Buffett’s Best: Microcap Cigar Butts

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone)

May 15, 2022

Warren Buffett, the world’s greatest investor, earned the highest returns of his career from microcap cigar butts.  Buffett wrote in the 2014 Berkshire Letter:

My cigar-butt strategy worked very well while I was managing small sums.  Indeed, the many dozens of free puffs I obtained in the 1950’s made the decade by far the best of my life for both relative and absolute performance.

Even then, however, I made a few exceptions to cigar butts, the most important being GEICO.  Thanks to a 1951 conversation I had with Lorimer Davidson, a wonderful man who later became CEO of the company, I learned that GEICO was a terrific business and promptly put 65% of my $9,800 net worth into its shares.  Most of my gains in those early years, though, came from investments in mediocre companies that traded at bargain prices.  Ben Graham had taught me that technique, and it worked.

But a major weakness in this approach gradually became apparent:  Cigar-butt investing was scalable only to a point.  With large sums, it would never work well…

Before Buffett led Berkshire Hathaway, he managed an investment partnership from 1957 to 1970 called Buffett Partnership Ltd. (BPL).  While running BPL, Buffett wrote letters to limited partners filled with insights (and humor) about investing and business.  Jeremy C. Miller has written a great book— Warren Buffett’s Ground Rules (Harper, 2016)—summarizing the lessons from Buffett’s partnership letters.

This blog post considers a few topics related to microcap cigar butts:

  • Net Nets
  • Dempster: The Asset Conversion Play
  • Liquidation Value or Earnings Power?
  • Mean Reversion for Cigar Butts
  • Focused vs. Statistical
  • The Rewards of Psychological Discomfort
  • Conclusion

 

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Here Miller quotes the November 1966 letter, in which Buffett writes about valuing the partnership’s controlling ownership position in a cigar-butt stock:

…Wide changes in the market valuations accorded stocks at some point obviously find reflection in the valuation of businesses, although this factor is of much less importance when asset factors (particularly when current assets are significant) overshadow earnings power considerations in the valuation process…

Ben Graham’s primary cigar-butt method was net nets.  Take net current asset value minus ALL liabilities, and then only buy the stock at 2/3 (or less) of that level.  If you buy a basket (at least 20-30) of such stocks, then given enough time (at least a few years), you’re virtually certain to get good investment results, predominantly far in excess of the broad market.

A typical net-net stock might have $30 million in cash, with no debt, but have a market capitalization of $20 million.  Assume there are 10 million shares outstanding.  That means the company has $3/share in net cash, with no debt.  But you can buy part ownership of this business by paying only $2/share.  That’s ridiculously cheap.  If the price remained near those levels, you could effectively buy $1 million in cash for $667,000—and repeat the exercise many times.

Of course, a company that cheap almost certainly has problems and may be losing money.  But every business on the planet, at any given time, is in either one of two states:  it is having problems, or it will be having problems.  When problems come—whether company-specific, industry-driven, or macro-related—that often causes a stock to get very cheap.

The key question is whether the problems are temporary or permanent.  Statistically speaking, many of the problems are temporary when viewed over the subsequent 3 to 5 years.  The typical net-net stock is so extremely cheap relative to net tangible assets that usually something changes for the better—whether it’s a change by management, or a change from the outside (or both).  Most net nets are not liquidated, and even those that are still bring a profit in many cases.

The net-net approach is one of the highest-returning investment strategies ever devised.  That’s not a surprise because net nets, by definition, are absurdly cheap on the whole, often trading below net cash—cash in the bank minus ALL liabilities.

Buffett called Graham’s net-net method the cigar-butt approach:

…I call it the cigar-butt approach to investing.  You walk down the street and you look around for a cigar butt someplace.  Finally you see one and it is soggy and kind of repulsive, but there is one puff left in it.  So you pick it up and the puff is free – it is a cigar butt stock.  You get one free puff on it and then you throw it away and try another one.  It is not elegant.  But it works.  Those are low return businesses.

Link: http://intelligentinvestorclub.com/downloads/Warren-Buffett-Florida-Speech.pdf

(Photo by Sky Sirasitwattana)

When running BPL, Buffett would go through thousands of pages of Moody’s Manuals (and other such sources) to locate just one or a handful of microcap stocks trading at less than liquidation value.  Other leading value investors have also used this technique.  This includes Charlie Munger (early in his career), Walter Schloss, John Neff, Peter Cundill, and Marty Whitman, to name a few.

The cigar-butt approach is also called deep value investing.  This normally means finding a stock that is available below liquidation value, or at least below net tangible book value.

When applying the cigar-butt method, you can either do it as a statistical group approach, or you can do it in a focused manner.  Walter Schloss achieved one of the best long-term track records of all time—near 21% annually (gross) for 47 years—using a statistical group approach to cigar butts.  Schloss typically had a hundred stocks in his portfolio, most of which were trading below tangible book value.

At the other extreme, Warren Buffett—when running BPL—used a focused approach to cigar butts.  Dempster is a good example, which Miller explores in detail in his book.

 

DEMPSTER: THE ASSET CONVERSION PLAY

Dempster was a tiny micro cap, a family-owned company in Beatrice, Nebraska, that manufactured windmills and farm equipment.  Buffett slowly bought shares in the company over the course of five years.

(Photo by Digikhmer)

Dempster had a market cap of $1.6 million, about $13.3 million in today’s dollars, says Miller.

  • Note:  A market cap of $13.3 million is in the $10 to $25 million range—among the tiniest micro caps—which is avoided by nearly all investors, including professional microcap investors.

Buffett’s average price paid for Dempster was $28/share.  Buffett’s estimate of liquidation value early on was near $35/share, which is intentionally conservative.  Miller quotes one of Buffett’s letters:

The estimated value should not be what we hope it would be worth, or what it might be worth to an eager buyer, etc., but what I would estimate our interest would bring if sold under current conditions in a reasonably short period of time.

To estimate liquidation value, Buffett followed Graham’s method, as Miller explains:

  • cash, being liquid, doesn’t need a haircut
  • accounts receivable are valued at 85 cents on the dollar
  • inventory, carried on the books at cost, is marked down to 65 cents on the dollar
  • prepaid expenses and “other” are valued at 25 cents on the dollar
  • long-term assets, generally less liquid, are valued using estimated auction values

Buffett’s conservative estimate of liquidation value for Dempster was $35/share, or $2.2 million for the whole company.  Recall that Buffett paid an average price of $28/share—quite a cheap price.

Even though the assets were clearly there, Dempster had problems.  Stocks generally don’t get that cheap unless there are major problems.  In Dempster’s case, inventories were far too high and rising fast.  Buffett tried to get existing management to make needed improvements.  But eventually Buffett had to throw them out.  Then the company’s bank was threatening to seize the collateral on the loan.  Fortunately, Charlie Munger—who later became Buffett’s business partner—recommended a turnaround specialist, Harry Bottle.  Miller:

Harry did such an outstanding job whipping the company into shape that Buffett, in the next year’s letter, named him “man of the year.”  Not only did he reduce inventories from $4 million to $1 million, alleviating the concerns of the bank (whose loan was quickly repaid), he also cut administrative and selling expenses in half and closed five unprofitable branches.  With the help of Buffett and Munger, Dempster also raised prices on their used equipment up to 500% with little impact to sales volume or resistance from customers, all of which worked in combination to restore a healthy economic return in the business.

Miller explains that Buffett rationally focused on maximizing the return on capital:

Buffett was wired differently, and he achieves better results in part because he invests using an absolute scale.  With Dempster he wasn’t at all bogged down with all the emotional baggage of being a veteran of the windmill business.  He was in it to produce the highest rate of return on the capital he had tied up in the assets of the business.  This absolute scale allowed him to see that the fix for Dempster would come by not reinvesting back into windmills.  He immediately stopped the company from putting more capital in and started taking the capital out.

With profits and proceeds raised from converting inventory and other assets to cash, Buffett started buying stocks he liked.  In essence, he was converting capital that was previously utilized in a bad (low-return) business, windmills, to capital that could be utilized in a good (high-return) business, securities.

Bottle, Buffett, and Munger maximized the value of Dempster’s assets.  Buffett took the further step of not reinvesting cash in a low-return business, but instead investing in high-return stocks.  In the end, on its investment of $28/share, BPL realized a net gain of $45 per share.  This is a gain of a bit more than 160% on what was a very large position for BPL—one-fifth of the portfolio.  Had the company been shut down by the bank, or simply burned through its assets, the return after paying $28/share could have been nothing or even negative.

Miller nicely summarizes the lessons of Buffett’s asset conversion play:

Buffett teaches investors to think of stocks as a conduit through which they can own their share of the assets that make up a business.  The value of that business will be determined by one of two methods: (1) what the assets are worth if sold, or (2) the level of profits in relation to the value of assets required in producing them.  This is true for each and every business and they are interrelated…

Operationally, a business can be improved in only three ways: (1) increase the level of sales; (2) reduce costs as a percent of sales; (3) reduce assets as a percentage of sales.  The other factors, (4) increase leverage or (5) lower the tax rate, are the financial drivers of business value.  These are the only ways a business can make itself more valuable.

Buffett “pulled all the levers” at Dempster…

 

LIQUIDATION VALUE OR EARNINGS POWER?

For most of the cigar butts that Buffett bought for BPL, he used Graham’s net-net method of buying at a discount to liquidation value, conservatively estimated.  However, you can find deep value stocks—cigar butts—on the basis of other low “price-to-a-fundamental” ratio’s, such as low P/E or low EV/EBITDA.  Even Buffett, when he was managing BPL, used a low P/E in some cases to identify cigar butts.  (See an example below: Western Insurance Securities.)

Tobias Carlisle and Wes Gray tested various measures of cheapness from 1964 to 2011.  Quantitative Value (Wiley, 2012)—an excellent book—summarizes their results.  James P. O’Shaughnessy has conducted one of the broadest arrays of statistical backtests.  See his results in What Works on Wall Street (McGraw-Hill, 4th edition, 2012), a terrific book.

(Illustration by Maxim Popov)

  • Carlisle and Gray found that low EV/EBIT was the best-performing measure of cheapness from 1964 to 2011.  It even outperformed composite measures.
  • O’Shaughnessy learned that low EV/EBITDA was the best-performing individual measure of cheapness from 1964 to 2009.
  • But O’Shaughnessy also discovered that a composite measure—combining low P/B, P/E, P/S, P/CF, and EV/EBITDA—outperformed low EV/EBITDA.

Assuming relatively similar levels of performance, a composite measure is arguably better because it tends to be more consistent over time.  There are periods when a given individual metric might not work well.  The composite measure will tend to smooth over such periods.  Besides, O’Shaughnessy found that a composite measure led to the best performance from 1964 to 2009.

Carlisle and Gray, as well as O’Shaughnessy, didn’t include Graham’s net-net method in their reported results.  Carlisle wrote another book, Deep Value (Wiley, 2014)—which is fascinating—in which he summarizes several tests of net nets:

  • Henry Oppenheimer found that net nets returned 29.4% per year versus 11.5% per year for the market from 1970 to 1983.
  • Carlisle—with Jeffrey Oxman and Sunil Mohanty—tested net nets from 1983 to 2008.  They discovered that the annual returns for net nets averaged 35.3% versus 12.9% for the market and 18.4% for a Small Firm Index.
  • A study of the Japanese market from 1975 to 1988 uncovered that net nets outperformed the market by about 13% per year.
  • An examination of the London Stock Exchange from 1981 to 2005 established that net nets outperformed the market by 19.7% per year.
  • Finally, James Montier analyzed all developed markets globally from 1985 to 2007.  He learned that net nets averaged 35% per year versus 17% for the developed markets on the whole.

Given these outstanding returns, why didn’t Carlisle and Gray, as well as O’Shaughnessy, consider net nets?  Primarily because many net nets are especially tiny microcap stocks.  For example, in his study, Montier found that the median market capitalization for net nets was $21 million.  Even the majority of professionally managed microcap funds do not consider stocks this tiny.

  • Recall that Dempster had a market cap of $1.6 million, or about $13.3 million in today’s dollars.
  • Unlike the majority of microcap funds, the Boole Microcap Fund does consider microcap stocks in the $10 to $25 million market cap range.

In 1999, Buffett commented that he could get 50% per year by investing in microcap cigar butts.  He was later asked about this comment in 2005, and he replied:

Yes, I would still say the same thing today.  In fact, we are still earning those types of returns on some of our smaller investments.  The best decade was the 1950s;  I was earning 50% plus returns with small amounts of capital.  I would do the same thing today with smaller amounts.  It would perhaps even be easier to make that much money in today’s environment because information is easier to access.  You have to turn over a lot of rocks to find those little anomalies.  You have to find the companies that are off the map—way off the map.  You may find local companies that have nothing wrong with them at all.  A company that I found, Western Insurance Securities, was trading for $3/share when it was earning $20/share!!  I tried to buy up as much of it as possible.  No one will tell you about these businesses.  You have to find them.

Although the majority of microcap cigar butts Buffett invested in were cheap relative to liquidation value—cheap on the basis of net tangible assets—Buffett clearly found some cigar butts on the basis of a low P/E.  Western Insurance Securities is a good example.  It had a P/E of 0.15.

 

MEAN REVERSION FOR CIGAR BUTTS

Warren Buffett commented on high quality companies versus statistically cheap companies in his October 1967 letter to partners:

The evaluation of securities and businesses for investment purposes has always involved a mixture of qualitative and quantitative factors.  At the one extreme, the analyst exclusively oriented to qualitative factors would say, “Buy the right company (with the right prospects, inherent industry conditions, management, etc.) and the price will take care of itself.”  On the other hand, the quantitative spokesman would say, “Buy at the right price and the company (and stock) will take care of itself.”  As is so often the pleasant result in the securities world, money can be made with either approach.  And, of course, any analyst combines the two to some extent—his classification in either school would depend on the relative weight he assigns to the various factors and not to his consideration of one group of factors to the exclusion of the other group.

Interestingly enough, although I consider myself to be primarily in the quantitative school… the really sensational ideas I have had over the years have been heavily weighted toward the qualitative side where I have had a “high-probability insight”.  This is what causes the cash register to really sing.  However, it is an infrequent occurrence, as insights usually are, and, of course, no insight is required on the quantitative side—the figures should hit you over the head with a baseball bat.  So the really big money tends to be made by investors who are right on qualitative decisions but, at least in my opinion, the more sure money tends to be made on the obvious quantitative decisions.

Buffett and Munger acquired See’s Candies for Berkshire Hathaway in 1972.  See’s Candies is the quintessential high quality company because of its sustainably high ROIC (return on invested capital) of over 100%.

Truly high quality companies—like See’s—are very rare and difficult to find.  Cigar butts are much easier to find by comparison.

Furthermore, it’s important to understand that Buffett got around 50% annual returns from cigar butts because he took a focused approach, like BPL’s 20% position in Dempster.

The vast majority of investors, if using a cigar-butt approach like net nets, should implement a group—or statistical—approach, and regularly buy and hold a basket of cigar butts (at least 20-30).  This typically won’t produce 50% annual returns.  But net nets, as a group, clearly have produced very high returns, often 30%+ annually.  To do this today, you’d have to look globally.

As an alternative to net nets, you could implement a group approach using one of O’Shaughnessy’s composite measures—such as low P/B, P/E, P/S, P/CF, EV/EBITDA.  Applying this to micro caps can produce 15-20% annual returns.  Still excellent results.  And much easier to apply consistently.

You may think that you can find some high quality companies.  But that’s not enough.  You have to find a high quality company that can maintain its competitive position and high ROIC.  And it has to be available at a reasonable price.

Most high quality companies are trading at very high prices, to the extent that you can’t do better than the market by investing in them.  In fact, often the prices are so high that you’ll probably do worse than the market.

Consider this observation by Charlie Munger:

The model I like to sort of simplify the notion of what goes o­n in a market for common stocks is the pari-mutuel system at the racetrack.  If you stop to think about it, a pari-mutuel system is a market.  Everybody goes there and bets and the odds change based o­n what’s bet.  That’s what happens in the stock market.

Any damn fool can see that a horse carrying a light weight with a wonderful win rate and a good post position etc., etc. is way more likely to win than a horse with a terrible record and extra weight and so o­n and so on.  But if you look at the odds, the bad horse pays 100 to 1, whereas the good horse pays 3 to 2.  Then it’s not clear which is statistically the best bet using the mathematics of Fermat and Pascal.  The prices have changed in such a way that it’s very hard to beat the system.

(Illustration by Nadoelopisat)

A horse with a great record (etc.) is much more likely to win than a horse with a terrible record.  But—whether betting on horses or betting on stocks—you don’t get paid for identifying winners.  You get paid for identifying mispricings.

The statistical evidence is overwhelming that if you systematically buy stocks at low multiples—P/B, P/E, P/S, P/CF, EV/EBITDA, etc.—you’ll almost certainly do better than the market over the long haul.

A deep value (cigar-butt) approach has always worked, given enough time.  Betting on “the losers” has always worked eventually, whereas betting on “the winners” hardly ever works.

Classic academic studies showing “the losers” doing far better than “the winners” over subsequent 3- to 5-year periods:

That’s not to say deep value investing is easy.  When you put together a basket of statistically cheap companies, you’re buying stocks that are widely hated or neglected.  You have to endure loneliness and looking foolish.  Some people can do it, but it’s important to know yourself before using a deep value strategy.

In general, we extrapolate the poor performance of cheap stocks and the good performance of expensive stocks too far into the future.  This is the mistake of ignoring mean reversion.

When you find a group of companies that have been doing poorly for at least several years, those conditions typically do not persist.  Instead, there tends to be mean reversion, or a return to “more normal” levels of revenues, earnings, or cash flows.

Similarly for a group of companies that have been doing exceedingly well.  Those conditions also do not continue in general.  There tends to be mean reversion, but in this case the mean—the average or “normal” conditions—is below recent activity levels.

Here’s Ben Graham explaining mean reversion:

It is natural to assume that industries which have fared worse than the average are “unfavorably situated” and therefore to be avoided.  The converse would be assumed, of course, for those with superior records.  But this conclusion may often prove quite erroneous.  Abnormally good or abnormally bad conditions do not last forever.  This is true of general business but of particular industries as well.  Corrective forces are usually set in motion which tend to restore profits where they have disappeared or to reduce them where they are excessive in relation to capital.

With his taste for literature, Graham put the following quote from Horace’s Ars Poetica at the beginning of Security Analysis—the bible for value investors:

Many shall be restored that now are fallen and many shall fall than now are in honor.

Tobias Carlisle, while discussing mean reversion in Deep Value, smartly (and humorously) included this image of Albrecht Durer’s Wheel of Fortune:

(Albrecht Durer’s Wheel of Fortune from Sebastien Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494) via Wikimedia Commons)

 

FOCUSED vs. STATISTICAL

We’ve already seen that there are two basic ways to do cigar-butt investing: focused vs. statistical (group).

Ben Graham usually preferred the statistical (group) approach.  Near the beginning of the Great Depression, Graham’s managed accounts lost more than 80 percent.  Furthermore, the economy and the stock market took a long time to recover.  As a result, Graham had a strong tendency towards conservatism in investing.  This is likely part of why he preferred the statistical approach to net nets.  By buying a basket of net nets (at least 20-30), the investor is virtually certain to get the statistical results of the group over time, which are broadly excellent.

Graham also was a polymath of sorts.  He had wide-ranging intellectual interests.  Because he knew net nets as a group would do quite well over the long term, he wasn’t inclined to spend much time analyzing individual net nets.  Instead, he spent time on his other interests.

Warren Buffett was Graham’s best student.  Buffett was the only student ever to be awarded an A+ in Graham’s class at Columbia University.  Unlike Graham, Buffett has always had an extraordinary focus on business and investing.  After spending many years learning everything about virtually every public company, Buffett took a focused approach to net nets.  He found the ones that were the cheapest and that seemed the surest.

Buffett has asserted that returns can be improved—and risk lowered—if you focus your investments only on those companies that are within your circle of competence—those companies that you can truly understand.  Buffett also maintains, however, that the vast majority of investors should simply invest in index funds: http://boolefund.com/warren-buffett-jack-bogle/

Regarding individual net nets, Graham admitted a danger:

Corporate gold dollars are now available in quantity at 50 cents and less—but they do have strings attached.  Although they belong to the stockholder, he doesn’t control them.  He may have to sit back and watch them dwindle and disappear as operating losses take their toll.  For that reason the public refuses to accept even the cash holdings of corporations at their face value.

Graham explained that net nets are cheap because they “almost always have an unsatisfactory trend in earnings.”  Graham:

If the profits had been increasing steadily it is obvious that the shares would not sell at so low a price.  The objection to buying these issues lies in the probability, or at least the possibility, that earnings will decline or losses continue, and that the resources will be dissipated and the intrinsic value ultimately become less than the price paid.

(Image by Preecha Israphiwat)

Value investor Seth Klarman warns:

As long as working capital is not overstated and operations are not rapidly consuming cash, a company could liquidate its assets, extinguish all liabilities, and still distribute proceeds in excess of the market price to investors.  Ongoing business losses can, however, quickly erode net-net working capital.  Investors must therefore always consider the state of a company’s current operations before buying.

Even Buffett—nearly two decades after closing BPL—wrote the following in his 1989 letter to Berkshire shareholders:

If you buy a stock at a sufficiently low price, there will usually be some hiccup in the fortunes of the business that gives you a chance to unload at a decent profit, even though the long-term performance of the business may be terrible.  I call this the “cigar butt” approach to investing.  A cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it may not offer much of a smoke, but the “bargain purchase” will make that puff all profit.

Unless you are a liquidator, that kind of approach to buying businesses is foolish.  First, the original “bargain” price probably will not turn out to be such a steal after all.  In a difficult business, no sooner is one problem solved than another surfaces—never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen.  Second, any initial advantage you secure will be quickly eroded by the low return that the business earns.  For example, if you buy a business for $8 million that can be sold or liquidated for $10 million and promptly take either course, you can realize a high return.  But the investment will disappoint if the business is sold for $10 million in ten years and in the interim has annually earned and distributed only a few percent on cost…

Based on these objections, you might think that Buffett’s focused approach is better than the statistical (group) method.  That way, the investor can figure out which net nets are more likely to recover instead of burn through their assets and leave the investor with a low or negative return.

However, Graham’s response was that the statistical or group approach to net nets is highly profitable over time.  There is a wide range of potential outcomes for net nets, and many of those scenarios are good for the investor.  Therefore, while there are always some individual net nets that don’t work out, a group or basket of net nets is nearly certain to work well eventually.

Indeed, Graham’s application of a statistical net-net approach produced 20% annual returns over many decades.  Most backtests of net nets have tended to show annual returns of close to 30%.  In practice, while around 5 percent of net nets may suffer a terminal decline in stock price, a statistical group of net nets has done far better than the market and has experienced fewer down years.  Moreover, as Carlisle notes in Deep Value, very few net nets are actually liquidated or merged.  In the vast majority of cases, there is a change by management, a change from the outside, or both, in order to restore earnings to a level more in line with net asset value.  Mean reversion.

 

THE REWARDS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL DISCOMFORT

We noted earlier that it’s far more difficult to find a company like See’s Candies, at a reasonable price, than it is to find statistically cheap stocks.  Moreover, if you buy a basket of statistically cheap stocks, you don’t have to possess an ability to analyze individual businesses in great depth.

That said, in order to use a deep value strategy, you do have to be able to handle the psychological discomfort of being lonely and looking foolish.

(Illustration by Sangoiri)

John Mihaljevic, author of The Manual of Ideas (Wiley, 2013), writes:

Comfort can be expensive in investing.  Put differently, acceptance of discomfort can be rewarding, as equities that cause their owners discomfort frequently trade at exceptionally low valuations….

…Misery loves company, so it makes sense that rewards may await those willing to be miserable in solitude…

Mihaljevic explains:

If we owned nothing but a portfolio of Ben Graham-style bargain equities, we may become quite uncomfortable at times, especially if the market value of the portfolio declined precipitously.  We might look at the portfolio and conclude that every investment could be worth zero.  After all, we could have a mediocre business run by mediocre management, with assets that could be squandered.  Investing in deep value equities therefore requires faith in the law of large numbers—that historical experience of market-beating returns in deep value stocks and the fact that we own a diversified portfolio will combine to yield a satisfactory result over time.  This conceptually sound view becomes seriously challenged in times of distress…

Playing into the psychological discomfort of Graham-style equities is the tendency of such investments to exhibit strong asset value but inferior earnings or cash flows.  In a stressed situation, investors may doubt their investment theses to such an extent that they disregard the objectively appraised asset values.  After all—the reasoning of a scared investor might go—what is an asset really worth if it produces no cash flow?

Deep value investors often find some of the best investments in cyclical areas.  A company at a cyclical low may have multi-bagger potential—the prospect of returning 300-500% (or more) to the investor.

Mihaljevic comments on a central challenge of deep value investing in cyclical companies:

The question of whether a company has entered permanent decline is anything but easy to answer, as virtually all companies appear to be in permanent decline when they hit a rock-bottom market quotation.  Even if a business has been cyclical in the past, analysts generally adopt a “this time is different” attitude.  As a pessimistic stock price inevitably influences the appraisal objectivity of most investors, it becomes exceedingly difficult to form a view strongly opposed to the prevailing consensus.

Consider the following industries that have been pronounced permanently impaired in the past, only to rebound strongly in subsequent years:  Following the financial crisis of 2008-2009, many analysts argued that the banking industry would be permanently negatively affected, as higher capital requirements and regulatory oversight would compress returns on equity.  The credit rating agencies were seen as impaired because the regulators would surely alter the business model of the industry for the worse following the failings of the rating agencies during the subprime mortgage bubble.  The homebuilding industry would fail to rebound as strongly as in the past, as overcapacity became chronic and home prices remained tethered to building costs.  The refining industry would suffer permanently lower margins, as those businesses were capital-intensive and driven by volatile commodity prices.

 

CONCLUSION

Buffett has made it clear, including in his 2014 letter to shareholders, that the best returns of his career came from investing in microcap cigar butts.  Most of these were mediocre businesses (or worse).  But they were ridiculously cheap.  And, in some cases like Dempster, Buffett was able to bring about needed improvements when required.

When Buffett wrote about buying wonderful businesses in his 1989 letter, that’s chiefly because investable assets at Berkshire Hathaway had grown far too large for microcap cigar butts.

Even in recent years, Buffett invested part of his personal portfolio in a group of cigar butts he found in South Korea.  So he’s never changed his view that an investor can get the highest returns from microcap cigar butts, either by using a statistical group approach or by using a more focused method.

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time.  See the historical chart here:  http://boolefund.com/best-performers-microcap-stocks/

This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps.  Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals.  We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.

There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio.  The size of each position is determined by its rank.  Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost).  Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.

The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods.  We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net).  The Boole Fund has low fees.

 

If you are interested in finding out more, please e-mail me or leave a comment.

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

 

Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC.

CASE STUDY: Cardinal Energy (CRLFF)

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

May 1, 2022

Cardinal Energy (CRLFF) is a Canadian oil producer.

Here is the company’s most recent investor presentation: https://cardinalenergy.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/April-2022-Corporate-Presentation.pdf

For 2022, revenue will be about $673 million, EBITDA $365 million, cash flow $337 million, and earnings $240 million.  The current market cap is $804.7 million, while enterprise value (EV) is $924.8 million.

Book value at the end of 2022 will be about $742.7 million.

Using these figures, we get the following multiples:

    • EV/EBITDA = 2.53
    • P/E = 3.35
    • P/B = 1.08
    • P/CF = 2.39
    • P/S = 1.20

Insider ownership is 18%, which is very good.  TL/TA (total liabilities/total assets) is 33.1%, which is good.  ROE is 52.1%, which is excellent.

The Piotroski F_score is 8, which is very good.

Due to years of underinvestment from oil producers, oil supply is constrained.  (Government policy has also discouraged oil investment.)  Moreover, due to money printing by central banks plus strong fiscal stimulus, oil demand is strong and increasing.

The net result of constrained supply and strong demand is a structural bull market for oil that is likely to last years.  The oil price is likely to remain high at $90-110 per barrel (WTI) and later perhaps even higher.

Intrinsic value scenarios:

    • Low case: Book value per share at the end of 2022 will be about $4.94.  This is 7% lower than today’s stock price of $5.29.
    • Mid case: Free cash flow in 2022 will be about $233 million.  Because this is probably the beginning of a structural bull market for oil, $233 million in free cash flow is a mid-cycle figure and the stock is worth a free cash flow multiple of at least 8.  That works out to $12.39, which is 135% higher than today’s $5.29.
    • High case: Free cash flow is likely to reach $470 million in the next few years.  With a free cash flow multiple of 6, the stock would be worth $18.75, over 250% higher than today’s $5.29.

Risks

There will probably be a bear market and/or recession during which oil prices fall temporarily but then quickly rebound.  In this case, CRLFF stock would fall temporarily but then quickly rebound.

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time.

This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps.  Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals.  We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.

There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio.  The size of each position is determined by its rank.  Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost).  Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.

The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods.  We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net).  The Boole Fund has low fees.

 

If you are interested in finding out more, please e-mail me or leave a comment.

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC

CASE STUDY: InPlay Oil (IPOOF)

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

April 24, 2022

InPlay Oil (IPOOF) is an oil producer based in Alberta, Canada.

Here is the company’s most recent investor presentation: https://www.inplayoil.com/sites/2/files/documents/inplay_march_presentation_web_0.pdf

For 2022, revenue will be about $300 million, EBITDA $160 million, cash flow $150 million, and earnings $90 million.  The current market cap is $261.7 million, while enterprise value (EV) is $307.5 million.

Using these figures, we get the following multiples:

    • EV/EBITDA = 1.92
    • P/E = 2.91
    • P/B = 0.93
    • P/CF = 1.74
    • P/S = 0.87

Insider ownership is 29.7%, which is excellent.  TL/TA (total liabilities/total assets) is 53.4%, which is decent.  ROE is 97.9%, which is outstanding.

The Piotroski F_score is 8, which is very good.

Intrinsic value scenarios:

    • Low case: Book value per share at the end of 2022 will be about $3.24.  This is 7% higher than today’s stock price of $3.03.
    • Mid case: Free cash flow in 2022 will be about $90 million.  Because this is probably the beginning of a structural bull market for oil—based on strong demand and constrained supply over the next 3 to 10 years—$90 million in free cash flow is a mid-cycle figure and the stock is worth a free cash flow multiple of at least 8.  That works out to $8.35, which is 175% higher than today’s $3.03.
    • High case: Because it’s probably a structural bull market for oil, free cash flow is likely to reach $180 million in the next few years.  With a free cash flow multiple of 6, the stock would be worth $12.53, over 310% higher than today’s $3.03.

Risks

There will probably be a bear market and/or recession during which oil prices fall temporarily but then quickly rebound.  In this case, IPOOF stock would fall temporarily but then quickly rebound.

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time.

This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps.  Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals.  We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.

There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio.  The size of each position is determined by its rank.  Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost).  Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.

The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods.  We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net).  The Boole Fund has low fees.

 

If you are interested in finding out more, please e-mail me or leave a comment.

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC.

Best Performers: Microcap Stocks

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

April 17, 2022

Are you a long-term investor?  If so, are you interested in maximizing long-term results without taking undue risk?

Warren Buffett, arguably the best investor ever, has repeatedly said that most people should invest in a low-cost broad market index fund.  Such an index fund will allow you to do better than at least 90% of all investors, net of costs, after several decades.

Buffett has also said that you can do better than an index fund by investing in microcap stocks – as long as you have a sound method.  Take a look at this summary of the CRSP Decile-Based Size and Return Data from 1927 to 2020:

Decile Market Cap-Weighted Returns Equal Weighted Returns Number of Firms (year-end 2020) Mean Firm Size (in millions)
1 9.67% 9.47% 179 145,103
2 10.68% 10.63% 173 25,405
3 11.38% 11.17% 187 12,600
4 11.53% 11.29% 203 6,807
5 12.12% 12.03% 217 4,199
6 11.75% 11.60% 255 2,771
7 12.01% 11.99% 297 1,706
8 12.03% 12.33% 387 888
9 11.55% 12.51% 471 417
10 12.41% 17.27% 1,023 99
9+10 11.71% 15.77% 1,494 199

(CRSP is the Center for Research in Security Prices at the University of Chicago.  You can find the data for various deciles here:  http://mba.tuck.dartmouth.edu/pages/faculty/ken.french/data_library.html)

The smallest two deciles – 9+10 – comprise microcap stocks, which typically are stocks with market caps below $500 million.  What stands out is the equal weighted returns of the 9th and 10th size deciles from 1927 to 2020:

Microcap equal weighted returns = 15.8% per year

Large-cap equal weighted returns = ~10% per year

In practice, the annual returns from microcap stocks will be 1-2% lower because of the difficulty (due to illiquidity) of entering and exiting positions.  So we should say that an equal weighted microcap approach has returned 14% per year from 1927 to 2020, versus 10% per year for an equal weighted large-cap approach.

Still, if you can do 4% better per year than the S&P 500 Index (on average) – even with only a part of your total portfolio – that really adds up after a couple of decades.

  • Most professional investors ignore micro caps as too small for their portfolios.  This causes many micro caps to get very cheap.  And that’s why an equal weighted strategy – applied to micro caps – tends to work well.

 

VALUE SCREEN: +2-3%

By systematically implementing a value screen—e.g., low EV/EBITDA or low P/E—to a microcap strategy, you can add 2-3% per year.

 

IMPROVING FUNDAMENTALS: +2-3%

You can further boost performance by screening for improving fundamentals.  One excellent way to do this is using the Piotroski F_Score, which works best for cheap micro caps.  See:  http://boolefund.com/joseph-piotroski-value-investing/

 

BOTTOM LINE

If you invest in microcap stocks, you can get about 14% a year.  If you also use a simple screen for value, that adds at least 2% a year.  If, in addition, you screen for improving fundamentals, that adds at least another 2% a year.  So that takes you to 18% a year, which compares quite well to the 10% a year you could get from an S&P 500 index fund.

What’s the difference between 18% a year and 10% a year?  If you invest $50,000 at 10% a year for 30 years, you end up with $872,000, which is good.  If you invest $50,000 at 18% a year for 30 years, you end up with $7.17 million, which is much better.

Please contact me if you would like to learn more.

    • My email: jb@boolefund.com.
    • My cell: 206.518.2519

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time.

This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps.  Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals.  We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.

There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio.  The size of each position is determined by its rank.  Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost).  Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.

The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods.  We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net).  The Boole Fund has low fees.

 

If you are interested in finding out more, please e-mail me or leave a comment.

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC.

 

How the Greatest Economist Defied Convention and Got Rich

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

April 3, 2022

John Maynard Keynes is one of the greatest economists of all time.  But when he tried to invest on the basis of macroeconomic predictions, he failed.  Twice.  When he embraced focused value investing, he was wildly successful.

It is well known that Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are two of the greatest value investors, and that they both favor a focused approach.  What is not as well known is that the world’s most famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, independently embraced a value investing approach similar to that used by Buffett and Munger.

The story of Keynes’ evolution as an investor has been told many times.  One book in particular – Justyn Walsh’s Keynes and the Market (Wiley, 2008) – does a great job.

Keynes did very well over decades as a focused value investor.  His best advice:

  • Buy shares when they are cheap in relation to probable intrinsic value;
  • Ignore macro and market predictions, and stay focused on a few individual businesses that you understand and whose management you believe in;
  • Hold those businesses for many years as long as the investment theses are intact;
  • Try to have negatively correlated investments (for example, the stock of a gold miner, says Keynes).

Now for a brief summary of the book.

 

INTELLECTUAL BEGINNINGS

Keynes was born in 1883 in the university town of Cambridge, where his father was an economics fellow and his mother was one of its first female graduates.  After attending Eton, in 1902 Keynes won a scholarship to King’s College at Cambridge.  There, he became a member of a secret society known as “the Apostles,” which included E. M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, and Wittgenstein.  The group was based on principles expressed in G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica.  Moore believed the following:

By far the most valuable things, which we know or can imagine, are certain states of consciousness, which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.

Upon graduation, Keynes decided to become a Civil Servant, and ended up as a junior clerk in the India Office in 1906.  Keynes was also part of the Bloomsbury group, which included artists, writers, and philosophers who met at the house of Virginia Woolf and her siblings.  Walsh quotes a Bloomsbury:

We found ourselves living in the springtime of a conscious revolt against the social, political, moral, intellectual, and artistic institutions, beliefs, and standards of our fathers and grandfathers.

 

WORLD WAR I – PEACE TERMS

Keynes strongly disagreed with the proposed peace terms following the conclusion of World War I.  He wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace, which was translated into eleven languages.  Keynes predicted that the vengeful demands of France (and others) against their enemies would inevitably lead to another world war far worse than the first one.  Unfortunately, Keynes was ignored and his prediction turned out to be roughly correct.

 

KEYNES THE SPECULATOR

After resigning from Treasury, Keynes needed a source of income.  Given his background in economics and government, he decided that he could make money by speculating on currencies (and later commodities).  After a couple of large ups and downs, Keynes ended up losing more than 80% of his net worth in 1928 to 1929 – from 44,000 pounds to 8,000 pounds.  His speculative bets on rubber, corn, cotton, and tin declined massively in 1928.  Eventually he realized that value investing was a much better way to succeed as an investor.

Keynes made a clear distinction between speculation and value investing.  He described speculation as like the newspaper competitions where one had to pick out the faces that the average would pick as the prettiest:

It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest.  We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.  And there are some, I believe, who practice fourth, fifth and higher degrees.

 

KEYNES THE ECONOMIST

Another famous economist, Irving Fisher, who had also done well in business, made his famous prediction in mid-October 1929:

Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau…. I expect to see the stock market a good deal higher… within a few months.

After the initial crash that began in late October 1929, Fisher continued to predict a recovery.

Keynes, on the other hand, was quick to recognize both the deep problems posed by the economic downturn and the necessity for aggressive fiscal policy (contrary to the teachings of classical economics).  Keynes said:

The fact is – a fact not yet recognized by the great public – that we are now in the depths of a very severe international slump, a slump which will take its place in history amongst the most acute ever experienced.  It will require not merely passive movements of bank rates to lift us out of a depression of this order, but a very active and determined policy.

Keynes argued that the economy was at an underemployment equilibrium, with a large amount of wasted resources.  Only aggressive fiscal policy could increase aggregate demand, thereby bringing the economy back to a healthy equilibrium.  Classical economists at the time – who disagreed forcefully with Keynes – thought that the economy was like a household: when income declines, one must spend less until the situation corrects itself.  Keynes referred to the classical economists as “liquidationists,” because their position implied that everything should be liquidated (at severely depressed and irrational prices) until the economy corrected itself.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt seemed to agree with Keynes.  Roosevelt said “this Nation asks for action, and action now.”  Roosevelt argued that, if necessary, he would seek “broad Executive power… as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Keynes disagreed with the conventional doctrine that free markets always produce optimal results.  Much later, even Keynes’ opponents agreed with him and admitted that “we are all Keynesians now.”

In the 1970’s, however, when stagflation (slow growth and rising prices) reared its ugly head, neoclassical economics was revived and Keynesian economics became less popular.  But by the late 1970’s, another part of Keynes’ views – “animal spirits” – became important in the new field of behavioral economics.

 

KEYNES THE VALUE INVESTOR

Keynes held that there is an irreducible uncertainty regarding most of the future.  In the face of great uncertainty, “animals spirits” – or “the spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction” – leads people to make decisions and move forward.

Because the future is so uncertain, many investors extrapolate the recent past into the future, which often causes them to make investment mistakes.  Moreover, many investors overweight the near term, leading to stock price volatility far in excess of the long-term earnings and dividends produced by the underlying companies.  Keynes remarked:

Day-to-day fluctuations in the profits of existing investments, which are obviously of an ephemeral and non-significant character, tend to have an altogether excessive, and even an absurd, influence on the market.

Keynes lamented the largely random daily price fluctuations upon which so many investors uselessly focus.  Of these fluctuating daily prices, Keynes said that they gave:

… a frequent opportunity to the individual… to revise his commitments.  It is as though a farmer, having tapped his barometer after breakfast, could decide to remove his capital from the farming business between 10 and 11 in the morning and reconsider whether he should return to it later in the week.

Warren Buffett has often quoted this statement by Keynes.  Indeed, in discussing speculators as opposed to long-term value investors, Keynes sounds a lot like Ben Graham and Warren Buffett.  Keynes:

It might have been supposed that competition between expert professionals, possessing judgment and knowledge beyond that of the average private investor, would correct the vagaries of the ignorant individual left to himself.  It happens, however, that the energies and skill of the professional investor and speculator are mainly occupied otherwise.  For most of these persons are, in fact, largely concerned, not with making superior long-term forecasts of the probable yield of an investment over its whole life, but with foreseeing changes in the conventional basis of valuation a short time ahead of the general public.

Keynes also noted:

… it is the long-term investor, he who most promotes the public interest, who will in practice come in for most criticism, wherever investment funds are managed by committees or boards or banks.  For it is in the essence of his behavior that he should be eccentric, unconventional and rash in the eyes of average opinion.  If he is successful, that will only confirm the general belief in his rashness; and if in the short run he is unsuccessful, which is very likely, he will not receive much mercy.

Because many fund managers are judged over shorter periods of time – even a few months – they typically worry more about not underperforming than they do about outperforming.  With so many investors – both professional and non-professional – focused on short-term price performance, it’s no surprise that the stock market often overreacts to new information – especially if it’s negative.  (The stock market can often underreact to positive information.)  Nor is it a surprise that the typical stock price moves around far more than the company’s underlying intrinsic value – asset value or earnings power.

In a nutshell, investor psychology can cause a stock to be priced almost anywhere in the short term, regardless of the intrinsic value of the underlying company.  Keynes held that value investors should usually simply ignore these random fluctuations and stay focused on the individual businesses in which they have invested.  As Ben Graham, the father of value investing, said in The Intelligent Investor:

Basically, price fluctuations have only one significant meaning for the true investor.  They provide him with an opportunity to buy wisely when prices fall sharply and to sell wisely when they advance a great deal.  At other times he will do better if he forgets about the stock market and pays attention to his dividend returns and to the operating results of his companies.

Graham also wrote:

The market is fond of making mountains out of molehills and exaggerating ordinary vicissitudes into major setbacks.  Even a mere lack of interest or enthusiasm may impel a price decline to absurdly low levels.  Thus we have what appear to be two major sources of undervaluation:  (1) currently disappointing results and (2) protracted neglect or unpopularity.

Or as Buffett said:

Fear is the foe of the faddist, but the friend of the fundamentalist.

Buffett later observed that Keynes “began as a market-timer… and converted, after much thought, to value investing.”  Whereas the speculator attempts to predict price swings, the value investor patiently waits until irrational price swings have made a stock unusually cheap with respect to probable future earnings.  Keynes:

… I am generally trying to look a long way ahead and am prepared to ignore immediate fluctuations, if I am satisfied that the assets and earnings power are there.

 

MARGIN OF SAFETY

Ben Graham, the father of value investing and Warren Buffett’s teacher and mentor, wrote the following in Chapter 20 of The Intelligent Investor:

In the old legend the wise men finally boiled down the history of mortal affairs into the single phrase, ‘This too will pass.’  Confronted with a like challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, MARGIN OF SAFETY.

Keynes used the phrase “safety first” instead of “margin of safety.”  Moreover, he had a similar definition of intrinsic value: an estimate based on the probable earnings power of the assets.  Keynes realized that a lower price paid relative to intrinsic value simultaneously reduces risk and increases probable profit.  The notion that a larger margin of safety means larger profits in general is directly opposed to what is still taught in modern finance: higher investment returns are only achievable through higher risk.

Moreover, Keynes emphasized the importance of non-quantitative factors relevant to investing.  Keynes is similar to Graham, Buffett, and Munger in this regard.  Munger:

… practically everybody (1) overweighs the stuff that can be numbered, because it yields to the statistical techniques they’re taught in academia, and (2) doesn’t mix in the hard-to-measure stuff that may be more important.

Or as Ben Graham stated:

… the combination of precise formulas with highly imprecise assumptions can be used to establish, or rather to justify, practically any value one wishes… in the stock market the more elaborate and abstruse the mathematics the more uncertain and speculative are the conclusions we draw therefrom.

 

UNCERTAINTY AND PESSIMISM CREATE BARGAINS

The value investor often gains an advantage by having a 3- to 5-year investment time horizon.  Because the future is always uncertain, and because so many investors are focused on the next 6 months, numerous bargains become available for long-term investors.  As Keynes mentioned:

Very few American investors buy any stock for the sake of something which is going to happen more than six months hence, even though its probability is exceedingly high; and it is out of taking advantage of this psychological peculiarity that most money is made.

Pessimism also creates bargains.  During the 1973-1974 bear market, many stocks became ridiculously cheap relative to asset value or earnings power.  Buffett has explained the case of The Washington Post Company:

In ’74 you could have bought The Washington Post when the whole company was valued at $80 million.  Now at that time the company was debt free, it owned The Washington Post newspaper, it owned Newsweek, it owned the CBS stations in Washington, D.C. and Jacksonville, Florida, the ABC station in Miami, the CBS station in Hartford/New Haven, a half interest in 800,000 acres of timberland in Canada, plus a 200,000-ton-a-year mill up there, a third of the International Herald Tribune, and probably some other things I forgot.  If you asked any one of thousands of investment analysts or media specialists about how much those properties were worth, they would have said, if they added them up, they would have come up with $400, $500, $600 million.

 

MARKET LEADERS OR HIGHER QUALITY COMPANIES

Keynes had a policy of buying the best within each chosen investment category:

It is generally a good rule for an investor, having settled on the class of security he prefers – … bank shares or oil shares, or investment trusts, or industrials, or debentures, preferred or ordinary, whatever it may be – to buy only the best within that category.

Buffett, partly through the influence of Charlie Munger, evolved from an investor in quantitatively cheap stocks to an investor in higher quality companies.  Munger explains the logic:

Over the long term, it’s hard for a stock to earn a much better return than the business which underlies it earns.  If the business earns 6 percent on capital over 40 years and you hold if for… 40 years, you’re not going to make much different than 6 percent return – even if you originally buy it at a huge discount.  Conversely, if a business earns 18 percent on capital over 20 or 30 years, even if you pay an expensive looking price, you’ll end up with a fine result.

 

FOCUSED AND PATIENT

Keynes was a “focused” value investor in the sense of believing in a highly concentrated portfolio.  This is similar to Buffett and Munger (especially when they were managing smaller amounts of money).

Keynes was criticized for taking large positions in his best ideas.  Here is one of his responses:

Sorry to have gone too large in Elder Dempster… I was… suffering from my chronic delusion that one good share is safer than ten bad ones, and I am always forgetting that hardly anyone else shares this particular delusion.

If you can understand specific businesses – which is easier to do if you focus on tiny microcap companies – Keynes, Buffett, and Munger all believed that you should take large positions in your best ideas.  Keynes called these opportunities “ultra favourites” or “stunners,” while Buffett called them “superstars” and “grand-slam home runs.”  As Keynes concluded late in his career:

… it is out of these big units of the small number of securities about which one feels absolutely happy that all one’s profits are made… Out of the ordinary mixed bag of investments nobody ever makes anything.

One way that the best ideas of Keynes, Buffett, and Munger become even larger positions in their portfolios over time is if the investment theses are essentially correct, which eventually leads the stocks to move much higher.  Many investors ask: if your best idea becomes an even larger part of the portfolio, shouldn’t you rebalance?  Here is Buffett’s response:

To suggest that this investor should sell off portions of his most successful investments simply because they have come to dominate his portfolio is akin to suggesting that the Bulls trade Michael Jordan because he has become so important to the team.

The decision about whether to hold a stock should depend only upon your current investment thesis about the company.  It doesn’t matter what you paid for it, or whether the stock has increased or decreased recently.  What matters is how much free cash flow you think the company will produce over time, and how cheap the stock is now relative to that future free cash flow.  What also matters is how cheap the stock is relative to your other ideas.

Keynes again on concentration:

To suppose that safety-first consists in having a small gamble in a large number of different directions…, as compared with a substantial stake in a company where one’s information is adequate, strikes me as a travesty of investment policy.

As time goes on I get more and more convinced that the right method in investment is to put fairly large sums into enterprises which one thinks one knows something about and in the management of which one thoroughly believes.  It is a mistake to think that one limits one’s risk by spreading too much between enterprises about which one knows little and has no reason for special confidence.

Conducting research on a relatively short list of candidates and then concentrating your portfolio on the best ideas, is a form of specialization.  Often the stocks in a specific sector will get very cheap when that sector is out of favor.  If you’re willing to invest the time to understand the stocks in that sector, you may be able to gain an edge.

Moreover, if you’re an individual investor, it makes sense to focus on tiny microcap companies, which are generally easier to understand and can get extremely cheap because most investors completely ignore them.

Ben Graham often pointed out that patience and courage are essential for contrarian value investing.  Cheap stocks are usually neglected or hated because they have terrible short-term problems affecting their earnings and cash flows.  Similarly, Keynes held that huge short-term price fluctuations are often irrational with respect to long-term earnings and dividends.  Keynes:

… the modern organization of the capital market requires for the holder of quoted equities much more nerve, patience, and fortitude than from the holder of wealth in other forms.

 

SUMMARY

Keynes’ experiences on the stock market read like some sort of morality play – an ambitious young man, laboring under the ancient sin of hubris, loses almost everything in his furious pursuit of wealth; suitably humbled, our protagonist, now wiser for the experience, applies his considerable intellect to the situation and discovers what he believes to be the one true path to stock market success.

Keynes realized that focused value investing is the best way to compound wealth over time.  Ignore market and macro predictions, and focus on a few businesses that you can understand and in whose management you believe.

In 1938, in a memorandum written for King’s College Estates Committee, Keynes gave a concise summary of his investment philosophy:

  • A careful selection of a few investments (or a few types of investment) having regard to their cheapness in relation to their probable actual and potential intrinsic value over a period of years ahead and in relation to alternative investments at the time;
  • A steadfast holding of these in fairly large units through thick and thin, perhaps for several years, until either they have fulfilled their promise or it is evident that they were purchased on a mistake;
  • A balanced investment position, i.e., a variety of risks in spite of individual holdings being large, and if possible opposed risks (e.g., a holding of gold shares amongst other equities, since they are likely to move in opposite directions when there are general fluctuations).

Walsh writes that Keynes followed six key investment rules:

  1. Focus on the estimated intrinsic value of a stock – as represented by the projected earnings of the particular security – rather than attempt to divine market trends.
  2. Ensure that a sufficiently large margin of safety – the difference between a stock’s assessed intrinsic value and price – exists in respect of purchased stocks.
  3. Apply independent judgment in valuing stocks, which may often imply a contrarian investment policy.
  4. Limit transaction costs and ignore the distractions of constant price quotation by maintaining a steadfast holding of stocks.
  5. Practice a policy of portfolio concentration by committing relatively large sums of capital to stock market “stunners.”
  6. Maintain the appropriate temperament by balancing “equanimity and patience” with the ability to act decisively.

The importance of temperament and the ability to maintain inner peace should not be overlooked.  As Buffett points out:

Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 IQ beats the guy with the 130 IQ… Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.

Walsh summarizes Keynes’ performance as a value investor:

Taking 1931 as the base year – admittedly a relatively low point in the Fund’s fortunes, but also on the assumption that Keynes’ value investment style began around this time – the Chest Fund recorded a roughly tenfold increase in value in the fifteen years to 1945, compared with a virtual nil return for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Average and a mere doubling of the London industrial index over the same period.

What’s even more impressive is that this performance does not include the income generated by the Chest Fund, all of which was spent on college building works and repayment of loans.

One small mistake Keynes made was holding his “stunners” even when they were overvalued.  Keynes made this mistake because he was an optimist.  (Buffett made a similar mistake in the late 1990’s.)  Here is Keynes (sounding like Buffett) on the future:

There is nothing to be afraid of.  On the contrary.  The future holds in store for us far more wealth and economic freedom and possibilities of personal life than the past has ever offered.

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time.  See the historical chart here:  http://boolefund.com/best-performers-microcap-stocks/

This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps.  Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals.  We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.

There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio.  The size of each position is determined by its rank.  Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost).  Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.

The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods.  We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net).  The Boole Fund has low fees.

 

If you are interested in finding out more, please e-mail me or leave a comment.

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

 

Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC.

The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

March 27, 2022

According to the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH), stock prices reflect all available information and are thus fairly valued.  It’s impossible to get investment results better than the market except by luck.

However, Warren Buffett, arguably the greatest investor of all time and a value investor, has argued that he knows a group of value investors, all of whom have done better than the market over time.  Buffett argues that there’s no way every investor in this group could have gotten lucky at the same time.  Also, Buffett didn’t pick this group of investors after they already had produced superior performance.  Rather, he identified them ahead of time.  The only thing these investors had in common was that they believed in the value investing framework, according to which sometimes the price of a stock can be far below the intrinsic value of the business in question.

Buffett presented his argument in 1984.  But the logic still holds today.  The title of Buffett’s speech was The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville.  The speech is still available as an essay here: https://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/articles/columbia-business/superinvestors

Despite the unassailable logic and evidence of Buffett’s argument, still today many academic economists and theorists continue to argue that the stock market is efficient and therefore impossible to beat except by luck.  These academics therefore argue that investors such as Warren Buffett just got lucky.

Let’s examine Buffett’s essay.

Buffett first says to imagine a national coin-flipping contest.  225 million Americans (the population in 1984) get up at sunrise and bet one dollar on the flip of a coin.  If they call correctly, they win a dollar from those who called incorrectly.  Each day the losers drop out.  And the winners bet again the following morning, putting cumulative winnings on the line.

After ten straight days, there will be approximately 220,000 Americans who correctly called ten coin tosses in a row.  Each of these participants will have a little more than $1,000.

Buffett writes hilariously:

Now this group will probably start getting a little puffed up about this, human nature being what it is.  They may try to be modest, but at cocktail parties they will occasionally admit to attractive members of the opposite sex what their technique is, and what marvelous insights they bring to the field of flipping.

After another ten days of this daily contest, there will be approximately 215 flippers left who correctly called twenty coin tosses in a row.  Each of these contestants will have turned a dollar into $1 million.

Buffett continues:

By then, this group will really lose their heads. They will probably write books on “How I turned a Dollar into a Million in Twenty Days Working Thirty Seconds a Morning.” Worse yet, they’ll probably start jetting around the country attending seminars on efficient coin-flipping and tackling skeptical professors with, “If it can’t be done, why are there 215 of us?”

By then some business school professor will probably be rude enough to bring up the fact that if 225 million orangutans had engaged in a similar exercise, the results would be much the same — 215 egotistical orangutans with 20 straight winning flips.

But then Buffett says:

I would argue, however, that there are some important differences in the examples I am going to present.  For one thing, if (a) you had taken 225 million orangutans distributed roughly as the U.S. population is; if (b) 215 winners were left after 20 days; and if (c) you found that 40 came from a particular zoo in Omaha, you would be pretty sure you were on to something.  So you would probably go out and ask the zookeeper about what he’s feeding them, whether they had special exercises, what books they read, and who knows what else.  That is, if you found any really extraordinary concentrations of success, you might want to see if you could identify concentrations of unusual characteristics that might be causal factors.

Scientific inquiry naturally follows such a pattern.  If you were trying to analyze possible causes of a rare type of cancer — with, say, 1,500 cases a year in the United States — and you found that 400 of them occurred in some little mining town in Montana, you would get very interested in the water there, or the occupation of those afflicted, or other variables.  You know it’s not random chance that 400 come from a small area.  You would not necessarily know the causal factors, but you would know where to search.

Buffett adds:

I submit to you that there are ways of defining an origin other than geography.  In addition to geographical origins, there can be what I call an intellectual origin.  I think you will find that a disproportionate number of successful coin-flippers in the investment world came from a very small intellectual village that could be called Graham-and-Doddsville.  A concentration of winners that simply cannot be explained by chance can be traced to this particular intellectual village.

Buffett then argues:

In this group of successful investors that I want to consider, there has been a common intellectual patriarch, Ben Graham.  But the children who left the house of this intellectual patriarch have called their “flips” in very different ways.  They have gone to different places and bought and sold different stocks and companies, yet they have had a combined record that simply cannot be explained by random chance…

The common intellectual theme of the investors from Graham-and-Doddsville is this: they search for discrepancies between the value of a business and the price of small pieces of that business in the market… Our Graham & Dodd investors, needless to say, do not discuss beta, the capital asset pricing model, or covariance in returns among securities.  These are not subjects of any interest to them.  In fact, most of them would have difficulty defining those terms. The investors simply focus on two variables: price and value.

As Ben Graham said:

Price is what you pay.  Value is what you get.

The Efficient Market Hypothesis argues that the current value of any stock is already reflected in the price.  Value investors, however, don’t believe that.  Value investors believe that stock prices are usually correct – the market is usually efficient – but not always.

Buffett speculates on why there have been so many academic studies of stock prices:

I always find it extraordinary that so many studies are made of price and volume behavior, the stuff of chartists.  Can you imagine buying an entire business simply because the price of the business had been marked up substantially last week and the week before?  Of course, the reason a lot of studies are made of these price and volume variables is that now, in the age of computers, there are almost endless data available about them.  It isn’t necessarily because such studies have any utility; it’s simply that the data are there and academicians have worked hard to learn the mathematical skills needed to manipulate them.  Once these skills are acquired, it seems sinful not to use them, even if the usage has no utility or negative utility.  As a friend said, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Buffett then proceeds to discuss the group of value investors that he had selected decades before 1984.  Why is it that the value investors whom Buffett had identified decades ago before ended up far outperforming the market?  The one thing they had in common was that they distinguished between price and value, and they only bought when price was far below value.  Other than that, these investors had very little in common.  They bought very different stocks from one another and they also had different methods of portfolio construction, with some like Charlie Munger having very concentrated portfolios and others like Walter Schloss having very diversified portfolios.

Buffett shows the records for Walter Schloss, Tom Knapp, Warren Buffett (himself), Bill Ruane, Charlie Munger, Rick Guerin, Stan Perlmeter, and two others.  For details on the track records of the value investors Buffett had previously identified, see here: https://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/articles/columbia-business/superinvestors

While discussing Rick Guerin, Buffett offered the following interesting comments:

One sidelight here: it is extraordinary to me that the idea of buying dollar bills for 40 cents takes immediately to people or it doesn’t take at all.  It’s like an inoculation.  If it doesn’t grab a person right away, I find that you can talk to him for years and show him records, and it doesn’t make any difference.  They just don’t seem able to grasp the concept, simple as it is.  A fellow like Rick Guerin, who had no formal education in business, understands immediately the value approach to investing and he’s applying it five minutes later.  I’ve never seen anyone who became a gradual convert over a ten-year period to this approach.  It doesn’t seem to be a matter of IQ or academic training.  It’s instant recognition, or it is nothing.

And when discussing Stan Perlmeter, Buffett says:

Perlmeter does not own what Walter Schloss owns.  He does not own what Bill Ruane owns.  These are records made independently.  But every time Perlmeter buys a stock it’s because he’s getting more for his money than he’s paying.  That’s the only thing he’s thinking about.  He’s not looking at quarterly earnings projections, he’s not looking at next year’s earnings, he’s not thinking about what day of the week it is, he doesn’t care what investment research from any place says, he’s not interested in price momentum, volume, or anything.  He’s simply asking: What is the business worth?

Buffett then comments on the nine track records he mentioned:

So these are nine records of “coin-flippers” from Graham-and-Doddsville.  I haven’t selected them with hindsight from among thousands.  It’s not like I am reciting to you the names of a bunch of lottery winners — people I had never heard of before they won the lottery.  I selected these men years ago based upon their framework for investment decision-making.  I knew what they had been taught and additionally I had some personal knowledge of their intellect, character, and temperament.  It’s very important to understand that this group has assumed far less risk than average; note their record in years when the general market was weak.  While they differ greatly in style, these investors are, mentally, always buying the business, not buying the stock.  A few of them sometimes buy whole businesses far more often they simply buy small pieces of businesses.  Their attitude, whether buying all or a tiny piece of a business, is the same.  Some of them hold portfolios with dozens of stocks; others concentrate on a handful.  But all exploit the difference between the market price of a business and its intrinsic value.

I’m convinced that there is much inefficiency in the market.  These Graham-and-Doddsville investors have successfully exploited gaps between price and value.  When the price of a stock can be influenced by a “herd” on Wall Street with prices set at the margin by the most emotional person, or the greediest person, or the most depressed person, it is hard to argue that the market always prices rationally.  In fact, market prices are frequently nonsensical.

Buffett then discusses risk versus reward.  When you are practicing value investing, the lower the price is relative to probable intrinsic value, the less risk there is but simultaneously the greater upside there is.  As Buffett puts it, if you buy a dollar bill for 60 cents, it’s riskier than if you buy a dollar bill for 40 cents, but the expected reward is greater in the latter case.

Speaking of risk versus reward, Buffett gives an example:

The Washington Post Company in 1973 was selling for $80 million in the market.  At the time, that day, you could have sold the assets to any one of ten buyers for not less than $400 million, probably appreciably more.  The company owned the PostNewsweek, plus several television stations in major markets.  Those same properties are worth $2 billion now, so the person who would have paid $400 million would not have been crazy.

Now, if the stock had declined even further to a price that made the valuation $40 million instead of $80 million, its beta would have been greater.  And to people that think beta measures risk, the cheaper price would have made it look riskier.  This is truly Alice in Wonderland. I have never been able to figure out why it’s riskier to buy $400 million worth of properties for $40 million than $80 million.

Buffett adds that you also want to be sure that the managers of the business are reasonably competent.  But this is a very doable task.

Buffett concludes his essay by saying that people may wonder why he is writing it in the first place, given that it may create more competitors using value investing.  Buffett observes that the secret has been out since 1934, when Ben Graham and David Dodd published Security Analysis, and yet there has been no trend towards value investing.

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time.  See the historical chart here:  http://boolefund.com/best-performers-microcap-stocks/

This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps.  Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals.  We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.

There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio.  The size of each position is determined by its rank.  Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost).  Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.

The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods.  We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net).  The Boole Fund has low fees.

 

If you are interested in finding out more, please e-mail me or leave a comment.

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

 

Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC.

More Than You Know

(Image: Zen Buddha Silence, by Marilyn Barbone)

March 13, 2022

To boost our productivity—including our ability to think and make decisions—nothing beats continuous learning.  Broad study makes us better people.  See: http://boolefund.com/lifelong-learning/

Michael Mauboussin is a leading expert in the multidisciplinary study of businesses and markets.  His book—More Than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places—has been translated into eight languages.

Each chapter in Mauboussin’s book is meant to stand on its own.  I’ve summarized most of the chapters below.

Here’s an outline:

  • Process and Outcome in Investing
  • Risky Business
  • Are You an Expert?
  • The Hot Hand in Investing
  • Time is on my Side
  • The Low Down on the Top Brass
  • Six Psychological Tendencies
  • Emotion and Intuition in Decision Making
  • Beware of Behavioral Finance
  • Importance of a Decision Journal
  • Right from the Gut
  • Weighted Watcher
  • Why Innovation is Inevitable
  • Accelerating Rate of Industry Change
  • How to Balance the Long Term with the Short Term
  • Fitness Landscapes and Competitive Advantage
  • The Folly of Using Average P/E’s
  • Mean Reversion and Turnarounds
  • Considering Cooperation and Competition Through Game Theory
  • The Wisdom and Whim of the Collective
  • Vox Populi
  • Complex Adaptive Systems
  • The Future of Consilience in Investing

(Photo: Statue of Leonardo da Vinci in Italy, by Raluca Tudor)

 

PROCESS AND OUTCOME IN INVESTING

(Image by Amir Zukanovic)

Individual decisions can be badly thought through, and yet be successful, or exceedingly well thought through, but be unsuccessful, because the recognized possibility of failure in fact occurs.  But over time, more thoughtful decision-making will lead to better overall results, and more thoughtful decision-making can be encouraged by evaluating decisions on how well they were made rather than on outcome.

Robert Rubin made this remark in his Harvard Commencement Address in 2001.  Mauboussin points out that the best long-term performers in any probabilistic field—such as investing, bridge, sports-team management, and pari-mutuel betting—all emphasize process over outcome.

Mauboussin also writes:

Perhaps the single greatest error in the investment business is a failure to distinguish between the knowledge of a company’s fundamentals and the expectations implied by the market price.

If you don’t understand why your view differs from the consensus, and why the consensus is likely to be wrong, then you cannot reasonably expect to beat the market.  Mauboussin quotes horse-race handicapper Steven Crist:

The issue is not which horse in the race is the most likely winner, but which horse or horses are offering odds that exceed their actual chances of victory… This may sound elementary, and many players may think that they are following this principle, but few actually do.  Under this mindset, everything but the odds fades from view.  There is no such thing as “liking” a horse to win a race, only an attractive discrepancy between his chances and his price.

Robert Rubin’s four rules for probabilistic decision-making:

  • The only certainty is that there is no certainty.  It’s crucial not to be overconfident, because inevitably that leads to big mistakes.  Many of the biggest hedge fund blowups resulted when people were overconfident about particular bets.
  • Decisions are a matter of weighing probabilities.  Moreover, you also have to consider payoffs.  Probabilities alone are not enough if the payoffs are skewed.  A high probability of winning does not guarantee that it’s a positive expected value bet if the potential loss is far greater than the potential gain.
  • Despite uncertainty, we must act.  Often in investing and in life, we have to make decisions based in imperfect or incomplete information.
  • Judge decisions not only on results, but also on how they were made.  If you’re making decisions under uncertainty—probabilistic decisions—you have to focus on developing the best process you can.  Also, you must accept that some good decisions will have bad outcomes, while some bad decisions will have good outcomes.

Rubin again:

It’s not that results don’t matter.  They do.  But judging solely on results is a serious deterrent to taking risks that may be necessary to making the right decision.  Simply put, the way decisions are evaluated affects the way decisions are made.

 

RISKY BUSINESS

(Photo by Shawn Hempel)

Mauboussin:

So how should we think about risk and uncertainty?  A logical starting place is Frank Knight’s distinction: Risk has an unknown outcome, but we know what the underlying outcome distribution looks like.  Uncertainty also implies an unknown outcome, but we don’t know what the underlying distribution looks like.  So games of chance like roulette or blackjack are risky, while the outcome of a war is uncertain.  Knight said that objective probability is the basis for risk, while subjective probability underlies uncertainty.

Mauboussin highlights three ways to get a probability, as suggested by Gerd Gigerenzer in Calculated Risks:

  • Degrees of belief.  Degrees of belief are subjective probabilities and are the most liberal means to translate uncertainty into a probability.  The point here is that investors can translate even onetime events into probabilities provided they satisfy the laws of probability—the exhaustive and exclusive set of alternatives adds up to one.  Also, investors can frequently update probabilities based on degrees of belief when new, relevant information becomes available.
  • Propensities.  Propensity-based probabilities reflect the properties of the object or system.  For example, if a die is symmetrical and balanced, then you have a one-in-six probability of rolling any particular side… This method of probability assessment does not always consider all the factors that may shape an outcome (such as human error).
  • Frequencies.  Here the probability is based on a large number of observations in an appropriate reference class.  Without an appropriate reference class, there can be no frequency-based probability assessment.  So frequency users would not care what someone believes the outcome of a die roll will be, nor would they care about the design of the die.  They would focus only on the yield of repeated die rolls.

When investing in a stock, we try to figure out the expected value by delineating possible scenarios along with a probability for each scenario.  This is the essence of what top value investors like Warren Buffett strive to do.

 

ARE YOU AN EXPERT?

In 1996, Lars Edenbrandt, a Lund University researcher, set up a contest between an expert cardiologist and a computer.  The task was to sort a large number of electrocardiograms (EKGs) into two piles—heart attack and no heart attack.

(Image by Johannes Gerhardus Swanepoel)

The human expert was Dr. Hans Ohlin, a leading Swedish cardiologist who regularly evaluated as many as 10,000 EKGs per year.  Edenbrandt, an artificial intelligence expert, trained his computer by feeding it thousands of EKGs.  Mauboussin describes:

Edenbrandt chose a sample of over 10,000 EKGs, exactly half of which showed confirmed heart attacks, and gave them to machine and man.  Ohlin took his time evaluating the charts, spending a week carefully separating the stack into heart-attack and no-heart-attack piles.  The battle was reminiscent of Garry Kasparov versus Deep Blue, and Ohlin was fully aware of the stakes.

As Edenbrandt tallied the results, a clear-cut winner emerged: the computer correctly identified the heart attacks in 66 percent of the cases, Ohlin only in 55 percent.  The computer proved 20 percent more accurate than a leading cardiologist in a routine task that can mean the difference between life and death.

Mauboussin presents a table illustrating that expert performance depends on the problem type:

Domain Description (Column) Expert Performance Expert Agreement Examples
Rules based: Limited Degrees of Freedom Worse than computers High (70-90%)
  • Credit scoring
  • Simple medical diagnosis
Rules based: High Degrees of Freedom Generally better than computers Moderate (50-60%)
  • Chess
  • Go
Probabilistic: Limited Degrees of Freedom Equal to or worse than collectives Moderate/ Low (30-40%)
  • Admissions officers
  • Poker
Probabilistic: High Degrees of Freedom Collectives outperform experts Low (<20%)
  • Stock market
  • Economy

For rules-based systems with limited degrees of freedom, computers consistently outperform individual humans; humans perform well, but computers are better and often cheaper, says Mauboussin.  Humans underperform computers because humans are influenced by suggestion, recent experience, and how information is framed.  Also, humans fail to weigh variables well.  Thus, while experts tend to agree in this domain, computers outperform experts, as illustrated by the EKG-reading example.

In the next domain—rules-based systems with high degrees of freedom—experts tend to add the most value.  However, as computing power continues to increase, eventually computers will outperform experts even here, as illustrated by Chess and Go.  Eventually, games like Chess and Go are “solvable.”  Once the computer can check every single possible move within a reasonable amount of time—which is inevitable as long as computing power continues to increase—no human will be able to match such a computer.

In probabilistic domains with limited degrees of freedom, experts are equal to or worse than collectives.  Overall, the value of experts declines compared to rules-based domains.

(Image by Marrishuanna)

In probabilistic domains with high degrees of freedom, experts do worse than collectives.  For instance, stock market prices aggregate many guesses from individual investors.  Stock market prices typically are more accurate than experts.

 

THE HOT HAND IN INVESTING

Sports fans and athletes believe in the hot hand in basketball.  A player on a streak is thought to be “hot,” or more likely to make his or her shots.  However, statistical analysis of streaks shows that the hot hand does not exist.

(Illustration by lbreakstock)

Long success streaks happen to the most skillful players in basketball, baseball, and other sports.  To illustrate this, Mauboussin asks us to consider two basketball players, Sally Swish and Allen Airball.  Sally makes 60 percent of her shot attempts, while Allen only makes 30 percent of his shot attempts.

What are the probabilities that Sally and Allen make five shots in a row?  For Sally, the likelihood is (0.6)^5, or 7.8 percent.  Sally will hit five in a row about every thirteen sequences.  For Allen, the likelihood is (0.3)^5, or 0.24 percent.  Allen will hit five straight once every 412 sequences.  Sally will have far more streaks than Allen.

In sum, long streaks in sports or in money management indicate extraordinary luck imposed on great skill.

 

TIME IS ON MY SIDE

The longer you’re willing to hold a stock, the more attractive the investment.  For the average stock, the chance that it will be higher is (almost) 100 percent for one decade, 72 percent for one year, 56 percent for one month, and 51 percent for one day.

(Illustration by Marek)

The problem is loss aversion.  We feel the pain of a loss 2 to 2.5 times more than the pleasure of an equivalent gain.  If we check a stock price daily, there’s nearly a 50 percent chance of seeing a loss.  So checking stock prices daily is a losing proposition.  By contrast, if we only check the price once a year or once every few years, then investing in a stock is much more attractive.

A fund with a high turnover ratio is much more short-term oriented than a fund with a low turnover ratio.  Unfortunately, most institutional investors have a much shorter time horizon than what is needed for the typical good strategy to pay off.  If portfolio managers lag over shorter periods of time, they may lose their jobs even if their strategy works quite well over the long term.

 

THE LOW DOWN ON THE TOP BRASS

(Illustration by Travelling-light)

It’s difficult to judge leadership, but Mauboussin identifies four things worth considering:

  • Learning
  • Teaching
  • Self-awareness
  • Capital allocation

Mauboussin asserts:

A consistent thirst to learn marks a great leader.  On one level, this is about intellectual curiosity—a constant desire to build mental models that can help in decision making.  A quality manager can absorb and weigh contradictory ideas and information as well as think probabilistically…

Another critical facet of learning is a true desire to understand what’s going on in the organization and to confront the facts with brutal honesty.  The only way to understand what’s going on is to get out there, visit employees and customers, and ask questions and listen to responses.  In almost all organizations, there is much more information at the edge of the network—the employees in the trenches dealing with the day-to-day issues—than in the middle of the network, where the CEO sits.  CEOs who surround themselves with managers seeking to please, rather than prod, are unlikely to make great decisions.

A final dimension of learning is creating an environment where everyone in the organization feels they can voice their thoughts and opinions without the risk of being rebuffed, ignored, or humiliated.  The idea here is not that management should entertain all half-baked ideas but rather that management should encourage and reward intellectual risk taking.

Teaching involves communicating a clear vision to the organization.  Mauboussin points out that teaching comes most naturally to those leaders who are passionate.  Passion is a key driver of success.

Self-awareness implies a balance between confidence and humility.  We all have strengths and weaknesses.  Self-aware leaders know their weaknesses and find colleagues who are strong in those areas.

Finally, capital allocation is a vital leadership skill.  Regrettably, many consultants and investment bankers give poor advice on this topic.  Most acquisitions destroy value for the acquirer, regardless of whether they are guided by professional advice.

Mauboussin quotes Warren Buffett:

The heads of many companies are not skilled in capital allocation.  Their inadequacy is not surprising.  Most bosses rise to the top because they have excelled in an area such as marketing, production, engineering, administration or, sometimes, institutional politics.

Once they become CEOs, they face new responsibilities.  They now must make capital allocation decisions, a critical job that they may have never tackled and that is not easily mastered.  To stretch the point, it’s as if the final step for a highly talented musician was not to perform at Carnegie Hall but, instead, to be named Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

The lack of skill that many CEOs have at capital allocation is no small matter: After ten years on the job, a CEO whose company annually retains earnings equal to 10% of net worth will have been responsible for the deployment of more than 60% of all the capital at work in the business.  CEOs who recognize their lack of capital-allocation skills (which not all do) will often try to compensate by turning to their staffs, management consultants, or investment bankers.  Charlie and I have frequently observed the consequences of such “help.”  On balance, we feel it is more likely to accentuate the capital-allocation problem than to solve it.

In the end, plenty of unintelligent capital allocation takes place in corporate America.  (That’s why you hear so much about “restructuring.”)

 

SIX PSYCHOLOGICAL TENDENCIES

(Image by Andreykuzmin)

The psychologist Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, mentions six psychological tendencies that cause people to comply with requests:

  • Reciprocation.  There is no human society where people do not feel the obligation to reciprocate favors or gifts.  That’s why charitable organizations send free address labels and why real estate companies offer free house appraisals.  Sam Walton was smart to forbid all of his employees from accepting gifts from suppliers, etc.
  • Commitment and consistency.  Once we’ve made a decision, and especially if we’ve publicly committed to that decision, we’re highly unlikely to change.  Consistency allows us to stop thinking and also to avoid further action.
  • Social validation.  One of the chief ways we make decisions is by observing the decisions of others.  In an experiment by Solomon Asch, eight people in a room are shown three lines of clearly unequal lengths.  Then they are shown a fourth line that has the same length as one of the three lines.  They are asked to match the fourth line to the one with equal length.  The catch is that only one of the eight people in the room is the actual subject of the experiment.  The other seven people are shills who have been instructed to choose an obviously incorrect answer.  About 33 percent of the time, the subject of the experiment ignores the obviously right answer and goes along with the group instead.
  • Liking.  We all prefer to say yes to people we like—people who are similar to us, who compliment us, who cooperate with us, and who we find attractive.
  • Authority.  Stanley Milgram wanted to understand why many seemingly decent people—including believing Lutherans and Catholics—went along with the great evils perpetrated by the Nazis.  Milgram did a famous experiment.  A person in a white lab coat stands behind the subject of the experiment.  The subject is asked to give increasingly severe electric shocks to a “learner” in another room whenever the learner gives an incorrect answer to a question.  (Unknown to the subject, the learner in the other room is an actor and the electric shocks are not really given.)  Roughly 60 percent of the time, the subject of the experiment gives a fatal shock of 450 volts to the learner.  This is a terrifying result.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment
  • Scarcity.  Items or data that are scarce or perceived to be scarce automatically are viewed as more attractive.  That’s why companies frequently offer services or products for a limited time only.

These innate psychological tendencies are especially powerful when they operate in combination.  Charlie Munger calls this lollapalooza effects.

Mauboussin writes that investors are often influenced by commitment and consistency, social validation, and scarcity.

Psychologists discovered that after bettors at a racetrack put down their money, they are more confident in the prospects of their horses winning than immediately before they placed their bets.  After making a decision, we feel both internal and external pressure to remain consistent to that view even if subsequent evidence questions the validity of the initial decision.

So an investor who has taken a position in a particular stock, recommended it publicly, or encouraged colleagues to participate, will feel the need to stick with the call.  Related to this tendency is the confirmation trap: postdecision openness to confirming data coupled with disavowal or denial of disconfirming data.  One useful technique to mitigate consistency is to think about the world in ranges of values with associated probabilities instead of as a series of single points.  Acknowledging multiple scenarios provides psychological shelter to change views when appropriate.

There is a large body of work about the role of social validation in investing.  Investing is an inherently social activity, and investors periodically act in concert…

Finally, scarcity has an important role in investing (and certainly plays a large role in the minds of corporate executives).  Investors in particular seek informational scarcity.  The challenge is to distinguish between what is truly scarce information and what is not.  One means to do this is to reverse-engineer market expectations—in other words, figure out what the market already thinks.

 

EMOTION AND INTUITION IN DECISION MAKING

(Photo by Marek Uliasz)

Humans need to be able to experience emotions in order to make good decisions.  Mauboussin writes about an experiment conducted by Antonio Damasio:

…In one experiment, he harnessed subjects to a skin-conductance-response machine and asked them to flip over cards from one of four decks; two of the decks generated gains (in play money) and the other two were losers.  As the subjects turned cards, Damasio asked them what they thought was going on.  After about ten turns, the subjects started showing physical reactions when they reached for a losing deck.  About fifty cards into the experiment, the subjects articulated a hunch that two of the four decks were riskier.  And it took another thirty cards for the subjects to explain why their hunch was right.

This experiment provided two remarkable decision-making lessons.  First, the unconscious knew what was going on before the conscious did.  Second, even the subjects who never articulated what was going on had unconscious physical reactions that guided their decisions.

 

BEWARE OF BEHAVIORAL FINANCE

Individual agents can behave irrationally but the market can still be rational.

…Collective behavior addresses the potentially irrational actions of groups.  Individual behavior dwells on the fact that we all consistently fall into psychological traps, including overconfidence, anchoring and adjustment, improper framing, irrational commitment escalation, and the confirmation trap.

Here’s my main point: markets can still be rational when investors are individually irrational.  Sufficient investor diversity is the essential feature in efficient price formation.  Provided the decision rules of investors are diverse—even if they are suboptimal—errors tend to cancel out and markets arrive at appropriate prices.  Similarly, if these decision rules lose diversity, markets become fragile and susceptible to inefficiency.

Mauboussin continues:

In case after case, the collective outperforms the individual.  A full ecology of investors is generally sufficient to assure that there is no systematic way to beat the market.  Diversity is the default assumption, and diversity breakdowns are the notable (and potentially profitable) exceptions.

(Illustration by Trueffelpix)

Mauboussin writes about an interesting example of how the collective can outperform individuals (including experts).

On January 17, 1966, a B-52 bomber and a refueling plane collided in midair while crossing the Spanish coastline.  The bomber was carrying four nuclear bombs.  Three were immediately recovered.  But the fourth was lost and its recovery became a national security priority.

Assistant Security of Defense Jack Howard called a young naval officer, John Craven, to find the bomb.  Craven assembled a diverse group of experts and asked them to place bets on where the bomb was.  Shortly thereafter, using the probabilities that resulted from all the bets, the bomb was located.  The collective intelligence in this example was superior to the intelligence of any individual expert.

 

IMPORTANCE OF A DECISION JOURNAL

In investing and in general, it’s wise to keep a journal of our decisions and the reasoning behind them.

(Photo by Leerobin)

We all suffer from hindsight bias.  We are unable to recall what we actually thought before making a decision or judgment.

  • If we decide to do something and it works out, we tend to underestimate the uncertainty that was present when we made the decision.  “I knew I made the right decision.”
  • If we decide to do something and it doesn’t work, we tend to overestimate the uncertainty that was present when we made the decision.  “I suspected that it wouldn’t work.”
  • If we judge that event X will happen, and then it does, we underestimate the uncertainty that was present when we made the judgment.  “I knew that would happen.”
  • If we judge that event X will happen, and it doesn’t, we overestimate the uncertainty that was present when we made the judgment.  “I was fully aware that it was unlikely.”

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindsight_bias

As Mauboussin notes, keeping a decision journal gives us a valuable source of objective feedback.  Otherwise, we won’t recall with any accuracy the uncertainty we faced or the reasoning we used.

 

RIGHT FROM THE GUT

Robert Olsen has singled out five conditions that are present in the context of naturalistic decision making.

  • Ill-structured and complex problems.  No obvious best procedure exists to solve a problem.
  • Information is incomplete, ambiguous, and changing.  Because stock picking relates to future financial performance, there is no way to consider all information.
  • Ill-defined, shifting, and competing goals.  Although long-term goals may be clearer, goals can change over shorter horizons.
  • Stress because of time constraints, high stakes, or both.  Stress is clearly a feature of investing.
  • Decisions may involve multiple participants.  

Mauboussin describes three key characteristics of naturalistic decision makers.  First, they rely heavily on mental imagery and simulation in order to assess a situation and possible alternatives.  Second, they excel at pattern matching.  (For instance, chess masters can glance at a board and quickly recognize a pattern.)

(Photo by lbreakstock)

Third, naturalistic decision makers reason through analogy.  They can see how seemingly different situations are in fact similar.

 

WEIGHTED WATCHER

Mauboussin describes how we develop a “degree of belief” in a specific hypothesis:

Our degree of belief in a particular hypothesis typically integrates two kinds of evidence: the strength, or extremeness, of the evidence and the weight, or predictive validity.  For instance, say you want to test the hypothesis that a coin in biased in favor of heads.  The proportion of heads in the sample reflects the strength, while the sample size determines the weight.

Probability theory describes rules for how to combine strength and weight correctly.  But substantial experimental data show that people do not follow the theory.  Specifically, the strength of evidence seems to dominate the weight of evidence in people’s minds.

This bias leads to a distinctive pattern of over- and underconfidence.  When the strength of evidence is high and the weight is low—which accurately describes the outcome of many Wall Street-sponsored surveys—people tend to be overconfident.  In contrast, when the strength is low and the evidence is high, people tend to be underconfident.

(Photo by Michele Lombardo)

Does survey-based research lead to superior stock selection?  Mauboussin responds that the answer is ambiguous.  First, the market adjusts to new information rapidly.  It’s difficult to gain an informational edge, especially when it comes to what is happening now or what will happen in the near future.  In contrast, it’s possible to gain an informational edge if you focus on the longer term.  That’s because many investors don’t focus there.

The second issue is that understanding the fundamentals about a company or industry is very different from understanding the expectations built into a stock price.  The question is not just whether the information is new to you, but whether the information is also new to the market.  In the vast majority of cases, the information is already reflected in the current stock price.

Mauboussin sums it up:

Seeking new information is a worthy goal for an investor.  My fear is that much of what passes as incremental information adds little or no value, because investors don’t properly weight new information, rely on unsound samples, and fail to recognize what the market already knows.  In contrast, I find that thoughtful discussions about a firm’s or an industry’s medium- to long-term competitive outlook extremely rare.

 

WHY INNOVATION IS INEVITABLE

(Image: Innovation concept, by Daniil Peshkov)

Mauboussin quotes Andrew Hargadon’s How Breakthroughs Happen:

All innovations represent some break from the past—the lightbulb replaced the gas lamp, the automobile replaced the horse and cart, the steamship replaced the sailing ship.  By the same token, however, all innovations are built from pieces of the past—Edison’s system drew its organizing principles from the gas industry, the early automobiles were built by cart makers, and the first steam ships added steam engines to existing sailing ships.

Mauboussin adds:

Investors need to appreciate the innovation process for a couple of reasons.  First, our overall level of material well-being relies heavily on innovation.  Second, innovation lies at the root of creative destruction—the process by which new technologies and businesses supersede others.  More rapid innovation means more rapid success and failure for companies.

Mauboussin draws attention to three interrelated factors that continue to drive innovation at an accelerating rate:

  • Scientific advances
  • Information storage capacity
  • Gains in computing power

 

ACCELERATING RATE OF INDUSTRY CHANGE

(Photo: Drosophila Melanogaster, by Tomatito26)

Mauboussin mentions the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, which geneticists and other scientists like to study because its life cycle is only two weeks.

Why should businesspeople care about Drosophila?  A sound body of evidence now suggests that the average speed of evolution is accelerating in the business world.  Just as scientists have learned a great deal about evolutionary change from fruit flies, investors can benefit from understanding the sources and implications of accelerated business evolution.

The most direct consequence of more rapid business evolution is that the time an average company can sustain a competitive advantage—that is, generate an economic return in excess of its cost of capital—is shorter than it was in the past.  This trend has potentially important implications for investors in areas such as valuation, portfolio turnover, and diversification.

Mauboussin refers to research by Robert Wiggins and Timothy Ruefli on the sustainability of economic returns.  They put forth four hypotheses.  The first three were supported by the data, while the fourth one was not:

  • Periods of persistent superior economic performance are decreasing in duration over time.
  • Hypercompetition is not limited to high-technology industries but will occur through most industries.
  • Over time, firms increasingly seek to sustain competitive advantage by concatenating a series of short-term competitive advantages.
  • Industry concentration, large market share, or both are negatively correlated with chance of loss of persistent superior economic performance in an industry.

Mauboussin points out that faster product and process life cycles means that historical multiples are less useful for comparison.  Also, the terminal valuation in discounted cash-flow models in many cases has to be adjusted to reflect shorter periods of sustainable competitive advantage.

(Image by Marek Uliasz)

Furthermore, while portfolio turnover on average is too high, portfolio turnover could be increased for those investors who have historically had a portfolio turnover of 20 percent (implying a holding period of 5 years).  Similarly, shorter periods of competitive advantage imply that some portfolios should be more diversified.  Lastly, faster business evolution means that investors must spend more time understanding the dynamics of organizational change.

 

HOW TO BALANCE THE LONG TERM WITH THE SHORT TERM

(Photo by Michael Maggs, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mauboussin notes the lessons emphasized by chess master Bruce Pandolfini:

  • Don’t look too far ahead.  Most people believe that great players strategize by thinking far into the future, by thinking 10 or 15 moves ahead.  That’s just not true.  Chess players look only as far into the future as they need to, and that usually means looking just a few moves ahead.  Thinking too far ahead is a waste of time: The information is uncertain.
  • Develop options and continuously revise them based on the changing conditions: Great players consider their next move without playing it.  You should never play the first good move that comes into your head.  Put that move on your list, and then ask yourself if there’s an even better move.  If you see a good idea, look for a better one—that’s my motto.  Good thinking is a matter of making comparisons.
  • Know your competition: Being good at chess also requires being good at reading people.  Few people think of chess as an intimate, personal game.  But that’s what it is.  Players learn a lot about their opponents, and exceptional chess players learn to interpret every gesture that their opponents make.
  • Seek small advantages: You play for seemingly insignificant advantages—advantages that your opponent doesn’t notice or that he dismisses, thinking, “Big deal, you can have that.”  It could be slightly better development, or a slightly safer king’s position.  Slightly, slightly, slightly.  None of those “slightlys” mean anything on their own, but add up seven or eight of them, and you have control.

Mauboussin argues that companies should adopt simple, flexible long-term decision rules.  This is the “strategy as simple rules” approach, which helps us from getting caught in the short term versus long term debate.

Moreover, simple decision rules help us to be consistent.  Otherwise we will often reach different conclusions from the same data based on moods, suggestion, recency bias, availability bias, framing effects, etc.

 

FITNESS LANDSCAPES AND COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

(Image: Fitness Landscape, by Randy Olsen, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mauboussin:

What does a fitness landscape look like?  Envision a large grid, with each point representing a different strategy that a species (or a company) can pursue.  Further imagine that the height of each point depicts fitness.  Peaks represent high fitness, and valleys represent low fitness.  From a company’s perspective, fitness equals value-creation potential.  Each company operates in a landscape full of high-return peaks and value-destructive valleys.  The topology of the landscape depends on the industry characteristics.

As Darwin noted, improving fitness is not about strength or smarts, but rather about becoming more and more suited to your environment—in a word, adaptability.  Better fitness requires generating options and “choosing” the “best” ones.  In nature, recombination and mutation generate species diversity, and natural selection assures that the most suitable options survive.  For companies, adaptability is about formulating and executing value-creating strategies with a goal of generating the highest possible long-term returns.

Since a fitness landscape can have lots of peaks and valleys, even if a species reaches a peak (a local optimum), it may not be at the highest peak (a global optimum).  To get a higher altitude, a species may have to reduce its fitness in the near term to improve its fitness in the long term.  We can say the same about companies…

Mauboussin remarks that there are three types of fitness landscape:

  • Stable.  These are industries where the fitness landscape is reasonably stable.  In many cases, the landscape is relatively flat, and companies generate excess economic returns only when cyclical forces are favorable.  Examples include electric and telephone utilities, commodity producers (energy, paper, metals), capital goods, consumer nondurables, and real estate investment trusts.  Companies within these sectors primarily improve their fitness at the expense of their competitors.  These are businesses that tend to have structural predictability (i.e., you’ll know what they look like in the future) at the expense of limited opportunities for growth and new businesses.
  • Coarse.  The fitness landscape is in flux for these industries, but the changes are not so rapid as to lack predictability.  The landscape here is rougher.  Some companies deliver much better economic performance than do others.  Financial services, retail, health care, and more established parts of technology are illustrations.  These industries run a clear risk of being unseated (losing fitness) by a disruptive technology.
  • Roiling.  This group contains businesses that are very dynamic, with evolving business models, substantial uncertainty, and ever-changing product offerings.  The peaks and valleys are constantly changing, ever spastic.  Included in this type are many software companies, the genomics industry, fashion-related sectors, and most start-ups.  Economic returns in this group can be (or can promise to be) significant but are generally fleeting.

