice about how chief executives should behave as Junior extemporizes about the relationships of businessmen:

A good businessman needs a lot of friends. Cultivating them is a laborious process, and how well you succeed is a direct result of how much effort and thoughtfulness you bring to bear.

He isn’t talking about friends in the business. He’s talking about friends outside of the business, which to me sounds like an echo of the idea that the chief executive’s job extends well beyond life in the office.

Similarly, he recounts a tale about the importance of making good introductions,

I stuck out my hand and said to him, “I’m Tom Watson Jr.”

Offering one’s name with a hand shake ensures that the other person is not put in the uncomfortable spot of being expected to remember people he’s only met once before, which engenders a sense of gratitude and respect immediately. Consider that this was the practice of an individual leading one of the largest and most well-known companies in the world and he still made the effort to be forward about his identity like this.

I also made a note of Junior’s characterization of the political structure of business:

The government has checks and balances, but a business is a dictatorship, and that is what makes it really move.

I think there is consensus building in business, too. It’s hard to keep a team cohesive and productive over a long period of time if people don’t feel like they contribute ideas and that those ideas get seriously considered. But I do understand the idea that ultimately decisions have to be made by somebody, that is, one person, and a business with a strong will behind it can make those decisions more effectively because everyone may be listened to but they don’t necessarily all get a vote. In the business world, people tend to vote by exit which is rarely an option in the world of politics.

The wealth of health

As mentioned earlier, Senior ended up choosing death by starvation when his health maladies caught up with him, though he made it to age 82. I noticed that both Junior and his younger brother (who headed up IBM’s non-US business) suffered heart attacks in their middle-age, attributed to the high stress of their positions.

Junior describes a life of almost continual travel and social functions, not just for himself but for his father and his brother. It was clear reading the book that the Watson clan and IBM executive leadership in general were part of the “global elite”, they knew dignitaries and heads of state from around the planet and were deeply connected to American political figures as well, a confusing blending of public and private prerogatives and relationships. There were many chapters where Junior described so many different locales and travels simultaneously that is almost seemed as if he was everywhere at once– at the very least he would spend long stretches of time away from home engaged in high level networking. It was a fascinating glimpse into “how the other half lives.”

But it was also terrifying from a health point of view. It is just hard to imagine this high-paced lifestyle allowing one to live with optimal health and longevity. Along with suffering a heart attack, his brother seemed to be frail enough to die from a “fall” at age 55. Junior ended up quitting his official business responsibilities following his heart attack which he reflects on with positivity in the book, saying it was a relief to have an opportunity to look critically at his life and get out while he still could. It seems to say a lot about the lifestyle he was living that he could so clearly connect his longevity to his work and chose the former over the latter.

Working with family

At the beginning of the book, Junior says that if you have the chance to go into business with your father, know that it will be difficult, but do it. I was fascinated by this strong suggestion given that he spends much of the rest of the book relating all the violent disagreements he had with his father, their latent power struggles, the continual struggles with self-esteem and even depression that he experienced living and working under the shadow of his successful father and so on.

There were many touching moments in the book where the reader is afforded a look at the parenting practices of Senior, who was truly from a pre-modern era. But there were also many that shocked my sensibilities of the proper relationship between parent and child, such as when Junior recalled how Senior handled tax documentation of his personal trust:

Each year his accountant would come around and have me sign income tax forms that were blank. He’d make an excuse that he hadn’t had time yet to fill them out. This kept up not only through college but ten years beyond, until I was a grown man with children of my own.

How would hiding this information from a child do anything but stoke their curiosity, fear and self-criticism? Why did this practice continue on even when he was a man with his own family (at which point he had long been a part of the business in a senior role)?

While the book offered many such puzzles and glimpses into family life for the accomplished Watsons, I couldn’t help but wonder how people who had achieved such greatness in so many areas had completely neglected to resolve interpersonal emotional conflicts and instead struggled with this source of unhappiness for decades. What is family for?

