More Than You Know

January 29, 2023

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

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

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

Here’s an outline:

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

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

 

PROCESS AND OUTCOME IN INVESTING

(Image by Amir Zukanovic)

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

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

Mauboussin also writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Rubin again:

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

 

RISKY BUSINESS

(Photo by Shawn Hempel)

Mauboussin:

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

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

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

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

 

ARE YOU AN EXPERT?

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

(Image by Johannes Gerhardus Swanepoel)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image by Marrishuanna)

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

 

THE HOT HAND IN INVESTING

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

(Illustration by lbreakstock)

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

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

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

 

TIME IS ON MY SIDE

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

(Illustration by Marek)

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

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

 

THE LOW DOWN ON THE TOP BRASS

(Illustration by Travelling-light)

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

  • Learning
  • Teaching
  • Self-awareness
  • Capital allocation

Mauboussin asserts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mauboussin quotes Warren Buffett:

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

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

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

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

 

SIX PSYCHOLOGICAL TENDENCIES

(Image by Andreykuzmin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

EMOTION AND INTUITION IN DECISION MAKING

(Photo by Marek Uliasz)

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

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

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

 

BEWARE OF BEHAVIORAL FINANCE

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

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

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

Mauboussin continues:

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

(Illustration by Trueffelpix)

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

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

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

 

IMPORTANCE OF A DECISION JOURNAL

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

(Photo by Leerobin)

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

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

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

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

 

RIGHT FROM THE GUT

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

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

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

(Photo by lbreakstock)

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

 

WEIGHTED WATCHER

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

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

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

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

(Photo by Michele Lombardo)

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

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

Mauboussin sums it up:

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

 

WHY INNOVATION IS INEVITABLE

(Image: Innovation concept, by Daniil Peshkov)

Mauboussin quotes Andrew Hargadon’s How Breakthroughs Happen:

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

Mauboussin adds:

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

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

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

 

ACCELERATING RATE OF INDUSTRY CHANGE

(Photo: Drosophila Melanogaster, by Tomatito26)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Image by Marek Uliasz)

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

 

HOW TO BALANCE THE LONG TERM WITH THE SHORT TERM

(Photo by Michael Maggs, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mauboussin notes the lessons emphasized by chess master Bruce Pandolfini:

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

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

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

 

FITNESS LANDSCAPES AND COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

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

Mauboussin:

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

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

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

Mauboussin remarks that there are three types of fitness landscape:

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

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

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

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

 

THE FOLLY OF USING AVERAGE P/E’S

Bradford Cornell:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

MEAN REVERSION AND TURNAROUNDS

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

(Illustration by Teguh Jati Prasetyo)

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

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

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

 

CONSIDERING COOPERATION AND COMPETITION THROUGH GAME THEORY

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

Mauboussin quotes Robert Axelrod’s The Complexity of Cooperation:

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

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

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

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

 

THE WISDOM AND WHIM OF THE COLLECTIVE

Mauboussin quotes Robert D. Hanson’s Decision Markets:

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

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

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

(Illustration: Swarm Intelligence, by Farbentek)

Mauboussin again:

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

 

VOX POPULI

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

Mauboussin tells of an experiment by Francis Galton:

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

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

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

 

COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEMS

(Illustration by Acadac, via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE FUTURE OF CONSILIENCE IN INVESTING

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

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

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

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

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

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

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

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

 

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

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

 

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

How the Greatest Economist Defied Convention and Got Rich

January 22, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

Now for a brief summary of the book.

 

INTELLECTUAL BEGINNINGS

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

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

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

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

 

WORLD WAR I – PEACE TERMS

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

 

KEYNES THE SPECULATOR

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

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

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

 

KEYNES THE ECONOMIST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

KEYNES THE VALUE INVESTOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keynes also noted:

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

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

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

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

Graham also wrote:

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

Or as Buffett said:

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

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

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

 

MARGIN OF SAFETY

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

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

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

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

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

Or as Ben Graham stated:

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

 

UNCERTAINTY AND PESSIMISM CREATE BARGAINS

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

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

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

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

 

MARKET LEADERS OR HIGHER QUALITY COMPANIES

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

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

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

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

 

FOCUSED AND PATIENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keynes again on concentration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SUMMARY

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

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

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

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

Walsh writes that Keynes followed six key investment rules:

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

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

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

Walsh summarizes Keynes’ performance as a value investor:

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

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

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

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

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

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

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

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

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

 

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

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

 

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

Best Performers: Microcap Stocks

January 15, 2023

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

Warren Buffett, arguably the best investor ever, has repeatedly said that most people should invest in a low-cost broad market index fund.  Such an index fund will allow you to do better than 80% to 90% of all investors, net of costs, after several decades.

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

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

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

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

Microcap equal weighted returns = 15.8% per year

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

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

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

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

 

VALUE SCREEN: +2-3%

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

 

IMPROVING FUNDAMENTALS: +2-3%

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

 

BOTTOM LINE

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

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

Please contact me if you would like to learn more.

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

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

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

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

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

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

 

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

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

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

 

The Most Important Thing

January 8, 2023

Howard Marks is one of the great value investors.  The Most Important Thing is a book Marks created based on his memos to clients.  Marks noticed that in his meetings with clients, he would often say, “The most important thing is X,” and then a bit later say, “The most important thing is Y,” and so on.  So the book, The Most Important Thing, has many “most important things,” all of which truly are important according to Marks.

Outstanding books are often worth reading at least four or five times.  The Most Important Thing is clearly outstanding, and is filled with investment wisdom.  As a result, this blog post is longer than usual.  It’s worth spending time to absorb the wisdom of Howard Marks.

 

INTRODUCTION

Marks writes:

Where does an investment philosophy come from?  The one thing I’m sure of is that no one arrives on the doorstep of an investment career with his or her philosophy fully formed.  A philosophy has to be the sum of many ideas accumulated over a long period of time from a variety of sources.  One cannot develop an effective philosophy without having been exposed to life’s lessons.  In my life I’ve been quite fortunate in terms of both rich experiences and powerful lessons.

Marks adds:

Good times teach only bad lessons: that investing is easy, that you know its secrets, and that you needn’t worry about risk.  The most valuable lessons are learned in tough times.

 

SECOND-LEVEL THINKING

Marks first points out how variable the investing landscape is:

No rule always works.  The environment isn’t controllable, and circumstances rarely repeat exactly.  Psychology plays a major role in markets, and because it’s highly variable, cause-and-effect relationships aren’t reliable.

The goal for an investor is to do better than the market over time.  Otherwise, the best option for most investors is simply to buy and hold low-cost broad market index funds.  Doing better than the market requires an identifiable edge:

Since other investors may be smart, well-informed and highly computerized, you must find an edge they don’t have.  You must think of something they haven’t thought of, see things they miss or bring insight they don’t possess.  You have to react differently and behave differently.  In short, being right may be a necessary condition for investment success, but it won’t be sufficient.  You must be more right than others… which by definition means your thinking has to be different.

Marks gives some examples of second-level thinking:

    • First-level thinking says, ‘It’s a good company; let’s buy the stock.’ Second-level thinking says, ‘It’s a good company, but everyone thinks it’s a great company, and it’s not.  So the stock’s overrated and overpriced; let’s sell.’
    • First-level thinking says, ‘The outlook calls for low growth and rising inflation. Let’s dump our stocks.’   Second-level thinking says, ‘The outlook stinks, but everyone else is selling in panic.  Buy!’
    • First-level thinking says, ‘I think the company’s earnings will fall; sell.’ Second-level thinking says, ‘I think the company’s earnings will fall less than people expect, and the pleasant surprise will lift the stock; buy.’

Marks explains that first-level thinking is generally simplistic.  By contrast, second-level thinking requires thinking of the full range of possible future outcomes, along with estimating probabilities for each possible outcome.  Second-level thinking means understanding what the consensus thinks, why one has a different view, and the likelihood that one’s contrarian view is correct.  Marks observes that second-level thinking is far more difficult than first-level thinking, thus few investors truly engage in second-level thinking.  First-level thinkers cannot expect to outperform the market.  Marks:

To outperform the average investor, you have to be able to outthink the consensus.  Are you capable of doing so?  What makes you think so?

Marks again:

The upshot is simple: to achieve superior investment results, you have to hold nonconsensus views regarding value, and they have to be accurate.  That’s not easy.

 

UNDERSTANDING MARKET EFFICIENCY

Marks holds a view of market efficiency similar to that of Buffett:  The market is usually efficient, but it is far from always efficient.  Marks says that the market reflects the consensus view, but the consensus is not always right:

In January 2000, Yahoo sold at $237.  In April 2001 it was $11.  Anyone who argues that the market was right both times has his or her head in the clouds; it has to have been wrong on at least one of those occasions.  But that doesn’t mean many investors were able to detect and act on the market’s error.

Marks summarizes his view:

The bottom line for me is that, although the more efficient markets often misvalue assets, it’s not easy for any one person – working with the same information as everyone else and subject to the same psychological influences – to consistently hold views that are different from the consensus and closer to being correct.  That’s what makes the mainstream markets awfully hard to beat – even if they aren’t always right.

Marks makes an important point about riskier investments:

Once in a while we experience periods when everything goes well and riskier investments deliver the higher returns they seem to promise.  Those halcyon periods lull people into believing that to get higher returns, all they have to do is make riskier investments.  But they ignore something that is easily forgotten in good times: this can’t be true, because if riskier investments could be counted on to produce higher returns, they wouldn’t be riskier.

Marks notes that inefficient prices imply that for each investor who buys at a cheap price, another investor must sell at that cheap price.  Inefficiency essentially implies that each investment that beats the market implies another investment that trails the market by an equal amount.

Generally it is exceedingly difficult to beat the market.  To highlight this fact, Marks asks a series of questions:

    • Why should a bargain exist despite the presence of thousands of investors who stand ready and willing to bid up the price of anything that is too cheap?
    • If the return appears so generous in proportion to the risk, might you be overlooking some hidden risk?
    • Why would the seller of the asset be willing to part with it at a price from which it will give you an excessive return?
    • Do you really know more about the asset than the seller does?
    • If it’s such a great proposition, why hasn’t someone else snapped it up?

Market inefficiency alone, argues Marks, is not a sufficient condition for outperformance:

All that means is that prices aren’t always fair and mistakes are occurring: some assets are priced too low and some too high.  You still have to be more insightful than others in order to regularly buy more of the former than the latter.  Many of the best bargains at any point in time are found among the things other investors can’t or won’t do.

Marks ends this section by saying that a key turning point in his career was when he concluded that he should focus on relatively inefficient markets.  (Note:  micro-cap stocks is one area that is relatively inefficient, which is why I created the Boole Microcap Fund.)

A few notes about deep value (contrarian value) investing:

In order to buy a stock that is very cheap in relation to its intrinsic value, some other investor must be willing to sell the stock at such an irrationally low price.  Sometimes such sales happen due to forced selling.  The rest of the time, the seller must be making a mistake in order for the value investor to make a market-beating investment.

Many deep value approaches are fully quantitative, however.  (Deep value is also called contrarian value.)  The quantitative deep value investor is not necessarily making an exceedingly detailed judgment on each individual deep value stock – a judgment which would imply that the value investor is correct in this particular case, and that the seller is wrong.  Rather, the quantitative deep value investor forms a portfolio of the statistically cheapest 20 or more stocks.  All of the studies have shown that a basket of quantitatively cheap stocks does better than the market over time, and is less risky (especially during down markets).

One of the best papers on quantitative deep value investing is Lakonishok, Shleifer, and Vishny (1994), “Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation, and Risk.”  Link: http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/shleifer/files/contrarianinvestment.pdf

A concentrated deep value approach, by contrast, typically involves the effort to select the most promising and the cheapest stocks available.  Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger both followed this approach when they were managing smaller amounts of capital.  They would typically have between 3 and 8 positions making up nearly the entire portfolio.  (Joel Greenblatt also used this approach when he was managing smaller amounts.  Greenblatt produced a ten-year record of 50.0% gross per year using a concentrated value approach focused on special situations.  See Greenblatt’s book, You Can Be a Stock Market Genius.)

 

VALUE

Marks begins by saying that “buy low; sell high” is one of the oldest rules in investing.  But since selling will occur in the future, how can one figure out a price today that will be lower than some future price?  What’s needed is an ability to accurately assess the intrinsic value of the asset.  The intrinsic value of a stock can be derived from the price that an informed buyer would pay for the entire company, based on the net asset value or the earnings power of the company.  Writes Marks:

The quest in value investing is for cheapness.  Value investors typically look at financial metrics such as earnings, cash flow, dividends, hard assets and enterprise value and emphasize buying cheap on these bases.  The primary goal of value investors, then, is to quantify the company’s current value and buy its securities when they can do so cheaply.

Marks also notes that successful value investing requires an estimate of current net asset value, or the current earnings power, that is unrecognized by the consensus.  Successful growth investing, by contrast, requires an estimate of future earnings that is higher than what the consensus currently thinks.  Often the rewards for successful growth investing are higher, but a successful value investing approach is much more repeatable and achievable.

Buying assets below fair value, however, does not mean those assets will outperform right away.  Thus value investing requires having a firmly held view, because quite often after buying, cheap assets will continue to underperform the market.  Marks elaborates:

If you liked it at 60, you should like it more at 50… and much more at 40 and 30.  But it’s not that easy.  No one’s comfortable with losses, and eventually any human will wonder, ‘Maybe it’s not me who’s right.  Maybe it’s the market.’…”

Thus, successful value investing requires not only the consistent ability to identify assets available at cheap prices; it also requires the ability to ignore various signals (many of which are subconscious) flashing the message that one is wrong.  As Marks writes:

Value investors score their biggest gains when they buy an underpriced asset, average down unfailingly and have their analysis proved out.  Thus, there are two essential ingredients for profit in a declining market: you have to have a view on intrinsic value, and you have to hold that view strongly enough to be able to hang in and buy even as price declines suggest that you’re wrong.  Oh yes, there’s a third: you have to be right.

 

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PRICE AND VALUE

Many investors make the mistake of thinking that a good company is automatically a good investment, while a bad company is automatically a bad investment.  But what really matters for the value investor is the relationship between price and value:

For a value investor, price has to be the starting point.  It has been demonstrated time and time again that no asset is so good that it can’t become a bad investment if bought at too high a price.  And there are few assets so bad that they can’t be a good investment when bought cheaply enough.

In the 1960’s, there was a group of stocks called the Nifty Fifty – companies that were viewed as being so good that all one had to do was buy at any price and then hold for the long term.  But it turned out not to be true for many stocks in the basket.  Moreover, the early 1970’s led to huge declines:

Within a few years, those price/earnings ratios of 80 or 90 had fallen to 8 or 9, meaning investors in America’s best companies had lost 90 percent of their money.  People may have bought into great companies, but they paid the wrong price.

Marks explains the policy at his firm Oaktree:

‘Well bought is half sold.’

By this we mean we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what price we’re going to be able to sell a holding for, or to whom, or though what mechanism.  If you’ve bought it cheap, eventually those questions will answer themselves.  If your estimate of intrinsic value is correct, over time an asset’s price should converge with its value.

Marks, similar to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, holds that psychology plays a central role in value investing:

Whereas the key to ascertaining value is skilled financial analysis, the key to understanding the price/value relationship – and the outlook for it – lies largely in insight into other investor’s minds.  Investor psychology can cause a security to be priced just about anywhere in the short run, regardless of its fundamentals.

The safest and most potentially profitable thing is to buy something when no one likes it.  Given time, its popularity, and thus its price, can only go one way: up.

A successful value investor must build systems or rules for self-protection because all investors – all humans – suffer from psychological biases, which often operate subconsciously.  For more on cognitive biases, see the following two blog posts:

Cognitive Biases

The Psychology of Misjudgment

Marks continues:

Of all the possible routes to investment profit, buying cheap is clearly the most reliable.  Even that, however, isn’t sure to work.  You can be wrong about the current value.  Or events can come along that reduce value.  Or deterioration in attitudes or markets can make something sell even further below its value.  Or the convergence of price and intrinsic value can take more time than you have…

Trying to buy below value isn’t infallible, but it’s the best chance we have.

 

UNDERSTANDING RISK

As Buffett frequently observes, the future is always uncertain.  Prices far below probable intrinsic value usually only exist when the future is highly uncertain.  When there is not much uncertainty, asset prices will be much higher than otherwise.  So high uncertainty about the future is the friend of the value investor.

On the other hand, in general, assets that promise higher returns always entail higher risk.  If a potentially higher-returning asset was obviously as low risk as a U.S. Treasury, then investors would rush to buy the higher-returning asset, thereby pushing up its price to the point where it would promise returns on par with a U.S. Treasury.

A successful value investor has to determine whether the potential return on an ostensibly cheap asset is worth the risk.  High risk is not necessarily bad as long as it is properly controlled and as long as the potential return is high enough.  But if the risk is too high, then it’s not the type of repeatable bet that can produce long-term success for a value investor.  Repeatedly taking too much risk – by sizing positions too large relative to risk-reward – virtually guarantees long-term failure.

Consider the Kelly criterion.  If the probability of success and the returns from a potential investment can be quantified, then the Kelly criterion tells one exactly how much to bet in order to maximize the long-term compound returns from a long series of such bets.  Betting any other amount than what the Kelly criterion says will inevitably lead to less than the maximum potential returns.  Most importantly, betting more than what the Kelly criterion says guarantees zero or negative long-term returns.  Repeatedly overbetting guarantees long-term failure.  For more about the Kelly criterion, see:  http://boolefund.com/the-dhandho-investor/

This is why Howard Marks, Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, and other great value investors often point out that minimizing big mistakes is more important for long-term investing success than hitting home runs.  Buffett and Munger apply the same logic to life itself:  avoiding big mistakes is more important than trying to hit home runs.  Buffett:  “You have to do very few things right in life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.”

Again, Marks points out, while riskier investments promise higher returns, those higher returns are not guaranteed, otherwise riskier investments wouldn’t be riskier!  The probability distribution of potential returns is wider for riskier investments, typically including some large potential losses.  A certain percentage of future outcomes will be zero or negative for riskier investments.

Marks agrees with Buffett and Munger that the best definition of risk is the potential to experience loss.

Of course, as John Templeton, Ray Dalio, and other great investors observe, even the best investors are typically only right two-thirds of the time, while they are wrong one-third of the time.  Thus, following a successful long-term value investing framework where one consistently and carefully pays cheap prices for assets still entails being wrong roughly one-third of the time.  Being wrong often means that the lower probability future negative scenarios do in fact occur a certain percentage of the time.  Back luck does happen a certain percentage of the time.  (Mistakes in analysis or psychology also happen.)

It’s important to bet big when the odds are heavily in one’s favor.  But one should be psychologically prepared to be wrong roughly one-third of the time, whether due to bad luck or to mistakes.  The overall portfolio should be able to withstand at least a 33% error rate.

More Notes on Deep Value

Investors are systematically too pessimistic about companies that have been doing poorly, and systematically too optimistic about companies that have been doing well.  This is why a deep value (contrarian value) approach, if applied systematically, is very likely to produce market-beating returns over a long enough period of time.

Marks explains:

Dull, ignored, possibly tarnished and beaten-down securities – often bargains exactly because they haven’t been performing well – are often ones value investors favor for high returns…. Much of the time, the greatest risk in these low-luster bargains lies in the possibility of underperforming in heated bull markets.  That’s something the risk-conscious value investor is willing to live with.

Measuring Risk-Adjusted Returns

Marks mentions the Sharpe ratio – or excess return compared to the standard deviation of the return.  While not perfect, the Sharpe ratio is a solid measure of risk-adjusted return for many public market securities.

It’s important to point out again that risk can no more be objectively measured after an investment than it can be objectively measured before the investment.  Marks:

The point is that even after an investment has been closed out, it’s impossible to tell how much risk it entailed.  Certainly the fact that an investment worked doesn’t mean it wasn’t risky, and vice versa.  With regard to a successful investment, where do you look to learn whether the favorable outcome was inescapable or just one of a hundred possibilities (many of them unpleasant)?  And ditto for a loser: how do we ascertain whether it was a reasonable but ill-fated venture, or just a wild stab that deserved to be punished?

Did the investor do a good job of assessing the risk entailed?  That’s another good questions that’s hard to answer.  Need a model?  Think of the weatherman.  He says there’s a 70 percent chance of rain tomorrow.  It rains; was he right or wrong?  Or it doesn’t rain; was he right or wrong?  It’s impossible to assess the accuracy of probability estimates other than 0 and 100 except over a very large number of trials.

Marks believes (as do Buffett, Munger, and other top value investors) that there is some merit to the expected value framework whereby one attempts to identify possible future scenarios and the probabilities of their occurrence:

If we have a sense for the future, we’ll be able to say which outcome is most likely, what other outcomes also have a good chance of occurring, how broad the range of possible outcomes is and thus what the ‘expected result’ is.  The expected result is calculated by weighing each outcome by its probability of occurring; it’s a figure that says a lot – but not everything – about the likely future.

Again, though, having a reasonable estimate of the future probability distribution is not enough.  One must also make sure that one’s portfolio can withstand a run of bad luck; and one must recognize when one has experienced a run of good luck.  Marks quotes his friend Bruce Newberg (with whom he has played cards and dice):

There’s a big difference between probability and outcome.  Probable things fail to happen – and improbable things happen – all the time.

This is one of the most important lessons to know about investing, asserts Marks.

Marks defines investment performance:

… investment performance is what happens when a set of developments – geopolitical, macro-economic, company-level, technical and psychological – collide with an extant portfolio.  Many futures are possible, to paraphrase Dimson, but only one future occurs.  The future you get may be beneficial to your portfolio or harmful, and that may be attributable to your foresight, prudence or luck.  The performance of your portfolio under the one scenario that unfolds says nothing about how it would have fared under the many ‘alternative histories’ that were possible.

A portfolio can be set up to withstand 99 percent of all scenarios but succumb because it’s the remaining 1 percent that materializes.  Based on the outcome, it may seem to have been risky, whereas the investor might have been quite cautious.

Another portfolio may be structured so that it will do very well in half the scenarios and very poorly in the other half.  But if the desired environment materializes and it prospers, onlookers can conclude that it was a low-risk portfolio.

The success of a third portfolio can be entirely contingent on one oddball development, but if it occurs, wild aggression can be mistaken for conservatism and foresight.

Marks again:

Risk can be judged only by sophisticated, experienced second-level thinkers.

The past seems very definite: for every evolving set of possible scenarios, only one scenario happened at each point along the way.  But that does not at all mean that the scenarios that actually occurred were the only scenarios that could have occurred.

Furthermore, most people assume that the future will be like the past, especially the more recent past.  As Ray Dalio says, the biggest mistake most investors make is to assume that the recent past will continue into the future.

Marks also reminds us that the “worst-case” assumed by most investors is typically not negative enough.  Marks relates a funny story his father told about a gambler who bet everything on a race with only one horse in it.  How could he lose?

Halfway around the track, the horse jumped over the fence and ran away.  Invariably things can get worse than people expect.

Taking more risk usually leads to higher returns, but not always.

And when risk bearing doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work, and people are reminded what risk’s all about.

 

RECOGNIZING RISK

The main source of risk, argues Marks, is high prices.  When stock prices move higher, for instance, most investors feel more optimistic and less concerned about downside risk.  But value investors have the opposite point of view: risk is typically very low when stock prices are very low, while risk tends to increase significantly when stock prices have increased significantly.

Most investors are not value investors:

So a prime element in risk creation is a belief that risk is low, perhaps even gone altogether.  That belief drives up prices and leads to the embrace of risky actions despite the lowness of prospective returns.

Marks emphasizes that recognizing risk – which comes primarily from high prices – has nothing to do with predicting the future, which cannot be done with any sort of consistency when it comes to the overall stock market or the economy.

Marks also highlights, again, how the psychology of eager buyers – who are unworried about risk – is precisely what creates greater levels of risk as they drive prices higher:

Thus, the market is not a static arena in which investors operate.  It is responsive, shaped by investors’ own behavior.  Their increasing confidence creates more that they should worry about, just as their rising fear and risk aversion combine to widen risk premiums at the same time as they reduce risk.  I call this the ‘perversity of risk.’

In a nutshell:

When everyone believes something is risky, their unwillingness to buy usually reduces its price to the point where it’s not risky at all.  Broadly negative opinion can make it the least risky thing, since all optimism has been driven out of its price.

And, of course, as demonstrated by the experience of Nifty Fifty investors, when everyone believes something embodies no risk they usually bid it up to the point where it’s enormously risky.  No risk is feared, and thus no reward for risk bearing – no ‘risk premium’ – is demanded or provided.  That can make the thing that’s most esteemed the riskiest.

