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!

Would You Buy This Business? A Bargain In The Videogame Industry

The Nintendo investment thesis in one paragraph

At Y9020/share (June 1, 2012), you are buying a strong global entertainment franchise for Y1278T which has earned Y126B on average over the last ten years and generated Y120B in average FCF, with Y1191B in book value, Y958B in cash and investments and no debt. Global financial market pessimism coupled with hyperventilating technology futurist forecasting and a recent misstep by management that is now behind the company can be used to your advantage to buy this good business at a fair price.

The Nintendo investment thesis in several paragraphs, with links and charts

Nintendo ($NTDOY – ADR, JP:7974), the cherished childhood video game icon and global IP behemoth behind such hit game franchises and characters as Super Mario Bros., Pokemon, The Legend of Zelda and more, has stumbled recently. The company rolled out its new 3D handheld video game system, the Nintendo 3DS, around the world in the spring of 2011 at a price point that proved out of reach to many consumers.

To sale initial sales were disappointing would be an understatement– the system was a flop and with little software support from Nintendo out the gate, gamers had even less reasons to purchase this pricey new system. Realizing their mistake, the company quickly slashed the retail price of the system and offered retroactive credits and concessions to select customers who had purchased the system prior to the price drop.

With a new slate of software titles by Nintendo and premium 3rd party developers released in the 2011 Holiday season and thereafter, and the new price point, the system has finally caught momentum and software and hardware sales are both impressive. As of March 2012, worldwide sales of the Nintendo 3DS reached 17 million units and sales of related software amounted to over 45 million units. Consider this in comparison to the 151 million hardware units and 900 million software units sold over the last 7 years with the predecessor system Nintendo DS and its generations, and the 95 million hardware units and 818 million software units sold over the last 5 years with the smash hit Wii home game console (data source PDF).

Game console hardware and software sales tend to grow and then peak 3-4 years after release (software especially, as its dependent upon a hardware install base for growth, while hardware is in turn dependent on hit software releases to coax gamers to purchase the system to play their favorite games). Even with the poor initial release, the Nintendo 3DS has already outsold the wildly popular Nintendo DS over a comparable time period.

The world’s biggest game expo, E3, starts the first week of June and Nintendo will make a new announcement about their 2nd generation Wii system, currently named Wii U. Sales of the predecessor, revolutionary motion-controlled system have continued to show strength as the company has strategically discounted the system over its lifecycle to maintain sales and the hardware install base, thus driving software transactions as well, although they are slowing as any game system will after long enough after its introduction into the market.

The pessimism about the initial 3DS rollout and the uncertainty about the potential success of the new Wii U system mean that the market is not looking forward to anything good for Nintendo. The stock has been left for dead as the company trades near book value of Y1,191B with a current market cap of Y1,278B.

The fear and pessimism about this company is not just related to the hardware issues (which appear to be solved). Nintendo’s fortunes have been swept up in the whirlwind Tech Bubble 2.0, where everyone insists that all old things will be torn down and ruined and new, cloud-based (and primarily Apple owned and operated) variants will rise in their place. Analyst opinions, professional and amateur alike, have revolved around an obsession with the idea of Nintendo giving up its hardware business completely and selling itself to Apple and focusing on its software franchises. The company’s stated disinterest in following any course resembling this option has left many to conclude it is an absurd dinosaur, cluelessly waiting for the asteroid apocalypse to arrive and destroy its once powerful and profitable franchise in a massive thermonuclear explosion.

That’s what’s being imputed into the stock price, which has continued to plummet like a rock. But, the reality is quite different. Nintendo’s hardware is not being abandoned en masse by former fans. Nor is the world moving to a permanent, entrenched and exclusive model of casual gaming via cell phone apps. The value of the “casual gamer” is likely severely overblown to begin with (which, by the way, calls into question the value of Nintendo’s strategy of “games for everybody” and expansion of the gaming population, as noble as it may be and as successful as it may appear with the blockbuster sales numbers of the Wii). And Nintendo, while initially hesitant and reluctant to jump into the online transaction and gaming space, is by now doing much more than just dipping a toe in.

