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:
- 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.
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:
- Does the company have sufficient market scale to grow sales for years?
- Is management determined to expand the market by developing new products and services to continue increasing sales?
- How effective is the firm’s R&D spending relative to its size?
- Is the sales organization above-average?
- Does the company have a strong profit margin?
- What is being done to maintain or improve margins? (special emphasis on probable future margins)
- What is the company’s relationship with employees?
- What is the company’s relationship with its executives?
- Is the management team experienced and talented?
- How strong is the company’s cost and accounting controls? (assume they’re okay unless you find evidence they are not)
- Are there industry specific indications that point to a competitive advantage?
- Is the company focused on short or long-term profits?
- Can the company grow with its own capital or will it have to continually increase leverage or dilute shareholders to do it?
- Does the management share info even when business is going poorly?
- 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?
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Create a network of intelligent investors (bloggers) from which to source ideas
- Develop a strong scuttlebutt skill/network to develop superior investment background
- Check with management to confirm remaining questions generated from the 15 step list
- 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.