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on investment discipline

3 Nov

For investors, it’s imperative to establish a disciplined approach and stick with it.   Developing that approach is one of the most difficult parts, however, as what has worked over time in investing does not work at all times.  Yet regardless of what the market is doing someone has done well recently.  Some hedge fund manager made a billion dollars on natural gas spreads, wheat futures, or in Latvian mud art, rare stamps, or old soda pop bottles.  The media will always find examples of who has done well lately.  If it were easy to flit around from strategy to strategy I’d be all over it, but it’s nearly impossible to execute reliably over long time periods.  The trick is not to lose focus on your own approach and to understand that if the core investment framework is sound and well-reasoned, there’s no cause to abandon it just because it’s not working at the moment.  To do so would be like piloting a rudderless ship, at the mercy of winds on the open seas.  It’d be tough to get anywhere.

There is also an undue focus on ‘the market’.  The goal is to beat the market, yes, because active management is, in theory, a fool’s errand without this outcome.  However, the majority of active managers don’t beat the market, and even index funds fall behind (due to fees and expenses).  The overriding goal should be to limit risk while generating returns that meet long-term goals.

Let’s face reality here, the smorgasbord of available investments today – stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities – have rather low forward return prospects.  The low interest rate environment has caused asset prices to be bid up to the point where forward return prospects are in the 4-7% range on average.  The capital markets are not just a place to blindly place capital today.  As Peter Bernstein observed, “The market’s not a very accommodating machine; it won’t provide high returns just because you need them.”  Yes, it’d be nice to see double-digit returns, but given the macro environment it doesn’t look possible on a sustainable basis.  (That is, it could run up 20% annually for five years, but the gains would likely be borrowing from well into the future.)  Investors should view an index fund investment today as a decent place to put money, but not a spectacular one.  Individual investments, on the other hand, may offer opportunities for better-than-average returns.

This leads me back to the main point: finding a consistent, disciplined investment approach.  How?  Identify what’s worked over time, regardless of market environment.  A few of these are listed below.  These provide good perspective for investors today, with a stock market that has declined for the past several weeks (but nonetheless remains up for the year).  It’s useful to remind oneself frequently of what has actually worked, especially when the pickings are slim.  As mentioned, they may work over time, but notall the time.

A list of some basics:

  •           A Low Price in relation to earnings, cash flow and asset value,
  •           Insider purchases of significant size,
  •           Recent large declines in a stock’s price,
  •           Smaller companies, and
  •           The above, especially with companies that generate high returns on invested capital.

Consistent execution of a strategy is tough.  For a portfolio manager, it requires institutional support to follow a discipline, especially because there aren’t loads of qualifying investments at all times.  When stocks are cheap, it’s psychologically tough to buy (“they could go lower”) and when they’re high it’s hard to sell (“they could go higher.”)  Individuals might have an easier go at implementing the strategy – the only thing they have to fight is “the urge to do something,” which is a powerful tendency.  (Professional investors aren’t immune, either.)

A final note: following a consistent investment strategy over time requires being very discipline on price paid in relation to value.  So when one can’t find qualifying investments, what ought they do with it?  Hold cash.  Just because it’s not ‘making anything’ doesn’t mean a whole lot. Think about it this way: an investor has $1,000 and a target stock is priced at $50 (worth $50).  If the investor buys today he’ll have 20 shares.  If the stock subsequently declines to $25 (worth $50), he’ll have only $500 (20 shares at $25) and won’t be able to buy more at the now-lower price. If he waited and holds cash, he’ll have $1,000, still, and be able to buy 40 shares for $1,000 that are now worth $2,000 total.  (Yes, the stock could also go up from $50, but wasn’t under-valued in the first place.)   I call the potential returns earned from having excess cash at the right time the ‘opportunity yield’.  The ability to hold cash is an important tool in an investors’ toolkit, and one an investor shouldn’t hesitate to wield.  Warren Buffett says it eloquently, “Lethargy bordering on sloth remains the cornerstone of our investment style.”

In investing there are no strikes called for not swinging, so there’s often no point in swinging unless they’re coming down the middle of the plate.

tech confessions from a value investor

1 Nov

It was about a decade ago now that a friend and I started an investment partnership.  The venture was my first foray into managing money for others (friends, family), and it accomplished its intended goal.  First, it made us concentrate on discussing investments on a regular basis.  It established a disciplined feedback mechanism.  It’s like having a running partner – you don’t want to let the other person down.  We discussed strategy, generated ideas, developed reports and wrote letters indicating our thoughts on a regular basis.  The letters are fun to go back and read.  Some things were missed in those reports, however, including many errors of omission that appear glaringly large now.  This post somewhat of a post-mortem along those lines.  While we made plenty of mistakes on the stocks we actually bought, in retrospect, far worse decisions were made with respect to those we discussed but did not buy.  Case in point: Amazon.

Almost from when I began investing, I have been a devout value investor.  (Exception: about the first year.)  The books I read were almost exclusively ‘value’ based.  If I had a mentor, it would be those books and Warren Buffett.  Almost all of them, save a few, dismiss investing in technology stocks almost out of hand.  Buffett, for example, hasn’t touched Microsoft – except for 100 shares in order to receive the annual reports – even though his friend Bill Gates is one of the most brilliant folks he’s met.  (Also, Buffett has jumped into technology lately with his BYD investment, but that’s another story.)  The point is, when I started my mentally was to do the same: dismiss ‘tech’ investments almost out of hand.  “There are enough investments without technology stocks,” I’d say, plus I put them in the ‘too hard’ category.  It’s too hard to figure out what the future will look like.  So I avoided them.