For me, reading about the early struggles and the early attempts at growth are always the most interesting parts of a story like Thomas Watson, Jr.’s, and IBM’s in general. I found myself less interested in what it was like being Bobby Kennedy’s friend, or getting tapped for the ambassadorship in Moscow. You can look at the history of the company and of the family and think, “It could’ve been anyone else, it’s not clear what they did that was special or unique beyond being lucky” but you can’t say they didn’t work hard, or purposefully. There’s no simple recipes or formulas for success in this book when it comes to business, family or life, but there are a number of things to think about, struggles that turn out to be common to all of us, great or small in our vision or accomplishments. I think that is where the value in this book lay for me.

Video – Rahul Saraogi On Value Investing In India

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

Major take-aways from the interview:

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

Recession Risk, The Ultimate Risk Paradigm Of Modern Business Operations

The business cycle rotates periodically between boom and bust. This is one of the inevitable consequences of centrally planning the economy’s interest rates and forcing them below their market equilibrium levels. Because it is inevitable, it is “predictable” and thus every business person must conduct their affairs in light of the fact that at some point in the future they will be faced with a recession. The key measure of risk for a business person operating in a central bank-managed economy, then, is “How will I feel when the recession comes?”

If a recession poses no risk to the financial structure of his holdings and he is positioned in his operations to weather a storm, he may be termed “low risk.” If instead a recession represents an existential threat and/or the potential for severe hardship for his operations, he may be termed “high risk.”

As an ideal, a sufficiently low risk operator should eagerly anticipate a recession as it will represent a cheap buying opportunity during which he will consolidate the failing enterprises of his competitors, scooping up their assets at bargain prices and thereby leap ahead of them without the use of leverage or cheap competitive tactics. Conversely, a sufficiently high risk operator will find the economic Sword of Damocles plunging through his neck in a recession, permanently severing the connection between himself and his former assets. How then to manage financial and operational risk so that continued growth can occur in a manner that is sustainable in all possible economic environments?

In terms of financial risk, we could sort our assets in two ways, by asset quality and by financing quality. The asset with the highest asset quality is the one which has the largest earnings yield relative to its current value. The asset with the highest financing quality is the one which is cheapest to own (ie, annual interest cost).

Practically speaking, sorting assets by asset quality and financing quality and then selling low quality assets and paying down outstanding debt would move an organization toward a more favorable balance between asset quality and finance quality, with an emphasis on equity in the balance sheet. The capital that is freed up in the process is now available to purchase a higher quality asset in the future.

In a recession, the cash flows from low quality assets dwindle while the finance charges on debt remain fixed; not only does such a mixture create a problem in a recession but it falsifies the true “free cash” position of the company in a boom because, to operate prudently, extra cash must be maintained on the balance sheet to offset the risk this low quality asset and debt represent should a recession appear.

The insistence on focusing on the management of financial risk first offers us clues as to a sound growth strategy overall. To be successful and sustainable through all potential economic conditions, growth must be purposeful and planned and should only occur when three conditions are met: there is abundant free cash on the balance sheet, the organization has people “on the bench” and ready for new opportunities and a good buying opportunity (represented by a fair or discount to fair value price) presents itself.

A debt-laden balance sheet is not cash rich because the cash which may be present is actually encumbered by the debt as an offset in a recessionary environment. When we are talking about a cash rich balance sheet, we’re by implication talking about an unlevered balance sheet. Otherwise, the cash is not “free” but rather is “phantom” cash– it will disappear the moment adverse economic conditions present themselves.

The organizational bench condition may be harder to evaluate objectively, but there is a decent rule of thumb. When people in each position in the organization are sufficiently organized to handle their own responsibilities with time to spare, there is organizational bandwidth to spend on promotions and new responsibilities, such as management of newly acquired assets. In contrast, when people in relatively higher positions within the organizational hierarchy are spending their time doing the work of people relatively lower in the organizational hierarchy, it indicates that there is a shortage of quality personnel to fill all positions and that those personnel available are necessarily being “mismanaged” with regards to how they are spending their time as a result.

