Another Battle In The Long War: The Solitron Shareholders Meeting

Something that has been impressed upon me over the years as I learn more about business and investing has been the invaluable role that bullshit-detection plays in money dealings. The jungle is everywhere and while man may have found a way to tame his baser desires and impulses enough to enjoy a broad civilization, individual men will always tease the edges of appropriateness by attempting force by other means, namely deceit, misdirection, opacity, feigned confusion, intentional blundering, etc. If you can’t smell bullshit and if you have no means to fight back against a bullshit-peddler, he will run you over and probably try to take you for all you’re worth along the way.

Some people say, “That’s just business!” but that’s been invalidated by numerous contrary, personal experiences where no bullshit occurred and business occurred nonetheless, and more efficiently and for more wealth for both parties, overall. Bullshit is just a grey-area form of aggression, a remnant of the jungle from which we can never fully emerge.

My attendance at the first annual Solitron Devices shareholders’ meeting in nearly 20 years was a descent into that jungle. Here I and several other shareholders came face-to-face with Shevach Saraf, President, Chairman of the Board, CEO, CFO and, among many other titles and distinguishments I should say, a highly intelligent, sophisticated bullshitter.

My personal predisposition is to assume a person is trustworthy until they demonstrate they clearly are not. This is a little different than treating a person as trustworthy– I maintain skepticism and try to be alert at all times, but I don’t start a person at 0 and then work up to 100 on a “trustworthiness” scale, but rather the opposite. As a result, in dealing with Saraf and other representatives of the company in the past, I tried to explain various indiscretions, unkindness and general belligerency displayed by these parties in terms of misjudgments, misperceptions and a potentially historical apprehensiveness, rather than some kind of malintent.

At this point, the veil has been lifted for me and I believe I can confidently state that the bullshit is a calculated tactic and it is laid on, thick, with due purpose.

In the particular case of the shareholders’ meeting, the bullshit started with the “rules for the meeting”, which restricted each participant to a maximum of two questions no longer than one minute in length, with a twenty minute maximum duration. As with most bullshit, this was done in the name of “giving everyone a chance to speak”, but was really a rather naked attempt to intimidate shareholders and prevent them from stating their minds and engaging in significant follow-up questioning. No shareholder present (all 9 of us!) ever demonstrated any concern about domination of the Q&A period by any other shareholder. At the end of the Q&A, Saraf attempted to enforce the twenty minute maximum but was ultimately stymied by a shareholder who requested a longer, informal, follow-up Q&A period, which after 5 minutes of deliberation outside the room with counsel, was ultimately granted.

The second strand of bullshit is woven through the scandalous insinuations that Saraf made of his shareholder base. He deemed it fit to specially remind the gathered investors that he had no plans to do anything illegal and so he would not offer any insider info during the meeting. This is a strawman Saraf seems to trot out often– ask the man anything about the company at all, no matter how innocent and legally-sanctioned it may be, and he proceeds to launch into accusations of villainy aimed at getting an illegal upper hand while putting himself and the company in legal jeopardy. He also made a warning about supposed shadowy elements that were spreading false rumors and lies about the company on the internet, but he did not think to mention who was doing this or what specific claims were made which he could clarify as to their falsity. The impression one is left with is that there are no false rumors or lies being spread and this is yet another attempt to intimidate via bullshit.

Then we had to wade through Saraf’s numerous self-contradictions and general evasiveness in answering questions, most of which began with the expression, “Let me put it this way…”, which in my experience has always preceded a barely-obscured threat, as in, “Let me put it this way, if you don’t do what I am asking you to do, someone might get hurt.” The infamous EPA liabilities which have left the company hamstrung to do anything with the company’s excess capital and which according to regulatory filings earlier in the year seemed to have been extinguished, or due to be extinguished completely, by or around March or April of 2013, were suddenly at one point 30, another point 60 and another time some 72 days away from being resolved.

