Review – Totto-chan

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window

by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, published 1981

What a wonderful book! I’ve never read anything quite like it, although it reminded me quite a bit of various Hayao Miyazaki animated films I’ve seen in the past. “Totto-chan” is a memoir in the guise of a novel. The author’s childhood self is the main character and the events described actually took place while she attended a creative school called Tomoe Gakuen in pre-war Tokyo. This proves to be an interesting narrative device because the story is told from the emotional and experiential point of view of a child, but with the knowingness and articulateness of an adult. The obvious fondness or at least understanding of the author toward her younger self serves to enhance the overall sensation of empathy the story engenders, for that is the primary theme of the school and what the children were learning there.

Led by the visionary headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi, the Tomoe school’s philosophy is built on trusting children to be themselves, “let nature lead” as Kobayashi put it. The story is filled with anecdotes of Totto-chan and her classmates being entrusted to figure things out for themselves, with adults and authority figures like the headmaster and parents simply listening and providing confidence that the children will succeed in coming up with workable solutions as they learn to navigate the world around them. Mistakes and slipups (such as Totto-chan falling into the school’s cesspool) are treated with dignity and patience. Instruction and structure come in the form of simple guidelines (for lunch, students were asked to bring “something from the hills and something from the sea”) with the belief that the children will be motivated to find their own solution with a limited amount of information.

The effect on the children is a unique sensation of freedom and capability, of openness and consideration of themselves and the needs of others. Seemingly without encouragement, the school spontaneously forms a meaningful, interested sense of community and ownership by the students toward their school grounds, neighborhood and classmates. Left to pursue their studies and interests at their own pace, some students excel through deep study and careful focus of a particular subject while others enjoy sampling disparate bits of knowledge and experience without a plan. All students appear happy and enthusiastic about their lives, even those students who come to the school with severe developmental handicaps. As the author says, this liberty allowed a lot of children who were misfits in the standard schooling regime to find a sense of ease and belonging and to go on to live productive, independent and connected lives as adults.

The story gives the reader a glimpse of an educational philosophy and pedagogical approach that is at once intuitive and mysterious: why shouldn’t every school demonstrate such empathy and concern for its students; and how DOES Mr. Kobayashi manage to have such patience and a sunny disposition toward the antics of small children that are considered so “obnoxious” by nearly everybody else? The epilogue of the story summarizes some of the research travel Kobayashi performed in Europe for several years leading up to the founding of the Tomoe school and it becomes clear that there is a dedicated, principled purposefulness to every single event in the story, which the author as an adult reflects upon in the present with a “Oh, so THAT must have been what Mr. Koboyashi was trying to teach us there…” To a cynical mind it may seem almost exploitative to be so cunning in one’s schemes, but if the ultimate goal of the approach is to develop in the students the maxim “Trust yourself”, how nefarious could this stratagem actually be?

The school seems like a very “social” place and less like an academy– numerous field trips, “sports” days, music and exercise classes and camping overnights pepper the plot and while there is a library and scenes of students doing self-directed physics studies with alcohol burners and beakers, they always take place in Tomoe’s disused railroad cars-cum-classrooms. It’s a challenge only to those readers with a constricted view of what education and learning necessarily mean. For Kobayashi and his students, every experience brings teachable moments and the question begged and answered is why reading about flora and fauna in a textbook is a superior approach when one can go outside for a walk and study the variety of life up close.

From the view of paranoid American parenting, the children disrobing with their teachers and swimming naked together in the school’s small pool will seem like a perfect opportunity for secret child abusers amongst the faculty to get their jollies. But the lesson here seems to be that every choice in life brings with it risks and if bathing suit-less swim time is a useful means for helping the children (especially the physically handicapped) to appreciate and accept their differences and similarities such that they can have confidence about who they are and act with kindness towards everyone else, the risk of something monstrous or mean-spirited in such an environment might be a better risk to take than watching certain individuals grow up feeling alienated from themselves and others for lack of such experiences.

Indeed, those same paranoid parents would be wondering how a child could ever develop a moral sense without correction and punishment from adults. It is enjoyable, then, to witness the many moments when Totto-chan attempts to do something underhanded or less than honest (with herself, her parents or her friends) but recognizes the moral inconsistency of her actions on her own and eventually makes amends and moves on. It makes you think that children are capable of so much more than they are given credit for, typically, and that maybe the moral failings of children reflect not their immaturity, but the perverse incentives of the adults who guide them.

This is a humorous book, as well. There were many moments when I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and recount a passage to someone nearby, they’re just too good not to share. And thankfully, there are moments of profound tragedy and despair. I say thankfully, because it is in these recollections that we are truly reminded of how precious life is and what a wonderful gift a school like Tomoe is.

One of those tragedies is that the Tomoe school burned to the ground near the finale of the Pacific War as Tokyo came under increased firebombing by the US Air Force. It’s a stark reminder of the injudiciousness and unfairness of war, even though it is recounted without particular frustration or anger on the part of the author (a testament to the empathetic spirit of the school itself!) But there is also a lesson in the resilience of the creative spirit, as Kobayashi’s only response is to ask, “What kind of school shall we build next?”

The good news is that we don’t have to suffer war or burn our schools down to ask that question ourselves.

I think this book can be enjoyed by children, parents, families, teachers and social theorists and anyone concerned with building a more empathetic society built upon respect for the individual and the instinct of trusting oneself.

Review – Nintendo Magic

Nintendo Magic: Winning the Videogame Wars

by Osamu Inoue, published 2009, 2010 (translated from Japanese)

Two Nintendo legends no one seems to know about

The original Nintendo started out as a manufacturer of playing cards and other toys, games and trinkets near the end of the Shogunate era in Japan, but the modern company we know today which gave the world the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Game Boy, the Wii and characters like Mario & Luigi and Pokemon, was primarily shaped by four men: former president Hiroshi Yamauchi, lead designer Gunpei Yokoi, the firm’s first software designer Shigeru Miyamoto and the first “outside hire” executive and former software developer, Satoru Iwata.