Further, it implies the risk that growth in such a state might further dilute and weaken the culture and management control of both legacy assets and those newly acquired. This is a risky situation in which every incremental growth opportunity ends up weakening the organization as a whole and creating hardships to come in the next recession. If it’s hard to find good people, inside the organization or without, and there is a general attitude of complacency about what could go wrong in a recession, it is a strong indicator that underperforming assets should be sold and the balance sheet delevered to reduce organizational risk in the event of a recession.

Growth should be fun, exciting and profitable. If it’s creating headaches operationally, or nightmares financially, it should be avoided. You shouldn’t own or acquire assets you don’t love owning. Perhaps the best rule of thumb overall is to ask oneself, “Does owning this asset bring us joy?” If yes, look for opportunities to buy more. If no, sell, sell, sell!

Ultimately, there are three ways to get rich: randomly, with dumb luck and unpredictable market euphoria for the product or service offered (billion-dollar tech startups); quickly, with a lot of leverage, a lot of luck in terms of market cycles and a lot of risk that you could lose it all with poor timing (private equity roll-up); and slowly, with a lot of cash, a lot of patience and a lot less risk while taking advantage of the misery of others during inevitable downward cycles in the economy.

If you were fearful in the last economic cycle, it suggests your financial and organizational structures were not as conservative as you might have believed. It may be an ideal, but it’s one worth reaching for: a recession represents a golden buying opportunity for a cash rich organization to leap ahead of the competition and continue its story of sustainable growth and success.

Notes – The Warren Buffett Investment Process

[This post is incomplete, and was intended as a collection of Buffett investment process remarks along with my own commentary. It is instead a disjointed collection of Buffett investment process remarks and nothing more.]

Forecasts usually tell us more of the forecaster than of the future

There is nothing at all conservative, in my opinion, about speculating as to just how high a multiplier a greedy and capricious public will put on earnings.

our unwillingness to fix a price now for a pound of See’s candy or a yard of Berkshire cloth to be delivered in 2010 or 2020 makes us equally unwilling to buy bonds which set a price on money now for use in those years. Overall, we opt for Polonius (slightly restated): “Neither a short-term borrower nor a long-term lender be.”

the auction nature of security markets often allows finely-run companies the opportunity to purchase portions of their own businesses at a price under 50% of that needed to acquire the same earning power through the negotiated acquisition of another enterprise.)

we evaluate single-year corporate performance by comparing operating earnings to shareholders’ equity with securities valued at cost.

However attractive the earnings numbers, we remain leery of businesses that never seem able to convert such pretty numbers into no-strings-attached cash.

Small portions of exceptionally good businesses are usually available in the securities markets at reasonable prices. But such businesses are available for purchase in their entirety only rarely, and then almost always at high prices.

For personal as well as more objective reasons, however, we generally have been able to correct such mistakes far more quickly in the case of non-controlled businesses (marketable securities) than in the case of controlled subsidiaries. Lack of control, in effect, often has turned out to be an economic plus.

Logically, a company with historic and prospective high returns on equity should retain much or all of its earnings so that shareholders can earn premium returns on enhanced capital. Conversely, low returns on corporate equity would suggest a very high dividend payout so that owners could direct capital toward more attractive areas.

Beware of “dividends” that can be paid out only if someone promises to replace the capital distributed

we regard the most important measure of retail trends to be units sold per store rather than dollar volume

Any unlevered business that requires some net tangible assets to operate (and almost all do) is hurt by inflation. Businesses needing little in the way of tangible assets simply are hurt the least.

Asset-heavy businesses generally earn low rates of return – rates that often barely provide enough capital to fund the inflationary needs of the existing business, with nothing left over for real growth, for distribution to owners, or for acquisition of new businesses.

In contrast, a disproportionate number of the great business fortunes built up during the inflationary years arose from ownership of operations that combined intangibles of lasting value with relatively minor requirements for tangible assets. In such cases earnings have bounded upward in nominal dollars, and these dollars have been largely available for the acquisition of additional businesses.

During inflation, Goodwill is the gift that keeps giving. But that statement applies, naturally, only to true economic Goodwill.

