Review – Common Stocks And Uncommon Profits

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

by Philip A. Fisher, published 1996, 2003

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

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

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

Keep Your Eye On The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the Goods: The Scuttlebutt Approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all,

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

The Fisher 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timing Is Everything?

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

He continues,

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

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

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

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

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

He concludes,

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

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

Managing Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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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.

Notes – Buffett Partnership Letters, 1957-1970

Recently I sank into my overstuffed armchair (in this situation, “sank” is used derisively to connote frustration and discomfort with regards to ideal reading conditions) with a copy of Buffett’s partnership letters from the 1957-1970 period in my hands. I found them on CSInvesting.org and had never taken the time to read them before, but figured it was about time as I was curious to consult a primary source on this period of Buffett’s investment career, having already read a 3rd-party recounting in The Snowball.

My interest was to read critically. Buffett’s letters have been read and analyzed and mulled over by thousands of investors and business people and have been discussed ad nauseum. But everyone seems to come away with the same lessons and the same pithy quotes that they throw up on their blogs when appropriate. I wanted to see if I could find anything original. From my own set of knowledge and understanding of Buffett and “how he did it”, I achieved my goal, but I can not guarantee creativity to anyone else who may be reading this. Somehow, somewhere in some overlooked nook of this vast interweb, I may have missed the discussion where someone went over these exact points.

Market timing, or the “value climate”

Amongst value investors, the sin of attempting to time the market is considered to be one of the greatest (for example, see the special note at the end of my recent review of The Intelligent Investor). Luminaries like Graham warn us that attempting to jump in and out of the markets according to their perceived price level being high or low is a speculative activity that will be rewarded as such, which is to say, it’ll eventually end in disaster.

However, while value gurus like Graham warned against market timing as a primary tool of analysis in an investment program, it’s also true that both Graham and Buffett were nonetheless intimately aware of market valuations and sentiment and both of them discussed the way their perception of market valuation influenced their portfolio orientation at any given time. For Graham and his intelligent investors, the response was to weight the portfolio toward bonds and away from stocks when the market was high and the opposite when the market was low. Similarly, Buffett advised in his 1957 letter:

If the general market were to return to an undervalued status our capital might be employed exclusively in general issues… if the market should go considerably higher our policy will be to reduce our general issues as profits present themselves and increase the work-out portfolio

This quote alone, along with many others just like it throughout the partnership letters, makes it clear the Buffett did not ignore broad market valuations. And not only did he not ignore them, he actively manipulated his portfolio in response to them. However, there are a few key things to note in terms of the heavily nuanced differences between what Buffett did and what the average market timer does:

  • Market timers are forecasters, they act on a perceived market level because of their anticipation about future market levels; Buffett refused to speculate about what the future of the market level might be and instead accepted it for what it was, changing what he owned and in what proportions, not whether he was invested or uninvested
  • Market timers are binary, choosing between “risk on” or “risk off”; Buffett responded to higher market levels by seeking to gain greater exposure to market neutral opportunities (special situations revolving around corporate action) while still continuing to make investments in individual undervalued businesses as he found them
  • Market timers always maintain the illusion of “full control” knowing they can always sell out or buy in any time they like in response to market valuations; Buffett acknowledged that many times he might desire to have greater market neutral exposure but that such opportunities might dry up in the late stages of a bull market, dashing his plans

The importance of relative performance

Another concept of Buffett’s money management style that stood out was his obsession with relative performance. I found this interesting again because the orthodox value investment wisdom is that it is not relative, but absolute, performance which matters– if you permanently lose a portion of your capital in a period, but your loss is smaller than your benchmark, you’ve still lost your capital and this is a bad thing.

Again, from the 1957 letter, Buffett turned this idea on its head:

I will be quite satisfied with a performance that is 10% per year better than the [Dow Jones Industrial] Averages

Because Buffett calculated that over the long-term the DJIA would return 5-7% to shareholders including dividends, Buffett was aiming for a 15-17% per annum performance target, or about 3x the performance of the Dow. But, as always, there was an important twist to this quest for relative out performance. In his 1962 letter, Buffett stated in no uncertain terms:

I feel the most objective test as to just how conservative our manner of investing is arises through evaluation of performance in down markets. Preferably these should involve a substantial decline in the Dow. Our performance in the rather mild declines of 1957 and 1960 would confirm my hypothesis that we invest in an extremely conservative manner

He went on to say:

Our job is to pile up yearly advantages over the performance of the Dow without worrying too much about whether the absolute results in a given year are a plus or a minus. I would consider a year in which we were down 15% and the Dow declined 25% to be much superior to a year when both the partnership and the Dow advanced 20%

And he concluded by noting:

Our best years relative to the Dow are likely to be in declining or static markets. Therefore, the advantage we seek will probably come in sharply varying amounts. There are bound to be years when we are surpassed by the Dow, but if over a long period we can average ten percentage points per year better than it, I will feel the results have been satisfactory.

Specifically, if the market should be down 35% or 40% in a year (and I feel this has a high probability of occurring in one year in the next ten– no one knows which one), we should be down only 15% or 20%. If it is more or less unchanged during the year, we would hope to be up about ten percentage points. If it is up 20% or more, we would struggle to be up as much

In his 1962 letter, he added further detailing, sharing:

Our target is an approximately 1/2% decline for each 1% decline in the Dow and if achieved, means we have a considerably more conservative vehicle for investment in stocks than practically any alternative

Why did Buffett focus so much on relative out performance in down years? Because, as a value investor, he was obsessed with permanent loss of capital. In a broad sense, making money in the market is somewhat easy as over long periods of time as the market has historically tended to rise higher and higher. Every now and then, however, it corrects sharply to the downside and it is in these moments when the average investor panics and sells out at a loss, thereby permanently impairing his capital.

Buffett believed that by buying at a discount and taking a more conservative approach to the investment problem from the outset, he would limit any losses he might sustain in the inevitable downturns in the market. This by itself would put him ahead of other market participants because he’d have more of his capital intact. The real power behind this strategy is what comes afterward, as then the just-as-inevitable recovery would continue the compounding process again– with more of his original capital than the other guy, Buffett would enjoy greater pure gain over time as he would have a relatively shallower hole to climb out of each time.

True Margin of Safety: two pillars of value

Fellow value investor Nate Tobik over at OddballStocks.com has talked repeatedly about one of Ben Graham’s concepts which he refers to as the “two pillars of value”, namely, that a company which represents a bargain both on the basis of a discount to net assets and a discount earnings is the most solid Margin of Safety one can possess because you’re not only protected two ways but you also have two ways to “win.”

Reading the Buffett partnership letters, it’s clear that the reason Buffett was knocking it out of the park in his early years was because he relied upon the same methodology. Buffett later was critical of his own early practices and many others have derided the investment style as akin to picking up soggy cigar butts and taking the last puff before discarding them, but there is no denying in studying several of the investments Buffett disclosed that Buffett was buying things which were “smack you over the head” cheap.

For example, in the 1958 letter, Buffett disclosed the partnerships’ investment in Commonwealth Trust Company of New Jersey, a small bank. Buffett claimed the company had a computed per share intrinsic value of $125, which was earning $10/share and trading for $50. This meant that Buffett bought the company for 40% of book value, or at a 60% margin of safety to indicated value. And, in two pillar tradition, he was also buying at a 5x multiple of net earnings– by any standards, an incredibly cheap value. If one were to look at the company as a bond and study it’s earnings yield, this company was offering a 20% coupon!

Making good buys, not good sales

In the example of Commonwealth Trust Co. discussed earlier, though Buffett calculated an intrinsic value of $125/share, he ultimately sold for only $80/share. He did not sell out near intrinsic value but rather far below it. Still, because he had originally bought at $50/share, he nonetheless earned a 60% return despite the company trading at a still-substantial discount to intrinsic value.

As Buffett chirped in his 1964 letter:

Our business is making excellent purchases– not making extraordinary sales

Why does Buffett harp on this idea so frequently? There are a few reasons.

One, an excellent purchase price implies a substantial discount to intrinsic value and earnings power, therefore there is a built-in margin of safety and the downside is covered, a principle of central importance to sound investing.

Two, an individual has 100% control over when they buy a security but relatively little control over when and in what conditions they sell, particularly if they use margin. You may not always get the price you want when you are ready to sell but you will always get the price you want when you buy because that decision is made entirely by you and doesn’t require the cooperation of anyone else. Buying at a discount ensures you “lock in” a profit up front.

Three, buying at a discount gives one optionality. If a better deal comes along, it is more likely you can get back out of your original investment at cost or better when you buy it cheap. When your original purchase price represents a substantial discount you have a better chance of finding a buyer for your shares because even at higher prices such a sale would probably still represent a bargain to another buyer meaning both parties can feel good about the exchange.

This last point was critical in Buffett’s Commonwealth situation. He was happy to sell at only $80/share despite a $125/share intrinsic value because he had found another opportunity that was even more compelling and because his original purchase price was so low, he still generated a 60% return. Meanwhile, the other party who took this large block off his hands was happy to provide the liquidity because they still had a 56% upside to look forward to at that $80/share price.

Early activism, the value of control

Another lesson from Buffett’s partnership letters is the importance and value of activism and control. From an activism standpoint, the examples of Sanborn Maps and Dempster Mills are well-known and don’t require further elaboration in this post (follow the links for extensive case study analysis at CSInvesting.org, or even read Buffett’s partnership letters yourself to see his explanation of how these operations worked).

But activism is something that is best accomplished with control, and often is its by-product. On the topic of control, Buffett said in his 1958 letter with regards to Commonwealth:

we became the second largest stockholder with sufficient voting power to warrant consultation on any merger proposal

By gaining a large ownership share in an undervalued company, an investor can play a more active role in ensuring that potential catalysts which might emerge serve to adequately reward shareholders. Similarly, time is money and when one has control,

this has substantial advantages many times in determining the length of time required to correct the undervaluation

An investment situation offering, say, a 30% return, offers a 30% annualized return if captured within a year, a 15% annualized return if gained after two years and only a 10% annualized return if it takes 3 years to realize value. Having control can often be the difference between a 30% and a 10% annualized return by allowing an investor to accelerate the pace at which they turn over their capital.

It is a myth, therefore, that Buffett only became a wholesale/control buyer as he employed greater amounts of capital in his later years. While many of his investments were passive, minority positions in the partnership years, Buffett never shied away from control and activism, even saying in his 1961 letter:

Sometimes, of course, we buy into a general with the thought that it might develop into a control situation. If the price remains low enough for a long period, this might very well happen

In this sense, “value is its own catalyst” and something which is cheap and remains cheap for an extended period of time can actually be a unique opportunity to accumulate enough shares to acquire control, at which point the value can be unlocked through asset conversion, a sale or merger of the company or through a commandeering of the company’s earnings power.

Portfolio buckets: generals, work-outs and control

In his 1961 letter, as well as later letters, Buffett outlined the three primary types of investments that could be found in the partners’ portfolios, the approximate proportion of the portfolio to be involved with each and the basis upon which such investments should be chosen.

The “bread and butter” according to Buffett was his “generals”, businesses trading at substantial discounts to their intrinsic value which were purchased with the intent of eventually being resold at a price closer to the intrinsic value:

our largest category of investment… more money has been made here than in either of the other categories… We usually have fairly large positions (5% to 10% of our total assets) in each of five or six generals, with smaller positions in another ten or fifteen… Sometimes these work out very fast; many times they take years. It is difficult at the time of purchase to know any specific reason why they should appreciate in price… individual margin of safety coupled with a diversity of commitments creates a most attractive package of safety and appreciation potential… [we] are usually quite content selling out at some intermediate level between our purchase price and what we regard as fair value to a private owner

While admitting that the particular and eventual catalyst was often not known with the average investment in a general security, Buffett also admitted in his 1963 “Ground Rules” letter section:

Many times generals represent a form of “coattail riding” where we feel the dominating stockholder group has plans for the conversion of unprofitable or under-utilized assets to a better use

The next category was workouts:

our second largest category… ten or fifteen of these [at various stages of development]… I believe in using borrowed money to offset a portion of our work-out portfolio since there is a high degree of safety in this category in terms of both eventual results and intermediate market behavior

The beauty of work-outs is that they relied on corporate action, not market action, to realize value. In this sense, they could provide a meaningful buffer to share price declines in generals during bear markets as their performance was largely “market neutral.” For example, in his 1963 (1962 being a bear market) letter Buffett said:

This performance is mainly the result of having a large portion of our money in controlled assets and workout situations rather than general market situations at a time when the Dow declined substantially

The final category was control, which started out as something of an after-thought or an accidental consequence of investing in certain generals which remained cheap, but later turned into an active category Buffett would search for opportunities in.

Buffett also mentioned the idea of the “two-way stretch” in control situations– if bought at a significant discount, there were generally two ways to profit from a control investment. Either the stock price remained low for a long period of time and control was acquired, in which case “the value of our investment is determined by the value of the enterprise,” or else the stock would move up in the process of consolidating a position in which case it could be sold at a higher level in the way one would normally “complete a successful general operation.”

Time horizons for performance

This particular point is more well-known but it bears repeating here. Buffett was obsessed with long-term performance and constantly advised his partners about appropriate timelines for judging investment performance, especially based-upon the particular type of investment being considered. For example, in his 1960 letter he said:

My own thinking is more geared to five year performance, preferably with tests of relative results in both strong and weak markets

In the 1961 letter, Buffett discussed “establishing yardsticks prior to the act” and again emphasized:

It is my feeling that three years is a very minimal test of performance, and the best test consists of a period at least that long where the terminal level of the Dow is reasonably close to the initial level

In other words, what did your performance look like after a three year period where the broad market index made no progress, or even reversed?

With control situations specifically, Buffett advised:

Such operations should definitely be measured on the basis of several years. In a given year, they may produce nothing as it is usually to our advantage to have the stock be stagnant market-wise for a long period while we are acquiring it

Diversification

It’s clear that Buffett had 15-21 “generals” or about 50-60% of his portfolio, with another 10-15 positions in workouts or another 15-30%, with the remainder in control situations. However, control situations could scale up to as much as 40% of the portfolio in an individual investment if the situation called for it in Buffett’s mind.

And while Buffett mentioned in an earlier letter of having approximately 40 positions in the portfolio in total, he later (around the time he started being influenced by Charlie Munger and other “quality over quantity” investment practitioners) became more critical of the idea of diversification. In the 1966 letter, Buffett lamented:

if anything, I should have concentrated slightly more than I have in the past

He also castigated “extreme diversification”:

The addition of the one hundredth stock simply can’t reduce the potential variance in portfolio performance sufficiently to compensate for the negative effect its inclusion has in the overall portfolio expectation

Buffett was learning the merits of “concentration” in areas outside the portfolio, as well. In discussing slight additions to the office space at Kiewit Plaza and the hiring of additional support personnel, Buffett added:

I think our present setup unquestionably lets me devote a higher percentage of my time to thinking about the investment process than virtually anyone else in the money management business

Of course, the results of this focus were obvious to all in time.

Sizing things up

Buffett dwelled on “the question of size” at length in his letters to partners. He made it clear that portfolio size and investment opportunity looked something like a continuum with small size on the left of the spectrum and large size on the right, with “generals” hanging near the left pole (size is a disadvantage), workouts inhabiting some kind of middle ground where they were neither benefitted nor impaired by size and control situations distinctly on the right where size was an enormous advantage.