A family member of the then privately-held Nintendo, Yamauchi took the presidency in 1949 when his grandfather passed away. He tried adding a number of different businesses (taxis, foodstuffs, copiers) to Nintendo in true conglomerate fashion, managing in one 12 year period to grow sales by a factor of 27 and operating profits by a factor of 37.

But his most influential mark on Nintendo’s business came with his fortuitous hiring of Gunpei Yokoi, an engineer, who would head up hardware development for Nintendo’s game division. It was this strategic decision to concentrate Nintendo’s efforts on game development that would lead to the modern purveyor of hardware and software known around the world today.

Hardware engineer Gunpei Yokoi is not a well-known name outside the world of hardcore Nintendo fandom, which is not altogether surprising because most Nintendo fans alive today were not users of some of his first toy gadgets such as the “Love Detector” and the “Game & Watch” handheld mini-game consoles. On the other hand, it’s a shock that the man’s reputation is not larger than it is because he essentially single-handedly created the company’s hardware development philosophy in the 1960s which has remained with it today and continues to influence Nintendo’s strategic vision within the video game industry.

That hardware philosophy was summed up by Nintendo’s first head of its hardware development section as “Lateral thinking with seasoned technology”. In concrete terms, it is the idea of using widely available, off-the-shelf technology that is unrelated to gaming in new and exciting ways of play, for example:

  • Yokoi’s “Love Detector” game, which used simple circuitry and electrical sensors to create an instrument that could supposedly detect romantic chemistry between two users when they held hands and held the machine
  • A blaster rifle toy that used common light-sensing equipment to deliver accuracy readings of the users target shots to the rifle, registering hits and points
  • More recently, the Nintendo “Wiimote” concept, which was simply the idea of repurposing the common household TV remote into a tool for play

Yokoi’s lasting impact on the hardware (and software) philosophy at Nintendo is best captured by current president Satoru Iwata who once said,

It’s not a matter of whether or not the tech is cutting egde, but whether or not people think it’s fun

Similarly, this focus on repurposing existing technology for fun rather than investing in brand new technology helps to explain why many of Nintendo’s systems have been knocked for their not-so-hardcore hardware (think non-HD Wii vs. HD-enabled Sony PS3 and Microsoft Xbox 360) but nonetheless became massive consumer hits– the focus was on fun, not flash.

The Wii particularly was the response to the failure of two systems which preceded it (Gamecube and N64), which were extremely technologically advanced for their era and which departed as swiftly from Yokoi’s philosophy as they posed monumental development challenges for software developers due to their complex, proprietary nature. Instead of creating yet another whizbang console, Nintendo decided that if Wii’s costs were kept down and developers were free to focus on things like a new, intuitive controller and built-in connectivity functions, fun and market success would follow.

Essentially, the game hardware is a commodity with zero barriers to entry. Anyone can have the latest, greatest technology if they’re willing to pay for it. There is no way to establish a competitive advantage on the basis for hardware sophistication alone. It must come from design, or, as Yokoi put it,

In videogames, these is always an easy way out if you don’t have any good ideas. That’s what the CPU competition and color competition are about

Nintendo’s two leading lights: Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto

Rounding out the Fantastic Four are Satoru Iwata, the company’s current president, and Shigeru Miyamoto, the star software developer.

Iwata came from relative privilege and studied computer programming in school. He had a passion for making and playing games from an early age. He joined a software developer, HAL Laboratory, early on. He successfully turned around the flagging HAL Lab before it was acquired by Nintendo.

Meanwhile, Miyamoto first came to fame through development of his Donkey Kong arcade game, which introduced the characters Donkey Kong and Mario and which was originally based off of Popeye until the IP could not be acquired for licensing. As a small boy he spent hours running around the hills, forests and mountains outside his home, which inspired many of his later game creations such as Pikmin, Animal Crossing, The Legend of Zelda, etc. He was the first designer Nintendo had ever hired. Miyamoto often utilizes his “Wife-o-meter” to help him understand how to make games that are more broadly appealing.

Miyamoto’s design ethic is best synthesized as populist-perfectionist:

When creating a game, Miyamoto will occasionally find employees from, say, general affairs who aren’t gamers and put a controller in their hands, looking over their shoulder and watching them play without saying anything

He creates game characters, game designs and immersive environments that appeal to everyone, not just the archetypical “hardcore gamer.” But this desire to serve a mass, unsophisticated audience does not mean that Miyamoto considers quality as an afterthought. Miyamoto will “polish [an idea] for years, if he has to, until it satisfies him” and “shelving an idea does not mean throwing it away. Those huge storehouses are full of precious treasure that will someday see the light of day.”

This is part of the value of Nintendo– they have many unrealized ideas waiting to be turned into hardware and games and the only thing preventing them from seeing the light of day is someone like Miyamoto who wants to make sure that when they eventually emerge into the light, they don’t just shine but sparkle.

And this thinking carries over to the company’s hardware efforts, as well. According to a lead engineer, the DS

had to work consistently after being dropped ten times from a height of 1.5 meters, higher than an adult’s breast pocket

Nintendo is “obsessed about the durability of their systems due to an overriding fear that a customer who gets upset over a broken system might never give them another chance.”

“Nintendo-ness”: how Nintendo competes by not competing

In 1999, then-president Yamauchi saw a crisis brewing for video game developers:

If we continue to pursue this kind of large-scale software development, costs will pile up and it will no longer be a viable business. The true nature of the videogame business is developing new kinds of fun and constantly working to achieve perfection

The solution was to adhere ever more closely to “Nintendo-ness”. Nintendo picks people with a “software orientation.”

“Nintendo-ness” is the company’s DNA, once someone has grasped Nintendo-ness, it is rare for them to leave the company. That tendency protects and strengthens the company’s lineage and makes employees feel at home

Manufacturing companies create hardware which are daily necessities, which compete based on being better, cheaper products. Nintendo is in an industry of fun and games, software, where polished content is the goal. Compare this to rival Sony, where hardware specs are key and the software is to follow.

According to Iwata,

Do something different from the other guy is deeply engrained in our DNA

Similarly, Nintendo-ness means delighting customers through creation of new experiences because

if you’re always following a mission statement, your customers are going to get bored with you

This way of thinking goes back to Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo for 50 years, according to Iwata:

He couldn’t stand making the same kind of toy the other guy was making, so whatever you showed him, you knew he was going to ask, ‘How is this different from what everybody else is doing?’

