Teamwork, Leadership, and Cumulative Impacts

I make my living as an investor and attorney, so over my career I've worked mainly as a lone specialist rather than working on teams. Nonetheless, my brain is an analytical meat grinder and I've had a few team experiences, so I wanted to briefly share my thoughts on the subject:

  • A team leader's impact normally isn’t felt after one or two decisions -- it's felt after hundreds or thousands of small decisions/interactions with team members and people throughout the organization. If the majority of these small decisions/interactions are good, then the cumulative impact will be good and the organization will move in the right direction, like a slow moving barge moving through the center of a river channel. Conversely, if the majority of these small decisions/interactions are bad, then the cumulative impact will be bad and the organization will slowly decline, like a slow moving barge gradually steered out of the channel and run aground.
  • The team leader must keep a close eye on the barge's course and make sure his decisions/interactions keep the barge in the center of the channel. He must listen to feedback, be an open-minded, ego-free learner, and make lots of good/wise decisions.
  • It can be hard to tell whether the barge is being run aground, because it often happens slowly/incrementally. If the shipping owner gets a new captain only after he's sure the barge is being run aground, then the vessel will already have sustained major damage. The owner must act when it's more likely than not that a new captain is needed, before a lot of incremental, irreparable damage occurs.
  • The team leader must actively solicit ideas/solutions from all team members and from people throughout the organization, and then the leader and team must winnow down to the best ideas through candid, constructive debate and conversation. All team members must candidly speak their minds, even when it's uncomfortable, to improve the team’s chances of making a good decision. Candid, constructive criticism is important so bad ideas can be weeded out and good ideas can move forward.
  • The biggest benefit of a team is that you have more than one person offering ideas. This leads to more varied, more creative ideas/solutions than one person can come up with.
  • Unless it's a crisis requiring quick top-down solutions, leaders must allot adequate time to attracting followers and getting buy-in from people throughout the organization. The buy-in process should start well before any change initiative is finalized and implemented, and this process should give people the chance to offer input/suggestions on the new idea. These suggestions can then be adopted or rejected by the leader and his team. Buy-in is critical so people will embrace and execute the new idea. If the leader's style is too top-down, or the leader procrastinates and does not spend enough time getting buy-in, then the idea will fail due to poor execution.
  • Pilot programs are a good way to test, iterate, and improve new ideas/solutions -- these programs can make the original idea better/stronger. Additionally, buy-in goes up when people in the organization see the pilot working and can suggest changes/improvements, which then leads to better execution if the idea is fully implemented.

Price to Tangible Book, Competitive Moats, and ROIC

I recently made some notes on price to tangible book, competitive moats, and return on invested capital. The first note below is from a series of Twitter posts on the subject of price to tangible book; the other comments are just personal notes on investing:

  1. On the irrelevance of price to tangible book versus the relevance of debt to total assets (from a 2018 Twitter exchange with Tobias Carlisle): (a) reposted by Tobias Carlisle: "For stocks in the S&P 500, the correlation between price and tangible book value is just 14% [as of 2018]. This is a very big change from 25 years ago, when that correlation was 71%—or 5x stronger than it is now. Today the book value of a stock gives little clue as to its price.” -Bill Nygren https://twitter.com/acquirersx/status/1016994746185613312”; (b) my combined Twitter reply posts on the subject of price to tangible book: "@Greenbackd [Warren] Buffett has probably played a part in this change- based on annual letters he prefers unleveraged, asset light companies (less to maintain and low CapEx) that are generating lots of predictable cash flow; that’s probably what you’d want when buying a private business . . . Sine qua non of investing is 'what would you want if you were buying the whole business?’ You’d want few fixed assets to maintain/improve, low annual CapEx, little debt to pay off, and a strong, consistent history of FCF relative to price paid. This may be area where [Ben] Graham was a bit off, in terms of advocating for low price to tang book, because a low price to tang book screen tends to pull fixed asset heavy companies with high annual CapEx —> not what you’d want if you were a private business buyer. I think the best way to look at tangible book is by comparing debt to total assets—> a private business buyer may not care much about book value relative to price, but he does care about whether most of the company’s assets are encumbered/financed by debt (that he has to pay off)."
  2. The upside of a low price to tangible book is that it can help with downside risk in the event the company is liquidated (an unlikely event if you follow Graham's debt and current ratio criteria). Another upside to an asset heavy company with a low price to tangible book relates to barriers to entry — asset heavy businesses/industries are less attractive to new competitors and harder for them to break into.
  3. The downside of an asset heavy company with a low price to tangible book is that this kind of business is less attractive to potential acquirers because the acquirer gets stuck with the large annual CapEx needed to maintain, improve, and grow the business. Big CapEx makes growth more expensive and makes it more difficult for the company to quickly/flexibly change its business model — as needed — in response to changing competition and business conditions. Capital intensive businesses may also require more debt financing for the fixed assets needed to run the business. Finally, large CapEx eats up operating cash flow and returns on invested capital.
  4. The upsides and downsides of companies with capital intensive businesses seem to make price to tangible book a bit of a “wash” when analyzing a company — it doesn’t add much or detract much.
  5. When it comes to competitive “moats,” the best quantitative evidence of a moat is probably a consistent, stable history of positive free cash flow. Companies with consistent FCF are probably not competitively threatened in a serious way — otherwise their cash flows wouldn’t be so consistent. It’s interesting to think how a company can have consistent FCF, suggesting a competitive moat, and still be considered unattractive because it’s not growing fast enough or it's too capital intensive or it’s not earning high enough returns on invested capital. This probably explains why ugly companies with consistent FCF and apparent competitive moats can be cheap relative to market price. 
  6. If returns on invested capital are too low (in the single digits), then reinvested profits are effectively wasted profits, meaning the investor doesn’t get the full benefit of his apparent investing bargain. An investment's earnings yield (earnings divided by market price) can look attractive, but this yield is reduced by management reinvesting earnings in low returning assets (rather than paying out earnings to shareholders through dividends or buybacks). 