Generals and control situations are, in this sense, almost opposites because Buffett warned that some generals were too small to buy meaningful stakes in for a large portfolio, whereas a small portfolio might never be able to acquire enough shares to gain control of certain investments.

Inflation-adjusting Buffett’s portfolio positions and capital at various points in time also gives important clues to the role size played in his operations. For example, Sanborn Maps was apparently around a $4.5M market cap when he mentioned the company in his letters. This would be about $35M or so in today’s dollars (this is not an endorsement of BLS/CPI measurement techniques, just a convenient rule-of-thumb), so clearly Buffett was hunting in a small/micro-cap space at least at this time.

In a similar vein, Buffett started with $105,000 in capital in 1956, which is about $893,000 in 2012. In his 1966 letter, he complained that the amount of capital being managed at the time, $43,645,000, was beginning to be burdensome in terms of size versus opportunities. This would be about $312,000,000 in 2012, to put it into perspective.

Apparently, the value investment framework Buffett created could work quite well even at a scale that we might consider to be decently large.

Serendipity: the reason for Buffett’s rise, and retirement

Few ever think to mention the incredible role serendipity played in Buffett’s early fortunes, but Buffett himself was well-aware. Not only did he begin his career at the outset of an astounding decade-long-plus bull market, but in 1952,

and for some years subsequently, there were substantial numbers of securities selling at well below the “value to a private owner” criterion we utilized for selection of general market investments

As the bull market started to grow gray hairs in the late 1960s and Buffett began contemplating an exit from the business, he similarly remarked in his 1967 letter:

Such statistical bargains have tended to disappear over the years. This may be due to the constant combing and recombing of investments that has occurred during the past twenty years, without an economic convulsion such as that of the ’30s to create a negative bias toward equities and spawn hundreds of new bargain securities

The comment on the aftermath of the 1930s bears repeating. The primary reason for the prevalence of bargain issues in the market around the time Buffett started investing was due to a massive psychological paradigm shift in attitudes about the stock market following the crash of 1929 and subsequent depression of the 1930s. By the late 1960s, a new inflationary thrust had managed to erase this psychology and great gains were actually made in sending it in the reverse direction. Buffett was convinced of

the virtual disappearance of the bargain issues determined quantitatively

the kind whose figures “should hit you over the head with a baseball bat”, which were being replaced by

speculation on an increasing scale

So how did Buffett respond to these new market conditions where his toolkit didn’t seem to work as well? Did he compromise his standards, or try to shape-shift his style into the “New Era” of investors and keep going? Well, anyone who has studied Buffett already knows the answer. Buffett knew his circle of competence and he knew what worked. When what he knew worked stopped working (because the opportunities weren’t available), he quit.

Despite writing in his 1968 letter that the answer to a potential phase out of the partnerships was “Definitely, no.” Buffett nonetheless in his 1969 letter suggested that “the quality and quantity of ideas is presently at an all time low” and that “opportunities for investment that are open to the analyst who stresses quantitative factors have virtually disappeared” and for this reason, he decided to close up shop.

There’s a lesson for all of us here. As Joel Greenblatt has argued, value investing doesn’t work all the time, which is why it works. We should respect this, just as Buffett did– when the deals dry up, we should go fishing (or at the very least, look for bargains in other markets that are in a different stage of psychology/sentiment/valuation). Trying to make great long-term returns when valuations won’t support it is a fools game and more likely to end in failure.

A few miscellaneous notes

In the 1968 letter, Buffett referred to 10-12% as “worthwhile overall returns on capital employed”.

With regards to dividends, although Buffett always described the return of the Dow for each annual period inclusive of dividends earned, and although when describing his investment in Commonwealth he specifically mentioned that the company was not paying dividends, and although we know from an anecdote in The Snowball that Buffett was receiving substantial dividend checks from his partnership portfolios because his wife Susie accidentally through a few away one time, I noticed that Buffett makes no specific mention in any of the letters of the importance of dividends nor that dividends impacted his investment decisions or philosophy.