The buying and selling of securities is a competitive business, and even a modest amount of added competition on either side can cost us a great deal of money

we think an all-bond portfolio carries a small but unacceptable “wipe out” risk, and we require any purchase of long-term bonds to clear a special hurdle. Only when bond purchases appear decidedly superior to other business opportunities will we engage in them. Those occasions are likely to be few and far between.

In many businesses particularly those that have high asset/profit ratios – inflation causes some or all of the reported earnings to become ersatz. The ersatz portion – let’s call these earnings “restricted” – cannot, if the business is to retain its economic position, be distributed as dividends. Were these earnings to be paid out, the business would lose ground in one or more of the following areas: its ability to maintain its unit volume of sales, its long-term competitive position, its financial strength. No matter how conservative its payout ratio, a company that consistently distributes restricted earnings is destined for oblivion unless equity capital is otherwise infused.

Unrestricted earnings should be retained only when there is a reasonable prospect – backed preferably by historical evidence or, when appropriate, by a thoughtful analysis of the future – that for every dollar retained by the corporation, at least one dollar of market value will be created for owners

you should wish your earnings to be reinvested if they can be expected to earn high returns, and you should wish them paid to you if low returns are the likely outcome of reinvestment.

Since the long-term corporate outlook changes only infrequently, dividend patterns should change no more often. But over time distributable earnings that have been withheld by managers should earn their keep. If earnings have been unwisely retained, it is likely that managers, too, have been unwisely retained.

Only by committing available funds to much better businesses were we able to overcome these origins. (It’s been like overcoming a misspent youth.) Clearly, diversification has served us well.

You must first make sure that earnings were not severely depressed in the base year. If they were instead substantial in relation to capital employed, an even more important point must be examined: how much additional capital was required to produce the additional earnings?

retirement announcements regularly sing the praises of CEOs who have, say, quadrupled earnings of their widget company during their reign – with no one examining whether this gain was attributable simply to many years of retained earnings and the workings of compound interest.

Many stock options in the corporate world have worked in exactly that fashion: they have gained in value simply because management retained earnings, not because it did well with the capital in its hands.

No owner has ever escaped the burden of capital costs, whereas a holder of a fixed-price option bears no capital costs at all. An owner must weigh upside potential against downside risk; an option holder has no downside

First, stock options are inevitably tied to the overall performance of a corporation. Logically, therefore, they should be awarded only to those managers with overall responsibility

owners are not well served by the sale of part of their business at a bargain price – whether the sale is to outsiders or to insiders. The obvious conclusion: options should be priced at true business value

all Berkshire managers can use their bonus money (or other funds, including borrowed money) to buy our stock in the market. Many have done just that – and some now have large holdings. By accepting both the risks and the carrying costs that go with outright purchases, these managers truly walk in the shoes of owners

Berkshire’s strong capital position – the best in the industry – should one day allow us to claim a distinct competitive advantage in the insurance market

we prefer to finance in anticipation of need rather than in reaction to it

Tight money conditions, which translate into high costs for liabilities, will create the best opportunities for acquisitions, and cheap money will cause assets to be bid to the sky. Our conclusion: Action on the liability side should sometimes be taken independent of any action on the asset side

The primary factors bearing upon this evaluation are:

1) The certainty with which the long-term economic characteristics of the business can be evaluated;

2) The certainty with which management can be evaluated, both as to its ability to realize the full potential of the business and to wisely employ its cash flows;

3) The certainty with which management can be counted on to channel the rewards from the business to the shareholders rather than to itself;

4) The purchase price of the business;

5) The levels of taxation and inflation that will be experienced and that will determine the degree by which an investor’s purchasing-power return is reduced from his gross return.

The might of their brand names, the attributes of their products, and the strength of their distribution systems give them an enormous competitive advantage

Thirty years ago, I bought silver because I anticipated its demonetization by the U.S. Government. Ever since, I have followed the metal’s fundamentals but not owned it. In recent years, bullion inventories have fallen materially, and last summer Charlie and I concluded that a higher price would be needed to establish equilibrium between supply and demand. Inflation expectations, it should be noted, play no part in our calculation of silver’s value.

If the choice is between a questionable business at a comfortable price or a comfortable business at a questionable price, we much prefer the latter.