Regarding point six above, I wasn’t going to include any examples for fear my math or methodology might be off. I’ve since decided to include examples from my notes, with the warning that anyone reading these examples should follow their own methodology and do their own calculations — they should not blindly rely on my methodology. So the examples from my notes (with minor edits) are as follows:

  1. Even if the company maintains foolish reinvestment policies for a period of time, the company’s tangible book value (total tangible assets less total debt) should go up at a nice clip relative to the price I paid as an investor. If the company has a 20% earnings yield, a market cap of $1,000,000, and a tangible book value of $800,000, then every year the company fully reinvests earnings its tangible book goes up by roughly $200,000. If the company has invested capital of $600,000 and a low return on invested capital (ROIC) of 2%, then first year invested capital contributes another $12,000 of return. So even with a really low ROIC tangible book is going up significantly on an annual basis ($200,000 a year) — relative to the price I paid — and I’m getting 2% on $600,000 in invested capital tacked onto this. In this example tangible book would go to $1,000,000 the first year. The investor would have ownership rights on that book value if the company liquidated. If the company’s tangible book value can be liquidated for 40 cents on the dollar, then shareholders “earn” 40% of the $200,000 in reinvested earnings used to increase tangible book, or $80,000. Shareholders also earn $12,000 in ROIC (2% of $600,000 in invested capital). So in the first year shareholders get an investment return of roughly $92,000 ($80,000 in increased liquidation value plus $12,000 in ROIC), or a 9.2% return on the original $1,000,000 market cap. If you change the earnings yield to 10%, then tangible book increases by $100,000, from $800,000 to $900,000. If the investor “earns” 40% of increased tangible book, or $40,000, from reinvested earnings of $100,000, plus $12,000 in ROIC, then in the first year the investor ends up with $52,000 in investment return (reduced as appropriate by his ownership share of the company), or a 5.2% return on the original $1,000,000 market cap. These are conservative/pessimistic scenarios for an investor who buys a company with a high earnings yield and a low ROIC.
  2. Taking the 10% earnings yield example a bit further, if during the year the same company unexpectedly announces its intent to pay 50% of its earnings to shareholders through a one time dividend, then as an investor I get 50% of $100,000 in earnings, or $50,000 (reduced as appropriate by my ownership share of the company). I also “earn” 40% of the increase in tangible book, or $20,000, from the remaining $50,000 of earnings reinvested in the company, plus $12,000 in ROIC. So my first year return is roughly $50,000 in cash dividend, $20,000 in increased liquidation value from the increase in tangible book, and $12,000 in ROIC, for a total first year investment return of $82,000, or an 8.2% investment yield on the original $1,000,000 market cap. The point here is that small improvements in the payout policies of a low ROIC company can have a big, positive impact on my investment returns. In this example the company’s decision to increase its payout to 50% of earnings got me an investment return of roughly 8.2%, very close to the 10% earnings yield that I’d receive if the company increased its payout rate to around 100%.

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. The views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions and should not be construed as investment advice.

The Group Approach, Part II

A concentrated, Buffett-style investor will sometimes look at a Graham-style, cigar butt investor and say: "You're making valuation decisions based on over-simplified metrics like PE or price to cash flow or price to book when the true value of a company is the sum of discounted future cash flows. Your selection criteria are too superficial."

Pure quant, Graham-style value investing might be too superficial to justify heavy concentration in an individual stock, but it can work well when funds are equally divided among a large group of stocks. The prudence of a particular investment strategy often depends on diversification. Healthy diversification helps minimize the impact of Black Swan events.

