The Poor Investor – Investigatory Value Investing

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The Paradox of Penny Stock Investing

A lot of investors keep a portion of their portfolios for speculating in the stock market, often referred to as “fun money” by many.  This percentage generally ranges from 1-5% of an investor’s portfolio.  This is the portion of a portfolio that you’d use to bet on stocks that usually have more potential than actual substance; this often times means betting on penny stocks or stocks trading on the OTC market or pink sheets.  Keeping a portion of your portfolio dedicated to this endeavor is like having a release valve for your portfolio.  Many investors may find it to be quite cathartic.  It should be noted, however, that this is not for everyone.  You still have to remain extremely disciplined and, in a sense, compartmentalize the speculative portion of your portfolio to some extent.

Now, you’re not going to read about how to invest speculatively in “The Intelligent Investor” or “One Up on Wall Street,” two of my favorite books, as you might recall from this post.  However, this does not mean that speculative investing shouldn’t be part of your portfolio and shouldn’t be taken just as seriously as your overall investing philosophy.  A sound philosophy should be developed for the “fun money” portion as well.  The goal, just as with the larger portion of the portfolio, should be to minimize risk.  Just because you are speculating with this small part of your portfolio doesn’t mean you want to lose the money any more than you normally would.

There are many types of ways to speculate in the stock market but generally I tend to think of this as focusing on stocks at the low range of the micro cap world, or penny stocks (those interested in options trading, commodities, currency speculation, and other activities such as these should look elsewhere).  These are companies usually trading for a market cap less than $100 million.  Although these stocks should be analyzed just like other stocks in your portfolio there are several particular areas you really need to go over using a fine-toothed comb:

  • Legitimacy
  • Management
  • Growth

The first portion is business legitimacy.  This means that you should be scouring the SEC (or other) filings of the company and looking for any red flags.  It means that you should be evaluating the company as if you were going to start working there the next day.  If you wouldn’t work there, you wouldn’t want to buy the company, surely.  This means you should be asking questions like:

  • Has this company been around for at least 3 years?
  • Does the product/technology/business make sense?
  • Does the company keep issuing shares only to line executives’ pockets and dilute existing shareholders?
  • Is there an inordinate amount of outstanding shares?
  • How is the company financing itself?
  • Does the company carry too much debt?
  • Do insiders own a large portion of the company?
  • How does the company treat its employees?
  • Is the company hiring a lot of new employees?
  • Does the company have reputable partners or do business with those of high repute?
  • Does the company provide sufficient information/transparency to its shareholders?
  • Are the small shareholders valued?

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  But questions along these lines should be asked and the answers you get to them should make you feel comfortable.  If you don’t find an answer you like, find out why and see if it makes sense.  If you find too many red flags in this portion of the process, don’t even move on to next examination step, just move on to the next company.

The next portion is management.  Many times with small companies it’s good to see management that has been around since the company’s inception.  It’s not necessarily a red flag if they haven’t, or the green light if they have, but as a general rule of thumb this should be the case.  Lots of times, with small companies, you can actually call the management and ask questions that concern you.  When speaking to the management try to get a sense of whether or not these are people you can trust.  You should ask yourself several questions after speaking to management:

  • Are they open to honest inquiry?
  • Do they evade or avoid certain questions?
  • Do the answers they give make sense?
  • Do the answers correlate with what you’ve read about the company?
  • Does what they say actually pan out? (wait a bit and see if what is said comes to fruition)

Other factors to consider when looking into the management of such companies are:

  • Have they invested their time, money, blood, sweat, and tears into the company?
  • Do they own a lot of the stock so that they eat their own cooking?
  • What are their credentials?
  • Are they accountable to anyone?
  • What is the track record of management, especially the CEO?
  • Is there sufficient diversity on the management team and BOD?

Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but gets you thinking along the lines you need to be thinking when looking into more speculative companies.  Act like you are a detective looking for any signs or hints of fraud and steer clear when things start to smell funny.

In the back of your head, you should have already considered the growth prospects of the company in question or it wouldn’t have even be worth looking into in the first place.  However, it should be noted that many micro cap or penny stock companies might look like good growth opportunities but the growth could actually be very limited.  For instance, the company could be in an extremely high growth market such as biotech or pharmaceuticals, but markets such as these mean that competition is going to make it very difficult for the company to actually succeed.  This means that the growth prospects should be tremendous (if you’re going to speculate, don’t speculate with a company that’s going to hit a home-run,  instead, think multiple grand slams).  Some aspects of growth you might want to look into are:

  • What are the odds of market penetration?
  • Are the competitive advantages big enough and sustainable?
  • Does the company have multiple patents? How solid are the patents?
  • Are there large partners aiding the company’s growth/penetration?
  • Does the company operate in a niche market within the growing market?
  • How does the company plan on funding growth?
  • Does the company have an expansion plan in place so that it can grow successfully?
  • If growth/market penetration has been proven already, how likely is it to continue?

Once again, this is not an exhaustive list, but how you should be thinking about the growth of the company.  Also, you should be comfortable with the answers to these questions and any other questions you decide are pertinent.  Above all, don’t make excuses for the company!  If you get answers that don’t jive with you, move on.

Last but not least, try to attend at least one shareholder meeting of the company.  This will give you a chance to get up-close and personal with management as well as bounce questions off of other shareholders.

A good example of an interesting speculation from my portfolio is Natcore Technology, a solar company headquartered in New Jersey.  While I won’t go into laborious detail about the company and how it fits the criteria mentioned above, I will mention some highlights.   The company was founded in 2009 when it bought out a company of the same name— thus clearing my 3-year hurdle.  The company trades on the TSX Venture exchange, a very well-regulated exchange, in Canada and the company reports regularly.  The company is headed by Chuck Provini, a former US Marine and graduate from the US Naval Academy.  He has at least 19 military decorations, was a captain in the Vietnam War, and has lived his whole life in the United States.  The rest of his bio can be found here.  The CEO has been very forthright with shareholders and encourages shareholders to call him if they have any questions.  He even issues regular statements via the Natcore website.  And, although he is surrounded by several other individuals with pretty extended resumes, the one that stands out the most is Dennis Flood.  Dennis Flood is the CTO of the company and has worked in the solar industry for over 30 years.  He worked at NASA where he developed photovoltaic power systems for space and planetary missions.  A more extensive bio is seen below:

“He received two Special Act or Service Awards from NASA for his pioneering work on advanced solar cells for space applications and for research that established the feasibility of powering a human outpost on the surface of Mars with solar energy.

Flood also served as chair of the IEEE Electron Device Society’s (EDS) photovoltaic device technical committee for seven years and as a member of the IEEE EDS education committee. He also participated in the EDS’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, a position he held for more than a decade.
He is a member of the international advisory committees of the European, the U.S, the Japan/Asia and the World Photovoltaic Conference organizing committees.

He is an inventor or co-inventor on several patents or patent applications in photovoltaics and nanotechnology and has over 100 peer-reviewed publications and presentations in solar energy, electron devices and materials science.”

Source: PV-Tech.org

Natcore has several patents.  It has also been granted a license to use the Department of Energy’s black silicon technology.  This allows more light to be absorbed so that solar cells are more efficient.  However, the patent which holds the most promise is the company’s Liquid Phase Deposition technology.  You can read more about this technology and the benefits here, but in a nutshell, this technology allows the company to manufacture solar cells at a much lower cost than they are currently being manufactured.  Combine that with the company’s latest selective emitter technology and the cost is further reduced.

The CEO explains the company’s technology here.

The company’s technology is breakthrough, to say the least.  It could completely change the solar industry.  If you research the company some more you’ll see a myriad of great accomplishments.  So, you might be wondering, with so many “great things” going on, why is this company speculative?   Well, the company has yet to generate any revenue.  It is still working on commercializing the technology and proving the cost benefits of the technology.  The company has reached several milestones and has been making forward progress but it has nothing to sell as of yet.  Although it is working on what it calls the “AR-BOX” as its first commercialization effort, it is not ready for commercialization yet.  So questions remain.  Will the company prove that its product is commercially viable?  When will it be ready?  Will the company produce significant enough revenue with large enough margins if/when the product is ready?  Will the market adopt the product even if the company does prove it?  Several more questions like this remain.  That’s why this is speculative.  There is nothing to go off of except for future hopes and dreams of revenue.  Although the company has been marching towards that territory, there is nothing to sink your teeth into as an investor to figure out what the margin of safety is here.  This is why a small percentage of my portfolio is dedicated to this type of investing.