A few choice quotes from the latest President’s address by Nintendo head honcho Satoru Iwata are below.

On digital downloads and digital game delivery:

it is true that downloading software with 10 gigabytes of memory cannot be done in an instant today, even with broadband connections. So, compared with the situation of portable gaming devices, where comparatively compact-sized software can be downloaded, we have to ask our consumers to wait for a longer time before the download process is completed. However, consumers will be able to use the Wii U effectively by finding convenient times to download software such as when they are sleeping at night. Some consumers prefer to download digital software so that they can play with them on their system anytime without the need to exchange the games’ storage media. Some other consumers find it easier to purchase the medium at a retailer and play it as soon as they insert it into the game hardware. These consumers think it advantageous that they can exchange games with their friends. In order to offer consumers options to choose from, it is important for the company to first make the situation (where digital downloads of packaged software are offered to our consumers in addition to the existing packaged software sales) a reality, and we are ready to offer these options now.

Nintendo is taking a flexible approach, trying to allow gamers a variety of options for receiving games and game content ranging from traditional retail distribution to digital distribution, all with respect for the current limitations of average broadband connections.

On digital versus retail pricing:

we are proposing the two formats of sales mechanisms from which our consumers can make their own choices. The needs of society shall be determined by the choices to be made by the consumers. We do not hold such a premise that digitally distributed software has less value. In fact, as we have discussed this with a number of software publishers around the world, we have found that their opinions are completely divided on the topic of the price points of the digital distribution of packaged software. Some publishers believe that the digital versions should be cheaper while others insist that both versions must be set at exactly the same price. So, it is not only Nintendo’s idea. Each publisher has various ideas on this point and, among them, Nintendo is now offering both versions at the same price point (the same suggested retail price).

Again, the focus is on flexibility– not wedding the company to one model but taking a wait-and-see approach that alienates neither consumers nor distribution partners and allows the market consensus to finally guide the company to the best process over time.

On management’s responsibility for the flop:

with the financial results that we have announced, it is natural that I am being criticized. I do not feel that I have been experiencing something unreasonable. I am making efforts so that the situation can change as soon as possible.

How often do you see the president of a public company accept responsibility for a problem, and, better yet, still feel like there’s hope for a resolution?

On the lessons learned from the failed 3DS launch that will be applied to the Wii U launch:

As we look back, when we launched the Nintendo 3DS, we failed to prepare a software lineup which could satisfy our consumers in addition to other factors, and the Nintendo 3DS could not initially increase the sales as we had originally expected. This is why the company needed to carry out such a drastic markdown measure by sacrificing the profitability. As a result, and supported by a strong software lineup, the Nintendo 3DS was able to regain momentum during the year-end sales season of 2011. We laid out such a drastic measure by understanding that regaining the momentum which had been once lost, is much harder than trying to create momentum from scratch. Without it, the Nintendo 3DS could not have realized positive results at the end of last year or the current sales pace in Japan. It did hurt our financial results, but it was a necessary measure. So, how will we be able to use this lesson for the Wii U? There is always a limit to our internal resources. The company now has to develop software for the Nintendo 3DS, has to prepare for the Wii U launch and has to finalize the hardware functionalities. With these circumstances in mind, if I said that an overwhelmingly rich software lineup would be prepared from day one, it would be too much of a promise to make. On the other hand, we are making efforts so that we will be able to make several proposals even from the launch period that can eventually become evergreen titles for the Wii U. We have learned the lesson that we have to make that kind of preparation for the Wii U, or the Wii U will not gain enough momentum to expand its sales.