Buffett-style investors think it's okay to concentrate, and prudent to do so, because they know a lot about their individual holdings -- they've done DCF analysis, have studied the company and its competitors, and feel certain in their assessment of the company's long term competitive advantage. Yet future events can still surprise. Every so often a famous value investor suffers a large, unanticipated, Black Swan loss from a concentrated, "sure thing" investment. Bill Ackman's loss in Valeant Pharmaceuticals comes to mind. No matter one’s confidence, heavy concentration entails outsized exposure to large Black Swan losses. Unless you're a business conglomerate with an indefinite lifespan -- Berkshire Hathaway for example -- big losses are hard to recoup.

Charlie Munger has talked about the remedy for concentrated investments and unexpected Black Swans. He advises value investors to buy a small basket of stocks and then "watch that basket closely." Vigilance helps, except when a concentrated investor makes more bad decisions that magnify the original loss. With Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Ackman and other well-known value investors bought more Valeant stock as the company declined, increasing their losses. Averaging down makes sense when a stock declines for no reason, but in Valeant's case the decline was justified. 

I don't know if value investors like Ackman failed to cut Valeant losses because they fell in love with the company or because they were unable to see or acknowledge their mistake, but the moral of the story is that concentrated investors watching the basket closely can still make costly mistakes. Concentrated investing makes it more difficult to stay rational and unemotional, increasing the odds of misjudgments.

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. The views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions and should not be construed as investment advice.

Emotion and Quant Style Investing

The more quantitative your buy/sell investing criteria, and the more diversified you are, the easier it is to make rational, unemotional, and contrarian investment decisions. Conversely, the more you rely on subjective assessments of competitive advantage or future prospects, and the more concentrated you are, the harder it is to make rational, unemotional, and contrarian investment decisions.

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. The views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions and should not be construed as investment advice.

Cigar Butts, Debt, and Black Swans

I've been reading a couple books by Nassim Taleb, specifically The Black Swan and Antifragile. I've also been reading The Success Equation by Michael Mauboussin. These books have made me think about how an improbable, extreme outcome that no one can predict -- a Black Swan -- impacts investing strategies.

Citing Taleb’s theory, in The Success Equation Mauboussin says that when you’re working in a field that sometimes has improbable and extreme outcomes, it's better to regularly buy low cost options that allow you to reap a large, one time Black Swan profit than it is to sell options that generate small, recurring profits but leave you exposed to a large, one time Black Swan loss.

If you're a Graham-style value investor buying a low multiple, cigar butt stock, your two improbable, extreme outcomes are: (1) bankruptcy or (2) the company's unexpected return to high growth. The interesting point is that if you buy a low multiple stock with little or no debt and plenty of working capital, then you can dramatically reduce the odds of a Black Swan bankruptcy while still preserving the buyer’s option you purchased on unexpected growth. Consistent with Mauboussin's advice, a diversified portfolio of low multiple, low debt stocks are like buyer options with limited bankruptcy risk and the possibility of large, one time profits from unexpected growth or other good news (like a buyout offer).

If you’re a growth stock investor buying high multiple stocks, then your two improbable, extreme outcomes are: (1) much higher growth than what's occurred in the past or (2) negative, declining growth. The problem is that the Black Swan risk of negative, declining growth can't be eliminated.

Black Swans, and the need to factor them into your investing strategy, remind me of a J.R.R. Tolkien quote my father, who was in the construction business, had on his office wall:

"It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him."

Black Swans and big negative outcomes also remind me of the importance of avoiding investing losses. It's easy to forget that investing performance is impacted by both gains and losses.

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. The views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions and should not be construed as investment advice.

The Group Approach

Ben Graham gave a couple interviews in 1976, after the final, 1973 edition of The Intelligent Investor, where he talks about the "group approach" or the idea of "buy[ing] groups of stocks that meet some simple criterion for being undervalued -- regardless of the industry and with very little attention to the individual company." The Rediscovered Benjamin Graham, by Janet Lowe (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999), p. 270. Graham details a simple, mechanical way of generating strong investment returns by purchasing a group of unleveraged stocks with low PE's and selling them based on a mechanical sales rule. Id. at 259-275. 

When Graham gave these interviews he had his fullest, most complete investing perspective, with over 50 years of investing experience. Over this time he authored multiple versions of Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor. With this perspective and experience in mind, Graham ultimately concluded as follows:

"Yes, well now I have lost most of the interest I had in the details of security analysis which I devoted myself to so strenuously for many years. I feel that they are relatively unimportant, which, in a sense, has put me opposed to developments in the whole profession. I think we can do it successfully with a few techniques and simple principles."

Id. at 270.