At the end of the day, many investors should avoid speculating.  It can be tempting to get carried away and not keep the speculative portion of the portfolio below 1-5% and sell when the speculate portion rises well above this point (assuming you adopt the 1-5% strategy).  Investors often ride a speculative investment up just to ride it back down again.  There is often times more discipline involved in speculation than there is with regular investing and many investors have enough trouble maintaining discipline with their regular strategies.  So, this is only for the bold, disciplined, and cautious investor.  It almost sounds like a paradox, being disciplined to be speculative, but it’s impossible to be successful at speculation without the discipline.  Otherwise, your “fun money” will be “dumb money,” which defeats the whole purpose of allocating a portion of your portfolio to speculation in the first place.  You might as well just cash out 1-5% of your portfolio a year and burn the money if you aren’t going to follow a disciplined approach.

Disclosure: Long NXT.V

Apple’s Stock and the Voting Machine

Peter Lynch put it quite simply by saying, “Buy what you know.”  Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there was a study showing this often does not work.  Here, however, it does.

The other day I walked into an Apple store to check out the iPad mini.  It was like walking into a swarm of bees in a beehive.  People were everywhere.  Everyone I know loves Apple’s products and owns at least 1 apple device.  Those I know who don’t own an Apple device plan on buying one in the near future.  I’ve used other products, talked to others who use other products, and everyone admits these devices aren’t as good as Apple devices, this includes: phones, computers, MP3 players, portable tablets, etc.  Apple products are vastly superior in every category, there’s really no debate.  The only reason you wouldn’t buy an Apple product is because you were interested in saving money, with plans to purchase one in the future when the price goes down.

As for the current state of Apple’s stock, Peter Lynch has something else to say about that:

“When even the analysts are bored, it’s time to start buying.”

There’s no question that analysts are bored with Apple, but, really, who cares?  Apple’s stock is a no-brainer at $431.72 as I type right now, March 10, 2013.  The company has $137b in cash.  With that amount of cash Apple could buy Ford and Honda and almost have enough money left over to buy Tata Motors at the companies’ current market valuations.  This is an insane amount of cash for one company.  If Apple has any problem, it’s having too much cash, not the worst problem a company could have.  Personally, I think Apple should follow in the footsteps of IBM and buy a massive amount of its own shares.  Its current share buyback program only allots $10b for this endeavor.  With $137b in cash, that is chump change.

Apple, according to a recent press release, plans on returning a lot of that cash to its shareholders:

“Apple’s management team and Board of Directors have been in active discussions about returning additional cash to shareholders. As part of our review, we will thoroughly evaluate Greenlight Capital’s current proposal to issue some form of preferred stock. We welcome Greenlight’s views and the views of all of our shareholders.”

Cash considerations aside, Apple trades at a current P/E of 9.79.  This is well below the 5-yr. average P/E of 15.6.  Furthermore, Apple’s P/E has never been so far removed from the S&P 500′s P/E as it is now, trading at ~40% below the S&P 500′s (~43% below the Nasdaq’s), with Apple’s average P/E being 64% above the S&P 500′s since 2003.

If the P/E is any indication of investors’ expectation, they don’t seem to believe that Apple will grow much faster than ~10% per year.  However, over the last 5 years Apple has increased earnings by an average of 63% per year.  If Apple continues growing at even half that rate, you’d be looking at EPS of ~$174 by 2017.  This would equate to a share price of $1703.46 at the current P/E.  Now, I must reiterate, this is the half-growth scenario.  Staying at the average current growth rate would mean a share price of $4973.32.  Now, my hypothesis is that we land somewhere towards the lower end near $1703, taking into consideration that the market discounts the future and that the company is not going to realistically grow into being 20% of our economy— but this would still amount to almost a 4-fold gain in under 4 years.  Furthermore, either way growth pans out, you’re looking at what could be over a trillion dollar company sometime in the 2014-2015 range.