On the role of their 3rd party software publishing partners in the success of their systems:

It is imperative for Nintendo that our new hardware offers new proposals and potentially new play experiences so that developers will be interested in this hardware and be motivated to make attractive software. At the E3 show this June, you will be able to experience not only Nintendo’s Wii U software but also the titles being prepared by the third-party publishers. As a result, I think you will be able to notice that a number of developers are creating software (for the Wii U) even today. As for the Nintendo 3DS, there may appear to be fewer commitments from the U.S. and the European software publishers than those of their Japanese counterparts. This is due to the different timing (between Japan and overseas) when they noticed that the Nintendo 3DS would surely expand widely into their markets and, thus, the different timing when they started the actual development of the Nintendo 3DS software. You will also notice a change in this situation when a richer Nintendo 3DS software lineup in the overseas markets is announced around the time of the E3 show.

The first bold part is critical– this is one of Nintendo’s competitive advantages. The company has a purposeful policy of creating new play experiences that will provide incentive for software publishers to publish for their hardware and not others.

The second part is an explanation for why it appears that non-Japanese publishers have not been excited to produce software for the 3DS after the failed launch. They were last to see the sales momentum for the system turn in their markets so they’re behind on the development schedule as a result.

On the “gaming population expansion” philosophy:

Without making efforts to increase the number of new consumers and make video games accepted positively by society, we cannot expect a brighter future than now, so we will continue to make these efforts.

Once consumers have a notion that “this system is not for us,” we have learned that it is extremely difficult to change their perceptions later. Therefore, in promoting the Nintendo 3DS and the Wii U, we have announced that we would like “width” and “depth” to coexist. With the Nintendo DS and the Wii, the approach of “width” was well accepted by many people; however, what we did in terms of “depth” was not satisfactory for some consumers. This time, we would like consumers to be satisfied in both aspects. In order to do so, we started to work on the “depth” aspect first, and the current and existing software you can see for the Nintendo 3DS is based on that idea. In the future, the approach will evolve. By exploring the development both from width and depth standpoints, it is our intention to satisfy a wider audience with one gaming platform. Our approach for the Wii U is basically the same. By doing so continuously, we are expecting that the number of game users per household will increase and as the gaming population increases, we believe we can create a sustainable video game market.

Nintendo is not going away. It’s not a clueless dinosaur. It made some mistakes with the 3DS launch that it has learned from. The industry may have some challenges, headwinds and uncertainties as the distribution model transitions to digital over time, but none of this changes the integral value of this business drastically, which is that it is a premium provider of desired game IP on innovative 1st party hardware platforms that a growing audience of gamers enjoy using.

It might be a different story if Nintendo were in a different financial position than the one it actually occupies but the reality is as of Q4 FY2012 (Mar 2012), the company had Y958B of cash and short-term investments against TOTAL LIABILITIES of Y177B. The company has no debt. According to this link on the Nintendo IR website, at a current share price of Y9020 the company actually is selling below book (NAV) of Y9313/share.

If you’re not yet getting an idea of how cheap this company is, consider the following table:

Nintendo Trading Multiples
10yr 5yr Pre-Wii
Market cap 1277863 (millions Yen)
EV 319541 (millions Yen)
P/S 1.3 1.0 2.5
EV/EBIT 1.5 1.2 2.7
P/E 10.2 8.0 17.9

I created three periods to consider– 10 year average (full system cycle from 2003-2012), 5 year average (since the global recession started, 2007-2012) and the pre-Wii era (these are average earnings generated by the company prior to release of the hit Wii console, 2003-2006).

As you can clearly see, the company is trading for abnormally low multiples of sales, operating and net earnings. The future for Nintendo will probably be better than the pre-Wii era (it is a larger company with an even more expansive market and fan base than then) but may not be as successful as it was with the Wii. That remains to be seen.

Here is the company’s historical margins over the last 10 years:

  • Gross – 40%
  • Operating – 22%
  • Net – 13%
  • FCF – 12%

I think these margins demonstrate Nintendo is a good business with stable earnings power and strong ability to generate FCF from sales.