To me these quotes mean an investor should follow an investing process that tries to be right on a group basis rather than a process that tries to be right about each individual stock pick. I think too many investors get hung up on being right about each stock pick, which is inherently difficult, when they only need to be right on a group, average basis.

The beauty of a diversified group approach is that you can follow simple buy/sell rules, be wrong about individual decisions or stock picks, and still get good results. The more concentrated you are the more right you have to be about each individual stock, versus just being right about the larger group.

Investors who focus on being right about each stock pick often forgo investments that could be prudently and profitably included in a mechanically chosen, well-diversified group of low PE, low debt stocks. It's hard to be contrarian when you're concentrated in just a few positions and you feel the need to be right about each pick.

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. The views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions and should not be construed as investment advice.

Volatility

One of my favorite Ben Graham quotes is from the introduction to the 1949 version of The Intelligent Investor:

"In nine companies out of ten the factor of fluctuation has been a more dominant and important consideration in the matter of investment than has the factor of long-term growth or decline. Yet the market tends to greet each upsurge as if it were the beginning of an endless growth and each decline in earnings as if it presaged ultimate extinction."

The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham (HarperCollins Publishers, 1949). As this quote suggests, you don't ignore stock price volatility -- you take advantage of it.

With all due respect to Phil Fisher, Warren Buffett, and Charlie Munger, the problem with buy and hold forever investment strategies is that you're not taking advantage of volatility and Mr. Market's irrationalities. The buy and hold forever investor forgoes a time-tested driver of long term returns, temporary mispricings due to volatility, and relies on a far less certain driver of long term returns, future earnings growth and future high returns on capital.

As discussed by Tobias Carlisle in Deep Value and The Acquirer's Multiple, competition and mean reversion make reliance on future growth and future returns on capital a very uncertain bet. High margin, high growth companies usually mean revert due to: (1) new entrants and future competition; (2) new, disruptive business models; and/or (3) new technologies that make a company's product obsolete.

With buy and hold strategies the general thought is that it's okay to hold onto positions that are temporarily overvalued -- a la Phil Fisher -- because even if the stock price retreats a little you still do well over the long term. To me this doesn't make sense. Why give up the incremental annual return that irrational volatility can provide, particularly when even small increases in annual returns can have a big impact on compounding and long term returns? Why not reduce your opportunity costs by taking advantage of volatility, buying or holding onto positions when they're undervalued and selling them when they're overvalued?

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. The views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions and should not be construed as investment advice.

Reducing Opportunity Costs by Minimizing Luck

This article was inspired by a few recent Twitter posts by John Huber at Base Hit Investing. John is one of my favorite writers and is a fan of Warren Buffett's concentrated investing approach. As previously written, I've struggled over whether to adhere more closely to Ben Graham's diversified, quantitative approach or whether to stick mainly with Buffett's concentrated, buy and hold approach.

So John Huber first posted the following tweets:

  • John Huber @JohnHuber72 I am sensing a certain tone in the value investing community that I'll call "Buffett fatigue". Many are sick of hearing about Buffett's principles, "compounders", etc... I totally agree on the air time, and maybe I'm the proverbial bell at the top, but I have 2 points... (1/2)
  • John Huber @JohnHuber72 "Buffett fatigue" isn't new (In 1998, Michael Burry lamented how everyone was piling into Coke at 40 PE b/c "Buffett is in it"; 2) The fact that "true value investors" are sick of hearing about compounders and the principles of Buffett doesn't diminish the merits of that approach
  • John Huber @JohnHuber72 In reality, each business is worth the discounted total of what it will earn in the future. To me, it's no more or less conservative to make future earning power assumptions about a stable, no-growth company than it is for one that is currently growing.
  • John Huber @JohnHuber72 I think "value" and "growth" are not mutually exclusive. They are not separate style boxes. The value of any business is not what it earned last year, it's what it will earn in the future. Whether you look at stocks at 10 P/E or 30 P/E, you're making a judgment about that future.

I then replied as follows:

  • Bill Esbenshade @bill_esbenshade @JohnHuber72 Although what I love about Graham and early Buffett is that it’s algorithmic and idiot proof; low PE, low debt, etc., buy a spread of 20+ positions, and pick a simple sell rule; this approach produces excellent results based on extensive back testing (and personal experience)
  • Bill Esbenshade @bill_esbenshade @JohnHuber72 Buffett’s find a moat, concentrate, & buy & hold approach requires good judgment and strong emotional resilience; it’s emotionally tough and hard to stick with because my judgment could be wrong, resulting in opportunity costs I don’t want to incur over my limited lifespan

This Twitter exchange caused me to jot down some thoughts about luck, opportunity costs, and the goal of minimizing luck and opportunity costs:

  • Graham’s quant approach involves: (1) application of a screening formula; (2) selection of a diversified portfolio of 20+ stocks; and (3) adherence to a mechanical sales rule.
  • Buffett’s concentrated approach isn’t mechanical and depends on the investor’s subjective judgment of whether a company has predictable earnings and a sustainable competitive advantage. A Buffett-style investor may feel certain of his judgment, but he can still be wrong due to unanticipated future events — also known as bad luck. If a concentrated investor is wrong his investments will underperform.
  • Graham’s diversified, mechanical approach isn’t based on subjective assessments of whether a company has a sustainable competitive advantage — it works regardless of the investor's judgment and the possibility of misjudgments or unanticipated events. On a diversified, portfolio basis, Graham’s approach minimizes the impact of bad judgment or future bad luck.
  • All this raises the question: if I’m reasonably assured of good long term returns with Graham’s mechanical quant approach (based on extensive backtesting by multiple authors including Ben Graham, Tobias Carlisle, Joel Greenblatt, James Montier, etc.), then why would I jeopardize these reasonably assured good returns — and risk incurring unrecoverable opportunity costs over my limited lifespan -- by following a concentrated approach that depends on subjective, accurate assessments of sustainable competitive advantage?

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. The views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions and should not be construed as investment advice.

Opportunity Costs

I think a lot of investors fail to consider opportunity costs. When a person invests in a stock or bond, the opportunity cost of that decision is the forgone chance to invest the same money in something else that might provide a better return.

When an investor keeps money in stocks that are fairly valued or overvalued, he increases his opportunity costs because he forgoes the opportunity to invest in undervalued companies with better appreciation potential. Conversely, when an investor only keeps money in undervalued stocks, he minimizes opportunity costs by maximizing chances for appreciation. The goal is to keep opportunity costs as low as possible.

Once you start thinking about investments this way, certain investing ideas stop making sense. If you think in terms of opportunity costs, it seems irrational to adopt any investing rule unconnected to whether the position is undervalued and safe per traditional Graham/Buffett value metrics like PE, price to cash flow, debt to equity, current ratio, and DCF analysis.

In my case, I had certain investing rules that probably raised opportunity costs and reduced returns. One of these was an arbitrary limit on the number of stocks in my portfolio. When I was making concentrated investments in just a handful of companies, a la Warren Buffett, I set an upper portfolio limit of eight stocks. I needed this limit for practical reasons -- I couldn't learn everything possible about more than a handful of companies. I've since shifted away from concentration and back to a well-diversified, cigar butt portfolio, a la Ben Graham and Walter Schloss, largely because of the emotional challenges of Buffett's concentrated approach. I'm now making investment decisions based primarily on quantitative metrics. I don't need to know too much about each company, and my buy/sell criteria are based mainly on financial ratios.  

Given the simpler, mechanical nature of the Graham/Schloss approach, an arbitrary upper limit on the number of stocks in my portfolio seems unnecessary and probably raises my opportunity costs. An upper limit makes it more difficult for me to invest in undervalued micro caps. I originally planned to equal weight a portfolio of 20 to 30 cigar butt positions. I like equal weighting because it forces you to be contrarian and buy more of a declining position when the value metrics are still attractive. In Deep Value by Tobias Carlisle, Carlisle notes that equal weighting can significantly enhance long term returns.

Incorporating the idea of reduced opportunity costs, I now try to approximate equal weights across positions while still investing smaller amounts in undervalued micro caps, even if that means exceeding a 30 stock portfolio. I'm trying to reduce opportunity costs by bending or discarding rules that keep me from investing in the most undervalued companies. Unnecessary or inflexible investing rules -- whether it pertains to valuation, financial stability, or diversification -- increase opportunity costs and reduce chances for investment appreciation.

I'm reminded of Walter Schloss, who often held up to 100 positions, many of them very small. Schloss clearly tried to avoid inflexible, irrational rules about which undervalued opportunities he could take advantage of.  

Investors often seem to ignore opportunity costs when deferring taxes. When you hold on to a fairly valued or overvalued stock for tax reasons, you reduce tax costs but increase opportunity costs. That's because you give up the enhanced returns you could get -- on average -- by selling the overvalued stock and putting the money in a stock that’s undervalued and has better appreciation potential. John Huber at Base Hit Investing wrote the best article I've seen on this subject, titled "Portfolio Turnover -- A Vastly Misunderstood Concept." In my opinion all stock investors should read this article.

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. The views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions and should not be construed as investment advice.

Marginal Benefits

I just wanted to write a quick post on technology, marginal benefits, and actual harm. 

Speaking personally, I think I’ve reached the point at which further improvements in my day-to-day tech devices, my iPhone, iPad, iMac, and Apple Watch, no longer confer meaningful additional benefits. Everything is truly good enough. Apple can continue improving its products, and at some point I’ll be forced to replace existing stuff, but I don’t suspect I’ll be too happy about it. 

