The Poor Investor

Investigatory Value Investing

Tag Archives: charlie munger

Turn Your Portfolio Inside-Out

Often people tell you exactly what stocks they’re buying—what stocks you should buy—but, you don’t often hear others tell you what stocks not to buy.  Charlie Munger often quotes Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi by saying, “Invert, always invert.”  This quote merely states that the solution to a problem might be in its opposite.  So how can this apply to stocks?

There are many ways in which this is applicable.  One of the most important things to consider is the fact that nowadays you have nearly unlimited opportunities in the market.  Anything you want to invest in nowadays, you probably can—from Swiss gold to soybeans.  Furthermore, you can buy and sell whenever you please, especially with today’s low transaction fees.

Well, what about the opposite?  What if you didn’t have nearly unlimited opportunities?

Warren Buffett often talks about the idea of having a “punch card” with only 20 punches on it.  He posits that if investors had only 20 investment decisions they could make in their lifetime and each time they made an investment they had to “punch” their card, would they make the same decisions?  If you were forced to invest in this way, would you buy the stocks you are buying now?

Well, let’s think about the opposite.  With only 20 punches, what types of investments would you not want to invest in?  Well, to first think about what not to invest in, you need to first think about what you would want to invest in.

To keep it simple, I would want to invest in companies that have all of the following qualities:

  • Strong, durable competitive advantage(s)
  • Large profit margin to sustain difficult times
  • Long operating history showing interest for shareholders
  • Business model not subject to changes in technology
  • Reasonably valued

So, what companies do not have the above qualities?

Car companies are a good case-in-point for the first two aspects.  For one, no car company, besides Tesla, really has any unique quality.  Car companies may have recognizable brands but no one company really offers anything truly different from any of the others.  I’m actually surprised GM is a Buffett investment.  As far as the auto industry goes, Tesla is the only company that stands out as being “different” from the crowd and has any real durable competitive advantage outside of brand recognition.  Thus, I’d stay away from all automobile investments excluding Tesla.  I certainly wouldn’t use one of my card punches here.

The second point, having a large profit margin, is another problem for car companies.  Some of the large auto companies’ net margins for 2014 are as follows: Ford- 2.21%, Honda- 4.85%, Toyota- 7.10%, GM- 1.8%, Fiat- 1.04%.  Apart from Toyota, none of these companies had a large net margin.  And over the last 4 years Toyota also struggled.  Toyota’s net margin was 1.11% in 2010, 2.15% in 2011, 1.53% in 2012, and 4.36% in 2013.  Clearly, there’s not much room there to make mistakes as a car company.  The profit margins are just too slim.  I’m not going to punch my card for slim margins, are you?

Car companies do have long operating histories though.  Here, they get a pass.  But what investments exist today that do not have long histories?  Generally, these are found in the technology sphere.  There’s Box, Inc. founded in 2006, LinkedIn launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Groupon in 2008, Zynga in 2007, King Digital Entertainment (markers of Candy Crush) in 2003 and Yelp in 2004.  While these companies may seem like they’ve “been around a while,” generally we want to look for companies that have been around for decades with a stable operating history.  Companies with stable operating histories give you an idea of how they treat shareholders.  For example, you want to ask questions like: Have they raised dividends consistently?  Were they efficiently allocating capital?  Were they honest with shareholders?  Did they buy back shares?  This is not to say the above companies won’t do those things, but there’s just not a long enough timeline to answer these questions adequately.  Ask yourself again, are you willing to bet your punches on it?

To put this in perspective, let’s look at some lesser-known companies: Hawkins was founded in 1938, Cincinnati Financial in 1968, Stepan Company in 1932, United Guardian in 1942, C.R. Bard Inc. in 1907, Nucor in 1940 (with origins dating back to 1900).  These are the types of timeframes I’m referring to when I think of a long operating history.  The history shows not only what management has accomplished, but also that the company has a solid business model that will sustain it over the years.  Also, many of these companies have both been giving and raising dividends regularly for over 25 years.  It’s usually the names you never heard at first that turn out to be your truly great investments.