Relative to its average earnings power and franchise potential, the company seems to be unreasonably priced. Businesses like Nintendo do not deserve to trade below book or anywhere close to 1.5-2x sales. The stumble on the 3DS was temporary and the company is moving on. It’d be nice if the company was even cheaper, and with all the pessimism in global financial markets it might still be. But at these prices, it’s “cheap enough” for a business like this.

Notes – There’s Always Something To Do

There’s Always Something To Do: The Peter Cundill Investment Approach

by Christopher Risso-Gill, Peter Cundill, published 2011

The Peter Cundill approach to value investing

The following note outline was rescued from my personal document archive. The outline consists of a summary of Christopher Risso-Gills’ recent biographical investment profile of Canadian value investor Peter Cundill, There’s Always Something To Do. The notes are in summary form of the most critical aspects to Cundill’s value investment perspective and analytical process.

There’s Always Something to Do: The Peter Cundill Investment Approach

  • “I think that intelligent forecasting should not seek to predict what will in fact happen in the future. Its purpose ought to be to illuminate the road, to point out obstacles and potential pitfalls and so assist management to tailor events and to bend them in a desired direction.”
  • He made a habit of visiting whichever country had the worst performing stock market in the past 11 months.
  • “In a macro sense, it may be more useful to spend time analyzing industries instead of national or international economies.”
  • “It must be essential to develop and specify a precise investment policy that investors can understand and rely on the portfolio manager to implement.”
  • A few investment principles:
    • never use inside information, “All you get from inside information is a whiff of bad breath.”
    • economic facts and company values always win out in the end
    • don’t try to be too clever about the purchase price
    • isolate what the real assets are
    • never forget to examine the franchise to do business
  • Insider buying is not always well-informed– Peter once scooped up shares of J. Walter Thompson (JWT) at a perceived discount and faced a hostile and confused president who was selling stock from the companies pension fund and couldn’t figure out why Cundill was buying (pg. 29), which demonstrates that there are informational disadvantages and ambiguities that keen analysts can take advantage of, even over company insiders; insider buy/sell ratios and actions should be considered thoughtfully and fully “discounted”, not taken as authoritative proof of anything by themselves
  • “Very few people really do their homework properly, so now I always check for myself.”
  • Look for hidden gems on the balance sheet
  • Investing globally:
    • if you find one foreign stock that is trading at a significant discount, snoop around because there may be other bargains in the foreign industry or market
    • There was nothing “ad hoc” about the way Peter addressed the process of international value investment. In every instance it had to be firmly based on a clear understanding of local accounting practices and how those might differ from accepted standards in North America. The fact that it was different, less transparent, or deliberately opaque was never a reason for ignoring or excluding a market or security. Peter’s attitude was “vive la difference”; if a balance sheet was hard to penetrate it was not just a challenge but an opportunity because the difficulties actually represented a “barrier to entry” even for the experienced professional investor and undoubtedly excluded all but the most sophisticated private investors.
    • The other aspect, which Peter considered to be a vital component of a successful international strategy, was building carefully constructed networks of locally based professionals who had a thorough understanding of value investment principles and would instinctively recognize a security that would potentially fit the Cundill Value Fund’s investment criteria.
  • “THE MOST IMPORTANT ATTRIBUTE FOR SUCCESS IN VALUE INVESTING IS PATIENCE, PATIENCE AND MORE PATIENCE. THE MAJORITY OF VALUE INVESTORS DO NOT POSSESS THIS CHARACTERISTIC.”
  • “It is also dangerous to rely on a single strategy in a doctrinaire fashion. Strategies and disciplines ought always to be tempered by intelligence and intuition.”
  • Personal margin note: Peter did not succeed in isolation but cultivated and utilized networks of knowledgeable and influential people (investors, political activists and politicians, business people); he also had several mentors
  • Peter was impressed by a group of corporate socialites he had dinner with, “They maintain that having a hangover is a waste of a day.”; personal margin note: respect the value of time, the ultimate scarce resource, always
  • Peter organized a prestigious investment conference, the Cundill Conference, where he both talked and exchanged ideas on investing with other friends and gurus, as well as heard from invited guest expert speakers who spoke on a range of topics totally unrelated to investing, to promote cross-disciplinary rigor and creative spark
  • “The boards of charitable foundations are convenient meeting places for influential people. Their ostensible purpose is intimately bound up with the social and commercial ones.”
  • Peter relocated to London from Toronto to better pursue his global value investment approach, seeing London as the center of capital and the business crossroads of the world at the time; personal margin note: where is today’s London, or tomorrow’s?
  • On flying across the Atlantic routinely on the Concorde:
    • “It is a remarkable sounding board, especially in my world of matters financial.”