I think Apple is trying to address this situation — and the good enough problem — by segmenting the market through a range of product price points and features. The problem is the iOS updates — if I own an older but good enough version of the iPhone, the latest update may not work too well and Apple will ultimately discontinue support for earlier versions of iOS. So it starts to feel like I’m being forced to replace a product I don’t want to replace. Feelings of delight shift to feelings of exploitation.

None of this is new insight, I know — people have been writing about this issue for a long time.  

There seems to be an assumption among tech writers that all technology and all technological improvement is good. I’m really starting to question this. Is my Apple Watch or my iPhone a good thing? Is social media a good thing? Do these technologies make it harder to focus on in-the-moment conversations, and make it harder to develop deeper relationships with people you care about and want to spend more time with? Do these technologies distract you and cause unnecessary stress? Do social media and smartphones redirect time and attention away from what’s important and toward things that are trivial or superficial?

Flip-phones are sounding better and better to me.

Success = Different, Hard to Copy, and a Valued Service/Product

Most long term business successes seem to have three things in common:

  1. The product or service is different from what most competitors are offering.
  2. The product or service is hard to copy because it depends on activities most competitors are unwilling to invest in or commit to.
  3. Customers value the product or service, as reflected by gross margins, bottom line profits, and returns on invested capital (ROIC). I define ROIC as operating income divided by the sum of working capital plus net fixed assets plus short term debt.

Right now I think this analysis is most relevant to retail companies, some of which are failing and some of which may survive.  

Costco is a great example of a company that seems to meet these three criteria. Costco does high volume, very low margin retail sales through brick and mortar stores, which is different from almost all other retailers (Sam's Club is the only domestic competitor that comes to mind). This service is hard to copy because other retailers lack, among other things, the infrastructure and the bulk purchasing power (part of Costco's activities) to profitably operate at such low margins. And customers value the service enough for Costco to generate an attractive profit and ROIC. Costco has a trailing, 12 month ROIC of 29%. 

Best Buy is another interesting retailer to examine. The company has survived despite other electronics retailers going out of business (Circuit City, Radio Shack, etc.). Best Buy has a trailing, 12 month ROIC of 56%. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Hubert Joly, the CEO of Best Buy, explained the company’s survival and success by noting the following efforts:

  1. Avoiding “showrooming” products that customers will price-check and purchase on Amazon by making sure store prices match Amazon’s (through a price match guarantee). This approach cuts into profits but keeps customers in the store and away from competitors.
  2. Differentiating from online retailers like Amazon by offering customers technical expertise/service. The company started an adviser program that offers customers free in-home consultations on what products to buy and how they can be installed.  
  3. Improving shipping times — and making immediate gratification possible — by using stores as delivery centers.
  4. Cutting costs by letting leases for unprofitable stores expire, consolidating overseas divisions, reducing the number of middle managers, and reassigning employees. 

Best Buy’s dual focus on differentiating where possible while also cutting costs and achieving price parity with Amazon is something Michael Porter talks about. Porter says a low cost producer must exploit all sources of cost advantage while simultaneously achieving parity or proximity in the bases of differentiation relative to its competititors. Competitive Advantage, by Michael Porter (The Free Press, 1985). Similarly, Porter says a company with a differentiation strategy should aim for cost parity or proximity relative to its competitors by reducing costs in all areas that do not affect differentiation. Id. Applying these ideas, Best Buy is spending more on technical expertise/service -- its source of differentiation -- while pursuing low cost parity/proximity in non-differentiated activities like middle management and divisional structure (by cutting middle management and consolidating overseas divisions). These efforts all facilitate Best Buy's price-matching efforts.

Improving ROIC

A key question for any retailer -- or any struggling business -- is how can it improve a low ROIC? If the ROIC is persistently low (say in the single digits, like 9% or less), it raises the question of whether the business should be merged, acquired, or liquidated, with any resulting monies going to shareholders. 

Any time you reduce net fixed assets you get a two-fold benefit in ROIC:

  1. Depreciation expense declines because of the reduced assets, which then improves operating income. 
  2. When net fixed assets decline the denominator in the ROIC ratio declines.

Reductions in excess cash and inventory reduce working capital, which also improves ROIC. So retailers must find a way to operate with less fixed assets, less inventory, and less cash, while also selling something different and profitable through a hard to copy set of activities.

Every retailer is different but all struggling retailers should ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Is the company doing something different from most of its competitors?
  2. Are the activities that make up the offering hard for competitors to invest in or commit to, and therefore hard to copy? Note how a niche, small market, or low cost approach can be hard for large competitors to copy because larger players may consider smaller, low end markets too insignificant or unattractive.
  3. Do customers value the offering enough to generate attractive margins, bottom line profits, and ROIC?
  4. Can the company improve ROIC by increasing sales volumes, reducing cost of goods sold, reducing expenses, reducing net fixed assets, or reducing excess cash or inventory? Could the company lease some of the net fixed assets it currently owns?