Charlie and I look for companies that have a) a business we understand; b) favorable long-term economics; c) able and trustworthy management; and d) a sensible price tag.

Truly great businesses, earning huge returns on tangible assets, can’t for any extended period reinvest a large portion of their earnings internally at high rates of return.

It’s far better to have an ever-increasing stream of earnings with virtually no major capital requirements

The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money.

Review – Professional Investor Rules

Professional Investor Rules: Top Investors Reveal The Secrets of Their Success

by various, introduction by Jonathan Davis, published 2013

The many faces of money management

A 1948 Academy Award-winning film popularized the slogan “There are eight million stories in the Naked City”, and after reading the eclectic “Professional Investor Rules”, I’m beginning to think there are almost as many stories about how to manage money properly.

Value and growth, momentum and macro-geography, market-timing and voodoo superstition; all these major investment strategies and themes are on display, and many more to boot, and all come bearing their own often-tortured metaphors to convey their point.

What’s more, it seems the pacing and style of the book change along with the advice-giver: while some of the entries follow the books eponymous “rule” format for organizing their thoughts, others involve myths, lengthy prose paragraph-laden essays and headings with sub-headings. Some have charts, and some do not.

One things consistent, at least– all the advisors profiled contradict one another at some point or other, and some even manage to contradict themselves in their own sections.

But it’s got this going for it, which is nice

Those are some of the glaring cons to the book. It’s not entirely without it’s pros, however.

One of the things I liked about the book is, ironically, also one of its flaws– the great variety of personas. They run the gamut from the known to the unknown, the mainstream to the contrarian, the sell-side to the buy-side. This book is published by a UK outfit (Harriman House), which means many of the professional soothsayers will be unfamiliar to US audiences, but it also means you get a selection of icons from the Commonwealth and former British territories (such as Hong Kong and other Asia-based managers) that you’d likely never hear about on CNBC or other American publishing sources.

Following this contrarian inversion theme, I liked that all the phony  fuzzy thinkers were right there next to the sharper pencils because it made their baloney that much more rotten. I think this is a great service for an uninformed investor picking up this book. If they had come across some of the more foppish money dandies on their own, elsewhere, they’d be liable to get taken in and swindled like the thousands of others who sustain such frauds. But at least in this case you’ve got a go-go glamour guy saying no price is too high for a growing company right next to a value guy warning that that way lies the path to certain, eventual doom.

And maybe this isn’t a big deal to others but I like the packaging on this hardcover edition I’ve got– it’s truly a HANDy size, the fonts and color scheme are modern and eye-catching and the anecdotal organization of the book makes it easy to pick up and put down without feeling too upset over whether or not you’ve got the time to commit to a serious read right then.

Fave five

Here are five of my favorite ideas from the book, along with the person(s) who said it:

  1. At any one time, a few parts of your portfolio will be doing terribly… focus on the performance of the portfolio as a whole (William Bernstein, Efficient Frontier Advisors)
  2. Far more companies have failed than succeeded (Marc Faber, The Gloom, Boom and Doom Report)
  3. Fight the consensus, not the fundamentals (Max King, Investec Asset Management)
  4. When someone says ‘it’s not about the money,’ it’s about the money (H.L. Mencken… consequently not actually a money manager and not alive, but it was quoted in one of the in-betweens spacing out the chapters)
  5. Academics never rescind papers and never get fired (Robin Pabrook and Lee King Fuei, Schroeders Fund, Asia)

Conclusion

Who is this book for? Accomplished, well-read pro-am investors will find nothing new here and much they disagree with, so I’d recommend such readers stay away. Someone completely new to investing and the money management industry might find the book valuable as a current snapshot of the gamut of strategic strains present in the money management industry.

Overall, while “Professional Investor Rules” has its moments, overall I came away less enthused than I did with Harriman House’s earlier offering, Free Capital. For anyone looking to learn investing techniques from accomplished, self-made millionaires, that’s the book I’d point them to– the advice therein is worth multiples of that being given by the mass of asset gathering managers of OPM contained in this one.