More bullshit: Solitron has a “sunset technology”, but there’s also the possibility they spend $5M+ of the company’s cash stockpile retooling their factory for new silicon wafer standards; the sequestration has been bad for business, but the company has also gobbled up marketshare from competitors who have gone out of business; the company is at 50% of plant utilization, but wars in Syria and elsewhere are good for business because it means equipment will need to be replaced that Solitron services; the company has struggled with rising inputs costs, but they build everything on spec and have a guaranteed profit-margin built in by the Pentagon; shareholders are now “welcome to contact any board member and ask them questions about the company” but in the past “PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT ALL INVESTOR COMMUNICATIONS SHOULD BE DIRECTED TO THE CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF SOLITRON DEVICES, INC.”; Chinese and COTS parts have created huge price competition for the firm, but the firm’s buyers actually require specially-tested, high quality parts only Solitron can produce, and new DNA-marking of chips prevents the use/substitution of foreign knockoff parts, etc. etc.

I could go on and on. The point is it’s just a bunch of bullshit.

And Saraf isn’t the only one peddling it. His vaunted board showed their own knack. Saraf was asked, as a large shareholder, if he was concerned about the price of the company in the open market hovering around cash value. Not only did he evade the question and not answer it, but his new appointee, Mr. Kopperl, piped in with the pithy “Does anyone really know what moves stock prices?” When asked how he makes his investment decisions, Mr. Kopperl said, “Sometimes I buy value, sometimes growth.” But if no one really know whats moves stock prices and you’re philosophically agnostic as to what kind of decisions a company could make that would be good or bad from a valuation standpoint, how could you even invest?

And how would this bolster the company’s claim that the current composition of the board represents people capable of maximizing shareholder value?

It was suggested to Saraf that more disclosures from the company about its business would help the market better understand the company and its prospects and arrive at a fairer valuation. Saraf did not acknowledge whether this transparency would be beneficial to shareholders interested in seeing the marketplace better assess the company’s prospects, but he did say that he wasn’t interested in putting out a press release every time the company got a new certification or secured a contract. Bullshit!

The most puzzling event of the day was the withholding of votes for Schlig and Davis (and their subsequent dismissal with no replacement nominees named), and the approval-by-vote of the two new directors, Gerrity and Kopperl. These guys are black boxes as far as I am concerned. They sound like country club buddies and there was no explanation as to why they were qualified to represent SHAREHOLDER interests though, Saraf was quite clear, their industry experience made them qualified in his mind to represent company interests, which essentially means Saraf’s interests as things have been run so far.

Large shareholders seem to be more confident. They’re convinced Saraf is more cooperative than he seems and that he will do the right thing when it’s the right time to do so. I think the laws of the SEC are a legal cover for bullshitmongers. From where I stand, it’s an almost impenetrable fog. But maybe when you own 5% or more, you have other methods of cutting through the bullshit.

It is indeed going to be a Long War without them.

If you want more, here’s Nate Tobik’s take at OddballStocks.com.

The Long War: Changing Ownership, Management Incentives & Reporting Practices

Ian Cassel, founder of MicroCapClub.com, made a comment on Twitter today which grabbed my attention:

If a company is over $25m market cap they should have to have earnings conference calls w/ Q/A. Coalition Against Private Public Companies.

Shortly thereafter, he was asked by Jeff Moore of the Ragnar Is A Pirate blog:

How about if they have more than 100 shareholders?

To which Ian replied:

yes another good idea

At this point, I asked:

so you guys are for imprisoning and fining people because they won’t give you info you want?

Ian considered it and responded:

do I think every public company should, Yes. Force probably not, but cld be part of a tiered listing standard

I think this whole idea is worth a comment so I’m now going to give it one.

The first angle with which to approach Ian’s compulsory conference call proposal is the moral one and concerns the question, “Should managers of public companies, whatever their size, be compelled by force of law (ie, threat of fines or imprisonment for non-compliance) to provide the investing public conference calls regarding their earnings releases?”