Concentration, Diversification, and Dumb Trades

As a value investor I've always struggled with how diversified or concentrated my portfolio should be. I've followed both approaches -- imperfectly -- over the past 12 years. Much of the problem stems from the fact that I'm a big fan of both Warren Buffett (who favors concentration) and Benjamin Graham (who generally favored diversification).

Excellent books I've read over the past year have simultaneously clarified and exacerbated this confusion: Warren Buffett's Ground Rules by Jeremy Miller, Deep Value by Tobias Carlisle, and Concentrated Investing by Allen Benello, Michael Van Biema, and Tobias Carlisle. I also recently discovered a superb blog site, Base Hit Investing (BHI) by John Huber and Matt Brice, that has added greatly to my knowledge of return on invested capital, return on incremental capital, and the impact of portfolio turnover on overall returns. BHI has been pulling me toward the concentrated approach.

In an effort to capture the best of Graham's mechanical cigar butt approach and Buffett's more subjective concentrated approach, I've decided -- for the time being -- to go with a quantitative approach that tries to identify undervalued, unleveraged companies with high returns on incremental capital and/or invested capital. I'm using these return on capital metrics to try and avoid cigar butts (similar to Joel Greenblatt's approach). Below are the notes I made to justify this decision -- I often do this to steel myself from my own emotional and return-damaging whims:

  1. The problem with concentrating in select positions is that you get too emotional and you end up making dumb trades that hurt returns (motivated by fear, greed, etc.). Concentrated positions often lead to second guessing (due to the exposure that comes with a large bet) and overly aggressive, unnecessary buying and selling. It’s better just to equal-weight your positions and hold enough positions that you don’t mind taking a bath every once in a while. Good diversification and a clear sales trigger reduce dumb, unnecessary trading.
  2. Based on experience and the literature, you can reliably make good money with a diversified approach (occasionally great money). On an averaged, portfolio basis you'll always own a group of undervalued, unleveraged, well-run companies earning attractive returns on incremental capital and/or invested capital. Some picks won’t work out, but on average things should work out well. This is the big advantage of a diversified portfolio strategy: with a diversified strategy it’s not as important to be right about each pick (like you have to be with a concentrated approach) — you just have to be right on average. 
  3. A diversified, group approach allows you to buy smaller, more volatile companies and accept more stock-specific uncertainty, which can then drive higher returns. It also relieves the pressure to predict the future or know every single thing about a company/industry. By staying diversified you can use an easy, quantitative approach, make a few mistakes, and still get good results. And the companies you choose don’t have to be cigar butts with declining businesses — you can use return on incremental capital and return on invested capital to identify well-managed companies that are growing in a smart way. Smart companies don't just grow earnings — they grow earnings at a rate that’s attractive relative to the incremental capital required to support this growth.

So that's my investing approach, at least for now. I've also noticed a side benefit of diversification -- fewer stomach issues.

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. The views expressed in this article are the author's personal opinions and should not be construed as investment advice.

Simple Businesses

I've always been a value investor, picking both "cigar butt" Benjamin Graham stocks and selectively concentrating a la Warren Buffett. What I haven't always done -- that Buffett often talks about -- is invest in simple, understandable businesses. When I look over my time as a value investor, which started in 2005, it seems like most of my big mistakes/losses have involved companies where I didn't fully understand the product or how the company generated revenues. For this reason I'm now applying the following checklist to any concentrated investments:

  1. The business is simple and understandable;
  2. the business is quantitatively cheap, based primarily on financial ratios like price to earnings, price to free cash flow, enterprise value to operating earnings, price to tangible book, and/or price to net current asset value;
  3. The business is unleveraged and has plenty of working capital;
  4. The business is not heavily regulated or heavily supported by government funding/subsidies/programs;
  5. The business is not experiencing technological disruption; and
  6. The business is not experiencing business model disruption (a la Clayton Christensen).

I'm either avoiding or investing smaller amounts in companies that don't meet all these criteria. 

One of the reasons I like simple, understandable businesses is that you’re less likely to be blind-sided by technological or business model disruption, or by unanticipated regulatory changes or lost government funding. It's generally easier to see potential disruption risks with a simple business -- the risk is usually more obvious. Investing in simple, cheap businesses, and diversifying appropriately, may be the two best ways to guard against "falling knives" and surprise stock losses due to disruption or regulatory changes.

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. This article should not be construed as investment advice.

Overstating Disruptive Threats

Some entrants present existential, disruptive threats to incumbents, but many do not. Entrants often fail to generate meaningful profits and move upmarket, allowing incumbents to wait them out -- albeit with a temporary sales loss. The incumbent eventually regains the sales -- it just takes time for entrants with unprofitable business models to start exiting the market. 

A strong balance sheet makes it easier for incumbents to wait out competition from unprofitable entrants. If the entrant has a disruptive model that's profitable, and is therefore a true long term threat, an incumbent with a strong balance sheet can either: (1) alter its business model to compete with the entrant (often difficult to do, for reasons explained by Christensen), or (2) shed assets and serve a smaller share of the total market. A leveraged incumbent may find downsizing difficult or impossible, since it must generate revenues/profits sufficient to service debt.

A lot of investors assume every entrant poses an existential, disruptive threat to incumbents without considering whether the entrant's model is profitable/sustainable or whether the incumbent can survive through business model changes or downsizing.

Some Thoughts on Investing

I've been picking stocks and managing my own portfolio since 2005, buying undervalued positions based on the strategies of Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffett. See Concepts page for discussion of Graham and Buffett. For about half this time I was highly concentrated in a handful of good companies a la Warren Buffett. I held these companies as long as they were undervalued or fairly valued based on a conservative analysis of discounted cash flow (with low, medium, and high estimates of value). This usually led to holding periods ranging from three to five years.  

For the remaining time from 2005 to 2016 I managed a portfolio of 12 to 30 "cigar butt" stocks. These companies were chosen based on Graham-style quantitative analysis. This second approach was focused on limiting downside risk. Stocks were selected and held only if they appeared undervalued based on ratios like price to earnings, price to "owner earnings" (similar to free cash flow), enterprise value to operating earnings, and price to tangible book. This often resulted in more turnover, especially if positions were rising. Tax avoidance did not enter the decision making process.

With both these approaches I tried to stay in companies that were fairly unleveraged and had reasonable levels of working capital, consistent with Graham's writings. A highly leveraged company with low liquidity can be forced into bankruptcy through a single period of poor profitability and tight credit conditions — even if historical profits have been good. As Buffett notes, "any series of positive numbers, however impressive the numbers may be, evaporates when multiplied by a single zero." From a psychological standpoint it’s also harder to buy additional shares of a highly leveraged company getting beaten up in a broad economic downtown — it’s harder to be contrarian. That’s because the market may be correctly assessing the leveraged company’s ability to survive a more difficult economic environment.

Out of this experience the following seems worth noting (these are all personal observations/opinions and are not intended as investment advice -- anyone considering a stock market investment should consult a registered investment advisor):

  1. With Buffett's concentrated approach I was looking for good companies I could hold for a long time. To justify a long holding period -- and keeping money tied up in the investment -- I tried to predict future outcomes and understand everything about the company.
  2. I generated good returns with Buffett's approach, but I had difficulty keeping these returns because I sometimes held fairly valued positions too long. I invested so much time learning about each company that I "fell in love" with certain picks, making me less objective about buy/sell decisions. With big gains I was also reluctant to take the tax hit. These problems led to money sitting "fallow" and not generating a return.
  3. With Graham's cigar butt approach I did not fall in love with positions. I was always in undervalued stocks and had a firm selling rule, so emotions didn't really come into play. Because this approach was mostly quantitative, and because I had a diversified portfolio (rather than a highly concentrated portfolio), I felt less pressure to know everything possible about each company. I felt less need to predict future outcomes.
  4. Comparing Graham and Buffett, I think it's easier to take advantage of cigar butt volatility -- through a quantitative approach -- than it is to pick a handful of good companies that will grow over a long time period. That's because: (1) Buffett's approach presents emotional challenges, as already noted; and (2) stock volatility is a more common/reliable phenomenon than a single company's growth/survival. All stocks experience volatility and temporary mispricing, while few companies grow/survive over long periods. As Ben Graham observed, you cannot reliably depend on past trends to continue, growth or otherwise. You have to recognize what you don't know or can't reliably predict.
  5. I seem to do better -- and sleep better --  by trying to avoid losers rather than pick winners. In my experience, when you focus on downside risk you improve long term returns more than you do by trying to predict the future or find growth. Losses are hard to recoup -- if you lose 25% you have to make 33% on that money to get back to even. Graham's cigar butt approach seems better if your first priority is avoiding loss.
  6. I did worse when I became too concerned about avoiding taxes or holding on for maximum gains. I now focus on avoiding loss by making sure I stay in the cheapest low debt stocks I can find.
  7. One way to beat the tax issue is to "out-run" the tax hit through great returns, even if it means higher turnover from a quantitative, cigar butt approach.

The author is not an investment advisor or CFA and readers should consult an investment advisor before buying or selling any publicly traded stock. This article should not be construed as investment advice.