For some reason, Nintendo observers and critics don’t get this– why isn’t the company doing what everyone else is doing? Why are they making a console with a TV remote instead of HD graphics (the Wii)?

To Nintendo, the risk is in not trying these things and trying to do what everyone else does. Iwata sums it up nicely:

Creators only improve themselves by taking risks

Of course, not all risks are worth taking. Iwata as a representative of Nintendo’s strategic mind makes it clear that the company is keenly aware of its strategic and financial risks:

The things Nintendo does should be limited to the areas where we can display our greatest strengths. It’s because we’re good at throwing things away that we can fight these large battles using so few people. We can’t afford to diversify. We have overwhelmingly more ideas than we have people to implement them

For example, Nintendo considers the manufacturing of game consoles to be outside its purview, a “fabless” company.

Then there’s the reason for the huge amount of cash on the balance sheet:

The game platform business runs on momentum. When you fail, you can take serious damage. The risks are very high. And in that domain, Nintendo is making products that are totally unprecedented. Nobody can guarantee they won’t fail. One big failure and boom– you’re out two hundred, three hundred billion yen. In a business where a single flop can bankrupt you, you don’t want to be set up like that… To be completely honest, I don’t think that even now we have enough [savings]… That’s why IBM, or NEC, or any number of other companies are willing to go along with us. We’d never be able to do what we do without being cash-rich

That being said, Iwata has not been shy about his policy toward dividends and acquisitions. He has stated that assuming Nintendo’s savings continue to accumulate, passing 1.5T or 2T yen, a large merger or acquisition may become a possibility. Otherwise, excess capital will be distributed as dividends.

The next level

Nintendo’s philosophy is to avoid competition. It sees the hardware arms race as an irrelevant dead-end. The key is to create new ways to interact with game consoles and software that keeps game players on their toes and brings smiles to their faces. According to Iwata,

We’d like to avoid having players think they’ve gotten a game completely figured out

Thus, for Nintendo the next level logically is integration of  User-Generated Content into their software environments, which would have inexhaustible longevity. First they sought to increase the gaming population, now they’re looking at how to increase the game-creating population.

The company’s true enemy is boredom. Whatever surprise you create today becomes your enemy tomorrow.

In the end, Iwata says,

Our goal is always to make our customers glad. We’re a manufacturer of smiles

This is what the company calls “amusement fundamentalism” and it’s what sets them apart from their perceived competition, especially comparisons or criticisms aimed at the company in terms of how it stacks up against a company like Apple. To Iwata, this just doesn’t make sense:

We’re an amusement company and Apple’s a tech company

Review – The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

by Marie Kondo, published 2014

This is a work of philosophy under cover of personal organization and household habit. The question at the center of the book is “Why do you own what you own?” Put more bluntly, it is, “Why do you have so much stuff you don’t use and never will?” If those don’t seem like profound questions, maybe you don’t live your life and enjoy your material existence in a thoughtful way.

The book’s weakness, ironically, is in the specific tidying, folding and organizing methods Kondo advocates. Reading on Kindle, I did not find any helpful pictures or diagrams (but thankfully, there is a wealth of videos on YouTube where people have demonstrated her techniques) and I found the text-explanations of how to fold or where to store different things in a closet generally confusing. I believe my confusion will be relieved with some practice and patience in experimenting with different techniques over time. But if you’re hoping to learn the “KonMari Method” for folding, storing and the like, I don’t think this book is the best resource.

Instead, the book’s strength is its principles– always key to the strength of any philosophical work. Kondo suggests a general method for tidying one’s living space– start with your own possessions, then move to shared possessions; begin with clothes, then work through to other easily accumulated items such as books, kitchen and toilet supplies and finally to trinkets and trash; when tidying by category, locate ALL such possessions throughout the home and dump them in a pile on the floor before sorting. Anyone can grasp the principles of this method regardless of their specific circumstances. Her criteria for keeping things (note: this is a positive criteria, NOT a negative criteria for determining what to eliminate) is to hold the object and ask oneself, “Does this spark joy?” It seems ambiguous, emotional… subjective. But that’s the point! It’s a deeply individual approach to tidying. Neither Kondo nor anyone else can tell you what objects bring happiness to your life and which you can do without, you have to sense that on your own.

As a rational person I was alarmed by this at first. It seemed goofy and mystic, maybe not even serious. “Spark joy”, I don’t think in those terms. But I gave it some time and realized it made sense. I started thinking about shirts and sweaters and pants I look for an excuse to wear. I have a pair of corduroys, for example, that almost make me excited for cold weather. And then I have articles that are just taking up space in my dresser and closet, items that I can never seem to find a good opportunity to use them but nonetheless I keep holding on to them because they still fit and they are nice and in good condition. But every sweater I have that I don’t wear and won’t get rid of is another sweater I can’t acquire that I might actually enjoy.

When Kondo pointed out the cost of storing all this useless stuff, I was floored. I would never pay for a “self-storage” unit somewhere, or turn my garage into anything other than a place to put my car. In fact, I regularly shake my head when I peer into neighbor’s open garages as I walk past with my dog seeing them bulging with stacked crap all the way up to the door. What on earth are these people thinking? They’re never going to use this stuff!!

But then I realized that all the items I keep around my home that I have no use for is effectively absorbing part of my rent each month– I am paying to store these items! And what’s worse, as Kondo points out, much of the time these are items I bought in bulk to “save money” but which are in such significant supply that they will last me multiple months if not years. I am effectively floating the manufacturer’s inventory and parking part of it in my home, or thought of another way, I am subsidizing his production by buying several items I don’t really need and won’t ever use with each one I do need. Rather than saving money, I am costing myself– once for buying more than I needed and twice for paying to store it in my home. For me, I’d argue a third time with the emotional cost of being aware of and surrounded by these unused possessions that continually fail to “spark joy.” Just the other day I bought a pack of 12 pens for annotating books as I read. I was unhappy with my previous pens and wanted to try something new. I didn’t need 12 pens, I needed 1 or 2. But I bought 12 for around $10 because I was “saving” money over buying a pack of 3 for $5. The problem is, it turns out I kind of hate these pens and now I have enough to last me a couple years at my current rate of use. Kondo made this so clear to me!