The answer to such a question would hinge on whether or not, by refusing to hold such calls, these managers were committing an act of violent aggression against the investing public, such as theft, assault or fraud. If refusing to hold an earnings call is an act of theft, assault or fraud, clearly there is justification for compelling such behavior in order to remedy this affront to the rights of the individual members of the public and the answer would be “Yes”; similarly, if refusing to hold an earnings call does not represent the initiation of the use of force against members of the public, the answer to this question is clearly “No”.

I don’t want to waste anyone’s time going into a lengthy exploration of the facts on hand. I think it’s obvious that refusing to hold an earnings call is not an act of aggressive force and I don’t think Ian provided or attempted to provide any evidence that it was. In fact, he suggested this was not an issue to be handled by the law at all. I elaborated as much as I did, anyway, because there may be people reading this who did not understand the issue in this way and may have been confused prior to reading it. For their benefit, I state plainly now, the answer to the question is “NO”.

The second angle of approach is institutional. As Ian suggested in his final comment, the solution to this perceived problem could be handled at an institutional level (in this case, the voluntarily adopted rules and internal regulations of the listing exchanges) by adopting Ian’s preference for mandatory earnings calls at a certain market cap threshold as an observed “best practice” or condition of doing business on the exchange. If a company doesn’t want to follow it, they have the option of not being listed on the exchange observing such a rule. From a moral standpoint, there is no issue as there is no coercion, and compared to the alternative of creating a top-down, one-size-fits-all-companies-and-exchanges external regulation backed by force of law by government, this solution is indeed preferable because it at least allows for the possibility that some companies would not follow this practice and would find other avenues for listing their shares and allowing for equity exchange.

This leads to the third angle which, for lack of a better term, I’ll simply refer to as the “practical” considerations, of which there are several. For starters, I wonder if this is really an issue? In Ian Cassel’s (and Jeff Moore’s, perhaps?) world, it certainly seems to be. Ian Cassel’s world would be a happier place if all the public companies whose market caps were $25M or greater provided the public (of which he is a member and would stand to benefit) an earnings call upon release of each earnings statement. But embedded in such a proposal seems to be the belief that the world should reflect Ian Cassel’s preferences, and everyone else should bear the cost and expense of preparing and providing this information to Ian Cassel (and others of like mind).

Is this reasonable? If having better earnings communications from small companies is important to Ian, and if dialoging with management is a valuable commodity, Ian already has a course of action available to him to pursue such goals: he can make his own independent effort to email, write, call or visit in person the management of these companies and create a relationship whereby they would provide him answers to some of the questions he has in mind; or, he could acquire a sufficient number of shares of the company such that he is the owner of the company and the management is now fully responsible to him and he can have any and all information about the company that he pleases.

Neither of these actions require anyone being compelled to change their current practices. Both require nothing more than the expenditure of Ian’s own effort, time and wealth. If certain companies prefer not to establish such relationships or provide such information to people like Ian, Ian always has the option of walking away from them. And if he doesn’t have the financial resources to acquire such an ownership stake so as to make them more responsive to his inquiries, that would be a problem for him to solve by finding ways to produce more wealth for himself he could exchange with others for the privilege – it is not the responsibility of the company, its shareholders or anyone else.

Another practical consideration is the arbitrariness of the threshold for compliance. There’s nothing magic about a $25M market cap (nor a 100+ member shareholder base). The first number seems to be an attempt at defining “resourcefulness”, implying that a company with a certain sized market cap “should be able to afford” such accommodations. But market caps are not determined by managements and company resources, they are determined by the passions and dispositions of the investing public. It’s entirely conceivable that a company of truly inadequate resources (say, a book value of $50,000, just to harshly illustrate the point) could be bid up to a market cap of $25M in some bizarre turn of events. The fact that it has been so valued doesn’t make it more able to provide additional clarity about its business– and even if it did, it still doesn’t have an obligation to provide anyone anything like this. The shareholder base threshold is simple populism and the democratic principle– 99 of the shareholders could own one share at a penny a piece, with the remaining shareholder holding substantial control of the rest of the shares, making them truly insignificant in the ownership structure. But by creating arbitrary rules like this these individuals would create for the company sudden obligations simply by their existence.

Another practical concern is why a person, operating in the microcap space where an edge is often gained specifically because of the lack of consistent, clear information about these companies, would want to see measures taken which would serve to increase the “efficiency” of the market and thereby eliminate a lot of these mispricings and the opportunity to cheaply invest along with them. Sure, once you’ve put your money in you might have a self-interested reason to see everyone else suddenly figure out what a great company you’ve invested in because they have these wonderfully translucent earnings calls, but before that point you’d want to see opacity. Such a rule (compulsory earnings calls) would work to eliminate those opportunities before one could make their initial investment, not just after. As microcap investors, what we’re getting “paid to do”, essentially, is to find these opaque opportunities, get in there, agitate for change company-by-company and work to clear the dirt and smudges off the glass, so to speak. We want that to happen AFTER we get involved and BECAUSE we got involved, not before and regardless.

My final issue is with the cutely-named imaginary organization “Coalition Against Private Public Companies”. The implication is that public companies run like private companies constitute some kind of social ill. But if we look at the facts, it is often the owner-operator/private companies of the world which are most efficiently managed and whose business is best looked after compared to the alternative of entrenched, professional managers and disconnected, alienated and disinterested public shareholders (see this outstanding research piece by Murray Stahl [PDF] for a convincing argument, for instance). Indeed, it is often the public companies which are most dysfunctional– how is it preferable to have a management team obsessed with short-term earnings results, attempts to influence and gain the approval of Wall Street analysts, etc.? It’s perhaps syntactically confusing but what is really worth rebelling against is public private companies, not private public companies.

A public private is a company that SHOULD be private, but is in fact publicly traded and as a result the minority partners in the business, that is, the various outsider shareholders from the investing public, are treated like nuisances or smurfs whose capital is to be dissipated at the insider owners’ discretion. Such managers have no incentive to responsibly steward the outside shareholders’ capital because it doesn’t belong to the insiders and the outsiders are, in most cases, afforded an ambiguous and difficult, if not impossible, legal process to attempt to assert their equal status as capital owners. The most benefit they can receive from the capital is to issue some of it to themselves as generous salary or bonus payments, to use it as a tool for conducting ego-gratifying acquisition strategies or by sitting on it as a kind of future retirement/pension package to ensure they can care for themselves even in old age by remitting it to themselves as needed.

A private public company, on the other hand, is a company whose capital ownership is diversified and constituted by numerous members of the investing public, but which is managed and operated with the efficiency, passion, dedication and noble conservatism such as one would expect from a competent family dynasty or other limited, owner-operator control group or person. This is a company that treats capital as a precious commodity and always seeks to maximize the returns on its use which all members of the investing public so involved stand to benefit because they are treated as equals even though they have minority status. The fact that this company is publicly traded does not influence the decisions of the management and serves only to benefit all shareholders in the instances in which the management can buy back undervalued shares or issue significantly overvalued shares to raise cheap capital.

Truly, there are very few enterprises on all of planet earth that really provide their owners (shareholders) with outstanding additional benefits by virtue of their being publicly owned and exchanged. The more I think about the issue, the more I wonder why most public companies are public in the first place. Almost every IPO seems to represent an opportunity to cash in on delusional hopes and ignorant dreams rather than a genuine opportunity to “share the wealth” in exchange for some long-term capital necessary to fund profitable growth.

If I were to join a group agitating for change, I’d like to imagine it’d be called the “Coalition To Privatize Public Companies.” But honestly, I have no use for imagination, nor for agitation. I don’t seek to have others bear my cross, even as a joke or a day-dream. No, this is in fact a principle (one of several) of my efforts as a private, individual investor in the public market place and I intend to pursue it throughout my career.

It’s part of my long war.