Marks again:

This paradox exists because most investors think quality, as opposed to price, is the determinant of whether something’s risky.  But high quality assets can be risky, and low quality assets can be safe.  It’s just a matter of the price paid for them…

 

CONTROLLING RISK

Outstanding investors, in my opinion, are distinguished at least as much for their ability to control risk as they are for generating return.

Great investors generate high returns with moderate risk, or moderate returns with low risk.  If they generate high returns with “high risk,” but they do so consistently for many years, then perhaps the high risk “either wasn’t really high or was exceptionally well-managed.”  Mark says that great investors such as Buffett or Peter Lynch tend to have very few losing years over a relatively long period of time.

It’s important, notes Marks, to see that risk leads to loss only when lower probability negative scenarios occur:

… loss is what happens when risk meets adversity.  Risk is the potential for loss if things go wrong.  As long as things go well, loss does not arise.  Risk gives rise to loss only when negative events occur in the environment.

We must remember that when the environment is salutary, that is only one of the environments that could have materialized that day (or that year).  (This is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idea of alternative histories…)  The fact that the environment wasn’t negative does not mean that it couldn’t have been.  Thus, the fact that the environment wasn’t negative doesn’t mean risk control wasn’t desirable, even though – as things turned out – it wasn’t needed at that time.

The absence of losses does not mean that there was no risk.  Only a skilled investor can look at a portfolio during good times and tell how much risk has been taken.

Bottom line: risk control is invisible in good times but still essential, since good times can so easily turn into bad times.

Marks says that an investment manager adds value by generating higher than market returns for a given level of risk.  Achieving the same return as the market, but with less risk, is adding value.  Achieving better than market returns without undue risk is also adding value.

Many value investors, such as Marks and Buffett, somewhat underperform during up markets, but far outperform during down markets.  The net result over a long period of time is market-beating performance with very little incremental risk.  But it does take some time in order to see the value-added.

Controlling the risk in your portfolio is a very important and worthwhile pursuit.  The fruits, however, come only in the form of losses that don’t happen.  Such what-if calculations are difficult in placid times.

Marks:

On the other hand, the intelligent acceptance of recognized risk for profit underlies some of the wisest, most profitable investments – even though (or perhaps due to the fact that) most investors dismiss them as dangerous speculations.

Marks’ firm Oaktree invests in high yield bonds.  High yield bonds can be good investments over time if the prices are low enough:

I’ve said for years that risky assets can make for good investments if they’re cheap enough.  The essential element is knowing when that’s the case.  That’s it: the intelligent bearing of risk for profit, the best test for which is a record of repeated success over a long period of time.

Risk bearing per se is neither wise nor unwise, says Marks.  Investing in the more aggressive niches with risk properly controlled is ideal.  But controlling risk always entails being prepared for bad scenarios.

Extreme volatility and loss surface only infrequently.  And as time passes without that happening, it appears more and more likely that it’ll never happen – that assumptions regarding risk were too conservative.  Thus, it becomes tempting to relax rules and increase leverage.  And often this is done just before the risk finally rears its head…

Marks quotes Nassim Taleb:

Reality is far more vicious than Russian roulette.  First, it delivers the fatal bullet rather infrequently, like a revolver that would have hundreds, even thousands of chambers instead of six.  After a few dozen tries, one forgets about the existence of the bullet, under a numbing false sense of security… Second, unlike a well-defined precise game like Russian roulette, where the risks are visible to anyone capable of multiplying and dividing by six, one does not observe the barrel of reality… One is thus capable of unwittingly playing Russian roulette – and calling it by some alternative ‘low risk’ name.

A good example, which Marks does mention, is large financial institutions in 2004-2007.  Virtually no one thought that home prices could decline on a nationwide scale, since they had never done so before.

Of course, it’s also possible to be too conservative.  You can’t run a business on the  basis of worst-case assumptions.  You wouldn’t be able to do anything.  And anyway, a ‘worst-case assumption’ is really a misnomer; there’s no such thing, short of a total loss.  Now, we know the quants shouldn’t have assumed there couldn’t be a nationwide decline in home prices.  But once you grant that such a decline can happen… what should you prepare for?  Two percent?  Ten?  Fifty?

Marks continues:

If every portfolio was required to be able to withstand declines on the scale we’ve witnessed this year [2008], it’s possible no leverage would ever be used.  Is that a reasonable reaction?

Even if we realize that unusual, unlikely things can happen, in order to act we make reasoned decisions and knowingly accept that risk when well paid to do so.  Once in a while, a ‘black swan’ will materialize.  But if in the future we always said, ‘We can’t do such-and-such, because the outcome could be worse than we’ve ever seen before,’ we’d be frozen in inaction.

… It’s by bearing risk when we’re well paid to do so – and especially by taking risks toward which others are averse in the extreme – that we strive to add value for our clients.

 

BEING ATTENTIVE TO CYCLES

    • Rule number one: most things will prove to be cyclical.
    • Rule number two: some of the greatest opportunities for gain and loss come when other people forget rule number one.

Marks explains:

… processes in fields like history and economics involve people, and when people are involved, the results are variable and cyclical.  The main reason for this, I think, is that people are emotional and inconsistent, not steady and clinical.

Objective factors do play a large part in cycles, of course – factors such as quantitative relationships, world events, environmental changes, technological developments and corporate decisions.  But it’s the application of psychology to these things that causes investors to overreact or underreact, and thus determines the amplitude of the cyclical fluctuations.

Marks continues:

Economies will wax and wane as consumers spend more or less, responding emotionally to economic factors or exogenous events, geopolitical or naturally occurring.  Companies will anticipate a rosy future during the up cycle and thus overexpand facilities and inventories; these will become burdensome when the economy turns down.  Providers of capital will be too generous when the economy’s doing well, abetting overexpansion with cheap money, and then they’ll pull the reins too tight when things cease to look as good.

Investors will overvalue companies when they’re doing well and undervalue them when things get difficult.

 

AWARENESS OF THE PENDULUM

Marks holds that there are two risks in investing:

the risk of losing money and the risk of missing opportunity.

Most investors consistently do the wrong things at the wrong time:  when prices are high, most investors rush to buy; when prices are low, most investors rush to sell.  Thus, the value investor can profit over time by following Warren Buffett’s advice:

Be fearful when others are greedy.  Be greedy when others are fearful.

Marks:

Stocks are cheapest when everything looks grim.  The depressing outlook keeps them there, and only a few astute and daring bargain hunters are willing to take new positions.

 

COMBATING NEGATIVE INFLUENCES

Marks writes as follows:

Many people possess the intellect needed to analyze data, but far fewer are able to look more deeply into things and withstand the powerful influence of psychology.  To say this another way, many people will reach similar cognitive conclusions from their analysis, but what they do with those conclusions varies all over the lot because psychology influences them differently.  The biggest investing errors come not from factors that are informational or analytical, but from those that are psychological.  Investor psychology includes many separate elements, which we will look at in this chapter, but the key thing to remember is that they consistently lead to incorrect decisions.  Much of this falls under the heading of ‘human nature.’

Cognitive Biases

As humans, we all have psychological tendencies or cognitive biases that were mostly helpful to us during much of our evolutionary history, but that often lead us to make bad judgments in many areas of modern life.

Marks writes about the following psychological tendencies:

    • Greed
    • Fear
    • Self-deception
    • Conformity to the crowd
    • Envy
    • Ego or overconfidence
    • Capitulation

How might these psychological tendencies have been useful in our evolutionary history?  

When food was often scarce, being greedy by hoarding food (whether at the individual or community level) made sense.  When a movement in the grass occasionally meant the presence of a dangerous predator, immediate fear (this fear is triggered by the amygdala even before the conscious mind is aware of it) was essential for survival.  When hunting for food was dangerous, often with low odds of success, self-deception – accompanied by various naturally occurring chemicals – helped hunters to persevere over long periods of time, regardless of high danger and often regardless of injury.  (Chemical reactions could often cause an injured hunter not to feel the pain much.)  If everyone in one’s hunting group, or in one’s community, was running away as fast as possible, following the crowd was usually the most rational response.  If a starving hunter saw another person with a huge pile of food, envy would trigger a strong desire to possess such a large pile of food, whether by trying to take it or by going on a hunting expedition with a heightened level of determination.  When hunting a dangerous prey, with low odds of success, ego or overconfidence would cause the hunter to be convinced that he would succeed.  From the point of view of the community, having self-deceiving and overconfident hunters was a net benefit because the hunters would persevere despite often low odds of success, and despite inevitable injuries and deaths among individual hunters.

How do these psychological tendencies cause people to make errors in modern activities such as investing?

Greed causes people to follow the crowd by paying high prices for stocks in the hope that there will be even higher prices in the future.  Fear causes people to sell or to avoid ugly stocks – stocks trading at low multiples because the businesses in question are facing major difficulties.

As humans, we have an amazingly strong tendency towards self-deception:

    • The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. – Richard Feynman
    • Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true. – Demosthenes, as quoted by Charlie Munger

There have been many times in history when self-deception was probably crucial for the survival of a given individual or community.  I’ve mentioned hunters pursuing dangerous prey.  A much more recent example might be Winston Churchill, who was firmly convinced – even when virtually all the evidence was against it – that England would defeat Germany in World War II.  Churchill’s absolute belief helped sustain England long enough for both good luck and aid to arrive:  the Germans ended up overextended in Russia, and huge numbers of American troops (along with mass amounts of equipment) arrived in England.

Like other psychological tendencies, self-deception not only was important in evolutionary history, but it still often plays a constructive role.  Yet when it comes to investing, self-deception is clearly harmful, especially as the time horizon is extended so that luck evens out.

Conformity to the crowd is another psychological tendency that many (if not most) investors seem to display.  Marks notes the famous experiment by Solomon Asch.  The subject is shown lines of obviously different lengths.  But in the same room with the subject are shills, who unbeknownst to the subject have already been instructed to say that two lines of obviously different lengths actually have the same length.  So the subject of the experiment has to decide between the obvious evidence of his eyes – the two lines are clearly different lengths – and the opinion of the crowd.  A significant number (36.8 percent) ignored their own eyes and went with the crowd, saying that the two lines had equal length, despite the obvious fact that they didn’t.

(The experiment involved a control group in which there were no shills.  Almost every subject – over 99 percent – gave the correct answer under these circumstances.)

Greed, conformity, and envy together operate powerfully on the brain of many investors:

Time and time again, the combination of pressure to conform and the desire to get rich causes people to drop their independence and skepticism, overcome their innate risk aversion and believe things that don’t make sense.

A good example from history is the tulip mania in Holland, during which otherwise rational people ended up paying exorbitant sums for colorful tulip bulbs.  The South Sea Bubble is another example, during which even the extremely intelligent Isaac Newton, after selling out early for a solid profit, could not resist buying in again as prices seemed headed for the stratosphere.  Newton and many others lost huge sums when prices inevitably returned to earth.

Envy has a very powerful and often negative effect on most human brains.  And as Charlie Munger always points out, envy is particularly stupid because it’s a sin that, unlike many other sins, is not any fun at all.  There are many people who could easily learn to be very happy – grateful for blessings, grateful for the wonders of life itself, etc. – who become miserable because they fixate on other people who have more of something, or who are doing better in some way.  Envy is fundamentally irrational and stupid, but it is powerful enough to consume many people.  Buffett: “It’s not greed that drives the world, but envy.”  Envy and jealousy have for a very long time caused the downfall of human beings.  This certainly holds true in investing.

Ego is another powerful psychological tendency humans have.  As with the other potential pitfalls, many of the best investors – from Warren Buffett to Ray Dalio – are fundamentally humble.  Overconfidence (closely related to ego) is a very strong bias that humans have, and if it is not overcome by learning humility and objectivity, it will kill any investor eventually.  Marks writes:

In contrast, thoughtful investors can toil in obscurity, achieving solid gains in the good years and losing less than others in the bad years.  They avoid sharing in the riskiest behavior because they’re so aware of how much they don’t know and because they have their egos in check.  This, in my opinion, is the greatest formula for long-term wealth creation – but it doesn’t provide much ego gratification in the short run.  It’s just not that glamorous to follow a path that emphasizes humility, prudence, and risk control.  Of course, investing shouldn’t be about glamour, but often it is.

Capitulation is a final phenomenon that Marks emphasizes.  In general, people become overly negative about a stock that is deeply out of favor because the business in question is going through hard times.  Moreover, when overly negative investors are filled with fear and when they see everyone selling in a panic, they themselves often sell near the very bottom.  Often these investors know analytically that the stock is cheap, but their emotions (fear of loss, conformity to the crowd, etc.) are too strong, so they disbelieve their own sound logic.  The rational, contrarian, long-term value investor does just the opposite:  he or she buys near the point of maximum pessimism (to use John Templeton’s phrase).

Similarly, most investors become overly optimistic when a stock is near its all-time highs.  They see many other investors who have done well with the sky-high stock, and so they tend to buy at a price that is near the all-time highs.  Again, many of these investors – like Isaac Newton – know analytically that buying a stock when it is near its all-time highs is often not a good idea.  But greed, envy, self-deception, crowd conformity, etc. (fear of missing out, dream of a sure thing), overwhelm their own sound logic.  By contrast, the rational, long-term value investor does the opposite:  he or she sells near the point of maximum optimism.

Marks gives a marvelous example from the tech bubble of 1998-2000:

From the perspective of psychology, what was happening with IPOs is particularly fascinating.  It went something like this: The guy next to you in the office tells you about an IPO he’s buying.  You ask what the company does.  He says he doesn’t know, but his broker told him its going to double on the day of issue.  So you say that’s ridiculous.  A week later he tells you it didn’t double… it tripled.  And he still doesn’t know what it does.  After a few more of these, it gets hard to resist.  You know it doesn’t make sense, but you want protection against continuing to feel like an idiot.  So, in a prime example of capitulation, you put in for a few hundred shares of the next IPO… and the bonfire grows still higher on the buying from new converts like you.

 

CONTRARIANISM

To buy when others are despondently selling and to sell when others are euphorically buying takes the greatest courage, but provides the greatest profit. – Sir John Templeton

Superior value investors buy when others are selling, and sell when others are buying.  Value investing is simple in concept, but it is very difficult in practice.

Of course, it’s not enough just to be contrarian.  Your facts and your reasoning also have to be right:

You’re neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you.  You’re right because your data and reasoning are 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

Or, as Seth Klarman puts it:

Value investing is at its core the marriage of a contrarian streak with a calculator.

Only by being right about the facts and the reasoning can a long-term value investor hold (or add to) a position when everyone else continues to sell.  Getting the facts and reasoning right still involves being wrong roughly one-third of the time, often due to bad luck but also sometimes due to mistakes in analysis or psychology.  But getting the facts and reasoning right leads to ‘being right’ roughly two-third of the time.

‘Being right’ usually means a robust process correctly followed – both analytically and psychologically – and the absence of bad luck.  But sometimes good luck plays a role.  Either way, a robust process correctly followed should produce positive results (on both an absolute and relative basis) over most rolling five-year periods, and over nearly all rolling ten-year periods.

It’s never easy to consistently follow a careful, contrarian value investing approach.  Marks quotes David Swensen:

Investment success requires sticking with positions made uncomfortable by their variance with popular opinion… Only with the confidence created by a strong decision-making process can investors sell speculative excess and buy despair-driven value.

… Establishing and maintaining an unconventional investment profile requires acceptance of uncomfortably idiosyncratic portfolios, which frequently appear downright imprudent in the eyes of conventional wisdom.

Marks puts it in his own words:

The most profitable investment actions are by definition contrarian:  you’re buying when everyone else is selling (and the price is thus low) or you’re selling when everyone else is buying (and the price is high).  These actions are lonely and… uncomfortable.

Marks writes about the paradoxical nature of investing:

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.

The best bargains are typically only available when pessimism and uncertainty are high.  Many investors say, ‘We’re not going to try to catch a falling knife; it’s too dangerous… We’re going to wait until the dust settles and the uncertainty is resolved.’  But waiting until uncertainty gets resolved usually means missing the best bargains, as Marks says:

The one thing I’m sure of is that by the time the knife has stopped falling, the dust has settled and the uncertainty has been resolved, there’ll be no great bargains left.  When buying something has become comfortable again, its price will no longer be so low that it’s a great bargain.  Thus, a hugely profitable investment that doesn’t begin with discomfort is usually an oxymoron.

It’s our job as contrarians to catch falling knives, hopefully with care and skill.  That’s why the concept of intrinsic value is so important.  If we hold a view of value that enables us to buy when everyone else is selling – and if our view turns out to be right – that’s the route to the greatest rewards earned with the least risk.

 

FINDING BARGAINS

It cannot be too often repeated:

A high-quality asset can constitute a good or bad buy, and a low-quality asset can constitute a good or bad buy.  The tendency to mistake objective merit for investment opportunity, and the failure to distinguish between good assets and good buys, gets most investors into trouble.

What is the process by which some assets become cheap relative to intrinsic value?  Marks explains:

    • Unlike assets that become the subject of manias, potential bargains usually display some objective defect. An asset class may have weaknesses, a company may be a laggard in its industry, a balance sheet may be over-levered, or a security may afford its holders inadequate structural protection.
    • Since the efficient-market process of setting fair prices requires the involvement of people who are analytical and objective, bargains usually are based on irrationality or incomplete understanding. Thus, bargains are often created when investors either fail to consider an asset fairly, or fail to look beneath the surface to understand it thoroughly, or fail to overcome some non-value-based tradition, bias or stricture.
    • Unlike market darlings, the orphan asset is ignored or scorned. To the extent it’s mentioned at all by the media and at cocktail parties, it’s in unflattering terms.
    • Usually its price has been falling, making the first-level thinker as, ‘Who would want to own that?’ (It bears repeating that most investors extrapolate past performance, expecting the continuation of trends rather than the far-more-dependable regression to the mean.  First-level thinkers tend to view price weakness as worrisome, not as a sign that the asset has gotten cheaper.)
    • As a result, a bargain asset tends to be one that’s highly unpopular. Capital stays away from it or flees, and no one can think of a reason to own it.

Where is the best place to look for underpriced assets?  Marks observes that a good place to start is among things that are:

    • little known and not fully understood;
    • fundamentally questionable on the surface;
    • controversial, unseemly or scary;
    • deemed inappropriate for ‘respectable’ portfolios;
    • unappreciated, unpopular and unloved;
    • trailing a record of poor returns; and
    • recently the subject of disinvestment, not accumulation.

Marks:

To boil it all down to just one sentence, I’d say the necessary condition for the existence of bargains is that perception has to be considerably worse than reality.  That means the best opportunities are usually found among things most others won’t do.  After all, if everyone feels good about something and is glad to join in, it won’t be bargain-priced.

Marks started a fund for high yield bonds – junk bonds – in 1978.  One rating agency described high yield bonds as “generally lacking the characteristics of a desirable investment.”  Marks points out the obvious: “if nobody owns something, demand for it (and thus the price) can only go up and…. by going from taboo to even just tolerated, it can perform quite well.”

In 1987, Marks formed a fund to invest in distressed debt:

Who would invest in companies that already had demonstrated their lack of financial viability and the weakness of their management?  How could anyone invest responsibly in companies in free fall?  Of course, given the way investors behave, whatever asset is considered worst at a given point in time has a good likelihood of being the cheapest.  Investment bargains needn’t have anything to do with high quality.  In fact, things tend to be cheaper if low quality has scared people away.

 

PATIENT OPPORTUNISM

Marks makes the same point that Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger often make: Most of the time, by far the best thing to do is absolutely nothing.  Finding one good idea a year is enough to get outstanding returns over time.  Writes Marks:

So here’s a tip: You’ll do better if you wait for investments to come to you rather than go chasing after them.  You tend to get better buys if you select from the list of things sellers are motivated to sell rather than start with a fixed notion as to what you want to own.  An opportunist buys things because they’re offered at bargain prices.  There’s nothing special about buying when prices aren’t low.

Marks took five courses in Japanese studies as an undergraduate business major in order to fulfill his requirement for a minor.  He learned the Japanese value of mujo:

mujo means cycles will rise and fall, things will come and go, and our environment will change in ways beyond our control.  Thus we must recognize, accept, cope and respond.  Isn’t that the essence of investing?

… What’s past is past and can’t be undone.  It has led to the circumstances we now face.  All we can do is recognize our circumstances for what they are and make the best decisions we can, given the givens.

Marks quotes Buffett, who notes that there are no called strikes in investing:

Investing is the greatest business in the world because you never have to swing.  You stand at the plate; the pitcher throws you General Motors at 47!  U.S. steel at 39!  And nobody calls a strike on you.  There’s no penalty except opportunity.  All day you wait for the pitch you like; then, when the fielders are asleep, you step up and hit it.

It’s dumb to invest when the opportunities are not there.  But when the overall market is high, there are still a few ways to do well as a long-term value investor.  If one is able to ignore short-term volatility and focus on the next five to ten years, then one can invest in undervalued stocks.

If one’s assets under management are small enough, then there can be certain parts of the market where one can still find excellent bargains.  An example would be micro-cap stocks, since very few professional investors look there.  (This is the focus of the Boole Microcap Fund.)

Another example of potentially cheap (albeit volatile) stocks in an otherwise expensive stock market is old-related companies.  Energy companies recently were as cheap as they’ve ever been.  See: https://www.gmo.com/americas/research-library/resource-equities/?utm_source=linkedin&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=insights_resource_equities

 

KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

We have two classes of forecasters: Those who don’t know – and those who don’t know they don’t know. – John Kenneth Galbraith

Marks, like Buffett, Munger, and most other top value investors, thinks that financial forecasting simply cannot be done with any sort of consistency.  But Marks has two caveats:

    • The more we concentrate on smaller-picture things, the more it’s possible to gain a knowledge advantage. With hard work and skill, we can consistently know more than the next person about individual companies and securities, but that’s much less likely with regard to markets and economies.  Thus, I suggest people try to ‘know the knowable.’
    • An exception comes in the form of my suggestion, on which I elaborate in the next chapter, that investors should make an effort to figure out where they stand at a moment in time in terms of cycles and pendulums. That won’t render the future twists and turns knowable, but it can help one prepare for likely developments.

 

Marks has tracked (in a limited way) many macro predictions, including U.S. interest rates, the U.S. stock market, and the yen/dollar exchange rate.  He found quite clearly that most forecasts were not correct.

I can elaborate on two examples that I spent much time on (when I should have stayed focused on finding individual companies available at cheap prices):

    • the U.S. stock market
    • the yen/dollar exchange

A secular bear market for U.S. stocks began (arguably) in the year 2000, when the 10-year Graham-Shiller P/E – also called the CAPE (cyclically adjusted P/E) – was over 30, its highest level in U.S. history.  The long-term average CAPE is around 16.  Based on over one hundred years of history, the pattern for U.S. stocks in a secular bear market would be relatively flat or lower until the CAPE approached 10.  However, ever since Greenspan started running the Fed in the 1980’s, the Fed has usually had a policy of stimulating the economy and stocks by lowering rates or keeping rates as low as possible.  This has caused U.S. stocks to be much higher than otherwise.  For instance, with rates today staying near zero, U.S. stocks could easily be twice as high as or three times as high as “normal” indefinitely, assuming the Fed decides to keep rates low for many more years.  As Buffett has noted, near-zero rates for many decades would eventually mean price/earnings ratios on stocks of 100.

In any case, in the year 2012 to 2013, some of the smartest market historians (including Russell Napier, author of Anatomy of the Bear) started predicting that the S&P 500 Index would fall towards a CAPE of 10 or lower, which is how every previous U.S. secular bear market concluded.  It didn’t happen in 2012, or in 2013, or in 2014, or in 2015, or in 2016, or in 2017, or in 2018, or in 2019.  (Also, the stock market decline in early 2020 was a temporary response to the coronavirus.)  Eventually the U.S. stock market will experience another major bear market.  But by the time that happens, it may start from a level over 4,000 or 4,500 in the next year or two, and it may not decline below 2000, which is actually far above the level from which the smartest forecasters (such as Russell Napier) said the decline would begin.