In contrast are the technology companies mentioned above (the names you know), there’s a good chance these companies won’t be around very long.  There is good reason for this and it brings us to the next point: business model not subject to changes in technology.  Almost all technology companies will have trouble withstanding the test of time due to the fact that technology is always changing.  Warren Buffett often says his favorite holding period is forever.  Do you think you could hold the technology companies mentioned above forever?  Think about the 20 punches on your card.  Do you want to use a few of these punches on technology companies?  That’s for you to decide but “no thanks” over here.

Even whole industries can be vulnerable.  A problem likely to occur with car companies is that they won’t withstand the test of time.  New competitors are moving in (like Tesla) to revolutionize the car market.  Even Apple is thinking about entering the market.  The last 50 years won’t be like the next 50 years in the automobile industry.  Always be on the lookout for underlying paradigm shifts like these.

Next brings us to the point of reasonable valuations.  It is easy to readily point out some of the technology companies mentioned above.  LinkedIn trades at 15 times sales, 10 times book value, 132 times EBITDA, and its earnings are negative.  Can it grow its earnings fast enough to sustain these levels?  Perhaps, but I’m not going to waste one of my 20 punches on it.  Nor will I waste my punches on Twitter selling at 21 times sales with no earnings, Facebook at 18 times sales and 73 times earnings, Box at 12 times sales and 16 times book, and Yelp at 100 times earnings, 9 times sales and 130 times EBITDA.  I’m not saying these companies won’t do well—they may do fabulously— I’m just not going to bet my punches on it.

Think about your current investments.  Did you waste one of your 20 punches?  Would you bet one of your punches on a whole industry?  Do you own a company in one of those industries that you wouldn’t use a punch on?  It’s always good to turn things upside-down and look at them in completely the opposite way.  For instance, do you have a case for shorting any of the stocks in your portfolio?  If so, what’s the potential downside?  And what if you could never sell any of the stocks you purchased, would you have bought any of them?  Reevaluate your decisions.  Think critically.  And invert, always invert.

Disclosure: Long UG

Pawn Stars, Shark Tank, and Investing

Two of my favorite television shows are Pawn Stars, on the History Channel, and Shark Tank, on ABC.  These shows entertain, and most importantly, inform viewers.  A lot can be learned from both of these shows.  A lot can also be learned from the characters on these shows.  Rick Harrison, part owner of the pawn shop with his father and son, is one such character;  Kevin O’Leary, from Shark Tank, is another.

Rick Harrison started in the pawning business at age 13.  He co-founded the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in 1988 with his dad, Richard Harrison, at age 23.   When Rick was 8 he had his first grand mal epileptic seizure and was bed-ridden for most of his childhood.  This proved to be fortuitous as he developed his love for reading during this time.  He read lots and lots of books.  One book series he particularly enjoyed was The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, about a boy who always had new schemes to make money.  No need to explain the irony here.  His love of reading became the foundation of his life as he found his love of curiosity and knowledge.  He finds television boring, also ironic in that his show is one of the top hits, and finds reading to be the most exciting way to pass time.  Described in his own words, from his book, License to Pawn, he says “…much of the enjoyment I’ve gained from life has stemmed from a book — either researching some arcane item or reading to learn how to do something practical with my hands.”

So what can we, as investors, learn from Rick Harrison?