    • “One becomes even more keenly aware that there is never just one factor determining events, there are many of them interwoven and acting simultaneously.”
    • “I always need to discipline myself to be aware of the world generally, rather than trying to be specific. I only need to be specific about the numbers.”
  • Selling stocks which near or surpass their intrinsic value often acts as an “inbuilt safety valve” for the value investor in markets which are in a bubble or overpriced generally
  • Peter channels Horace’s Ars Poetica via Graham in a journal entry prior to the 1987 Crash: “Many shall be restored that now are fallen, and many shall fall that are now held in honor.”
  • “Sooner or later the market will do what it has to do to prove the majority wrong.”
  • Cundill, via Oscar Wilde, on an approach to stocks: “Saints always have a past and sinners always have a future.”
  • “Being out on a limb, alone and appearing to be wrong is just part of the territory of value investment.”
  • Cundill on overvalued markets: “it can tempt one to compromise standards on the buy side and it may lure one into selling things far too early.”
  • Cundill’s value approach gently evolves: “Discounts to asst value are not enough, in the long run you need earnings to be able to sustain and nurture these corporate values. We now, as a matter of course, ask ourselves hard questions as to where we expect each business to be in the future and, as well, make a judgment on the quality of management.”
  • Cundill defines shorting based off of his ‘antithesis of value’: “identifying a market where values are so stretched and extreme that they are clearly unsustainable. They have passed far beyond the realms of any measure of statistical common sense.”
  • “The great records are the product of individuals, perhaps working together, but always within a clearly defined framework.”
  • “In reality outstanding records are made by dictators, hopefully benevolent, but nonetheless dictators.”
  • On avoiding the temptation to sell an eventual winner: “What we ought to do is go off to Bali or some such place and sit in the sun to avoid the temptation to sell too early.”
  • Cundill on his shock related to 1968 sentiment toward the shoddy accounting of the conglomeration movement: “Nobody cared; accounting is a bear market phenomenon!”
  • “Every company ought to have an escape valve: inventory that can readily be reduced, a division that can be sold, a marketable investment portfolio, an ability to shed staff quickly.”
  • “We always look for the margin of safety in the balance sheet and then worry about the business.”
  • “If there’s no natural skeptic on an investment maybe it would be wise to appoint one of the team to play Devil’s Advocate.”
  • More on investing overseas in developing markets: What was required was an asset-based margin of safety significantly greater than would be considered adequate in the more developed markets. It was also fairly obvious that in these less developed markets tangible fixed assets were superior to cash, which had a nasty habit of evaporating.
  • Cundill on retirement: “Retirement is a death warrant.”
  • Poetic Cundill: “No fortunes are made in prosperity, Ours is a marathon without end: Enjoy the passing moments.”
  • Cundill’s wit and wisdom on what makes for a great investor:
    • “Curiosity is the engine of civilization”, he advises to have serious conversations with people that result in an exchange of thoughts and to keep one’s reading broad.
    • “Patience, patience and more patience.”
    • “Always read the notes to a set of accounts very carefully… seeing the patterns will develop your investment insights, your instincts — your sense of smell. Eventually it will give you the agility to stay ahead of the game, making quick, reasoned decisions, especially in crisis.”
    • “Holding on to a heavily discounted stock that the market dislikes for a period of five or ten years is not risk free. As each year passes the required end reward to justify the investment becomes higher, irrespective of the original margin of safety.”
    • “An ability to see the funny side of oneself as it is seen by others is a strong antidote to hubris.”
    • Routines: “They are the roadmap that guides the pursuit of excellence for its own sake.”
    • Via Peter Robertson, “always change a winning game.”
    • “An investment framework ought to include a liberal dose of skepticism both in terms of markets and of company accounts.”
    • Personal responsibility: “If you lose money it isn’t the market’s fault… it is in fact the direct result of your own decisions. This reality sets you free to learn from your mistakes.”
    • Suggested reading list:
      • Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
      • The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind
      • Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist
      • The Money Masters
      • The Templeton Touch
      • The Alchemy of Finance
    • Cundill’s Corrolary to Murphy’s Law: “When things get so bad that you’re really scared, that’s the time to buy.”
    • Global investing: “Given the dearth of bargains today, it pays to search for them everywhere.”
    • On independence, via Ross Southam, “You have to be willing to wear bellbottoms when everyone else is wearing stovepipes.”
    • “If it is cheap enough, we don’t care what it is.”
    • “I would say that the problem with big businesses that have moats around them is they tend to over-expand.”
    • “IPOs for the most part are dreams engendered by the hope that pro forma estimates will be met. We deal to a certain extent in nightmares that everyone knows about.”
  • Three parts to Cundill’s investment strategy:
    • NAV
    • sum of the parts analysis
    • future NAV estimation
  • “Sometimes nothing is more misleading than personal experience.”
  • Investments held by Peter Cundill, managed by others, a potential place to search for ideas or gain more insight, pgs. 223 and 224

Notes – How To Pick Net-Nets: Two Philosophies From Geoff Gannon And Gurpreet Narang

Buying Net-Nets: What Is The Right Margin Of Safety? by Gurpreet Narang

  • Margin of safety demanded depends on the quality of assets and quality of earnings
  • The subtext of Graham’s 2/3 Rule is that asset values on the balance sheet are inexact
  • In liquidation, liabilities are real but asset values are questionable
  • Liquid assets are easily squandered by bad management or bad operating businesses
  • In addition to discounting assets, look for other positive factors to enhance margin of safety:
    • excess cash relative to assets
    • high return on invested capital
    • ten straight years of operating income
    • ample free cash flows
  • The more liquid the assets, the better the margin of safety
  • One way to improve upon NCAV is P/NQAV, or Price-to-Net Quick Asset value (cash, securities and receivables)
  • Discount demanded moves in inverse proportion to:
    • quality of assets
    • quality of management
    • quality of return on assets
  • Earnings should be backed up by cash flows, preferably with free cash flows
  • Net-nets should be chosen for inherent cheapness, not a hope for liquidation
  • Walter Schloss: “A stock well-bought is half-sold.”
  • Michael Burry: buy at prices “so low that a potential acquirer proposing them would be laughed out of the boardroom”

How To Pick Net-Nets by Geoff Gannon

  • Best Net-Nets:
    • Are around $25M market cap or less
    • High insider ownership
    • High F-score
  • Biggest risks for Net-Nets:
    • Fraud
    • Bankruptcy
    • Share dilution
  • Look for Net-Nets:
    • In the US
    • With positive retained earnings
    • Z-score >3
    • Highest F-scores amongst current crop of NCAVs
    • Highest insider ownership %
  • Similarly, avoid:
    • Foreign
    • Negative retained earnings
    • Z-score ❤
    • Lower/lowest F-score
    • Lower/lowest insider ownership
  • Magic Formula for NCAVs:
    • Rank by F-score
    • Rank by insider ownership
  • Add up the two ranks and choose the highest combined scores
  • You don’t need upside potential, you need downside protection
  • Hold them for longer than a year
  • Take the 10-Q and read it like a credit analyst, asking yourself, “Would you be willing to lend money to this company?”
  • More by Geoff Gannon at How To Pick Solid Net-Nets