Robert Shiller, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who perfected the CAPE (Shiller P/E), said in 1996 that U.S. stocks were high.  But if an investor had gone to cash in 1996, they wouldn’t have had any chance of being ahead of the stock market until 2008 to 2009, more than 10 years later during the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Shiller has recently explained the CAPE with more clarity: http://www.businessinsider.com/robert-shiller-on-stocks-2013-1

When the CAPE is high, as it is today, the long-term investor should still have a large position in U.S. stocks.  But the long-term investor should expect fairly low ten-year returns, a few percent per annum, and they also should some investments outside of U.S. stocks.  Shiller also has observed that certain sectors in the U.S. economy can be cheap (low CAPE).  Many oil-related stocks, for example, are very probably quite cheap today (mid 2021) relative to their long-term normalized earnings power.

The main point here, though, is that forecasting the next bear market or the next recession with any precision is generally impossible.  Another example would be the Economic Cycle Research Institute (https://www.businesscycle.com/), which predicted a U.S. recession around 2011-2012 based on its previously quite successful set of leading economic indicators.  But they were wrong, and they later admitted that the Fed printing so much money not only may have kept the U.S. barely out of recession, but also may have led to distortions in the economic data, making ECRI’s set of leading economic indicators no longer as reliable.

As for the yen/dollar exchange, the story begins in a familiar way:  some of the smartest macro folks around predicted (in 2010 and later) that shorting the yen vs. the U.S. dollar would be the “trade of the decade,” and that the yen/dollar exchange would exceed 200.  But it’s not 2021, and the yen/dollar exchange rate has come nowhere near 200.

The “trade of the decade argument” was the following:  the debt-to-GDP in Japan has reached stratospheric levels, , government deficits have continued to widen, and the Japanese population is actually shrinking.  Since long-term GDP growth is a function of population growth plus innovation, it should become mathematically impossible for the Japanese government to pay back its debt without a significant devaluation of their currency.  If the BOJ could devalue the yen by 67% – which would imply a yen/dollar exchange rate of well over 200 – then Japan could repay the government debt in seriously devalued currency.  In this scenario – a yen devaluation of 67% – Japan effectively would only have to repay 33% of the government debt.  Currency devaluation – inflating away the debts – is what most major economies throughout history have done.

The bottom line as regards the yen is the following:  Either Japan must devalue the Yen by 67% – implying a yen/dollar exchange rate of well over 200 – or Japan will inevitably reach the point where it is quite simply impossible for it to repay a large portion of the government debt.  That’s the argument.  There could be other solutions, however.  The human economy is likely to be much larger in the future, and there may be some way to help the Japanese government with its debts.  After all, the situation wouldn’t seem so insurmountable if Japan could grow its population.  But this might happen in some indirect way if the human economy becomes more open in the future, perhaps involving the creation of a new universal currency.

In any case, for the past five to ten years, and even longer, it has been argued that either the yen/dollar would eventually exceed 200 (thus inflating away as much as 67% of the debt), or the Japanese government would inevitably default on JGB’s (Japanese government bonds).  In either case, the yen should collapse relative to the U.S. dollar, meaning a yen/dollar of well over 200.  This has been described as “the trade of the decade,” but it may not happen for several decades.

In the end, one could have spent decades trying to short the Yen or trying to short JGB’s, without much to show for it.  Or one could have spent those decades doing value investing:  finding and buying cheap stocks, year in and year out.  Decades later, value investing would almost certainly have produced a far better result, and with a relatively low level of risk.

The same logic applies to market timing, or trying to profit on the basis of predicting bull markets, bear markets, recessions, etc.  For the huge majority of investors, they would get much better profits, at relatively low risk, by following a value investing approach (whether by investing in a value fund, or by applying the value approach directly to stocks) or simply investing in low-cost broad market index funds.

In Sum

In sum, financial forecasting cannot be done with any sort of consistency.  Every year, there are many people making financial forecasts, and so purely as a matter of chance, a few will be correct in a given year.  But the ones correct this year are almost never the ones correct the next time around, because what they’re trying to predict can’t be predicted with any consistency.  Marks writes thus:

I am not going to try to prove my contention that the future is unknowable.  You can’t prove a negative, and that certainly includes this one.  However, I have yet to meet anyone who consistently knows what lies ahead macro-wise…

One way to get to be right sometimes is to always be bullish or always be bearish; if you hold a fixed view long enough, you may be right sooner or later.  And if you’re always an outlier, you’re likely to eventually be applauded for an extremely unconventional forecast that correctly foresaw what no one else did.  But that doesn’t mean your forecasts are regularly of any value…

It’s possible to be right about the macro-future once in a while, but not on a regular basis.  It doesn’t do any good to possess a survey of sixty-four forecasts that includes a few that are accurate; you have to know which ones they are.  And if the accurate forecasts each six months are made by different economists, it’s hard to believe there’s much value in the collective forecasts.

Marks gives one more example: How many predicted the crisis of 2007-2008?  Of those who did predict it – there was bound to be some from pure chance alone – how many of those then predicted the recovery starting in 2009 and continuing until early 2020?  The answer is “very few.”  The reason, observes Marks, is that those who got 2007-2008 right “did so at least in part because of a tendency toward negative views.”  They probably were negative well before 2007-2008, and more importantly, they probably stayed negative afterwards, during which the U.S. stock market increased (from the low) more than 400% as the U.S. economy expanded from 2009 to early 2020.

 

Marks has a description for investors who believe in the value of forecasts.  They belong to the “I know” school, and it’s easy to identify them:

    • They think knowledge of the future direction of economies, interest rates, markets and widely followed mainstream stocks is essential for investment success.
    • They’re confident it can be achieved.
    • They know they can do it.
    • They’re aware that lots of other people are trying to do it too, but they figure either (a) everyone can be successful at the same time, or (b) only a few can be, but they’re among them.
    • They’re comfortable investing based on their opinions regarding the future.
    • They’re also glad to share their views with others, even though correct forecasts should be of such great value that no one would give them away gratis.
    • They rarely look back to rigorously assess their record as forecasters.

Marks contrasts the confident “I know” folks with the guarded “I don’t know” folks.  The latter believe you can’t predict the macro-future, and thus the proper goal for investing is to do the best possible job analyzing individual securities.  Marks points out that if you belong to the “I don’t know” school, eventually everyone will stop asking you where you think the market’s going.

You’ll never get to enjoy that one-in-a-thousand moment when your forecast comes true and the Wall Street Journal runs your picture.  On the other hand, you’ll be spared all those times when forecasts miss the mark, as well as the losses that can result from investing based on overrated knowledge of the future.

Marks continues by noting that no one likes investing on the assumption that the future is unknowable.  But if the future IS largely unknowable, then it’s far better as an investor to acknowledge that fact than to pretend otherwise.

Furthermore, says Marks, the biggest problems for investors tend to happen when investors forget the difference between probability and outcome (i.e., the limits of foreknowledge):

    • when they believe the shape of the probability distribution is knowable with certainty (and that they know it),
    • when they assume the most likely outcome is the one that will happen,
    • when they assume the expected result accurately represents the actual result, or
    • perhaps most important, when they ignore the possibility of improbable outcomes.

Marks sums it up:

Overestimating what you’re capable of knowing or doing can be extremely dangerous – in brain surgery, transocean racing or investing.  Acknowledging the boundaries of what you can know – and working within those limits rather than venturing beyond – can give you a great advantage.

 

HAVING A SENSE FOR WHERE WE STAND

Marks believes that market cycles – inevitable ups and downs – cannot be predicted as to extent and (especially) as to timing, but have a profound influence on us as investors.  The only thing we can predict is that market cycles are inevitable.

Marks holds that as investors, we can have a rough idea of market cycles.  We can’t predict what will happen exactly or when.  But we can at least develop valuable insight into various future events.

So look around, and ask yourself: Are investors optimistic or pessimistic?  Do the media talking heads say the markets should be piled into or avoided?  Are novel investment schemes readily accepted or dismissed out of hand?  Are securities offerings and fund openings being treated as opportunities to get rich or possible pitfalls?  Has the credit cycle rendered capital readily available or impossible to obtain?  Are price/earnings ratios high or low in the context of history, and are yield spreads tight or generous?  All of these things are important, and yet none of them entails forecasting.  We can make excellent investment decisions on the basis of present observations, with no need to make guesses about the future.

Marks likens the process of assessing the current cycle with “taking the temperature” of the market.  Again, one can never precisely time market turning points, but one can at least become aware of when markets are becoming overheated, or when they’ve become unusually cheap.

It may be more difficult today to take the market’s temperature because of the policy of near-zero (or negative) interest rates in many of the world’s major economies.  This obviously distorts all asset prices.  As Buffett remarked recently, if U.S. rates were going to stay near zero for many decades into the future, U.S. stocks would eventually be much higher than they are today.  Zero rates indefinitely would easily mean price/earnings ratios of 100 (or even 200).

Stanley Druckenmiller, one of the most successful macro investors, has consistently said that the stock market is driven in large part not by earnings, but by central bank liquidity.

In any case, timing the next major bear market is virtually impossible, as acknowledged by the majority of great investors such as Howard Marks, Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Seth Klarman, Bill Ackman, and others.

What Marks, Buffett, and Munger stress is to focus on finding cheap stocks.  Pay cheap enough prices so that, on average, one can make a profit over the next five years or ten years.  At some point – no one knows precisely when – the U.S. stock market is likely to drop roughly 30-50%.  One must be psychologically prepared for this.  And one’s portfolio must also be prepared for this.

If one is able to buy enough cheap stocks, while maintaining a focus on the next five years or ten years, and if one is psychologically prepared for a big drop at some point, which always happens periodically, then one will be in good position.

Note:  Cheap stocks (whether oil-related or otherwise) typically have lower correlation than usual with the broader stock market.  Even if the broader market declines, some cheap stocks may do much better on both a relative and absolute basis.

Finally, some percentage in cash may seem like a wise position to have in the event of a major (or minor) bear market.  The tricky part, again, is what percentage to have in cash and when.  Many excellent value investors have had 50% or more in cash since 2012 or 2013. Since 2012, the market has more than doubled.  So cash has been a significant drag on the performance of investors who have had large cash positions.

For these reasons, many great value investors – including Marks, Buffett, Munger, and many others – simply never try to time the market.  Many of these value investors essentially stay fully invested in the cheapest stocks they can find.  Over a very long period of time, many studies have shown that hedges, short positions, and cash lower the volatility of the portfolio, but also lower the long-term returns.  Given how many smart people have been hedging since 2012,  the eight or so years up until early 2020 have provided yet another clear example of why market timing is impossible to do with any consistency.

Henry Singleton, described by both Buffett and Munger as being the best capital allocator (among CEO’s) in U.S. history, compounded business value at Teledyne at incredible rates for decades by buying stocks (including Teledyne) when they were cheap.  Singleton’s amazing track record included the 1970’s, when the broader U.S. stock market went virtually nowhere.  Singleton was a genius (100 points away from being a chess grandmaster).  On the subject of market timing, Singleton has said:

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.

 

APPRECIATING THE ROLE OF LUCK

Luck – chance or randomness – influences investment outcomes.  Marks considers Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness to be essential reading for investors.  Writes Marks:

Randomness (or luck) plays a huge part in life’s results, and outcomes that hinge on random events should be viewed as different from those that do not.

Marks quotes Taleb:

If we have heard of [history’s great generals and inventors], it is simply because they took considerable risks, along with thousands of others, and happened to win.  They were intelligent, courageous, noble (at times), had the highest possible obtainable culture in their day – but so did thousands of others who live in the musty footnotes of history.

A central concept from Taleb is that of “alternative histories.”  What actually has happened in history is merely a small subset of all the things that could have happened, at least as far as we know.  As long as there is a component of indeterminacy in human behavior (not to mention the rest of reality), one must usually assume that many “alternative histories” were possible.  From the practical point of view of investing, given a future that is currently unknowable in many respects, one must develop a reasonable set of scenarios along with estimated probabilities for each scenario.  And, when judging the quality of past decisions, one must think carefully about various possible (“alternative”) histories, of which what actually happened appears to be a small subset.

Thus, the fact that a stratagem or action worked – under the circumstances that unfolded – doesn’t necessarily prove that the decision behind it was wise.

 

Marks says he agrees with all of Taleb’s important points:

    • Investors are right (and wrong) all the time for the ‘wrong reason.’ Someone buys a stock because he or she expects a certain development; it doesn’t occur; the market takes the stock up anyway; the investor looks good (and invariably accepts credit).
    • The correctness of a decision can’t be judged from the outcome. Neverthelss, that’s how people assess it.  A good decision is one that’s optimal at the time it’s made, when the future is by definition unknown.  Thus, correct decisions are often unsuccessful, and vice versa.
    • Randomness alone can produce just about any outcome in the short run. In portfolios that are allowed to reflect them fully, market movements can easily swamp the skillfulness of the manager (or lack thereof).  But certainly market movements cannot be credited to the manager (unless he or she is the rare market timer who’s capable of getting it right repeatedly).
    • For these reasons, investors often receive credit they don’t deserve. One good coup can be enough to build a reputation, but clearly a coup can arise out of randomness alone.  Few of these “geniuses” are right more than once or twice in a row.
    • Thus, it’s essential to have a large number of observations – lots of years of data – before judging a given manager’s ability.

Over the long run, the rational investor learns, refines, and sticks with a robust investment process that reliably produces good results.  In the short run, when a good process sometimes leads to bad outcomes (often due to bad luck but sometimes due to a mistake), one must simply be stoic and patient.

Marks continues:

The actions of the ‘I know’ school are based on a view of a single future that is knowable and conquerable.  My ‘I don’t know’ school thinks of future events in terms of a probability distribution.  That’s a big difference.  In the latter case, we may have an idea which one outcome is most likely to occur, but we also know there are many other possibilities, and those other outcomes may have a collective likelihood much higher than the one we consider most likely.

Marks concludes:

    • We should spend our time trying to find value among the knowable – industries, companies and securities – rather than base our decisions on what we expect from the less-knowable macro world of economies and broad market performance.
    • Given that we don’t know exactly which future will obtain, we have to get value on our side by having a strongly held, analytically derived opinion of it and buying for less when opportunities to do so present themselves.
    • We have to practice defensive investing, since many of the outcomes are likely to go against us. It’s more important to ensure survival under negative outcomes than it is to guarantee maximum returns under favorable ones.
    • To improve our chances of success, we have to emphasize acting contrary to the herd when it’s at extremes, being aggressive when the market is low and cautious when it’s high.
    • Given the highly indeterminate nature of outcomes, we must view strategies and their results – both good and bad – with suspicion until proved over a large number of trials.

 

INVESTING DEFENSIVELY

Unlike professional tennis, where a successful outcome depends on which player hits the most winners, successful investing generally depends on minimizing mistakes more than it does on finding winners.

… investing is full of bad bounces and unanticipated developments, and the dimensions of the court and the height of the net change all the time.  The workings of economies and markets are highly imprecise and variable, and the thinking and behavior of the other players constantly alter the environment.  Even if you do everything right, other investors can ignore your favorite stock; management can squander the company’s opportunities; government can change the rules; or nature can serve up a catastrophe.

Marks argues that successful investing is a balance between offense and defense, and that this balance often differs for each individual investor.  What’s important is to stick with an investment process that works over the long term:

… Few people (if any) have the ability to switch tactics to match market conditions on a timely basis.  So investors should commit to an approach – hopefully one that will serve them through a variety of scenarios.  They can be aggressive, hoping they’ll make a lot on the winners and not give it back on the losers.  They can emphasize defense, hoping to keep up in good times and excel by losing less than others in bad times.  Or they can balance offense and defense, largely giving up on tactical timing but aiming to win through superior security selection in both up and down markets.

And by the way, there’s no right choice between offense and defense.  Lots of possible routes can bring you to success, and your decision should be a function of your personality and leanings, the extent of your belief in your ability, and the peculiarities of the markets you work in and the clients you work for.

Marks argues that defense can be viewed as aiming for higher returns, but through the avoidance of mistakes and through consistency, rather than through home runs and occasional flashes of brilliancy.

Avoiding losses first involves buying assets at cheap prices (well below intrinsic value).  Another element to avoiding losses is to ensure that one’s portfolio can survive a bear market.  If the five-year or ten-year returns appear to be high enough, an investor still may choose to play more offense than defense, even when he or she knows that a bear market is likely within five years or less.  But one must be fully prepared – psychologically and in one’s portfolio – for many already very cheap stocks to get cut in half or worse during a bear market.

Again, some investors can accept higher volatility in exchange for higher long-term returns.  One must know oneself.  One must know one’s clients.  One must really think through all the possible scenarios, because things can get much worse than one can imagine during bear markets.  And bear markets are inevitable.

There is always a trade-off between potential return and potential downside.  Choosing to aim for higher long-term returns means accepting higher downside volatility over shorter periods of time.

But it’s important to keep in mind that many investors fail not due to lack of home runs, but due to having too many strikeouts.  Overbetting is thus a common cause of failure for long-term investors.  We know from the Kelly criterion that overbetting guarantees zero or negative long-term returns.  Therefore, it’s wise for most investors to aim for consistency – a high batting average based on many singles and doubles – rather than to aim for the maximum number of home runs.

Put differently, it is easier for most investors to minimize losses than it is to hit a lot of home runs.  Thus, most investors are much more likely to achieve long-term success by minimizing losses and mistakes, than by hitting a lot of home runs.

Investing defensively can cause you to miss out on things that are hot and get hotter, and it can leave you with your bat on your shoulder in trip after trip to the plate.  You may hit fewer home runs than another investor… but you’re also likely to have fewer strikeouts and fewer inning-ending double plays.

Defensive investing sounds very erudite, but I can simplify it: Invest scared!  Worry about the possibility of loss.  Worry that there’s something you don’t know.  Worry that you can make high-quality decisions but still be hit by bad luck or surprise events.  Investing scared will prevent hubris; will keep your guard up and your mental adrenaline flowing; will make you insist on adequate margin of safety; and will increase the chances that your portfolio is prepared for things going wrong.  And if nothing does go wrong, surely the winners will take care of themselves.

 

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 goal of the Boole Microcap Fund is to outperform the Russell Microcap Index over time, net of fees.  The Boole Fund has low fees. 

 

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

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

 

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

CASE STUDY: Harbor Diversified (HRBR)

December 18, 2022

Harbor Diversified (HRBR) is the parent company of Air Wisconsin, a major U.S. regional airline.  HRBR just signed a new five-year agreement with American Airlines to provide regional airline services starting in early 2023.

Regional airlines are crucial partners to major global airlines and are cost-effective.  Regional airlines can hire pilots and crews at lower rates.  Regional airlines operate specialized fleets and save on repairs by having dedicated hangars and maintenance crews.

Regional airlines are like a captive supplier somewhat protected from fluctuations in consumer demand by their global airline partners.  Regional airlines operate 41% of all scheduled flights in the U.S. and did better than global airlines during the pandemic because regional airlines don’t rely as much on international or business-class fares.

Here are the current multiples:

    • EV/EBITDA = 0.48
    • P/E = 3.18
    • P/B = 0.44
    • P/CF = 2.27
    • P/S = 0.47

Insider ownership is 43.8%, which is excellent.  TL/TA (total liabilities/total assets) is 52.7%, which is good.  ROE is 19.2%, which is also good.

The Piotroski F_score is 8, which is very good.

Here’s a good writeup on Value Investors Club: https://valueinvestorsclub.com/idea/Harbor_Diversified_Air_Wisconsin/1643658552

Here’s another good writeup on MicroCapClub.com (subscription required): https://microcapclub.com/forums/topic/3093-harbor-diversified-inc-hrbr

Intrinsic value scenarios:

    • Low case: Book value per share is $4.94.  In the worse case scenario, the stock may be worth half of book value.  Half of book value is $2.47 per share.  That is 15% higher than today’s $2.15.
    • Mid case: Under normal circumstances, the stock is worth at least book value per share, which is $4.94.  That is 130% higher than today’s $2.15.
    • High case: The stock is probably worth at least 14x normalized earnings, which are about $20 million.  14 x $20 million comes to $280 million.  Then we add net cash of $67.7 million plus $20 million owed by United.  The total value of HRBR comes to $367.7 million, or $6.70 per share.  That is over 210% higher than today’s $2.15.

Risks

The main risk is that HRBR’s only customer will be American Airlines.  (HRBR’s current contract with United expires in early 2023.)  But the contract starts in early 2023 and lasts for five years.  Also, HRBR has worked with American in the past.  It is likely HRBR will get a new contract five years from now, if not from American than from another airline.

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

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

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

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

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

 

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

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

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

CASE STUDY: Atlas Engineered Products (APEUF)

December 11, 2022

Atlas Engineered Products operates in Canada’s truss, wall panels, and engineered wood products industry.  Atlas has acquired and improved 7 companies since going public in late 2017.

Atlas’s specialist design team uses cutting edge design and engineering technology to ensure that their clients get consistent, accurate, top-quality products.

Here is the company’s most recent investor presentation: https://www.atlasengineeredproducts.com/dist/assets/presentation/AEP_Investor_Deck_Aug_2022-min.pdf

Here is a good writeup on Value Investors Club: https://valueinvestorsclub.com/idea/ATLAS_ENGINEERED_PRODCTS_LTD/5737776840

The market for trusses, wall panels, and modular systems is local because it is too expensive to transport such large items over a long distance.  As a result, this market is extremely fragmented.  There are hundreds of small regional operators.  Many of these operators need succession planning.  Atlas thus has an opportunity to continue making acquisitions.

There are clear benefits for Atlas to consolidate this market.  These include operational efficiencies, technological advances, advantages of scale in procurement, and expanded product distribution.  (Many regional operators are not able to invest in technology and automation.)

Atlas focuses on the higher added value and most scalable products.  It quickly winds down or sells lower margin businesses.

Here are the current multiples:

    • EV/EBITDA = 2.00
    • P/E = 5.25
    • P/B = 1.15
    • P/CF = 2.69
    • P/S = 0.80

Insider ownership is 17.7%, which is good.  TL/TA (total liabilities/total assets) is 38.4%, which is also good.  ROE is 41.1%, which is excellent.

The Piotroski F_score is 8, which is very good.

Intrinsic value scenarios:

    • Low case: During a recession, the stock could fall 50% from $0.54 to $0.27.
    • Mid case: The current EV/EBITDA is 2.0, but in a normal environment it should be at least 6.0.  That would mean the stock is worth $1.62, which is 200% above today’s $0.54.
    • High case: Cash flow is likely to keep growing at 30% per year (or more).  In five years, cash flow will be 270% higher.  If price-to-cash flow doubles to 5.4, then the share price will reach $3.46, which is 540% higher than today’s $0.54.

Risks

The housing market is cyclical.  Economies are slowing down as interest rates rise.  There will likely be a recession (which would slow down organic growth but increase acquisitions).  But over the longer term, demographics are a tailwind.

 

BOOLE MICROCAP FUND

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

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

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

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

 

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

My e-mail: jb@boolefund.com

 

 

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

The Education of a Value Investor

December 4, 2022

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.

Walter Schloss: Cigar-Butt Specialist

November 6, 2022

Walter Schloss generated one of the best investment track records of all time—close to 21% (gross) annually over 47 years—by investing exclusively in cigar butts (deep value stocks).  Cigar-butt investing usually means buying stock at a discount to book value, i.e., a P/B < 1 (price-to-book ratio below 1).

The highest returning cigar butt strategy comes from Ben Graham, the father of value investing.  It’s called the net-net strategy whereby you take current assets minus all liabilities, and then invest at 2/3 of that level or less.

  • The main trouble with net nets today is that many of them are tiny microcap stocks—below $50 million in market cap—that are too small even for most microcap funds.
  • Also, many net nets exist in markets outside the United States.  Some of these markets have had problems periodically related to the rule of law.

Schloss used net nets in the early part of his career (1955 to 1960).  When net nets became too scarce (1960), Schloss started buying stocks at half of book value.  When those became too scarce, he went to buying stocks at two-thirds of book value.  Eventually he had to adjust again and buy stocks at book value.  Though his cigar-butt method evolved, Schloss was always using a low P/B to find cheap stocks.

(Photo by Sky Sirasitwattana)

One extraordinary aspect to Schloss’s track record is that he invested in roughly 1,000 stocks over the course of his career.  (At any given time, his portfolio had about 100 stocks.)  Warren Buffett commented:

Following a strategy that involved no real risk—defined as permanent loss of capital—Walter produced results over his 47 partnership years that dramatically surpassed those of the S&P 500.  It’s particularly noteworthy that he built this record by investing in about 1,000 securities, mostly of a lackluster type.  A few big winners did not account for his success.  It’s safe to say that had millions of investment managers made trades by a) drawing stock names from a hat; b) purchasing these stocks in comparable amounts when Walter made a purchase; and then c) selling when Walter sold his pick, the luckiest of them would not have come close to equaling his record. There is simply no possibility that what Walter achieved over 47 years was due to chance.

