This Time Is Different

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone)

July 14, 2019

For a value investor who patiently searches for individual stocks that are cheap, predictions about the economy or the stock market are irrelevant.  In fact, most of the time, such predictions are worse than irrelevant because they could cause the value investor to miss some individual bargains.

Warren Buffett puts it best:

  • Charlie and I never have an opinion on the market because it wouldn’t be any good and it might interfere with the opinions we have that are good.
  • We will continue to ignore political and economic forecasts, which are an expensive distraction for many investors and businessmen.
  • Market forecasters will fill your ear but never fill your wallet.
  • Forecasts may tell you a great deal about the forecaster; they tell you nothing about the future.
  • Stop trying to predict the direction of the stock market, the economy, interest rates, or elections.
  • [On economic forecasts:] Why spend time talking about something you don’t know anything about?  People do it all the time, but why do it?
  • I don’t invest a dime based on macro forecasts.

(Illustration by Eti Swinford)

No one has ever been able to predict the stock market with any sort of reliability.  Ben Graham—with a 200 IQ—was as smart or smarter than any value investor who’s ever lived.  And here’s what Graham said near the end of his career:

If I have noticed anything over these 60 years on Wall Street, it is that people do not succeed in forecasting what’s going to happen to the stock market.

No one can predict the stock market, although anyone can get lucky once or twice in a row.  But if you’re patient, you can find individual stocks that are cheap.  Consider the career of Henry Singleton.

When he was managing Teledyne, Singleton built one of the best track records of all time as a capital allocator.  A dollar invested with Singleton would grow to $180.94 by the time of Singleton’s retirement 29 years later.  $10,000 invested with Singleton would have become $1.81 million.

Did Singleton ever worry about whether the stock market was too high when he was deciding how to allocate capital?  Not ever.  Not one single time.  Singleton:

I don’t believe all this nonsense about market timing.  Just buy very good value and when the market is ready that value will be recognized.

Had Singleton ever brooded over the level of the stock market, his phenomenal track record as a capital allocator would have suffered.

Top value investor Seth Klarman expresses the matter as follows:

In reality, no one knows what the market will do; trying to predict it is a waste of time, and investing based upon that prediction is a speculative undertaking.

If you’re not convinced that focusing on individual bargains—regardless of the economy or the market—is the wise approach, then let’s consider whether “this time is different.”  Why is this phrase important?  Because if things are never different, then you can bet on historical trends—and mean reversion; you can bet that P/E ratio’s will return to normal, which (if true) implies that the stock market today will probably fall.

Quite a few leading value investors—who have excellent track records of ignoring the crowd and being right—agree that the U.S. stock market today is very overvalued, at least based on historical trends.  (This group includes Rob Arnott, Jeremy Grantham, John Hussman, Frank Martin, Russell Napier, and Andrew Smithers.)

However, this time the crowd appears to be right and leading value investors wrong.  This time really is different.  Grantham admits:

[It] can be very dangerous indeed to assume that things are never different.

Here Grantham presents his views: https://www.barrons.com/articles/grantham-dont-expect-p-e-ratios-to-collapse-1493745553

Leading value investor Howard Marks:

The thing I find most interesting about investing is how paradoxical it is: how often the things that seem most obvious—on which everyone agrees—turn out not to be true.

 

THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT

The main reason is not possible to predict the economy or the stock market is that both the economy and the stock market evolve over time.  As Howard Marks says:

Economics and markets aren’t governed by immutable laws like the physical sciences…

…sometimes things really are different…

Link: https://www.oaktreecapital.com/docs/default-source/memos/this-time-its-different.pdf

In 1963, Graham gave a lecture, “Securities in an Insecure World.”  Link: http://jasonzweig.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/BG-speech-SF-1963.pdf

In the lecture, Graham admits that the Graham P/E—based on ten-year average earnings of the Dow components—was much too conservative.  (The Graham P/E is now called the CAPE—cyclically adjusted P/E.)  Graham:

The action of the stock market since then would appear to demonstrate that these methods of valuations are ultra-conservative and much too low, although they did work out extremely well through the stock market fluctuations from 1871 to about 1954, which is an exceptionally long period of time for a test.  Unfortunately in this kind of work, where you are trying to determine relationships based upon past behavior, the almost invariable experience is that by the time you have had a long enough period to give you sufficient confidence in your form of measurement just then new conditions supersede and the measurement is no longer dependable for the future.

Because of the U.S. government’s more aggressive policy with respect to preventing a depression, Graham concluded that the U.S. stock market should have a fair value 50 percent higher.  (Graham explains this change in the 1962 edition of Security Analysis.)

Similar logic can be applied to the S&P 500 Index today—at just over 3,013.  Fed policy, moral hazard, lower interest rates, an aging population, slower growth, productivity, and higher profit margins (based in part on political and monopoly power) are all factors in the S&P 500 being quite high.

The great value investor John Templeton observed that when people say, “this time is different,” 20 percent of the time they’re right.

By traditional standards, the U.S. stock market looks high.  For instance, the CAPE is at 29+.  (The CAPE—formerly the Graham P/E—is the cyclically adjusted P/E ratio based on 10-year average earnings.)  The historical average CAPE is 16.6.

If the stock market followed the pattern of history, then there would be mean reversion in stock prices, i.e., there would probably be a large drop in stock prices, at least until the CAPE approached 16.6.  (Typically the CAPE would overshoot on the downside and so would go below 16.6.)

But that assumes that the CAPE will still average 16.6 going forward.  Since 1996, according to Rob Arnott, 96% of the time the CAPE has been above the 16.6; and two-thirds of the time the CAPE has been above 24.  See: https://www.researchaffiliates.com/en_us/publications/articles/645-cape-fear-why-cape-naysayers-are-wrong.html  

Here are some reasons why the average CAPE going forward could be 24 (or even higher) instead of 16.6.

  • Interest rates have gotten progressively lower over the past couple of decades, especially since 2009.  This may continue.  The longer interest rates stay low, the higher stock prices will be.
  • Perhaps the government has tamed the business cycle (at least to some extent).  Monetary and fiscal authorities may continue to be able to delay or avoid a recession.
  • Government deficits might not cause interest rates to rise, in part because the U.S. can print its own currency.
  • Government debt might not cause interest rates to rise.  (Again, the U.S. can print its own currency.)
  • Just because the rate of unemployment is low doesn’t mean that the rate of inflation will pick up.
  • Inflation may be structurally lower—and possibly also less volatile—than in the past.
  • Profit margins may be permanently higher than in the past.

Let’s consider each point in some detail.

 

LOWER INTEREST RATES

The longer rates stay low, the higher stock prices will be.

Warren Buffett pointed out recently that if 3% on 30-year bonds makes sense, then stocks are ridiculously cheap: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/05/06/warren-buffett-says-stocks-are-ridiculously-cheap-if-interest-rates-stay-at-these-levels.html

 

BUSINESS CYCLE TAMED

The current economic recovery is the longest recovery in U.S. history.  Does that imply that a recession is overdue?  Not necessarily.  GDP has been less volatile due in part to the actions of the government, including Fed policy.

Perhaps the government is finally learning how to tame the business cycle.  Perhaps a recession can be avoided for another 5-10 years or even longer.

 

GOVERNMENT DEFICITS MAY NOT CAUSE RATES TO RISE

Traditional economic theory says that perpetual government deficits will eventually cause interest rates to rise.  However, according to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), a country that can print its own currency doesn’t need to worry about deficits.

Per MMT, the government first spends money and then later takes money back out in the form of taxes.  Importantly, every dollar the government spends ends up as a dollar of income for someone else.  So deficits are benign.  (Deficits can still be too big under MMT, particularly if they are not used to increase the nation’s productive capacity, or if there is a shortage of labor, raw materials, and factories.)

Interview with Stephanie Kelton, one of the most influential proponents of MMT: https://theglobepost.com/2019/03/28/stephanie-kelton-mmt/

 

MOUNTING GOVERNMENT DEBT MAY NOT CAUSE RATES TO RISE

Traditional economic theory says that government debt can get so high that people lose confidence in the country’s bonds and currency.  Stephanie Kelton:

The national debt is nothing more than a historical record of all of the dollars that were spent into the economy and not taxed back, and are currently being saved in the form of Treasury securities.

One key, again, is that the country in question must be able to print its own currency.

Kelton again:

MMT is advancing a different way of thinking about money and a different way of thinking about the role of taxes and deficits and debt in our economy.  I think it’s probably also safe to say that MMT has, I think, a superior understanding of monetary operations.  That means that we take banking and the Federal Reserve and Treasury operations and so forth very seriously, whereas more conventional approaches historically have rarely even found room in their models for things like money and finance and debt.

Let’s be clear.  MMT may be wrong, at least in part.  Many great economists—including Paul Krugman, Ken Rogoff, Larry Summers, and Janet Yellen—do not agree with MMT’s assertion that deficits and debt don’t matter for a country that can print its own currency.

 

UNEMPLOYMENT AND INFLATION

In traditional economic theory, the Phillips curve holds that there is an inverse relationship between the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation.  As unemployment falls, wages increase which causes inflation.  But if you look at the non-employment rate (rather than the unemployment rate), the labor market isn’t really tight.  The labor force participation rate is at its lowest level in more than 40 years.  That explains in part why wages and inflation have not increased.

 

INFLATION STRUCTURALLY LOWER

As Howard Marks has noted, inflation may be structurally lower than in the past, due to automation, the shift of manufacturing to low-cost countries, and the abundace of free/cheap stuff in the digital age.

Link again: https://www.oaktreecapital.com/docs/default-source/memos/this-time-its-different.pdf

 

PROFIT MARGINS PERMANENTLY HIGHER

Proft margins on sales and corporate profits as a percentage of GDP have both been trending higher.  This is due partly to “increased monopoly, political, and brand power,” according to Jeremy Grantham.  Link again: https://www.barrons.com/articles/grantham-dont-expect-p-e-ratios-to-collapse-1493745553

Furthermore, lower interest rates and higher leverage (since 1997) have contributed to higher profit margins, asserts Grantham.

I would add that software and related technologies have become much more important in the U.S. and global economy.  Companies in these fields tend to have much higher profit margins—even after accounting for lower rates, higher leverage, and increased monopoly and political power.

 

IGNORE FORECASTS AND DON’T TRY TO TIME THE MARKET; INSTEAD FOCUS ON INDIVIDUAL BUSINESSES

The most important point is that it’s not possible to predict the stock market, but it is possible—if you’re patient—to find individual stocks that are undervalued.  This is especially true if your assets are small enough to invest in microcap stocks.  In 1999, when the overall U.S. stock market was close to its highest valuation in history, Warren Buffett said:

If I was running $1 million, or $10 million for that matter, I’d be fully invested.

No matter how high the S&P 500 Index gets, there are hundreds of microcap stocks that are almost completely ignored, with no analyst coverage and with no large investors paying attention.  That’s why Buffett said during the stock bubble in 1999 that he’d be fully invested if he were managing a small enough sum.

Microcap stocks offer the highest potential returns because there are thousands of them and they are largely ignored.  That’s not to say that there are no cheap small caps, mid caps, or large caps.  Even when the broad market is high, there are at least a few undervalued large caps.  But the number of undervalued micro caps is always much greater than the number of undervalued large caps.

So it’s best to focus on micro caps in order to maximize long-term returns.  But whether you invest in micro caps or in large caps, what matters is not the stock market or the economy, but the price of the individual business.

If and when you find a business selling at a cheap stock price, then it’s best to buy regardless of economic and market conditions—and regardless of economic and market forecasts.  As Seth Klarman puts it:

Investors must learn to assess value in order to know a bargain when they see one.  Then they must exhibit the patience and discipline to wait until a bargain emerges from their searches and buy it, regardless of the prevailing direction of the market or their own views about the economy at large.

For example, if you find a conservatively financed business whose stock is trading at 20 percent of liquidation value, it makes sense to buy it regardless of how high the overall stock market is and regardless of what’s happening—or what might happen—in the economy.  Seth Klarman again:

We don’t buy ‘the market’.  We invest in discrete situations, each individually compelling.

Ignore forecasts!

(Illustration by Maxim Popov)

Peter Lynch:

Nobody can predict interest rates, the future direction of the economy, or the stock market.  Dismiss all such forecasts and concentrate on what’s actually happening to the companies in which you’ve invested.

Now, every year there are “pundits” who make predictions about the stock market.  Therefore, as a matter of pure chance, there will always be people in any given year who are “right.”  But there’s zero evidence that any of those who were “right” at some point in the past have been correct with any sort of reliability.

Howard Marks has asked: of those who correctly predicted the bear market in 2008, how many of them predicted the recovery in 2009 and since then?  The answer: very few.  Marks points out that most of those who got 2008 right were already disposed to bearish views in general.  So when a bear market finally came, they were “right,” but the vast majority missed the recovery starting in 2009.

There are always naysayers making bearish predictions.  But anyone who owned an S&P 500 Index fund from 2007 to present (mid 2019) would have done dramatically better than most of those who listened to naysayers.  Buffett:

Ever-present naysayers may prosper by marketing their gloomy forecasts.  But heaven help them if they act on the nonsense they peddle.

Buffett himself made a 10-year wager against a group of talented hedge fund (and fund of hedge fund) managers.  Buffett’s investment in an S&P 500 Index fund trounced the super-smart hedge funds.  See: http://berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2017ltr.pdf

Some very able investors have stayed largely in cash since 2011.  Meanwhile, the S&P 500 Index has increased close to 140 percent.  Moreover, many smart investors have tried to short the U.S. stock market since 2011.  Not surprisingly, some of these short sellers are down 50 percent or more.

This group of short sellers includes the value investor John Hussman, whose Hussman Strategic Growth Fund (HSGFX) is down nearly 54 percent since the end of 2011.  Compare that to a low-cost S&P 500 Index fund like the Vanguard 500 Index Fund Investor Shares (VFINX), which is up 140 percent since then end of 2011.

If you invested $10,000 in HSGFX at the end of 2011, you would have about $4,600 today.  If instead you invested $10,000 in VFINX at the end of 2011, you would have about $24,000 today.  In other words, if you invested with one of the “ever-present naysayers,” you would have 20 percent of the value you otherwise would have gotten from a simple index fund.   HSGFX will have to increase 400 percent more than VFINX just to get back to even.

Please don’t misunderstand.  John Hussman is a brilliant and patient investor.  (Also, I made a very similar mistake 2011-2013.)  But Hussman, along with many other highly intelligent value investors—including Rob Arnott, Frank Martin, Russell Napier, and Andrew Smithers—have missed the strong possibility that this time really may be different, i.e., the average CAPE (cyclically adjusted P/E) going forward may be 24 or higher instead of 16.6.

The truth—fair value—may be somewhere in-between a CAPE of 16.6 and a CAPE of 24.  But even in that case, HSGFX is unlikely to increase 400 percent relative to the S&P 500 Index.

Jeremy Grantham again:

[It] can be very dangerous indeed to assume that things are never different.

As John Maynard Keynes is (probably incorrectly) reported to have said:

When the information changes, I alter my conclusions.  What do you do, sir?

 

WARREN BUFFETT: U.S. STOCKS VS. GOLD

In his 2018 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Warren Buffett writes about “The American Tailwind.”  See pages 13-14: http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2018ltr.pdf

Buffett begins this discussion by pointing out that he first invested in American business when he was 11 years old in 1942.  That was 77 years ago.  Buffett “went all in” and invested $114.75 in three shares of City Service preferred stock.

Buffett then asks the reader to travel back the two 77-year periods prior to his purchase.  The year is 1788.  George Washington had just been made the first president of the United States.

Buffett asks:

Could anyone then have imagined what their new country would accomplish in only three 77-year lifetimes?

Buffett continues:

During the two 77-year periods prior to 1942, the United States had grown from four million people – about 1⁄2 of 1% of the world’s population – into the most powerful country on earth.  In that spring of 1942, though, it faced a crisis: The U.S. and its allies were suffering heavy losses in a war that we had entered only three months earlier.  Bad news arrived daily.

Despite the alarming headlines, almost all Americans believed on that March 11th that the war would be won.  Nor was their optimism limited to that victory.  Leaving aside congenital pessimists, Americans believed that their children and generations beyond would live far better lives than they themselves had led.

The nation’s citizens understood, of course, that the road ahead would not be a smooth ride.  It never had been.  Early in its history our country was tested by a Civil War that killed 4% of all American males and led President Lincoln to openly ponder whether “a nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure.”  In the 1930s, America suffered through the Great Depression, a punishing period of massive unemployment.

Nevertheless, in 1942, when I made my purchase, the nation expected post-war growth, a belief that proved to be well-founded.  In fact, the nation’s achievements can best be described as breathtaking.

Let’s put numbers to that claim: If my $114.75 had been invested in a no-fee S&P 500 index fund, and all dividends had been reinvested, my stake would have grown to be worth (pre-taxes) $606,811 on January 31, 2019 (the latest data available before the printing of this letter).  That is a gain of 5,288 for 1.  Meanwhile, a $1 million investment by a tax-free institution of that time – say, a pension fund or college endowment – would have grown to about $5.3 billion.

[…]

Those who regularly preach doom because of government budget deficits (as I regularly did myself for many years) might note that our country’s national debt has increased roughly 400-fold during the last of my 77-year periods.  That’s 40,000%!   Suppose you had foreseen this increase and panicked at the prospect of runaway deficits and a worthless currency.  To “protect” yourself, you might have eschewed stocks and opted instead to buy 3 1⁄4 ounces of gold with your $114.75.

And what would that supposed protection have delivered?  You would now have an asset worth about $4,200, less than 1% of what would have been realized from a simple unmanaged investment in American business.  The magical metal was no match for the American mettle.

Our country’s almost unbelievable prosperity has been gained in a bipartisan manner.  Since 1942, we have had seven Republican presidents and seven Democrats.  In the years they served, the country contended at various times with a long period of viral inflation, a 21% prime rate, several controversial and costly wars, the resignation of a president, a pervasive collapse in home values, a paralyzing financial panic and a host of other problems.  All engendered scary headlines; all are now history.

 

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.

Buffett’s Best: Microcap Cigar Butts

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone)

June 16, 2019

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

 

NET NETS

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.

A good current example is Ensco Rowan plc (NYSE: ESV), an offshore oil driller.  Ensco Rowan is one of the largest, safest, most reliable, and most technically advanced offshore oil drillers in the world.  It’s also one of the best capitalized drillers.  Moreover, Ensco Rowan has been rated #1 in customer satisfaction for nine consecutive years according to a leading independent survey.  As a result of its reliability, high-spec rigs, and well-capitalized position, Ensco Rowan has continued to win more new contracts than any other driller.

In April 2019, Ensco plc (ESV) and Rowan Companies plc (RDC) merged in an all-stock transaction.  The combination has brought together two world-class operators with common cultures.  Both companies have strong track records of safety and operational excellence.  And both companies have a strategic focus on innovative technologies that increase efficiencies and lower costs.

Ensco Rowan is the largest offshore driller and it has one of the highest quality fleets in the world.  It has a presence in six continents and nearly all major offshore markets.  The company has a large and diverse customer base including major, national, and independent E&P companies.

Ensco Rowan has $2.8 billion in contracted revenue backlog.  It has $1.6 billion in cash and short-term investments and $2.3 billion in credit available.  And it has only $1.1 billion in debt maturities to 2024, with no secured debt in the capital structure.

Also, Ensco Rowan expects to achieve cost savings of $165 million pre-tax per year.  The company may achieve additional savings through adoption of best-in-class operational processes and through economies of scale in capital purchasing.

You might wonder if Ensco is giving up something in the merger, given its ability to offer the highest specification drilling rigs—especially for ultra-deepwater.  However, Rowan’s groundbreaking partnership (ARO Drilling) with Saudi Aramco will create billions of dollars in value for shareholders.  Moreover, Rowan is a leading provider of ultra-harsh and modern harsh environment jackups.

Intrinsic value scenarios for Ensco Rowan:

    • Low case: If oil prices languish below $60 (WTI) for the next 3 to 5 years, Ensco Rowan will be a survivor, due to its large fleet, globally diverse customer base, industry leading performance, low cost structure, and well-capitalized position.  In this scenario, Ensco Rowan is likely worth at least one-half of current book value (which is depressed) of $72.27.  That’s $36.14, about 445% higher than today’s $6.62.
    • Mid case: If oil prices are in a range of $65 to $85 over the next 3 to 5 years—which is likely based on long-term supply and demand—then Ensco Rowan is probably worth at least 125% current book value (which is depressed) of $72.27 a share.  That’s $90.34, over 1,260% higher than today’s $6.62.
    • High case: If oil prices average $85 or more over the next 3 to 5 years, then Ensco Rowan is worth at least 175% of current book value of $72.27.  That’s $126.47, over 1,800% higher than today’s $6.62.

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.

Are offshore oil drillers in a cyclical or a secular decline?  It’s likely that oil will return to $65-85 in the next 3 to 5 years.  But no one knows for sure.

Ongoing improvements in technology allow oil producers to get more oil—more cheaply—out of existing fields.  Also, growth in transport demand for oil will slow significantly at some point, due to ongoing improvements in fuel efficiency.  See: https://www.spe.org/en/jpt/jpt-article-detail/?art=3286

Transport demand is responsible for over 50% of daily oil consumption, and it’s inelastic—typically people have to get where they’re going, so they’re not very sensitive to fuel price increases.

But even if oil never returns to $65+, oil will be needed for many decades.  At least some offshore drilling will still be needed.

What’s great about an investment in Ensco Rowan is that even in worst case, the company will survive and the stock would likely be worth at least half of current book value (which is depressed) of $72.27.  That’s $36.14 a share, about 445% higher than today’s 6.62.  Recall that the company has the largest and one of the most technically advanced fleets.  Also, Ensco Rowan has a globally diverse customer base, industry leading performance, a low cost structure, and a well-capitalized position.

If the worst-case scenario means that you’ll more than quintuple your money—over a 3- to 5-year holding period—that’s an interesting investment.  And if the base case scenario means that you’ll make over 12x your money, well…

Notes:

  • The Boole Fund had an investment in Atwood Oceanics.  Because Ensco acquired Atwood in 2017, the Boole Fund owns in Ensco.
  • Recently Ensco plc and Rowan Companies plc merged in an all-stock transaction.  As a result, the Boole Fund now owns shares in Ensco Rowan plc (ESV).
  • The Boole Fund holds positions for 3 to 5 years.  The fund doesn’t sell an investment that is still cheap, even if the stock in question is no longer a micro cap.

 

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.

Invest Like Sherlock Holmes

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

May 19, 2019

Robert G. Hagstrom has written a number of excellent books on investing.  One of his best is The Detective and the Investor  (Texere, 2002).

Many investors are too focused on the short term, are overwhelmed with information, take shortcuts, or fall prey to cognitive biases.  Hagstrom argues that investors can learn from the Great Detectives as well as from top investigative journalists.

Great detectives very patiently gather information from a wide variety of sources.  They discard facts that turn out to be irrelevant and keep looking for new facts that are relevant.  They painstakingly use logic to analyze the given information and reach the correct conclusion.  They’re quite willing to discard a hypothesis, no matter how well-supported, if new facts lead in a different direction.

(Illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget (1891), via Wikimedia Commons)

Top investigative journalists follow a similar method.

Outline for this blog post:

  • The Detective and the Investor
  • Auguste Dupin
  • Jonathan Laing and Sunbeam
  • Top Investigative Journalists
  • Edna Buchanan—Pulitzer Prize Winner
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Holmes on Wall Street
  • Father Brown
  • How to Become a Great Detective

The first Great Detective is Auguste Dupin, an invention of Edgar Allan Poe.  The financial journalist Jonathan Laing’s patient and logical analysis of the Sunbeam Corporation bears similarity to Dupin’s methods.

Top investigative journalists are great detectives.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edna Buchanan is an excellent example.

Sherlock Holmes is the most famous Great Detective.  Holmes was invented by Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle.

Last but not least, Father Brown is the third Great Detective discussed by Hagstrom.  Father Brown was invented by G. K. Chesterton.

The last section—How To Become a Great Detective—sums up what you as an investor can learn from the three Great Detectives.

 

THE DETECTIVE AND THE INVESTOR

Hagstrom writes that many investors, both professional and amateur, have fallen into bad habits, including the following:

  • Short-term thinking: Many professional investors advertise their short-term track records, and many clients sign up on this basis.  But short-term performance is largely random, and usually cannot be maintained.  What matters (at a minimum) is performance over rolling five-year periods.
  • Infatuation with speculation: Speculation is guessing what other investors will do in the short term.  Investing, on the other hand, is figuring out the value of a given business and only buying when the price is well below that value.
  • Overload of information: The internet has led to an overabundance of information.  This makes it crucial that you, as an investor, know how to interpret and analyze the information.
  • Mental shortcuts: We know from Daniel Kahneman (see Thinking, Fast and Slow) that most people rely on System 1 (intuition) rather than System 2 (logic and math) when making decisions under uncertainty.  Most investors jump to conclusions based on easy explanations, and then—due to confirmation bias—only see evidence that supports their conclusions.
  • Emotional potholes: In addition to confirmation bias, investors suffer from overconfidence, hindsight bias, loss aversion, and several other cognitive biases.  These cognitive biases regularly cause investors to make mistakes in their investment decisions.  I wrote about cognitive biases here: http://boolefund.com/cognitive-biases/

How can investors develop better habits?  Hagstrom:

The core premise of this book is that the same mental skills that characterize a good detective also characterize a good investor… To say this another way, the analytical methods displayed by the best fictional detectives are in fact high-level decision-making tools that can be learned and applied to the investment world.

(Illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget, via Wikimedia Commons)

Hagstrom asks if it is possible to combine the methods of the three Great Detectives.  If so, what would the ideal detective’s approach to investing be?

First, our investor-detective would have to keep an open mind, be prepared to analyze each new opportunity without any preset opinions.  He or she would be well versed in the basic methods of inquiry, and so would avoid making any premature and possibly inaccurate assumptions.  Of course, our investor-detective would presume that the truth might be hidden below the surface and so would distrust the obvious.  The investor-detective would operate with cool calculation and not allow emotions to distract clear thinking.  The investor-detective would also be able to deconstruct the complex situation into its analyzable parts.  And perhaps most important, our investor-detective would have a passion for truth, and, driven by a nagging premonition that things are not what they seem to be, would keep digging away until all the evidence had been uncovered.

 

AUGUSTE DUPIN

(Illustration—by Frédéric Théodore Lix—to The Purloined Letter, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Murders in the Rue Morgue exemplifies Dupin’s skill as a detective.  The case involves Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter.  Madame L’Espanaye was found behind the house in the yard with multiple broken bones and her head almost severed.  The daughter was found strangled to death and stuffed upside down into a chimney.  The murders occurred in a fourth-floor room that was locked from the inside.  On the floor were a bloody straight razor, several bloody tufts of grey hair, and two bags of gold coins.

Several witnesses heard voices, but no one could say for sure which language it was.  After deliberation, Dupin concludes that they must not have been hearing a human voice at all.  He also dismisses the possibility of robbery, since the gold coins weren’t taken.  Moreover, the murderer would have to possess superhuman strength to stuff the daughter’s body up the chimney.  As for getting into a locked room, the murderer could have gotten in through a window.  Finally, Dupin demonstrates that the daughter could not have been strangled by a human hand.  Dupin concludes that Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter were killed by an orangutan.

Dupin places an advertisement in the local newspaper asking if anyone had lost an orangutan.  A sailor arrives looking for it.  The sailor explains that he had seen the orangutan with a razor, imitating the sailor shaving.  The orangutan had then fled.  Once it got into the room with Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, the orangutan probably grabbed Madame’s hair and was waving the razor, imitating a barber.  When the woman screamed in fear, the orangutan grew furious and killed her and her daughter.

Thus Dupin solves what at first seemed like an impossible case.  The solution is completely unexpected but is the only logical possibility, given all the facts.

Hagstrom writes that investors can learn important lessons from the Great Detective Auguste Dupin:

First, look in all directions, observe carefully and thoughtfully everything you see, and do not make assumptions from inadequate information.  On the other hand, do not blindly accept what you find.  Whatever you read, hear, or overhear about a certain stock or company may not necessarily be true.  Keep on with your research;  give yourself time to dig beneath the surface.

If you’re a small investor, it’s often best to invest in microcap stocks.  (This presumes that you have access to a proven investment process.)  There are hundreds of tiny companies much too small for most professional investors even to consider.  Thus, there is much more mispricing among micro caps.  Moreover, many microcap companies are relatively easy to analyze and understand.  (The Boole Microcap Fund invests in microcap companies.)

 

JONATHAN LAING AND SUNBEAM

(Sunbeam logo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Hagstrom writes that, in the spring of 1997, Wall Street was in love with the self-proclaimed ‘turnaround genius’ Al Dunlap.  Dunlap was asked to take over the troubled Sunbeam Corporation, a maker of electric home appliances.  Dunlap would repeat the strategy he used on previous turnarounds:

[Drive] up the stock price by any means necessary, sell the company, and cash in his stock options at the inflated price.

Although Dunlap made massive cost cuts, some journalists were skeptical, viewing Sunbeam as being in a weak competitive position in a harsh industry.  Jonathan Laing of Barron’s, in particular, took a close look at Sunbeam.  Laing focused on accounting practices:

First, Laing pointed out that Sunbeam took a huge restructuring charge ($337 million) in the last quarter of 1996, resulting in a net loss for the year of $228.3 million.  The charges included moving reserves from 1996 to 1997 (where they could later be recharacterized as income);  prepaying advertising expenses to make the new year’s numbers look better;  a suspiciously high charge for bad-debt allowance;  a $90 million write-off for inventory that, if sold at a later date, could turn up in future profits;  and write-offs for plants, equipment, and trademarks used by business lines that were still operating.

To Laing, it looked very much like Sunbeam was trying to find every possible way to transfer 1997 projected losses to 1996 (and write 1996 off as a lost year, claiming it was ruined by previous management) while at the same time switching 1996 income into 1997…

(Photo by Evgeny Ivanov)

Hagstrom continues:

Even though Sunbeam’s first-quarter 1997 numbers did indeed show a strong increase in sales volume, Laing had collected evidence that the company was engaging in the practice known as ‘inventory stuffing’—getting retailers to place abnormally large orders either through high-pressure sales tactics or by offering them deep discounts (using the written-off inventory from 1996).  Looking closely at Sunbeam’s financial reports, Laing also found a hodgepodge of other maneuvers designed to boost sales numbers, such as delaying delivery of sales made in 1996 so they could go on the books as 1997 sales, shipping more units than the customer had actually ordered, and counting as sales orders that had already been canceled.

The bottom line was simply that much of 1997’s results would be artificial.  Hagstrom summarizes the lesson from Dupin and Laing:

The core lesson for investors here can be expressed simply:  Take nothing for granted, whether it comes from the prefect of police or the CEO of a major corporation.  This is, in fact, a key theme of this chapter.  If something doesn’t make sense to you—no matter who says it—that’s your cue to start digging.

By July 1998, Sunbeam stock had lost 80 percent of its value and was lower than when Dunlap took over.  The board of directors fired Dunlap and admitted that its 1997 financial statements were unreliable and were being audited by a new accounting firm.  In February 2001, Sunbeam filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  On May 15, 2001, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit against Dunlap and four senior Sunbeam executives, along with their accounting firm, Arthur Andersen.  The SEC charged them with a fraudulent scheme to create the illusion of a successful restructuring.

Hagstrom points out what made Laing successful as an investigative journalist:

He read more background material, dissected more financial statements, talked to more people, and painstakingly pieced together what many others failed to see.

 

TOP INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISTS

Hagstrom mentions Professor Linn B. Washington, Jr., a talented teacher and experienced investigative reporter.  (Washington was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Prize for his series of articles on drug wars in the Richard Allen housing project.)  Hagstrom quotes Washington:

Investigative journalism is not a nine-to-five job.  All good investigative journalists are first and foremost hard workers.  They are diggers.  They don’t stop at the first thing they come to but rather they feel a need to persist.  They are often passionate about the story they are working on and this passion helps fuel the relentless pursuit of information.  You can’t teach that.  They either have it or they don’t.

…I think most reporters have a sense of morality.  They are outraged by corruption and they believe their investigations have a real purpose, an almost sacred duty to fulfill.  Good investigative reporters want to right the wrong, to fight for the underdog.  And they believe there is a real responsibility attached to the First Amendment.

(Photo by Robyn Mackenzie)

Hagstrom then refers to The Reporter’s Handbook, written by Steve Weinberg for investigative journalists.  Weinberg maintains that gathering information involves two categories: documents and people.  Hagstrom:

Weinberg asks readers to imagine three concentric circles.  The outmost one is ‘secondary sources,’ the middle one ‘primary sources.’  Both are composed primarily of documents.  The inner circle, ‘human sources,’ is made up of people—a wide range of individuals who hold some tidbit of information to add to the picture the reporter is building.

Ideally, the reporter starts with secondary sources and then primary sources:

At these two levels of the investigation, the best reporters rely on what has been called a ‘documents state of mind.’  This way of looking at the world has been articulated by James Steele and Donald Bartlett, an investigative team from the Philadephia Inquirer.  It means that the reporter starts from day one with the belief that a good record exists somewhere, just waiting to be found.

Once good background knowledge is accumulated from all the primary and secondary documents, the reporter is ready to turn to the human sources…

Photo by intheskies

Time equals truth:

As they start down this research track, reporters also need to remember another vital concept from the handbook:  ‘Time equals truth.’  Doing a complete job of research takes time, whether the researcher is a reporter following a story or an investor following a company—or for that matter, a detective following the evidence at a crime scene.  Journalists, investors, and detectives must always keep in mind that the degree of truth one finds is directly proportional to the amount of time one spends in the search.  The road to truth permits no shortcuts.

The Reporter’s Handbook also urges reporters to question conventional wisdom, to remember that whatever they learn in their investigation may be biased, superficial, self-serving for the source, or just plain wrong.  It’s another way of saying ‘Take nothing for granted.’  It is the journalist’s responsibility—and the investor’s—to penetrate the conventional wisdom and find what is on the other side.

The three concepts discussed above—‘adopt a documents state of mind,’ ‘time equals truth,’ and ‘question conventional wisdom;  take nothing for granted’—may be key operating principles for journalists, but I see them also as new watchwords for investors.

 

EDNA BUCHANAN—PULITZER PRIZE WINNER

Edna Buchanan, working for the Miami Herald and covering the police beat, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986.  Hagstrom lists some of Buchanan’s principles:

  • Do a complete background check on all the key players.  Find out how a person treats employees, women, the environment, animals, and strangers who can do nothing for them.  Discover if they have a history of unethical and/or illegal behavior.
  • Cast a wide net.  Talk to as many people as you possibly can.  There is always more information.  You just have to find it.  Often that requires being creative.
  • Take the time.  Learning the truth is proportional to the time and effort you invest.  There is always more that you can do.  And you may uncover something crucial.  Never take shortcuts.
  • Use common sense.  Often official promises and pronouncements simply don’t fit the evidence.  Often people lie, whether due to conformity to the crowd, peer pressure, loyalty (like those trying to protect Nixon et al. during Watergate), trying to protect themselves, fear, or any number of reasons.  As for investing, some stories take a long time to figure out, while other stories (especially for tiny companies) are relatively simple.
  • Take no one’s word.  Find out for yourself.  Always be skeptical and read between the lines.  Very often official press releases have been vetted by lawyers and leave out critical information.  Take nothing for granted.
  • Double-check your facts, and then check them again.  For a good reporter, double-checking facts is like breathing.  Find multiples sources of information.  Again, there are no shortcuts.  If you’re an investor, you usually need the full range of good information in order to make a good decision.

In most situations, to get it right requires a great deal of work.  You must look for information from a broad range of sources.  Typically you will find differing opinions.  Not all information has the same value.  Always be skeptical of conventional wisdom, or what ‘everybody knows.’

 

SHERLOCK HOLMES

Image by snaptitude

Sherlock Holmes approaches every problem by following three steps:

  • First, he makes a calm, meticulous examination of the situation, taking care to remain objective and avoid the undue influence of emotion.  Nothing, not even the tiniest detail, escapes his keen eye.
  • Next, he takes what he observes and puts it in context by incorporating elements from his existing store of knowledge.  From his encyclopedic mind, he extracts information about the thing observed that enables him to understand its significance.
  • Finally, he evaluates what he observed in the light of this context and, using sound deductive reasoning, analyzes what it means to come up with the answer.

These steps occur and re-occur in an iterative search for all the facts and for the best hypothesis.

There was a case involving a young doctor, Percy Trevelyan.  Some time ago, an older gentleman named Blessington offered to set up a medical practice for Trevelyan in return for a share of the profits.  Trevelyan agreed.

A patient suffering from catalepsy—a specialty of the doctor—came to the doctor’s office one day.  The patient also had his son with him.  During the examination, the patient suffered a cataleptic attack.  The doctor ran from the room to grab the treatment medicine.  But when he got back, the patient and his son were gone.  The two men returned the following day, giving a reasonable explanation for the mix-up, and the exam continued.  (On both visits, the son had stayed in the waiting room.)

Shortly after the second visit, Blessington burst into the exam room, demanding to know who had been in his private rooms.  The doctor tried to assure him that no one had.  But upon going to Blessington’s room, he saw a strange set of footprints.  Only after Trevelyan promises to bring Sherlock Holmes to the case does Blessington calm down.

Holmes talks with Blessington.  Blessington claims not to know who is after him, but Holmes can tell that he is lying.  Holmes later tells his assistant Watson that the patient and his son were fakes and had some sinister reason for wanting to get Blessington.

Holmes is right.  The next morning, Holmes and Watson are called to the house again.  This time, Blessington is dead, apparently having hung himself.

But Holmes deduces that it wasn’t a suicide but a murder.  For one thing, there were four cigar butts found in the fireplace, which led the policeman to conclude that Blessington had stayed up late agonizing over his decision.  But Holmes recognizes that Blessington’s cigar is a Havana, but the other three cigars had been imported by the Dutch from East India.  Furthermore, two had been smoked from a holder and two without.  So there were at least two other people in the room with Blessington.

Holmes does his usual very methodical examination of the room and the house.  He finds three sets of footprints on the stairs, clearly showing that three men had crept up the stairs.  The men had forced the lock, as Holmes deduced from scratches on it.

Holmes also realized the three men had come to commit murder.  There was a screwdriver left behind.  And he could further deduce (by the ashes dropped) where each man sat as the three men deliberated over how to kill Blessington.  Eventually, they hung Blessington.  Two killers left the house and the third barred the door, implying that the third murderer must be a part of the doctor’s household.

All these signs were visible:  the three sets of footprints, the scratches on the lock, the cigars that were not Blessington’s type, the screwdriver, the fact that the front door was barred when the police arrived.  But it took Holmes to put them all together and deduce their meaning:  murder, not suicide.  As Holmes himself remarked in another context, ‘The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.’

…He knows Blessington was killed by people well known to him.  He also knows, from Trevelyan’s description, what the fake patient and his son look like.  And he has found a photograph of Blessington in the apartment.  A quick stop at policy headquarters is all Holmes needs to pinpoint their identity.  The killers, no strangers to the police, were a gang of bank robbers who had gone to prison after being betrayed by their partner, who then took off with all the money—the very money he used to set Dr. Trevelyan up in practice.  Recently released from prison, the gang tracked Blessington down and finally executed him.

Spelled out thus, one logical point after another, it seems a simple solution.  Indeed, that is Holmes’s genius:  Everything IS simple, once he explains it.

Hagstrom then adds:

Holmes operates from the presumption that all things are explainable;  that the clues are always present, awaiting discovery. 

The first step—gathering all the facts—usually requires a great deal of careful effort and attention.  One single fact can be the key to deducing the true hypothesis.  The current hypothesis is revisable if there may be relevant facts not yet known.  Therefore, a heightened degree of awareness is always essential.  With practice, a heightened state of alertness becomes natural for the detective (or the investor).

“Details contain the vital essence of the whole matter.” — Sherlock Holmes

Moreover, it’s essential to keep emotion out of the process of discovery:

One reason Holmes is able to see fully what others miss is that he maintains a level of detached objectivity toward the people involved.  He is careful not to be unduly influenced by emotion, but to look at the facts with calm, dispassionate regard.  He sees everything that is there—and nothing that is not.  For Holmes knows that when emotion seeps in, one’s vision of what is true can become compromised.  As he once remarked to Dr. Watson, ‘Emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning… Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner.  You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.’

Image by snaptitude

Holmes himself is rather aloof and even antisocial, which helps him to maintain objectivity when collecting and analyzing data.

‘I make a point of never having any prejudices and of following docilely wherever fact may lead me.’  He starts, that is, with no preformed idea, and merely collects data.  But it is part of Holmes’s brilliance that he does not settle for the easy answer.  Even when he has gathered together enough facts to suggest one logical possibility, he always knows that this answer may not be the correct one.  He keeps searching until he has found everything, even if subsequent facts point in another direction.  He does not reject the new facts simply because they’re antithetical to what he’s already found, as so many others might.

Hagstrom observes that many investors are susceptible to confirmation bias:

…Ironically, it is the investors eager to do their homework who may be the most susceptible.  At a certain point in their research, they have collected enough information that a pattern becomes clear, and they assume they have found the answer.  If subsequent information then contradicts that pattern, they cannot bring themselves to abandon the theory they worked so hard to develop, so they reject the new facts.

Gathering information about an investment you are considering means gather all the information, no matter where it ultimately leads you.  If you find something that does not fit your original thesis, don’t discard the new information—change the thesis.

 

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

Arthur Conan Doyle was a Scottish doctor.  One of his professors, Dr. Bell, challenged his students to hone their skills of observation.  Bell believed that a correct diagnosis required alert attention to all aspects of the patient, not just the stated problem.  Doyle later worked for Dr. Bell.  Doyle’s job was to note the patients’ problem along with all possibly relevant details.

Doyle had a very slow start as a doctor.  He had virtually no patients.  He spent his spare time writing, which he had loved doing since boarding school.  Doyle’s main interest was historical fiction.  But he didn’t get much money from what he wrote.

One day he wrote a short novel, A Study in Scarlet, which introduced a private detective, Sherlock Holmes.  Hagstrom quotes Doyle:

I thought I would try my hand at writing a story where the hero would treat crime as Dr. Bell treated disease, and where science would take the place of chance.

Doyle soon realized that he might be able to sell short stories about Sherlock Holmes as a way to get some extra income.  Doyle preferred historical novels, but his short stories about Sherlock Holmes started selling surprisingly well.  Because Doyle continued to emphasize historical novels and the practice of medicine, he demanded higher and higher fees for his short stories about Sherlock Holmes.  But the stories were so popular that magazine editors kept agreeing to the fee increases.

Photo by davehanlon

Soon thereafter, Doyle, having hardly a single patient, decided to abandon medicine and focus on writing.  Doyle still wanted to do other types of writing besides the short stories.  He asked for a very large sum for the Sherlock Holmes stories so that the editors would stop bothering him.  Instead, the editors immediately agreed to the huge fee.

Many years later, Doyle was quite tired of Holmes and Watson after having written fifty-six short stories and four novels about them.  But readers never could get enough.  And the stories are still highly popular to this day, which attests to Doyle’s genius.  Doyle has always been credited with launching the tradition of the scientific sleuth.

 

HOLMES ON WALL STREET

Sherlock Holmes is the most famous Great Detective for good reason.  He is exceptionally thorough, unemotional, and logical.

Holmes knows a great deal about many different things, which is essential in order for him to arrange and analyze all the facts:

The list of things Holmes knows about is staggering:  the typefaces used by different newspapers, what the shape of a skull reveals about race, the geography of London, the configuration of railway lines in cities versus suburbs, and the types of knots used by sailors, for a few examples.  He has authored numerous scientific monographs on such topics as tattoos, ciphers, tobacco ash, variations in human ears, what can be learned from typewriter keys, preserving footprints with plaster of Paris, how a man’s trade affects the shape of his hands, and what a dog’s manner can reveal about the character of its owner.

(Illustration of Sherlock Holmes with various tools, by Elena Kreys)

Consider what Holmes says about his monograph on the subject of tobacco:

“In it I enumerate 140 forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco… It is sometimes of supreme importance as a clue.  If you can say definitely, for example, that some murder has been done by a man who was smoking an Indian lunkah, it obviously narrows your field of search.”

It’s very important to keep gathering and re-gathering facts to ensure that you haven’t missed anything.  Holmes:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence.  It biases the judgment.”

“The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession.”

Although gathering all facts is essential, at the same time, you must be organizing those facts since not all facts are relevant to the case at hand.  Of course, this is an iterative process. You may discard a fact as irrelevant and realize later that it is relevant.

Part of the sorting process involves a logical analysis of various combinations of facts.  You reject combinations that are logically impossible.  As Holmes famously said:

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Often there is more than one logical possibility that is consistent with the known facts.  Be careful not to be deceived by obvious hypotheses.  Often what is ‘obvious’ is completely wrong.

Sometimes finding the solution requires additional research.  Entertaining several possible hypotheses may also be required.  Holmes:

“When you follow two separate chains of thought you will find some point of intersection which should approximate to the truth.”

But be careful to keep facts and hypotheses separate, as Holmes asserts:

“The difficulty is to detach the frame of absolute undeniable facts from the embellishments of theorists.  Then, having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns.”

For example, there was a case involving the disappearance of a valuable racehorse.  The chief undeniable fact was that the dog did not bark, which meant that the intruder had to be familiar to the dog.

Sherlock Holmes As Investor

How would Holmes approach investing?  Hagstrom:

Here’s what we know of his methods:  He begins an examination with an objective mind, untainted by prejudice.  He observes acutely and catalogues all the information, down to the tiniest detail, and draws on his broad knowledge to put those details into context.  Then, armed with the facts, he walks logically, rationally, thoughtfully toward a conclusion, always on the lookout for new, sometimes contrary information that might alter the outcome.

It’s worth repeating that much of the process of gathering facts can be tedious and boring.  This is the price you must pay to ensure you get all the facts.  Similarly, analyzing all the facts often requires patience and can take a long time.  No shortcuts.

 

FATHER BROWN

Hagstrom opens the chapter with a scene in which Aristide Valentin—head of Paris police and the most famous investigator in Europe—is chasing Hercule Flambeau, a wealthy and famous French jewel thief.  Both Valentin and Flambeau are on the same train.  But Valentin gets distracted by the behavior of a very short Catholic priest with a round face.  The priest is carrying several brown paper parcels, and he keeps dropping one or the other, or dropping his umbrella.

When the train reaches London, Valentin isn’t exactly sure where Flambeau went.  So Valentin decides to go systematically to the ‘wrong places.’  Valentin ends up at a certain restaurant that caught his attention.  A sugar bowl has salt in it, while the saltcellar contains sugar.  He learns from a waiter that two clergymen had been there earlier, and that one had thrown a half-empty cup of soup against the wall.  Valentin inquires which way the priests went.

Valentin goes to Carstairs Street.  He passes a greengrocer’s stand where the signs for oranges and nuts have been switched.  The owner is still upset about a recent incident in which a parson knocked over his bin of apples.

Valentin keeps looking and notices a restaurant that has a broken window.  He questions the waiter, who explains to him that two foreign parsons had been there.  Apparently, they overpaid.  The waiter told the two parsons of their mistake, at which point one parson said, ‘Sorry for the confusion.  But the extra amount will pay for the window I’m about to break.’  Then the parson broke the window.

Valentin finally ends up in a public park, where he sees two men, one short and one tall, both wearing clerical garb.  Valentin approaches and recognizes that the short man is the same clumsy priest from the train.  The short priest suspected all along that the tall man was not a priest but a criminal.  The short priest, Father Brown, had left the trail of hints for the police.  At that moment, even without turning around, Father Brown knew the police were nearby ready to arrest Flambeau.

Father Brown was invented by G. K. Chesterton.  Father Brown is very compassionate and has deep insight into human psychology, which often helps him to solve crimes.

He knows, from hearing confessions and ministering in times of trouble, how people act when they have done something wrong.  From observing a person’s behavior—facial expressions, ways of walking and talking, general demeanor—he can tell much about that person.  In a word, he can see inside someone’s heart and mind, and form a clear impression about character…

His feats of detection have their roots in this knowledge of human nature, which comes from two sources:  his years in the confessional, and his own self-awareness.  What makes Father Brown truly exceptional is that he acknowledges the capacity for evildoing in himself.  In ‘The Hammer of God’ he says, ‘I am a man and therefore have all devils in my heart.’

Because of this compassionate understanding of human weakness, from both within and without, he can see into the darkest corners of the human heart.  The ability to identify with the criminal, to feel what he is feeling, is what leads him to find the identity of the criminal—even, sometimes, to predict the crime, for he knows the point at which human emotions such as fear or jealousy tip over from acceptable expression into crime.  Even then, he believes in the inherent goodness of mankind, and sets the redemption of the wrongdoer as his main goal.

While Father Brown excels in understanding human psychology, he also excels at logical analysis of the facts.  He is always open to alternative explanations.

(Frontispiece to G. K. Chesterton’s The Wisdom of Father Brown, Illustration by Sydney Semour Lucas, via Wikimedia Commons)

Later the great thief Flambeau is persuaded by Father Brown to give up a life of crime and become a private investigator.  Meanwhile, Valentin, the famous detective, turns to crime and nearly gets away with murder.  Chesterton loves such ironic twists.

Chesterton was a brilliant writer who wrote in an amazing number of different fields.  Chesterton was very compassionate, with a highly developed sense of social justice, notes Hagstrom.  The Father Brown stories are undoubtedly entertaining, but they also deal with questions of justice and morality.  Hagstrom quotes an admirer of Chesterton, who said:  ‘Sherlock Holmes fights criminals;  Father Brown fights the devil.’  Whenever possible, Father Brown wants the criminal to find redemption.

Hagstrom lists what could be Father Brown’s investment guidelines:

  • Look carefully at the circumstances;  do whatever it takes to gather all the clues.
  • Cultivate the understanding of intangibles.
  • Using both tangible and intangible evidence, develop such a full knowledge of potential investments that you can honestly say you know them inside out.
  • Trust your instincts.  Intuition is invaluable.
  • Remain open to the possibility that something else may be happening, something different from that which first appears; remember that the full truth may be hidden beneath the surface.

Hagstrom mentions that psychology can be useful for investing:

Just as Father Brown’s skill as an analytical detective was greatly improved by incorporating the study of psychology with the method of observations, so too can individuals improve their investment performance by combining the study of psychology with the physical evidence of financial statement analysis.

 

HOW TO BECOME A GREAT DETECTIVE

Hagstrom lists the habits of mind of the Great Detectives:

Auguste Dupin

  • Develop a skeptic’s mindset;  don’t automatically accept conventional wisdom.
  • Conduct a thorough investigation.

Sherlock Holmes

  • Begin an investigation with an objective and unemotional viewpoint.
  • Pay attention to the tiniest details.
  • Remain open-minded to new, even contrary, information.
  • Apply a process of logical reasoning to all you learn.

Father Brown

  • Become a student of psychology.
  • Have faith in your intuition.
  • Seek alternative explanations and re-descriptions.

Hagstrom argues that these habits of mind, if diligently and consistently applied, can help you to do better as an investor over time.

Furthermore, the true hero is reason, a lesson directly applicable to investing:

As I think back over all the mystery stories I have read, I realize there were many detectives but only one hero.  That hero is reason.  No matter who the detective was—Dupin, Holmes, Father Brown, Nero Wolfe, or any number of modern counterparts—it was reason that solved the crime and captured the criminal.  For the Great Detectives, reason is everything.  It controls their thinking, illuminates their investigation, and helps them solve the mystery.

Illustration by yadali

Hagstrom continues:

Now think of yourself as an investor.  Do you want greater insight about a perplexing market?  Reason will clarify your investment approach.

Do you want to escape the trap of irrational, emotion-based action and instead make decisions with calm deliberation?  Reason will steady your thinking.

Do you want to be in possession of all the relevant investment facts before making a purchase?  Reason will help you uncover the truth.

Do you want to improve your investment results by purchasing profitable stocks?  Reason will help you capture the market’s mispricing.

In sum, conduct a thorough investigation.  Painstakingly gather all the facts and keep your emotions entirely out of it.  Skeptically question conventional wisdom and ‘what is obvious.’  Carefully use logic to reason through possible hypotheses.  Eliminate hypotheses that cannot explain all the facts.  Stay open to new information and be willing to discard the best current hypothesis if new facts lead in a different direction.  Finally, be a student of psychology.

 

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.

A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

April 14, 2019

Peter Bevelin is the author of the great book, Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger.  I wrote about this book here: http://boolefund.com/seeking-wisdom/

Bevelin also wrote a shorter book, A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes.  I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes.  Robert Hagstrom has written an excellent book on Holmes called The Detective and the Investor.  Here’s my summary of Hagstrom’s book: http://boolefund.com/invest-like-sherlock-holmes/

I highly recommend Hagstrom’s book.  But if you’re pressed for time, Bevelin’s A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes is worth reading.

Belevin’s book is a collection of quotations.  Most of the quotes are from Holmes, but there are also quotes from others, including:

    • Joseph Bell, a Scottish professor of clinical surgery who was Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Sherlock Holmes
    • Dr. John Watson, Holmes’s assistant
    • Dr. John Evelyn Thorndike, a fictional detective and forensic scientist  in stories by R. Austin Freeman
    • Claude Bernard, a French physiologist
    • Charles Darwin, the English naturalist
    • Thomas McRae, an American professor of medicine and colleague of Sir William Osler
    • Michel de Montaigne, a French statesman and philosopher
    • William Osler, a Canadian physician
    • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., an American physician and author

Sherlock Holmes:

Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.

(Illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget, via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an outline for this blog post:

    • Some Lessons
    • On Solving a Case—Observation and Inference
    • Observation—Start with collecting facts and follow them where they lead
    • Deduction—What inferences can we draw from our observations and facts?
    • Test Our Theory—If it disagrees with the facts it is wrong
    • Some Other Tools

 

SOME LESSONS

Bevelin quotes the science writer Martin Gardner on Sherlock Holmes:

Like the scientist trying to solve a mystery of nature, Holmes first gathered all the evidence he could that was relevant to his problem.  At times, he performed experiments to obtain fresh data.  He then surveyed the total evidence in the light of his vast knowledge of crime, and/or sciences relevant to crime, to arrive at the most probable hypothesis.  Deductions were made from the hypothesis; then the theory was further tested against new evidence, revised if need be, until finally the truth emerged with a probability approaching certainty.

Bevelin quotes Holmes on the qualities needed to be a good detective:

He has the power of observation and that of deduction.  He is only wanting in knowledge, and that may come in time.

It’s important to take a broad view.  Holmes:

One’s ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature.

However, focus only on what is useful.  Bevelin quotes Dr. Joseph Bell:

He [Doyle] created a shrewd, quick-sighted, inquisitive man… with plenty of spare time, a retentive memory, and perhaps with the best gift of all—the power of unloading the mind of all burden of trying to remember unnecessary details.

Knowledge of human nature is obviously important.  Holmes:

Human nature is a strange mixture, Watson.  You see that even a villain and murderer can inspire such affection that his brother turns to suicide when he learns his neck is forfeited.

Holmes again:

Jealousy is a strange transformer of characters.

Bevelin writes that the most learned are not the wisest.  Knowledge doesn’t automatically make us wise.  Bevelin quotes Montaigne:

Judgment can do without knowledge but not knowledge without judgment.

Learning is lifelong.  Holmes:

Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study, nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it.

Interior view of the famous The Sherlock Holmes Museum on Nov. 14, 2015 in London

 

ON SOLVING A CASE—Observation and Inference

Bevelin quotes Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, a fictional detective in stories by R. Austin Freeman:

…I make it a rule, in all cases, to proceed on the strictly classical lines on inductive inquiry—collect facts, make hypotheses, test them and seek for verification.  And I always endeavour to keep a perfectly open mind.

Holmes:

We approached the case… with an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage.  We had formed no theories.  We were there simply to observe and to draw inferences from our observations.

Appearances can be deceiving.  If someone is likeable, that can cloud one’s judgment.  If someone is not likeable, that also can be misleading.  Holmes:

It is of the first importance… not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities… The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.  I can assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money, and the most repellant man of my acquaintence is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million on the London poor.

Holmes talking to Watson:

You remember that terrible murderer, Bert Stevens, who wanted us to get him off in ’87?  Was there ever a more mild-mannered, Sunday-school young man?

 

OBSERVATION—Start with collecting facts and follow them where they lead

Bevelin quotes Thomas McCrae, an American professor of medicine and colleague of Sir William Osler:

More is missed by not looking than not knowing.

That said, to conduct an investigation one must have a working hypothesis.  Bevelin quotes the French physiologist Claude Bernard:

A hypothesis is… the obligatory starting point of all experimental reasoning.  Without it no investigation would be possible, and one would learn nothing:  one could only pile up barren observations.  To experiment without a preconceived idea is to wander aimlessly.

(Charles Darwin, Photo by Maull and Polyblank (1855), via Wikimedia Commons)

Bevelin also quotes Charles Darwin:

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colors.  How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

Holmes:

Let us take that as  a working hypothesis and see what it leads us to.

It’s crucial to make sure one has the facts clearly in mind.  Bevelin quotes the French statesman and philosopher Montaigne:

I realize that if you ask people to account for “facts,” they usually spend more time finding reasons for them than finding out whether they are true…

Deception, writes Bevelin, has many faces.  Montaigne again:

If falsehood, like truth, had only one face, we would be in better shape.  For we would take as certain the opposite of what the liar said.  But the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field.

Consider why someone might be lying.  Holmes:

Why are they lying, and what is the truth which they are trying so hard to conceal?  Let us try, Watson, you and I, if we can get behind the lie and reconstruct the truth.

It’s often not clear—especially near the beginning of an investigation—what’s relevant and what’s not.  Nonetheless, it’s vital to try to focus on what’s relevant because otherwise one can get bogged down by unnecessary detail.  Holmes:

The principal difficulty in your case… lay in the fact of their being too much evidence.  What was vital was overlaid and hidden by what was irrelevant.  Of all the facts which were presented to us we had to pick just those which we deemed to be essential, and then piece them together in order, so as to reconstruct this very remarkable chain of events.

Holmes again:

It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize out of a number of facts which are incidental and which are vital.  Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.

Bevelin quotes the Canadian physician William Osler:

The value of experience is not in seeing much, but in seeing wisely.

Observation is a skill one must develop.  Most of us are not observant.  Holmes:

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.

(Illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget (1891), via Wikimedia Commons)

Holmes again:

I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.

Small things can have the greatest importance.  Several quotes from Holmes:

    • The smallest point may be the most essential.
    • It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.
    • What seems strange to you is only so because you do not follow my train of thought or observe the small facts upon which large inferences may depend.
    • It is just these very simple things which are extremely liable to be overlooked.
    • Never trust general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.

Belevin also quotes Dr. Joseph Bell:

I always impressed over and over again upon all my scholars—Conan Doyle among them—the vast importance of little distinctions, the endless significance of trifles.

Belevin points out that it’s easy to overlook relevant facts.  It’s important always to ask if one has overlooked something.

 

DEDUCTION—What inferences can we draw from our observations and facts?

Most people reason forward, predicting what will happen next.  But few people reason backward, inferring the causes of the effects one has observed.  Holmes:

Most people, if you describe a chain of events to them, will tell you what the result would be.  They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass.  There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result.  This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backward, or analytically.

Often the solution is simple.  Holmes:

The case has been an interesting one… because it serves to show very clearly how simple the explanation may be of an affair which at first sight seems to be almost inexplicable.

History frequently repeats.  Holmes:

They lay all the evidence before me, and I am generally able, by the help of my knowledge of the history of crime, to set them straight.  There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can’t unravel  the thousand and first.

Holmes:

There is nothing new under the sun.  It has all been done before.

That said, some cases are unique and different to an extent.  But bizarre cases tend to be easier to solve.  Holmes:

As a rule… the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be.  It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.

(Illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget, via Wikimedia Commons)

Holmes again:

It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery.  The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious, because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn.

If something we expect to see doesn’t happen, that in itself can be a clue.  There was one case of a race horse stolen during the night.  When Holmes gathered evidence, he learned that the dog didn’t bark.  This means the midnight visitor must have been someone the dog knew well.

Moreover, many seemingly isolated facts could provide a solution if they are taken together.  Holmes:

You see all these isolated facts, together with many minor ones, all pointed in the same direction.

After enough facts have been gathered, then one can consider each possible hypothesis one at a time.  In practice, there are many iterations:  new facts are discovered along the way, and new hypotheses are constructed.  By carefully excluding each hypothesis that is not possible, eventually one can deduce the hypothesis that is true.  Holmes:

That process… starts upon the supposition that when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.  It may well be that several explanations remain, in which case one tries test after test until one or other of them has a convincing amount of support.

 

TEST OUR THEORY—If it disagrees with the facts it is wrong

What seems obvious can be very misleading.  Holmes:

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” said Mark Twain.  Holmes:

Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of many could invent.

Holmes again:

One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it.  It is the first rule of criminal investigation.

(Illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s vital to take time to think things through.  Watson:

Sherlock Holmes was a man… who, when he had an unsolved problem upon his mind, would go for days, and even for a week, without rest, turning it over, rearranging his facts, looking at it from every point of view until he had either fathomed it or convinced himself that his data were insufficient.

Sometimes doing nothing—or something else—is best when one is waiting for more evidence.  Holmes:

I gave my mind a thorough rest by plunging into a chemical analysis.  One of our greatest statesmen has said that a change of work is the best rest.  So it is.

 

SOME OTHER TOOLS

Bevelin observes the importance of putting oneself in another’s shoes.  Holmes:

You’ll get results, Inspector, by always putting yourself in the other fellow’s place, and thinking what you would do yourself.  It takes some imagination, but it pays.

Others may be of help.  Holmes:

If you will find the facts, perhaps others may find the explanation.

Watson was a great help to Holmes.  Watson:

I was a whetstone for his mind.  I stimulated him.  He liked to think aloud in my presence.  His remarks could hardly be said to be made to me—many of them would have been as appropriately addressed to his bedstead—but nonetheless, having formed the habit, it had become in some way helpful that I should register and interject.  If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his own flame-like intuitions and impressions flash up the more vividly and swiftly.  Such was my humble role in our alliance.

(Illustration of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson by Sidney Paget, via Wikimedia Commons)

Different lines of thought can approximate the truth.  Bevelin quotes Dr. Joseph Bell:

There were two of us in the hunt, and when two men set out to find a golf ball in the rough, they expect to come across it where the straight lines marked in their minds’ eye to it, from their original positions, crossed.  In the same way, when two men set out to investigate a crime mystery, it is where their researches intersect that we have a result.

Holmes makes the same point:

Now we will take another line of reasoning.  When you follow two separate chains of thought, Watson, you will find some point of intersection which should approximate to the truth.

It’s essential to be open to contradictory evidence.  Bevelin quotes Charles Darwin:

I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved… as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

Mistakes are inevitable.  Holmes:

Because I made a blunder, my dear Watson—which is, I am afraid, a more common occurrence than anyone would think who only knew me through your memoirs.

Holmes remarks that every mortal makes mistakes.  But the best are able to recognize their mistakes and take corrective action:

Should you care to add the case to your annals, my dear Watson… it can only be as an example of that temporary eclipse to which even the best-balanced mind may be exposed.  Such slips are common to all mortals, and the greatest is he who can recognize and repair them.

Bevelin quotes the physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.:

The best part of our knowledge is that which teaches us where knowledge leaves off and ignorance begins.

(Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., via Wikimedia Commons)

In the investment world, the great investors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger use the term circle of competence.  Here’s Buffett:

What an investor needs is the ability to correctly evaluate selected businesses.  Note that word “selected”:  You don’t have to be an expert on every company, or even many.  You only have to be able to evaluate companies within your circle of competence.  The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.

Buffett again:

What counts for most people in investing is not how much they know, but rather how realistically they define what they don’t know.

Munger:

Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.

Finally, here’s Tom Watson, Sr., the founder of IBM:

I’m no genius.  I’m smart in spots—but I stay around those spots.

 

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.

Ten Attributes of Great Investors

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

March 31, 2019

Michael Mauboussin is the author of several excellent books, including More Than You Know and Think Twice.  I wrote about these books here:

He has also written numerous papers, including Thirty Years: Reflections on the Ten Attributes of Great Investorshttps://bit.ly/2zlaljc

When it comes to value investing, Mauboussin is one of the best writers in the world.  Mauboussin highlights market efficiency, competitive strategy analysis, valuation, and decision making as chief areas of focus for him the past couple of decades.  Mauboussin:

What we know about each of these areas today is substantially greater than what we did in 1986, and yet we have an enormous amount to learn.  As I like to tell my students, this is an exciting time to be an investor because much of what we teach in business schools is a work-in-progress.

(Image by magele-picture)

Here are the Ten Attributes of Great Investors:

  • Be numerate (and understand accounting).
  • Understand value (the present value of free cash flow).
  • Properly assess strategy (or how a business makes money).
  • Compare effectively (expectations versus fundamentals).
  • Think probabilistically (there are few sure things).
  • Update your views effectively (beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be protected).
  • Beware of behavioral biases (minimizing constraints to good thinking).
  • Know the difference between information and influence.
  • Position sizing (maximizing the payoff from edge).
  • Read (and keep an open mind).

 

BE NUMERATE (AND UNDERSTAND ACCOUNTING)

Mauboussin notes that there are two goals when analyzing a company’s financial statements:

  • Translate the financial statements into free cash flow.
  • Determine how the competitive strategy of the company creates value.

The value of any business is the future free cash flow it will produce discounted back to the present.

(Photo by designer491)

Free cash flow is cash earnings minus investments that must be made to grow future earnings.  Free cash flow represents what owners of the business receive.  Warren Buffett refers to free cash flow as owner earnings.

Earnings alone cannot give you the value of a company.  You can grow earnings without growing value.  Whether earnings growth creates value depends on how much money the company invests to generate that growth.  If the ROIC (return on invested capital) of the company’s investment is below the cost of capital, then the resulting earnings growth destroys value rather than creates it.

After calculating free cash flow, the next goal in financial statement analysis is to figure out how the company’s strategy creates value.  For the company to create value, the ROIC must exceed the cost of capital.  Analyzing the company’s strategy means determining precisely how the company can get ROIC above the cost of capital.

Mauboussin writes that one way to analyze strategy is to compare two companies in the same business.  If you look at how the companies spend money, you can start to understand competitive positions.

Another way to grasp competitive position is by analyzing ROIC.

Photo by stanciuc

You can break ROIC into two parts:

  • profitability (net operating profit after tax / sales)
  • capital velocity (sales / invested capital)

Companies with high profitability but low capital velocity are using a differentiation strategy.  Their product is positioned in such a way that the business can earn high profit margins.  (For instance, a luxury jeweler.)

Companies with high capital velocity but low profitability have adopted a cost leadership strategy.  These businesses may have very thin profit margins, but they still generate high ROIC because their capital velocity is so high.  (Wal-Mart is a good example.)

Understanding how the company makes money can lead to insight about how long the company can maintain a high ROIC (if ROIC is high) or what the company must do to improve (if ROIC is low).

 

UNDERSTAND VALUE (THE PRESENT VALUE OF FREE CASH FLOW)

Mauboussin:

Great fundamental investors focus on understanding the magnitude and sustainability of free cash flow.  Factors that an investor must consider include where the industry is in its life cycle, a company’s competitive position within its industry, barriers to entry, the economics of the business, and management’s skill at allocating capital.

It’s worth repeating: The value of any business (or any financial asset) is the future free cash flow it will produce discounted back to the present.  Successful investors understand the variables that impact free cash flow.

Illustration by OpturaDesign

 

PROPERLY ASSESS STRATEGY (OR HOW A COMPANY MAKES MONEY)

Mauboussin says this attribute has two elements:

  • How does the company make money?
  • Does the company have a sustainable competitive advantage, and if so, how durable is it?

To see how a business makes money, you have to figure out the basic unit of analysis.  Mauboussin points out that the basic unit of analysis for a retailer is store economics:  How much does it cost to build a store?  What revenues will it generate?  What are the profit margins?

Regarding sustainable competitive advantage, Warren Buffett famously said:

The key to investing is not assessing how much an industry is going to affect society, or how much it will grow, but rather determining the competitive advantage of any given company and, above all, the durability of that advantage.

If a company has a sustainable competitive advantage, then ROIC (return on invested capital) is above the cost of capital.  To assess the durability of that advantage, you have to analyze the industry and how the company fits in.  Looking at the five forces that determine industry attractiveness is a common step.  You should also examine potential threats from disruptive innovation.

Mauboussin:

Great investors can appreciate what differentiates a company that allows it to build an economic moat around its franchise that protects the business from competitors.  The size and longevity of the moat are significant inputs into any thoughtful valuation.

Bodiam Castle, Photo by valeryegorov

Buffett popularized the term economic moat to refer to a sustainable competitive advantage.  Here’s what Buffett said at the Berkshire annual meeting in 2000:

So we think in terms of that moat and the ability to keep its width and its impossibility of being crossed as the primary criterion of a great business.  And we tell our managers we want the moat widened every year.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the profit will be more this year than it was last year because it won’t be sometimes.  However, if the moat is widened every year, the business will do very well.

 

COMPARE EFFECTIVELY (EXPECTATIONS VERSUS FUNDAMENTALS)

Mauboussin:

Perhaps the most important comparison an investor must make, and one that distinguishes average from great investors, is between fundamentals and expectations.  Fundamentals capture a sense of a company’s future financial performance.  Value drivers including sales growth, operating profit margins, investment needs, and return on investment shape fundamentals.  Expectations reflect the financial performance implied by the stock price.

Mauboussin mentions pari-mutuel betting, specifically horse racing.

(Photo by Elshaneo)

Fundamentals are how fast the horse will run, while expectations are the odds.

  • If a company has good fundamentals, but the stock price already reflects that, then you can’t expect to beat the market by investing in the stock.
  • If a company has bad fundamentals, but the stock price is overly pessimistic, then you can expect to beat the market by investing in the stock.

The best business in the world will not bring excess returns if the stock price already fully reflects the high quality of the business.  Similarly, a terrible business can produce excess returns if the stock price indicates that investors have overreacted.

To make money by investing in a stock, you have to have what great investor Michael Steinhardt calls a variant perception—a view at odds with the consensus view (as reflected in the stock price).  And you have to be right.

Mauboussin observes that humans are quick to compare but aren’t good at it.  This includes reasoning by analogy, e.g., asking whether a particular turnaround is similar to some other turnaround.  However, it’s usually better to figure out the base rate:  What percentage of all turnarounds succeed?  (Not a very high number, which is why Buffett quipped, “Turnarounds seldom turn.”)

Another limitation of humans making comparisons is that people tend to see similarities when they’re looking for similarities, but they tend to see differences when they’re looking for differences.  For instance, Amos Tversky did an experiment in which the subjects were asked which countries are more similar, West Germany and East Germany, or Nepal and Ceylon?  Two-thirds answered West Germany and East Germany.  But then the subjects were asked which countries seemed more different.  Logic says that they would answer Nepal and Ceylon, but instead subjects again answered West Germany and East Germany.

 

THINK PROBABILISTICALLY (THERE ARE FEW SURE THINGS)

Great investors are always seeking an edge, where the price of an asset misrepresents the probabilities or the outcomes.  By similar logic, great investors evaluate each investment decision based on the process used rather than based on the outcome.

  • A good investment decision is one that if repeatedly made would be profitable over time.
  • A bad investment decision is one that if repeatedly made would lead to losses over time.

However, a good decision will sometimes lead to a bad outcome, while a bad decision will sometimes lead to a good outcome.  Investing is similar to other forms of betting in that way.

Photo by annebel146

Furthermore, what matters is not how often an investor is right, but rather how much the investor makes when he is right versus how much he loses when he is wrong.  In other words, what matters is not batting average but slugging percentage.  This is hard to put into practice due to loss aversion—the fact that as humans we feel a loss at least twice as much as an equivalent gain.

There are three ways of determining probabilities.  Subjective probability is a number that corresponds with your state of knowledge or belief.  Mauboussin gives an example:  You might come up with a probability that two countries will go to war.  Propensity is usually based on the physical properties of the system.  If a six-sided die is a perfect cube, then you know that the odds of a particular side coming up must be one out of six.  Frequency is the third approach.  Frequency—also called the base rate—is measured by looking at the outcomes of a proper reference class.  How often will a fair coin land on heads?  If you gather all the records you can of a fair coin being tossed, you’ll find that it lands on heads 50 percent of the time.  (You could run your own trials, too, by tossing a fair coin thousands or millions of times.)

Often subjective probabilities are useful as long as you remain open to new information and properly adjust your probabilities based on that information.  (The proper way to update such beliefs is using Bayes’s theorem.)  Subjective probabilities are useful when there’s no clear reference class—no relevant base rate.

When you’re looking at corporate performance—like sales or profit growth—it’s usually best to look at frequencies, i.e., base rates.

An investment decision doesn’t have to be complicated.  In fact, most good investment decisions are simple.  Mauboussin quotes Warren Buffett:

Take the probability of loss times the amount of possible loss from the probability of gain times the amount of possible gain.  That is what we’re trying to do.  It’s imperfect, but that’s what it’s all about.

Buffett again:

Investing is simple, but not easy.

 

UPDATE YOUR VIEWS EFFECTIVELY (BELIEFS ARE HYPOTHESES TO BE TESTED, NOT TREASURES TO BE PROTECTED)

We have a strong preference for consistency when it comes to our own beliefs.  And we expect others to be consistent.  The problem is compounded by confirmation bias, the tendency to look for and see only information that confirms our beliefs, and the tendency to interpret ambiguous information in a way that supports our beliefs.  As long as we feel like our beliefs are both consistent and correct—and, as a default psychological setting, most of us feel this way most of the time—we’ll feel comfortable and we won’t challenge our beliefs.

Illustration by intheskies

Great investors seek data and arguments that challenge their views.  Great investors also update their beliefs when they come across evidence that suggests they should.  The proper way to update beliefs is using Bayes’s theorem.  To see Bayes’s theorem and also a clear explanation and example, see: http://boolefund.com/the-signal-and-the-noise/

Mauboussin:

The best investors among us recognize that the world changes constantly and that all of the views that we hold are tenuous.  They actively seek varied points of view and update their beliefs as new information dictates.  The consequence of updated views can be action: changing a portfolio stance or weightings within a portfolio.  Others, including your clients, may view this mental flexibility as unsettling.  But good thinking requires maintaining as accurate a view of the world as possible.

 

BEWARE OF BEHAVIORAL BIASES (MINIMIZING CONSTRAINTS TO GOOD THINKING)

Mauboussin:

Keith Stanovich, a professor of psychology, likes to distinguish between intelligence quotient (IQ), which measures mental skills that are real and helpful in cognitive tasks, and rationality quotient (RQ), the ability to make good decisions.  His claim is that the overlap between these abilities is much lower than most people think.  Importantly, you can cultivate your RQ.

Rationality is only partly genetic.  You can train yourself to be more rational.

Great investors relentlessly train themselves to be as rational as possible.  Typically they keep an investment journal in which they write down the reasoning for every investment decision.  Later they look back on their decisions to analyze what they got right and where they went wrong.

Great investors also undertake a comprehensive study of cognitive biases.  For a list of cognitive biases, see these two blog posts:

It’s rarely enough just to know about cognitive biases.  Great investors take steps—like using a checklist—designed to mitigate the impact that innate cognitive biases have on investment decision-making.

Photo by Kenishirotie

 

KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INFORMATION AND INFLUENCE

A stock price generally represents the collective wisdom of investors about how a given company will perform in the future.  Most of the time, the crowd is more accurate than virtually any individual investor.

(Illustration by Marrishuanna)

However, periodically a stock price can get irrational.  (If this weren’t the case, great value investors could not exist.)  People regularly get carried away with some idea.  For instance, as Mauboussin notes, many investors got rich on paper by investing in dot-com stocks in the late 1990’s.  Investors who didn’t own dot-com stocks felt compelled to jump on board when they saw their neighbor getting rich (on paper).

Mauboussin mentions the threshold model from Mark Granovetter, a professor of sociology at Stanford University.  Mauboussin:

Imagine 100 potential rioters milling around in a public square.  Each individual has a “riot threshold,” the number of rioters that person would have to see in order to join the riot.  Say one person has a threshold of 0 (the instigator), one has a threshold of 1, one has a threshold of 2, and so on up to 99.  This uniform distribution of thresholds creates a domino effect and ensures that a riot will happen.  The instigator breaks a window with a rock, person one joins in, and then each individual piles on once the size of the riot reaches his or her threshold.  Substitute “buy dotcom stocks” for “join the riot” and you get the idea.

The point is that very few of the individuals, save the instigator, think that rioting is a good idea.  Most would probably shun rioting.  But once the number of others rioting reaches a threshold, they will jump in.  This is how the informational value of stocks is set aside and the influential component takes over.

Great investors are not influenced much at all by the behavior of other investors.  Great investors know that the collective wisdom reflected in a stock price is usually right, but sometimes wrong.  These investors can identify the occasional mispricing and then make an investment while ignoring the crowd.

 

POSITION SIZING (MAXIMIZING THE PAYOFF FROM EDGE)

Great investors patiently wait for situations where they have an edge, i.e., where the odds are in their favor.  Many investors understand the need for an edge.  However, fewer investors pay much attention to position sizing.

If you know the odds, there’s a formula—the Kelly criterion—that tells you exactly how much to bet in order to maximize your long-term returns.  The Kelly criterion can be written as follows:

  • F = p – [q/o]

where

  • F = Kelly criterion fraction of current capital to bet
  • o = Net odds, or dollars won per $1 bet if the bet wins (e.g., the bet may pay 5 to 1, meaning you win $5 per each $1 bet if the bet wins)
  • p = probability of winning
  • q = probability of losing = 1 – p

The Kelly criterion has a unique mathematical property: if you know the probability of winning and the net odds (payoff), then betting exactly the percentage determined by the Kelly criterion leads to the maximum long-term compounding of capital.  (This assumes that you’re going to make a long series of bets.)  Betting any percentage that is not equal to that given by the Kelly criterion will inevitably lead to lower compound growth over a long period of time.

Mauboussin adds:

Proper portfolio construction requires specifying a goal (maximize sum for one period or parlayed bets), identifying an opportunity set (lots of small edge or lumpy but large edge), and considering constraints (liquidity, drawdowns, leverage).   Answers to these questions suggest an appropriate policy regarding position sizing and portfolio construction.

In brief, most investors are ineffective at position sizing, but great investors are good at it.

 

READ (AND KEEP AN OPEN MIND)

Great investors generally read a ton.  They also read widely across many disciplines.  Moreover, as noted earlier, great investors seek to learn about the arguments of people who disagree with them.  Mauboussin:

Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger said that he really liked Albert Einstein’s point that “success comes from curiosity, concentration, perseverance and self-criticism. And by self-criticism, he meant the ability to change his mind so that he destroyed his own best-loved ideas.”  Reading is an activity that tends to foster all of those qualities.

(Photo by Lapandr)

Mauboussin continues:

Munger has also said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time—none, zero.”  This may be hyperbolic, but seems to be true in the investment world as well.

 

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.

Cheap, Solid Microcaps Far Outperform the S&P 500

(Image: Zen Buddha Silence, by Marilyn Barbone)

March 10, 2019

The wisest long-term investment for most investors is an S&P 500 index fund.  It’s just simple arithmetic, as Warren Buffett and Jack Bogle frequently observe: http://boolefund.com/warren-buffett-jack-bogle/

But you can do significantly better — roughly 7% per year (on average) — by systematically investing in cheap, solid microcap stocks.  The mission of the Boole Microcap Fund is to help you do just that.

Most professional investors never consider microcaps because their assets under management are too large.  Microcaps aren’t as profitable for them.  That’s why there continues to be a compelling opportunity for savvy investors.  Because microcaps are largely ignored, many get quite cheap on occasion.

Warren Buffett earned the highest returns of his career when he could invest in microcap stocks.  Buffett says he’d do the same today if he were managing small sums: http://boolefund.com/buffetts-best-microcap-cigar-butts/

Look at this summary of the CRSP Decile-Based Size and Return Data from 1927 to 2015:

Decile Market Cap-Weighted Returns Equal Weighted Returns Number of Firms (year-end 2015) Mean Firm Size (in millions)
1 9.29% 9.20% 173 84,864
2 10.46% 10.42% 178 16,806
3 11.08% 10.87% 180 8,661
4 11.32% 11.10% 221 4,969
5 12.00% 11.92% 205 3,151
6 11.58% 11.40% 224 2,176
7 11.92% 11.87% 300 1,427
8 12.00% 12.27% 367 868
9 11.40% 12.39% 464 429
10 12.50% 17.48% 1,298 107
9+10 11.85% 16.14% 1,762 192

(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 2015:

Microcap equal weighted returns = 16.14% per year

Large-cap equal weighted returns = ~11% 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 2015, versus 11% per year for an equal weighted large-cap approach.

Still, if you can do 3% 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.

 

VALUE SCREEN: +2-3%

By systematically implementing a value screen — e.g., low EV/EBIT 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

In sum, over time, a quantitative value strategy — applied to cheap microcap stocks with improving fundamentals — has high odds of returning at least 7% (+/- 3%) more per year than an S&P 500 index fund.

If you’d like to learn more about how the Boole Fund can help you do roughly 7% better per year than the S&P 500, please call or e-mail me any time.

E-mail: jb@boolefund.com  (Jason Bond)

 

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.

Common Stocks and Common Sense

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone)

February 17, 2019

It’s crucial in investing to have the proper balance of confidence and humility.  Overconfidence is very deep-seated in human nature.  Nearly all of us tend to believe that we’re above average across a variety of dimensions, such as looks, smarts, academic ability, business aptitude, driving skill, and even luck (!).

Overconfidence is often harmless and it even helps in some areas.  But when it comes to investing, if we’re overconfident about what we know and can do, eventually our results will suffer.

(Image by Wilma64)

The simple truth is that the vast majority of us should invest in broad market low-cost index funds.  Buffett has maintained this argument for a long time: http://boolefund.com/warren-buffett-jack-bogle/

The great thing about investing in index funds is that you can outperform most investors, net of costs, over the course of several decades.  This is purely a function of costs.  A Vanguard S&P 500 index fund costs 2-3% less per year than the average actively managed fund.  This means that, after a few decades, you’ll be ahead of roughly 90% (or more) of all active investors.

You can do better than a broad market index fund if you invest in a solid quantitative value fund.  Such a fund can do at least 1-2% better per year, on average and net of costs, than a broad market index fund.

But you can do even better—at least 5% better per year than the S&P 500 index—by investing in a quantitative value fund focused on microcap stocks.

  • At the Boole Microcap Fund, our mission is to help you do at least 5% better per year, on average, than an S&P 500 index fund.  We achieve this by implementing a quantitative deep value approach focused on cheap micro caps with improving fundamentals.  See: http://boolefund.com/best-performers-microcap-stocks/

 

I recently re-read Common Stocks and Common Sense (Wiley, 2016), by Edgar Wachenheim III.  It’s a wonderful book.  Wachenheim is one of the best value investors.  He and his team at Greenhaven Associates have produced 19% annual returns for over 25 years.

Wachenheim emphasizes that, due to certain behavioral attributes, he has outperformed many other investors who are as smart or smarter.  As Warren Buffett has said:

Success in investing doesn’t correlate with IQ once you’re above the level of 125.  Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.

That’s not to say IQ isn’t important.  Most of the finest investors are extremely smart.  Wachenheim was a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School, meaning that he was in the top 5% of his class.

The point is that—due to behavioral factors such as patience, discipline, and rationality—top investors outperform many other investors who are as smart or smarter.  Buffett again:

We don’t have to be smarter than the rest; we have to be more disciplined than the rest.

Buffett himself has always been extraordinarily patient and disciplined.  There have been several times in Buffett’s career when he went for years on end without making a single investment.

Wachenheim highlights three behavioral factors that have helped him outperform others of equal or greater talent.

The bulk of Wachenheim’s book—chapters 3 through 13—is case studies of specific investments.  Wachenheim includes a good amount of fascinating business history, some of which is mentioned here.

Outline for this blog post:

  • Approach to Investing
  • Being a Contrarian
  • Probable Scenarios
  • Controlling Emotions
  • IBM
  • Interstate Bakeries
  • U.S. Home Corporation
  • Centex
  • Union Pacific
  • American International Group
  • Lowe’s
  • Whirlpool
  • Boeing
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Goldman Sachs

(Photo by Lsaloni)

 

APPROACH TO INVESTING

From 1960 through 2009 in the United States, common stocks have returned about 9 to 10 percent annually (on average).

The U.S. economy grew at roughly a 6 percent annual rate—3 percent from real growth (unit growth) and 3 percent from inflation (price increases).  Corporate revenues—and earnings—have increased at approximately the same 6 percent annual rate.  Share repurchases and acquisitions have added 1 percent a year, while dividends have averaged 2.5 percent a year.  That’s how, on the whole, U.S. stocks have returned 9 to 10 percent annually, notes Wachenheim.

Even if the economy grows more slowly in the future, Wachenheim argues that U.S. investors should still expect 9 to 10 percent per year.  In the case of slower growth, corporations will not need to reinvest as much of their cash flows.  That extra cash can be used for dividends, acquisitions, and share repurchases.

Following Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, Wachenheim defines risk as the potential for permanent loss.  Risk is not volatility.

Stocks do fluctuate up and down.  But every time the market has declined, it has ultimately recovered and gone on to new highs.  The financial crisis in 2008-2009 is an excellent example of large—but temporary—downward volatility:

The financial crisis during the fall of 2008 and the winter of 2009 is an extreme (and outlier) example of volatility.  During the six months between the end of August 2008 and end of February 2009, the [S&P] 500 Index fell by 42 percent from 1,282.83 to 735.09.  Yet by early 2011 the S&P 500 had recovered to the 1,280 level, and by August 2014 it had appreciated to the 2000 level.  An investor who purchased the S&P 500 Index on August 31, 2008, and then sold the Index six years later, lived through the worst financial crisis and recession since the Great Depression, but still earned a 56 percent profit on his investment before including dividends—and 69 percent including the dividends that he would have received during the six-year period.  Earlier, I mentioned that over a 50-year period, the stock market provided an average annual return of 9 to 10 percent.  During the six-year period August 2008 through August 2014, the stock market provided an average annual return of 11.1 percent—above the range of normalcy in spite of the abnormal horrors and consequences of the financial crisis and resulting deep recession.

(Photo by Terry Mason)

Wachenheim notes that volatility is the friend of the long-term investor.  The more volatility there is, the more opportunity to buy at low prices and sell at high prices.

Because the stock market increases on average 9 to 10 percent per year and always recovers from declines, hedging is a waste of money over the long term:

While many investors believe that they should continually reduce their risks to a possible decline in the stock market, I disagree.  Every time the stock market has declined, it eventually has more than fully recovered.  Hedging the stock market by shorting stocks, or by buying puts on the S&P 500 Index, or any other method usually is expensive, and, in the long run, is a waste of money.

Wachenheim describes his investment strategy as buying deeply undervalued stocks of strong and growing companies that are likely to appreciate significantly due to positive developments not yet discounted by stock prices.

Positive developments can include:

  • a cyclical upturn in an industry
  • an exciting new product or service
  • the sale of a company to another company
  • the replacement of a poor management with a good one
  • a major cost reduction program
  • a substantial share repurchase program

If the positive developments do not occur, Wachenheim still expects the investment to earn a reasonable return, perhaps close to the average market return of 9 to 10 percent annually.  Also, Wachenheim and his associates view undervaluation, growth, and strength as providing a margin of safety—protection against permanent loss.

Wachenheim emphasizes that at Greenhaven, they are value investors not growth investors.  A growth stock investor focuses on the growth rate of a company.  If a company is growing at 15 percent a year and can maintain that rate for many years, then most of the returns for a growth stock investor will come from future growth.  Thus, a growth stock investor can pay a high P/E ratio today if growth persists long enough.

Wachenheim disagrees with growth investing as a strategy:

…I have a problem with growth-stock investing.  Companies tend not to grow at high rates forever.  Businesses change with time.  Markets mature.  Competition can increase.  Good managements can retire and be replaced with poor ones.  Indeed, the market is littered with once highly profitable growth stocks that have become less profitable cyclic stocks as a result of losing their competitive edge.  Kodak is one example.  Xerox is another.  IBM is a third.  And there are hundreds of others.  When growth stocks permanently falter, the price of their shares can fall sharply as their P/E ratios contract and, sometimes, as their earnings fall—and investors in the shares can suffer serious permanent loss.

Many investors claim that they will be able to sell before a growth stock seriously declines.  But very often it’s difficult to determine whether a company is suffering from a temporary or permanent decline.

Wachenheim observes that he’s known many highly intelligent investors—who have similar experiences to him and sensible strategies—but who, nonetheless, haven’t been able to generate results much in excess of the S&P 500 Index.  Wachenheim says that a key point of his book is that there are three behavioral attributes that a successful investor needs:

In particular, I believe that a successful investor must be adept at making contrarian decisions that are counter to the conventional wisdom, must be confident enough to reach conclusions based on probabilistic future developments as opposed to extrapolations of recent trends, and must be able to control his emotions during periods of stress and difficulties.  These three behavioral attributes are so important that they merit further analysis.

 

BEING A CONTRARIAN

(Photo by Marijus Auruskevicius)

Most investors are not contrarians because they nearly always follow the crowd:

Because at any one time the price of a stock is determined by the opinion of the majority of investors, a stock that appears undervalued to us appears appropriately valued to most other investors.  Therefore, by taking the position that the stock is undervalued, we are taking a contrarian position—a position that is unpopular and often is very lonely.  Our experience is that while many investors claim they are contrarians, in practice most find it difficult to buck the conventional wisdom and invest counter to the prevailing opinions and sentiments of other investors, Wall Street analysts, and the media.  Most individuals and most investors simply end up being followers, not leaders.

In fact, I believe that the inability of most individuals to invest counter to prevailing sentiments is habitual and, most likely, a genetic trait.  I cannot prove this scientifically, but I have witnessed many intelligent and experienced investors who shunned undervalued stocks that were under clouds, favored fully valued stocks that were in vogue, and repeated this pattern year after year even though it must have become apparent to them that the pattern led to mediocre results at best.

Wachenheim mentions a fellow investor he knows—Danny.  He notes that Danny has a high IQ, attended an Ivy League university, and has 40 years of experience in the investment business.  Wachenheim often describes to Danny a particular stock that is depressed for reasons that are likely temporary.  Danny will express his agreement, but he never ends up buying before the problem is fixed.

In follow-up conversations, Danny frequently states that he’s waiting for the uncertainty to be resolved.  Value investor Seth Klarman explains why it’s usually better to invest before the uncertainty is resolved:

Most investors strive fruitlessly for certainty and precision, avoiding situations in which information is difficult to obtain.  Yet high uncertainty is frequently accompanied by low prices.  By the time the uncertainty is resolved, prices are likely to have risen.  Investors frequently benefit from making investment decisions with less than perfect knowledge and are well rewarded for bearing the risk of uncertainty.  The time other investors spend delving into the last unanswered detail may cost them the chance to buy in at prices so low that they offer a margin of safety despite the incomplete information.

 

PROBABLE SCENARIOS

(Image by Alain Lacroix)

Many (if not most) investors tend to extrapolate recent trends into the future.  This usually leads to underperforming the market.  See:

The successful investor, by contrast, is a contrarian who can reasonably estimate future scenarios and their probabilities of occurrence:

Investment decisions seldom are clear.  The information an investor receives about the fundamentals of a company usually is incomplete and often is conflicting.  Every company has present or potential problems as well as present or future strengths.  One cannot be sure about the future demand for a company’s products or services, about the success of any new products or services introduced by competitors, about future inflationary cost increases, or about dozens of other relevant variables.  So investment outcomes are uncertain.  However, when making decisions, an investor often can assess the probabilities of certain outcomes occurring and then make his decisions based on the probabilities.  Investing is probabilistic.

Because investing is probabilitistic, mistakes are unavoidable.  A good value investor typically will have at least 33% of his or her ideas not work, whether due to an error, bad luck, or an unforeseeable event.  You have to maintain equanimity despite inevitable mistakes:

If I carefully analyze a security and if my analysis is based on sufficiently large quantities of accurate information, I always will be making a correct decision.  Granted, the outcome of the decision might not be as I had wanted, but I know that decisions always are probabilistic and that subsequent unpredictable changes or events can alter outcomes.  Thus, I do my best to make decisions that make sense given everything I know, and I do not worry about the outcomes.  An analogy might be my putting game in golf.  Before putting, I carefully try to assess the contours and speed of the green.  I take a few practice strokes.  I aim the putter to the desired line.  I then putt and hope for the best.  Sometimes the ball goes in the hole…

 

CONTROLLING EMOTION

(Photo by Jacek Dudzinski)

Wachenheim:

I have observed that when the stock market or an individual stock is weak, there is a tendency for many investors to have an emotional response to the poor performance and to lose perspective and patience.  The loss of perspective and patience often is reinforced by negative reports from Wall Street and from the media, who tend to overemphasize the significance of the cause of the weakness.  We have an expression that aiplanes take off and land every day by the tens of thousands, but the only ones you read about in the newspapers are the ones that crash.  Bad news sells.  To the extent that negative news triggers further selling pressures on stocks and further emotional responses, the negativism tends to feed on itself.  Surrounded by negative news, investors tend to make irrational and expensive decisions that are based more on emotions than on fundamentals. This leads to the frequent sale of stocks when the news is bad and vice versa.  Of course, the investor usually sells stocks after they already have materially decreased in price.  Thus, trading the market based on emotional reactions to short-term news usually is expensive—and sometimes very expensive.

Wachenheim agrees with Seth Klarman that, to a large extent, many investors simply cannot help making emotional investment decisions.  It’s part of human nature.  People overreact to recent news.

I have continually seen intelligent and experienced investors repeatedly lose control of their emotions and repeatedly make ill-advised decisions during periods of stress.

That said, it’s possible (for some, at least) to learn to control your emotions.  Whenever there is news, you can learn to step back and look at your investment thesis.  Usually the investment thesis remains intact.

 

IBM

(IBM Watson by Clockready, Wikimedia Commons)

When Greenhaven purchases a stock, it focuses on what the company will be worth in two or three years.  The market is more inefficient over that time frame due to the shorter term focus of many investors.

In 1993, Wachenheim estimated that IBM would earn $1.65 in 1995.  Any estimate of earnings two or three years out is just a best guess based on incomplete information:

…having projections to work with was better than not having any projections at all, and my experience is that a surprisingly large percentage of our earnings and valuation projections eventually are achieved, although often we are far off on the timing.

The positive development Wachenheim expected was that IBM would announce a concrete plan to significantly reduce its costs.  On July 28, 1993, the CEO Lou Gerstner announced such a plan.  When IBM’s shares moved up from $11½ to $16, Wachenheim sold his firm’s shares since he thought the market price was now incorporating the expected positive development.

Selling IBM at $16 was a big mistake based on subsequent developments.  The company generated large amounts of cash, part of which it used to buy back shares.  By 1996, IBM was on track to earn $2.50 per share.  So Wachenheim decided to repurchase shares in IBM at $24½.  Although he was wrong to sell at $16, he was right to see his error and rebuy at $24½.  When IBM ended up doing better than expected, the shares moved to $48 in late 1997, at which point Wachenheim sold.

Over the years, I have learned that we can do well in the stock market if we do enough things right and if we avoid large permanent losses, but that it is impossible to do nearly everything right.  To err is human—and I make plenty of errors.  My judgment to sell IBM’s shares in 1993 at $16 was an expensive mistake.  I try not to fret over mistakes.  If I did fret, the investment process would be less enjoyable and more stressful.  In my opinion, investors do best when they are relaxed and are having fun.

Finding good ideas takes time.  Greenhaven rejects the vast majority of its potential ideas.  Good ideas are rare.

 

INTERSTATE BAKERIES

(Photo of a bakery by Mohylek, Wikimedia Commons)

Wachenheim discovered that Howard Berkowitz bought 12 percent of the outstanding shares of Interstate Bakeries, became chairman of the board, and named a new CEO.  Wachenheim believed that Howard Berkowitz was an experienced and astute investor.  In 1967, Berkowitz was a founding partner of Steinhardt, Fine, Berkowitz & Co., one of the earliest and most successful hedge funds.  Wachenheim started analyzing Interstate in 1985 when the stock was at about $15:

Because of my keen desire to survive by minimizing risks of permanent loss, the balance sheet then becomes a good place to start efforts to understand a company.  When studying a balance sheet, I look for signs of financial and accounting strengths.  Debt-to-equity ratios, liquidity, depreciation rates, accounting practices, pension and health care liabilities, and ‘hidden’ assets and liabilities all are among common considerations, with their relative importance depending on the situation.  If I find fault with a company’s balance sheet, especially with the level of debt relative to the assets or cash flows, I will abort our analysis, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise.  

Wachenheim looks at management after he is done analyzing the balance sheet.  He admits that he is humble about his ability to assess management.  Also, good or bad results are sometimes due in part to chance.

Next Wachenheim examines the business fundamentals:

We try to understand the key forces at work, including (but not limited to) quality of products and services, reputation, competition and protection from future competition, technological and other possible changes, cost structure, growth opportunities, pricing power, dependence on the economy, degree of governmental regulation, capital intensity, and return on capital.  Because we believe that information reduces uncertainty, we try to gather as much information as possible.  We read and think—and we sometimes speak to customers, competitors, and suppliers.  While we do interview the managements of the companies we analyze, we are wary that their opinions and projections will be biased.

Wachenheim reveals that the actual process of analyzing a company is far messier than you might think based on the above descriptions:

We constantly are faced with incomplete information, conflicting information, negatives that have to be weighed against positives, and important variables (such as technological change or economic growth) that are difficult to assess and predict.  While some of our analysis is quantitative (such as a company’s debt-to-equity ratio or a product’s share of market), much of it is judgmental.  And we need to decide when to cease our analysis and make decisions.  In addition, we constantly need to be open to new information that may cause us to alter previous opinions or decisions.

Wachenheim indicates a couple of lessons learned.  First, it can often pay off when you follow a capable and highly incentivized business person into a situation.  Wachenheim made his bet on Interstate based on his confidence in Howard Berkowitz.  Interstate’s shares were not particularly cheap.

Years later, Interstate went bankrupt because they took on too much debt.  This is a very important lesson.  For any business, there will be problems.  Working through difficulties often takes much longer than expected.  Thus, having low or no debt is essential.

 

U.S. HOME CORPORATION

(Photo by Dwight Burdette, Wikimedia Commons)

Wachenheim describes his use of screens:

I frequently use Bloomberg’s data banks to run screens.  I screen for companies that are selling for low price-to-earnings (PE) ratios, low prices to revenues, low price-to-book values, or low prices relative to other relevant metrics.  Usually the screens produce a number of stocks that merit additional analyses, but almost always the additional analyses conclude that there are valid reasons for the apparent undervaluations. 

Wachenheim came across U.S. Home in mid-1994 based on a discount to book value screen.  The shares appeared cheap at 0.63 times book and 6.8 times earnings:

Very low multiples of book and earnings are adrenaline flows for value investors.  I eagerly decided to investigate further.

Later, although U.S. Home was cheap and produced good earnings, the stock price remained depressed.  But there was a bright side because U.S. Home led to another homebuilder idea…

 

CENTEX CORPORATION

(Photo by Steven Pavlov, Wikimedia Commons)

After doing research and constructing a financial model of Centex Corporation, Wachenheim had a startling realization:  the shares would be worth about $63 a few years in the future, and the current price was $12.  Finally, a good investment idea:

…my research efforts usually are tedious and frustrating.  I have hundreds of thoughts and I study hundreds of companies, but good investment ideas are few and far between.  Maybe only 1 percent or so of the companies we study ends up being part of our portfolios—making it much harder for a stock to enter our portfolio than for a student to enter Harvard.  However, when I do find an exciting idea, excitement fills the air—a blaze of light that more than compensates for the hours and hours of tedium and frustration.

Greenhaven typically aims for 30 percent annual returns on each investment:

Because we make mistakes, to achieve 15 to 20 percent average returns, we usually do not purchase a security unless we believe that it has the potential to provide a 30 percent or so annual return.  Thus, we have very high expectations for each investment.

In late 2005, Wachenheim grew concerned that home prices had gotten very high and might decline.  Many experts, including Ben Bernanke, argued that because home prices had never declined in U.S. history, they were unlikely to decline.  Wachenheim disagreed:

It is dangerous to project past trends into the future.  It is akin to steering a car by looking through the rearview mirror…

 

UNION PACIFIC

(Photo by Slambo, Wikimedia Commons)

After World War II, the construction of the interstate highway system gave trucks a competitive advantage over railroads for many types of cargo.  Furthermore, fewer passengers took trains, partly due to the interstate highway system and partly due to the commercialization of the jet airplane.  Excessive regulation of the railroadsin an effort to help farmersalso caused problems.  In the 1960s and 1970s, many railroads went bankrupt.  Finally, the government realized something had to be done and it passed the Staggers Act in 1980, deregulating the railroads:

The Staggers Act was a breath of fresh air.  Railroads immediately started adjusting their rates to make economic sense.  Unprofitable routes were dropped.  With increased profits and with confidence in their future, railroads started spending more to modernize.  New locomotives, freight cars, tracks, automated control systems, and computers reduced costs and increased reliability.  The efficiencies allowed the railroads to reduce their rates and become more competitive with trucks and barges….

In the 1980s and 1990s, the railroad industry also enjoyed increased efficiencies through consolidating mergers.  In the west, the Burlington Northern merged with the Santa Fe, and the Union Pacific merged with the Southern Pacific.  

Union Pacific reduced costs during the 2001-2002 recession, but later this led to congestion on many of its routes and to the need to hire and train new employees once the economy had picked up again.  Union Pacific experienced an earnings shortfall, leading the shares to decline to $14.86.

Wachenheim thought that Union Pacific’s problems were temporary, and that the company would earn about $1.55 in 2006.  With a conservative multiple of 14 times earnings, the shares would be worth over $22 in 2006.  Also, the company was paying a $0.30 annual dividend.  So the total return over a two-year period from buying the shares at $14½ would be 55 percent.

Wachenheim also thought Union Pacific stock had good downside protection because the book value was $12 a share.

Furthermore, even if Union Pacific stock just matched the expected return from the S&P 500 Index of 9½ percent a year, that would still be much better than cash.

The fact that the S&P 500 Index increases about 9½ percent a year is an important reason why shorting stocks is generally a bad business.  To do better than the market, the short seller has to find stocks that underperform the market by 19 percent a year.  Also, short sellers have limited potential gains and unlimited potential losses.  On the whole, shorting stocks is a terrible business and often even the smartest short sellers struggle.

Greenhaven sold its shares in Union Pacific at $31 in mid-2007, since other investors had recognized the stock’s value.  Including dividends, Greenhaven earned close to a 24 percent annualized return.

Wachenheim asks why most stock analysts are not good investors.  For one, most analysts specialize in one industry or in a few industries.  Moreover, analysts tend to extrapolate known information, rather than define future scenarios and their probabilities of occurrence:

…in my opinion, most individuals, including securities analysts, feel more comfortable projecting current fundamentals into the future than projecting changes that will occur in the future.  Current fundamentals are based on known information.  Future fundamentals are based on unknowns.  Predicting the future from unknowns requires the efforts of thinking, assigning probabilities, and sticking one’s neck out—all efforts that human beings too often prefer to avoid.

Also, I believe it is difficult for securities analysts to embrace companies and industries that currently are suffering from poor results and impaired reputations.  Often, securities analysts want to see tangible proof of better results before recommending a stock.  My philosophy is that life is not about waiting for the storm to pass.  It is about dancing in the rain.  One usually can read a weather map and reasonably project when a storm will pass.  If one waits for the moment when the sun breaks out, there is a high probability others already will have reacted to the improved prospects and already will have driven up the price of the stock—and thus the opportunity to earn large profits will have been missed.

Wachenheim then quotes from a New York Times op-ed piece written on October 17, 2008, by Warren Buffett:

A simple rule dictates my buying:  Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.  And most certainly, fear is now widespread, gripping even seasoned investors.  To be sure, investors are right to be wary of highly leveraged entities or businesses in weak competitive positions.  But fears regarding the long-term prosperity of the nation’s many sound companies make no sense.  These businesses will indeed suffer earnings hiccups, as they always have.  But most major companies will be setting new profit records 5, 10, and 20 years from now.  Let me be clear on one point:  I can’t predict the short-term movements of the stock market.  I haven’t the faintest idea as to whether stocks will be higher or lower a month—or a year—from now.  What is likely, however, is that the market will move higher, perhaps substantially so, well before either sentiment or the economy turns up.  So if you wait for the robins, spring will be over.

 

AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL GROUP

(AIG Corporate, Photo by AIG, Wikimedia Commons)

Wachenheim is forthright in discussing Greenhaven’s investment in AIG, which turned out to be a huge mistake.  In late 2005, Wachenheim estimated that the intrinsic value of AIG would be about $105 per share in 2008, nearly twice the current price of $55.  Wachenheim also liked the first-class reputation of the company, so he bought shares.

In late April 2007, AIG’s shares had fallen materially below Greenhaven’s cost basis:

When shares of one of our holdings are weak, we usually revisit the company’s longer-term fundamentals.  If the longer-term fundamentals have not changed, we normally will continue to hold the shares, if not purchase more.  In the case of AIG, it appeared to us that the longer-term fundamentals remained intact.

When Lehman filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15, 2008, all hell broke loose:

The decline in asset values caused financial institutions to mark down the carrying value of their assets, which, in turn, caused sharp reductions in their credit ratings.  Sharp reductions in credit ratings required financial institutions to raise capital and, in the case of AIG, to post collateral on its derivative contracts.  But the near freezing of the financial markets prevented the requisite raising of capital and cash and thus caused a further deterioration in creditworthiness, which further increased the need for new capital and cash, and so on… On Tuesday night, September 16, the U.S. government agreed to provide the requisite cash in return for a lion’s share of the ownership of AIG.  As soon as I read the agreement, it was clear to me that we had a large permanent loss in our holdings of AIG.

Wachenheim defends the U.S. government bailouts.  Much of the problem was liquidity, not solvency.  Also, the bailouts helped restore confidence in the financial system.

Wachenheim asked himself if he would make the same decision today to invest in AIG:

My answer was ‘yes’—and my conclusion was that, in the investment business, relatively unpredictable outlier developments sometimes can quickly derail otherwise attractive investments.  It comes with the territory.  So while we work hard to reduce the risks of large permanent loss, we cannot completely eliminate large risks.  However, we can draw a line on how much risk we are willing to accept—a line that provides sufficient apparent protection and yet prevents us from being so risk averse that we turn down too many attractive opportunities.  One should not invest with the precept that the next 100-year storm is around the corner.

Wachenheim also points out that when Greenhaven learns of a flaw in its investment thesis, usually the firm is able to exit the position with only a modest loss.  If you’re right 2/3 of the time and if you limit losses as much as possible, the results should be good over time.

 

LOWE’S

(Photo by Miosotis Jade, Wikimedia Commons)

In 2011, Wachenheim carefully analyzed the housing market and reached an interesting conclusion:

I was excited that we had a concept about a probable strong upturn in the housing market that was not shared by most others.  I believed that the existing negativism about housing was due to the proclivity of human beings to uncritically project recent trends into the future and to overly dwell on existing problems.  When analyzing companies and industries, I tend to be an optimist by nature and a pragmatist through effort.  In terms of the proverbial glass of water, it is never half empty, but always half full—and, as a pragmatist, it is twice as large as it needs to be.

Next Wachenheim built a model to estimate normalized earnings for Lowe’s three years in the future (in 2014).  He came up with normal earnings of $3 per share.  He thought the appropriate price-to-earnings ratio was 16.  So the stock would be worth $48 in 2014 versus its current price (in 2011) of $24.  It looked like a bargain.

After gathering more information, Wachenheim revised his earnings model:

…I revise models frequently because my initial models rarely are close to being accurate.  Usually, they are no better than directional.  But they usually do lead me in the right direction, and, importantly, the process of constructing a model forces me to consider and weigh the central fundamentals of a company that will determine the company’s future value.

Wachenheim now thought that Lowe’s could earn close to $4.10 in 2015, which would make the shares worth even more than $48.  In August 2013, the shares hit $45.

In late September 2013, after playing tennis, another money manager asked Wachenheim if he was worried that the stock market might decline sharply if the budget impasse in Congress led to a government shutdown:

I answered that I had no idea what the stock market would do in the near term.  I virtually never do.  I strongly believe in Warren Buffett’s dictum that he never has an opinion on the stock market because, if he did, it would not be any good, and it might interfere with opinions that are good.  I have monitored the short-term market predictions of many intelligent and knowledgeable investors and have found that they were correct about half the time.  Thus, one would do just as well by flipping a coin.

I feel the same way about predicting the short-term direction of the economy, interest rates, commodities, or currencies.  There are too many variables that need to be identified and weighed.

As for Lowe’s, the stock hit $67.50 at the end of 2014, up 160 percent from what Greenhaven paid.

 

WHIRLPOOL CORPORATION

(Photo by Steven Pavlov, Wikimedia Commons)

Wachenheim does not believe in the Efficient Market Hypothesis:

It seems to me that the boom-bust of growth stocks in 1968-1974 and the subsequent boom-bust of Internet technology stocks in 1998-2002 serve to disprove the efficient market hypothesis, which states that it is impossible for an investor to beat the stock market because stocks always are efficiently priced based on all the relevant and known information on the fundamentals of the stocks.  I believe that the efficient market hypothesis fails because it ignores human nature, particularly the nature of most individuals to be followers, not leaders.  As followers, humans are prone to embrace that which already has been faring well and to shun that which recently has been faring poorly.  Of course, the act of buying into what already is doing well and shunning what is doing poorly serves to perpetuate a trend.  Other trend followers then uncritically join the trend, causing the trend to feed on itself and causing excesses.

Many investors focus on the shorter term, which generally harms their long-term performance:

…so many investors are too focused on short-term fundamentals and investment returns at the expense of longer-term fundamentals and returns.  Hunter-gatherers needed to be greatly concerned about their immediate survival—about a pride of lions that might be lurking behind the next rock… They did not have the luxury of thinking about longer-term planning… Then and today, humans often flinch when they come upon a sudden apparent danger—and, by definition, a flinch is instinctive as opposed to cognitive.  Thus, over years, the selection process resulted in a subconscious proclivity for humans to be more concerned about the short term than the longer term.

By far the best thing for long-term investors is to do is absolutely nothing.  The investors who end up performing the best over the course of several decades are nearly always those investors who did virtually nothing.  They almost never checked prices.  They never reacted to bad news.

Regarding Whirlpool:

In the spring of 2011, Greenhaven studied Whirlpool’s fundamentals.  We immediately were impressed by management’s ability and willingness to slash costs.  In spite of a materially subnormal demand for appliances in 2010, the company was able to earn operating margins of 5.9 percent.  Often, when a company is suffering from particularly adverse industry conditions, it is unable to earn any profit at all.  But Whirlpool remained moderately profitable.  If the company could earn 5.9 percent margins under adverse circumstances, what could the company earn once the U.S. housing market and the appliance market returned to normal?

Not surprisingly, Wall Street analysts were focused on the short term:

…A report by J. P. Morgan dated April 27, 2011, stated that Whirlpool’s current share price properly reflected the company’s increased costs for raw materials, the company’s inability to increase its prices, and the current soft demand for appliances…

The J. P. Morgan report might have been correct about the near-term outlook for Whirlpool and its shares.  But Greenhaven invests with a two- to four-year time horizon and cares little about the near-term outlook for its holdings.

The bulk of Greenhaven’s returns has been generated by relatively few of its holdings:

If one in five of our holdings triples in value over a three-year period, then the other four holdings only have to achieve 12 percent average annual returns in order for our entire portfolio to achieve its stretch goal of 20 percent.  For this reason, Greenhaven works extra hard trying to identify potential multibaggers.  Whirlpool had the potential to be a multibagger because it was selling at a particularly low multiple of its potential earnings power.  Of course, most of our potential multibaggers do not turn out to be multibaggers.  But one cannot hit a multibagger unless one tries, and sometimes our holdings that initially appear to be less exciting eventually benefit from positive unforeseen events (handsome black swans) and unexpectedly turn out to be a complete winner.  For this reason, we like to remain fully invested as long as our holdings remain reasonably priced and free from large risks of permanent loss.

 

BOEING

(Photo by José A. Montes, Wikimedia Commons)

Wachenheim likes to read about the history of each company that he studies.

On July 4, 1914, a flight took place in Seattle, Washington, that had a major effect on the history of aviation.  On that day, a barnstormer named Terah Maroney was hired to perform a flying demonstration as part of Seattle’s Independence Day celebrations.  After displaying aerobatics in his Curtis floatplane, Maroney landed and offered to give free rides to spectators.  One spectator, William Edward Boeing, a wealthy owner of a lumber company, quickly accepted Maroney’s offer.  Boeing was so exhilarated by the flight that he completely caught the aviation bug—a bug that was to be with him for the rest of his life.

Boeing launched Pacific Aero Products (renamed the Boeing Airplane Company in 1917).  In late 1916, Boeing designed an improved floatplane, the Model C.  The Model C was ready by April 1917, the same month the United States entered the war.  Boeing thought the Navy might need training aircraft.  The Navy bought two.  They performed well, so the Navy ordered 50 more.

Boeing’s business naturally slowed down after the war.  Boeing sold a couple of small floatplanes (B-1’s), then 13 more after Charles Lindberg’s 1927 transatlantic flight.  Still, sales of commercial planes were virtually nonexistent until 1933, when the company started marketing its model 247.

The twin-engine 247 was revolutionary and generally is recognized as the world’s first modern airplane.  It had a capacity to carry 10 passengers and a crew of 3.  It had a cruising speed of 189 mph and could fly about 745 miles before needing to be refueled.

Boeing sold seventy-five 247’s before making the much larger 307 Stratoliner, which would have sold well were it not for the start of World War II.

Boeing helped the Allies defeat Germany.  The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and the B-29 Superfortress bomber became legendary.  More than 12,500 B-17s and more than 3,500 B-29s were built (some by Boeing itself and some by other companies that had spare capacity).

Boeing prospered during the war, but business slowed down again after the war.  In mid-1949, the de Havilland Aircraft Company started testing its Comet jetliner, the first use of a jet engine.  The Comet started carrying passengers in 1952.  In response, Boeing started developing its 707 jet.  Commercial flights for the 707 began in 1958.

The 707 was a hit and soon became the leading commercial plane in the world.

Over the next 30 years, Boeing grew into a large and highly successful company.  It introduced many models of popular commercial planes that covered a wide range of capacities, and it became a leader in the production of high-technology military aircraft and systems.  Moreover, in 1996 and 1997, the company materially increased its size and capabilities by acquiring North American Aviation and McDonnell Douglas.

In late 2012, after several years of delays on its new, more fuel-efficient plane—the 787—Wall Street and the media were highly critical of Boeing.  Wachenheim thought that the company could earn at least $7 per share in 2015.  The stock in late 2012 was at $75, or 11 times the $7.  Wachenheim believed that this was way too low for such a strong company.

Wachenheim estimated that two-thirds of Boeing’s business in 2015 would come from commercial aviation.  He figured that this was an excellent business worth 20 times earnings (he used 19 times to be conservative).  He reckoned that defense, one-third of Boeing’s business, was worth 15 times earnings.  Therefore, Wachenheim used 17.7 as the multiple for the whole company, which meant that Boeing would be worth $145 by 2015.

Greenhaven established a position in Boeing at about $75 a share in late 2012 and early 2013.  By the end of 2013, Boeing was at $136.  Because Wall Street now had confidence that the 787 would be a commercial success and that Boeing’s earnings would rise, Wachenheim and his associates concluded that most of the company’s intermediate-term potential was now reflected in the stock price.  So Greenhaven started selling its position.

 

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES

(Photo by Eddie Maloney, Wikimedia Commons)

The airline industry has had terrible fundamentals for a long time.  But Wachenheim was able to be open-minded when, in August 2012, one of his fellow analysts suggested Southwest Airlines as a possible investment.  Over the years, Southwest had developed a low-cost strategy that gave the company a clear competitive advantage.

Greenhaven determined that the stock of Southwest was undervalued, so they took a position.

The price of Southwest’s shares started appreciating sharply soon after we started establishing our position.  Sometimes it takes years before one of our holdings starts to appreciate sharply—and sometimes we are lucky with our timing.

After the shares tripled, Greenhaven sold half its holdings since the expected return from that point forward was not great.  Also, other investors now recognized the positive fundamentals Greenhaven had expected.  Greenhaven sold the rest of its position as the shares continued to increase.

 

GOLDMAN SACHS

(Photo of Marcus Goldman, Wikimedia Commons)

Wachenheim echoes Warren Buffett when it comes to recognizing how much progress the United States has made:

My experience is that analysts and historians often dwell too much on a company’s recent problems and underplay its strengths, progress, and promise.  An analogy might be the progress of the United States during the twentieth century.  At the end of the century, U.S. citizens generally were far wealthier, healthier, safer, and better educated than at the start of the century.  In fact, the century was one of extraordinary progress.  Yet most history books tend to focus on the two tragic world wars, the highly unpopular Vietnam War, the Great Depression, the civil unrest during the Civil Rights movement, and the often poor leadership in Washington.  The century was littered with severe problems and mistakes.  If you only had read the newspapers and the history books, you likely would have concluded that the United States had suffered a century of relative and absolute decline.  But the United States actually exited the century strong and prosperous.  So did Goldman exit 2013 strong and prosperous.

In 2013, Wachenheim learned that Goldman had an opportunity to gain market share in investment banking because some competitors were scaling back in light of new regulations and higher capital requirements.  Moreover, Goldman had recently completed a $1.9 billion cost reduction program.  Compensation as a percentage of sales had declined significantly in the past few years.

Wachenheim discovered that Goldman is a technology company to a large extent, with a quarter of employees working in the technology division.  Furthermore, the company had strong competitive positions in its businesses, and had sold or shut down sub-par business lines.  Wachenheim checked his investment thesis with competitors and former employees.  They confirmed that Goldman is a powerhouse.

Wachenheim points out that it’s crucial for investors to avoid confirmation bias:

I believe that it is important for investors to avoid seeking out information that reinforces their original analyses.  Instead, investors must be prepared and willing to change their analyses and minds when presented with new developments that adversely alter the fundamentals of an industry or company.  Good investors should have open minds and be flexible.

Wachenheim also writes that it’s very important not to invent a new thesis when the original thesis has been invalidated:

We have a straightforward approach.  When we are wrong or when fundamentals turn against us, we readily admit we are wrong and we reverse our course.  We do not seek new theories that will justify our original decision.  We do not let errors fester and consume our attention.  We sell and move on.

Wachenheim loves his job:

I am almost always happy when working as an investment manager.  What a perfect job, spending my days studying the world, economies, industries, and companies;  thinking creatively;  interviewing CEOs of companies… How lucky I am.  How very, very lucky.

 

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 Education of a Value Investor

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

February 3, 2019

I have now read The Education of a Value Investor, by Guy Spier, several times.  It’s a very honest and insightful description of Guy Spier’s evolution from arrogant and envious youth to kind, ethical, humble, and successful value investor in the mold of his heroes—including the value investors Mohnish Pabrai, Warren Buffett, and Charlie Munger.

Spier recounts how, after graduating near the top of his class at Oxford and then getting an MBA at Harvard, he decided to take a job at D. H. Blair, an ethically challenged place.  Spier realized that part of his job was to dress up bad deals.  Being unable to admit that he had made a mistake, Spier ended up tarnishing his reputation badly by playing along instead of quitting.

Spier’s story is about the journey “from that dark place toward the Nirvana where I now live.”

Besides the lesson that one should never do anything unethical, Spier also learned just how important the environment is:

We like to think that we change our environment, but the truth is that it changes us.  So we have to be extraordinarily careful to choose the right environment….

 

THE PERILS OF AN ELITE EDUCATION

Spier observes that having an education from a top university often does not prevent one from making foolish and immoral decisions, especially when money or power is involved:

Our top universities mold all these brilliant minds.  But these people—including me—still make foolish and often immoral choices.  This also goes for my countless peers who, despite their elite training, failed to walk away from nefarious situations in other investment banks, brokerages, credit-rating agencies, bond insurance companies, and mortgage lenders.

Having stumbled quite badly, Spier felt sufficiently humbled and humiliated that he was willing to reexamine everything he believed.  Thus, in the wake of the worst set of decisions of his life, Spier learned important lessons about Wall Street and about himself that he never could have learned at Oxford or Harvard.

For one thing, Spier learned that quite a few people are willing to distort the truth in order to further their “own narrow self-interest.”  But having discovered Warren Buffett, who is both highly ethical and arguably the best investor ever, Spier began to see that there is another way to succeed.  “This discovery changed my life.”

 

WHAT WOULD WARREN BUFFETT DO?  WHAT WOULD CHARLIE MUNGER DO?  WHAT WOULD MARCUS AURELIUS DO?

Spier argues that choosing the right heroes to emulate is very powerful:

There is a wisdom here that goes far beyond the narrow world of investing.  What I’m about to tell you may be the single most important secret I’ve discovered in all my decades of studying and stumbling.  If you truly apply this lesson, I’m certain that you will have a much better life, even if you ignore everything else I write…

Having found the right heroes, one can become more like them gradually if one not only studies them relentlessly, but also tries to model their behavior.  For example, it is effective to ask oneself:  “What would Warren Buffett do if he were in my shoes right now?  What would Charlie Munger do?  What would Marcus Aurelius do?”

This is a surprisingly powerful principle: modeling the right heroes.  It can work just as well with eminent dead people, as Munger has pointed out.  One can relentlessly study and then model Socrates or Jesus, Epictetus or Seneca, Washington or Lincoln.  With enough studying and enough effort to copy / model, one’s behavior will gradually improve to be more like that of one’s chosen heroes.

 

ENVIRONMENT TRUMPS INTELLECT

Our minds are not strong enough on their own to overcome the environment:

… I felt that my mind was in Omaha, and I believed that I could use the force of my intellect to rise above my environment.  But I was wrong: as I gradually discovered, our environment is much stronger than our intellect.  Remarkably few investors—either amateur or professional—truly understand this critical point.  Great investors like Warren Buffett (who left New York and returned to Omaha) and Sir John Templeton (who settled in the Bahamas) clearly grasped this idea, which took me much longer to learn.

For long-term value investors, the farther away from Wall Street one is, the easier it is to master the skills of patience, rationality, and independent thinking.

 

CAUSES OF MISJUDGMENT

Charlie Munger gave a talk in 1995 at Harvard on 24 causes of misjudgment.  At the time, as Spier writes, this worldly wisdom—combining powerful psychology with economics and business—was not available anywhere else.  Munger’s talk provides deep insight into human behavior.  Link to speech: http://www.rbcpa.com/mungerspeech_june_95.pdf

Decades of experiments by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and others have shown that humans have two mental systems: an intuitive system that operates automatically (and subconsciously) and a reasoning system that requires conscious effort.  Through years of focused training involving timely feedback, some people can train themselves to regularly overcome their subconscious and automatic biases through the correct use of logic, math, or statistics.

But the biases never disappear.  Even Kahneman admits that, despite his deep knowledge of biases, he is still automatically “wildly overconfident” unless he makes the conscious effort to slow down and to use his reasoning system.

 

LUNCH WITH WARREN

Guy Spier and Mohnish Pabrai had the winning bid for lunch with Warren Buffett—the proceeds go to GLIDE, a charity.

One thing Spier learned—directly and indirectly—from lunch with Warren is that the more one genuinely tries to help others, the happier life becomes.  Writes Spier:

As I hope you can see from my experience, when your consciousness or mental attitude shifts, remarkable things begin to happen.  That shift is the ultimate business tool and life tool.

At the lunch, Warren repeated a crucial lesson:

It’s very important always to live your life by an inner scorecard, not an outer scorecard.

In other words, it is essential to live in accord with what one knows at one’s core to be right, and never be swayed by external forces such as peer pressure.  Buffett pointed out that too often people justify misguided or wrong actions by reassuring themselves that ‘everyone else is doing it.’

Moreover, Buffett said:

People will always stop you from doing the right thing if it’s unconventional.

Spier asked Buffett if it gets easier to do the right thing.  After pausing for a moment, Buffett said: ‘A little.’

Buffett also stressed the virtue of patience when it comes to investing:

If you’re even a slightly above average investor who spends less than you earn, over a lifetime you cannot help but get very wealthy—if you’re patient.

Spier realized that he could learn to copy many of the successful behaviors of Warren Buffett, but that he could never be Warren Buffett.  Spier observes that what he learned from Warren was to become the best and most authentic version of Guy Spier.

 

HANDLING ADVERSITY

One effective way Spier learned to deal with adversity was by:

…studying heroes of mine who had successfully handled adversity, then imagining that they were by my side so that I could model their attitudes and behavior.  One historical figure I used in this way was the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.  At night, I read excerpts from his Meditations.  He wrote of the need to welcome adversity with gratitude as an opportunity to prove one’s courage, fortitude, and resilience.  I found this particularly helpful at a time when I couldn’t allow myself to become fearful.

Moreover, Spier writes about heroes who have overcome serious mistakes:

I also tried to imagine how Sir Ernest Shackleton would have felt in my shoes.  He had made grievous mistakes on his great expedition to Antarctica—for example, failing to land his ship, Endurance, when he could and then abandoning his first camp too soon.  Yet he succeeded in putting these errors behind him, and he ultimately saved the lives of everyone on his team.  This helped me to realize that my own mistakes were an acceptable part of the process.  Indeed, how could I possibly pilot the wealth of my friends and family without making mistakes or encountering the occasional storm?  Like Shackleton, I needed to see that all was not lost and to retain my belief that I would make it through to the other side.

 

CREATING THE IDEAL ENVIRONMENT

Overcoming our cognitive biases and irrational tendencies is not a matter of simply deciding to use one’s rational system.  Rather, it requires many years of training along with specific tools or procedures that help reduce the number of mistakes:

Through painful experience… I discovered that it’s critical to banish the false assumption that I am truly capable of rational thought.  Instead, I’ve found that one of my only advantages as an investor is the humble realization of just how flawed my brain really is.  Once I accepted this, I could design an array of practical work-arounds based on my awareness of the minefield within my mind. 

No human being is perfectly rational.  Every human being has at one time or another made an irrational decision.  We all have mental shortcomings:

…The truth is, all of us have mental shortcomings, though yours may be dramatically different from mine.  With this in mind, I began to realize just how critical it is for investors to structure their environment to counter their mental weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, and irrational tendencies.

Spier describes how hard he worked to create an ideal environment with the absolute minimum of factors that could negatively impact his ability to think rationally:

Following my move to Zurich, I focused tremendous energy on this task of creating the ideal environment in which to invest—one in which I’d be able to act slightly more rationally.  The goal isn’t to be smarter.  It’s to construct an environment in which my brain isn’t subjected to quite such an extreme barrage of distractions and disturbing forces that can exacerbate my irrationality.  For me, this has been a life-changing idea.  I hope that I can do it justice here because it’s radically improved my approach to investing, while also bringing me a happier and calmer life.

As we shall see in a later chapter, I would also overhaul my basic habits and investment procedures to work around my irrationality.  My brain would still be hopelessly imperfect. But these changes would subtly tilt the playing field to my advantage.  To my mind, this is infinitely more helpful than focusing on things like analysts’ quarterly earnings reports, Tobin’s Q ratio, or pundits’ useless market predictions—the sort of noise that preoccupies most investors.

 

LEARNING TO TAP DANCE

Spier, like Pabrai, believes that mastering the game of bridge improves one’s ability to think probabilistically:

Indeed, as a preparation for investing, bridge is truly the ultimate game.  If I were putting together a curriculum on value investing, bridge would undoubtedly be a part of it…

For investors, the beauty of bridge lies in the fact that it involves elements of chance, probabilistic thinking, and asymmetric information.  When the cards are dealt, the only ones you can look at are your own.  But as the cards are played, the probabilistic and asymmetric nature of the game becomes exquisite…

With my bridge hat on, I’m always searching for the underlying truth, based on insufficient information.  The game has helped me to recognize that it’s simply not possible to have a complete understanding of anything.  We’re never truly going to get to the bottom of what’s going on inside a company, so we have to make probabilistic inferences.

Chess is another game that can improve one’s cognition in other areas.  Spier cites the lesson given by chess champion Edward Lasker:

When you see a good move, look for a better one.  

The lesson for investing:

When you see a good investment, look for a better investment.

Spier also learned, both from having fun at games such as bridge and chess, and from watching business people including Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett, that having a more playful attitude might help.  More importantly, whether via meditation or via other hobbies, if one could cultivate inner peace, that could make one a better investor.

The great investor Ray Dalio has often mentioned transcendental meditation as leading to a peaceful state of mind where rationality can be maximized and emotions minimized.  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zM-2hGA-k5E

Spier explains:

To give you an analogy, when you drop a stone in a calm pond, you see the ripples.  Likewise, in investing, if I want to see the big ideas, I need a peaceful and contented mind.

 

INVESTING TOOLS

Having written about various ways that he has made his environment as peaceful as possible—he also has a library full of great books (1/3 of which are unread), with no internet or phone—Spier next turns to ‘rules and routines that we can apply consistently.’

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, I worked hard to establish for myself this more structured approach to investing, thereby bringing more order and predictability to my behavior while also reducing the complexity of my decision-making process.  Simplifying everything makes sense, given the brain’s limited processing power…

Some of these rules are broadly applicable; others are more idiosyncratic and may work better for me than for you.  What’s more, this remains a work in progress—a game plan that I keep revising as I learn from experience what works best.  Still, I’m convinced that it will help you enormously if you start thinking about your own investment processes in this structured, systematic way.  Pilots internalize an explicit set of rules and procedures that guide their every action and ensure the safety of themselves and their passengers.  Investors who are serious about achieving good returns without undue risk should follow their example.

Here are Spier’s rules:

Rule #1—Stop Checking the Stock Price

A constantly moving stock price influences the brain—largely on a subconscious level—to want to take action.  But for the long-term value investor, the best thing is almost always to do nothing at all.  Thus, it is better only to check prices once per week, or even once per quarter or once per year:

Checking the stock price too frequently uses up my limited willpower since it requires me to expend unnecessary mental energy simply resisting these calls to action.  Given that my mental energy is a scarce resource, I want to direct it in more constructive ways.

We also know from behavioral finance research by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky that investors feel the pain of loss twice as acutely as the pleasure from gain.  So I need to protect my brain from the emotional storm that occurs when I see that my stocks—or the market—are down.  If there’s average volatility, the market is typically up in most years over a 20-year period.  But if I check it frequently, there’s a much higher probability that it will be down at that particular moment…. Why, then, put myself in a position where I may have a negative emotional reaction to this short-term drop, which sends all the wrong signals to my brain?

… After all, Buffett didn’t make billions off companies like American Express and Coca-Cola by focusing on the meaningless movements of the stock ticker.

 

Rule #2—If Someone Tries to Sell You Something, Don’t Buy It

The brain will often make terrible decisions in response to detailed pitches from gifted salespeople.

Rule #3—Don’t Talk to Management

Beware of CEO’s and other top management, no matter how charismatic, persuasive, and amiable they seem.  Most managers have natural biases towards their own companies.

Rule #4—Gather Investment Research in the Right Order

We know from Munger’s speech on the causes of human misjudgment that the first idea to enter the brain tends to be the one that sticks.

Spier starts with corporate filings—‘meat and vegetables’—before consuming news and other types of information.

Rule #5—Discuss Your Investment Ideas Only with People Who Have No Axe to Grind

The idea is to try to find knowledgeable people who can communicate in an objective and logical way, minimizing the influence of various biases.

Rule #6—Never Buy or Sell Stocks When the Market is Open

This again relates to the fact that flashing stock prices push the brain subconsciously towards action:

When it comes to buying and selling stocks, I need to detach myself from the price action of the market, which can stir up my emotions, stimulate my desire to act, and cloud my judgment.  So I have a rule, inspired by Mohnish, that I don’t trade stocks while the market is open.  Instead, I prefer to wait until trading hours have ended.

Rule #7—If a Stock Tumbles after You Buy It, Don’t Sell It for Two Years

When you’ve lost a lot of money, many negative emotions occur.

Mohnish developed a rule to deal with the psychological forces aroused in these situations: if he buys a stock and it goes down, he won’t allow himself to sell it for two years.

…Once again, it acts as a circuit breaker, a way to slow me down and improve my odds of making rational decisions.  Even more important, it forces me to be more careful before buying a stock since I know that I’ll have to live with my mistake for at least two years.  That knowledge helps me to avoid a lot of bad investments.  In fact, before buying a stock, I consciously assume that the price will immediately fall by 50 percent, and I ask myself if I’ll be able to live through it.  I then buy only the amount that I could handle emotionally if this were to happen.

Mohnish’s rule is a variation on an important idea that Buffett has often shared with students:

I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it, so that you had 20 punches—representing investments that you got to make in a lifetime.  And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all.  Under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did, and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about.  So you’d do much better.

Rule #8—Don’t Talk about Your Current Investments

Once we’ve made a public statement, it’s psychologically difficult to back away from what we’ve said.  The automatic intuitive system in our brains tries to quickly remove doubt by jumping to conclusions.  This system also tries to eliminate any apparent inconsistencies in order to maintain a coherent—albeit highly simplified—story about the world.

But it’s not just our intuitive system that focuses on confirming evidence.  Even our logical system—the system that can do math and statistics—uses a positive test strategy:  When testing a given hypothesis, our logical system looks for confirming evidence rather than disconfirming evidence.  This is the opposite of what works best in science.

Thus, once we express a view, our brain tends to see all the reasons why the view must be correct and our brain tends to be blind to reasons why the view might be wrong.

 

AN INVESTOR’S CHECKLIST

Atul Gawande, a former Rhodes scholar, is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, and a renowned author.  He’s ‘a remarkable blend of practitioner and thinker, and also an exceptionally nice guy.’  In December 2007, Gawande published a story in The New Yorker entitled “The Checklist”:  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/10/the-checklist

One of Gawande’s main points is that ‘intensive-care medicine has grown so far beyond ordinary complexity that avoiding daily mistakes is proving impossible even for our super-specialists.’

Gawande then described the work of Peter Pronovost, a critical-care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Pronovost designed a checklist after a particular patient nearly died:

Pronovost took a single sheet of paper and listed all of the steps required to avoid the infection that had almost killed the man.  These steps were all ‘no-brainers,’ yet it turned out that doctors skipped at least one step with over a third of their patients.  When the hospital began to use checklists, numerous deaths were prevented.  This was partly because checklists helped with memory recall, ‘especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked,’ and partly because they made explicit the importance of certain precautions.  Other hospitals followed suit, adopting checklists as a pragmatic way of coping with complexity.

Mohnish Pabrai and Guy Spier, following Charlie Munger, realized that they could develop a useful checklist for value investing.  The checklist makes sense as a way to overcome the subconscious biases of the human intuitive system.  Moreover, humans have what Spier calls “cocaine brain”:

the intoxicating prospect of making money can arouse the same reward circuits in the brain that are stimulated by drugs, making the rational mind ignore supposedly extraneous details that are actually very relevant.  Needless to say, this mental state is not the best condition in which to conduct a cool and dispassionate analysis of investment risk.

An effective investor’s checklist is based on a careful analysis of past mistakes, both by oneself and by others.

My own checklist, which borrows shamelessly from [Mohnish Pabrai’s], includes about 70 items, but it continues to evolve.  Before pulling the trigger on any investment, I pull out the checklist from my computer or the filing cabinet near my desk to see what I might be missing.  Sometimes, this takes me as little as 15 minutes, but it’s led me to abandon literally dozens of investments that I might otherwise have made…

As I’ve discovered from having ADD, the mind has a way of skipping over certain pieces of information—including rudimentary stuff like where I’ve left my keys.  This also happens during the investment process.  The checklist is invaluable because it redirects and challenges the investor’s wandering attention in a systematic manner…

That said, it’s important to recognize that my checklist should not be your checklist.  This isn’t something you can outsource since your checklist has to reflect your own unique experience, knowledge, and previous mistakes.  It’s critical to go through the arduous process of analyzing where things have gone wrong for you in the past so you can see if there are any recurring patterns or particular areas of vulnerability.

It is very important to note that there are at least four categories of investment mistakes, all of which must be identified, studied, and learned from:

  • A mistake where the investment does poorly because the intrinsic value of the business in question turns out to be lower than one thought;
  • A mistake of omission, where one fails to invest in a stock that one knows is cheap;
  • A mistake of selling the stock too soon.  Often a value investment will fail to move for years.  When it finally does move, many value investors will sell far too soon, sometimes missing out on an additional 300-500% return (or even more).  Value investors Peter Cundill and Robert Robotti have discussed this mistake.
  • A mistake where the investment does well, but one realizes that the good outcome was due to luck and that one’s analysis was incorrect.  It is often difficult to identify this type of mistake because the outcome of the investment is good, but it’s crucial to do so, otherwise one’s future results will be penalized.

Here is the value investor Chris Davis talking about how he and his colleagues frame their mistakes on the wall in order never to forget the lessons:  http://davisfunds.com/document/video/mistake_wall

Davis points out that, as an investor, one should always be improving with age.  As Buffett and Munger say, lifelong learning is a key to success, especially in investing, where all knowledge is cumulative.   Frequently one’s current decisions are better and more profitable as a result of having learned the right lessons from past mistakes.

 

DOING BUSINESS THE BUFFETT-PABRAI WAY

Buffett:

Hang out with people better than you, and you cannot help but improve.

Pabrai likes to quote Ronald Reagan:

There’s no limit to what you can do if you don’t mind who gets the credit.

Buffett also talks about the central importance of treating others as one wishes to be treated:

The more love you give, the more love you get.

Spier says that this may be the most important lesson of all.  The key is to value each person as an end rather than a means.  It helps to remember that one is a work in progress and also that one is mortal.  Pabrai:

I am but ashes and dust.

Spier explains that he tries to do things for people he meets.  Over time, he has learned to distinguish givers from takers.

The crazy thing is that, when you start to live this way, everything becomes so much more joyful.  There is a sense of flow and alignment with the universe that I never felt when everything was about what I could take for myself…

I’m not telling you this to be self-congratulatory as there are countless people who do so much more good than I do.  The point is simply that life has improved immeasurably since I began to live this way.  In truth, I’ve become increasingly addicted to the positive emotions awakened in me by these activities… One thing is for sure: I receive way more by giving than I ever did by taking.  So, paradoxically, my attempts at selflessness may actually be pretty selfish.

 

THE QUEST FOR TRUE VALUE

Buffett calls it the inner scorecard and Spier calls it the inner journey:

The inner journey is that path to becoming the best version of ourselves that we can be, and this strikes me as the only true path in life.  It involves asking questions such as:  What is my wealth for?  What give my life meaning?  And how can I use my gifts to help others?

Templeton also devoted much of his life to the inner journey.  Indeed, his greatest legacy is his charitable foundation, which explores ‘the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality,’ including complexity, evolution, infinity, creativity, forgiveness, love, gratitude, and free will.  The foundation’s motto is ‘How little we know, how eager to learn.’

In my experience, the inner journey is not only more fulfilling but is also a key to becoming a better investor.  If I don’t understand my inner landscape—including my fears, insecurities, desires, biases, and attitude to money—I’m likely to be mugged by reality.  This happened early in my career, when my greed and arrogance led me to D. H. Blair…. [also later in New York with envy]

By embarking on the inner journey, I became more self-aware and began to see these flaws more clearly.  I could work to overcome them only once I acknowledged them.  But these traits were so deepseated that I also had to find practical ways to navigate around them.

The important thing is to understand not only human biases in general, but also one’s own unique brain.  Also, some lessons can only be learned through difficult experiences—including mistakes:

Adversity may, in fact, be the best teacher of all.  The only trouble is that it takes a long time to live through our mistakes and then learn from them, and it’s a painful process.

It doesn’t matter exactly how you do the inner journey, just that you do it.

[The] real reward of this inner transformation is not just enduring investment success.  It’s the gift of becoming the best person we can be.  That, surely, is the ultimate prize. 

 

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.

Capitalism without Capital

(Image:  Zen Buddha Silence by Marilyn Barbone.)

November 11, 2018

Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy, by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, is an excellent book that everyone should read.

Historically most assets were tangible rather than intangible.  Houses, castles, temples, churches, farms, farm animals, equipment, horses, weapons, jewels, precious metals, art, etc.  These types of tangible assets tended to hold their value, and naturally they were included on accountants’ balance sheets.

(Photo by W. Scott McGill)

Intangible assets are different.  It’s harder to account for investing in intangibles.  But intangible investment is important.  Haskel and Westlake explain why:

Investment is what builds up capital, which, together with labor, constitutes the two measured inputs to production that power the economy, the sinews and joints that make the economy work.  Gross domestic product is defined as the sum of the value of consumption, investment, government spending, and net exports; of these four, investment is often the driver of booms and recessions, as it tends to rise and fall in response to monetary policy and business confidence.

The problem is that national statistical offices have, until very recently, measured only tangible investments.

The Dark Matter of Investment

In 2002 in Washington, at a meeting of the Conference on Research in Income and Wealth, economists considered investments people made in the “new economy.”  Carol Corrado and Dan Sichel of the US Federal Reserve Board and Charles Hulten of the University of Maryland developed a framework for thinking about different types of investments.

Haskel and Westlake mention Microsoft as an example.  In 2006, Microsoft’s market value was about $250 billion.  There was $70 billion in assets, $60 billion of which was cash and cash equivalents.  Plant and equipment totaled only $3 billion, 4 percent of Microsoft’s assets and 1 percent of its market value.  In a sense, Microsoft is a miracle:  capitalism without capital.

(Photo by tashatuvango)

Charles Hulten sought to explain Microsoft’s value by using intangible assets:

Examples include the ideas generated by Microsoft’s investments in R&D and product design, the value of its brands, its supply chains and internal structures, and the human capital built up by training.

Such intangible assets are similar to tangible assets in that the company had to spend time and money on them up-front, while the value to the company was delivered over time.

Why Intangible Investment is Different

Businesses change what they invest in all the time, so how is intangible investment different?  Haskel and Westlake:

Our central argument in this book is that there is something fundamentally different about intangible investment, and that understanding the steady move to intangible investment helps us understand some of the key issues facing us today:  innovation and growth, inequality, the role of management, and financial and policy reform.

We shall argue there are two big differences with intangible assets.  First, most measurement conventions ignore them.  There are some good reasons for this, but as intangibles have become more important, it means we are now trying to measure capitalism without counting all the capital.  Second, the basic economic properties of intangibles make an intangible-rich economy behave differently from a tangible-rich one.

Outline for this blog post:

Part I  The Rise of the Intangible Economy

  • Capital’s Vanishing Act:  The Rise of Intangible Investment
  • How to Measure Intangible Investment
  • What’s Different About Intangible Investment?  The Four S’s of Intangibles

Part II  The Consequences of the Rise of the Intangible Economy

  • Intangibles, Investment, Productivity, and Secular Stagnation
  • Intangibles and the Rise of Inequality
  • Infrastructure for Intangibles, and Intangible Infrastructure
  • The Challenge of Financing an Intangible Economy
  • Competing, Managing, and Investing in the Intangible Economy
  • Public Policy in an Intangible Economy:  Five Hard Questions

 

Part I  The Rise of the Intangible Economy

CAPITAL’S VANISHING ACT

Investment has changed:

The type of investment that has risen inexorably is intangible: investment in ideas, in knowledge, in aesthetic content, in software, in brands, in networks and relationships.

Investment, assets, and capital all have multiple meanings.

For investment, Haskel and Westlake stick with the internationally agreed upon definition as given by the UN’s System of National Accounts:

Investment is what happens when a producer either acquires a fixed asset or spends resources (money, effort, raw materials) to improve it.

An asset is an economic resource that is expected to provide a benefit over a period of time.  A fixed asset is an asset that results from using up resources in the process of its production.

Spending resources:  To be an investment, the business doing the investing has to acquire the asset or pay some cost to produce it themselves.

Haskel and Westlake offer some examples of intangible investments:

Suppose a solar panel manufacturer researches and discovers a cheaper process for making photovoltaic cells:  it is incurring expense in the present to generate knowledge it expects to benefit from in the future.  Or consider a streaming music start-up that spends months designing and negotiating deals with record labels to allow it to use songs the record labels own—again, short-term expenditure to create longer-term gain.  Or imagine a training company pays for the long-term rights to run a popular psychometric test:  it too is investing.

(Photo by magele-picture)

Intangible investing results in intangible assets.  More examples of intangible investments:

  • Software
  • Databases
  • R&D
  • Mineral exploration
  • Creating entertainment, literary or artistic originals
  • Design
  • Training
  • Market research and branding
  • Business process re-engineering

Intangible Investment Has Steadily Grown

Supermarkets have developed complex pricing systems, more ambitious branding and marketing campaigns, and more detailed processes and systems (including better use of bar codes).  Moreover, as you might expect, tech firms make heavy use of intangible investments, as Haskel and Westlake explain:

Fast-growing tech companies are some of the most intangible-intensive of firms.  This is in part because software and data are intangibles, and the growing power of computers and telecommunications is increasing the scope of things that software can achieve.  But the process of “software eating the world,” in venture capitalist Marc Andreesen’s words, is not just about software:  it involves other intangibles in abundance.  Consider Apple’s designs and its unrivaled supply chain, which has helped it to bring elegant products to market quickly and in sufficient numbers to meet customer demand, or the networks of drivers and hosts that sharing-economy giants like Uber and AirBnB have developed, or Tesla’s manufacturing know-how.  Computers and the Internet are important drivers of this change in investment, but the change is long running and predates not only the World Wide Web but even the Internet and the PC.

By the mid-1990s, intangible investment in the United States exceeded tangible investment.  There is a similar pattern for the UK, Sweden, and Finland.  But tangible investment is still greater than intangible investment in Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

Reasons for the Growth of Intangible Investment

Because the productivity of the manufacturing sector typically increases faster than that of the services sector, labor-intensive services gradually become more expensive compared to manufactured goods.  (This is called Baumol’s Cost Disease.)  This implies that intangible investing will grow faster than tangible investing over time.

Furthermore, new technology seems to create greater opportunities for businesses to invest productively in intangibles.  Haskel and Westlake give Uber as an example.  It would have been possible before computers and smartphones for Uber to develop its large network of drivers.  But smartphones—which connect people quickly, allow the rating of drivers, and make payment quick and easy—significantly boosted the return on investment for Uber.

It’s natural to wonder if computers are the cause of increased intangible investment.  Haskel and Westlake suggest that while computers may be a primary cause, they do not seem to be the only cause:

First of all, as we saw earlier, the rise of intangible investment began before the semiconductor revolution, in the 1940s and 1950s and perhaps before.  Second, while some intangibles like software and data strongly rely on computers, others do not:  brands, organizational development, and training, for example.  Finally, a number of writers in the innovation studies literature argue that it may be that it was the rise of intangibles that led to the development of modern IT as much as the other way around.

 

HOW TO MEASURE INTANGIBLE INVESTMENT

Productivity growth in the United States starting in the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s seemed quite low.  Economists found this puzzling because computers seemed to be making a difference in a variety of areas.  Statistical agencies, led by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), made two adjustments:

First, in the 1980s, in conjunction with IBM, the BEA started to produce indexes of computer prices that were quality adjusted.  This turned out to make a very big difference to measuring how much investment businesses were making in computer hardware.

In most cases—for products, for example—prices for the same good tend to rise gently in line with overall inflation.  But even if sticker prices for computers were rising, they were decidedly not the same good, since every dimension of their quality (speed, memory, and space) was improving incredibly.  So their “quality-adjusted” prices were, in fact, falling and falling very fast, meaning that the quality you could buy per dollar spent on computers was in fact rising very fast.

In the 1990s, statisticians looked at business spending that creates computer software.  Haskel and Westlake comment that banks are huge spenders on the creation of software (at one point, Citibank employed more programmers than Microsoft).  Software is an intangible good—knowledge written down in lines of code.

(Photo by Krisana Antharith)

By the early 2000s, many business economists realized that knowledge more generally is an intangible investment that should be included in GDP and productivity measures.  Gradually statistical offices began to incorporate various intangible investments into GDP statistics.  Haskel and Westlake:

And these changes added up.  In the United States, for example, the capitalization of software added about 1.1 percent to 1999 US GDP and R&D added 2.5 percent to 2012 GDP, with these numbers growing all the time…

What Sorts of Intangibles Are There?

Corrado, Hulten, and Sichel divided intangible investment into three broad types:

  • Computerized Information:  Software development;  Database development.
  • Innovative Property:  R&D;  Mineral exploration;  Creating entertainment and artistic originals;  Design and other product development costs.
  • Economic Competencies:  Training;  Market research and branding;  Business process re-engineering.

Right now, design and other product development costs are not included in official GDP measures.  Also not included:  training, market research and branding, and business process re-engineering.

Measuring Investment in Intangibles

Haskel and Westlake:

Measuring investment requires a number of steps.  First, we need to find out how much firms are spending on the intangible.  Second, in some cases, not all of that spending will be creating a long-lived asset… So we may have to adjust that spending to measure investment—that is, that part of spending creating a long-lived asset.  Third, we need to adjust that investment for inflation and quality change so we can compare investment in different periods when prices and quality are changing.

For most investment goods, national accountants simply send out a survey to companies asking them how much there are spending on each good.  It’s trickier, however, if it’s an intangible good that the company makes for itself, like writing its own software or doing its own R&D.  In this case, statisticians can figure out how much it costs a company—over and above wages—to produce the intangible good.  Statisticians also must estimate how much of that additional spending is an investment that will last for more than a year.  The third step is to adjust for inflation and quality changes.

To measure the intangible asset created by intangible investment, economists have to estimate depreciation.  Once you know the flow of intangible investment and you adjust for depreciation, you can then estimate the stock—the value of intangible assets in a given year.  For software, design, marketing, and training, depreciation is about 33 percent a year.  For R&D, depreciation is roughly 15 percent a year.  For entertainment and artistic originals and mineral exploration, depreciation is lower.

 

WHAT’S DIFFERENT ABOUT INTANGIBLE INVESTMENT?

An intangible-rich economy has four characteristics—the four S’s—that distinguish it from a tangible-rich economy.  Intangible assets:

  • Are more likely to be scalable;
  • Their costs are more likely to be sunk;
  • They are inclined to have spillovers;
  • They tend to exhibit synergies with each other.

Scalability

Why Are Intangibles Scalable?

Scalability derives from what economists call “non-rivalry” goods.  A rival good is like a loaf of bread.  Once one person eats the loaf of bread, no one else can eat that loaf.  In contrast, a non-rival good is not used up when one person uses it.  For instance, once a software program has been created, it can be reproduced an infinite number of times at almost no cost.  There’s virtually no limit to how many people can make use of that one software program.  Another example, given by Paul Romer—a pioneer of how economists think about economic growth—is oral rehydration therapy (ORT).  ORT is a simple treatment that has saved many lives in the developing world by stopping children’s deaths from diarrhea.  The idea of ORT can be used again and again—it’s never used up.

Note:  Scalability can really take off if there are “network effects.”  Haskel and Westlake mention networks like Uber drivers or Instagram users as examples.

(Illustration by Aquir)

Why Does Scalability Matter?

Haskel and Westlake say that we will see three unusual things happening in an economy where more investments are clearly scalable:

  • There will be some highly intangible-intensive businesses that have gotten very large.  Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are good examples.  Their software can be reproduced countless times at almost no cost.
  • Given the prospects of such large markets, ever more firms feel incentivized to go for it.
  • Businesses who compete with owners of scalable assets are in a tough position.  In markets with hugely scalable assets, the rewards for runners-up are often meager.

Sunkenness

Why Are Intangibles Sunk Costs?

Intangible assets are much harder to sell than tangible assets.  If an intangible investment works, creating value for the company that made the investment, then there’s no issue.  However, if an intangible investment doesn’t work or the company wants to back out, it’s often hard to sell.  Specifically, if knowledge isn’t protected by intellectual property rights, it’s often impossible to sell.

(Image by OpturaDesign)

Why Does Sunkenness Matter?

Because intangible investments frequently involve unrecoverable costs, they can be difficult to finance, especially with debt.  There’s a reason why many small business loans require a lien on directors’ houses:  a house is a tangible asset with ascertainable value.

Moreover, people tend to fall for the sunk-cost fallacy, whereby they overvalue an intangible asset that hasn’t worked out because of the time, energy, and resources they’ve poured into it.  People are inclined to continue putting in more time and resources.  This may contribute to bubbles.

Spillovers

Why Do Intangibles Generate Spillovers?

Intangible investments can be used relatively easily by companies that didn’t make the investments.  Consider R&D.  Unless it is protected by patents, knowledge gained through R&D can be re-used again and again.  Haskel and Westlake remark:

Patents and copyrights are, on the whole, less secure and more subject to challenge than the title deeds to farmland or the ownership of a shipping container or a computer.

One reason is that property rights related to tangible assets have been around for thousands of years.

Why Do Spillovers Matter?

(Photo by Vs1489)

Haskel and Westlake remark that spillovers matter for three reasons:

  • First, in a world where companies can’t be sure they will obtain the benefits of their investments, we would expect them to invest less.
  • Second, there is a premium on the ability to manage spillovers:  companies that can make the most of their own investments in intangibles, or that are especially good at exploiting the spillovers from others’ investments, will do particularly well.
  • Third, spillovers affect the geography of modern economies.

The U.S. government funds 30 percent of the R&D that happens in the country.  It’s the classic answer to the issue of companies being unsure about the benefits of intangible investments they’re considering.  Public R&D is particularly important for basic research.

Haskel and Westlake:

Patent trolls and copyright lawsuits catch our attention because they are newsworthy, but other ways of capturing the spillovers of intangible investment are common—in fact, they’re part of the invisible fabric of everyday business life.  They often involve reciprocity rather than compulsion or legal threats.  Software developers use online repositories like GitHub to share code; being an active contributor and an effective user of GitHub is a badge of honor for some developers.  Firms sometimes pool their patents; they realize that the spillovers from each company’s technologies are valuable, and that enforcing everyone’s individual legal rights is not worth it.  (Indeed, the US government helped end the patent war between the Wright Brothers and Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company that was holding back the US aircraft industry in the 1910s by getting everyone to set up a patent pool, the Manufacturers Aircraft Association.)

Synergies

Why Do Intangibles Exhibit Synergies?

Haskel and Westlake give the example of the microwave.  Near the end of World War II, Raytheon was mass-producing cavity magnetrons (similar to a vacuum tube), a crucial part of the radar defenses the British had invented.  A Raytheon engineer, Percy Spenser, realized the microwaves from magnetrons could heat food by creating electromagnetic fields in a box.

Haskel and Westlake write:

A few companies tried to sell domestic microwave ovens, but none were very successful.  Then, in the 1960s, Raytheon bought Amana, a white goods manufacturer, and combined their microwave expertise with Amana’s kitchen appliance knowledge to build a more successful product.  At the same time, Litton, another defense contractor, invented the modern microwave oven shape and tweaked the magnetron to make it safer.

In 1970 forty thousand microwaves were sold.  By 1975 it was a million.  What made this possible was the gradual accumulation of ideas and innovations.  The magnetron on its own wasn’t very useful to a customer, but combined with other incremental bits of R&D and the design and marketing ideas of Litton and Amana, it became a defining innovation of the late twentieth century.

The point of the microwave story is that intangible assets have synergies with one another.  Also, it’s hard to predict where innovations will come from or how they will combine.  In this example, military technology led to a kitchen appliance.

(Synergies in digital business, science, and technology:  Illustration by Agsandrew)

Intangible assets have synergies with tangible assets as well.  In the 1990s, productivity increased and at first people didn’t know why.  Haskel and Westlake explain:

In 2000 the McKinsey Global Institute analyzed the sources of this productivity increase.  Counterintuitively, they found that the bulk of it came from the way big chains retailers, in particular Walmart, were using computers and software to reorganize their supply chains, improve efficiency, and lower prices.  In a sense, it was a technological revolution.  But the gains were realized through organizational and business practice changes in a low-tech sector.  Or, to put it another way, there were big synergies between Walmart’s investment in computers and its investment in processes and supply chain development to make the most of the computers.

Why Do the Synergies of Intangible Assets Matter?

While spillovers cause firms to be protective of their intangible investments, synergies have the opposite effect and lead to open innovation.

In its simplest form, open innovation happens when a firm deliberately connects with and benefits from new ideas that arise outside the firm itself.  Cooking up ideas in a big corporate R&D lab is not open innovation; getting ideas by buying start-ups, partnering with academic researchers, or undertaking joint ventures with other companies is.

(Illustration by mindscanner)

Besides open innovation, there’s a second reason why synergies matter:

They also matter because they create an alternative way for firms to protect their intangible investments against competition:  by building synergistic clusters of intangible investments, rather than by protecting individual assets.

 

Part II  The Consequences of the Rise of the Intangible Economy

INTANGIBLES, INVESTMENT, PRODUCTIVITY, AND SECULAR STAGNATION

Two characteristics of secular stagnation are low investment and low interest rates.  Investment fell in the 1970s, recovered some in the mid-1980s, but fell sharply in the financial crisis (2008) and hasn’t recovered.

What’s puzzling is that investment hasn’t recovered despite low interest rates.  In the past, central banks relied on lowering rates to spur investment activity.  But that seems not to have worked this time.

(Illustration by ibreakstock)

One possible explanation is that technological progress has slowed.  Robert Gordon makes this argument in The Rise and Fall of American Growth (2016).  But technological progress is quite difficult to measure.

There are three more aspects to secular stagnation.

  • Corporate profits in the United States are higher than they’ve been for decades, and they seem to keep increasing.  Return on invested capital (ROIC) has grown significantly since the 1990s.
  • When it comes to both profitability and productivity, there is a growing gap between leaders and laggards.
  • Productivity growth has slowed due mostly to a decline in total factor productivity—workers are working less effectively with the capital they have.

Haskel and Westlake note that a good explanation for secular stagnation should explain four facts:

  • A fall in measured investment at the same time as a fall in interest rates
  • Strong profits
  • Increasingly unequal productivity and profits
  • Weak total factor productivity growth

Intangibles can help explain these facts.

Mismeasurement:  Intangibles and Apparently Low Investment

Intangible investment exceeds tangible investment in countries including the United States and the UK.  Are economies growing faster than reported because the value of intangibles is not being properly measured?  Haskel and Westlake show that including intangibles does not noticeably change investment/GDP.

Profits and Productivity Differences:  Scale, Spillovers, and the Incentives to Invest

Haskel and Westlake state:

…leading firms, which are confident of their ability to create scalable assets and to appropriate most of their benefits, will continue to invest (and enjoy a high rate of return on those investments); but laggard firms, expecting low private returns from their investments, will not.  In a world where there are a few leaders and many laggards, the net effect of this could be lower aggregate rates of investment, combined with high returns on those investments that do get made.

Spillovers:  Intangibles and Slowing TFP Growth A Lower Pace of Intangible Growth?

The slowdown in intangible investment since the financial crisis does seem to account for slowing TFP (Total Factor Productivity) growth, although the data are noisy and more exploration is needed.

Are Intangibles Generating Fewer Spillovers?

Lagging firms may be less able to absorb spillovers from leaders, possibly because leading firms can gain from synergies between different intangibles to a much greater extent than laggards.

 

INTANGIBLES AND THE RISE OF INEQUALITY

In addition to inequality of income and inequality of wealth, there is also what Haskel and Westlake call “inequality of esteem.”  Some communities feel left-behind and overlooked by America’s prosperous coastal cities.

Standard explanations for inequality

One standard explanation for inequality is that new technologies replace workers, which causes wages to fall and profits to rise.

A second explanation relates to trade.  In the 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and before market reforms in China and India, the global economy had 1.46 billion workers.  Then in the 1990s, the number of workers doubled to 2.93 billion workers.  This puts pressure on lower-skilled workers in developed economies.  The flip side is that lower-skilled workers in China and India end up far better off than they were before.

A third explanation for inequality is that capital tends to accumulate.  Capital tends to grow faster than the economy—this is Thomas Piketty’s famous r > g inequality—which causes capital to build up over time.

(Illustration by manakil)

How Intangibles Affect Income, Wealth, and Esteem Inequality

Intangibles, Firms, and Income Inequality

The best firms—owning scalable intangibles and able to extract spillovers from other businesses—will be highly productive and profitable while their competitors will lose out.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean the best firms pays all their workers more.  To explain rising wage inequality, more is needed.

Who is Benefiting from Intangible-Based Firm Inequality?

“Superstars” benefit by being associated with exceptionally valuable intangibles that can scale massively.  Whereas in most markets a top worker could probably be replaced by two not-as-fast workers, this isn’t true for superstar markets:  you can’t replace the best opera singer or the best basketball player with two not-quite-as-good ones.  Tech billionaires also tend to be superstars with large equity stakes in companies they founded—companies that probably scaled massively.

However, senior managers have also done very well.  Haskel and Westlake explain why:

Intangible investment increases.  Because of its scalability and the benefits to companies that can appropriate intangible spillovers, leading companies pull ahead of laggards in terms of productivity, especially in the more intangible-intensive industries.  The employees of these highly productive companies benefit from higher wages.  Because intangibles are contestable, companies are especially eager to hire people who are good at contesting them—appropriating spillovers from other firms or identifying and maximizing synergies.

Why are CEOs at many companies being paid so much more than other workers?  One reason relates to a “fundamental attribution error” whereby people explain a good business outcome by referring to what is simple and salient—like the skill of the CEO—rather than by acknowledging complexity and the fact that luck typically plays a major role.  It’s also possible, say Haskel and Westlake, that shareholders—especially those who are most diversified—are not paying much attention to CEO pay.

Housing Prices, Cities, Intangibles, and Wealth Inequality

Intangibles can help explain wealth inequality.  First, intangibles tend to drive up property prices.  Second, the mobility of intangible capital means it’s harder to tax.

In a world where intangibles are becoming more abundant and a more important part of the way businesses create value, the benefits to exploiting spillovers and synergies increase.  And as these benefits increase, we would expect businesses and their employees to want to locate in diverse, growing cities where synergies and spillovers abound.

Haskel and Westlake summarize how intangibles impact long-run inequality:

  • First, inequality of income.  The synergies and spillovers that intangibles create increase inequality between competing companies, and this inequality leads to increasing differences in employee pay… In addition, managing intangibles requires particular skills and education, and people with these skills are clustering in high-paid jobs in intangible-intensive firms.  Finally, the growing economic importance of the kind of people who manage intangibles helps foster myths that can be used to justify excessive pay, especially for top managers.
  • Second, inequality of wealth.  Thriving cities are places where spillovers and synergies abound.  The rise of intangibles makes cities increasingly attractive places to be, driving up the prices of prime property.  This type of inflation has been shown to be one of the major causes of the increase in the wealth of the richest.  In addition, intangibles are often mobile; they can be shifted across firms and borders.  This makes capital more mobile, which makes it harder to tax.  Since capital is disproportionately owned by the rich, this makes redistributive taxation to reduce wealth inequality harder.
  • Finally, inequality of esteem.  There is some evidence that supporters of populist movements… are more likely to hold traditional views and to score low on tests for the psychological trait of openness to experience.

 

INFRASTRUCTURE FOR INTANGIBLES, AND INTANGIBLE INFRASTRUCTURE

On the one hand, in order to thrive, the intangible economy needs new buildings in and around cities.  On the other hand, artistic and creative institutions are important for combinatorial innovation.  In the longer term, face-to-face interaction may eventually be phased out, but often these kinds of changes can take much longer than initially supposed.

(Illustration by Panimoni)

Haskel and Westlake comment:

The death of distance has failed to take place.  Indeed, the importance of spillovers and synergies has increased the importance of places where people come together to share ideas and the importance of the transport and social spaces that make cities work.

But the death of distance may have been postponed rather than cancelled.  Information technologies are slowly, gradually, replacing some aspects of face-to-face interaction.  This may be a slow-motion change, like the electrification of factories—if so, the importance of physical infrastructure will radically change.

Soft infrastructure will also matter increasingly.  The synergies between intangibles increase the importance of standards and norms, which together make up a kind of social infrastructure for intangible investment.  And standards and norms are underpinned by trust and social capital, which are particularly important in an intangible economy.

 

THE CHALLENGE OF FINANCING AN INTANGIBLE ECONOMY

Banks are often criticized for not providing enough capital for businesses to succeed.  Equity markets are criticized for being too short-term and also too influential.  Managers seem to fixate more and more on shorter term stock prices.  Managers may cut R&D to try to please short-term investors.  Haskel and Westlake remark:

These concerns drive public policy across the developed world:  most governments to some extent subsidize or coerce banks to lend to businesses, and they give tax advantages to companies that finance using debt.  Many countries are considering measures to make equity investors take a longer-term perspective, such as imposing taxes on short-term shareholdings or changing financial reporting requirements.  And most governments have spent money trying to encourage alternative forms of financing, particularly venture capital (VC), which is regarded as providing a big potential source of business growth and national wealth.

Banking:  The Problem of Lending in a World of Intangibles

When a bank lends money to a business, the bank usually has some recourse to the assets of the business if the debt isn’t repaid.  However, intangible assets are typically much harder to value than tangible assets, and frequently intangible assets don’t have much value at all when a business fails.  Thus it is difficult for a bank to lend to a business whose assets are mostly intangible.

This is why industries with mostly tangible assets—like oil and gas producers—have high leverage (are funded more with debt than equity), while industries with mostly intangible assets—like software—have less debt and more equity.

One way to increase bank lending to businesses with more intangible assets is for the government to cofund or guarantee bank loans.  A second way is financial innovation, such as finding ways to value intangible assets—like patents—more accurately.  A third way to deal with the issue of lending against intangibles is to get businesses to rely more on equity than debt.

Haskel and Westlake on how equity markets impact intangible investing:

There is some evidence that markets are short-termist, to the extent that management can sometimes boost their company’s share price by cutting intangible investment to preserve or increase profits, or cut investment to buy back stock.  But it also seems that some of what is happening is a sharpening of managerial incentives:  publicly held companies whose managers own stock focus on types of intangible investment that are more likely to be successful.  And the extent of market myopia varies:  companies with more concentrated, sophisticated investors are less likely to feel pressure to cut intangible investment than those with dispersed, unsophisticated ones.

Why VC Works for Intangibles

(Photo by designer491)

Haskel and Westlake observe:

VC has several characteristics that make it especially well-suited to intangible-intensive businesses:  VC firms take equity stakes, not debt, because intangible-rich businesses are unlikely to be worth much if they fail—all those sunk investments.  Similarly, to satisfy their own investors, VC funds rely on home-run successes, made possible by the scalability of assets like Google’s algorithms, Uber’s driver network, or Genentech’s patents.  Third, VC is often sequential, with rounds of funding proceeding in stages.  This is a response to the inherent uncertainty of intangible investment.

Leading VC firms and their partners are well-connected and credible, which helps in building networks to exploit synergies.

 

COMPETING, MANAGING, AND INVESTING IN THE INTANGIBLE ECONOMY

Businesses look to improve their performance in a way that is sustainable.  How can this be done?  The advice has always been to build and maintain distinctive assets.  Tangible assets are usually not distinctive, or at least not for long.  Haskel and Westlake:

It’s much more likely that the types of intangible assets we have talked about in this book are going to be distinctive:  reputation, product design, trained employees providing customer service.  Indeed, perhaps the most distinctive asset will be the ability to weave all these assets together; so a particularly valuable intangible asset will be the organization itself.

When it comes to management, Haskel and Westlake suggest replacing the question, “What are managers for?” with a deeper question, “What’s the role of authority in an economy?”

Markets work with minimal government interference.  However, firms can do a better job than dispersed individuals at organizing certain activities.  Managers are people at firms who have authority.  This is usually more efficient:  managers tell employees what to do rather than discussing or arguing about every step.

But if management is largely just monitoring, and software can do the job of monitoring, then what is the role of managers in an intangible-intensive economy?  For one, note Haskel and Westlake, the stakes tend to be much higher in the intangible economy.  Moreover, in synergistic firms, only managers may understand the big picture.

How can managers build a good organization in an intangible-intensive firm?  Haskel and Westlake explain:

…if you are primarily a producer of intangible assets (writing software, doing design, producing research) you probably want to build an organization that allows information to flow, helps serendipitous interactions, and keeps the key talent.  That probably means allowing more autonomy, fewer targets, and more access to the boss, even if that is at the cost of influence activities.

Leadership is important in an intangible economy.

(Photo by Raywoo)

Having voluntary followers is really useful in an intangible economy.  A follower will stay loyal to the firm, which keeps the tacit intangible capital at the firm.  Better, if they are inspired by and empathize with the leader, they will cooperate with each other and feed information up to the leader.  This is why leadership is going to be so valued in an intangible economy.  It can at best replace, and likely mitigate, the costly and possibly distortive aspects of managing by authority.

Investing

How can an investor discern if a business is building intangible assets?  Can investors learn about intangibles from accounting data?

Accountants try to match revenues with costs.  If the company has a long-lived asset that produces revenues, then the company measures the annual cost by depreciation or amortization of that asset.

The other way to measure the cost of a long-lived asset is to expense the entire cost of creating the asset in the year in which the expenditures are made.  However, this can lead to distortions.  First, the costs in creating the asset can make profits in that year appear unusually low.  By the same logic, if the asset in question continues producing revenues, then in future years profits will appear unusually high.

In the case of intangible assets, if the asset is bought from outside the company, then it is capitalized (and annual expenses are calculated based on depreciation or amortization).  If the asset is created within the company, then the costs are recognized when they are spent (even if the asset is long-lived).

The result is that much intangible investment is hidden because it is expensed.  This is a challenge for investors because economies are coming to rely increasingly on intangible assets.  Book value—which is frequently based largely on tangible assets—is less relevant for a company that relies on intangible assets—especially if the company develops those assets internally.

What Should Investors Do?

The simplest solution for investors is to invest in low-cost broad market index funds.  In this way, the investor will benefit from companies that rely on intangible assets.

Because index funds outpace 90-95% of all active investors if you measure performance over several decades, it already makes excellent sense for many investors to invest in index funds.

Haskel and Westlake sum up the chapter:

The growth of intangible investment has significant implications for managers, but it will affect different firms in different ways.  Firms that produce intangible assets will want to maximize synergies, create opportunities to learn from the ideas of others (and appropriate the spillovers from others’ intangibles), and retain talent.  These workplaces may end up looking rather like the popular image of hip knowledge-based companies.  But companies that rely on exploiting existing intangible assets may look very different, especially where the intangible assets are organizational structure and processes.  These may be much more controlled environments—Amazon’s warehouses rather than its headquarters.  Leadership will be increasingly prized, to the extent that it allows firms to coordinate intangible investments in different areas and exploit their synergies.

Financial investors who can understand the complexity of intangible-rich firms will also do well.  The greater uncertainty of intangible assets and the decreasing usefulness of company accounts put a premium on good equity research and on insight into firm management.

 

PUBLIC POLICY IN AN INTANGIBLE ECONOMY:  FIVE HARD QUESTIONS

Haskel and Westlake highlight five of the most important challenges in an intangible-rich economy:

  • First, intangibles tend to be contested:  it is hard to prove who owns them, and even then their benefits have a tendency to spill over to others.  Good intellectual property frameworks are important for an economy increasingly dependent on intangibles.
  • Second, in an intangible economy, synergies are very important. Combining different ideas and intangible assets is central to successful business innovation.  An important objective for policy makers is to create conditions for ideas to come together.
  • The third challenge relates to finance and investment.  Businesses and financial markets seem to underinvest in scalable, sunk intangible investments with a tendency to generate spillovers and synergies.  The current system of business finance exacerbates the problem.  A thriving intangible economy will significantly improve its financial system to make it easier for companies to invest in intangibles.
  • Fourth, it will probably be harder for most businesses to appropriate the benefits of capital investment in the economies of the future than in the tangible-rich economies we are familiar with.  Successful intangible-rich economies will have higher levels of public investment in intangibles.
  • Fifth, governments must work out how to deal with the dilemma of the particular type of inequality that intangibles seem to encourage.
(Illustration by Robert Wilson)

Clearer Rules and Norms about the Ownership of Intangibles

Stronger IP rights are not necessarily best because while they can increase incentive to invest, productivity gains are lowered.  Also, strengthening IP rights might accidentally favor incumbent rights-holders and patent trolls.

Clearer IP rights can be helpful, though.  They can reduce lawsuits that often end up in the notoriously troll-friendly Eastern District of Texas court.

Moreover, since intangible assets are often much more difficult to value than tangible assets, there are ways to help with this.  For instance, Ian Hargreaves in 2011 suggested that the UK have a Digital Copyright Exchange.  Another example is patent pools where firms coinvest in research and agree to share the resulting rights.

Helping Ideas Combine:  Maximizing the Benefits of Synergies

Good public policy should be just as assiduous about creating the conditions for knowledge to spread, mingle, and fructify as it is about creating property rights for those who invest in intangibles.

It should be easy to build new workplaces and homes in cities.  But simultaneously, cities have to be connected and livable.

A Financial Architecture for Intangible Investment

Governments should encourage new forms of debt that facilitate the ability to borrow against intangible assets.  Longer term, governments should help a shift from debt to equity financing.  Currently, debt is cheaper than equity due to the tax benefits of debt.  This must change, but it will be very difficult because vested interests still rely on debt.  Furthermore, new institutions will be required that provide equity financing to small and medium-size businesses.  Although these shifts will be challenging, the rewards will be ever greater, note Haskel and Westlake.

Solving the Intangible Investment Gap

Some large firms seem able to gain from both their own intangible investments and from intangible investments made by others.  These companies—like Google or Facebook—can be expected to continue making intangible investments.

Outside of these companies, the government and other public interest bodies (like large non-profit foundations) must make intangible investments.

The government is the investor of last resort.  Here are three practical tips given by Haskel and Westlake for government investment in intangibles:

  • Public R&D Funding.  This means the government spending more on university research, public research institutes, or research undertaken by businesses.  This type of government spending is not at all ideologically controversial and it can help a great deal over time.
  • Public Procurement.  When the US military funded the development of the semiconductor industry in the 1950s, they also acted as a lead customer.  This helped Texas Instruments and other firms not just to invest in R&D, but also to build the capacity to produce and sell chips.
  • Training and Education. Because it’s hard to predict what skills will be needed in 20 to 30 years, adult education may be a good area in which to invest.  This could also help with inequality to some extent.

 

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.)

October 21, 2018

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 a 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 the decentralization was one 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)

W(hen 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.