The Poor Investor – Investigatory Value Investing

"Faber est suae quisque fortunae" -Appius Claudius Caecus

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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.

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