The first rule of investing is ‘don’t lose money’ and the second rule is ‘don’t forget rule #1,” so looking at it from this perspective not investing in fast-changing tech makes a lot of sense.  It IS hard to figure out what the future economics of a business will be, let alone one that is heavily involved in technology.  Underestimated, however, was just how powerful some of these businesses could become.

Anyway, we went on to pass up investing in, at $7.  It was mostly my fault.  I would later pass on the IPO of Google.  I read about the pricing of the offering and considering it too expensive.  (In my defense, IPOs tend to be horrible times to invest.  Who would want to buy from a super-knowledgeable seller?)  Of course, the $85 IPO price looks like a bargain now.  Netflix was another.  I actually bought puts on the stock, trying to profit when the stock fell.  (It hasn’t.)  I must also note that I used Amazon a lot, performed web searches via Google, and was also a Netflix customer.  I loved each of their services.  I thought all three were great companies.  It came down to what I considered a high price in relation to value that I wasn’t willing to bet partners, client, or my own money, on them.  While I’m being masochistic, throw Apple in there, circa 2001.  I passed this over in spite of having several friends who used Macs and loved them.  Oh, then iPods came out…

Buffett has said that “growth” is a part of the “value” equation, that they are not distinct and separate.  This is something  I agree with wholeheartedly.  I’ve always used growth when valuing companies.  It’s the stinginess that, I think, made me not properly consider how growth could impact valuation if returns on capital could be maintained even at very high rates of growth.  Statistically this is very rare.  I also failed to weigh heavily enough how much the people running these companies mattered.  Bezos, Brin/Page, and Hoffman are phenomenal folks — that’s a key takeaway.

Allocating scarce capital involves many tough decisions, and for me the errors of omission keep me up as much as those of commission.  Of course, it’s easy to look back at the winners and say I missed them.  In the intervening period, there were successes in more ‘boring’ companies.  Still, reviewing one’s mistakes is FAR more useful as a learning tool than reviewing successes.  Failure, like success, can involve more luck than skill, but if you know you passed it over for ‘rational’ reasons it’s worth exploring those reasons and considering their validity no matter how much time has passed.   Too, I didn’t buy a bunch of high-flying technology stocks only to see them collapse 95% and lose it all.  So there is some advantage to investing – or not investing – according to a value discipline.

This post is already long enough to make folks who are reading it start to drift off, so I’ll stop here.  In closing, I am certainly more open to technology investments now, but I still prefer to buy the profitable toaster manufacturer trading at $5 with $10 of net cash on its balance sheet.  If I can have a 90% probability of a base hit versus 5% probability of a home run, I’ll still lean toward the base hit.

Disclosure: I own shares of Google (GOOG). 

the 21st century education

23 Feb

Since I was in college, I’ve been frustrated with the way the modern academic system works. Over time, that dissatisfaction has only grown more severe. As a value investor, my goal is to get the most value for the price paid. Yet formal education is an investment whose value seems to have decreased over time – it provides less and costs more every year. At my alma mater, students today are paying more than double the tuition I did to receive an education that is a commodity. I believe there are much better ways to deliver education that don’t involve formal education or degrees, but rather systems that potential employers agree offer a comprehensive assessment of skills. In short, it’d be a, “I don’t care how you learned it if you know it” approach. Folks with the wherewithal to learn the requisite skills through self- or small-group study would be encouraged to do so. Others could pursue a more formal path but not by following the pre-determined, formal curriculum that now exists.

One university is taking some concrete steps to shift the model, and it sounds promising. Steve Blank wrote a nice blog entry about it. It’s available here.

An Educational Bargain?

19 Oct

Was the slamming of Apollo Education (APOL) shares yesterday an overreaction? The sharp (22%) drop had to do with below-expectation earnings growth and the fact that numbers might have to be restated once the company has completed its review of options practices. The million-dollar question – what impact will restatements, if any, have on the financial statements?

The company operates the largest private university in the country (University of Phoenix) and offers educational programs and services at 100 campuses and 159 learning centers in 39 states, Puerto Rico, Washington DC, Alberta, British Columbia, Netherlands, and Mexico. Management controls the company, as the founder and his son own all of the voting shares. This can be good and bad, but overall you can bet they’re watching out for company interests and not taking undue risks with the capital that represents a significant portion of their net worth. The company carries no debt and its returns on capital have averaged in the high 20s over the past 10 years (over 40s in the last couple). Of course, restatements may affect the return on capital numbers, but not the fact that they carry no debt on the balance sheet (though there are about $120M of operating leases off-balance sheet).

Upon cursory examination, this looks like a good value at 13 times forward earnings and a free cash flow yield of 8.3%. They’ve been using that discretionary cash to buy back shares the last several years, which has more than offset the dilution from option exercises. With the growth opportunities that lie ahead, this could be a screaming bargain. But how reliable are the numbers? I’ll post more thoughts later.

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