Notes – Sanborn Maps, Dempster Mills, Nintendo’s Rise

Warren Buffett & Sanborn Map: An Early Balance Sheet Play

  • Buffett first got involved with Sanborn Map in 1958 because it represented a relative undervaluation compared to his then current holding in “Commonwealth”, even though he still thought “Commonwealth” was undervalued
  • Beginning in 1958, it represented 25% of the partnerships assets and BLP was the largest shareholder which “has substantial advantages many times in determining the length of time required to correct the undervaluation”
  • By 1959, represented 35% of partnership assets
  • Buffett recognized that the business operated in a “more or less monopolistic manner, with profits realized in every year accompanied by almost complete immunity to recession and lack of need for any sales effort”
  • Sanborn faced a changing business environment which beginning in the 1950s which “amounted to an almost complete elimination of what had been sizable, stable earning power” (after-tax profits: 1930s, $500,000; late 1950s, <$100,000)
  • Buffett estimated the reproduction value of Sanborn’s map assets at tens of millions of dollars
  • In addition, Sanborn Map carried a valuable portfolio of marketable securities which it began accumulating in the 1930s
  • Buffett: “Our bread and butter business is buying undervalued securities and selling when the undervaluation is corrected along with investment in special situations where the profit is dependent on corporate rather than market action”
  • The margin of safety was based on the fact that the investment portfolio was worth far more than the company was selling for in the market
  • Additionally, Buffett took a control position which gave him an added margin of safety
  • Buffett made roughly a 50% profit, according to Roger Lowenstein

Warren Buffett & Dempster Mills: Control Investing And Asset Conversion In A Net-Net

  • In 1962, BLP owned 70% of Dempster Mills’ shares (with another 10% controlled by associates), representing approximately 21% of partnership assets
  • Buffett: “Control situations, along with work-outs, provide a means of insulating a portion of our portfolio from [general market overvaluation during a strong bull market]”
  • Buffett: “When control is obtained, obviously what then becomes all-important is the value of assets”
  • Buffett chose to value the partnerships shares based on a discounted estimate of what the assets would gather in a prompt sale (discounted liquidation value)
  • Buffett originally hoped he could turn around the company with existing management; when this failed, he brought in Harry Bottle on the advice of Charlie Munger
  • Bottle, at Buffett’s behest, proceeded to liquidate the balance sheet, converting assets from the manufacturing business (a poor business) into marketable securities, which BLP saw as a good business
  • Buffett: “Never count on making a good sale. Have the purchase price be so attractive that even a mediocre sale gives good results. The better sales will be the frosting on the cake”
  • Buffett’s first purchases of DMM began in 1956 when it was a net-net trading at $18 with $72 in book value and $50 in NCAV per share; the company had had profitable operations in the past but was a break even at the time of purchase
  • Buffett: “Experience shows you can buy 100 situations like this and have perhaps 70 or 80 work out to reasonable profits in one to three years… [due to] an improved industry situation, a takeover offer, a change in investor psychology, etc.”
  • Harry Bottle’s effect:
    • Reduced inventory by 75%, reducing carrying costs and risk of obsolescence
    • Correspondingly freed up capital for investments in marketable securities
    • Cut SG&A by 50%
    • Cut factory overhead expenses by 25%
    • Closed 5 unprofitable branches leaving the company with 3 profitable branches
    • Eliminated production lines tying up capital but producing no profits
    • Adjusted prices of repair parts to yield additional annual profits
  • Buffett: “It is to our advantage to have securities do nothing price wise for months, or perhaps years, while we are buying them. This points up the need to measure our results over an adequate period of time. We suggest three years as a minimum.”
  • Other notes:
    • In 1961, Buffett committed $1M to DMM (his biggest investment yet), buying the controlling interest and staking 20% of BLP’s assets in the process
    • Sold the company as a going concern in 1963 for a $2.3M profit, nearly tripling his investment
    • Bottle’s employment agreement was based on a percentage of profits