  • His love of knowledge and reading is extremely beneficial.  For him, knowledge of an item is key to buying it for the right price.  He also discovers items at antique stores and other pawn shops because of his knowledge.  It is no different in investing.  You must love reading and knowledge.  This includes reading “arcane” material as often times lesser known information can give you a leg up on other investors.  It can also help you find rare opportunities like Rick.  Many of the most successful investors are avid readers.  Warren Buffett admits to loving to read annual reports.  His partner, Charlie Munger, put it best when he said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads – at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”
  • He knows how to say no.  Rick always turns down items if the price isn’t right and he can’t make a solid return on his investment, even if he loves something.  In investing, you have to learn to pass on many opportunities.  A company many be attractive but the price may not be right.  Other times, the company isn’t right.  Sometimes, you may really like the company or its products but the management is running it into the ground.  These are just a few of the many reasons to pass on a potential company or stock.  No matter how much you like some investment, or some aspect of any investment, you have to learn to say no.  As Peter Lynch says, in Beating the Street, “Never fall in love with a stock; always have an open mind.”
  • If the price is right, he sometimes takes a perceived gamble.  If Rick sees an item that he thinks could be worth $100 to $2500 bucks, sometimes he’ll buy it for $500 dollars because the potential return is so high it’s worth the risk.  Now, why do I call it a perceived gamble?  It all comes down to expected value.  Rick might have an 80% of losing $400 here and a 20% of making $2000.  His expected value is $80.  On average, if he makes bets where the expected value is positive he comes out ahead.  So, it’s not really a gamble.  He’s also not betting the house here, he’s only risking $500, not $1,000,000.  He’s not going to risk his store on something that might be fake.  As such, sometimes you might decide to go after a stock that’s a long shot but has a positive expected value according to your calculations.  So, putting 1-5% of your portfolio in it might be worth it.  The problem with this is that the math will never be 100% accurate in investing.  This is why I say sometimes.  You do it when you’re more certain about the odds — something that won’t happen very often, if ever.  You cannot build a portfolio, or a business for that matter, going after long shots.  A good analogy is found in baseball.  It’s best to swing at the pitches right down the middle and hit base hits with near 75% certainty than swing for home runs, out of the strike zone, with 5% certainty of hitting one.  You can score a lot more points with the base hits.
  •  He always pays a lot less for something than it’s worth.  If he believes an item is worth $2000 or an expert tells him he can get $2000-5000 for an item, he never pays $2000 for it.  He’ll usually pay something like $1500 for the item to make sure he can profit off of it.  In investing, this is called margin of safety.  You don’t buy stocks to make 1% off of them.  You factor in a larger margin of safety than that, perhaps 20% or so, in case you make a mistake.  Why?  Because you, and Rick Harrison, never know what someone will actually pay for something, be it a stock or a piece of antique furniture.  The stock could actually be worth $1.10, you pay $1.05 for it, but the market might never price it at $1.10.  Just like the item Rick bought might be worth $2000, but he might only be able to get $1800 in the market.  
  • Always factors in the amount of time it will take him to sell something.  When Rick buys an item, like a book, that might take a lot longer to sell than, say, a signed Beatles album, he factors that in to what he’ll pay for it.  It also takes up room in his store for a longer period of time.  Just like if you buy a stock that might take 3-5 years to appreciate in value versus one that might take only 6 months to 1 year to appreciate the same amount, you would want to pay a lot less for the former to factor in opportunity cost, inflation, and the time value of money.

A lot more could be said about the show, and Rick, as it relates to investing, but suffice it to say the show is full of tidbits and useful information that can work to your advantage as an investor.

Likewise, Shark Tank is also a great show for an individual investor to watch.   While I won’t go much into the show and how it relates to investing, as a lot of this is self-explanatory for anyone who watches it, it may, or may not, surprise you to know that Kevin O’Leary, known as “Mr. Wonderful” on the show, also runs his own mutual fund.

Besides being a television personality, Kevin O’Leary is a Canadian entrepreneur and investor.  He started a software company called Softkey with $10,000 from his mother and grew the company to ~$3.8 billion when it was purchased by Mattel (at that time it was known as The Learning Company).  He also had several other successes that you can read all about in his book.