Schloss was aware that a concentrated portfolio—e.g., 10 to 20 stocks—could generate better long-term returns.  However, this requires unusual insight on a repeated basis, which Schloss humbly admitted he didn’t have.

Most investors are best off investing in low-cost index funds or in quantitative value funds.  For investors who truly enjoy looking for undervalued stocks, Schloss offered this advice:

It is important to know what you like and what you are good at and not worry that someone else can do it better.  If you are honest, hardworking, reasonably intelligent and have good common sense, you can do well in the investment field as long as you are not too greedy and don’t get too emotional when things go against you.

I found a few articles I hadn’t seen before on The Walter Schloss Archive, a great resource page created by Elevation Capital: https://www.walterschloss.com/

Here’s the outline for this blog post:

  • Stock is Part Ownership;  Keep It Simple
  • Have Patience;  Don’t Sell on Bad News
  • Have Courage
  • Buy Assets Not Earnings
  • Buy Based on Cheapness Now, Not Cheapness Later
  • Boeing:  Asset Play
  • Less Downside Means More Upside
  • Multiple Ways to Win
  • History;  Honesty;  Insider Ownership
  • You Must Be Willing to Make Mistakes
  • Don’t Try to Time the Market
  • When to Sell
  • The First 10 Years Are Probably the Worst
  • Stay Informed About Current Events
  • Control Your Emotions;  Be Careful of Leverage
  • Ride Coattails;  Diversify

 

STOCK IS PART OWNERSHIP;  KEEP IT SIMPLE

A share of stock represents part ownership of a business and is not just a piece of paper or a blip on the computer screen.

Try to establish the value of the company.  Use book value as a starting point.  There are many businesses, both public and private, for which book value is a reasonable estimate of intrinsic value.  Intrinsic value is what a company is worth—i.e., what a private buyer would pay for it.  Book value—assets minus liabilities—is also called “net worth.”

Follow Buffett’s advice: keep it simple and don’t use higher mathematics.

(Illustration by Ileezhun)

Some kinds of stocks are easier to analyze than others.  As Buffett has said, usually you don’t get paid for degree of difficulty in investing.  Therefore, stay focused on businesses that you can fully understand.

  • There are thousands of microcap companies that are completed neglected by most professional investors.  Many of these small businesses are simple and easy to understand.

 

HAVE PATIENCE;  DON’T SELL ON BAD NEWS

Hold for 3 to 5 years.  Schloss:

Have patience.  Stocks don’t go up immediately.

Schloss again:

Things usually take longer to work out but they work out better than you expect.

(Illustration by Marek)

Don’t sell on bad news unless intrinsic value has dropped materially.  When the stock drops significantly, buy more as long as the investment thesis is intact.

Schloss’s average holding period was 4 years.  It was less than 4 years in good markets when stocks went up more than usual.  It was greater than 4 years in bad markets when stocks stayed flat or went down more than usual.

 

HAVE COURAGE

Have the courage of your convictions once you have made a decision.

(Courage concept by Travelling-light)

Investors shun companies with depressed earnings and cash flows.  It’s painful to own stocks that are widely hated.  It can also be frightening.  As John Mihaljevic explains in The Manual of Ideas (Wiley, 2013):

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?

A related worry is that if a company is burning through its cash, it will gradually destroy net asset value.  Ben 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.

It’s true that an individual cigar butt (deep value stock) is more likely to underperform than an average stock.  But because the potential upside for a typical cigar butt is greater than the potential downside, a basket of cigar butts (portfolio of at least 30) does better than the market over time and also has less downside during bad states of the world—such as bear markets and recessions.

Schloss discussed an example: Cleveland Cliffs, an iron ore producer.  Buffett owned the stock at $18 but then sold at about that level.  The steel industry went into decline.  The largest shareholder sold out because he thought the industry wouldn’t recover.

Schloss bought a lot of stock at $6.  Nobody wanted it.  There was talk of bankruptcy.  Schloss noted that if he had lived in Cleveland, he probably wouldn’t have been able to buy the stock because all the bad news would have been too close.

Soon thereafter, the company sold some assets and bought back some stock.  After the stock increased a great deal from the lows, then it started getting attention from analysts.

In sum, often when an industry is doing terribly, that’s the best time to find cheap stocks.  Investors avoid stocks when they’re having problems, which is why they get so cheap.  Investors overreact to negative news.

 

BUY ASSETS NOT EARNINGS

(Illustration by Teguh Jati Prasetyo)

Schloss:

Try to buy assets at a discount [rather] than to buy earnings.  Earnings can change dramatically in a short time.  Usually assets change slowly.  One has to know much more about a company if one buys earnings.

Not only can earnings change dramatically; earnings can easily be manipulated—often legally.  Schloss:

Ben made the point in one of his articles that if U.S. Steel wrote down their plants to a dollar, they would show very large earnings because they would not have to depreciate them anymore.

 

BUY BASED ON CHEAPNESS NOW, NOT CHEAPNESS LATER

Buy things based on cheapness now.  Don’t buy based on cheapness relative to future earnings, which are hard to predict.

Graham developed two ways of estimating intrinsic value that don’t depend on predicting the future:

  • Net asset value
  • Current and past earnings

Professor Bruce Greenwald, in Value Investing (Wiley, 2004), has expanded on these two approaches.

  • As Greenwald explains, book value is a good estimate of intrinsic value if book value is close to the replacement cost of the assets.  The true economic value of the assets is the cost of reproducing them at current prices.
  • Another way to determine intrinsic value is to figure out earnings power—also called normalized earnings—or how much the company should earn on average over the business cycle.  Earnings power typically corresponds to a market level return on the reproduction value of the assets.  In this case, your intrinsic value estimate based on normalized earnings should equal your intrinsic value estimate based on the reproduction value of the assets.

In some cases, earnings power may exceed a market level return on the reproduction value of the assets.  This means that the ROIC (return on invested capital) exceeds the cost of capital.  It can be exceedingly difficult, however, to determine by how much and for how long earnings power will exceed a market level return.  Often it’s a question of how long some competitive advantage can be maintained.  How long can a high ROIC be sustained?

As Buffett remarked:

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.  The products or services that have wide, sustainable moats around them are the ones that deliver rewards to investors.

A moat is a sustainable competitive advantage.  Schloss readily admits he can’t determine which competitive advantages are sustainable.  That requires unusual insight.  Buffett can do it, but very few investors can.

As far as franchises or good businesses—companies worth more than adjusted book value—Schloss says he likes these companies, but rarely considers buying them unless the stock is close to book value.  As a result, Schloss usually buys mediocre and bad businesses at book value or below.  Schloss buys “difficult businesses” at clearly cheap prices.

Buying a high-growing company on the expectation that growth will continue can be quite dangerous.  First, growth only creates value if the ROIC exceeds the cost of capital.  Second, expectations for the typical growth stock are so high that even a small slowdown can cause the stock to drop noticeably.  Schloss:

If observers are expecting the earnings to grow from $1.00 to $1.50 to $2.00 and then $2.50, an earnings disappointment can knock a $40 stock down to $20.  You can lose half your money just because the earnings fell out of bed.

If you buy a debt-free stock with a $15 book selling at $10, it can go down to $8.  It’s not great, but it’s not terrible either.  On the other hand, if things turn around, that stock can sell at $25 if it develops its earnings.

Basically, we like protection on the downside.  A $10 stock with a $15 book can offer pretty good protection.  By using book value as a parameter, we can protect ourselves on the downside and not get hurt too badly.

Also, I think the person who buys earnings has got to follow it all the darn time.  They’re constantly driven by earnings, they’re driven by timing.  I’m amazed.

 

BOEING:  ASSET PLAY

(Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives, via Wikimedia Commons)

Cigar butts—deep value stocks—are characterized by two things:

  • Poor past performance;
  • Low expectations for future performance, i.e., low multiples (low P/B, low P/E, etc.)

Schloss has pointed out that Graham would often compare two companies.  Here’s an example:

One was a very popular company with a book value of $10 selling at $45.  The second was exactly the reverse—it had a book value of $40 and was selling for $25.

In fact, it was exactly the same company, Boeing, in two very different periods of time.  In 1939, Boeing was selling at $45 with a book of $10 and earning very little.  But the outlook was great.  In 1947, after World War II, investors saw no future for Boeing, thinking no one was going to buy all these airplanes.

If you’d bought Boeing in 1939 at $45, you would have done rather badly.  But if you’d bought Boeing in 1947 when the outlook was bad, you would have done very well.

Because a cigar butt is defined by poor recent performance and low expectations, there can be a great deal of upside if performance improves.  For instance, if a stock is at a P/E (price-to-earnings ratio) of 5 and if earnings are 33% of normal, then if earnings return to normal and if the P/E moves to 15, you’ll make 900% on your investment.  If the initial purchase is below true book value—based on the replacement cost of the assets—then you have downside protection in case earnings don’t recover.

 

LESS DOWNSIDE MEANS MORE UPSIDE

If you buy stocks that are protected on the downside, the upside takes care of itself.

The main way to get protection on the downside is by paying a low price relative to book value.  If in addition to quantitative cheapness you focus on companies with low debt, that adds additional downside protection.

If the stock is well below probable intrinsic value, then you should buy more on the way down.  The lower the price relative to intrinsic value, the less downside and the more upside.  As risk decreases, potential return increases.  This is the opposite of what modern finance theory teaches.  According to theory, your expected return only increases if your risk also increases.

In The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville, Warren Buffett discusses the relationship between risk and reward.  Sometimes risk and reward are positively correlated.  Buffett gives the example of Russian roulette.  Suppose a gun contains one cartridge and someone offers to pay you $1 million if you pull the trigger once and survive.  Say you decline the bet as too risky, but then the person offers to pay you $5 million if you pull the trigger twice and survive.  Clearly that would be a positive correlation between risk and reward.  Buffett continues:

The exact opposite is true with value investing.  If you buy a dollar bill for 60 cents, it’s riskier than if you buy a dollar bill for 40 cents, but the expectation of reward is greater in the latter case.  The greater the potential for reward in the value portfolio, the less risk there is.

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

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

Link: https://bit.ly/2jBezdv

Most brokers don’t recommend buying more on the way down because most people (including brokers’ clients) don’t like to buy when the price keeps falling.  In other words, most investors focus on price instead of intrinsic value.

 

MULTIPLE WAYS TO WIN

A stock trading at a low price relative to book value—a low P/B stock—is usually distressed and is experiencing problems.  But there are several ways for a cigar-butt investor to win, as Schloss explains:

The thing about buying depressed stocks is that you really have three strings to your bow:  1) Earnings will improve and the stocks will go up;  2) somebody will come in and buy control of the company;  or 3) the company will start buying its own stock and ask for tenders.

Schloss again:

But lots of times when you buy a cheap stock for one reason, that reason doesn’t pan out but another reason does—because it’s cheap.

 

HISTORY;  HONESTY;  INSIDER OWNERSHIP

Look at the history of the company.  Value line is helpful for looking at history 10-15 years back.  Also, read the annual reports.  Learn about the ownership, what the company has done, when business they’re in, and what’s happened with dividends, sales, earnings, etc.

It’s usually better not to talk with management because it’s easy to be blinded by their charisma or sales skill:

When we buy into a company that has problems, we find it difficult talking to management as they tend to be optimistic.

That said, try to ensure that management is honest.  Honesty is more important than brilliance, says Schloss:

…we try to get in with people we feel are honest.  That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily smart—they may be dumb.

But in a choice between a smart guy with a bad reputation or a dumb guy, I think I’d go with the dumb guy who’s honest.

Finally, insider ownership is important.  Management should own a fair amount of stock, which helps to align their incentives with the interests of the stockholders.

Speaking of insider ownership, Walter and Edwin Schloss had a good chunk of their own money invested in the fund they managed.  You should prefer investment managers who, like the Schlosses, eat their own cooking.

 

YOU MUST BE WILLING TO MAKE MISTAKES

(Illustration by Lkeskinen0)

You have to be willing to make mistakes if you want to succeed as an investor.  Even the best value investors tend to be right about 60% of the time and wrong 40% of the time.  That’s the nature of the game.

You can’t do well unless you accept that you’ll make plenty of mistakes.  The key, again, is to try to limit your downside by buying well below probable intrinsic value.  The lower the price you pay (relative to estimated intrinsic value), the less you can lose when you’re wrong and the more you can make when you’re right.

 

DON’T TRY TO TIME THE MARKET

No one can predict the stock market.  Ben Graham observed:

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

(Illustration by Maxim Popov)

Or as value investor Seth Klarman has put it:

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.

Perhaps the best quote comes from Henry Singleton, a business genius (100 points from being a chess grandmaster) who was easily one of the best capital allocators in American business history:

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.

Singleton built Teledyne using extraordinary capital allocation skills over the course of more than three decades, from 1960 to the early 1990’s.  Fourteen of these years—1968 to 1982—were a secular bear market during which stocks were relatively flat and also experienced a few large downward moves (especially 1973-1974).  But this long flat period punctuated by bear markets didn’t slow down or change Singleton’s approach.  Because he consistently bought very good value, on the whole his acquisitions grew significantly in worth over time regardless of whether the broader market was down, flat, or up.

Of course, it’s true that if you buy an undervalued stock and then there’s a bear market, it may take longer for your investment to work.  However, bear markets create many bargains.  As long as you maintain a focus on the next 3 to 5 years, bear markets are wonderful times to buy cheap stocks (including more of what you already own).

In 1955, Buffett was advised by his two heroes, his father and Ben Graham, not to start a career in investing because the market was too high.  Similarly, Graham told Schloss in 1955 that it wasn’t a good time to start.

Both Buffett and Schloss ignored the advice.  In hindsight, both Buffett and Schloss made great decisions.  Of course, Singleton would have made the same decision as Buffett and Schloss.  Even if the market is high, there are invariably individual stocks hidden somewhere that are cheap.

Schloss always remained fully invested because he knew that virtually no one can time the market except by luck.

 

WHEN TO SELL

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to sell… Before selling try to reevaluate the company again and see where the stock sells in relation to its book value.

Selling is hard.  Schloss readily admits that many stocks he sold later increased a great deal.  But he doesn’t dwell on that.

The basic criterion for selling is whether the stock price is close to estimated intrinsic value.  For a cigar butt investor like Schloss, if he paid a price that was half book, then if the stock price approaches book value, it’s probably time to start selling.  (Unless it’s a rare stock that is clearly worth more than book value, assuming the investor was able to buy it low in the first place.)

If stock A is cheaper than stock B, some value investors will sell A and buy B.  Schloss doesn’t do that.  It often takes four years for one of Schloss’s investments to work.  If he already has been waiting for 1-3 years with stock A, he is not inclined to switch out of it because he might have to wait another 1-3 years before stock B starts to move.  Also, it’s very difficult to compare the relative cheapness of stocks in different industries.

Instead, Schloss makes an independent buy or sell decision for every stock.  If B is cheap, Schloss simply buys B without selling anything else.  If A is no longer cheap, Schloss sells A without buying anything else.

 

THE FIRST 10 YEARS ARE PROBABLY THE WORST

John Templeton’s worst ten years as an investor were his first ten years.  The same was true for Schloss, who commented that it takes about ten years to get the hang of value investing.

 

STAY INFORMED ABOUT CURRENT EVENTS

(Photo by Juan Moyano)

Walter Schloss and his son Edwin sometimes would spend a whole day discussing current events, social trends, etc.  Edwin Schloss said:

If you’re not in touch with what’s going on or you don’t see what’s going on around you, you can miss out on a lot of investment opportunities. So we try to be aware of everything around us—like John Templeton says in his book about being open to new ideas and new experiences.

 

CONTROL YOUR EMOTIONS;  BE CAREFUL OF LEVERAGE

Try not to let your emotions affect your judgment.  Fear and greed are probably the worst emotions to have in connection with the purchase and sale of stocks.

Quantitative investing is a good way to control emotion.  This is what Graham suggested and practiced.  Graham just looked at the numbers to make sure they were below some threshold—like 2/3 of current assets minus all liabilities (the net-net method).  Graham typically was not interested in what the business did.

On the topic of discipline and controlling your emotions, Schloss told a great story about when Warren Buffett was playing golf with some buddies:

One of them proposed, “Warren, if you shoot a hole-in-one on this 18-hole course, we’ll give you $10,000 bucks.  If you don’t shoot a hole-in-one, you owe us $10.”

Warren thought about it and said, “I’m not taking the bet.”

The others said, “Why don’t you?  The most you can lose is $10. You can make $10,000.”

Warren replied, If you’re not disciplined in the little things, you won’t be disciplined in the big things.”

Be careful of leverage.  It can go against you.  Schloss acknowledges that sometimes he has gotten too greedy by buying highly leveraged stocks because they seemed really cheap.  Companies with high leverage can occasionally become especially cheap compared to book value.  But often the risk of bankruptcy is too high.

Still, as conservative value investor Seth Klarman has remarked, there’s room in the portfolio occasionally for a super cheap, highly indebted company.  If the probability of success is high enough and if the upside is great enough, it may not be a difficult decision.  Often the upside can be 10x or 20x your investment, which implies a positive expected return even when the odds of success are 10%.

 

RIDE COATTAILS;  DIVERSIFY

Sometimes you can get good ideas from other investors you know or respect.  Even Buffett did this.  Buffett called it “coattail riding.”

Schloss, like Graham and Buffett, recommends a diversified approach if you’re doing cigar butt (deep value) investing.  Have at least 15-20 stocks in your portfolio.  A few investors can do better by being more concentrated.  But most investors will do better over time by using a quantitative, diversified approach.

Schloss tended to have about 100 stocks in his portfolio:

…And my argument was, and I made it to Warren, we can’t project the earnings of these companies, they’re secondary companies, but somewhere along the line some of them will work out.  Now I can’t tell you which ones, so I buy a hundred of them.  Of course, it doesn’t mean you own the same amount of each stock.  If we like a stock we put more money in it.  Positions we are less sure about we put less in… We then buy the stock on the way down and try to sell it on the way up.

Even though Schloss was quite diversified, he still took larger positions in the stocks he liked best and smaller positions in the stocks about which he was less sure.

Schloss emphasized that it’s important to know what you know and what you don’t know.  Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger call this a circle of competence.  Even if a value investor is far from being the smartest, there are hundreds of microcap companies that are easy to understand with enough work.

(Image by Wilma64)

The main trouble in investing is overconfidence: having more confidence than is warranted by the evidence.  Overconfidence is arguably the most widespread cognitive bias suffered by humans, as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman details in Thinking, Fast and Slow.  By humbly defining your circle of competence, you can limit the impact of overconfidence.  Part of this humility comes from making mistakes.

The best choice for most investors is either an index fund or a quantitative value fund.  It’s the best bet for getting solid long-term returns, while minimizing or removing entirely the negative influence of overconfidence.

 

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.

Business Adventures

October 30, 2022

In 1991, when Bill Gates met Warren Buffett, Gates asked him to recommend his favorite business book.  Buffett immediately replied, “It’s Business Adventures, by John Brooks.  I’ll send you my copy.”  Gates wrote in 2014:

Today, more than two decades after Warren lent it to me—and more than four decades after it was first published—Business Adventures remains the best business book I’ve ever read.  John Brooks is still my favorite business writer.

It’s certainly true that many of the particulars of business have changed.  But the fundamentals have not.  Brooks’s deeper insights about business are just as relevant today as they were back then.  In terms of its longevity, Business Adventures stands alongside Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, the 1949 book that Warren says is the best book on investing that he has ever read.

See:  https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Business-Adventures

I’ve had the enormous pleasure of reading Business Adventures twice.  John Brooks is quite simply a terrific business writer.

Each chapter of the book is a separate business adventure.  Outline:

  • The Fluctuation
  • The Fate of the Edsel
  • A Reasonable Amount of Time
  • Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox
  • Making the Customers Whole
  • The Impacted Philosophers
  • The Last Great Corner
  • A Second Sort of Life
  • Stockholder Season
  • One Free Bite

 

THE FLUCTUATION

Brooks recounts J.P. Morgan’s famous answer when an acquaintance asked him what the stock market would do:  “It will fluctuate.”  Brooks then writes:

Apart from the economic advantages and disadvantages of stock exchanges – the advantage that they provide a free flow of capital to finance industrial expansion, for instance, and the disadvantage that they provide an all too convenient way for the unlucky, the imprudent, and the gullible to lose their money – their development has created a whole pattern of social behavior, complete with customs, language, and predictable responses to given events.

Brooks explains that the pattern emerged fully at the first important stock exchange in 1611 in Amsterdam.  Brooks mentions that Joseph de la Vega published, in 1688, a book about the first Dutch stock traders.  The book was aptly titled, Confusion of Confusions.

And the pattern persists on the New York Stock Exchange.  (Brooks was writing in the 1960’s, but many of his descriptions still apply.)  Brooks adds that a few Dutchmen haggling in the rain might seem to be rather far from the millions of participants in the 1960’s.  However:

The first stock exchange was, inadvertently, a laboratory in which new human reactions were revealed.  By the same token, the New York Stock Exchange is also a sociological test tube, forever contributing to the human species’ self-understanding.

On Monday, May 28, 1962, the Dow Jones Average dropped 34.95 points, or more than it had dropped on any day since October 28, 1929.  The volume was the seventh-largest ever.  Then on Tuesday, May 29, after most stocks opened down, the market reversed itself and surged upward with a large gain of 27.03.  The trading volume on Tuesday was the highest ever except for October 29, 1929.  Then on Thursday, May 31, after a holiday on Wednesday, the Dow rose 9.40 points on the fifth-greatest volume ever.

Brooks:

The crisis ran its course in three days, but needless to say, the post-mortems took longer.  One of de la Vega’s observations about the Amsterdam traders was that they were ‘very clever in inventing reasons’ for a sudden rise or fall in stock prices, and the Wall Street pundits certainly needed all the cleverness they could muster to explain why, in the middle of an excellent business year, the market had suddenly taken its second-worst nose dive ever up to that moment.

Many rated President Kennedy’s April crackdown on the steel industry’s planned price increase as one of the most likely causes.  Beyond that, there were comparisons to 1929.  However, there were more differences than similarities, writes Brooks.  For one thing, margin requirements were far higher in 1962 than in 1929.  Nonetheless, the weekend before the May 1962 crash, many securities dealers were occupied sending out margin calls.

In 1929, it was not uncommon for people to have only 10% equity, with 90% of the stock position based on borrowed money.  (The early Amsterdam exchange was similar.)  Since the crash in 1929, margin requirements had been raised to 50% equity (leaving 50% borrowed).

Brooks says the stock market had been falling for most of 1962 up until crash.  But apparently the news before the May crash was good.  Not that news has any necessary relationship with stock movements, although most financial reporting services seem to assume otherwise.  After a mixed opening – some stocks up, some down – on Monday, May 28, volume spiked as selling became predominant.  Volume kept going up thereafter as the selling continued.  Brooks:

Evidence that people are selling stocks at a time when they ought to be eating lunch is always regarded as a serious matter.

One problem in this crash was that the tape – which records the prices of stock trades – got delayed by 55 minutes due to the huge volume.  Some brokerage firms tried to devise their own systems to deal with this issue.  For instance, Merrill Lynch floor brokers – if they had time – would shout the results of trades into a floorside telephone connected to a “squawk box” in the firm’s head office.

Brooks remarks:

All that summer, and even into the following year, security analysts and other experts cranked out their explanations of what had happened, and so great were the logic, solemnity, and detail of these diagnoses that they lost only a little of their force through the fact that hardly any of the authors had had the slightest idea what was going to happen before the crisis occurred.

Brooks then points out that an unprecedented 56.8 percent of the total volume in the crash had been individual investors.  Somewhat surprisingly, mutual funds were a stabilizing factor.  During the Monday sell-off, mutual funds bought more than they sold.  And as stocks surged on Thursday, mutual funds sold more than they bought.  Brooks concludes:

In the last analysis, the cause of the 1962 crisis remains unfathomable;  what is known is that it occurred, and that something like it could occur again.

 

THE FATE OF THE EDSEL

1955 was the year of the automobile, writes Brooks.  American auto makers sold over 7 million cars, a million more than in any previous year.  Ford Motor Company decided that year to make a new car in the medium-price range of $2,400 to $4,000.  Brooks continues:

[Ford] went ahead and designed it more or less in comformity with the fashion of the day, which was for cars that were long, wide, low, lavishly decorated with chrome, liberally supplied with gadgets… Two years later, in September, 1957, Ford put its new car, the Edsel, on the market, to the accompaniment of more fanfare than had attended the arrival of any new car since the same company’s Model A, brought out thirty years earlier.  The total amount spent on the Edsel before the first specimen went on sale was announced as a quarter of a billion dollars;  its launching… was more costly than any other consumer product in history.  As a starter toward getting its investment back, Ford counted on selling at least 200,000 Edsels the first year.

There may be an aborigine somewhere in a remote rainforest who hasn’t yet heard that things failed to turn out that way… on November 19, 1959, having lost, according to some outside estimates, around $350 million on the Edsel, the Ford Company permanently discontinued its production.

Brooks asks:

How could this have happened?  How could a company so mightily endowed with money, experience, and, presumably, brains have been guilty of such a monumental mistake?

Many claimed that Ford had paid too much attention to public-opinion polls and the motivational research it conducted.  But Brooks adds that some non-scientific elements also played a roll.  In particular, after a massive effort to come up with possible names for the car, science was ignored at the last minute and the Edsel was named for the father of the company’s president.  Brooks:

As for the design, it was arrived at without even a pretense of consulting the polls, and by the method that has been standard for years in the designing of automobiles – that of simply pooling the hunches of sundry company committees.

The idea for the Edsel started years earlier.  The company noticed that owners of cars would trade up to the medium-priced car as soon as they could.  The problem was that Ford owners were not trading up to the Mercury, Ford’s medium-priced car, but to the medium-priced cars of its rivals, General Motors and Chrysler.

Late in 1952, a group called the Forward Product Planning Committee gave much of the detailed work to the Lincoln-Mercury Division, run by Richard Krafve (pronounced “Kraffy”).  In 1954, after two years’ work, the Forward Product Planning Committee submitted to the executive committee a six-volume report.  In brief, the report predicted that there would be seventy million cars in the U.S. by 1965, and more than 40 percent of all cars sold would be in the medium-price range.  Brooks:

On the other hand, the Ford bosses were well aware of the enormous risks connected with putting a new car on the market.  They knew, for example, that of the 2,900 American makes that had been introduced since the beginning of the automobile age… only about twenty were still around.

But Ford executives felt optimistic.  They set up another agency, the Special Products Division, again with Krafve in charge.  The new car was referred to as the “E”-Car among Ford designers and workers.  “E” for Experimental.  Roy A. Brown was in charge of the E-car’s design.  Brown stated that they sought to make a car that was unique as compared to the other nineteen cars on the road at the time.

Brooks observes that Krafve later calculated that he and his associates would make at least four thousand decisions in designing the E-Car.  He thought that if they got every decision right, they could create the perfectly designed car.  Krafve admitted later, however, that there wasn’t really enough time for perfection.  They would make modifications, and then modifications of those modifications.  Then time would run out and they had to settle on the most recent modifications.

Brooks comments:

One of the most persuasive and frequently cited explanations of the Edsel’s failure is that it was a victim of the time lag between the decision to produce it and the act of putting it on the market.  It was easy to see a few years later, when smaller and less powerful cars, euphemistically called “compacts,” had become so popular as to turn the old automobile status-ladder upside down, that the Edsel was a giant step in the wrong direction, but it far from easy to see that in fat, tail-finny 1955.

As part of the marketing effort, the Special Products Division tapped David Wallace, director of planning for market research.  Wallace:

‘We concluded that cars are a means to a sort of dream fulfillment.  There’s some irrational factor in people that makes them want one kind of car rather than another – something that has nothing to do with the mechanism at all but with the car’s personality, as the customer imagines it.  What we wanted to do, naturally, was to give the E-Car the personality that would make the greatest number of people want it.’

Wallace’s group decided to get interviews of 1,600 car buyers.  The conclusion, in a nutshell, was that the E-Car could be “the smart car for the younger executive or professional family on its way up.”

As for the name of the car, Krafve had suggested to the members of the Ford family that the new car be named the Edsel Ford – the name of their father.  The three Ford brothers replied that their father probably wouldn’t want the car named after him.  Therefore, they suggested that the Special Products Division look for another name.

The Special Products Division conducted a large research project regarding the best name for the E-Car.  At one point, Wallace interviewed the poet Marianne Moore about a possible name.  A bit later, the Special Products Division contacted Foote, Cone & Belding, an advertising agency, to help with finding a name.

The advertising agency produced 18,000 names, which they then carefully pruned to 6,000.  Wallace told them that was still way too many names from which to pick.  So Foote, Cone & Belding did an all-out three-day session to cut the list down to 10 names.  They divided into two groups for this task.  By chance, when each group produced its list of 10 names, 4 of the names were the same:  Corsair, Citation, Pacer, and Ranger.

Wallace thought that Corsair was clearly the best name.  However, the Ford executive committee had a meeting at a time when all three Ford brothers were away.  Executive vice-president Ernest R. Breech, chairman of the board, led the meeting.  When Breech saw the final list of 10 names, he said he didn’t like any of them.

So Breech and the others were shown another list of names that hadn’t quite made the top 10.  The Edsel had been kept on this second list – despite the three Ford brothers being against it – for some reason, perhaps because it was the originally suggested name.  When the group came to the name “Edsel,” Breech firmly said, “Let’s call it that.”  Breech added that since there were going to be four models of the E-Car, the four favorite names – Corsair, Citation, Pacer, and Ranger – could still be used as sub-names.

Brooks writes that Foote, Cone & Belding presumably didn’t react well to the chosen name, “Edsel,” after their exhaustive research to come up with the best possible names.  But the Special Products Division had an even worse reaction.  However, there were a few, including Krafve, would didn’t object to the name.

Krafve was named Vice-President of the Ford Motor Company and General Manager, Edsel Division.  Meanwhile, Edsels were being road-tested.  Brown and other designers were already working on the subsequent year’s model.  A new set of retail dealers was already being put together.  Foote, Cone & Belding was hard at work on strategies for advertising and selling Edsels.  In fact, Fairfax M. Cone himself was leading this effort.

Cone decided to use Wallace’s idea of “the smart car for the younger executive or professional family on its way up.”  But Cone amended it to: “the smart car for the younger middle-income family or professional family on its way up.”  Cone was apparently quite confident, since he described his advertising ideas for the Edsel to some reporters.  Brooks notes with amusement:

Like a chess master that has no doubt that he will win, he could afford to explicate the brilliance of his moves even as he made them.

Normally, a large manufacturer launches a new car through dealers already handling some of its other makes.  But Krafve got permission to go all-out on the Edsel.  He could contact dealers for other car manufacturers and even dealers for other divisions of Ford.  Krafve set a goal of signing up 1,200 dealers – who had good sales records – by September 4, 1957.

Brooks remarks that Krafve had set a high goal, since a dealer’s decision to sell a new car is major.  Dealers typically have one hundred thousand dollars – more than 8x that in 2019 dollars – invested in their dealerships.

J. C. (Larry) Doyle, second to Krafve, led the Edsel sales effort.  Doyle had been with Ford for 40 years.  Brooks records that Doyle was somewhat of a maverick in his field.  He was kind and considerate, and he didn’t put much stock in the psychological studies of car buyers.  But he knew how to sell cars, which is why he was called on for the Edsel campaign.

Doyle put Edsels into a few dealerships, but kept them hidden from view.  Then he went about recruiting top dealers.  Many dealers were curious about what the Edsel looked like.  But Doyle’s group would only show dealers the car if they listened to a one-hour pitch.  This approach worked.  It seems that quite a few dealers were so convinced by the pitch that they signed up without even looking at the car in any detail.

C. Gayle Warnock, director of public relations at Ford, was in charge of keeping public interest in the Edsel – which was already high – as strong as possible.  Warnock told Krafve that public interest might be too strong, to the extent that people would be disappointed when they discovered that the Edsel was a car.  Brooks:

It was agreed that the safest way to tread the tightrope between overplaying and underplaying the Edsel would be to say nothing about the car as a whole but to reveal its individual charms a little at a time – a sort of automotive strip tease…

Brooks continues:

That summer, too, was a time of speechmaking by an Edsel foursome consisting of Krafve, Doyle, J. Emmet Judge, who was Edsel’s director of merchandise and product planning, and Robert F. G. Copeland, its assistant general sales manager for advertising, sales promotion, and training.  Ranging separately up and down and across the nation, the four orators moved around so fast and so tirelessly, that Warnock, lest he lost track of them, took to indicating their whereabouts with colored pins on a map in his office.  ‘Let’s see, Krafve goes from Atlanta to New Orleans, Doyle from Council Bluffs to Salt Lake City,’ Warnock would muse of a morning in Dearborn, sipping his second cup of coffee and then getting up to yank the pins out and jab them in again.

Needless to say, this was by far the largest advertising campaign ever conducted by Ford.  This included a three-day press preview, with 250 reporters from all over the country.  On one afternoon, the press were taken to the track to see stunt drivers in Edsels doing all kinds of tricks.  Brooks quotes the Foote, Cone man:

‘You looked over this green Michigan hill, and there were those glorious Edsels, performing gloriously in unison.  It was beautiful.  It was like the Rockettes.  It was exciting.  Morale was high.’

Brooks then writes about the advertising on September 3 – “E-Day-minus-one”:

The tone for Edsel Day’s blizzard of publicity was set by an ad, published in newspapers all over the country, in which the Edsel shared the spotlight with the Ford Company’s President Ford and Chairman Breech.  In the ad, Ford looked like a dignified young father, Breech like a dignified gentleman holding a full house against a possible straight, the Edsel just looked like an Edsel.  The accompanying text declared that the decision to produce the car had been ‘based on what we knew, guessed, felt, believed, suspected – about you,’ and added, ‘YOU are the reason behind the Edsel.’  The tone was calm and confident.  There did not seem to be much room for doubt about the reality of that full house.

The interior of the Edsel, as predicted by Krafve, had an almost absurd number of push-buttons.

The two larger models – the Corsair and the Citation – were 219 inches long, two inches longer than the biggest of the Oldsmobiles.  And they were 80 inches wide, “or about as wide as passenger cars ever get,” notes Brooks.  Each had 345 horsepower, making it more powerful than any other American car at the time of launching.

Brooks records that the car received mixed press after it was launched.  In January, 1958, Consumer Reports wrote:

The Edsel has no important basic advantage over other brands.  The car is almost entirely conventional in construction…

Three months later, Consumer Reports wrote:

[The Edsel] is more uselessly overpowered… more gadget bedecked, more hung with expensive accessories than any other car in its price class.

This report gave the Corsair and the Citation the bottom position in its competitive ratings.

Brooks says there were several factors in the downfall of the Edsel.  It wasn’t just that the design fell short, nor was it simply that the company relied too much on psychological research.  For one, many of the early Edsels suffered from a surprising variety of imperfections.  It turned out that only about half the early Edsels functioned properly.

Brooks recounts:

For the first ten days of October, nine of which were business days, there were only 2,751 deliveries – an average of just over three hundred cars a day.  In order to sell the 200,000 cars per year that would make the Edsel operation profitable the Ford Motor Company would have to move an average of between six and seven hundred each business day – a good many more than three hundred a day.  On the night of Sunday, October 13th, Ford put on a mammoth television spectacular for Edsel, pre-empting the time ordinarily allotted to the Ed Sullivan show, but though the program cost $400,000 and starred Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, it failed to cause any sharp spurt in sales.  Now it was obvious that things were not going well at all.

Among the former executives of the Edsel Division, opinions differ as to the exact moment when the portents of doom became unmistakable… The obvious sacrificial victim was Brown, whose stock had gone through the roof at the time of the regally accoladed debut of his design, in August, 1955.  Now, without having done anything further, for either better or worse, the poor fellow became the company scapegoat…

Ford re-committed to selling the Edsel in virtually every way that it could.  Sales eventually increased, but not nearly enough.  Ultimately, the company had to stop production.  The net loss for Ford was roughly $350 million.

Krafve rejects that the Edsel failed due to a poor choice of the name.  He maintains that it was a mistake of timing.  Had they produced the car two years earlier, when medium-sized cars were still highly popular, the Edsel would have been a success.  Brown agrees with Krafve that it was a mistake of timing.

Doyle says it was a buyers’ strike.  He claims not to understand at all why the American public suddenly switched its taste from medium-sized cars to smaller-sized cars.

Wallace argued that the Russian launch of the sputnik had caused many Americans to start viewing Detroit products as bad, especially medium-priced cars.

Brooks concludes by noting that Ford did not get hurt by this setback, nor did the majority of people associated with the Edsel.  In 1958, net income per share dropped from $5.40 to $2.12, and Ford stock dropped from a 1957 high of $60 to a low of $40.  However, by 1959, net income per-share jumped to $8.24 and the stock hit $90.

The Ford executives associated with the Edsel advanced in their careers, for the most part.  Moreover, writes Brooks:

The subsequent euphoria of these former Edsel men did not stem entirely from the fact of their economic survival;  they appear to have been enriched spiritually.  They are inclined to speak of their Edsel experience – except for those still with Ford, who are inclined to speak of it as little as possible – with the verve and garrulity of old comrades-in-arms hashing over their most thrilling campaign.

 

A REASONABLE AMOUNT OF TIME

Brooks:

Most nineteenth-century American fortunes were enlarged by, if they were not actually founded on, the practice of insider trading…

Not until 1934 did Congress pass the Securities Exchange Act, which forbids insider trading.  Later, a 1942 rule 10B-5 held that no stock trader could “make any untrue statement of a material fact or… omit to state a material fact.”  However, observes Brooks, this rule had basically been overlooked for the subsequent couple of decades.  It was argued that insiders needed the incentive of being able to profit in order to bring forth their best efforts.  Further, some authorities said that insider trading helped the markets function more smoothly.  Finally, it was held that most stock traders “possess and conceal information of one sort or another.”

In short, the S.E.C. seemed to be refraining from doing anything regarding insider trading.  But this changed when a civil complaint was made against Texas Gulf Sulphur Company.  The case was tried in the United States District Court in Foley Square May 9 to June 21, 1966.  The presiding judge was Dudley J. Bonsal, says Brooks, who remarked at one point, “I guess we all agree that we are plowing new ground here to some extent.”

In March 1959, Texas Gulf, a New York-based company and the world’s leader producer of sulphur, began conducting aerial surveys over a vast area of eastern Canada.  They weren’t looking for sulphur or gold, but for sulphides – sulphur in combination with other useful minerals such as zinc and copper.  Texas Gulf wanted to diversify its production.

These surveys took place over two years.  Many areas of interest were noted.  The company concluded that several hundred areas were most promising, including a segment called Kidd-55, which was fifteen miles north of Timmins, Ontario, an old gold-mining town several hundred miles northwest of Toronto.

The first challenge was to get title to do exploratory drilling on Kidd-55.  It wasn’t until June, 1963, that Texas Gulf was able to begin exploring on the northeast quarter of Kidd-55.  After Texas Gulf engineer, Richard H. Clayton, completed a ground electromagnetic survey and was convinced the area had potential, the company decided to drill.  Drilling began on November 8.  Brooks writes:

The man in charge of the drilling crew was a young Texas Gulf geologist named Kenneth Darke, a cigar smoker with a rakish gleam in his eye, who looked a good deal more like the traditional notion of a mining prospector than that of the organization man that he was.

A cylindrical sample an inch and a quarter in diameter was brought out of the earth.  Darke studied it critically inch by inch using only his eyes and his knowledge.  On November 10, Darke telephoned his immediate superior, Walter Holyk, chief geologist of Texas Gulf, to report the findings at that point.

The same night, Holyk called his superior, Richard D. Mollison, a vice president of Texas Gulf.  Mollison then called his superior, Charles F. Fogarty, executive vice president and the No. 2 man at the company.  Further reports were made the next day.  Soon Holyk, Mollison, and Fogarty decided to travel to Kidd-55 to take a look for themselves.

By November 12, Holyk was on site helping Darke examine samples.  Holyk was a Canadian in his forties with a doctorate in geology from MIT.  The weather had turned bad.  Also, much of the stuff came up covered in dirt and grease, and had to be washed with gasoline.  Nonetheless, Holyk arrived at an initial estimate of the core’s content.  There seemed to be average copper content of 1.15% and average zinc content of 8.64%.  If true and if it was not just in one narrow area, this appeared to be a huge discovery.  Brooks:

Getting title would take time if it were possible at all, but meanwhile there were several steps that the company could and did take.  The drill rig was moved away from the site of the test hole.  Cut saplings were stuck in the ground around the hole, to restore the appearance of the place to a semblance of its natural state.  A second test hole was drilled, as ostentatiously as possible, some distance away, at a place where a barren core was expected – and found.  All of these camouflage measures, which were in conformity with long-established practice among miners who suspect that they have made a strike, were supplemented by an order from Texas Gulf’s president, Claude O. Stephens, that no one outside the actual exploration group, even within the company, should be told what had been found.  Late in November, the core was shipped off, in sections, to the Union Assay Office in Salt Lake City for scientific analysis of its contents.  And meanwhile, of course, Texas Gulf began discreetly putting out feelers for the purchase of the rest of Kidd-55.

Brooks adds:

And meanwhile other measures, which may or may not have been related to the events of north of Timmins, were being taken.  On November 12th, Fogarty bought three hundred shares of Texas Gulf stock;  on the 15th he added seven hundred more shares, on November 19th five hundred more, and on November 26th two hundred more.  Clayton bought two hundred on the 15th, Mollison one hundred on the same day; and Mrs. Holyk bought fifty on the 29th and one hundred more on December 10th.  But these purchases, as things turned out, were only the harbingers of a period of apparently intense affection for Texas Gulf stock among certain of its officers and employees, and even some of their friends.

The results of the sample test confirmed Holyk’s estimates.  Also found were 3.94 ounces of silver per ton.  In late December, while in the Washington, D.C. area, Darke recommended Texas Gulf stock to a girl he knew there and her mother.  They later became known as “tippees,” while a few people they later told naturally became “sub-tippees.”  Between December 30 and February 17, Darke’s tippees and sub-tippees purchased 2,100 shares of Texas Gulf stock and also bought calls on another 1,500 shares.

In the first three months of 1964, Darke bought 300 shares of Texas Gulf stock, purchased calls on 3,000 more shares, and added several more persons to his burgeoning list of tippees.  Holyk and his wife bought a large number of calls on Texas Gulf stock.  They’d hardly heard of calls before, but calls “were getting to be quite the rage in Texas Gulf circles.”

Finally in the spring, Texas Gulf had the drilling rights it needed and was ready to proceed.  Brooks:

After a final burst of purchases by Darke, his tippees, and his sub-tippees on March 30th and 31st (among them all, six hundred shares and calls on 5,100 more shares for the two days), drilling was resumed in the still-frozen muskeg at Kidd-55, with Holyk and Darke both on the site this time.

While the crew stayed on site, the geologists almost daily made the fifteen-mile trek to Simmins.  With seven-foot snowdrifts, the trip took three and a half to four hours.

At some stage – later a matter of dispute – Texas Gulf realized that it had a workable mine of large proportions.  Vice President Mollison arrived on site for a day.  Brooks:

But before going he issued instructions for the drilling of a mill test hole, which would produce a relatively large core that could be used to determine the amenability of the mineral material to routine mill processing.  Normally, a mill test hole is not drilled until a workable mine is believed to exist.  And so it may have been in this case;  two S.E.C. mining experts were to insist later, against contrary opinions of experts for the defense, that by the time Mollison gave his order, Texas Gulf had information on the basis of which it could have calculated that the ore reserves at Kidd-55 had a gross assay value of at least two hundred million dollars.

Brooks notes:

The famous Canadian mining grapevine was humming by now, and in retrospect the wonder is that it had been relatively quiet for so long.

On April 10, President Stephens had become concerned enough to ask a senior member of the board – Thomas S. Lamont of Morgan fame – whether Texas Gulf should issue a statement.  Lamont told him he could wait until the reports were published in U.S. papers, but then he should issue a statement.

The following day, April 11, the reports poured forth in the U.S. papers.  The Herald Tribune called it “the biggest ore strike since gold was discovered more than 60 years ago in Canada.”  Stephens instructed Fogarty to begin preparing a statement to be issued on Monday, April 13.  Meanwhile, the estimated value of the mine seemed to be increasing by the hour as more and more copper and zinc ore was brought to the surface.  Brooks writes:

However, Fogarty did not communicate with Timmins after Friday night, so the statement that he and his colleagues issued to the press on Sunday afternoon was not based on the most up-to-the-minute information.  Whether because of that or for some other reason, the statement did not convey the idea that Texas Gulf thought it had a new Comstock Lode.  Characterizing the published reports as exaggerated and unreliable, it admitted that recent drilling on ‘one property near Timmins’ had led to ‘preliminary indications that more drilling would be required for proper evaluation of the prospect;’  went on to say that ‘the drilling done to date has not been conclusive;’  and then, putting the same thought in what can hardly be called another way, added that ‘the work done to date has not been sufficient to reach definitive conclusions.’

The wording of this press release was sufficient to put a damper on any expectations that may have arisen due to the newspaper stories the previous Friday.  Texas Gulf stock had gone from around $17 the previous November to around $30 just before the stories.  On Monday, the stock went to $32, but then came back down and even dipped below $29 in the subsequent two days.

Meanwhile, at Kidd-55, Mollison, Holyk, and Darke talked with a visiting reporter who had been shown around the place.  Brooks:

The things they told the reporter make it clear, in retrospect, that whatever the drafters of the release may have believed on Sunday, the men at Kidd-55 knew on Monday that they had a mine and a big one.  However, the world was not to know it, or at least not from that source, until Thursday morning, when the next issue of the Miner would appear in subscribers’ mail and on newstands.

Mollison and Holyk flew to Montreal Tuesday evening for the annual convention of the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.  They had arranged for that Wednesday, in the company of the Minister of Mines of the Province of Ontario and his deputy, to attend the convention.  En route, they briefed the minister on Kidd-55.  The minister decided he wanted to make an announcement as soon as possible.  Mollison helped the minister draft the statement.

According to the copy Mollison kept, the announcement stated that “the information now in hand… gives the company confidence to allow me to announce that Texas Gulf Sulphur has a mineable body of zinc, copper, and silver ore of substantial dimensions that will be developed and brought to production as soon as possible.”  Mollison and Holyk believed that the minister would make the announcement that evening.  But for some reason, the minister didn’t.

Texas Gulf was to have a board of directors meeting that Thursday.  Since better and better news had been coming in from Kidd-55, the company officers decided they should write a new press release, to be issued after the Thursday morning board meeting.  This statement was based on the very latest information and it read, in part, “Texas Gulf Sulphur Company has made a major strike of zinc, copper, and silver in the Timmins area… Seven drill holes are now essentially complete and indicate an ore body of at least 800 feet in length, 300 feet in width, and having a vertical depth of more than 800 feet.  This is a major discovery.  The preliminary data indicate a reserve of more than 25 million tons of ore.”

The statement also noted that “considerably more data has been accumulated,” in order to explain the difference between this statement and the previous one.  Indeed, the value of the ore was not the two hundred million dollars alleged to have been estimable a week earlier, but many times that.

The same day, engineer Clayton and company secretary Crawford bought 200 and 300 shares, respectively.  The next morning, Crawford doubled his order.

The directors’ meeting ended at ten o’clock.  Then 22 reporters entered the room.  President Stephens read the new press release.  Most reporters rushed out before he was finished to report the news.

The actions of two Texas Gulf directors, Coates and Lamont, during the next half hour were later to lead to the most controversial part of the S.E.C.’s complaint.  As Brooks writes, the essence of the controversy was timing.  The Texas Gulf news was released by the Dow Jones News Service, the well-known spot-news for investors.  In fact, a piece of news is considered to be public the moment it crosses “the broad tape.”

The morning of April 16, 1964, a Dow Jones reporter was among those who attended the Texas Gulf press conference.  He left early and called in the news around 10:10 or 10:15, according to his recollection.  Normally, a news item this important would be printed on the Dow Jones machines two or three minutes after being phoned in.  But for reasons unknown, the Texas Gulf story did not appear on the tape until 10:54.  This delay was left unexplained during the trial based on irrelevance, says Brooks.

Coates, the Texan, around the end of the press conference, called his son-in-law, H. Fred Haemisegger, a stockbroker in Houston.  Coates told Haemisegger about the Texas Gulf discovery, also saying that he waited to call until “after the public announcement” because he was “too old to get in trouble with the S.E.C.”  Coates next placed an order for 2,000 shares of Texas Gulf stock for four family trusts.  He was a trustee, but not a beneficiary.  The stock had opened at $30.  Haemisegger, by acting quickly, was able to buy a bit over $31.

Lamont hung around the press conference area for 20 minutes or so.  He recounts that he “listened to chatter” and “slapped people on the back.”  Then at 10:39 or 10:40, he called a friend at Morgan Guaranty Trust Company – Longstreet Hinton, the bank’s executive vice president and head of its trust department.  Hinton had asked Lamont earlier in the week if he knew anything about the rumors of an ore discovery made by Texas Gulf.  Lamont had said no then.

But during this phone call, Lamont told Hinton that he had some news now.  Hinton asked whether it was good.  Lamont replied either “pretty good” or “very good.”  (Brooks notes that they mean the same thing in this context.)  Hinton immediately called the bank’s trading department, got a quote on Texas Gulf, and placed an order for 3,000 shares for the account of the Nassau Hospital, of which he was treasurer.  Hinton never bothered to look at the tape – despite being advised to do so by Lamont – because Hinton felt he already had the information he needed.  (Lamont didn’t know about the inexplicable forty minute delay before the Texas Gulf news appeared on the tape.)

Then Hinton went to the office of the Morgan Guaranty officer in charge of pension trusts.  Hinton recommended buying Texas Gulf.  In less than half an hour, the bank had ordered 7,000 shares for its pension fund and profit-sharing account.

An hour after that – at 12:33 – Lamont purchased 3,000 shares for himself and his family, paying $34 1/2 for them.  The stock closed above $36.  It hit a high of over $58 later that month.  Brooks:

…and by the end of 1966, when commercial production of ore was at last underway at Kidd-55 and the enormous new mine was expected to account for one-tenth of Canada’s total annual production of copper and one-quarter of its total annual production of zinc, the stock was selling at over 100.  Anyone who had bought Texas Gulf between November 12th, 1963 and the morning (or even the lunch hour) of April 16th, 1964 had therefore at least tripled his money.

Brooks then introduces the trial:

Perhaps the most arresting aspect of the Texas Gulf trial – apart from the fact that a trial was taking place at all – was the vividness and variety of the defendants who came before Judge Bonsal, ranging as they did from a hot-eyed mining prospector like Clayton (a genuine Welchman with a degree in mining from the University of Cardiff) through vigorous and harried corporate nabobs like Fogarty and Stephens to a Texas wheeler-dealer like Coates and a polished Brahmin of finance like Lamont.

Darke did not appear at the trial, claiming his Canadian nationality.  Brooks continues:

The S.E.C., after its counsel, Frank E. Kennamer Jr. had announced his intention to “drag to light and pillory the misconduct of these defendants,” asked the court to issue a permanent injunction forbidding Fogarty, Mollison, Clayton, Holyk, Darke, Crawford, and several other corporate insiders who had bought stock or calls between November 8th, 1963 and April 15th, 1964, from ever again “engaging in any act… which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit upon any person in connection with purchase or sale of securities”;  further – and here it was breaking entirely new ground – it prayed that the court order the defendants to make restitution to the persons they had allegedly defrauded by buying stock or calls from them on the basis of inside information.  The S.E.C. also charged that the pessimistic April 12th press release was deliberately deceptive, and asked that because of it Texas Gulf be enjoined from “making any untrue statement of material fact or omitting to state a material fact.”  Apart from any question of loss of corporate face, the nub of the matter here lay in the fact that such a judgment, if granted, might well open the way for legal action against the company by any stockholder who had sold his Texas Gulf stock to anybody in the interim between the first press release and the second one, and since the shares that had changed hands during that period had run into the millions, it was a nub indeed.

Regarding the November purchases, the defense argued that a workable mine was far from a sure thing based only on the first drill hole.  Some even argued that the hole could have turned out to be a liability rather than an asset for Texas Gulf, based on what was known then.  The people who bought stock or calls during the winter claimed that the hole had little or nothing to do with their decision.  They stated that they thought Texas Gulf was a good investment in general.  Clayton said his sudden appearance as a large investor was because he had just married a well-to-do wife.  Brooks:

The S.E.C. countered with its own parade of experts, maintaining that the nature of the first core had been such as to make the existence of a rich mine an overwhelming probability, and that therefore those privy to the facts about it had possessed a material fact.

The S.E.C. also made much of the fact that Fogarty based the initial press release on information that was two days old.  The defense countered that the company had been in a sensitive position.  If it had issued an optimistic report that later turned out to be false, it could well be accused of fraud for that.

Judge Bonsal concluded that the definition of materiality must be conservative.  He therefore decided that up until April 9th, when three converging drill holes positively established the three-dimensionality of the ore deposit, material information had not been in hand.  Therefore, the decisions of insiders to buy stock before that date, even if based on initial drilling results, were legal “educated guesses.”

Case was thus dismissed against all educated guessers who had bought stock or calls, or recommended others do so, before the evening of April 9th.  Brooks:

With Clayton and Crawford, who had been so injudicious as to buy or order stock on April 15th, it was another matter.  The judge found no evidence that they had intended to deceive or defraud anyone, but they had made their purchases with the full knowledge that a great mine had been found and that it would be announced the next day – in short, with material private information in hand.  Therefore they were found to have violated Rule 10B-5, and in due time would presumably be enjoined from doing such a thing again and made to offer restitution to the persons they bought their April 15th shares from – assuming, of course, that such persons can be found…

On the matter of the April 12th press release, the judge found that it was not false or misleading.

Still to be settled was the matter of Coates and Lamont making their purchases.  The question was when it can be said that the information has officially been made public.  This was the most important issue and would likely set a legal precedent.

The S.E.C. argued that the actions of Coates and Lamont were illegal because they occurred before the ore strike news had crossed the Dow Jones broad tape.  The S.E.C. argued, furthermore, that even if Coates and Lamont had acted after the “official” announcement, it still would be illegal unless enough time had passed so that those who hadn’t attended the press conference, or even those who hadn’t seen the initial news cross the broad tape, had enough time to absorb the information.

Defense argued first that Coates and Lamont had every reason to believe that the news was already out, since Stephens said it had been released by the Ontario Minister of Mines the previous evening.  So Coates and Lamont acted in good faith.  Second, counsel argued that for all practical purposes, the news was out, via osmosis and The Northern Miner.  Brokerage offices and the Stock Exchange had been buzzing all morning.  Lamont’s lawyers also argued that Lamont had merely told Hinton to look at the tape, not to buy any stock.  Defense argued that the S.E.C. was asking the court to write new rules and then apply them retroactively, while the plaintiff was merely asking that an old rule 10B-5, be applied broadly.

As for Lamont’s waiting for two hours, until 12:33, before buying stock for himself, the S.E.C. took issue, as Brooks records:

‘It is the Commission’s position that even after corporate information has been published in the news media, insiders, are still under a duty to refrain from securities transactions until there had elapsed a reasonable amount of time in which the securities industry, the shareholders, and the investing public can evaluate the development and make informed investment decisions… Insiders must wait at least until the information is likely to have reached the average investor who follows the market and he has had some opportunity to consider it.’

In the Texas Gulf case, the S.E.C. argued that one hour and thirty-nine minutes was not “a reasonable amount of time.”  What, then, is “a reasonable amount of time,” the S.E.C. was asked?  The S.E.C.’s counsel, Kennamer, said it “would vary from case to case.”  Kennamer added that it would be “a nearly impossible task to formulate a rigid set of rules that would apply in all situations of this sort.”

Brooks sums it up with a hint of irony:

Therefore, in the S.E.C.’s canon, the only way an insider could find out whether he had waited long enough before buying his company’s stock was by being hauled into court and seeing what the judge would decide.

Judge Bonsal rejected this argument by the S.E.C.  Moreover, he took a narrower view that, based on legal precedent, the key moment was when the press release was read.  The judge admitted that a better rule might be formulated according to which insiders had to wait at least some amount time after the initial press release so that other investors could absorb it.  However, he didn’t think he should write such a rule.  Nor should this matter be left up to the judge on a case-by-base basis.  Thus, the complaints against Coates and Lamont were dismissed.

The S.E.C. appealed all the dismissals.  Brooks concludes:

…in August, 1968, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit handed down a decision which flatly reversed Judge Bonsal’s findings on just about every score except the findings against Crawford and Clayton, which were affirmed.  The Appeals Court found that the original November drill hole had provided material evidence of a valuable ore deposit, and that therefore Fogarty, Mollison, Darke, Holyk, and all other insiders who had bought Texas Gulf stock or calls on it during the winter were guilty of violations of the law;  that the gloomy April 12th press release had been ambiguous and perhaps misleading;  and that Coates had improperly and illegally jumped the gun in placing his orders right after the April 16th press conference.  Only Lamont – the charges against whom had been dropped following his death shortly after the lower court decision – and a Texas Gulf office manager, John Murray, remained exonerated.

 

XEROX XEROX XEROX XEROX

There was no economical and practical way of making copies until after 1950.  Brooks writes that the 1950’s were the pioneering years for mechanized office copying.  Although people were starting to show a compulsion to make copies, the early copying machines suffered from a number of problems.  Brooks:

…What was needed for the compulsion to flower into a mania was a technological breakthrough, and the breakthrough came at the turn of the decade with the advent of a machine that worked on a new principle, known as xerography, and was able to make dry, good-quality, permanent copies on ordinary paper with a minimum of trouble.  The effect was immediate.  Largely as a result of xerography, the estimated number of copies (as opposed to duplicates) made annually in the United States sprang from some twenty million in the mid-fifties to nine and a half billion in 1964, and to fourteen billion in 1966 – not to mention billions more in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.  More than that, the attitude of educators towards printed textbooks and of business people toward written communication underwent a discernable change;  avant-garde philosophers took to hailing xerography as a revolution comparable in importance to the invention of the wheel;  and coin-operated copy machines began turning up in candy stores and beauty parlors…

The company responsible for the great breakthrough and the one on whose machines the majority of these billions of copies were made was of course, the Xerox Corporation, of Rochester, New York.  As a result, it became the most spectacular big-business success of the nineteen-sixties.  In 1959, the year the company – then called Haloid Xerox, Inc. – introduced its first automatic xerographic office copier, its sales were thirty-three million dollars.  In 1961, they were sixty-six million, in 1963 a hundred and seventy-six million, and in 1966 over half a billion.

The company was extremely profitable.  It ranked two hundred and seventy-first in Fortune’s ranking in 1967.  However, in 1966 the company ranked sixty-third in net profits and probably ninth in the ratio of profits to sales and fifteenth in terms of market value.  Brooks continues:

…Indeed, the enthusiasm the investing public showed for Xerox made its shares the stock market Golconda of the sixties.  Anyone who bought its stock toward the end of 1959 and held on to it until early 1967 would have found his holding worth about sixty-six times its original price, and anyone who was really fore-sighted and bought Haloid in 1955 would have seen his original investment grow – one might almost say miraculously – a hundred and eighty times.  Not surprisingly, a covey of “Xerox millionaires” sprang up – several hundred of them all told, most of whom either lived in the Rochester area or had come from there.

The Haloid company was started in Rochester in 1906.  It manufactured photographic papers.  It survived OK.  But after the Second World War, due to an increase in competition and labor costs, the company was looking for new products.

More than a decade earlier, in 1938, an obscure thirty-two year-old inventor, Chester F. Carlson, was spending his spare time trying to invent an office copying machine.  Carlson had a degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology.  Carlson had hired Otto Kornei, a German refugee physicist, to help him.  Their initial copying machine was unwieldy and produced much smoke and stench.  Brooks:

The process, which Carlson called electrophotography, had – and has – five basic steps:  sensitizing a photoconductive surface to light by giving it an electrostatic charge (for example, by rubbing it with fur);  exposing this surface to a written page to form an electrostatic image;  developing the latest image by dusting the surface with a powder that will adhere only to the charged areas;  transferring the image to some sort of paper;  and fixing the image by the application of heat.

Although each individual step was already used in other technologies, this particular combination of steps was new.  Carlson carefully patented the process and began trying to sell it.  Over the ensuing five years, Carlson tried to sell the rights to every important office-equipment company in the country.  He was turned down every time.  In 1944, Carlson finally convinced Battelle Memorial Institute to conduct further development work on the process in exchange for three-quarters of any future royalties.

In 1946, various people at Haloid, including Joseph C. Wilson – who was about to become president – had noticed the work that Battelle was doing.  Wilson asked a friend of his, Sol M. Linowitz, a smart, public-spirited lawyer just back from service in the Navy, to research the work at Battelle as a “one-shot” job.  The result was an agreement giving Haloid the rights to the Carlson process in exchange for royalties for Battelle and Carlson.

At one point in the research and development process, the Haloid people got so discouraged that they considered selling most of their xerography rights to International Business Machines.  The research process became quite costly.  But Haloid committed itself to seeing it through.  It took full title of the Carlson process and assumed the full cost of development in exchange for shares in Haloid (for Battelle and Carlson).  Brooks:

…The cost was staggering.  Between 1947 and 1960, Haloid spent about seventy-five million dollars [over $800 million in 2019 dollars] on research in xerography, or about twice what it earned from its regular operations during that period;  the balance was raised through borrowing and through the wholesale issuance of common stock to anyone who was kind, reckless, or prescient enough to take it.  The University of Rochester, partly out of interest in a struggling local industry, bought an enormous quantity for its endowment fund at a price that subsequently, because of stock splits, amounted to fifty cents a share.  ‘Please don’t be mad at us if we have to sell our Haloid stock in a couple of years to cut our losses on it,’ a university official nervously warned Wilson.  Wilson promised not to be mad.  Meanwhile, he and other executives of the company took most of their pay in the form of stock, and some of them went as far as to put up their savings and the mortgages on their houses to help the cause along.

In 1961, the company changed its name to Xerox Corporation.  One unusual aspect to the story is that Xerox became rather public-minded.  Brooks quotes Wilson:

‘To set high goals, to have almost unattainable aspirations, to imbue people with the belief that they can be achieved – these are as important as the balance sheet, perhaps more so.’

This rhetoric is not uncommon.  But Xerox followed through by donating one and a half percent of its profits to educational and charitable institutions in 1965-1966.  In 1966, Xerox committed itself to the “one-per-cent program,” also called the Cleveland Plan, according to which the company gives one percent of its pre-tax income annually to educational institutions, apart from any other charitable activities.

Furthermore, President Wilson said in 1964, “The corporation cannot refuse to take a stand on public issues of major concern.”  As Brooks observes, this is “heresy” for a business because it could alienate customers or potential customers.  Xerox’s chief stand was in favor of the United Nations.  Brooks:

Early in 1964, the company decided to spend four million dollars – a year’s advertising budget – on underwriting a series of network-television programs dealing with the U.N., the programs to be unaccompanied by commercials or any other identification of Xerox apart from a statement at the beginning and end of each that Xerox had paid for it.

Xerox was inundated with letters opposing the company’s support of the U.N.  Many said that the U.N. charter had been written by American Communists and that the U.N. was an instrument for depriving Americans of their Constitutional rights.  Although only a few of these letters came from the John Birch Society, it turned out later that most of the letters were part of a meticulously planned Birch campaign.  Xerox officers and directors were not intimidated.  The U.N. series appeared in 1965 and was widely praised.

Furthermore, Xerox consistently committed itself to informing the users of its copiers of their legal responsibilities.  It took this stand despite their commercial interest.

Brooks visited Xerox in order to talk with some of its people.  First he spoke with Dr. Dessauer, a German-born engineer who had been in charge of the company’s research and engineering since 1938.  It was Dessauer who first brought Carlson’s invention to the attention of Joseph Wilson.  Brooks noticed a greeting card from fellow employees calling Dessauer the “Wizard.”

Dr. Dessauer told Brooks about the old days.  Dessauer said money was the main problem.  Many team members gambled heavily on the xerox project.  Dessauer himself mortgaged his house.  Early on, team members would often say the damn thing would never work.  Even if it did work, the marketing people said there was only a market for a few thousand of the machines.

Next Brooks spoke with Dr. Harold E. Clark, who had been a professor of physics before coming to Haloid in 1949.  Dr. Clark was in charge of the xerography-development program under Dr. Dessauer.  Dr. Clark told Brooks that Chet Carlson’s invention was amazing.  Also, no one else invented something similar at the same time, unlike the many simultaneous discoveries in scientific history.  The only problem, said Dr. Clark, was that it wasn’t a good product.

The main trouble was that Carlson’s photoconductive surface, which was coated with sulphur, lost its qualities after it had made a few copies and became useless.  Acting on a hunch unsupported by scientific theory, the Battelle researchers tried adding to the sulphur a small quantity of selenium, a non-metallic element previously used chiefly in electrical resistors and as a coloring material to redden glass.  The selenium-and-sulphur surface worked a little better than the all-sulphur one, so the Battelle men tried adding a little more selenium.  More improvement.  They gradually kept increasing the percentage until they had a surface consisting entirely of selenium – no sulphur.  That one worked best of all, and thus it was found, backhandedly, that selenium and selenium alone could make xerography practical.

Dr. Clark went on to tell Brooks that they basically patented one of the elements, of which there are not many more than one hundred.  What is more, they still don’t understand how it works.  There are no memory effects – no traces of previous copies are left on the selenium drum.  A selenium-coated drum in the lab can last a million processes, or theoretically an infinite number.  They don’t understand why.  Dr. Clark concluded that they combined “Yankee tinkering and scientific inquiry.”

Brooks spoke with Linowitz, who only had a few minutes because he had just been appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States.  Linowitz told him:

…the qualities that made for the company’s success were idealism, tenacity, the courage to take risks, and enthusiasm.

Joseph Wilson told Brooks that his second major had been English literature.  He thought he would be a teacher or work in administration at a university.  Somehow he ended up at Harvard Business School, where he was a top student.  After that, he joined Haloid, the family business, something he’d never planned on doing.

Regarding the company’s support of the U.N., Wilson explained that world cooperation was the company’s business, because without it there would be no world and thus no business.  He went on to explain that elections were not the company’s business.  But university education, civil rights, and employment of African-Americans were their business, to name just a few examples.  So far, at least, Wilson said there hadn’t been a conflict between their civic duties and good business.  But if such a conflict arose, he hoped that the company would honor its civic responsibilities.

 

MAKING THE CUSTOMERS WHOLE

On November 19th, 1963, the Stock Exchange became aware that two of its member firms – J. R. Williston & Beane, Inc., and Ira Haupt & Co. – were in serious financial trouble.  This later became a crisis that was made worse by the assassination of JFK on November 22, 1963.  Brooks:

It was the sudden souring of a speculation that these two firms (along with various brokers not members of the Stock Exchange) had become involved in on behalf of a single customer – the Allied Crude Vegetable Oil & Refining Co., of Bayonne, New Jersey.  The speculation was in contracts to buy vast quantities of cotton-seed oil and soybean oil for future delivery.

Brooks then writes:

On the two previous business days – Friday the fifteenth and Monday the eighteenth – the prices had dropped an average of a little less than a cent and a half per pound, and as a result Haupt had demanded that Allied put up about fifteen million dollars in cash to keep the account seaworthy.  Allied had declined to do this, so Haupt – like any broker when a customer operating on credit has defaulted – was faced with the necessity of selling out the Allied contracts to get back what it could of its advances.  The suicidal extent of the risk that Haupt had undertaken is further indicated by the fact that while the firm’s capital in early November had amounted to only about eight million dollars, it had borrowed enough money to supply a single customer – Allied – with some thirty-seven million dollars to finance the oil speculations.  Worse still, as things turned out it had accepted as collateral for some of these advances enormous amounts of actual cottonseed oil and soybean oil from Allied’s inventory, the presence of which in tanks at Bayonne was attested to by warehouse receipts stating the precise amount and kind of oil on hand.  Haupt had borrowed the money it supplied Allied from various banks, passing along most of the warehouse receipts to the banks as collateral.  All this would have been well and good if it had not developed later that many of the warehouse receipts were forged, that much of the oil they attested to was not, and probably never had been, in Bayonne, and that Allied’s President, Anthony De Angelis (who was later sent to jail on a whole parcel of charges), had apparently pulled off the biggest commercial fraud since that of Ivar Kreuger, the match king.

What began to emerge as the main issue was that Haupt had about twenty thousand individual stock-market customers, who had never heard of Allied or commodity trading.  Williston & Beane had nine thousand individual customers.  All these accounts were frozen when the two firms were suspended by the Stock Exchange.  (Fortunately, the customers of Williston & Beane were made whole fairly rapidly.)

The Stock Exchange met with its member firms.  They decided to make the customers of Haupt whole.  G. Keith Funston, President of the Stock Exchange, urged the member firms to take over the matter.  The firms replied that the Stock Exchange should do it.  Funston replied, “If we do, you’ll have to repay us the amount we pay out.”  So it was agreed that the payment would come out of the Exchange’s treasury, to be repaid later by the member firms.

Funston next led the negotiations with Haupt’s creditor banks.  Their unanimous support was essential.  Chief among the creditors were four local banks – Chase Manhattan, Morgan Guaranty Trust, First National City, and Manufacturers Hanover Trust.  Funston proposed that the Exchange would put up the money to make the Haupt customers whole – about seven and a half million dollars.  In return, for every dollar the Exchange put up, the banks would agree to defer collection on two dollars.  So the banks would defer collection on about fifteen million.

The banks agreed to this on the condition that the Exchange’s claim to get back any of its contribution would come after the banks’ claims for their loans.  Funston and his associates at the Exchange agreed to that.  After more negotiating, there was a broad agreement on the general plan.

Early on Saturday, the Exchange’s board met and learned from Funston what was proposed.  Almost immediately, several governors rose to state that it was a matter of principle.  And so the board agreed with the plan.  Later, Funston and his associates decided to put the Exchange’s chief examiner in charge of the liquidation of Haupt in order to ensure that its twenty thousand individual customers were made whole as soon as the Exchange had put up the cash.  (The amount of cash would be at least seven and a half million, but possibly as high as twelve million.)

Fortunately, the American banks eventually all agreed to the final plan put forth by the Exchange.  Brooks notes that the banks were “marvels of cooperation.”  But agreement was still needed from the British banks.  Initially, Funston was going to make the trip to England, but he couldn’t be spared.

Several other governors quickly volunteered to go, and one of them, Gustave L. Levy, was eventually selected, on the ground that his firm, Goldman, Sachs & Co., had had a long and close association with Kleinwort, Benson, one of the British banks, and that Levy himself was on excellent terms with some of the Kleinwort, Benson partners.

The British banks were very unhappy.  But since their loans to Allied were unsecured, they didn’t have any room to negotiate.  Still, they asked for time to think the matter over.  This gave Levy an opportunity to meet with this Kleinwort, Benson friends.  Brooks:

The circumstances of the reunion were obviously less than happy, but Levy says that his friends took a realistic view of their situation and, with heroic objectivity, actually helped their fellow-Britons to see the American side of the question.

The market was closed Monday for JFK’s funeral.  Funston was still waiting for the call from Levy.  After finally getting agreement from all the British banks, Levy placed the call to Funston.

Funston felt at this point that the final agreement had been wrapped up, since all he needed was the signatures of the fifteen Haupt general partners.  The meeting with the Haupt partners ended up taking far longer than expected.  Brooks:

One startling event broke the even tenor of this gloomy meeting… someone noticed an unfamiliar and strikingly youthful face in the crowd and asked its owner to identify himself.  The unhesitating reply was, ‘I’m Russell Watson, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.’  There was a short, stunned silence, in recognition of the fact that an untimely leak might still disturb the delicate balance of money and emotion that made up the agreement.  Watson himself, who was twenty-four and had been on the Journal for a year, has since explained how he got into the meeting, and under what circumstances he left it.  ‘I was new on the Stock Exchange beat then,’ he said afterward.  ‘Earlier in the day, there had been word that Funston would probably hold a press conference sometime that evening, so I went over to the Exchange.  At the main entrance, I asked a guard where Mr. Funston’s conference was.  The guard said it was on the sixth floor, and ushered me into an elevator.  I suppose he thought I was a banker, a Haupt partner, or a lawyer.  On the sixth floor, people were milling around everywhere.  I just walked off the elevator and into the office where the meeting was – nobody stopped me.  I didn’t understand much of what was going on.  I got the feeling that whatever was at stake, there was general agreement but still a lot of haggling over details to be done.  I didn’t recognize anybody there but Funston.  I stood around quietly for about five minutes before anybody noticed me, and then everybody said, pretty much at once, “Good God, get out of here!”  They didn’t exactly kick me out, but I saw it was time to go.’

At fifteen minutes past midnight, finally all the parties signed an agreement.