Another startling revelation was the way I’ve shifted some of my own tidying burden to family members. It’s hard to visit my childhood home at times because my parents have a bad case of hoarding. But I’ve had no problem storing my finished or unread books in an unused room of the house I used to occupy when I occasionally stop by. One part of me has been mentally scolding my parents for hoarding and not cleaning up their living space. But another part of me has been dumping off my own clutter on them, completely unaware! I have resolved to go over there and dump a bunch of the stuff that remains.

While I am excited to declutter clothes (and look forward to the opportunity to purchase new articles I might actually enjoy wearing with the newly freed space), hallway closets, linen storage, bathroom and kitchen cupboards and more, one area I struggled with was her suggestion for decluttering one’s library. I love books. Or, rather, I love the idea of reading my books. But Kondo helped me clarify another meaningful point– many of the books I purchase and do not read were meant only to gratify my own ego, ie, “It’d be so great to know more about X.” When I purchase a book and don’t read it for months, I probably won’t read it ever. The inspiration and desire to study that topic has come and gone. I have made the mistake, time and time again, of purchasing far more books than I could ever hope to read and that I will ever be able to sustain an interest in. It’s wasteful.

There are a few books I really do enjoy and which I will read again. There are books I’d like to keep which I may not read again, but which I believe my children will gain a benefit from studying at an appropriate time in their life as I did. You can argue that it’d be better to buy them their own copy at that time, which is true, but this is a limited case in which I am okay holding on to a few titles for them in the meanwhile. But most of the books I own that I haven’t read yet, won’t get read– they’ll remain as costly monuments to an ambition not realized. And many more which I have read and absorbed from them what I can will similarly sit on my shelves unused as a monument to the hope that there is more juice to squeeze. But the pulp is dry at this point. I have made another resolution, which is to keep the few titles I know I will re-read because I’ve re-read in the past, the few titles I want to share with my kids and the few titles I am excited to read in the next month or two at my normal pace of reading. Everything else (read, unread) is getting sold or donated. I want to have a limited library of titles that “spark joy” and feel good to see on my shelf and not a stack of paper that I subconsciously feel a burden to get to as some kind of project.

Marie Kondo’s “Life Changing Magic” invites us to live our lives more consciously and to purchase, use and store with purpose. Any book that helps me to resolve logical contradictions in my own thoughts and actions is valuable to me. I took far more away from this book than I thought I would going into it given that I already have a reputation for being a neat freak!

 

Does Net-Net Investing Work In Japan?

If you took a look at the companies I purchased off my Japanese net-net (“JNet”) worksheet about six months ago, you’d probably conclude net-net investing doesn’t “work” in Japan, at least not over a six month period. The cheap, crappy companies I bought then are cheaper, still crappy companies today.

However, if you took a look at all the companies I didn’t buy from my list, you might get a different impression altogether. While there are a few companies of this group whose fundamentals worsened and/or whose stock price fell, most are up anywhere from 10-15% with several up substantially more, 30-50%. About 10% of the total list seems to have gone private as you can’t find financial info nor trade the symbol any longer, which in my experience in JNet-land typically means they received an MBO.

And if you look at an entirely different list of JNets I generated about two months ago (because all my original picks were no longer JNets), which I finished researching one month ago and which I failed to do anything about until yesterday, the story is even better (or worse, if you’re me). How would you like to see the top pick on your list closed up 25% the day prior and about 40% total since you composed your list? How would you like to see the average company on your list priced 15% or more higher from where you first researched it, meaning you could’ve locked in your 15% annual return for the year in a few months time?!

Once again, this list also had several symbols which no longer trade, presumably because they received buyouts or other going private transactions.

So, in the last few days I learned a few things about JNets:

  1. They “work”
  2. The “M&A activity in Japan, particularly in the small cap space, is a non-starter” claim, is a myth
  3. Even crappy businesses with cash-rich balance sheets are moving like hotcakes in Abenomic Japan
  4. The strengthening of the dollar against the Yen does impact your $ returns, but so far Yen prices on JNets have outpaced the move of the Yen against the dollar
  5. Contrary to my belief that I could take my time allocating idle capital in Japan, it now appears that time is of the essence

My old motto for JNets was, “Steady as she goes.” My new motto is, “Churn and burn” or “Turn and earn.” I’m going to be watching things much more closely than I had before.

To be clear, my experience so far has been frustrating, but it hasn’t been catastrophic as I suggested in my introduction. I have captured some of the windfall moves myself although I continue to have laggards in the portfolio, at least in dollar terms. Very few of the original companies I picked are trading lower than when I bought them, though some have not moved up enough yet to make up for the exchange rate loss. My first portfolio of JNets was bought when the Yen/$ rate was 79. It’s now almost 99 Yen to the dollar and I made my second portfolio purchase around 94 Yen to the dollar.

Overall, in dollar terms my first portfolio is up 5%, with one MBO and apparently another just recently as I found out the stock is up 43% with no ask but I haven’t found a news item explaining why yet. Several others traded above NCAV so I am culling them and putting them into new opportunities. I have not yet determined what the “secret formula” is for picking the JNets that will really take off– oddly, it was mostly the companies whose prospects seemed least fortunate that I neglected to purchase and was in shock to see their stock prices 35% higher or more. As a result, I plan on wider diversification and a more random strategy in choosing between “best” companies and cheapest stocks.

I’m sure many investors have done much better than 5% in Japan in the last half year, and many more have done better still in the US and elsewhere. This isn’t a contest of relative or absolute performance. This is simply an opportunity to settle the score and point out that yeah, Benjamin Graham’s philosophy is alive and well in Japan.

Video – Toby Carlisle, Q&A Notes at UC Davis Talk on Quantitative Value

Click here to watch the video (wear earphones and bring a magnifying glass)

UC Davis/Farnam Street Investments presents Toby Carlisle, founder and managing partner of Eyquem Investment Management and author of Quantitative Value, with Wes Gray.