Mauboussin indicates that innovation, deregulation, and globalization are probably causing the global fitness landscape to become even more contorted.

Companies can make short, incremental jumps towards a local maximum.  Or they can make long, discontinuous jumps that may lead to a higher peak or a lower valley.  Long jumps include investing in new potential products or making meaningful acquisitions in unrelated fields.  The proper balance between short jumps and long jumps depends on a company’s fitness landscape.

Mauboussin adds that the financial tool for valuing a given business depends on the fitness landscape that the business is in.  A business in a stable landscape can be valued using discounted cash-flow (DCF).  A business in a course landscape can be valued using DCF plus strategic options.  A business in a roiling landscape can be valued using strategic options.

 

THE FOLLY OF USING AVERAGE P/E’S

Bradford Cornell:

For past averages to be meaningful, the data being averaged have to be drawn from the same population.  If this is not the case—if the data come from populations that are different—the data are said to be nonstationary.  When data are nonstationary, projecting past averages typically produces nonsensical results.

Nonstationarity is a key concept in time-series analysis, such as the study of past data in business and finance.  If the underlying population changes, then the data are nonstationary and you can’t compare past averages to today’s population.

(Image: Time Series, by Mike Toews via Wikimedia Commons)

Mauboussin gives three reasons why past P/E data are nonstationary:

  • Inflation and taxes
  • Changes in the composition of the economy
  • Shifts in the equity-risk premium

Higher taxes mean lower multiples, all else equal.  And higher inflation also means lower multiples.  Similarly, low taxes and low inflation both cause P/E ratios to be higher.

The more companies rely on intangible capital rather than tangible capital, the higher the cash-flow-to-net-income ratio.  Overall, the economy is relying increasingly on intangible capital.  Higher cash-flow-to-net-income ratios, and higher returns on capital, mean higher P/E ratios.

 

MEAN REVERSION AND TURNAROUNDS

Growth alone does not create value.  Growth creates value only if the return on invested capital exceeds the cost of capital.  Growth actually destroys value if the return on invested capital is less than the cost of capital.

(Illustration by Teguh Jati Prasetyo)

Over time, a company’s return on capital moves towards its cost of capital.  High returns bring competition and new capital, which drives the return on capital toward the cost of capital.  Similarly, capital exits low-return industries, which lifts the return on capital toward the cost of capital.

Mauboussin reminds us that a good business is not necessarily a good investment, just as a bad business is not necessarily a bad investment.  What matters is the expectations embedded in the current price.  If expectations are overly low for a bad business, it can represent a good investment.  If expectations are too high for a good business, it may be a poor investment.

On the other hand, some cheap stocks deserve to be cheap and aren’t good investments.  And some expensive-looking stocks trading at high multiples may still be good investments if high growth and high return on capital can persist long enough into the future.

 

CONSIDERING COOPERATION AND COMPETITION THROUGH GAME THEORY

(Illustration: Concept of Prisoner’s Dilemma, by CXJ Jensen via Wikimedia Commons)

Mauboussin quotes Robert Axelrod’s The Complexity of Cooperation:

What the Prisoner’s Dilemma captures so well is the tension between the advantages of selfishness in the short run versus the need to elicit cooperation from the other player to be successful over the longer run.  The very simplicity of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is highly valuable in helping us to discover and appreciate the deep consequences of the fundamental processes involved in dealing with this tension.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows that the rational response for an individual company  is not necessarily optimal for the industry as a whole.

If the Prisoner’s Dilemma game is going to be repeated many times, then the best strategy is tit-for-tat.  Whatever your competitor’s latest move was, copy that for your next move.  So if your competitor deviates one time and then cooperates, you deviate one time and then cooperate.  Tit-for-tat is both the simplest strategy and also the most effective.

When it comes to market pricing and capacity decisions, competitive markets need not be zero sum.  A tit-for-tat strategy is often optimal, and by definition it includes a policing component if your competitor deviates.

 

THE WISDOM AND WHIM OF THE COLLECTIVE

Mauboussin quotes Robert D. Hanson’s Decision Markets:

[Decision markets] pool the information that is known to diverse individuals into a common resource, and have many advantages over standard institutions for information aggregation, such as news media, peer review, trials, and opinion polls.  Speculative markets are decentralized and relatively egalitarian, and can offer direct, concise, timely, and precise estimates in answer to questions we pose.

Mauboussin then writes about bees and ants, ending with this comment:

What makes the behavior of social insects like bees and ants so amazing is that there is no central authority, no one directing traffic.  Yet the aggregation of simple individuals generates complex, adaptive, and robust results.  Colonies forage efficiently, have life cycles, and change behavior as circumstances warrant.  These decentralized individuals collectively solve very hard problems, and they do it in a way that is very counterintuitive to the human predilection to command-and-control solutions.

(Illustration: Swarm Intelligence, by Farbentek)

Mauboussin again:

Why do decision markets work so well?  First, individuals in these markets think they have some edge, so they self-select to participate.  Second, traders have an incentive to be right—they can take money from less insightful traders.  Third, these markets provide continuous, real-time forecasts—a valuable form of feedback.  The result is that decision markets aggregate information across traders, allowing them to solve hard problems more effectively than any individual can.

 

VOX POPULI

(Painting: Sir Francis Galton, by Charles Wellington Furse, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mauboussin tells of an experiment by Francis Galton:

Victorian polymath Francis Galton was one of the first to thoroughly document this group-aggregation ability.  In a 1907 Nature article, “Vox Populi,” Galton describes a contest to guess the weight of an ox at the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition in Plymouth.  He collected 787 participants who each paid a sixpenny fee to participate.  (A small cost to deter practical joking.)  According to Galton, some of the competitors were butchers and farmers, likely expert at guessing the weight.  He surmised that many others, though, were guided by “such information as they might pick up” or “by their own fancies.”

Galton calculated the median estimate—the vox populi—as well as the mean.  He found that the median guess was within 0.8 percent of the correct weight, and that the mean of the guesses was within 0.01 percent.  To give a sense of how the answer emerged, Galton showed the full distribution of answers.  Simply stated, the errors cancel out and the result is distilled information.

Subsequently, we have seen the vox populi results replicated over and over.  Examples include solving a complicated maze, guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar, and finding missing bombs.  In each case, the necessary conditions for information aggregation to work include an aggregation mechanism, an incentive to answer correctly, and group heterogeneity.

 

COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEMS

(Illustration by Acadac, via Wikimedia Commons)

Complex adaptive systems exhibit a number of essential properties and mechanisms, writes Mauboussin:

  • Aggregation.  Aggregation is the emergence of complex, large-scale behavior from the collective interactions of many less-complex agents.
  • Adaptive decision rules.  Agents within a complex adaptive system take information from the environment, combine it with their own interaction with the environment, and derive decision rules.  In turn, various decision rules compete with one another based on their fitness, with the most effective rules surviving.
  • Nonlinearity.  In a linear model, the whole equals the sum of the parts.  In nonlinear systems, the aggregate behavior is more complicated than would be predicted by totaling the parts.
  • Feedback loops.  A feedback system is one in which the output of one iteration becomes the input of the next iteration.  Feedback loops can amplify or dampen an effect.

Governments, many corporations, and capital markets are all examples of complex adaptive systems.

Humans have a strong drive to invent a cause for every effect.  This has been biologically advantageous for the vast majority of human history.  In the past, if we heard a rustling in the grass, we immediately sought safety.  There was always some cause for the noise.  It virtually never made sense to wait around to see if it was a predator or not.

However, in complex adaptive systems like the stock market, typically there is no simple cause and effect relationship that explains what happens.

For many big moves in the stock market, there is no identifiable cause.  But people have such a strong need identify a cause that they make up causes.  The press delivers to people what they want: explanations for big moves in the stock market.  Usually these explanations are simply made up.  They’re false.

 

THE FUTURE OF CONSILIENCE IN INVESTING

(Painting: Galileo Galilei, by Justus Sustermans, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mauboussin, following Charlie Munger, argues that cross-disciplinary research is likely to produce the deepest insights into the workings of companies and markets.  Here are some examples:

  • Decision making and neuroscience.  Prospect theory—invented by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—describes how people suffer from cognitive biases when they make decisions under uncertainty.  Prospect theory is extremely well-supported by countless experiments.  But prospect theory still doesn’t explain why people make the decisions they do.  Neuroscience will help with this.
  • Statistical properties of markets—from description to prediction?  Stock price changes are not normally distributed—along a bell-shaped curve—but rather follow a power law.  The statistical distribution has fat tails, which means there are more extreme moves than would occur under a normal distribution.  Once again, a more accurate description is progress.  But the next step involves a greater ability to explain and predict the phenomena in question.
  • Agent-based models.  Individual differences are important in market outcomes.  Feedback mechanisms are also central.
  • Network theory and information flows.  Network research involves epidemiology, psychology, sociology, diffusion theory, and competitive strategy.  Much progress can be made.
  • Growth and size distribution.  There are very few large firms and many small ones.  And all large firms experience significantly slower growth once they reach a certain size.
  • Flight simulator for the mind?  One of the biggest challenges in investing is that long-term investors don’t get nearly enough feedback.  Statistically meaningful feedback for investors typically takes decades to produce.

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time.  See the historical chart here:  http://boolefund.com/best-performers-microcap-stocks/

This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps.  Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals.  We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.

There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio.  The size of each position is determined by its rank.  Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost).  Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.

The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods.  We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net).  The Boole Fund has low fees.

 

If you are interested in finding out more, please e-mail me or leave a comment.

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

 

Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC.

The Outsiders: Radically Rational CEOs

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

March 6, 2022

William Thorndike is the author of The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).  It’s an excellent book profiling eight CEOs who compounded shareholder value at extraordinary rates over decades.

Through this book, value investors can improve their understanding of how to identify CEOs who maximize long-term returns to shareholders.  Also, investors can become better businesspeople, while businesspeople can become better investors.

I am a better investor because I am a businessman and a better businessman because I am an investor. – Warren Buffett

Thorndike explains that you only need three things to evaluate CEO performance:

  • the compound annual return to shareholders during his or her tenure
  • the return over the same period for peer companies
  • the return over the same period for the broader market (usually measured by the S&P 500)

Thorndike notes that 20 percent returns is one thing during a huge bull market—like 1982 to 1999.  It’s quite another thing if it occurs during a period when the overall market is flat—like 1966 to 1982—and when there are several bear markets.

Moreover, many industries will go out of favor periodically.  That’s why it’s important to compare the company’s performance to peers.

Thorndike mentions Henry Singleton as the quintessential outsider CEO.  Long before it was popular to repurchase stock, Singleton repurchased over 90% of Teledyne’s stock.  Also, he emphasized cash flow over earnings.  He never split the stock.  He didn’t give quarterly guidance.  He almost never spoke with analysts or journalists.  And he ran a radically decentralized organization.  Thorndike:

If you had invested a dollar with Singleton in 1963, by 1990, when he retired as chairman in the teeth of a severe bear market, it would have been worth $180.  That same dollar invested in a broad group of conglomerates would have been worth only $27, and $15 if invested in the S&P 500.  Remarkably, Singleton outperformed the index by over twelve times.

Thorndike observes that rational capital allocation was the key to Singleton’s success.  Thorndike writes:

Basically, CEOs have five essential choices for deploying capital—investing in existing operations, acquiring other businesses, issuing dividends, paying down debt, or repurchasing stock—and three alternatives for raising it—tapping internal cash flow, issuing debt, or raising equity.  Think of these options collectively as a tool kit.  Over the long term, returns for shareholders will be determined largely by the decisions a CEO makes in choosing which tools to use (and which to avoid) among these various options.  Stated simply, two companies with identical operating results and different approaches to allocating capital will derive two very different long-term outcomes for shareholders.

Warren Buffett has noted that most CEOs reach the top due to their skill in marketing, production, engineering, administration, or even institutional politics.  Thus most CEOs have not been prepared to allocate capital.

Thorndike also points out that the outsider CEOs were iconoclastic, independent thinkers.  But the outsider CEOs, while differing noticeably from industry norms, ended up being similar to one another.  Thorndike says that the outsider CEOs understood the following principles:

  • Capital allocation is a CEO’s most important job.
  • What counts in the long run is the increase in per share value, not overall growth or size.
  • Cash flow, not reported earnings, is what determines long-term value.
  • Decentralized organizations release entrepreneurial energy and keep both costs and ‘rancor’ down.
  • Independent thinking is essential to long-term success, and interactions with outside advisers (Wall Street, the press, etc.) can be distracting and time-consuming.
  • Sometimes the best investment opportunity is your own stock.
  • With acquisitions, patience is vital… as is occasional boldness.

(Illustration by yiorgosgr)

Here are the sections in the blog post:

  • Introduction
  • Tom Murphy and Capital Cities Broadcasting
  • Henry Singleton and Teledyne
  • Bill Anders and General Dynamics
  • John Malone and TCI
  • Katharine Graham and The Washington Post Company
  • Bill Stiritz and Ralston Purina
  • Dick Smith and General Cinema
  • Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway
  • Radical Rationality

 

INTRODUCTION

Only two of the eight outsider CEOs had MBAs.  And, writes Thorndike, they did not attract or seek the spotlight:

As a group, they shared old-fashioned, premodern values including frugality, humility, independence, and an unusual combination of conservatism and boldness.  They typically worked out of bare-bones offices (of which they were inordinately proud), generally eschewed perks such as corporate plans, avoided the spotlight wherever possible, and rarely communicated with Wall Street or the business press.  They also actively avoided bankers and other advisers, preferring their own counsel and that of a select group around them.  Ben Franklin would have liked these guys.

Thorndike describes how the outsider CEOs were iconoclasts:

Like Singleton, these CEOs consistently made very different decisions than their peers did.  They were not, however, blindly contrarian.  Theirs was an intelligent iconoclasm informed by careful analysis and often expressed in unusual financial metrics that were distinctly different from industry or Wall Street conventions.

Thorndike compares the outsider CEOs to Billy Beane as described by Michael Lewis in Moneyball.  Beane’s team, despite having the second-lowest payroll in the league, made the playoffs in four of his first six years on the job.  Beane had discovered newand unorthodoxmetrics that were more correlated with team winning percentage.

Thorndike mentions a famous essay about Leo Tolstoy written by Isaiah Berlin.  Berlin distinguishes between a “fox” who knows many things and a “hedgehog” who knows one thing extremely well.  Thorndike continues:

Foxes… also have many attractive qualities, including an ability to make connections across fields and to innovate, and the CEOs in this book were definite foxes.  They had familiarity with other companies and industries and disciplines, and this ranginess translated into new perspectives, which in turn helped them to develop new approaches that eventually translated into exceptional results.

(Photo by mbridger68)

 

TOM MURPHY AND CAPITAL CITIES BROADCASTING

When Murphy became CEO of Capital Cities in 1966, CBS’ market capitalization was sixteen times than that of Capital Cities.  Thirty years later, Capital Cities was three times as valuable as CBS.  Warren Buffett has said that in 1966, it was like a rowboat (Capital Cities) against QE2 (CBS) in a trans-Atlantic race.  And the rowboat won decisively!

Bill Paley, who ran CBS, used the enormous cash flow from its network and broadcast operations and undertook an aggressive acquisition program of companies in entirely unrelated fields.  Paley simply tried to make CBS larger without paying attention to the return on invested capital (ROIC).

Without a sufficiently high ROIC, growth destroys shareholder value instead of creating it.  But, like Paley, many business leaders at the time sought growth for its own sake.  Even if growth destroys value (due to low ROIC), it does make the business larger, bringing greater benefits to the executives.

Murphy’s goal, on the other hand, was to make his company as valuable as possible.  This meant maximizing profitability and ROIC:

…Murphy’s goal was to make his company more valuable… Under Murphy and his lieutenant, Dan Burke, Capital Cities rejected diversification and instead created an unusually streamlined conglomerate that focused laser-like on the media businesses it knew well.  Murphy acquired more radio and TV stations, operated them superbly well, regularly repurchased his shares, and eventually acquired CBS’s rival broadcast network ABC.

(Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. logo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Burke excelled in operations, while Murphy excelled in making acquisitions.  Together, they were a great team—unmatched, according to Warren Buffett.  Burke said his ‘job was to create free cash flow and Murphy’s was to spend it.’

During the mid-1970s, there was an extended bear market.  Murphy aggressively repurchased shares, mostly at single-digit price-to-earnings (P/E) multiples.

Thorndike writes that in January 1986, Murphy bought the ABC Network and its related broadcasting assets for $3.5 billion with financing from his friend Warren Buffett.  Thorndike comments:

Burke and Murphy wasted little time in implementing Capital Cities’ lean, decentralized approach—immediately cutting unnecessary perks, such as the executive elevator and the private dining room, and moving quickly to eliminate redundant positions, laying off fifteen hundred employees in the first several months after the transaction closed.  They also consolidated offices and sold off unnecessary real estate, collecting $175 million for the headquarters building in midtown Manhattan…

In the nine years after the transaction, revenues and cash flows grew significantly in every major ABC business line, including the TV stations, the publishing assets, and ESPN.  Even the network, which had been in last place at the time of the acquisition, was ranked number one in prime time ratings and was more profitable than either CBS or NBC.

In 1993, Burke retired.  And in 1995, Murphy, at Buffett’s suggestion, met with Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney.  Over a few days, Murphy sold Capital Cities/ABC to Disney for $19 billion, which was 13.5 times cash flow and 28 times net income.  Thorndike:

He left behind an ecstatic group of shareholders—if you had invested a dollar with Tom Murphy as he became CEO in 1966, that dollar would have been worth $204 by the time he sold the company to Disney.  That’s a remarkable 19.9 percent internal rate of return over twenty-nine years, significantly outpacing the 10.1 percent return for the S&P 500 and 13.2 percent return for an index of leading media companies over the same period.

Thorndike points out that decentralization was one of the keys to success for Capital Cities.  There was a single paragraph on the inside cover of every Capital Cities annual report:

‘Decentralization is the cornerstone of our philosophy.  Our goal is to hire the best people we can and give them the responsibility and authority they need to perform their jobs.  All decisions are made at the local level… We expect our managers… to be forever cost conscious and to recognize and exploit sales potential.’

Headquarters had almost no staff.  There were no vice presidents in marketing, strategic planning, or human resources.  There was no corporate counsel and no public relations department.  The environment was ideal for entrepreneurial managers.  Costs were minimized at every level.

Burke developed an extremely detailed annual budgeting process for every operation.  Managers had to present operating and capital budgets for the coming year, and Burke (and his CFO, Ron Doerfler) went through the budgets line-by-line:

The budget sessions were not perfunctory and almost always produced material changes.  Particular attention was paid to capital expenditures and expenses.  Managers were expected to outperform their peers, and great attention was paid to margins, which Burke viewed as ‘a form of report card.’  Outside of these meetings, managers were left alone and sometimes went months without hearing from corporate.

High margins resulted not only from cost minimization, but also from Murphy and Burke’s focus on revenue growth and advertising market share.  They invested in their properties to ensure leadership in local markets.

When it came to acquisitions, Murphy was very patient and disciplined.  His benchmark ‘was a double-digit after-tax return over ten years without leverage.’  Murphy never won an auction as a result of his discipline.  Murphy also had a unique negotiating style.

Murphy thought that, in the best transactions, everyone comes away happy.  He believed in ‘leaving something on the table’ for the seller.  Murphy would often ask the seller what they thought the property was worth.  If Murphy thought the offer was fair, he would take it.  If he thought the offer was high, he would counter with his best price.  If the seller rejected his counter-offer, Murphy would walk away.  He thought this approach saved time and avoided unnecessary friction.

Thorndike concludes his discussion of Capital Cities:

Although the focus here is on quantifiable business performance, it is worth noting that Murphy built a universally admired company at Capital Cities with an exceptionally strong culture and esprit de corps (at least two different groups of executives still hold regular reunions).

 

HENRY SINGLETON AND TELEDYNE

Singleton earned bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees in electrical engineering from MIT.  He programmed the first student computer at MIT.  He won the Putnam Medal as the top mathematics student in the country in 1939.  And he was 100 points away from being a chess grandmaster.

Singleton worked as a research engineer at North American Aviation and Hughes Aircraft in 1950.  Tex Thornton recruited him to Litton Industries in the late 1950s, where Singleton invented an inertial guidance system—still in use—for commercial and military aircraft.  By the end of the decade, Singleton had grown Litton’s Electronic Systems Group to be the company’s largest division with over $80 million in revenue.

Once he realized he wouldn’t succeed Thornton as CEO, Singleton left Litton and founded Teledyne with his colleague George Kozmetzky.  After acquiring three small electronics companies, Teledyne successfully bid for a large naval contract.  Teledyne became a public company in 1961.

(Photo of Teledyne logo by Piotr Trojanowski)

In the 1960’s, conglomerates had high price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios and were able to use their stock to buy operating companies at relatively low multiples.  Singleton took full advantage of this arbitrage opportunity.  From 1961 to 1969, he purchased 130 companies in industries from aviation electronics to specialty metals and insurance.  Thorndike elaborates:

Singleton’s approach to acquisitions, however, differed from that of other conglomerateurs.  He did not buy indiscriminately, avoiding turnaround situations, and focusing instead on profitable, growing companies with leading market positions, often in niche markets… Singleton was a very disciplined buyer, never paying more than twelve times earnings and purchasing most companies at significantly lower multiples.  This compares to the high P/E multiple on Teledyne’s stock, which ranged from a low of 20 to a high of 50 over this period.

In mid-1969, Teledyne was trading at a lower multiple, while acquisition prices were increasing.  So Singleton completely stopped acquiring companies.

Singleton ran a highly decentralized company.  Singleton also did not report earnings, but instead focused on free cash flow (FCF)—what Buffett calls owner earnings.  The value of any business is all future FCF discounted back to the present.

FCF = net income + DDA – capex

(There are also adjustments to FCF based on changes in working capital.  DDA is depreciation, depletion, and amortization.)

At Teledyne, bonus compensation for all business unit managers was based on the maximization of free cash flow.  Singleton—along with his roommate from the Naval Academy, George Roberts—worked to improve margins and significantly reduce working capital.  Return on assets at Teledyne was greater than 20 percent in the 1970s and 1980s.  Charlie Munger calls these results from Teledyne ‘miles higher than anybody else… utterly ridiculous.’  This high profitability generated a great deal of excess cash, which was sent to Singleton to allocate.

Starting in 1972, Singleton started buying back Teledyne stock because it was cheap.  During the next twelve years, Singleton repurchased over 90 percent of Teledyne’s stock.  Keep in mind that in the early 1970s, stock buybacks were seen as a lack of investment opportunity.  But Singleton realized buybacks were far more tax-efficient than dividends.  And buybacks done when the stock is noticeably cheap create much value.  Whenever the returns from a buyback seemed higher than any alternative use of cash, Singleton repurchased shares.  Singleton spent $2.5 billion on buybacks—an unbelievable amount at the time—at an average P/E multiple of 8.  (When Teledyne issued shares, the average P/E multiple was 25.)

In the insurance portfolios, Singleton invested 77 percent in equities, concentrated on just a few stocks.  His investments were in companies he knew well that had P/E ratios at or near record lows.

In 1986, Singleton started going in the opposite direction:  deconglomerating instead of conglomerating.  He was a pioneer of spinning off various divisions.  And in 1987, Singleton announced the first dividend.

From 1963 to 1990, when Singleton stepped down as chairman, Teledyne produced 20.4 percent compound annual returns versus 8.0 percent for the S&P 500 and 11.6 percent for other major conglomerates.  A dollar invested with Singleton in 1963 would have been worth $180.94 by 1990, nearly ninefold outperformance versus his peers and more than twelvefold outperformance versus the S&P 500.

 

BILL ANDERS AND GENERAL DYNAMICS

In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and the U.S. defense industry’s business model had to be significantly downsized.  The policy of Soviet containment had become obsolete almost overnight.

General Dynamics had a long history selling major weapons to the Pentagon, including the B-29 bomber, the F-16 fighter plane, submarines, and land vehicles (such as tanks).  The company had diversified into missiles and space systems, as well as nondefense business including Cessna commercial planes.

(General Dynamics logo, via Wikimedia Commons)

When Bill Anders took over General Dynamics in January 1991, the company had $600 million in debt and negative cash flow.  Revenues were $10 billion, but the market capitalization was just $1 billion.  Many thought the company was headed into bankruptcy.  It was a turnaround situation.

Anders graduated from the Naval Academy in 1955 with an electrical engineering degree.  He was an airforce fighter pilot during the Cold War.  In 1963 he earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and was chosen to join NASA’s elite astronaut corps.  Thorndike writes:

As the lunar module pilot on the 1968 Apollo 8 mission, Anders took the now-iconic Earthrise photograph, which eventually appeared on the covers of Time, Life, and American Photography.

Anders was a major general when he left NASA.  He was made the first chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Then he served as ambassador to Norway.  After that, he worked at General Electric and was trained in their management approach.  In 1984, Anders was hired to run the commercial operations of Textron Corporation.  He was not impressed with the mediocre businesses and the bureaucratic culture.  In 1989, he was invited to join General Dynamics as vice-chairman for a year before becoming CEO.

Anders realized that the defense industry had a great deal of excess capacity after the end of the Cold War.  Following Welch’s approach, Anders concluded that General Dynamics should only be in businesses where it was number one or two.  General Dynamics would stick to businesses it knew well.  And it would exit businesses that didn’t meet these criteria.

Anders also wanted to change the culture.  Instead of an engineering focus on ‘larger, faster, more lethal’ weapons, Anders wanted a focus on metrics such as return on equity (ROE).  Anders concluded that maximizing shareholder returns should be the primary business goal.  To help streamline operations, Anders hired Jim Mellor as president and COO.  In the first half of 1991, Anders and Mellor replaced twenty-one of the top twenty-five executives.

Anders then proceeded to generate $5 billion in cash through the sales of noncore businesses and by a significant improvement in operations.  Anders and Mellor created a culture focused on maximizing shareholder returns.  Anders sold most of General Dynamics’ businesses.  He also sought to grow the company’s largest business units through acquisition.

When Anders went to acquire Lockheed’s smaller fighter plane division, he met with a surprise:  Lockheed’s CEO made a high counteroffer for General Dynamics’ F-16 business.  Because the fighter plane division was a core business for General Dynamics—not to mention that Anders was a fighter pilot and still loved to fly—this was a crucial moment for Anders.  He agreed to sell the business on the spot for a very high price of $1.5 billion.  Anders’ decision was rational in the context of maximizing shareholder returns.

With the cash pile growing, Anders next decided not to make additional acquisitions, but to return cash to shareholders.  First he declared three special dividends—which, because they were deemed ‘return of capital,’ were not subject to capital gains or ordinary income taxes.  Next, Anders announced an enormous $1 billion tender offer for 30 percent of the company’s stock.

A dollar invested when Anders took the helm would have been worth $30 seventeen years later.  That same dollar would have been worth $17 if invested in an index of peer companies and $6 if invested in the S&P.

 

JOHN MALONE AND TCI

While at McKinsey, John Malone came to realize how attractive the cable television business was.  Revenues were very predictable.  Taxes were low.  And the industry was growing very fast.  Malone decided to build a career in cable.

Malone’s father was a research engineer and his mother a former teacher.  Malone graduated from Yale with degrees in economics and electrical engineering.  Then Malone earned master’s and PhD degrees in operations research from Johns Hopkins.

Malone’s first job was at Bell Labs, the research arm of AT&T.  After a couple of years, he moved to McKinsey Consulting.  In 1970, a client, General Instrument, offered Malone the chance to run its cable television equipment division.  He jumped at the opportunity.

After a couple of years, Malone was sought by two of the largest cable companies, Warner Communications and Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI).  Malone chose TCI.  Although the salary would be 60 percent lower, he would get more equity at TCI.  Also, he and his wife preferred Denver to Manhattan.

(TCI logo, via Wikimedia Commons)

The industry had excellent tax characteristics:

Prudent cable operators could successfully shelter their cash flow from taxes by using debt to build new systems and by aggressively depreciating the costs of construction.  These substantial depreciation charges reduced taxable income as did the interest expense on the debt, with the result that well-run cable companies rarely showed net income, and as a result, rarely paid taxes, despite very healthy cash flows.  If an operator then used debt to buy or build additional systems and depreciated the newly acquired assets, he could continue to shelter his cash flow indefinitely.

Just after Malone took over as CEO of TCI in 1973, the 1973-1974 bear market left TCI in a dangerous position.  The company was on the edge of bankruptcy due to its very high debt levels.  Malone spent the next few years meeting with bankers and lenders to keep the company out of bankruptcy.  Also during this time, Malone instituted new discipline in operations, which resulted in a frugal, entrepreneurial culture.  Headquarters was austere.  Executives stayed together in motels while on the road.

Malone depended on COO J. C. Sparkman to oversee operations, while Malone focused on capital allocation.  TCI ended up having the highest margins in the industry as a result.  They earned a reputation for underpromising and overdelivering.

In 1977, the balance sheet was in much better shape.  Malone had learned that the key to creating value in cable television was financial leverage and leverage with suppliers (especially programmers).  Both types of leverage improved as the company became larger.  Malone had unwavering commitment to increasing the company’s size.

The largest cost in a cable television system is fees paid to programmers (HBO, MTV, ESPN, etc.).  Larger cable operators can negotiate lower programming costs per subscriber.  The more subscribers the cable company has, the lower its programming cost per subscriber.  This led to a virtuous cycle:

[If] you buy more systems, you lower your programming costs and increase your cash flow, which allows more financial leverage, which can then be used to buy more systems, which further improves your programming costs, and so on… no one else at the time pursued scale remotely as aggressively as Malone and TCI.

Malone also focused on minimizing reported earnings (and thus taxes).  At the time, this was highly unconventional since most companies focused on earnings per share.  TCI gained an important competitive advantage by minimizing earnings and taxes.  Terms like EBITDA were introduced by Malone.

Between 1973 and 1989, the company made 482 acquisitions.  The key was to maximize the number of subscribers.  (When TCI’s stock dropped, Malone repurchased shares.)

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, after the introduction of satellite-delivered channels such as HBO and MTV, cable television went from primarily rural customers to a new focus on urban markets.  The bidding for urban franchises quickly overheated.  Malone avoided the expensive urban franchise wars, and stayed focused on acquiring less expensive rural and suburban subscribers.  Thorndike:

When many of the early urban franchises collapsed under a combination of too much debt and uneconomic terms, Malone stepped forward and acquired control at a fraction of the original cost.

Malone also established various joint ventures, which led to a number of cable companies in which TCI held a minority stake.  Over time, Malone created a great deal of value for TCI by investing in young, talented entrepreneurs.

From 1973 to 1998, TCI shareholders enjoyed a compound annual return of 30.3 percent, compared to 20.4 percent for other publicly traded cable companies and 14.3 percent for the S&P 500.  A dollar invested in TCI at the beginning was worth over $900 by mid-1998.  The same dollar was worth $180 if invested in other publicly traded cable companies and $22 if invested in the S&P 500.

Malone never used spreadsheets.  He looked for no-brainers that could be understood with simple math.  Malone also delayed capital expenditures, generally until the economic viability of the investment had been proved.  When it came to acquisitions—of which there were many—Malone would only pay five times cash flow.

 

KATHARINE GRAHAM AND THE WASHINGTON POST COMPANY

Katharine Graham was the daughter of financier Eugene Meyer.  In 1940, she married Philip Graham, a brilliant lawyer.  Meyer hired Philip Graham to run The Washington Post Company in 1946.  He did an excellent job until his tragic suicide in 1963.

(The Washington Post logo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Katharine was unexpectedly thrust into the CEO role.  At age forty-six, she had virtually no preparation for this role and she was naturally shy.  But she ended up doing an amazing job.  From 1971 to 1993, the compound annual return to shareholders was 22.3 percent versus 12.4 percent for peers and 7.4 percent for the S&P 500.  A dollar invested in the IPO was worth $89 by the time she retired, versus $5 for the S&P and $14 for her peer group.  These are remarkable margins of outperformance.

After a few years of settling into the new role, she began to take charge.  In 1967, she replaced longtime editor in chief Russ Wiggins with the brash Ben Bradlee, who was forty-four years old.

In 1971, she took the company public to raise capital for acquisitions.  This was what the board had recommended.  At the same time, the newspaper encountered the Pentagon Papers crisis.  The company was going to publish a highly controversial (and negative) internal Pentagon opinion of the war in Vietnam that a court had barred the New York Times from publishing.  The Nixon administration threatened to challenge the company’s broadcast licenses if it published the report:

Such a challenge would have scuttled the stock offering and threatened one of the company’s primary profit centers.  Graham, faced with unclear legal advice, had to make the decision entirely on her own.  She decided to go ahead and print the story, and the Post’s editorial reputation was made.  The Nixon administration did not challenge the TV licenses, and the offering, which raised $16 million, was a success.

In 1972, with Graham’s full support, the paper began in-depth investigations into the Republican campaign lapses that would eventually become the Watergate scandal.  Bradlee and two young investigative reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, led the coverage of Watergate, which culminated with Nixon’s resignation in the summer of 1974.  This led to a Pulitzer for the Post—one of an astonishing eighteen during Bradlee’s editorship—and established the paper as the only peer of the New York Times.  All during the investigation, the Nixon administration threatened Graham and the Post.  Graham firmly ignored them.

In 1974, an unknown investor eventually bought 13 percent of the paper’s shares.  The board advised Graham not to meet with him.  Graham ignored the advice and met the investor, whose name was Warren Buffett.  Buffett quickly became Graham’s business mentor.

In 1975, the paper faced a huge strike led by the pressmen’s union.  Graham, after consulting Buffett and the board, decided to fight the strike.  Graham, Bradlee, and a very small crew managed to get the paper published for 139 consecutive days.  Then the pressmen finally agreed to concessions.  These concessions led to significantly improved profitability for the paper.  It was also the first time a major city paper had broken a strike.

Also on advice from Buffett, Graham began aggressively buying back stock.  Over the next few years, she repurchased nearly 40 percent of the company’s stock at very low prices (relative to intrinsic value).  No other major papers did so.

In 1981, the Post’s rival, the Washington Star, ceased publication.  This allowed the Post to significantly increase circulation.  At the same time, Graham hired Dick Simmons as COO.  Simmons successfully lowered costs and improved profits.  Simmons also emphasized bonus compensation based on performance relative to peer newspapers.

In the early 1980s, the Post spent years not acquiring any companies, even though other major newspapers were making more deals than ever.  Graham was criticized, but stuck to her financial discipline.  In 1983, however, after extensive research, the Post bought cellular telephone businesses in six major markets.  In 1984, the Post acquired the Stanley Kaplan test prep business.  And in 1986, the paper bought Capital Cities’ cable television assets for $350 million.  All of these acquisitions would prove valuable for the Post in the future.

In 1988, Graham sold the paper’s telephone assets for $197 million, a very high return on investment.  Thorndike continues:

During the recession of the early 1990s, when her overleveraged peers were forced to the sidelines, the company became uncharacteristically acquisitive, taking advantage of dramatically lower prices to opportunistically purchase cable television systems, underperforming TV stations, and a few education businesses.

When Kay Graham stepped down as chairman in 1993, the Post Company was by far the most diversified among its major newspaper peers, earning almost half its revenues and profits from non-print sources.  This diversification would position the company for further outperformance under her son Donald’s leadership.

 

BILL STIRITZ AND RALSTON PURINA

Bill Stiritz was at Ralston seventeen years before becoming CEO at age forty-seven.

This seemingly conventional background, however, masked a fiercely independent cast of mind that made him a highly effective, if unlikely, change agent.  When Stiritz assumed the CEO role, it would have been impossible to predict the radical transformation he would effect at Ralston and the broader influence it would have on his peers in the food and packaged goods industries.

(Purina logo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Stiritz attended the University of Arkansas for a year but then joined the navy for four years.  While in the navy, he developed his poker skills enough so that poker eventually would pay for his college tuition.  Stiritz completed his undergraduate degree at Northwestern, majoring in business.  (In his mid-thirties, he got a master’s degree in European history from Saint Louis University.)

Stiritz first worked at the Pillsbury Company as a field rep putting cereal on store shelves.  He was promoted to product manager and he learned about consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketing.  Wanting to understand advertising and media better, he started working two years later at the Gardner Advertising agency in St. Louis.  He focused on quantitative approaches to marketing such as the new Nielsen ratings service, which gave a detailed view of market share as a function of promotional spending.

In 1964, Stiritz joined Ralston Purina in the grocery products division (pet food and cereals).  He became general manager of the division in 1971.  While Stiritz was there, operating profits increased fiftyfold due to new product introductions and line extensions.  Thorndike:

Stiritz personally oversaw the introduction of Purina Puppy and Cat Chow, two of the most successful launches in the history of the pet food industry.  For a marketer, Stiritz was highly analytical, with a natural facility for numbers and a skeptical, almost prickly temperament.

Thorndike continues:

On assuming the CEO role in 1981, Stiritz wasted little time in aggressively restructuring the company.  He fully appreciated the exceptionally attractive economics of the company’s portfolio of consumer brands and promptly reorganized the company around these businesses, which he believed offered an attractive combination of high margins and low capital requirements.  He immediately began to remove the underpinnings of his predecessor’s strategy, and his first moves involved actively divesting businesses that did not meet his criteria for profitability and returns.

After a number of divestitures, Ralston was a pure branded products company.  In the early 1980s, Stiritz began repurchasing stock aggressively.  No other major branded products company was repurchasing stock at that time.

Stiritz then bought Continental Baking, the maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread.  He expanded distribution, cut costs, introduced new products, and increased cash flow materially, creating much value for shareholders.

Then in 1986, Stiritz bought the Energizer Battery division from Union Carbide for $1.5 billion.  The business had been a neglected operation at Union Carbide.  Stiritz thought it was undermanaged and also part of a growing duopoly market.

By the late 1980s, almost 90 percent of Ralston’s revenues were from consumer packaged goods.  Pretax profit margins increased from 9 to 15 percent.  ROE went from 15 to 37 percent.  Since the share base was reduced by aggressive buybacks, earnings and cash flow per share increased dramatically.  Stiritz continued making very careful acquisitions and divestitures, with each decision based on an in-depth analysis of potential returns for shareholders.

Stiritz also began spinning off some businesses he thought were not receiving the attention they deserved—either internally or from Wall Street.  Spin-offs not only can highlight the value of certain business units.  Spin-offs also allow the deferral of capital gains taxes.

Finally, Stiritz sold Ralston itself to Nestle for $10.4 billion, or fourteen times cash flow.  This successfully concluded Stiritz’ career at Ralston.  A dollar invested with Stiritz when he became CEO was worth $57 nineteen years later.  The compound return was 20.0 percent versus 17.7 percent for peers and 14.7 percent for the S&P 500.

Stiritz didn’t like the false precision of detailed financial models.  Instead, he focused only on the few key variables that mattered, including growth and competitive dynamics.  When Ralston bought Energizer, Stiritz and his protégé Pat Mulcahy, along with a small group, took a look at Energizer’s books and then wrote down a simple, back of the envelope LBO model.  That was it.

Since selling Ralston, Stiritz has energetically managed an investment partnership made up primarily of his own capital.

 

DICK SMITH AND GENERAL CINEMA

In 1922, Phillip Smith borrowed money from friends and family, and opened a theater in Boston’s North End.  Over the next forty years, Smith built a successful chain of theaters.  In 1961, Phillip Smith took the company public to raise capital.  But in 1962, Smith passed away.  His son, Dick Smith, took over as CEO.  He was thirty-seven years old.

(General Cinema logo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dick Smith demonstrated a high degree of patience in using the company’s cash flow to diversify away from the maturing drive-in movie business.

Smith would alternate long periods of inactivity with the occasional very large transaction.  During his tenure, he would make three significant acquisitions (one in the late 1960s, one in the mid-1980s, and one in the early 1990s) in unrelated businesses:  soft drink bottling (American Beverage Company), retailing (Carter Hawley Hale), and publishing (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich).  This series of transactions transformed the regional drive-in company into an enormously successful consumer conglomerate.

Dick Smith later sold businesses that he had earlier acquired.  His timing was extraordinarily good, with one sale in the late 1980s, one in 2003, and one in 2006.  Thorndike writes:

This accordion-like pattern of expansion and contraction, of diversification and divestiture, was highly unusual (although similar in some ways to Henry Singleton’s at Teledyne) and paid enormous benefits for General Cinema’s shareholders.

Smith graduated from Harvard with an engineering degree in 1946.  He worked as a naval engineer during World War II.  After the war, he didn’t want an MBA.  He wanted to join the family business.  In 1956, Dick Smith’s father made him a full partner.

Dick Smith recognized before most others that suburban theaters were benefitting from strong demographic trends.  This led him to develop two new practices.

First, it had been assumed that theater owners should own the underlying land.  But Smith realized that a theater in the right location could fairly quickly generate predictable cash flow.  So he pioneered lease financing for new theaters, which significantly reduced the upfront investment.

Second, he added more screens to each theater, thereby attracting more people, who in turn bought more high-margin concessions.

Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, General Cinema was getting very high returns on its investment in new theaters.  But Smith realized that such growth was not likely to continue indefinitely.  He started searching for new businesses with better long-term prospects.

In 1968, Smith acquired the American Beverage Company (ABC), the largest, independent Pepsi bottler in the country.  Smith knew about the beverage business based on his experience with theater concessions.  Smith paid five times cash flow and it was a very large acquisition for General Cinema at the time.  Thorndike notes:

Smith had grown up in the bricks-and-mortar world of movie theaters, and ABC was his first exposure to the value of businesses with intangible assets, like beverage brands.  Smith grew to love the beverage business, which was an oligopoly with very high returns on capital and attractive long-term growth trends.  He particularly liked the dynamics within the Pepsi bottler universe, which was fragmented and had many second- and third-generation owners who were potential sellers (unlike the Coke system, which was dominated by a smaller number of large independents).  Because Pepsi was the number two brand, its franchises often traded at lower valuations than Coke’s.

ABC was a platform companyother companies could be added easily and efficiently.  Smith could buy new franchises at seemingly high multiples of the seller’s cash flow and then quickly reduce the effective price through reducing expenses, minimizing taxes, and improving marketing.  So Smith acquired other franchises.

Due to constant efforts to reduce costs by Smith and his team, ABC had industry-leading margins.  Soon thereafter, ABC invested $20 million to launch Sunkist.  In 1984, Smith sold Sunkist to Canada Dry for $87 million.

Smith sought another large business to purchase.  He made a number of smaller acquisitions in the broadcast media business.  But his price discipline prevented him from buying very much.

Eventually General Cinema bought Carter Hawley Hale (CHH), a retail conglomerate with several department store and specialty retail chains.  Woody Ives, General Cinema’s CFO, was able to negotiate attractive terms:

Ives negotiated a preferred security that guaranteed General Cinema a 10 percent return, allowed it to convert its interest into 40 percent of the common stock if the business performed well, and included a fixed-price option to buy Waldenbooks, a wholly owned subsidiary of CHH…

Eventually General Cinema would exchange its 40 percent ownership in CHH shares for a controlling 60 percent stake in the company’s specialty retail division, whose primary asset was the Neiman Marcus chain.  The long-term returns on the company’s CHH investment were an extraordinary 51.2 percent.  The CHH transaction moved General Cinema decisively into retailing, a new business whose attractive growth prospects were not correlated with either the beverage or the theater businesses.

In the late 1980s, Smith noticed that a newly energetic Coke was attacking Pepsi in local markets.  At the same time, beverage franchises were selling for much higher prices as their good economics were more widely recognized.  So Smith sold the bottling business in 1989 to Pepsi for a record price.  After the sale, General Cinema was sitting on $1 billion in cash.  Smith started looking for another diversifying acquisition.

It didn’t take him long to find one.  In 1991, after a tortuous eighteen-month process, Smith made his largest and last acquisition, buying publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ) in a complex auction process and assembling General Cinema’s final third leg.  HBJ was a leading educational and scientific publisher that also owned a testing business and an outplacement firm.  Since the mid-1960s, the firm had been run as a personal fiefdom by CEO William Jovanovich.  In 1986, the company received a hostile takeover bid from the renegade British publisher Robert Maxwell, and in response Jovanovich had taken on large amounts of debt, sold off HBJ’s amusement park business, and made a large distribution to shareholders.

General Cinema management concluded, after examining the business, that HBJ would fit their acquisition criteria.  Moreover, General Cinema managers thought HBJ’s complex balance sheet would probably deter other buyers.  Thorndike writes:

After extensive negotiations with the company’s many debt holders, Smith agreed to purchase the company for $1.56 billion, which represented 62 percent of General Cinema’s enterprise value at the time—an enormous bet.  This price equaled a multiple of six times cash flow for HBJ’s core publishing assets, an attractive price relative to comparable transactions (Smith would eventually sell those businesses for eleven times cash flow).

Thorndike continues:

Following the HBJ acquisition in 1991, General Cinema spun off its mature theater business into a separate publicly traded entity, GC Companies (GCC), allowing management to focus its attention on the larger retail and publishing businesses.  Smith and his management team proceeded to operate both the retail and the publishing businesses over the next decade.  In 2003, Smith sold the HBJ publishing assets to Reed Elsevier, and in 2006 he sold Neiman Marcus, the last vestige of the General Cinema portfolio, to a consortium of private equity buyers.  Both transactions set valuation records within their industries, capping an extraordinary run for Smith and General Cinema shareholders.

From 1962 to 1991, Smith had generated 16.1 percent compound annual return versus 9 percent for the S&P 500 and 9.8 percent for GE.  A dollar invested with Dick Smith in 1962 would be worth $684 by 1991.  The same dollar would $43 if invested in the S&P and $60 if invested in GE.

 

WARREN BUFFETT AND BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY

Buffett was first attracted to the old textile mill Berkshire Hathaway because its price was cheap compared to book value.  Thorndike tells the story:

At the time, the company had only a weak market position in a brutally competitive commodity business (suit linings) and a mere $18 million in market capitalization.  From this undistinguished start, unprecedented returns followed;  and measured by long-term stock performance, the formerly crew-cut Nebraskan is simply on another planet from all other CEOs.  These otherworldly returns had their origin in that aging New England textile company, which today has a market capitalization of $140 billion and virtually the same number of shares.  Buffett bought his first share of Berkshire for $7;  today it trades for over $120,000 share.  [Value of Berkshire share as of 10/21/18:  $517.2 billion market capitalization, or $314,477 a share]

(Company logo, by Berkshire Hathaway Inc., via Wikimedia Commons)

Buffett was born in 1930 in Omaha, Nebraska.  His grandfather ran a well-known local grocery store.  His father was a stockbroker in downtown Omaha and later a congressman.  Starting at age six, Buffett started various entrepreneurial ventures.  He would buy a 6-pack of Coke for 25 cents and resell each one for 5 cents.  He later had several paper routes and then pinball machines, too.  Buffett attended Wharton, but didn’t feel he could learn much.  So he returned to Omaha and graduated from the University of Nebraska at age 20.

He’d always been interested in the stock market.  But it wasn’t until he was nineteen that he discovered The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham.  Buffett immediately realized that value investing—as explained by Graham in simple terms—was the key to making money in the stock market.

Buffett was rejected by Harvard Business School, which was a blessing in that Buffett attended Columbia University where Graham was teaching.  Buffett was the star in Graham’s class, getting the only A+ Graham ever gave in more than twenty years of teaching.  Others in that particular course said the class was often like a conversation between Graham and Buffett.

Buffett graduated from Columbia in 1952.  He applied to work for Graham, but Graham turned him down.  At the time, Jewish analysts were having a hard time finding work on Wall Street, so Graham only hired Jewish people.  Buffett returned to Omaha and worked as a stockbroker.

One idea Buffett had tried to pitch while he was a stockbroker was GEICO.  He realized that GEICO had a sustainable competitive advantage:  a permanently lower cost structure because GEICO sold car insurance direct, without agents or branches.  Buffett had trouble convincing clients to buy GEICO, but he himself loaded up in his own account.

Meanwhile, Buffett regularly mailed investment ideas to Graham.  After a couple of years, in 1954, Graham hired Buffett.

In 1956, Graham dissolved the partnership to focus on other interests.  Buffett returned to Omaha and launched a small investment partnership with $105,000 under management.  Buffett himself was worth $140,000 at the time (over $1 million today).

Over the next thirteen years, Buffett crushed the market averages.  Early on, he was applying Graham’s methods by buying stocks that were cheap relative to net asset value.  But in the mid-1960s, Buffett made two large investments—in American Express and Disney—that were based more on normalized earnings than net asset value.  This was the beginning of a transition Buffett made from buying statistically cheap cigar butts to buying higher quality companies.

  • Buffett referred to deep value opportunities—stocks bought far below net asset value—as cigar butts. Like a soggy cigar butt found on a street corner, a deep value investment would often give “one free puff.”  Such a cigar butt is disgusting, but that one puff is “all profit.”

Buffett started acquiring shares in Berkshire Hathaway—a cigar butt—in 1965.  In the late 1960s, Buffett was having trouble finding cheap stocks, so he closed down the Buffett partnership.

After getting control of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett put in a new CEO, Ken Chace.  The company generated $14 million in cash as Chace reduced inventories and sold excess plants and equipment.  Buffett used most of this cash to acquire National Indemnity, a niche insurance company.  Buffett invested National Indemnity’s float quite well, buying other businesses like the Omaha Sun, a weekly newspaper, and a bank in Rockford, Illinois.

During this period, Buffett met Charlie Munger, another Omaha native who was then a brilliant lawyer in Los Angeles.  Buffett convinced Munger to run his own investment partnership, which he did with excellent results.  Later on, Munger became vice-chairman at Berkshire Hathaway.

Partly by reading the works of Phil Fisher, but more from Munger’s influence, Buffett realized that a wonderful company at a fair price was better than a fair company at a wonderful price.  A wonderful company would have a sustainably high ROIC, which meant that its intrinsic value would compound over time.  In order to estimate intrinsic value, Buffett now relied more on DCF (discounted cash flow) and private market value—methods well-suited to valuing good businesses (often at fair prices)—rather than an estimate of liquidation value—a method well-suited to valuing cigar butts (mediocre businesses at cheap prices).

In the 1970s, Buffett and Munger invested in See’s Candies and the Buffalo News.  And they bought large stock positions in the Washington Post, GEICO, and General Foods.

In the first half of the 1980s, Buffett bought the Nebraska Furniture Mart for $60 million and Scott Fetzer, a conglomerate of niche industrial businesses, for $315 million.  In 1986, Buffett invested $500 million helping his friend Tom Murphy, CEO of Capital Cities, acquire ABC.

Buffett then made no public market investments for several years.  Finally in 1989, Buffett announced that he invested $1.02 billion, a quarter of Berkshire’s investment portfolio, in Coca-Cola, paying five times book value and fifteen times earnings.  The return on this investment over the ensuing decade was 10x.

(Coca-Cola Company logo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Also in the late 1980s, Buffett invested in convertible preferred securities in Salomon Brothers, Gillette, US Airways, and Champion Industries.  The dividends were tax-advantaged, and he could convert to common stock if the companies did well.

In 1991, Salomon Brothers was in a major scandal based on fixing prices in government Treasury bill auctions.  Buffett ended up as interim CEO for nine months.  Buffett told Salomon employees:

“Lose money for the firm and I will be understanding.  Lose even a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”

In 1996, Salomon was sold to Sandy Weill’s Travelers Corporation for $9 billion, which was a large return on investment for Berkshire.

In the early 1990s, Buffett invested—taking large positions—in Wells Fargo (1990), General Dynamics (1992), and American Express (1994).  In 1996, Berkshire acquired the half of GEICO it didn’t own.  Berkshire also purchased the reinsurer General Re in 1998 for $22 billion in Berkshire stock.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Buffett bought a string of private companies, including Shaw Carpets, Benjamin Moore Paints, and Clayton Homes.  He also invested in the electric utility industry through MidAmerican Energy.  In 2006, Berkshire announced its first international acquisition, a $5 billion investment in Iscar, an Israeli manufacturer of cutting tools and blades.

In early 2010, Berkshire purchased the nation’s largest railroad, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, for $34.2 billion.

From June 1965, when Buffett assumed control of Berkshire, through 2011, the value of the company’s shares increased at a compound rate of 20.7 percent compared to 9.3 percent for the S&P 500.  A dollar invested in Berkshire was worth $6,265 forty-five years later.  The same dollar invested in the S&P 500 was worth $62.

The Nuts and Bolts

Having learned from Murphy, Buffett and Munger created Berkshire to be radically decentralized.  Business managers are given total autonomy over everything except large capital allocation decisions.  Buffett makes the capital allocation decisions, and Buffett is an even better investor than Henry Singleton.

Another key to Berkshire’s success is that the insurance and reinsurance operations are profitable over time, and meanwhile Buffett invests most of the float.  Effectively, the float has an extremely low cost (occasionally negative) because the insurance and reinsurance operations are profitable.  Buffett always reminds Berkshire shareholders that hiring Ajit Jain to run reinsurance was one of the best investments ever for Berkshire.

As mentioned, Buffett is in charge of capital allocation.  He is arguably the best investor ever based on the longevity of his phenomenal track record.

Buffett and Munger have always believed in concentrated portfolios.  It makes sense to take very large positions in your best ideas.  Buffett invested 40 percent of the Buffett partnership in American Express after the salad oil scandal in 1963.  In 1989, Buffett invested 25 percent of the Berkshire portfolio—$1.02 billion—in Coca-Cola.

Buffett and Munger still have a very concentrated portfolio.  But sheer size requires them to have more positions than before.  It also means that they can no longer look at most companies, which are too small to move the needle.

Buffett and Munger also believe in holding their positions for decades.  Over time, this saves a great deal of money by minimizing taxes and transaction costs.

Thorndike:

Buffett’s approach to investor relations is also unique and homegrown.  Buffett estimates that the average CEO spends 20 percent of his time communicating with Wall Street.  In contrast, he spends no time with analysts, never attends investment conferences, and has never provided quarterly earnings guidance.  He prefers to communicate with his investors through detailed annual reports and meetings, both of which are unique.

… The annual reports and meetings reinforce a powerful culture that values frugality, independent thinking, and long-term stewardship.

 

 

RADICAL RATIONALITY:  THE OUTSIDER’S MINDSET

You’re neither right nor wrong because other people agree with you.  You’re right because your facts are right and your reasoning is right—and that’s the only thing that makes you right.  And if your facts and reasoning are right, you don’t have to worry about anybody else. – Warren Buffett

Thorndike sums up the outsider’s mindset:

  • Always Do the Math
  • The Denominator Matters
  • A Feisty Independence
  • Charisma is Overrated
  • A Crocodile-Like Temperament That Mixes Patience with Occasional Bold Action
  • The Consistent Application of a Rational, Analytical Approach to Decisions Large and Small
  • A Long-Term Perspective

Always Do the Math

The outsider CEOs always focus on the ROIC for any potential investment.  They do the analysis themselves just using the key variables and without using a financial model.  Outsider CEOs realize that it’s the assumptions about the key variables that really matter.

The Denominator Matters

The outsider CEOs focus on maximizing value per share.  Thus, the focus is not only on maximizing the numerator—the value—but also on minimizing the denominator—the number of shares.  Outsider CEOs opportunistically repurchase shares when the shares are cheap.  And they are careful when they finance investment projects.

A Feisty Independence

The outsider CEOs all ran very decentralized organizations.  They gave people responsibility for their respective operations.  But outsider CEOs kept control over capital allocation decisions.  And when they did make decisions, outsider CEOs didn’t seek others’ opinions.  Instead, they liked to gather all the information, and then think and decide with as much independence and rationality as possible.

Charisma Is Overrated

The outsider CEOs tended to be humble and unpromotional.  They tried to spend the absolute minimum amount of time interacting with Wall Street.  Outsider CEOs did not offer quarterly guidance and they did not participate in Wall Street conferences.

A Crocodile-Like Temperament That Mixes Patience With Occasional Bold Action

The outsider CEOs were willing to wait very long periods of time for the right opportunity to emerge.

Like Katharine Graham, many of them created enormous shareholder value by simply avoiding overpriced ‘strategic’ acquisitions, staying on the sidelines during periods of acquisition feeding frenzy.

On the rare occasions when there was something to do, the outsider CEOs acted boldly and aggressively.  Tom Murphy made an acquisition of a company (ABC) larger than the one he managed (Capital Cities).  Henry Singleton repeatedly repurchased huge amounts of stock at cheap prices, eventually buying back over 90 percent of Teledyne’s shares.

The Consistent Application of a Rational, Analytical Approach to Decisions Large and Small

The total value that any company creates over time is the cumulative difference between ROIC and the cost of capital.  The outsider CEOs made every capital allocation decision in order to maximize ROIC over time, thereby maximizing long-term shareholder value.

These CEOs knew precisely what they were looking for, and so did their employees.  They didn’t overanalyze or overmodel, and they didn’t look to outside consultants or bankers to confirm their thinking—they pounced.

A Long-Term Perspective

The outsider CEOs would make investments in their business as long as they thought that it would contribute to maximizing long-term ROIC and long-term shareholder value.  The outsiders were always willing to take short-term pain for long-term gain:

[They] disdained dividends, made disciplined (occasionally large) acquisitions, used leverage selectively, bought back a lot of stock, minimized taxes, ran decentralized organizations, and focused on cash flow over reported net income.

Thorndike notes that the advantage the outsider CEOs had was temperament, not intellect (although they were all highly intelligent).  They understood that what mattered was rationality and patience.

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time.  See the historical chart here:  http://boolefund.com/best-performers-microcap-stocks/

This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps.  Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals.  We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.

There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio.  The size of each position is determined by its rank.  Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost).  Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.

The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods.  We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net).  The Boole Fund has low fees.

 

If you are interested in finding out more, please e-mail me or leave a comment.

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

 

Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC.

Volatility Is the Friend of the Long-Term Value Investor

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

February 27, 2022

The stock market has been volatile so far this year.  The Federal Reserve plans to raise rates.  This is likely to cause stock prices (which are elevated) to continue declining.

Update May 2022:  China has shutdown part of its economy to deal with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.  This will impact the global economy.

Russia’s war against Ukraine drags on.

Finally, oil prices have been over $100 per barrel (WTI).  Every time oil prices have been this high historically, a recession has ensued.

Continued stock market volatility is highly likely.

When stocks drop in value, many people want to stop investing, or even sell what they own, out of fear that stock prices will continue dropping.  But the wisest thing to do for a long-term value investor is to take advantage of lower stock prices by buying more shares than you otherwise could.

Consider a hypothetical Stock HQ, which is a high-quality company that you want to buy and hold.  Stock HQ will grow in value over time.

You are going to invest $2,000 into Stock HQ each year in for ten years.  Which of the following three scenarios would you prefer?  Each scenario shows a different path the stock price could take over the next ten years.

Most people prefer Scenario (1) because the stock steadily rises.  However, Scenario (3) is by far the best market scenario to invest in.  Scenario (1) is actually the worst of the three.

 

DIFFERENT MARKET CONDITIONS

A steadily rising market

In Scenario (1), you invest $2,000 each year for ten years in a steadily rising market.  The following table shows the number of shares you will end up with and their value.

Because the stock price keeps increasing steadily, you are buying less shares each year than the year before.  The net result is that you end up with 465.51 shares with a value of $46,550.98.

An increasing but volatile market

In Scenario (2), you invest $2,000 each year for ten years in a rising but volatile market.  The following table shows the number of shares you will end up with and their value.

Because there is more volatility, some years you can buy more shares than the year before.  The net result is that you end up with 484.20 shares with a value of $48,419.51.  So you are better off in this scenario than in the previous scenario due to market volatility.

A decreasing market

In Scenario (3), you invest $2,000 each year for ten years in a decreasing market.  The following table shows the number of shares you will end up with and their value.

Because the stock price steadily declines, each year you are able to buy more shares than the year before.  The net result is that you end up with 1,357.54 shares worth $135,754.28.

 

BOTTOM LINE

The bottom line is that if you are a long-term value investor, you are far better off over the long term if an already undervalued stock keeps declining so that you can keep buying more shares than you otherwise could.

This is also true for the stock market in general.  The next 3 to 10 years are likely to be flat or down.  If so, this will be a wonderful opportunity if you’re a long-term value investor because many good individual stocks will decline in value.  This will allow you to buy more shares than you otherwise could, which will translate into a greater amount of money in 10 to 20 years.

If your investment time horizon is at least 10 years or 20 years, then all that matters is what your portfolio is worth in 10 years or 20 years.  If prices decline in the interim, that is a great opportunity to buy more shares than you otherwise could. 

All that you need to believe is that, over the very long term, the economy grows and the stock market increases.  As Warren Buffett said:

In the 20th century, the United States endured two world wars and other traumatic and expensive military conflicts; the Depression; a dozen or so recessions and financial panics; oil shocks; a flu epidemic; and the resignation of a disgraced president.  Yet the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497.

 

QUOTES ON VOLATILITY BY GREAT VALUE INVESTORS

    • Opportunities to purchase what we deem to be attractively undervalued companies occur more frequently when stock prices are volatile. – Chuck Royce
    • We steer clear of the foolhardy academic definition of risk and volatility, recognizing, instead, that volatility is a welcome creator of opportunity. – Seth Klarman
    • Investors should treat volatility as a friend. High volatility permits an investor to purchase stocks that are particularly depressed and to sell stocks when they are selling at particularly high prices.  The greater the volatility, the greater the opportunity to purchase stocks at very low prices and then sell stocks at very high prices. – Ed Wachenheim
    • We are willing to endure a high degree of stock price and portfolio volatility because we believe it allows us to achieve a greater degree of investment performance over the long term. – Bill Ackman
    • Volatility actually is the opposite of risk.  It’s opportunity.  But you need to think through and fight some basic human weaknesses. – Jeff Ubben
    • Look at market fluctuations as your friend rather than your enemy; profit from folly rather than participate in it. – Warren Buffett
    • One of the great lessons on the crisis was learning the difference between volatility, which most people perceive as risk, and a permanent impairment of capital, which is what we believe is risk. – Matt McLennon
    • Basically, price fluctuations have only one significant meaning for the true investor.  They provide him with an opportunity to buy wisely when prices fall sharply and to sell wisely when they advance a great deal. – Benjamin Graham

This blog post was inspired by the following post by Andy Rachleff: https://blog.wealthfront.com/invest-despite-volatility-2-2/

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time.  See the historical chart here:  http://boolefund.com/best-performers-microcap-stocks/

This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps.  Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals.  We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.

There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio.  The size of each position is determined by its rank.  Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost).  Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.

The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods.  We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net).  The Boole Fund has low fees.

 

If you are interested in finding out more, please e-mail me or leave a comment.

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

 

Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC.

The Growth Trap

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

February 20, 2022

Jeremy Siegel is the author of The Future for Investors (Crown Business, 2005).  Warren Buffett commented:  “Jeremy Siegel’s new facts and ideas should be studied by investors.”  (Although the book was published in 2005, most of the facts and ideas still hold.)

 

INTRODUCTION

Siegel summarizes the main lesson from his previous book, Stocks for the Long Run:

My research showed that over extended periods of time, stock returns not only dominate the returns on fixed-income assets, but they do so with lower risk when inflation is taken into account.  These findings established that stocks should be the cornerstone of all long-term investors’ portfolios.

As you extend forward in time, especially to three or four decades, the real return from stocks is roughly 6.5 to 7 percent, which will nearly always be better than any other investment, such as fixed-income or gold.  Siegel has given many talks on Stocks for the Long Run, and he reports that two questions always come up:

  • Which stocks should I hold for the long run?
  • What will happen to my portfolio when the baby boomers retire and begin liquidating their portfolios?

Siegel says he wrote The Future for Investors in order to answer these questions.  He studied all 500 firms that constituted the S&P 500 Index when it was first formulated in 1957.  His conclusions – that the original firms in the index outperformed the newcomers (those added later to the index) – were surprising:

These results confirmed my feeling that investors overprice new stocks, many of which are in high technology industries, and ignore firms in less exciting industries that often provide investors superior returns.  I coined the term the growth trap to describe the incorrect belief that the companies that lead in technological innovation and spearhead economic growth bring investors superior returns.

The more I investigated returns, the more I determined that the growth trap affected not just individual stocks, but also entire sectors of the market and even countries.  The fastest-growing new firms, industries, and even foreign countries often suffered the worst return.  I formulated the basic principle of investor return, which specifies that growth alone does not yield good returns, but only growth in excess of the often overly optimistic estimates that investors have built into the price of stock.  It was clear that the growth trap was one of the most important barriers between investors and investment success.

As regards the aging of the baby-boom generation, Siegel argues that growth in developing countries (like China and India) will keep the global economy moving forward.  Also, as citizens in developing countries become wealthier, they will buy assets that baby-boomers are selling.  Siegel also holds that information technology will be central to global economic growth.

I am not going to discuss baby-boomer retirement any further in this blog post.  I would only note that there is a good chance that economically significant innovation could surprise on the upside in the next few decades.  See, for instance, The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (W. W. Norton, 2016).  As Warren Buffett has frequently observed, the luckiest people in history are those being born now.  Life in the future for most people is going to be far better than at any previous time in history.

 

THE GROWTH TRAP

Siegel opens the first chapter by noting the potential impact of improving technology:

The future for investors is bright.  Our world today stands at the brink of the greatest burst of invention, discovery, and economic growth ever known.

Yet investors must be careful to avoid the growth trap:

The growth trap seduces investors into overpaying for the very firms and industries that drive innovation and spearhead economic expansion.  This relentless pursuit of growth – through buying hot stocks, seeking exciting new technologies, or investing in the fastest-growing countries – dooms investors to poor returns.  In fact, history shows that many of the best-performing investments are instead found in shrinking industries and in slower-growing countries.

Although technology has created amazing wealth and well-being, investing in new technologies is generally a poor investment strategy.  Siegel explains:

How can this happen?  How can these enormous economic gains made possible through the proper application of new technology translate into substantial investment losses?  There’s one simple reason:  in their enthusiasm to embrace the new, investors invariably pay too high a price for a piece of the action.  The concept of growth is so avidly sought after that it lures investors into overpriced stocks in fast-changing and overly competitive industries, where the few big winners cannot begin to compensate for the myriad of losers.

To illustrate his point, Siegel compares Standard Oil of New Jersey (now ExxonMobil) with the new-economy juggernaut, IBM.  Consider the growth rates of these companies from 1950 to 2003:

Growth Measures IBM Standard Oil Advantage
Revenue/Share 12.19% 8.04% IBM
Dividends/Share 9.19% 7.11% IBM
Earnings/Share 10.94% 7.47% IBM
Sector Growth 14.65% -14.22% IBM

IBM performed much better fundamentally than Standard Oil of New Jersey.  Moreover, from 1950 to 2003, the technology sector rose from 3 percent of the market to almost 18 percent, while oil stocks shrank from 20 percent of the market to 5 percent.  Therefore, it seems clear that an investor who had to choose between IBM and Standard Oil in 1950 should have chosen IBM.  But this would have been the wrong decision.

Over the entire period, Standard Oil of New Jersey had an average P/E of 12.97, while IBM had an average P/E of 26.76.  Also, Standard Oil had an average dividend yield of 5.19%, while IBM had an average dividend yield of 2.18%.  As a result, the total returns for the two stocks were as follows:

Return  Measures IBM Standard Oil Advantage
Price Appreciation 11.41% 8.77% IBM
Dividend Return 2.18% 5.19% Standard Oil
Total Return 13.83% 14.42% Standard Oil

Siegel explains:

IBM did very well, but investors expected it to do well, and its stock price was consistently high.  Investors in Standard Oil had very modest expectations for earnings growth and kept the price of its shares low, allowing investors to accumulate more shares through the reinvestment of dividends.  The extra shares proved to be Standard Oil’s margin of victory.

Here are Siegel’s broad conclusions on the S&P 500 Index:

  • The more than 900 new firms that have been added to the index since it was formulated in 1957 have, on average, underperformed the original 500 firms in the index.
  • Long-term investors would have been better off had they bought the original S&P 500 firms in 1957 and never bought any new firms added to the index. By following this buy-and-never-sell approach, investors would have outperformed almost all mutual funds and money managers over the last half century.
  • Dividends matter a lot. Reinvesting dividends is the critical factor giving the edge to most winning stocks in the long run… Portfolios invested in the highest-yielding stocks returned 3 percent per year more than the S&P 500 Index, while those in the lowest-yielding stocks lagged the market by almost 2 percent per year.
  • The return on stocks depends not on earnings growth but solely on whether this earnings growth exceeds what investors expected, and those growth expectations are embodied in the price-to-earnings, or P/E ratio. Portfolios invested in the lowest-P/E stocks in the S&P 500 Index returned almost 3 percent per year more than the S&P 500 Index, while those invested in the high-P/E stocks fell 2 percent per year behind the index.
  • The growth trap holds for industry sectors as well as individual firms. The fastest-growing sector, the financials, has underperformed the benchmark S&P 500 Index, while the energy sector, which has shrunk almost 80 percent since 1957, beat this benchmark index.  The lowly railroads, despite shrinking from 21 percent to less than 5 percent of the industrial sector, outperformed the S&P 500 Index over the last half century.
  • The growth trap holds for countries as well. The fastest-growing country over the last decade has rewarded investors with the worst returns.  China, the economic powerhouse of the 1990s, has painfully disappointed investors with its overpriced shares and falling stock prices.

 

THE TRIED AND TRUE

But how, you will ask, does one decide what [stocks are] ‘attractive’?  Most analysts feel they must choose between two approaches customarily thought to be in opposition: ‘value’ and ‘growth.’… We view that as fuzzy thinking… Growth is always a component of value [and] the very term ‘value investing’ is redundant.

– Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway annual report, 1992

What was the best-performing stock from 1957 to 2003?  Siegel answers that it was Philip Morris.  Siegel observes:

The superb returns in Philip Morris illustrate an extremely important principle of investing:  what counts is not just the growth rate of earnings but the growth of earnings relative to the market’s expectation.  One reason investors had low expectations for Philip Morris’s growth was because of its potential liabilities.  But its growth has continued apace.  The low expectations combined with high growth and a high dividend yield provide the perfect environment for superb investor returns.

What were the top-performing S&P 500 Survivors from 1957 to 2003?

Rank 2003 Name Accumulation of $1,000 Annual Return
1 Philip Morris $4,626,402 19.75%
2 Abbott Labs $1,281,335 16.51%
3 Bristol-Myers Squibb $1,209,445 16.36%
4 Tootsie Roll Industries $1,090,955 16.11%
5 Pfizer $1,054,823 16.03%
6 Coca-Cola $1,051,646 16.02%
7 Merck $1,003,410 15.90%
8 PepsiCo $866,068 15.54%
9 Colgate-Palmolive $761,163 15.22%
10 Crane $736,796 15.14%
11 H. J. Heinz $635,988 14.78%
12 Wrigley $603,877 14.65%
13 Fortune Brands $580,025 14.55%
14 Kroger $546,793 14.41%
15 Schering-Plough $537,050 14.36%
16 Proctor & Gamble $513,752 14.26%
17 Hershey Foods $507,001 14.22%
18 Wyeth $461,186 13.99%
19 Royal Dutch Petroleum $398,837 13.64%
20 General Mills $388,425 13.58%
S&P 500 $124,486 10.85%

Siegel points out that most of the top twenty performers have strong brands, but are not technology companies per se.  Siegel discusses some of these great companies:

Number four on this list is a most unlikely winner – a small manufacturer originally named the Sweets Company of America.  This company has outperformed the market by 5 percent a year since the index was formulated.  The founder of this firm, an Austrian immigrant, named its product after his five-year-old daughter’s nickname, Tootsie….

The surviving company with the sixth highest return produces a product today with the exact same formula as it did over 100 years ago, much like Tootsie Roll…. Although the company keeps the formula for its drinks secret, it is no secret that Coca-Cola has been one of the best companies you could have owned over the last half century.

…Pepsi also delivered superb returns to its shareholders, coming in at number eight and beating the market by over 4 percent per year.

Two others of the twenty best-performing stocks also manufacture products virtually unchanged over the past 100 years:  the William Wrigley Jr. Company and Hershey Foods.  Wrigley came in at number twelve, beating the market by almost 4 percent per year, whereas Hershey came in at seventeen, beating the market by 3 percent a year.

Wrigley is the largest gum manufacturer in the world, commanding an almost 50 percent share in the global market and selling in approximately 100 countries.  Hershey is currently the number-one U.S.-based publicly traded candy maker (Mars, a private firm, is number one, followed by Swiss-based Nestle).

…Heinz is another strong brand name, one that is virtually synonymous with ketchup.  Each year, Heinz sells 650 million bottles of ketchup and makes 11 billion packets of ketchup and salad dressings – almost two packets for every person on earth.  But Heinz is just not a ketchup producer, and it does not restrict its focus to the United States.  It has the number-one or –two branded business in fifty different countries, with products such as Indonesia’s ABC soy sauce (the second-largest-selling soy sauce in the world) and Honig dry soup, the best-selling soup brand in the Netherlands.

Colgate-Palmolive also makes the list, coming in at number nine.  Colgate’s products include Colgate toothpastes, Speed Stick deoderant, Irish Spring soaps, antibacterial Softsoap, and household cleaning products such as Palmolive and Ajax.

No surprise that Colgate’s rival, Procter & Gamble, makes this list as well, at number sixteen.  Procter & Gamble began as a small, family-operated soap and candle company in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1837.  Today, P&G sells three hundred products, including Crest, Mr. Clean, Tide, and Tampax, to more than five billion consumers in 140 countries.

…Number twenty on the list is General Mills, another company with strong brands, which include Betty Crocker, introduced in 1921, Wheaties (the ‘Breakfast of Champions’), Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Hamburger Helper, and Yoplait yogurt.

What is true about all these firms is that their success came through developing strong brands not only in the United States but all over the world.  A well-respected brand name gives the firm the ability to price its product above the competition and deliver more profits to investors.

…Besides the strong consumer brand firms, the pharmaceuticals had a prominent place on the list of best-performing companies.  It is noteworthy that there were only six health care companies in the original S&P 500 that survive to today in their original corporate form, and all six made it onto the list of best performers.  All of these firms not only sold prescription drugs but also were very successful in marketing brand-name over-the-counter treatments to consumers, very much like the brand-name consumer staples stocks that we have reviewed.

…When these six pharmaceuticals are added to the eleven name-brand consumer firms, seventeen, or 85 percent, of the twenty top-performing firms from the original S&P 500 Index, feature well-known consumer brand names.

 

INVESTOR EXPECTATIONS

What really matters for investors is the price paid today compared to all future free cash flows.  But investors very regularly overvalue high-growth companies and undervalue low-growth or no-growth companies.  This is the key reason value investing works.  As Siegel writes:

Expectations are so important that without even knowing how fast a firm’s earnings actually grow, the data confirm that investors are too optimistic about fast-growing companies and too pessimistic about slow-growing companies.  This is just one more confirmation of the growth trap.

Thus, if you want to do well as an investor, it is best to stick with companies trading at low multiples (low P/E, low P/B, low P/S, etc.).  All of the studies have confirmed this.  See:  http://boolefund.com/the-ugliest-stocks-are-the-best-stocks/

Siegel did his own study, dividing S&P 500 Index companies into P/E quintiles.  From 1957 to 2003, the lowest P/E quintile – bought at the beginning of each year – produced an average annual return of 14.07% (with a risk of 15.92%), while the highest P/E quintile produced an average annual return of 9.17% (with a risk of 19.39%).  The S&P 500 Index averaged 11.18% (with a risk of 17.02%)

If you’re doing buy-and-hold value investing – as Warren Buffett does today – then you can pay a higher price as long as it is still reasonable and as long as the brand is strong enough to persist over time.  Buffett has made it clear, however, that if he were managing a small amount of money, he would focus on microcap companies available at cheap prices.  That would generate the highest returns, with 50% per year being possible in micro caps for someone like Buffett.  See: http://boolefund.com/buffetts-best-microcap-cigar-butts/

Siegel discusses GARP, or growth at a reasonable price:

Advocates here compute a very similar statistic called the PEG ratio, or price-to-earnings ratio divided by the growth rate of earnings.  The PEG ratio is essentially the inverse of the ratio that Peter Lynch recommended in his book, assuming you add the dividend yield to the growth rate.  The lower the PEG ratio, the more attractively priced a firm is with respect to its projected earnings growth.  According to Lynch’s criteria, you would be looking for firms with lower PEG ratios, preferably 0.5 or less, but certainly less than 1.

It’s important to note that earnings growth is very mean-reverting.  In other words, most companies that have been growing fast do NOT continue to do so, but tend to slow down quite a bit.  That’s why deep value investing – simply buying the cheapest companies (based on low P/E or low EV/EBIT), which usually have low- or no-growth – tends to produce better returns over time than GARP investing does.  This is most true, on average, when you invest in cheap microcap companies.

Deep value microcap investing tends to work quite well, especially if you also use the Piotroski F-Score to screen for cheap microcap companies that also have improving fundamentals.  This is the approach used by the Boole Microcap Fund.  See: http://boolefund.com/cheap-solid-microcaps-far-outperform-sp-500/

One other way to do very well investing in micro caps is to try to find the ones that will grow for a long time.  It’s much more difficult to use this approach successfully than it is to buy cheap microcap companies with improving fundamentals.  But it is doable with enough patience and discipline.  See MicroCapClub.com if you want to learn about some microcap investors who use this approach.

 

GROWTH IS NOT RETURN

Most investors seem to believe that the fastest-growing industries will yield the best returns.  But this is simply not true.  Siegel compares financials to energy companies:

Of the ten major industries, the financial sector has gained the largest share of market value since the S&P 500 Index was founded in 1957.  Financial firms went from less than 1 percent of the index to over 20 percent in 2003, while the energy sector has shrunk from over 21 percent to less than 6 percent over the same period.  Had you been looking for the fastest-growing sector, you would have sunk your money in financial stocks and sold your oil stocks.

But if you did so, you would have fallen into the growth trap.  Since 1957, the returns on financial stocks have actually fallen behind the S&P 500 Index, while energy stocks have outperformed over the same period.  For the long-term investor, the strategy of seeking out the fastest-growing sector is misguided.

Siegel continues by noting that the GICS (Global Industrial Classification Standard) breaks the U.S. and world economy down into ten sectors:  materials, industrials, energy, utilities, telecommunication services, consumer discretionary, consumer staples, health care, financial, and information technology.  (Recently real estate has been added as an eleventh sector.)

Just as the fastest-growing companies, as a group, underperform the slower growers in terms of investment returns, so new companies underperform the tried and true.  Siegel explains what his data show:

These data confirm my basic thesis:  the underperformance of new firms is not confined to one industry, such as technology, but extends to the entire market.  New firms are overvalued by investors in virtually every sector of the market.

Siegel also answers the question of why energy did so well, despite shrinking from over 21 percent to less than 6 percent of the market:

Why did the energy sector perform so well?  The oil firms concentrated on what they did best:  extracting oil at the cheapest possible price and returning the profits to the shareholders in the form of dividends.  Furthermore investors had low expectations for the growth of energy firms, so these stocks were priced modestly.  The low valuations combined with the high dividends contributed to superior investor returns.

Technology firms have experienced high earnings growth.  Yet investors have tended to expect even higher growth going forward than what subsequently occurs.  Thus we see again that investors systematically overvalue high-growth companies, which leads to returns that trail the S&P 500 Index.  Technology may be the best example of this phenomenon.  Technology companies have grown very fast, but investors have generally expected too much going forward.

The financial sector is another case of high growth but disappointing (or average) returns.  Much of the growth in financials has come from new companies joining the sector and being added to the index.  Siegel:

The tremendous growth in financial products has spurred the growth of many new firms.  This has caused a steady increase in the market share of the financial sector, but competition has kept the returns on financial stocks close to average over the whole period.

To conclude his discussion of the various sectors, Siegel writes:

The data show that three sectors emerge as long-term winners.  They are health care, consumer staples, and energy.  Health care and consumer staples comprise 90 percent of the twenty best-performing surviving firms of the S&P 500 Index.  These two sectors have the highest proportion of firms where management is focused on bringing quality products to the market and expanding brand-name recognition on a global basis.

The energy sector has delivered above-average returns despite experiencing a significant contraction of its market share.  The excellent returns in this sector are a result of two factors:  the relatively low growth expectations of investors (excepting the oil and gas extractors during the late 1970s) and the high level of dividends.

 

TECHNOLOGY: PRODUCTIVITY CREATOR AND VALUE DESTROYER

Siegel opens the chapter by remarking:

Economic growth is not the same as profit growth.  In fact, productivity growth can destroy profits and with it stock values.

Siegel continues:

Any individual or firm through its own effort can rise above the average, but every individual and firm, by definition, cannot.  Similarly, if a single firm implements a productivity-improving strategy that is unavailable to its competition, its profits will rise.  But if all firms have access to the same technology and implement it, then costs and prices will fall and the gains of productivity will go to the consumer.

Siegel notes that Buffett had to deal with this type of issue when he was managing Berkshire Hathaway, a textile manufacturer.  Buffett discussed plans presented to him that would improve workers’ productivity and lower costs:

Each proposal to do so looked like an immediate winner.  Measured by standard return-on-investment tests, in fact, these proposals usually promised greater economic benefits than would have resulted from comparable investments in our highly profitable candy and newspaper businesses.

Yet Buffett realized that the proposed improvements were available to all textile companies.  Buffett commented in his 1985 annual report:

[T]he promised benefits from these textile investments were illusory.  Many of our competitors, both domestic and foreign, were stepping up to the same kind of expenditures and, once enough companies did so, their reduced costs became the baseline for reduced prices industrywide.  Viewed individually, each company’s investment decision appeared cost-effective and rational; viewed collectively, the decisions neutralized each other and were irrational (just as happens when each person watching a parade decides he can see a little better if he stands on tiptoes).  After each round of investment, all the players had more money in the game and returns remained anemic.

Eventually, after a decade, Buffett realized he had to close the company.  (He had kept it open for a decade out of concern for the employees, and because management was doing an excellent job with the hand it was dealt.)  Siegel comments:

Buffett contrasts his decision to close up shop with that of another textile company that opted to take a different path, Burlington Industries.  Burlington Industries spent approximately $3 billion on capital expenditures to modernize its plants and equipment and improve its productivity in the twenty years following Buffett’s purchase of Berkshire.  Nevertheless, Burlington’s stock returns badly trailed the market.  As Buffett states, ‘This devastating outcome for the shareholders indicates what can happen when much brain power and energy are applied to a faulty premise.’

Siegel then draws a broader conclusion about technology:

Historical economic data indicate that the fruits of technological change, no matter how great, have ultimately benefited consumers, not the owners of firms.  Productivity lowers the price of goods and raises the real wages of workers.  That is, productivity allows us to buy more with less.

Certainly, technological change has transitory effects on profits.  There is usually a ‘first mover’ advantage.  When one firm incorporates a new technology that has not yet been implemented by others, profits will increase.  But as others avail themselves of this technology, competition ensures that prices will fall and profits will revert to normal.

 

WINNING MANAGEMENTS IN LOSING INDUSTRIES

Siegel quotes Peter Lynch:

As a place to invest, I’ll take a lousy industry over a great industry anytime.  In a lousy industry, one that’s growing slowly if at all, the weak drop out and the survivors get a bigger share of the market.  A company that can capture an ever-increasing share of a stagnant market is a lot better off than one that has to struggle to protect a dwindling share of an exciting market.

Many investors try to look for an industry with a bright future, and then select a company that will benefit from this growth.  As we’ve already seen, this doesn’t work in general because investors systematically overvalue high-growth companies.

A deep value investment strategy looks for companies at low multiples, with terrible performance.  These companies, as a group, have done much better than the market over time.

Although a deep value approach works well even if it is entirely quantitative – which is what Ben Graham, the father of value investing, often did – it can work even better if you can identify a winning management.  Siegel explains:

… some of the most successful investments of the last thirty years have come from industries whose performances have been utterly horrendous.

These companies have bucked the trend.  They all rose above their competitors by following a simple approach:  maximize productivity and keep costs as low as possible.

Siegel gives Southwest Airlines as an example.  Investors have lost more money in the airline industry than in any other.  But Southwest Airlines established itself as ‘the low-fare airline.’  It accomplished this by being the low-cost airline.  It offered only single-class service, with no assigned seats and no meals.  It only operated city-to-city where demand was high enough.  And it only used Boeing 737’s.  As a result of being the low-cost and low-fare airline, the business performed well and the stock followed.

Siegel also mentions the example of Nucor, which pioneered the use of ‘minimill’ technology and the recycling of scrap steel.  While the steel industry as a whole underperformed the market by close to 4 percent a year for thirty years, Nucor outperformed the market by over 5 percent a year over the same time period.  According to Jim Collins and others, at least 80 percent of Nucor’s success had to do with the leadership and culture of the company.  At Nucor, executives actually received fewer benefits than regular workers:

  • All workers were eligible to receive $2,000 per year for each child for up to four years of postsecondary education, while the executives received no such benefit.
  • Nucor lists all of its employees – more than 9,800 – in its annual report, sorted alphabetically with no distinctions for officer titles.
  • There are no assigned parking spots and no company cars, boats, or planes.
  • All employees of the company receive the same insurance coverage and amount of vacation time.
  • Everybody wears the same green spark-proof jackets and hard hats on the floor (in most integrated mills, different colors designate authority).

Siegel quotes Buffett:

It is the classic example of an incentive program that works.  If I were a blue-collar worker, I would like to work for Nucor.

In stark contrast, Bethlehem Steel had executives using the corporate fleet for personal reasons, like taking children to college or weekend vacations.  Bethlehem also renovated a country club with corporate funds, at which shower priority was determined by executive rank, notes Siegel.

Siegel concludes his discussion of Southwest Airlines and Nucor (and Wal-Mart):

The success of these firms must make investors stop and think.  The best-performing stocks are not in industries that are at the cutting edge of the technological revolution; rather, they are often in industries that are stagnant or in decline.  These firms are headed by managements that find and pursue efficiencies and develop competitive niches that enable them to reach commanding positions no matter what industry they are in.  Firms with these characteristics, which are often undervalued by the market, are the ones that investors should want to buy.

Another great example of a company implementing a low-cost business strategy is 3G Capital, a Brazilian investment firm.  (3G was founded in 2004 by Jorge Paulo Lemann, Carlos Alberto Sicupira, and Marcel Herrmann Telles.)  3G is best known for partnering with Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway for its acquisitions, including Burger King, Tim Hortons, and Kraft Foods.  When 3G acquires a company, they typically implement deep cost cuts.

 

REINVESTED DIVIDENDS:  THE BEAR MARKET PROTECTOR AND RETURN ACCELERATOR

Siegel explains what can happen to a dividend-paying stock during a bear market:  If the stock price falls more than the dividend, then the higher dividend yield can then be used to reinvest, leading to a higher share count than otherwise.  The Great Depression led to a 25-year period – October 1929 to November 1954 – during which stocks plunged and then took a long time to recover.  Most investors did not do well, often because they could not or did not hold on to their shares.  But investors with dividend-paying stocks who reinvested those dividends did quite well, as Siegel notes:

Instead of just getting back to even in November 1954, stockholders who reinvested their dividends (indicated as ‘total return’) realized an annual rate of return of 6 percent per year, far outstripping those who invested in either long- or short-term government bonds.  In fact, $1,000 invested in stocks at the market peak turned into $4,440 when the Dow finally recovered to its old high on that November day a quarter century later.  Although the price appreciation was zero, the $4,400 that resulted solely from reinvesting dividends was almost twice the accumulation in bonds and four times the accumulation in short-term treasury bills.

Siegel concludes:

There is an important lesson to be taken from this analysis.  Market cycles, although difficult on investors’ psyches, generate wealth for long-term stockholders.  These gains come not through timing the market but through the reinvestment of dividends.

Bear markets are not only painful episodes that investors must endure; they are also an integral reason why investors who reinvest dividends experience sharply higher returns.  Stock returns are generated not by earnings and dividends alone but by the prices that investors pay for these cash flows.  When pessimism grips shareholders, those who stay with dividend-paying stocks are the big winners.

The same logic applies to individual stocks.  If a company is a long-term survivor (or leader), then short-term bad news causing the stock to drop will enhance your long-term returns if you’re reinvesting dividends.  This is also true if you’re dollar-cost averaging.

In theory, share repurchases when the stock is low can work even better than dividends because share repurchases create tax-deferred gains.  In practice, Siegel observes, management is often not as committed to a policy of share repurchases as it is to paying dividends.  Once a dividend is being paid, the market usually views a reduced dividend unfavorably.  Also, shareholders can track dividends more easily than share repurchases.  In sum, when a stock is low, it is usually better for shareholders if they can reinvest dividends instead of relying on management to repurchase shares.

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

An equal weighted group of micro caps generally far outperforms an equal weighted (or cap-weighted) group of larger stocks over time.  See the historical chart here:  http://boolefund.com/best-performers-microcap-stocks/

This outperformance increases significantly by focusing on cheap micro caps.  Performance can be further boosted by isolating cheap microcap companies that show improving fundamentals.  We rank microcap stocks based on these and similar criteria.

There are roughly 10-20 positions in the portfolio.  The size of each position is determined by its rank.  Typically the largest position is 15-20% (at cost), while the average position is 8-10% (at cost).  Positions are held for 3 to 5 years unless a stock approaches intrinsic value sooner or an error has been discovered.

The mission of the Boole Fund is to outperform the S&P 500 Index by at least 5% per year (net of fees) over 5-year periods.  We also aim to outpace the Russell Microcap Index by at least 2% per year (net).  The Boole Fund has low fees.

 

If you are interested in finding out more, please e-mail me or leave a comment.

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

 

Disclosures: Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission of Boole Capital, LLC.