As soon as the banks opened on Tuesday, the Exchange deposited seven and a half million dollars in an account on which the Haupt liquidator – James P. Mahony – could draw.  The stock market had its greatest one-day rise in history.  A week later, by December 2, $1,750,000 had been paid out to Haupt customers.  By December 12, it was $5,400,000.  And by Christmas, it was $6,700,000.  By March 11, the pay-out had reached nine and a half million dollars and all the Haupt customers had been made whole.

  • Note:  $9.5 million in 1963 would be approximately $76 million dollars today (in 2018), due to inflation.

Brooks describes the reaction:

In Washington, President Johnson interrupted his first business day in office to telephone Funston and congratulate him.  The chairman of the S.E.C., William L. Cary, who was not ordinarily given to throwing bouquets at the Stock Exchange, said in December that it had furnished ‘a dramatic, impressive demonstration of its strength and concern for the public interest.’

Brooks later records:

Oddly, almost no one seems to have expressed gratitude to the British and American banks, which recouped something like half of their losses.  It may be that people simply don’t thank banks, except in television commercials.

 

THE IMPACTED PHILOSOPHERS

Brooks opens this chapter by observing that communication is one of the biggest problems in American industry.  (Remember he was writing in the 1960’s).  Brooks:

This preoccupation with the difficulty of getting a thought out of one head and into another is something the industrialists share with a substantial number of intellectuals and creative writers, more and more of whom seemed inclined to regard communication, or the lack of it, as one of the greatest problems not just of industry, but of humanity.

Brooks then adds:

What has puzzled me is how and why, when foundations sponsor one study of communication after another, individuals and organizations fail so consistently to express themselves understandably, or how and why their listeners fail to grasp what they hear.

A few years ago, I acquired a two-volume publication of the United States Government Printing Office entitled Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Eighty-Seventh Congress, First Session, Pursuant to S. Res. 52, and after a fairly diligent perusal of its 1,459 pages I thought I could begin to see what the industrialists are talking about.

The hearings were conducted in April, May, and June of 1961 under the chairmanship of Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.  They concerned price-fixing and bid-rigging in conspiracies in the electrical-manufacturing industry.  Brooks:

…Senator Kefauver felt that the whole matter needed a good airing.  The transcript shows that it got one, and what the airing revealed – at least within the biggest company involved – was a breakdown in intramural communication so drastic as to make the building of the tower of Babel seem a triumph of organizational rapport.

Brooks explains a bit later:

The violations, the government alleged, were committed in connection with the sale of large and expensive pieces of apparatus of a variety that is required chiefly by public and private electric-utility companies (power transformers, switchgear assemblies, and turbine-generator units, among many others), and were the outcome of a series of meetings attended by executives of the supposedly competing companies – beginning at least as early as 1956 and continuing into 1959 – at which noncompetitive price levels were agreed upon, nominally sealed bids on individual contracts were rigged in advance, and each company was allocated a certain percentage of the available business.

Brooks explains that in an average year at the time of the conspiracies, about $1.75 billion – $14 billion in 2019 dollars – was spent on the sorts of machines in question, with nearly a quarter of that local, state, and federal government spending.  Brooks gives a specific example, a 500,000-kilowatt turbine-generator, which sold for about $16 million (nearly $130 million in 2019 dollars), but was often discounted by 25 percent.  If the companies wanted to, they could effectively charge $4 million extra (nearly $32 million extra in 2019 dollars).  Any such additional costs as a result of price-fixing would, in the case of government purchases, ultimately fall on the taxpayer.

Brooks again:

To top it all off, there was a prevalent suspicion of hypocrisy in the very highest places.  Neither the chairman of the board nor the president of General Electric, the largest of the corporate defendants, had been caught on the government’s dragnet, and the same was true of Westinghouse Electric, the second-largest;  these four ultimate bosses let it be known that they had been entirely ignorant of what had been going on within their commands right up to the time the first testimony on the subject was given to the Justice Department.  Many people, however, were not satisfied by these disclaimers, and, instead, took the position that the defendant executives were men in the middle, who had broken the law only in response either to actual orders or to a corporate climate favoring price-fixing, and who were now being allowed to suffer for the sins of their superiors.  Among the unsatisfied was Judge Ganey himself, who said at the time of the sentencing, ‘One would be most naive indeed to believe that these violations of the law, so long persisted in, affecting so large a segment of the industry, and, finally, involving so many millions upon millions of dollars, were facts unknown to those responsible for the conduct of the corporation… I am convinced that in the great number of these defendants’ cases, they were torn between conscience and approved corporate policy, with the rewarding objectives of promotion, comfortable security, and large salaries.’

General Electric got most of the attention.  It was, after all, by far the largest of those companies involved.  General Electric penalized employees who admitted participation in the conspiracy.  Some saw this as good behavior, while others thought it was G.E. trying to save higher-ups by making a few sacrifices.

G.E. maintained that top executives didn’t know.  Judge Ganey thought otherwise.  But Brooks realized it couldn’t be determined:

…For, as the testimony shows, the clear waters of moral responsibility at G.E. became hopelessly muddied by a struggle to communicate – a struggle so confused that in some cases, it would appear, if one of the big bosses at G.E. had ordered a subordinate to break the law, the message would somehow have been garbled in its reception, and if the subordinate had informed the boss that he was holding conspiratorial meetings with competitors, the boss might well have been under the impression that the subordinate was gossiping idly about lawn parties or pinochle lessons.

G.E., for at least eight years, has had a rule, Directive Policy 20.5, which explicitly forbids price-fixing, bid-rigging, and similar anticompetitive practices.  The company regularly reissued 20.5 to new executives and asked them to sign their names to it.

The problem was that many, including those who signed, didn’t take 20.5 seriously.  They thought it was just a legal device.  They believed that meeting illegally with competitors was the accepted and standard practice.  They concluded that if a superior told them to comply with 20.5, he was actually ordering him to violate it.  Brooks:

Illogical as it might seem, this last assumption becomes comprehensible in light of the fact that, for a time, when some executives orally conveyed, or reconveyed, the order, they were apparently in the habit of accompanying it with an unmistakable wink.

Brooks gives an example of just such a meeting of sales managers in May 1948.  Robert Paxton, an upper-level G.E. executive who later became the company’s president, addressed the group and gave the usual warnings about antitrust violations.  William S. Ginn, a salesman under Paxton, interjected, “We didn’t see you wink.”  Paxton replied, “There was no wink.  We mean it, and these are the orders.”

Senator Kefauver asked Paxton how long he had known about such winks.  Paxton said that in 1935, he saw his boss do it following an order.  Paxton recounts that he became incensed.  Since then, he had earned a reputation as an antiwink man.

In any case, Paxton’s seemingly unambiguous order in 1948 failed to get through to Ginn, who promptly began pricing-fixing with competitors.  When asked about it thirteen years later, Ginn – having recently gotten out of jail and having lost his $135,000 a year job at G.E. – said he had gotten a contrary order from two other superiors, Henry V. B. Erben and Francis Fairman.  Brooks:

Erben and Fairman, Ginn said, had been more articulate, persuasive, and forceful in issuing their order than Paxton had been in issuing his;  Fairman, especially, Ginn stressed, had proved to be ‘a great communicator, a great philosopher, and, frankly, a great believer in stability of prices.’  Both Erben and Fairman had dismissed Paxton as naive, Ginn testified, and, in further summary of how he had been led astray, he said that ‘the people who were advocating the Devil were able to sell me better than the philosophers that were selling me the Lord.’

Unfortunately, Erben and Fairman had passed away before the hearing.  So we don’t have their testimonies.  Ginn consistently described Paxton as a philosopher-salesman on the side of the Lord.

In November, 1954, Ginn was made general manager of the transformer division.  Ralph J. Cordiner, chairman of the board at G.E. since 1949, called Ginn down to New York to order him to comply strictly with Directive 20.5.  Brooks:

Cordiner communicated this idea so successfully that it was clear enough to Ginn at the moment, but it remained so only as long as it took him, after leaving the chairman, to walk to Erben’s office.

Erben, Ginn’s direct superior, countermanded Cordiner’s order.

Erben’s extraordinary communicative prowess carried the day, and Ginn continued to meet with competitors.

At the end of 1954, Paxton took over Erben’s job and was thus Ginn’s direct superior.  Ginn kept meeting with competitors, but he didn’t tell Paxton about it, knowing his opposition to the practice.

In January 1957, Ginn became general manager of G.E.’s turbine-generator division.  Cordiner called him down again to instruct him to follow 20.5.  This time, however, Ginn got the message.  Why?  “Because my air cover was gone,” Ginn explained to the Subcommittee.  Brooks:

If Erben, who had not been Ginn’s boss since late in 1954, had been the source of his air cover, Ginn must have been without its protection for over two years, but, presumably, in the excitement of the price war he had failed to notice its absence.

In any case, Ginn apparently had reformed.  Ginn circulated copies of 20.5 among all his division managers.  He then instructed them not to even socialize with competitors.

It appears that Ginn had not been able to impart much of his shining new philosophy to others, and that at the root of his difficulty lay that old jinx, the problem of communicating.

Brooks quotes Ginn:

‘I have got to admit that I made a communication error.  I didn’t sell this thing to the boys well enough… The price is so important in the complete running of a business that, philosophically, we have got to sell people not only just the fact that it is against the law, but… that it shouldn’t be done for many, many reasons.  But it has got to be a philosophical approach and a communication approach…’

Frank E. Stehlik was general manager of the low-voltage-switchgear department from May, 1956 to February, 1960.  Stehlik not only heard 20.5 directly from his superiors in oral and written communications.  But, in addition, Stehlik was open to a more visceral type of communication he called “impacts.”  Brooks explains:

Apparently, when something happened within the company that made an impression on him, he would consult an internal sort of metaphysical voltmeter to ascertain the force of the jolt he had received, and, from the reading he got, would attempt to gauge the true drift of company policy.

In 1956, 1957, and for most of 1958, Stehlik believed that company policy clearly required compliance with 20.5.  But in the fall of 1958, Stehlik’s immediate superior, George E. Burens, told him that Paxton had told him (Burens) to have lunch with a competitor.  Paxton later testified that he categorically told Burens not to discuss prices.  But Stehlik got a different impression.

In Stehlik’s mind, this fact made an “impact.”  He felt that company policy was now in favor of disobeying 20.5.  So, late in 1958, when Burens told him to begin having price meetings with a competitor, he was not at all surprised.  Stehlik complied.

Brooks next describes the communication problem from the point of view of superiors.  Raymond W. Smith was general manager of G.E.’s transformer division, while Arthur F. Vinson was vice-president in charge G.E.’s apparatus group.  Vinson ended up becoming Smith’s immediate boss.

Smith testified that Cordiner gave him the usual order on 20.5.  But late in 1957, price competition for transformers was so intense that Smith decided on his own to start meeting with competitors to see if prices could be stabilized.  Smith thought company policy and industry practice both supported his actions.

When Vinson became Smith’s boss, Smith felt he should let him know what he was doing.  So on several occasions, Smith told Vinson, “I had a meeting with the clan this morning.”

Vinson, in his testimony, said he didn’t even recall Smith use the phrase, “meeting of the clan.”  Vinson only recalled that Smith would say things like, “Well, I am going to take this new plan on transformers and show it to the boys.”  Vinson testified that he thought Smith meant the G.E. district salespeople and the company’s customers.  Vinson claimed to be shocked when he learned that Smith was referring to price-fixing meetings with competitors.

But Smith was sure that his communication had gotten through to Vinson.  “I never got the impression that he misunderstood me,” Smith testified.

Senator Kefauver asked Vinson if he was so naive as to not know to whom “the boys” referred.  Vinson replied, “I don’t think it is too naive.   We have a lot of boys… I may be naive, but I am certainly telling the truth, and in this kind of thing I am sure I am naive.”

Kefauver pressed Vinson, asking how he could have become vice-president at $200,000 a year if he were naive.  Vinson:  “I think I could well get there by being naive in this area.  It might help.”

Brooks asks:

Was Vinson really saying to Kefauver what he seemed to be saying – that naivete about antitrust violations might be a help to a man in getting and holding a $200,000-a-year job at General Electric?  It seems unlikely.  And yet what else could he have meant?

Vinson was also implicated in another part of the case.  Four switchgear executives – Burens, Stehlik, Clarence E. Burke, and H. Frank Hentschel – testified before the grand jury (and later before the Subcommittee) that in mid-1958, Vinson had lunch with them in Dining Room B of G.E.’s switchgear works in Philadelphia, and that Vinson told them to hold price meetings with competitors.

This led the four switchgear executives to hold a series of meetings with competitors.  But Vinson told prosecutors that the lunch never took place and that he had had no knowledge at all of the conspiracy until the case broke.  Regarding the lunch, Burens, Stehlik, Burke, and Hentschel all had lie-detector tests, given by the F.B.I., and passed them.

Brooks writes:

Vinson refused to take a lie-detector test, at first explaining that he was acting on advice of counsel and against his personal inclination, and later, after hearing how the four other men had fared, arguing that if the machine had not pronounced them liars, it couldn’t be any good.

It was shown that there were only eight days in mid-1958 when Burens, Stehlik, Burke, and Hentschel all had been together at the Philadelphia plant and could have had lunch together.  Vinson produced expense accounts showing that he had been elsewhere on each of those eight days.  So the Justice Department dropped the case against Vinson.

The upper level of G.E. “came through unscathed.”  Chairman Cordiner and President Paxton did seem to be clearly against price-fixing, and unaware of all the price-fixing that had been occurring.  Paxton, during his testimony, said that he learned from his boss, Gerard Swope, that the ultimate goal of business was to produce more goods for people at lower cost.  Paxton claimed to be deeply impacted by this philosophy, explaining why he was always strongly against price-fixing.

Brooks concludes:

Philosophy seems to have reached a high point at G.E., and communication a low one.  If executives could just learn to understand one another, most of the witnesses said or implied, the problem of antitrust violations would be solved.  But perhaps the problem is cultural as well as technical, and has something to do with a loss of personal identity that comes with working in a huge organization.  The cartoonist Jules Feiffer, contemplating the communication problem in a nonindustrial context, has said, ‘Actually, the breakdown is between the person and himself.  If you’re not able to communicate successfully between yourself and yourself, how are you supposed to make it with the strangers outside?’  Suppose, purely as a hypothesis, that the owner of a company who orders his subordinates to obey the antitrust laws has such poor communication with himself that he does not really know whether he wants the order to be complied with or not.  If his order is disobeyed, the resulting price-fixing may benefit his company’s coffers;  if it is obeyed, then he has done the right thing.  In the first instance, he is not personally implicated in any wrongdoing, while in the second he is positively involved in right doing.  What, after all, can he lose?  It is perhaps reasonable to suppose that such an executive will communicate his uncertainty more forcefully than his order.

 

THE LAST GREAT CORNER

Piggly Wiggly Stores – a chain of retail self-service markets mostly in the South and West, and headquartered in Memphis – was first listed on the New York Stock Exchange in June, 1922.  Clarence Saunders was the head of Piggly Wiggly.  Brooks describes Saunders:

…a plump, neat, handsome man of forty-one who was already something of a legend in his home town, chiefly because of a house he was putting up there for himself.  Called the Pink Palace, it was an enormous structure faced with pink Georgia marble and built around an awe-inspiring white-marble Roman atrium, and, according to Saunders, it would stand for a thousand years.  Unfinished though it was, the Pink Palace was like nothing Memphis had ever seen before.  Its grounds were to include a private golf course, since Saunders liked to do his golfing in seclusion.

Brooks continues:

The game of Corner – for in its heyday it was a game, a high-stakes gambling game, pure and simple, embodying a good many of the characteristics of poker – was one phase of the endless Wall Street contest between bulls, who want the price of a stock to go up, and bears, who want it to go down.  When a game of Corner was underway, the bulls’ basic method of operation was, of course, to buy stock, and the bears’ was to sell it.

Since most bears didn’t own the stock, they would have to conduct a short sale.  This means they borrow stock from a broker and sell it.  But they must buy the stock back later in order to return it to the broker.  If they buy the stock back at a lower price, then the difference between where they initially sold the stock short, and where they later buy it back, represents their profit.  If, however, they buy the stock back at a higher price, then they suffer a loss.

There are two related risks that the short seller (the bear) faces.  First, the short seller initially borrows the stock from the broker in order to sell it.  If the broker is forced to demand the stock back from the short seller – either because the “floating supply” needs to be replenished, or because the short seller has insufficient equity (due to the stock price moving to high) – then the short seller can be forced to take a loss.  Second, technically there is no limit to how much the short seller can lose because there is no limit to how high a stock can go.

The danger of potentially unlimited losses for a short seller can be exacerbated in a Corner.  That’s because the bulls in a Corner can buy up so much of the stock that there is very little supply of it left.  As the stock price skyrockets and the supply of stock shrinks, the short seller can be forced to buy the stock back – most likely from the bulls – at an extremely high price.  This is precisely what the bulls are trying to accomplish in a Corner.

On the other hand, if the bulls end up owning most of the publicly available stock, and if the bears can ride out the Corner, then to whom can the bulls sell their stock?  If there are virtually no buyers, then the bulls have no chance of selling most of their holding.  In this case, the bulls can get stuck with a mountain of stock they can’t sell.  The achievable value of this mountain can even approach zero in some extreme cases.

Brooks explains that true Corners could not happen after the new securities legislation in the 1930’s.  Thus, Saunders was the last intentional player of the game.

Saunders was born to a poor family in Amherst County, Virginia, in 1881.  He started out working for practically nothing for a local grocer.  He then worked for a wholesale grocer in Clarksville, Tennessee, and then for another one in Memphis.  Next, he organized a retail food chain, which he sold.  Then he was a wholesale grocer before launching the retail self-service food chain he named Piggly Wiggly Stores.

By the fall of 1922, there were over 1,200 Piggly Wiggly Stores.  650 of these were owned outright by Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly Stores, Inc.  The rest were owned independently, but still paid royalties to the parent company.  For the first time, customers were allowed to go down any aisle and pick out whatever they wanted to buy.  Then they paid on their way out of the store.  Saunders didn’t know it, but he had invented the supermarket.

In November, 1922, several small companies operating Piggly Wiggly Stores in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut went bankrupt.  These were independently owned, having nothing to do with Piggly Wiggly Stores, Inc.  Nonetheless, several stock-market operators saw what they believed was a golden opportunity for a bear raid.  Brooks:

If individual Piggly Wiggly stores were failing, they reasoned, then rumors could be spread that would lead the uninformed public to believe that the parent firm was failing, too.  To further this belief, they began briskly selling Piggly Wiggly short, in order to force the price down.  The stock yielded readily to their pressure, and within a few weeks its price, which earlier in the year had hovered around fifty dollars a share, dropped to below forty.

Saunders promptly announced to the press that he was going to “beat the Wall Street professionals at their own game” through a buying campaign.  At that point, Saunders had no experience at all with owning stock, Piggly Wiggly being the only stock he had ever owned.  Moreover, there is no reason to think Saunders was going for a Corner at this juncture.  He merely wanted to support his stock on behalf of himself and other stockholders.

Saunders borrowed $10 million dollars – about $140 million in 2019 dollars – from bankers in Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, Chattanooga, and St. Louis.  Brooks:

Legend has it that he stuffed his ten million-plus, in bills of large denomination, into a suitcase, boarded a train for New York, and, his pockets bulging with currency that wouldn’t fit in the suitcase, marched on Wall Street, ready to do battle.

Saunders later denied this, saying he conducted his campaign from Memphis.  Brooks continues:

Wherever he was at the time, he did round up a corp of some twenty brokers, among them Jesse L. Livermore, who served as his chief of staff.  Livermore, one of the most celebrated American speculators of this century, was then forty-five years old but was still occasionally, and derisively, referred to by the nickname he had earned a couple of decades earlier – the Boy Plunger of Wall Street.  Since Saunders regarded Wall Streeters in general and speculators in particular as parasitic scoundrels intent only on battering down his stock, it seemed likely that his decision to make an ally of Livermore was a reluctant one, arrived at simply with the idea of getting the enemy chieftain into his own camp.

Within a week, Saunders had bought 105,000 shares – more than half of the 200,000 shares outstanding.  By January 1923, the stock hit $60 a share, its highest level ever.  Reports came from Chicago that the stock was cornered.  The bears couldn’t find any available supply in order to cover their short positions by buying the stock back.  The New York Stock Exchange immediately denied the rumor, saying ample amounts of Piggly Wiggly stock were still available.

Saunders then made a surprising but exceedingly crafty move.  The stock was pushing $70, but Saunders ran advertisements offering to sell it for $55.  Brooks explains:

One of the great hazards in Corner was always that even though a player might defeat his opponents, he would discover that he had won a Pyrrhic victory.  Once the short sellers had been squeezed dry, that is, the cornerer might find that the reams of stock he had accumulated in the process were a dead weight around his neck;  by pushing it all back into the market in one shove, he would drive its price down close to zero.  And if, like Saunders, he had had to borrow heavily to get into the game in the first place, his creditors could be expected to close in on him and perhaps not only divest him of his gains but drive him into bankruptcy.  Saunders apparently anticipated this hazard almost as soon as a corner was in sight, and accordingly made plans to unload some of his stock before winning instead of afterward.  His problem was to keep the stock he sold from going right back into the floating supply, thus breaking his corner;  and his solution was to sell his fifty-five-dollar shares on the installment plan.

Crucially, the buyers on the installment plan wouldn’t receive the certificates of ownership until they had paid their final installment.  This meant they couldn’t sell their shares back into the floating supply until they had finished making all their installment payments.

By Monday, March 19, Saunders owned nearly all of the 200,000 shares of Piggly Wiggly stock.  Livermore had already bowed out of the affair on March 12 because he was concerned about Saunders’ financial position.  Nonetheless, Saunders asked Livermore to spring the bear trap.  Livermore wouldn’t do it.  So Saunders himself had to do it.

On Tuesday, March 20, Saunders called for delivery all of his Piggly Wiggly stock.  By the rules of the Exchange, stock so called for had to be delivered by 2:15 the following afternoon.  There were a few shares around owned in small amounts by private investors.  Short sellers were frantically trying to find these folks.  But on the whole, there were basically no shares available outside of what Saunders himself owned.

This meant that Piggly Wiggly shares had become very illiquid – there were hardly any shares trading.  A nightmare, it seemed, for short sellers.  Some short sellers bought at $90, some at $100, some at $110.  Eventually the stock reached $124.  But then a rumor reached the floor that the governors of the Exchange were considering a suspension of trading in Piggly Wiggly, as well as an extension of the deadline for short sellers.  Piggly Wiggly stock fell to $82.

The Governing Committee of the Exchange did, in fact, made such an announcement.  They claimed that they didn’t want to see a repeat of the Northern Pacific panic.  However, many wondered whether the Exchange was just helping the short sellers, among whom were some members of the Exchange.

Saunders still hadn’t grasped the fundamental problem he now faced.  He still seemed to have several million in profits.  But only if he could actually sell his shares.

Next, the Stock Exchange announced a permanent suspension of trading in Piggly Wiggly stock and a full five day extension for short sellers to return their borrowed shares.  Short sellers had until 2:15 the following Monday.

Meanwhile, Piggly Wiggly Stores, Inc., released its annual financial statement, which revealed that sales, profits, and assets had all sharply increased from the previous year.  But everyone ignored the real value of the company.  All that mattered at this point was the game.

The extension allowed short sellers the time to find shareholders in a variety of locations around the country.  These shareholders were of course happy to dig out their stock certificates and sell them for $100 a share.  In this way, the short sellers were able to completely cover their short positions by Friday evening.  And instead of paying Saunders cash for some of his shares, the short sellers gave him more shares to settle their debt, which is the last thing Saunders wanted just then.  (A few short sellers had to pay Saunders directly.)

The upshot was that all the short sellers were in the clear, whereas Saunders was stuck owning nearly every single share of Piggly Wiggly stock.  Saunders, who had already started complaining loudly, repeated his charge that Wall Street had changed its own rule in order to let “a bunch of welchers” off the hook.

In response, the Stock Exchange issued a statement explaining its actions:

‘The enforcement simultaneously of all contracts for the return of stock would have forced the stock to any price that might be fixed by Mr. Saunders, and competitive bidding for the insufficient supply might have brought about conditions illustrated by other corners, notably the Northern Pacific corner in 1901.’

Furthermore, the Stock Exchange pointed out that its own rules allowed it to suspend trading in a stock, as well as to extend the deadline for the return of borrowed shares.