Normally I’d embed a video but I can’t seem to do that with the UC Davis feed. Also, these are PARAPHRASED notes to the Q&A portion of Toby’s talk only. I ignored the “lecture” portion which preceded because I already think I get the gist of it from the book. I was mostly interested in covering his responses to the Q&A section.

The video is extremely poor quality, which is a shame because this is a great talk on a not-so-widely publicized idea. I wish there was a copy on YouTube with better audio and zoom, but no one put such a thing up, if it exists. I hope Toby does more interviews and talks in the future… hell, I’d help him put something together if it resulted in a better recording!

I had trouble hearing it and only thought to plug in some earbuds near the end. Prior to that I was contending with airplanes going overhead, refrigerator suddenly cycling into a loud cooling mode as well as my laptop’s maxed out tinny speakers contending with the cooling fans which randomly decided to cycle on and off at often the most critical moments. I often didn’t catch the question being asked, even when it wasn’t muffled, and chose to just focus on Toby’s response, assuming that the question would be obvious from that. That being said, I often conjoined questions and responses when there was overlap or similarity, or when it was easier for me to edit. This is NOT a verbatim transcript.

Finally, Toby recently created a beta forum for his book/website, at the Greenbackd Forum and I realize now in reviewing this talk that a lot of the questions I asked there, were covered here in my notes. I think he’s probably already given up on it, likely due to blockheads like me showing up and spamming him with simpleton questions he’s answered a million times for the Rubed Masses.

Major take-aways from the interview:

Q: Could we be in a “New Era” where the current market level is the “New Mean” and therefore there is nothing to revert to?

A: Well that’s really like saying stocks will revert down, not up. But how could you know? You could only look at historical data and go off of that, we have no way to predict ahead of time whether this “New Mean” is the case. I think this is why value investing continues to work, because at every juncture, people choose to believe that the old rules don’t apply. But the better bet has been that the world changes but the old rules continue to apply.

Q: So because the world is unknowable, do you compensate by fishing in the deep value ponds?

A: I like investing in really cheap stocks because when you get surprises, they’re good surprises. I find Buffett stocks terrifying because they have a big growth component in the valuation and any misstep and they get cut to pieces; whereas these cheap stocks are moribund for the most part so if you buy them and something good happens, they go up a lot.

Q: (muffled)

A: If you look at large cap stocks, the value effect is not as prevalent and the value premia is smaller. That’s because they’re a lot more efficient. There’s still only about 5% of AUM invested in value. But the big value guys portfolios look very similar; the value you have as a small investor is you don’t have to hold those stocks. So you can buy the smaller stuff where the value premia is larger. The institutional imperative is also very real. The idea of I’d like to buy 20 stocks, but I have to hold 45. That pushes you away from the optimal holdings for outperformance.

Q: (muffled)

A: The easiest way to stand out is to not run a lot of money. But no one wants to do that, everyone wants to run a lot of money.

Q: (muffled)

A: The model I follow is a bit more complicated than the Magic Formula. But there are two broad differences. I only buy value stocks, I only buy the cheapest decile and I don’t go outside of it, and then I buy quality within that decile. ROIC will work as a quality metric but only within the cheapest decile. ROIC is something Buffett talks about from a marketing perspective but I think in terms of raw performance it doesn’t make much sense. There’s definitely some persistence in ROIC, companies that have generated high returns on invested capital over long periods of time, tend to continue to do that.  If you have Warren Buffett’s genius and can avoid stepping on landmines, that can work. But if you don’t, you need to come up with another strategy.

Q: (muffled)

A: Intuition is important and it’s important when you’re deciding which strategy to use, but it’s not important when you’re selecting individual stocks. We can be overconfident in our assessment of a stock. I wonder whether all the information investors gather adds to their accuracy or to their confidence about their accuracy.

Q: (muffled)

A: All strategies have those periods when they don’t work. If you imagined you ran 4 different strategies in your portfolio, one is MF, one is cheap stocks, one of them is Buffett growth and one is special situations, and you just put a fixed amount of capital into each one [fixed proportion?] so that when one is performing well, you take the [excess?] capital out of it and put it into the one that is performing poorly, then you always have this natural rebalancing and it works the same way as equal-weighted stocks. And I think it’d lead to outperformance. It makes sense to have different strategies in the fund.

Q: (muffled)

A: QV says you are better off following an indexing strategy, but which market you index to is important. The S&P500 is one index you can follow, and there are simple steps you can follow to randomize the errors and outperform. But if you’re going to take those simple steps why not follow them to their logical conclusion and use value investing, which will allow you to outperform over a long period of time.

Q: (muffled)

A: Not everyone can beat the market. Mutual funds/big investors ARE the market, so their returns will be the market minus their fees. Value guys are 5% of AUM, can 5% outperform? Probably, by employing unusual strategies. Wes Gray has this thought experiment where he says if we return 20% a year, how long before we own the entire market? And it’s not that long. So there are constraints and all the big value investors find that once they get out there they all have the same portfolios so their outperformance isn’t so great. There’s a natural cap on value and it probably gets exceeded right before a bust. After a bust is then fertile ground for investment and that’s why you see all the good returns come right after the bust and then it trickles up for a period of time before there’s another collapse.

Q: (muffled)

A: I think the market is not going to generate great returns in the US, and I am not sure how value will do within that. That’s why my strategy is global. There are cheaper markets in other parts of the world. The US is actually one of the most expensive markets. The cheapest market in the developed world is Greece.

Q: Did you guys ever try to add a timing component to the formula? That might help you decide how to weight cash?

A: Yes, it doesn’t work. Well, we couldn’t get it to work. However, if you look at the yield, the yield of the strategy is always really fat, especially compared to the other instruments you could invest the cash in, so logically, you’d want to capture that yield and be fully invested. I think you should be close to fully invested.

Q: What about position sizing?

A: I equal weight. An argument can be made for sizing your cheaper positions bigger. I run 50 positions in the portfolio. In the backtest I found that was the best risk-adjusted risk-reward. That’s using Sortino and Sharpe ratios, which I don’t really believe in, but what else are you going to use? If you sized to 10 positions, you get better performance but it’s not better risk-adjusted performance. If you sized to 20 positions, you get slightly worse performance but better risk-adjusted performance. So you could make an argument for making a portfolio where your 5 best ideas were slightly bigger than your next 10 best, and so on, but I think it’s a nightmare for rebalancing. The stocks I look at act a little bit like options. They’re dead money until something happens and then they pop; so I want as much exposure to those as I can. I invest globally so the accounting regimes locally are a nightmare. IFRS, GAAP to me is foreign. You have to adjust the inputs to your screen for each country as a result of different accounting standards.

Q: digression

A: Japan is an interesting market. Everyone looks at Japan and sees the slump and says it’s terrifying investing in Japan but if you look at value in Japan, value has been performing really well for a really long time. So, if the US is in this position where it’s got a lot of govt debt and it’s going to follow a similar trajectory, you could look at Japan as a proxy and feel pretty good about value.

Q: (muffled)

A: I’ll take hot money, I am not in a position to turn down anyone right now. It’s a hard strategy [QV] to sell.

Q: (muffled)

A: Special situation investing is often a situation where you can’t find it in a screen, something is being spun out, you have to read a 10-K or 10-Q and understand what’s going to happen and then take a position that you wouldn’t be able to figure out from following a simple price ratio. It’s a good place to start out because it’s something you can understand and you can get an advantage by doing more work than everyone else. It’s not really correlated to the market. I don’t know whether it outperforms over a full cycle, but people don’t care because it performs well in a bad market like this.

Q: What kind of data do you use for your backtests?

A: Compustat, CRISP (Center for Research Into Securities Prices), Excel spreadsheets. You need expensive databases that have adjusted for when earnings announcements are made, that include adjustments that are made, that include companies that went bankrupt. Those kinds are expensive. They’re all filled with errors, that’s the toughest thing.

How Did I Come Up With My 16 JNets?

A couple days ago someone who follows my Twitter feed asked me what criteria I had used to pick the 16 JNets I talked about in a recent post. He referenced that there were “300+” Japanese companies trading below their net current asset value. A recent post by Nate Tobik over at Oddball Stocks suggests that there are presently 448 such firms, definitely within the boundaries of the “300+” comment.

To be honest, I have no idea how many there are currently, nor when I made my investments. The reason is that I am not a professional investor with access to institution-grade screening tools like Bloomberg or CapitalIQ. Because of this, my investment process in general, but specifically with regards to foreign equities like JNets, relies especially on two principles:

  • Making do with “making do”; doing the best I can with the limited resources I have within the confines of the time and personal expertise I have available
  • “Cheap enough”; making a commitment to buy something when it is deemed to be cheap enough to be worthy of consideration, not holding out until I’ve examined every potential opportunity in the entire universe or local miniverse of investing

That’s kind of the 32,000-ft view of how I arrived at my 16 JNets. But it’s a good question and it deserves a specific answer, as well, for the questioner’s sake and for my own sake in keeping myself honest, come what may. So, here’s a little bit more about how I made the decision to add these 16 companies to my portfolio.

The first pass

The 16 companies I invested in came from a spreadsheet of 49 companies I gathered data on. Those 49 companies came from two places.

The first place, representing a majority of the companies that ultimately made it to my spreadsheet of 49, was a list of 100 JNets that came from a Bloomberg screen that someone else shared with Nate Tobik. To this list Nate added five columns, to which each company was assigned a “1” for yes or a “0” for no, with category headings covering whether the company showed a net profit in each of the last ten years, whether the company showed positive EBIT in each of the last ten years, whether the company had debt, whether the company paid a dividend and whether the company had bought back shares over the last ten years. Those columns were summed and anything which received a “4” or “5” cumulative score made it onto my master spreadsheet for further investigation.

The second place I gathered ideas from were the blogs of other value investors such as Geoff Gannon and Gurpreet Narang (Neat Value). I just grabbed everything I found and threw it on my list. I figured, if it was good enough for these investors it was worth closer examination for me, too.

The second pass

Once I had my companies, I started building my spreadsheet. First, I listed each company along with its stock symbol in Japan (where securities are quoted by 4-digit numerical codes). Then, I added basic data about the shares, such as shares outstanding, share price, average volume (important for position-sizing later on), market capitalization, current dividend yield.

After this, I listed important balance sheet data: cash (calculated as cash + ST investments), receivables  inventory, other current assets, total current assets, LT debt and total liabilities and then the NCAV and net cash position for each company. Following this were three balance sheet price ratios, Market Cap/NCAV, Market Cap/Net Cash and Market Cap/Cash… the lower the ratio, the better. While Market Cap/Net Cash is a more conservative valuation than Market Cap/NCAV, Market Cap/Cash is less conservative but was useful for evaluating companies which were debt free and had profitable operations– some companies with uneven operating outlooks are best valued on a liquidation basis (NCAV, Net Cash) but a company that represents an average operating performance is more properly considered cheap against a metric like the percent of the market cap composing it’s balance sheet cash, assuming it is debt free.

I also constructed some income metric columns, but before I could do this, I created two new tabs, “Net Inc” and “EBIT”, and copied the symbols and names from the previous tab over and then recorded the annual net income and EBIT for each company for the previous ten years. This data all came from MSN Money, like the rest of the data I had collected up to that point.

Then I carried this info back to my original “Summary” tab via formulas to calculate the columns for 10yr average annual EBIT, previous year EBIT, Enterprise Value (EV), EV/EBIT (10yr annual average) and EV/EBIT (previous year), as well as the earnings yield (10yr annual average net income divided by market cap) and the previous 5 years annual average as well to try to capture whether the business had dramatically changed since the global recession.

The final step was to go through my list thusly assembled and color code each company according to the legend of green for a cash bargain, blue for a net cash bargain and orange for an NCAV bargain (strictly defined as a company trading for 66% of NCAV or less; anything 67% or higher would not get color-coded).

I was trying to create a quick, visually obvious pattern for recognizing the cheapest of the cheap, understanding that my time is valuable and I could always go dig into each non-color coded name individually looking for other bargains as necessary.

The result, and psychological bias rears it’s ugly head

Looking over my spreadsheet, about 2/3rds of the list were color-coded in this way with the remaining third left white. The white entries are not necessarily not cheap or not companies trading below their NCAV– they were just not the cheapest of the cheap according to three strict criteria I used.