With growth and P/E considerations in mind, read these quotes by famous P/E investor John Neff:

“Low p/e multiples usually languished 40 percent to 60 percent below prevailing market multiples.”

“Low p/e companies growing faster than 7 percent a year tipped us off to underappreciated signs of life, particularly accompanied by an attention getting dividend yield.”

As shown earlier, the p/e multiple does languish more than 40% below prevailing market multiples.  Also, Apple is growing much faster than 7 percent with a pretty astonishing dividend, for what I still deem a “growth company,” of 2.46%.

Peter Lynch would love this stock, especially when looking at the P/E in terms of the growth.  While Yahoo gives a PEG of 0.5, Peter Lynch looks at it a slightly different way.  He takes the long-term growth rate, which I estimate on the low side to be 30% (Yahoo’s estimate is 20%), adds the dividend yield, 2.46%, and divides by the P/E ratio, 9.79.  This gives 3.3 for my estimate vs. 2.3 for Yahoo’s.  In One Up on Wall Street Lynch describes the interpretation of these values as the following:

 “Less than a 1 is poor, and 1.5 is okay, but what you’re really looking for is a 2 or better.”

He goes on to give an example of a stock that scores a “3″ and deems it “fabulous.”  If we say that the number will most likely fall somewhere between these two estimates, 2.3-3.3, we’re looking at a stock Peter Lynch would undoubtedly rate as a “strong buy.”

Now, there are concerns that Apple’s moat may be drying up as companies like Google continue to steal market share.  However, in this analysis a margin of safety was added by considering Apple’s stock in light of growth drying up 50%, which isn’t likely to happen.  You have the new Macbook Air coming out, iPad 5, iPad mini 2, iPhone 5s, iMac, Mac mini, just to name a few.  And according to CEO Tim Cook, new products in new categories are on the horizon.  Some anticipate the iWatch as one.  The bottom line: it doesn’t matter what is on the horizon.  Apple could make a car and people would buy it just because it is an Apple product.  Even if Apple didn’t come out with any new products, looking at the company from a zero growth perspective, seen here (provided by Old School Value) for those interested in more advanced valuation methods, Apple’s stock has significant downside protection.

As was said by many great value investors, “Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself.”

Let’s forget the growth concern altogether. A huge aspect not talked about very often is the strong IP position Apple has, illuminated below, from this article:

“…Apple is falling back on its IP portfolio to protect its market position. Generating revenue by suing other companies is not the ultimate goal of Apple’s recent lawsuits. Rather, each case that Apple wins confirms the validity and enforceability of its patents to its competitors. Apple can then license its patented technologies and designs and charge Google and other competitors for using them, piggybacking on their competitors’ success.

It would appear that Apple’s business model is evolving into two modes. First, use a closed model to develop innovative technologies for sophisticated user markets; patent the utilities and designs that the company engineers. Second, license those utilities and designs to businesses that wish to use them. So long as Apple continues to be the first of its competitors to patent new technologies, combining both modes would create serious revenue for Apple and help it maintain its leadership position.”

So… to reiterate the absolute absurdness of this price and to lighten things up a bit, watch this video of Bill Maher and his guests talking about Apple:

And although this video is older, I still find it extremely relevant to this post:

As Ben Graham famously said, “In the short term, the stock market behaves like a voting machine, but in the long term it acts like a weighing machine.”  Long-term shareholders that buy Apple at this price can take advantage of this phenomenon.

Disclosure: Long AAPL

The Investing Book You Haven’t Read

As a do-it-yourself investor, I love to read investing books. However, there are only a few books that have really had great educational value, the rest were merely entertainment.

Here are the books which have helped me the most:

  1. One Up on Wall Street, by Peter Lynch
  2. The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham
  3. Poor Charlie’s Almanack, by Charles Munger
  4. Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, by Phil Fisher
  5. What Works on Wall Street, by James O’Shaughnessy
  6. See below.

Most of these books you’ve probably heard of or read yourself. If you haven’t read them, I suggest you do if you plan on investing on your own. However, there’s one more book (6) that also goes on this list that most people haven’t read. This book, in my opinion, is essential to the go-it-alone investor. The book is called “100 to 1 in the Stock Market,” by Thomas Phelps. The only problem is the book is out of print and hard to find. Your best bet is borrowing it from your local library.

Thomas Phelps offers some good advice as to what to look for when trying to find a 100- to-1 investment:

  1. Inventions that enable us to do things we have always wanted to do but could never do before. 
  2. New methods or new equipment that helps people do commonplace things easier, faster or at less cost than ever before.
  3. Processes or equipment to improve or maintain the quality of a service while reducing or eliminating the labor required.
  4. New and cheaper sources of energy.
  5. New methods of doing essential jobs with less or no ecological damage.
  6. Improved methods or equipment for recycling the materials used by civilized man instead of making mountains of waste and oceans of sewage.
  7. New methods for delivering the morning newspaper without carriers or waste.
  8. New methods or equipment for transporting people and goods on land without wheels.

He even gives 365 examples of 100-to-1 stocks (from 1932-1971) which could have turned $10,000 into $1,000,000 if bought right and held tight.  Some of  the more familiar of these include:

  • J.C. Penney Co.
  • Deere & Co.
  • Abbott Laboratories
  • Dr. Pepper
  • Lockheed
  • Greyhound Corp.
  • Philip Morris
  • Merck & Co.
  • Goodyear Tire & Rubber
  • Motorola
  • International Business Machines
  • Johnson & Johnson

These stocks all gained at least 100x their original value and some obviously much more.

Let’s say you decided to invest using Mr. Phelps’ method using $10,000 (+any additional money for fees).  Furthermore, say you decide to devote a year to trying to uncover 25 stocks which you thought fit the bill as 100-to-1 type companies.  After this, you divide your money equally into the 25, buying $400 of each company, and hold them for 20 years.  If you only identified 3 out of 25 stocks that went 100-to-1, and say the rest went to zero, even factoring in that year you were looking for the stock, you would have a compound annual growth rate of 12.56%, and $120,000.

Here is the CAGR for identifying 1 out of 25 to 10 out of 25:

  1. 6.82%
  2. 10.41%
  3. 12.56%
  4. 14.11%
  5. 15.33%
  6. 16.34%
  7. 17.20%
  8. 17.94%
  9. 18.61%
  10. 19.20%

Even identifying 2 out of 25 is nothing to scoff at, which beats the average S&P 500 return, including dividends, by ~1%.  Not to mention, this method does not include the dividends you might gain from the companies you invest in.

This method, just like any other, is not fool-proof—and although I don’t know the odds, common sense tells me that they are heavily stacked against you in trying to find 100-to-1 type companies.  Keeping that in mind, I leave you with a parable Mr. Phelps shares with us in the beginning of his book:

“Ask and It Shall Be Given to You”

Five poor Arabs slept on the sand. A bright light woke them. Out of it came an angel.
“Each of you can have one wish,” the angel said.
“Praise be to Allah,” exulted the first Arab to catch his breath. “Give me a donkey.”
Instantly a donkey stood at his side.
“Fool,” thought the second Arab. “He should have asked for more.”
“Give me 10 donkeys,” the second Arab begged.
No sooner said than done. He had ten donkeys.
The third Arab had heard and seen how the first two had fared.
“To Allah all things are possible,” he said. “Give me a caravan with a hundred camels, a hundred donkeys, tents, rugs, food, wine, and servants.”
They came so fast that the third Arab was ashamed to be seen in his rags before such an entourage. But his shame did not last long. Deftly his servants dressed him in robes befitting his new status.
The fourth Arab was more than ready when his turn came.
“Make me a king,” he commanded.
So quickly did the crown appear on his head that he bruised his knuckles from scratching where an instant before there had been nothing but an itch. The palace gardens stretched out before him almost as far as the eye could see, and the palace turrets reached so high their pennants were lost in the desert haze.
Having seen his companions in misery ask too little, the fifth Arab resolved to make no such mistake.
“Make me Allah!” he ordered.
In a flash he found himself in sand, covered with leprous sores.

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