Ideas Matter: Why Everyone Should Find Time To Argue About Things

The contents of this post are adapted from e-mail correspondence with an acquaintance.

To give some context, this e-mail was prompted by a friend who made the point that our (by then) lengthy discussion on theoretical economic and political concepts was not a productive use of time and was little more than mental masturbation. In replying to this insistence (and attempting to refute more of what I saw as fallacious arguments), I tried to plead the case for caring about stuff like economic or political theory, esoteric or otherwise.

I wanted to make the case that these ideas had real, practical validity in our everyday lives, not just in the narrow halls of academia or someplace equally arbitrary and detached from the real world of everyday issues:

On the contrary, I believe these discussions can always be a constructive use of time if they lead one or both parties closer to an understanding of the truth on a given issue. I don’t know if Mises was the first to say it, and certainly he wasn’t the only one because Ayn Rand articulated a similar philosophy, but he had a slogan, “Ideas move society.” Over time, the structure of production and the political system overarching any society will come to be informed by the prevalent ideas held by its individual members.

In a grand and very real sense, every erroneous idea we hold takes us a little bit further from a harmonious, progressing, civilized society, while every truthful idea we hold takes us a little bit closer. This is not a matter of elegant armchair theory but of cold, hard, factual reality and it is all a consequence of Mises’s famous dictim, “Man acts.”

Every man acts, this is an inescapable fact of life. But what every man acts upon, well, that is informed by the ideas he holds and the values he determines to be worth pursuing.

We live in a time of gross ignorance of many simple truths, among the bitterest of which happen to be economic laws of cause and effect. Unfortunately, we also live with the consequences of this ignorance. It is not our duty in a universal, cosmic sense, but it is our obligation in a means-end sense, that if we wish to push back this tide of ignorance and live our lives on the dry-land of reason, we must fight it with sea walls of truth, not attempt to gather it up in fishermen’s nets of half-truth, pseudo-reason and arbitrary preference. Only consistent, logically-sound ideas can replace the fallacious if hope of progress is to be made, else you simply replace one flawed system with another.

I take a personal interest in the ideas of people who fascinate me because I think it is a natural implication to be curious about the beliefs and reasons of those I respect, and because in my own quest for truth and understanding I try to be ever vigilant that I may not have all the facts and perhaps someone can respectfully cross me on something I thought was true and show me why it is not. I am not content to simply say “My mind is made up” and carry on merrily when someone claims the truth is not my own.

This is why I have made an honest and sincere attempt to engage you on this subject and others in the past. I feel if you are to be my acquaintance and in some ways my friend, and if I am to respect your judgment in things, I must test you on these matters for the good of us both.

We all act, all day, every day. The actions we choose are based upon our values and our values are informed by our understanding of truth. Our understanding of truth, by shaping our values which inform which actions we take and when, has a direct, tangible bearing on the practical manner in which we live our lives.

Video – Rahul Saraogi On Value Investing In India

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

Major take-aways from the interview:

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

Video – Hugh Hendry Visits The Milken Institute

Hugh Hendry interviewed in a panel discussion at the 2012 Milken Institute Global Conference

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • Global economy is “grossly distorted” by two fixed exchange regimes: the Euro (similar to the gold standard of the 1920s) and the Dollar-Renminbi
  • China is attempting to play the role of the “bridge”, just as Germany did in the 1920s, to help the global economy spend its way into recovery
  • Two types of leverage: operational and financial; Germany is a country w/ operational leverage; Golden Rule of Operational Leverage, “Never, never countenance having financial leverage”, this explains Germany’s financial prudence and why they’ll reject a transfer union
  • Transfer of economic rent in Europe; redistribution of rents within Europe, the trade is short the financial sector, long the export sector
  • Heading toward Euro parity w/ the dollar, if not lower; results in profound economic advantage especially for businesses with operational leverage
  • “The thing I fear” is confiscation: of client’s assets, my assets; we are 1 year away from true nationalization of French banks
  • Theme of US being supplanted as global leader, especially by Chinese, is overwrought
  • Why US will not be easily overtaken: when US had its “China moment”, it was on a gold standard…
    • implication, as an entrepreneur, you had one chance– get it right or you’re finished
    • today is a world of mercantilism, money-printing, the  entrepreneur has been devalued because you get a 2nd, 3rd, 4th chance
    • when the US had its emergence on a hard money system, it built foundations which are “rock solid”
    • today, this robust society has restructured debt, restructured the cost of labor, has cleared property at market levels
    • additionally, “God has intervened”, w/ progress in shale oil extraction technology; US paying $2, Europe $10, Asians $14-18
  • Dollar is only going to go one way, higher; this is like early 1980/82
  • “I haven’t finished Atlas Shrugged, I can’t finish it”: it’s too depressing; it reads like non-fiction, she’s describing the world of today
  • The short sale ban was an attack on free thought; people have died in wars for the privilege to stand up and say “The Emperor has no clothes”; banned short selling because truth is unpalatable to political class; the scale and magnitude of the problem is greater than their ability to respond
  • We are single digit years away from a most profound market-clearing moment, on the order of 1932 or 1982, where you don’t need smarts, you just need to be long
  • Hard-landing scenario in Asia combined w/ recession in Europe would result in “bottoming” process, at which point all you need is courage to go long