After reviewing the results, my desire was to purchase all of the net cash stocks (there were only a handful), all of the NCAVs and then as many of the cash bargains as possible. You see, this was where one of the first hurdles came in– how much of my portfolio I wanted to devote to this strategy of buying JNets. I ultimately settled upon 20-25% of my portfolio, however, that wasn’t the end of it.

Currently, I have accounts at several brokerages but I use Fidelity for a majority of my trading. Fidelity has good access to Japanese equity markets and will even let you trade electronically. For electronic trades, the commission is Y3,000, whereas a broker-assisted trade is Y8,000. I wanted to try to control the size of my trading costs relative to my positions by placing a strict limit of no more than 2% of the total position value as the ceiling for commissions. Ideally, I wanted to pay closer to 1%, if possible. The other consideration was lot-sizes. The Japanese equity markets have different rules than the US in terms of lot-sizes– at each price range category there is a minimum lot size and these lots are usually in increments of 100, 1000, etc.

After doing the math I decided I’d want to have 15-20 different positions in my portfolio. Ideally, I would’ve liked to own a lot more, maybe even all of them similar to the thinking behind Nate Tobik’s recent post on Japanese equities over at Oddball Stocks. But I didn’t have the capital for that so I had to come up with some criteria, once I had decided on position-sizing and total number of positions, for choosing the lucky few.

This is where my own psychological bias started playing a role. You see, I wanted to just “buy cheap”– get all the net cash bargains, then all the NCAVs, then some of the cash bargains. But I let my earnings yield numbers (calculated for the benefit of making decisions about some of the cash bargain stocks) influence my thinking on the net cash and NCAV stocks. And then I peeked at the EBIT and net income tables and got frightened by the fact that some of these companies had a loss year or two, or had declining earnings pictures.

I started second-guessing some of the choices of the color-coded bargain system. I began doing a mish-mash of seeking “cheap” plus “perceived quality.” In other words, I may have made a mistake by letting heuristics get in the way of passion-less rules. According to some research spelled out in an outstanding whitepaper by Toby Carlisle, the author of Greenbackd.com, trying to “second guess the model” like this could be a mistake.

Cheap enough?

Ultimately, this “Jekyll and Hyde” selection process led to my current portfolio of 16 JNets. Earlier in this post I suggested that one of my principles for inclusion was that the thing be “cheap enough”. Whether I strictly followed the output of my bargain model, or tried to eyeball quality for any individual pick, every one of these companies I think meets the general test of “cheap enough” to buy for a diversified basket of similar-class companies because all are trading at substantial discounts to their “fair” value or value to a private buyer of the entire company. What’s more, while some of these companies may be facing declining earnings prospects, at least as of right now every one of these companies are currently profitable on an operational and net basis, and almost all are debt free (with the few that have debt finding themselves in a position where the debt is a de minimis value and/or covered by cash on the balance sheet). I believe that significantly limits my risk of suffering a catastrophic loss in any one of these names, but especially in the portfolio as a whole, at least on a Yen-denominated basis.

Of course, my currency risk remains and currently I have not landed on a strategy for hedging it in a cost-effective and easy-to-use way.

I suppose the only concern I have at this point is whether my portfolio is “cheap enough” to earn me outsized returns over time. I wonder about my queasiness when looking at the uneven or declining earnings prospects of some of these companies and the way I let it influence my decision-making process and second-guess what should otherwise be a reliable model for picking a basket of companies that are likely to produce above-average returns over time. I question whether I might have eliminated one useful advantage (buying stuff that is just out and out cheap) by trying to add personal genius to it in thinking I could take in the “whole picture” better than my simple screen and thereby come up with an improved handicapping for some of my companies.

Considering that I don’t know Japanese and don’t know much about these companies outside of the statistical data I collected and an inquiry into the industry they operate in (which may be somewhat meaningless anyway in the mega-conglomerated, mega-diversified world of the Japanese corporate economy), it required great hubris, at a minimum, to think I even had cognizance of a “whole picture” on which to base an attempt at informed judgment.

But then, that’s the art of the leap of faith!

16 Japanese Net-Nets I Put In My Portfolio

Listed below are the 16 Japanese companies that currently compose my “basket” (portfolio-within-the-portfolio) of Japanese net-nets, which I refer to as “JNets”. While most of my picks were classic Benjamin Graham-style companies trading for 2/3rds or less of their Net Current Asset Value (current assets minus total liabilities), some were selected on the basis of being a Net Cash Bargain (trading below the value of the company’s cash minus total liabilities) or as a Cash Bargain (profitable company with no debt trading for less than the cash on the balance sheet).

Strictly speaking, a Net Cash Bargain is a more conservative valuation than a Net Current Asset Value Bargain as there are more assets in front of the liabilities, while a Cash Bargain is a less conservative valuation (it may or may not be an NCAV Bargain) but typically you are getting a higher quality company with stronger earnings power as a result. As Graham noted, equities can be analyzed much like bonds and the true safety of a bond comes from the underlying company’s earnings power, not necessarily the asset values which are a worst-case fall back measure to protect against loss.

The figures in the list below are all in Yen, typically in millions of Yen besides the per share price. At the time of purchase, the approximate exchange value of the dollar against the Yen was 1 USD = 78 JPY. All figures and prices are the most recent available at time of purchase.

For comparative purposes, I summarize at the end of the list the metrics for the entire basket (as if it was a conglomeration of 100% of the equity of all companies included) as well as on an average basis as a representative for an individual company within the basket.

Links in the name of each company take you to their website, if available. Links in the symbol of each company take you to their Bloomberg business bio page, if available.

16 Japanese Bargain Shares (Net-Nets, Net Cash and Cash Value)

Name: Sakai Trading
Symbol: 9967
Industry/product: imports, exports, and wholesales chemical products, synthetic resins, and electronic materials
Market Cap (Ym): 2,210
Share price (Y): 235
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 2,851
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 12.3x
NCAV (Ym): 4,973
 
Name: Shinko Shoji Co. Ltd
Symbol: 8141
Industry/product: sells electronic parts and equipment such as integrated circuits (IC) and semiconductor devices, liquid crystal (LC) display modules, condensers, ferrite cores, coils, power supplies, thin film transistor (TFT) thermal printers, head magnets, transformers, motors, sensors, and connectors
Market Cap (Ym): 16,905
Share price (Y): 625
Debt (Ym): 3,000
Cash (Ym): 10,610
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 12x
NCAV (Ym): 41,899
 
Name: KSK Co Ltd
Symbol: 9687
Industry/product: develops computer software for various systems related to telecommunication and LSI (Large Scale Integration), provides data processing services for government and insurance group, sells OA (Office Automation) equipment and computer peripheral
Market Cap (Ym): 3,300
Share price (Y): 450
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 4,461
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 1.6x
NCAV (Ym): 4,926
 
Name: Daichii Kensetsu
Symbol: 1799
Industry/product: constructs railways mainly for East Japan Railway, constructs infrastructure such as sewage facilities, tunnels, and waterways, builds commercial, institutional, and residential buildings
Market Cap (Ym): 15,124
Share price (Y): 685
Debt (Ym): 151
Cash (Ym): 17,230
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 2.3x
NCAV (Ym): 19,099
 
Name: Choukeizai Sha
Symbol: 9476
Industry/product: publishes economics, finance, law, accounting, and tax related books and periodical magazines and business related books, operates a planning center which handles advertising on publishes, provides design & production services for sales promotion pamphlets
Market Cap (Ym): 1,434
Share price (Y): 326
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 2,501
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): -0.1x
NCAV (Ym): 2,933
 
Name: CLIP Corp
Symbol: 4705
Industry/product: operates a network of cram schools in Nagoya, operates soccer school and lunch box delivery services
Market Cap (Ym): 4,022
Share price (Y): 886
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 5,029
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 0.1x
NCAV (Ym): 4,196
 
Name: Noda Screen
Symbol: 6790
Industry/product: processes electrical components such as plastic package substrates and printed circuits boards (PCBs), through a subsidiary, manufactures and sells screen stencils and fluoride chemical products
Market Cap (Ym): 2,849
Share price (Y): 27,000
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 3,641
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): -0.2x
NCAV (Ym): 4,146
 
Name: Kitakei Co Ltd
Symbol: 9872
Industry/product: wholesales housing materials and home furnishings based in the Kansai area, sells housing facility products such as bathroom units, wooden building materials, special wooden products, housing equipment, veneer boards, chemical products, and housing preservative agents
Market Cap (Ym): 2,963
Share price (Y): 296
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 5,045
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 16.8x
NCAV (Ym): 5,133
 
Name: Ryosan Co Ltd
Symbol: 8140
Industry/product: distributes electronic components, such as integrated circuits (ICs), electronic tubes, semiconductor elements, and personal computers, manufactures heat sinks
Market Cap (Ym): 47,582
Share price (Y): 1,387
Debt (Ym): 172
Cash (Ym): 36,452
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 7x
NCAV (Ym): 92,515
 
Name: Daiken Co
Symbol: 5900
Industry/product: manufactures and sells metal and other material parts for building construction and exterior products including curtain rails, exterior panels, garages, and bicycle parking units, provides installation of these products and real estate leasing service
Market Cap (Ym): 2,245
Share price (Y): 376
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 1,753
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 5.4x
NCAV (Ym): 4,375
 
Name: Ryoyo Electro Corporation
Symbol: 8068
Industry/product: wholesales electronic components including semiconductors, sells workstations, personal computers, and printers, operates offices in Singapore and Hong Kong, trades semiconductors from Mitsubishi Electric
Market Cap (Ym): 22,205
Share price (Y): 771
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 28,443
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 1.6x
NCAV (Ym): 54,847
 
Name: Nihon Dengi
Symbol: 1723
Industry/product: designs, constructs, and maintains integrated building management systems for air-conditioning, security, and electrical facilities, develops integrated production systems for industrial factories
Market Cap (Ym): 4,805
Share price (Y): 586
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 6,313
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 4.3x
NCAV (Ym): 8,613
 
Name: Odawara Engineering
Symbol: 6149
Industry/product: manufactures automatic coil winding machines including micro motor, coreless motor, universal motor, and stepping motor type, provides reconstruction, repair, and parts replacement services for its winding machines
Market Cap (Ym): 4,154
Share price (Y): 650
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 5,411
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 2x
NCAV (Ym): 6,423
 
Name: Natoco Co Ltd
Symbol: 4627
Industry/product: manufactures and sells various types of paints including paints for metals, building materials, and auto repair, manufactures high polymer compounds which are used as material for liquid crystal displays
Market Cap (Ym): 4,414
Share price (Y): 603
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 5,403
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 5x
NCAV (Ym): 6,967
 
Name: Fuji Oozx
Symbol: 7299
Industry/product: manufactures automobile engine parts such as valves, valve adjusters and rotators, has subsidiaries in Korea, Taiwan, and the United States
Market Cap (Ym): 6,189
Share price (Y): 301
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 6,884
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 1.6x
NCAV (Ym): 11,623
 
Name: Excel Co Ltd
Symbol: 7591
Industry/product: sells electronic products, such as liquid crystal devices (LCD), semiconductors, and integrated circuits (IC), including thin film transistor (TFT) modules, TFT-LCDs, cellular phones, car navigation systems
Market Cap (Ym): 6,208
Share price (Y): 683
Debt (Ym): 0
Cash (Ym): 6,679
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): 4.7x
NCAV (Ym): 18,574
 
Total Basket
Market Cap (Ym): 129,974
EV (Ym): -15,499
10yr avg EBIT (Ym): 27,046
Debt (Ym): 3,323
Cash (Ym): 148,796
NCAV (Ym): 291,244
EV/EBIT (10yr avg): -0.57x
P/NCAV: 0.45x
P/Net cash: 0.89x
P/Cash: 0.87x
EBIT yield (EBIT/Mkt Cap): 21%
 
Representative Company (Avg)
Market Cap (Ym): 8,123
EV (Ym): -969
10yr avg EBIT (Ym): 1,690
Debt (Ym): 208
Cash (Ym): 9,300
NCAV (Ym): 18,203