It is true that the Exchange had the right to suspend trading in a stock.  But it is unclear, to say the least, about whether the Exchange had any right to postpone the deadline for the delivery of borrowed shares.  In fact, two years after Saunders’ corner, in June, 1925, the Exchange felt bound to amend its constitution with an article stating that “whenever in the opinion of the Governing Committee a corner has been created in a security listed on the Exchange… the Governing Committee may postpone the time for deliveries on Exchange contracts therein.”

 

A SECOND SORT OF LIFE

According to Brooks, other than FDR himself, perhaps no one typified the New Deal better than David Eli Lilienthal.  On a personal level, Wall Streeters found Lilienthal a reasonable fellow.  But through his association with Tennessee Valley Authority from 1933 to 1946, Lilienthal “wore horns.”  T.V.A. was a government-owned electric-power concern that was far larger than any private power corporation.  As such, T.V.A. was widely viewed on Wall Street as the embodiment of “galloping Socialism.”

In 1946, Lilienthal became the first chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, which he held until February, 1950.

Brooks was curious what Lilienthal had been up to since 1950, so he did some investigating.  He found that Lilienthal was co-founder and chairman of Development & Resources Corporation.  D. & R. helps governments set up programs similar to the T.V.A.  Brooks also found that as of June, 1960, Lilienthal was a director and major shareholder of Minerals & Chemicals Corporation of America.

Lastly, Brooks discovered Lilienthal had published his third book in 1953, “Big Business: A New Era.”  In the book, he argues that:

  • the productive superiority of the United States depends on big business;
  • we have adequate safeguards against abuses by big business;
  • big businesses tend to promote small businesses, not destroy them;
  • and big business promotes individualism, rather than harms it, by reducing poverty, disease, and physical insecurity.

Lilienthal later agreed with his family that he hadn’t spent enough time on the book, although its main points were correct.  Also, he stressed that he had conceived of the book before he ever decided to transition from government to business.

In 1957, Lilienthal and his wife Helen Lamb Lilienthal had settled in a house in Princeton.  It was a few years later, at this house, that Brooks went to interview Lilienthal.  Brooks was curious to hear about how Lilienthal thought about his civic career as compared to his business career.

Lilienthal had started out as a lawyer in Chicago and he done quite well.  But he didn’t want to practice the law.  Then – in 1950 – his public career over, he was offered various professorship positions at Harvard.  He didn’t want to be a professor.  Then various law firms and businesses approached Lilienthal.  He still had no interest in practicing law.  He also rejected the business offers he received.

In May, 1950, Lilienthal took a job as a part-time consultant for Lazard Freres & Co., whose senior partner, Andre Meyer, he had met through Albert Lasker, a mutual friend.  Through Lazard Freres and Meyer, Lilienthal became a consultant and then an executive of a small company, the Minerals Separation North American Corporation.  Lazard Freres had a large interest in the concern.

The company was in trouble, and Meyer thought Lilienthal was the man to solve the case.  Through a series of mergers, acquisitions, etc., the firm went through several name changes ending, in 1960, with the name, Minerals & Chemicals Philipp Corporation.  Meanwhile, annual sales for the company went from $750,000 in 1952 to more than $274,000,000 in 1960.  (In 2019 dollars, this would be a move from $6,750,000 to $2,466,000,000.)  Brooks writes:

For Lilienthal, the acceptance of Meyer’s commission to look into the company’s affairs was the beginning of a four-year immersion in the day-to-day problems of managing a business;  the experience, he said decisively, turned out to be one of his life’s richest, and by no means only in the literal sense of that word.

Minerals Separation North American, founded in 1916 as an offshoot from a British company, was a patent firm.  It held patents on processes used to refine copper ore and other nonferrous minerals.  In 1952, Lilienthal became the president of the company.  In order to gain another source of revenue, Lilienthal arranged a merger between Minerals Separation and Attapulgus Clay Company, a producer of a rare clay used in purifying petroleum products and also a manufacturer of various household products.

The merger took place in December, 1952, thanks in part to Lilienthal’s work to gain agreement from the Attapulgus people.  The profits and stock price of the new company went up from there.  Lilienthal managed some of the day-to-day business.  And he helped with new mergers.  One in 1954, with Edgar Brothers, a leading producer of kaolin for paper coating.  Two more in 1955, with limestone firms in Ohio and Virginia.  Brooks notes that the company’s net profits quintupled between 1952 and 1955.

Lilienthal received stock options along the way.  Because the stock went up a great deal, he exercised his options and by August, 1955, Lilienthal had 40,000 shares.  Soon the stock hit $40 and was paying a $0.50 annual dividend.  Lilienthal’s financial worries were over.

Brooks asked Lilienthal how all of this felt.  Lilienthal:

‘I wanted an entrepreneurial experience.  I found a great appeal in the idea of taking a small and quite crippled company and trying to make something of it.  Building.  That kind of building, I thought, is the central thing in American free enterprise, and something I’d missed in all my government work.  I wanted to try my hand at it.  Now, about how it felt.  Well, it felt plenty exciting.  It was full of intellectual stimulation, and a lot of my old ideas changed.  I conceived a great new respect for financiers – men like Andre Meyer.  There’s a correctness about them, a certain high sense of honor, that I’d never had any conception of.  I found that business life is full of creative, original minds – along with the usual number of second-guessers, of course.  Furthermore, I found it seductive.  In fact, I was in danger of becoming a slave… I found that the things you read – for instance, that acquiring money for its own sake can become an addiction if you’re not careful – are literally true.  Certain good friends helped keep me on track… Oh, I had my problems.  I questioned myself at every step.  It was exhausting.’

A friend of Lilienthal’s told Brooks that Lilienthal had a marvelous ability to immerse himself totally in the work.  The work may not always be important.  But Lilienthal becomes so immersed, it’s as if the work becomes important simply because he’s doing it.

On the matter of money, Lilienthal said it doesn’t make much difference as long as you have enough.  Money was something he never really thought about.

Next Brooks describes Lilienthal’s experience at Development & Resources Corporation.  The situation became ideal for Lilienthal because it combined helping the world directly with the possibility of also earning a profit.

In the spring of 1955, Lilienthal and Meyer had several conversations.  Lilienthal told Meyer that he knew dozens of foreign dignitaries and technical personnel who had visited T.V.A. and shown strong interest.  Many of them told Lilienthal that at least some of their own countries would be interested in starting similar programs.

The idea for D. & R. was to accomplish very specific projects and, incidentally, to make a profit.  Meyer liked the idea – although he expected no profit – so they went forward, with Lazard Freres owning half the firm.  The executive appointments for D.& R. included important alumni from T.V.A., people with deep experience and knowledge in management, engineering, dams, electric power, and related areas.

In September, 1955, Lilienthal was at a World Bank meeting in Istanbul and he ended up speaking with Abolhassan Ebtehaj, head of a 7-year development plan in Iran.  Iran had considerable capital with which to pay for development projects, thanks to royalties from its nationalized oil industry.  Moreover, what Iran badly needed was technical and professional guidance.  Lilienthal and a colleague later visited Iran as guests of the Shah to see what could be done about Khuzistan.

Lilienthal didn’t know anything about the region at first.  But he learned that Khuzistan was in the middle of the Old Testament Elamite kingdom and later of the Persian Empire.  The ruins of Persepolis are close by.  The ruins of Susa, where King Darius had a winter palace, are at the center of Khuzistan.  Brooks quotes Lilienthal (in the 1960’s):

Nowadays, Khuzistan is one of the world’s richest oil fields  – the famous Abadan refinery is at its southern tip – but the inhabitants, two and a half million of them, haven’t benefited from that.  The rivers have flowed unused, the fabulously rich soil has lain fallow, and all but a tiny fraction of the people have continued to live in desperate poverty.

D. & R. signed a 5-year agreement with the Iranian government.  Once the project got going, there were 700 people working on it – 100 Americans, 300 Iranians, and 300 others (mostly Europeans).  In addition, 4,700 Iranian-laborers were on the various sites.  The entire project called for 14 dams on 5 different rivers.  After D. & R. completed its first 5-year contract, they signed a year-and-a-half extension including an option for an additional 5 years.

Brooks records:

While the Iranian project was proceeding, D. & R. was also busy lining up and carrying out its programs for Italy, Colombia, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Puerto Rico, as well as programs for private business groups in Chile and the Philippines.  A job that D. & R. had just taken on from the United States Army Corps of Engineers excited Lilienthal enormously – an investigation of the economic impact of power from a proposed dam on the Alaskan sector of the Yukon, which he described as ‘the river with the greatest hydroelectric potential remaining on this continent.’  Meanwhile, Lazard Freres maintained its financial interest in the firm and now very happily collected its share of a substantial annual profit, and Lilienthal happily took to teasing Meyer about his former skepticism as to D. & R. financial prospects.

Lilienthal wrote in his journal about the extreme poverty in Ahwaz, Khuzistan:

…visiting villages and going into mud ‘homes’ quite unbelievable – and unforgettable forever and ever.  As the Biblical oath has it:  Let my right hand wither if I ever forget how some of the most attractive of my fellow human beings live – are living tonight, only a few kilometres from here, where we visited them this afternoon…

And yet I am as sure as I am writing these notes that the Ghebli area, of only 45,000 acres, swallowed in the vastness of Khuzistan, will become as well known as, say, the community of Tupelo… became, or New Harmony or Salt Lake City when it was founded by a handful of dedicated men in a pass of the great Rockies.

 

STOCKHOLDER SEASON

The owners of public businesses in the United States are the stockholders.  But many stockholders don’t pay much attention to company affairs when things are going well.  Also, many stockholders own small numbers of shares, making it not seem worthwhile to exercise their rights as owners of the corporations.  Furthermore, many stockholders don’t understand or follow business, notes Brooks.

Brooks decided to attend several annual meetings in the spring of 1966.

What particularly commended the 1966 season to me was that it promised to be a particularly lively one.  Various reports of a new “hard-line approach” by company managements to stockholders had appeared in the press.  (I was charmed by the notion of a candidate for office announcing his new hard-line approach to voters right before an election.)

Brooks first attended the A. T. & T. annual meeting in Detroit.  Chairman Kappel came on stage, followed by eighteen directors who sat behind him, and he called the meeting to order.  Brooks:

From my reading and from annual meetings that I’d attended in past years, I knew that the meetings of the biggest companies are usually marked by the presence of so-called professional stockholders… and that the most celebrated members of this breed were Mrs. Wilma Soss, of New York, who heads an organization of women stockholders and votes the proxies of its members as well as her own shares, and Lewis D. Gilbert, also of New York, who represents his own holdings and those of his family – a considerable total.

Brooks learned that, apart from prepared comments by management, many big-company meetings are actually a dialogue between the chairman and a few professional stockholders.  So professional stockholders can come to represent, in a way, many other shareholders who might otherwise not be represented, whether because they own few shares, don’t follow business, or other reasons.

Brooks notes that occasionally some professional stockholders get boorish, silly, on insulting.  But not Mrs. Soss or Mr. Gilbert:

Mrs. Soss, a former public-relations woman who has been a tireless professional stockholder since 1947, is usually a good many cuts above this level.  True, she is not beyond playing to the gallery by wearing bizarre costumes to meetings;  she tries, with occasional success, to taunt recalcitrant chairmen into throwing her out;  she is often scolding and occasionally abusive;  and nobody could accuse her of being unduly concise.  I confess that her customary tone and manner set my teeth on edge, but I can’t help recognizing that, because she does her homework, she usually has a point.  Mr. Gilbert, who has been at it since 1933 and is the dean of them all, almost invariably has a point, and by comparison with his colleagues he is the soul of brevity and punctilio as well as of dedication and diligence.

At the A. T. & T. meeting, after the management-sponsored slate of directors had been duly nominated, Mrs. Soss got up to make a nomination of her own, Dr. Frances Arkin, a psychoanalyst.  Mrs. Soss said A. T. & T. ought to have a woman on its board and, moreover, she thought some of the company’s executives would have benefited from periodic psychiatric examinations.  (Brooks comments that things were put back into balance at another annual meeting when the chairman suggested that some of the firm’s stockholders should see a psychiatrist.)  The nomination of Dr. Arkin was seconded by Mr. Gilbert, but only after Mrs. Soss nudged him forcefully in the ribs.

A professional stockholder named Evelyn Y. Davis complained about the meeting not being in New York, as it usually is.  Brooks observed that Davis was the youngest and perhaps the best-looking, but “not the best-informed or the most temperate, serious-minded, or worldly-wise.”  Davis’ complaint was met with boos from the largely local crowd in Detroit.

After a couple of hours, Mr. Kappel was getting testy.  Soon thereafter, Mrs. Soss was complaining that while the business affiliations of the nominees for director were listed in the pamphlet handed out at the meeting, this information hadn’t been included in the material mailed to stockholders, contrary to custom.  Mrs. Soss wanted to know why.  Mrs. Soss adopted a scolding tone and Mr. Kappel an icy one, says Brooks.  “I can’t hear you,” Mrs. Soss said at one point.  “Well, if you’d just listen instead of talking…”, Mr. Kappel replied.  Then Mrs. Soss said something (Brooks couldn’t hear it precisely) that successfully baited the chairman, who got upset and had the microphone in front of Mrs. Soss turned off.  Mrs. Soss marched towards the platform and was directly facing Mr. Kappel.  Mr. Kappel said he wasn’t going to throw her out of the meeting as she wanted.  Mrs. Soss later returned to her seat and a measure of calm was restored.

Later, Brooks attended the annual meeting of Chas. Pfizer & Co., which was run by the chairman, John E. McKeen.  After the company announced record highs on all of its operational metrics, and predicted more of the same going forward, “the most intransigent professional stockholder would have been hard put to it to mount much of a rebellion at this particular meeting,” observes Brooks.

John Gilbert, brother of Lewis Gilbert, may have been the only professional stockholder present.  (Lewis Gilbert and Mrs. Davis were at the U.S. Steel meeting in Cleveland that day.)

John Gilbert is the sort of professional stockholder the Pfizer management deserves, or would like to think it does.  With an easygoing manner and a habit of punctuating his words with self-deprecating little laughs, he is the most ingratiating gadly imaginable (or was on this occasion; I’m told he isn’t always), and as he ran through what seemed to be the standard Gilbert-family repertoire of questions – on the reliability of the firms’s auditors, the salaries of its officers, the fees of its directors – he seemed almost apologetic that duty called on him to commit the indelicacy of asking such things.

The annual meeting of Communications Satellite Corporation had elements of farce, recounts Brooks.  (Brooks refers to Comsat as a “glamorous space-age communications company.”)  Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Soss, and Lewis Gilbert were in attendance.  The chairman of Comsat, who ran the meeting, was James McCormack, a West Point graduate, former Rhodes Scholar, and retired Air Force General.

Mrs. Soss made a speech which was inaudible because her microphone wasn’t working.  Next, Mrs. Davis rose to complain that there was a special door to the meeting for “distinguished guests.”  Mrs. Davis viewed this as undemocratic.  Mr. McCormack responded, “We apologize, and when you go out, please go by any door you want.”  But Mrs. Davis went on speaking.  Brooks:

And now the mood of farce was heightened when it became clear that the Soss-Gilbert faction had decided to abandon all efforts to keep ranks closed with Mrs. Davis.  Near the height of her oration, Mr. Gilbert, looking as outraged as a boy whose ball game is being spoiled by a player who doesn’t know the rules or care about the game, got up and began shouting, ‘Point of order!  Point of order!’  But Mr. McCormack spurned this offer of parliamentary help;  he ruled Mr. Gilbert’s point of order out of order, and bade Mrs. Davis proceed.  I had no trouble deducing why he did this.  There were unmistakable signs that he, unlike any other corporate chairman I had seen in action, was enjoying every minute of the goings on.  Through most of the meeting, and especially when the professional stockholders had the floor, Mr. McCormack wore the dreamy smile of a wholly bemused spectator.

Mrs. Davis’ speech increased in volume and content, and she started making specific accusations against individual Comsat directors.  Three security guards appeared on the scene and marched to a location near Mrs. Davis, who then suddenly ended her speech and sat down.

Brooks comments:

Once, when Mr. Gilbert said something that Mrs. Davis didn’t like and Mrs. Davis, without waiting to be recognized, began shouting her objection across the room, Mr. McCormack gave a short irrepressible giggle.  That single falsetto syllable, magnificently amplified by the chairman’s microphone, was the motif of the Comsat meeting.

 

ONE FREE BITE

Brooks writes about Donald W. Wohlgemuth, a scientist for B. F. Goodrich Company in Akron, Ohio.

…he was the manager of Goodrich’s department of space-suit engineering, and over the past years, in the process of working his way up to that position, he had had a considerable part in the designing and construction of the suits worn by our Mercury astronauts on their orbital and suborbital flights.

Some time later, the International Latex Corporation, one of Goodrich’s three main competitors in the space-suit field, contacted Wohlgemuth.

…Latex had recently been awarded a subcontract, amounting to some three-quarters of a million dollars, to do research and development on space suits for the Apollo, or man-on-the-moon, project.  As a matter of fact, Latex had won this contract in competition with Goodrich, among others, and was thus for the moment the hottest company in the space-suit field.

Moreover, Wohlgemuth was not particularly happy at Goodrich for a number of reasons.  His salary was below average.  His request for air-conditioning had been turned down.

Latex was located in Dover, Delaware.  Wohlgemuth went there to meet with company representatives.  He was given a tour of the company’s space-suit-development facilities.  Overall, he was given “a real red-carpet treatment,” as he later desribed.  Eventually he was offered the position of manager of engineering for the Industrial Products Division, which included space-suit development, at an annual salary of $13,700 (over $109,000 in 2019 dollars) – solidly above his current salary.  Wohlgemuth accepted the offer.

The next morning, Wohlgemuth informed his boss at Goodrich, Carl Effler, who was not happy.  The morning after that, Wohlgemuth told Wayne Galloway – with whom he had worked closely – of his decision.

Galloway replied that in making the move Wohlgemuth would be taking to Latex certain things that did not belong to him – specifically, knowledge of the processes that Goodrich used in making space suits.

Galloway got upset with Wohlgemuth.  Later Effler called Wohlgemuth to his office and told him he should leave the Goodrich offices as soon as possible.  Then Galloway called him and told him the legal department wanted to see him.

While he was not bound to Goodrich by the kind of contract, common in American industry, in which an employee agrees not to do similar work for any competing company for a stated period of time, he had, on his return from the Army, signed a routine paper agreeing ‘to keep confidential all information, records, and documents of the company of which I may have knowledge because of my employment’ – something Wohlgemuth had entirely forgotten until the Goodrich lawyer reminded him.  Even if he had not made that agreement, the lawyer told him now, he would be prevented from going to work on space suits for Latex by established principles of trade-secrets law.  Moreover, if he persisted in his plan, Goodrich might sue him.

To make matters worse, Effler told Wohlgemuth that if he stayed at Goodrich, this incident could not be forgotten and might well impact his future.  Wohlgemuth then informed Latex that he would be unable to accept their offer.

That evening, Wohlgemuth’s dentist put him in touch with a lawyer.  Wohlgemuth talked with the lawyer, who consulted another lawyer.  They told Wohlgemuth that Goodrich was probably bluffing and wouldn’t sue him if he went to work for Latex.

The next morning – Thursday – officials of Latex called him back to assure him that their firm would bear his legal expenses in the event of a lawsuit, and, furthermore, would indemnify him against any salary losses.

Wohlgemuth decided to work for Latex, after all, and left the offices of Goodrich late that day, taking with him no documents.

The next day, R. G. Jeter, general counsel of Goodrich, called Emerson P. Barrett, director of industrial relations for Latex.  Jeter outlined Goodrich’s concern for its trade secrets.  Barrett replied that Latex was not interested in Goodrich trade secrets, but was only interested in Wohlgemuth’s “general professional abilities.”

That evening, at a farewell dinner given by forty or so friends, Wohlgemuth was called outside.  The deputy sheriff of Summit County handed him two papers.

One was a summons to appear in the Court of Common Pleas on a date a week or so off.  The other was a copy of a petition that had been filed in the same court that day by Goodrich, praying that Wohlgemuth be permanently enjoined from, among other things, disclosing to any unauthorized person any trade secrets belonging to Goodrich, and ‘performing any work for any corporation… other than plaintiff, relating to the design, manufacture and/or sale of high-altitude pressure suits, space suits and/or similar protective garments.’

For a variety of reasons, says Brooks, the trial attracted much attention.

On one side was the danger that discoveries made in the course of corporate research might become unprotectable – a situation that would eventually lead to the drying up of private research funds.  On the other side was the danger that thousands of scientists might, through their very ability and ingenuity, find themselves permanently locked in a deplorable, and possibly unconstitutional, kind of intellectual servitude – they would be barred from changing jobs because they knew too much.

Judge Frank H. Harvey presided over the trial, which took place in Akron from November 26 to December 12.  The seriousness with which Goodrich took this case is illustrated by the fact that Jeter himself, who hadn’t tried a case in 10 years, headed Goodrich’s legal team.  The chief defense counsel was Richard A. Chenoweth, of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs – an Akron law firm retained by Latex.

From the outset, the two sides recognized that if Goodrich was to prevail, it had to prove, first, that it possessed trade secrets;  second, that Wohlgemuth also possessed them, and that a substantial peril of disclosure existed;  and, third, that it would suffer irreparable injury if injunctive relief was not granted.

Goodrich attorneys tried to establish that Goodrich had a good number of space-suit secrets.  Wohlgemuth, upon cross-examination from his counsel, sought to show that none of these processes were secrets at all.  Both companies brought their space suits into the courtroom.  Goodrich wanted to show what it had achieved through research.  The Latex space suit was meant to show that Latex was already far ahead of Goodrich in space-suit development, and so wouldn’t have any interest in Goodrich secrets.

On the second point, that Wohlgemuth possessed Goodrich secrets, there wasn’t much debate.  But Wohlgemuth’s lawyers did argue that he had taken no papers with him and that he was unlikely to remember the details of complex scientific processes, even if he wanted to.

On the third point, seeking injunctive relief to prevent irreparable injury, Jeter argued that Goodrich was the clear pioneer in space suits.  It made the first full-pressure flying suit in 1934.  Since then, it has invested huge amounts in space suit research and development.  Jeter characterized Latex as a newcomer intent on profiting from Goodrich’s years of research by hiring Wohlgemuth.

Furthermore, even if Wohlgemuth and Latex had the best of intentions, Wohlgemuth would inevitably give away trade secrets.  But good intentions hadn’t been demonstrated, since Latex deliberately sought Wohlgemuth, who in turn justified his decision in part on the increase in salary.  The defense disagreed that trade secrets would be revealed or that anyone had bad intentions.  The defense also got a statement in court from Wohlgemuth in which he pledged not to reveal any trade secrets of B. F. Goodrich Company.

Judge Harvey reserved the decision for a later date.  Meanwhile, the lawyers for each side fought one another in briefs intended to sway Judge Harvey.  Brooks:

…it became increasingly clear that the essence of the case was quite simple.  For all practical purposes, there was no controversy over facts.  What remained in controversy was the answer to two questions:  First, should a man be formally restrained from revealing trade secrets when he has not yet committed any such act, and when it is not clear that he intends to?  And, secondly, should a man be prevented from taking a job simply because the job presents him with unique temptations to break the law?

The defense referred to “Trade Secrets,” written by Ridsdale Ellis and published in 1953, which stated that usually it is not until there is evidence that the employee has not lived up to the contract, written or implied, that the former employer can take action.  “Every dog has one free bite.”

On February 20, 1963, Judge Harvey delivered his decision in a 9-page essay.  Goodrich did have trade secrets.  And Wohlgemuth could give these secrets to Latex.  Furthermore, there’s no doubt Latex was seeking to get Wohlgemuth for his specialized knowledge in space suits, which would be valuable for the Apollo contract.  There’s no doubt, wrote the judge, that Wohlgemuth would be able to disclose confidential information.

However, the judge said, in keeping with the one-free-bite principle, an injunction against disclosure of trade secrets cannot be issued before such disclosure has occurred unless there is clear and substantial evidence of evil intent on the part of the defendant.  In the view of the court, Wohlgemuth did not have evil intent in this case, therefore the injunction was denied.

On appeal, Judge Arthur W. Doyle partially reversed the decision.  Judge Doyle granted an injunction against Wohlgemuth from disclosing to Latex any trade secrets of Goodrich.  On the other hand, Wohlgemuth had the right to take a job in a competitive industry, and he could use his knowledge and experience – other than trade secrets – for the benefit of his employer.  Wohlgemuth was therefore free to work on space suits for Latex, provided he didn’t reveal any trade secrets of Goodrich.

 

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

October 23, 2022

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 at least 80% (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 8% 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 8% 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.