Video – Joel Greenblatt On Forbes

Intelligent Investing with Steve Forbes presents Joel Greenblatt, adjunct faculty member at Columbia University, co-CIO of Formula Investing

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • 70% of active managers can not be passive index funds like the S&P500 due to high costs, high fees
  • Unfortunately, for the 30% who beat the index over the last 3, 5 and 10-year periods, there is no correlation with how they do over the next 3, 5 and 10-yr periods
  • A disadvantage to standard index investments is that they are market-cap weighted; the more overpriced something is, the more of the index it represents, the more underpriced something is, the less of the index it represents
  • A superior alternative is equal-weight indexes, for example, in the S&P500, Stock #1 is allocated the same amount of capital as Stock #500; errors are therefore random rather than systematic
  • Greenblatt’s firm created a “value-weighted index”: the cheaper something is, the more weight it gets in the index
  • Key metrics for analyzing a business
    • High adjusted FCF
    • Returns on tangible assets
  • Why do good companies sell cheaply? People are worried that earnings power over the next few years will not be as good as the past so they’re willing to sell at a discount; institutional investors will systematically avoid uncertainty and provide you opportunity to buy cheap
  • Most business schools are teaching Efficient Markets theory, not Benjamin Graham; good news for value investors because it means you have less competition

The Infinite Regression Investment Philosophy

Courtesy of the 2012 FRMO Letter to Shareholders [PDF]:

If one were to look at the 100 US public companies with the largest defined benefit pension plans, one would find the likes of Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Pepsi, Verizon and UPS. As of the end of 2011, using these largest 100 as a proxy, American companies recorded perhaps the largest underfunded status ever, certainly within the past dozen years, both in dollar and percentage terms. And this follows a helpful three years of double-digit annualized returns on their plan assets.

Moreover, there is much reason to expect this position to worsen. The discount rates they use to determine the present value of all their future estimated pension obligations is about 3 times higher, at an average 4.8%, than it should be, since we know the average investment grade bond yield today to be about 1.3%. This means that the obligations are actually far larger than currently presented in these companies’ financial statements. Moreover, these pension plans, on average, still presume to earn almost 8% on their plan assets. Yet, over 40% of the plan assets are invested in bonds. Assuming, as one must, that 40% of these pension plan assets will earn 1.3% at best, then those bond portfolios, all else equal, can contribute only 0.5% to the return of the entire plan assets. This leaves the remaining 60%, most of which is invested in equities, to produce the balance of the 8% expected return, which means the balance must produce about a 13% return every year.

First, one is hard pressed to suggest that this reality will come to pass, so that one should expect much larger funding deficits in the coming years and, it follows, much larger contributions to those pension plans, which in turn must detract from shareholder earnings and earnings growth. That pending reality, though, is less interesting than this one: that these companies, by dint of their investment philosophy and practice, place the major portion of their equity assets in the S&P 500 (and other indices representing essentially the same, largest companies in the US), in order to attempt to earn the highest risk-adjusted expected returns. Yet the S&P 500 to a significant degree is composed of the set of companies with the largest pension plans, which are problematic as described above– these companies are investing in themselves for future returns to restore their pension plans, even as they themselves are problematic because of these pension plans. But this is their formulaic process, and the tools by which this process is measured and implemented are these self-same indices.

This is Free Lunch-thinking.

By the way, value investor Geoff Gannon (much beloved on this site) has written a lot about Dun & Bradstreet, a company with an underfunded pension liability sword hanging over its neck. He makes the case for why this is not something to worry about with DNB but I have to say it’s the one thing making me hesitate about jumping in to an otherwise compelling franchise opportunity.

In general, I try to avoid companies with employee pension plans, at least the defined benefit variety. They may be “private” and “voluntary” but to me they smack of socialism-lite. They’re uneconomic and based upon absurd assumptions and unrealistic expectations. They are, like Social Security, promises that can’t be kept and must eventually be broken.

The trouble is, shareholders will almost always be sacrificed first because we exist in a culture today that penalizes capital and sees the equity holder as a villain and cheat.