Harvard Business School: Nintendo’s Competitive Advantage In The Early Home Video Game World

  • Prior to Nintendo’s dominance, the home video game market was led by Atari and suffered a number of boom-bust cycles where as much money was lost on the way down as was made on the way up
  • The cost of video game consoles has been falling in real terms since the 1980s:
    • 1977, Atari VCS $200, game cartridges $25-30 retail, $5-10 cost to mfger
    • 1983, Commodore, Casio and Sharp game systems sold for around $200-350
    • 1983, Nintendo launches Famicom system at $100 retail price (believed to be at or below cost), and had extracted a rock-bottom chip price of $8/chip by placing an order for 3M units
  • Home video game systems were a growing market:
    • 1982, 17% of US households had a video game system
    • 1990, Nintendo Famicom/NES console was in 1 out of every 3 households in the US and Japan and home video games represented a $5B worldwide industry
  • Nintendo’s development costs were up to $500,000 per title (Y100M) and marketing expenses were several hundred million yen
  • Nintendo’s approach was to focus R&D on developing one or two hit titles per year rather than several minor successes
  • Manufacturing of cartridges was subcontracted at a unit cost of $6-8, which then retailed for $40
  • Part of Nintendo’s value was in hit franchises such as Super Mario Brothers (1985), the Legend of Zelda (1987) and Metroid (1987), the first two of which were developed by hit designer Shigeru Miyamoto
  • Demand for games soon outstripped supply, so Nintendo allowed six firms to be licensed software makers, paying royalties of 20% of the $30 wholesale price per game:
    • Namco
    • Hudson (later acquired by Nintendo and brought in-house)
    • Taito
    • Konami
    • Capcom
    • Bandai
  • By 1988, 50 licensees, who were also charged the 20% royalty rate and had to absorb Nintendo’s manufacturing costs
  • Cumulative sales of Famicoms from 1983-1990 = 17M, Nintendo had gained 95% market share of 8-bit home video game market
  • On average, Japanese consumers bought 12 games for every Famicom system purchased
  • Nintendo, via Nintendo of America subsidiary, rolled out NES (Famicom) in the US in 1985 at $100/system
  • NOA limited licensees to producing 5 NES titles per year; had to place orders for manufacture through NOA at a cost of $14/game cartridge which wholesaled for $30 and were then marked up an additional $15 at retail
  • By 1991, 100 licensees with only 10% of software development in-house at Nintendo
  • Nintendo began licensing Mario and other characters to TV shows, cereal packets, T-shirts, records and tapes, books, board games, toys and other media
  • NOA’s highly targeted ad budget was about 2% of sales and promotional partners were utilized extensively
  • WMT did not stock competing video game systems
  • In 1989, NOA proposed creating a proprietary online network for its game consoles, allowing users to play games, trade stocks, do e-banking and other activities that would later become common place throughout the late 90s but which Nintendo itself failed to capitalize on with its own later systems repeatedly!
  • 1989, Nintendo releases Game Boy handheld game console in Japan, retail price $100, games $20-25, designed to broaden the appeal of their systems (another strategy Nintendo would later utilize with the Wii)
  • By 1992, 32M Game Boys shipped worldwide and consumers bought on average 3 games per year
  • In 1991, Nintendo signed a consent decree with the FTC ending many of their dominant licensing, manufacturing and wholesaling/retailing practices, completely changing the economics of Nintendo’s business