O’Leary Funds was started in 2008 when Kevin O’Learly was looking for someone to manage his money but couldn’t find the right person.   The company was co-founded by Connor O’Brien.  The company’s philosophy is simple, to “provide investors with value and yield.”  It does that through three core principles, “income, capital appreciation, and capital preservation,” according to the company’s website.   The company also describes its funds as being long-term oriented and disciplined.

So what is Kevin O’Leary’s investing philosophy/approach?

  • He never buys a stock that doesn’t pay a dividend.  This is something his mother taught him long ago and he firmly believes in it.
  • He buys companies that are growing free-cash flow and calls earnings “mumbo-jumbo,” saying, “you can’t lie about cash.”
  • Believes commodities aren’t attractive but the service providers are, saying, “I’d rather own the pipeline than the oil that flows through it.”  He believes if you own commodities you are speculating, not investing as commodities don’t produce a yield.
  • Thinks diversification is the only “free lunch” in investing and that you should not dedicate more than 5% of your portfolio to one investment.  He also owns multiple currencies as a way of diversifying.
  • Uses gold as a “buffer,” or “stabilizer,” and leaves it at 5% of his portfolio.  Gold, to him, is not an investment, merely a hedge that he sells when it becomes more than 5% of his portfolio and buys when it becomes less than 5%.
  • Likes to invest in countries where GDP is growing at >3%.  Some examples he gives are Brazil, India, and China.
  • Believes China will overtake US global economic leader and invests accordingly.
  • 5% of his net worth goes to venture deals.
  • Believes people should invest 20% of your earnings the day you start working for the rest of your life.
  • Believes people should always “spend the interest, never the principal.”

Here is an example from his “Global Equity Yield Fund” of what he is buying:

While a lot can be learned from these two individuals about investing specifics, the most important lesson lies between the lines.  What makes Rick Harrison and Kevin O’Learly so successful at what they do is their passion and discipline.  They believe in what they do and they hardly ever deviate from their rules.  The times they do, you can watch with your own eyes the lessons they learn and exactly how they get burnt by not being disciplined.  You can even hear in their own words why they don’t do this or that because they have learned from their mistakes.  Above all, they’re nice and honest guys (despite the fact that Kevin is seen as cold-blooded on the show).  So turn off Mad Money with Jim Cramer, because it will only drive you mad as you watch all your money fly out the window, and turn on Pawn Stars and Shark Tank and actually learn how to be a successful investor.

Thank You Facebook and Morgan Stanley

There is much to be said about the Facebook IPO but suffice it to say it was a huge disaster.  There was even talk in the Wall Street Journal about how the whole debacle may have hurt overall investor confidence.  Not surprisingly, the average Joe is probably more than likely to avoid IPOs in the future.  But would the average Joe be right to do so?  Maybe investors should thank Facebook and Morgan Stanley for botching the offering and turning them away from IPOs.

“Three out of four have been long-term disappointments,” said famed investor Peter Lynch of IPOs.  Let’s see if he is right.

From November 1st, 2010 to May 26, 2011 there were 157 IPOs for which I found accurate data.  If you had invested $100 in each of them at their initial offering price, you would have $14,735 today— a total loss of $965.  If you include brokerage fees, assuming $7 per stock bought, you’d be in the red by $2064, not including the fees to sell.  Your chance of investing in one of those 157 IPOs and actually making money (>$1): 36.3%.  Doubling your money or greater: 5.7%.  Hitting a ten-bagger: 0.0%.  Losing 50% or more: 24.2%.  Losing it all: 1.9%.

Turns out Peter Lynch wasn’t too far off.  Out of the IPOs investigated, approximately 3 out of 5 turned out to be long-term disappointments.

After looking over the data it’s unlikely that you’re going to do well with an IPO.  The odds are stacked against you.  Even worse, most companies are too new to have a history to go off of.  There’s also no guarantee that you’re going to get the IPO price.

When asked which stocks he’d avoid in the market at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Charlie Munger replied, “new issues.”  Perhaps investors should heed that advice.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 59 other followers

%d bloggers like this: