The Poor Investor – Investigatory Value Investing

"Faber est suae quisque fortunae" -Appius Claudius Caecus

Higgs Boson, Markowitz, and Graham

From Roumell Asset Management’s quarterly report— I feel this exemplifies the philosophy I espouse on this website quite well.  

A “unified theory” has long been the Holy Grail in theoretical physics that could account for both subatomic and universal realities. It appears the field has made a giant leap forward with the recent discovery of the Higgs boson particle, commonly referred to as the “God particle.” Higgs boson accounts for the various strains of information, analyses, and data that physicists, working with different approaches, have gained over the years from their efforts to better understand our universe. While some physicists prefer to focus on big-picture questions like how time and space interact, others prefer to ask why some particles have mass, while others, such as light, do not. Different starting points, same goal: knowledge.

Although investing is certainly not a hard science, it too has long pursued its own unified theory. On the one hand, financial planners and advisers use asset allocation to construct portfolios with multiple asset classes in order to spread risk and reduce volatility. Harry M. Markowitz is known for his pioneering work on Modern Portfolio Theory. Markowitz’s Portfolio Selection, which he wrote in 1952 while a graduate student at the University of Chicago, serves as the framework for planners using asset allocation as the primary portfolio construction tool. Markowitz argued that a portfolio should be designed using uncorrelated asset classes to maximize returns with the greatest efficiency (reduced volatility).

The shortcomings of the asset allocation model include today’s high level of correlation among asset classes. In addition, performance is tied to overall market returns and leaves little opportunity to exploit market inefficiencies. Of course, many investors in this camp believe security prices reflect all known information and are thus always efficiently priced.

In contrast to the investment allocators are individual securities investors. For value investors like us, Benjamin Graham wrote the gospel with its emphasis on specific security characteristics, margin of safety, and the temperament to see the process to fruition. Graham elegantly stated in 1934, “The field of analytical work may be said to rest upon a two-fold assumption: first, that the market price is frequently out of line with the true value; and, second, that there is an inherent tendency for those disparities to correct themselves.” The mantra for security-specific investors is that market price diverges from intrinsic value often enough to add investment value, particularly in smaller overlooked and/or out-of-favor securities.

As decided adherents of the security-specific, bottom-up value investment camp, Roumell Asset Management does not begin with a belief that we should own a little of everything. Rather, we begin by searching for value in the marketplace, wherever it may be. We firmly believe that obsessing about price paid has a far greater impact on securing respectable returns than gauging what John Maynard Keynes referred to as “the average opinion of the average opinion.” There are multitudes of analysts, commentators, and investors putting forth their opinions about the upcoming direction of gold bullion, U.S. Treasury bonds, and the stock market. We have nothing of substantive value to add to this conversation. It’s not what we do.

A subtle but highly important distinction in reviewing market efficiency literature is necessary, in our view. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, the difference between markets being mostly efficient and always efficient is the difference between night and day.  Interestingly, Berkshire Hathaway seeded additional capital to its two recently hired portfolio managers and gave them authority to manage the funds “exactly as they see fit.”

The reasonable question to ask then is how much should a portfolio be constructed with an emphasis on hitting all the major asset-class boxes (large cap growth, small cap value, emerging market stocks, corporate bonds, etc.) versus putting together a portfolio of security-specific-focused managers with the latitude to go anywhere in their search for value? In other words, rather than arguing about who’s “right” perhaps it’s more reasonable to simply ask: How much Markowitz and how much Graham does an investor want in his or her portfolio? An allocator only need believe that markets are inefficient enough to warrant some exposure to security-specific, bottom-up investors, be they growth or value oriented.

We do not seek to change any investor’s mind regarding investment philosophy. Rather, we want our investors to understand our investment philosophy. Our clients can trust that 100% of our own investment capital will remain invested in our portfolio options because determined research, a deep appreciation for value, a contrarian bent, and a steady temperament are what make the most sense to us.

Notes from The Poor Investor:

 It never hurts to reiterate your basic investment philosophy or tenet to see if your actions correlate with that philosophy/tenet.  If they are out of sync either: a) change your actions, or, b) change your philosophy.  However, as a word of caution, before you start investing heavily on your own you should have a philosophy that is sound (meaning it stands the common sense test), proven (is backed up by reliable data/facts), and unchanging (is time-tested and perfect enough that it does not have to be modified).  If you are constantly changing you investment philosophy and/or method of investing then you are setting yourself up for failure.

And with that I’ll leave you with a quote from James P. O’Shaughnessy:

“…we can see the simple truth that using simple, straightforward and time-tested investment strategies leads to the best overall results in virtually all market environments.”

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