Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Very Long Hill

Excited to announce my new eBook on getting kids started investing, its called A Very Long Hill. And it is available in the Kindle store now.

This book’s goal is to help parents and kids learn more about an incredibly important topic – how to invest for the long run, and take advantage of two of the most powerful forces in the world: time and compounding.

Hopefully this work generates some good discussions on these critically underserved areas - investment education and long term thinking. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Investing Gems

Investing gems from some of my favorite investors - David Gardner, Lou Ann Lofton, Peter Lynch, Marty Whitman, and Charlie Munger comment on long run investing.

Monday, November 9, 2015

McCormick Spice - Almost Perfect

 What makes a perfect investment? First off, the business should be in an excellent sector, and ideally it should control a niche in that sector.

For sectors, I like how Don Yacktman looks for low cyclicality and low capex.

Getting more specific, let's check historical data - Consumer staples beats pretty much all sectors hands down. Which proves out Yacktman's most favored quadrant

Next drilling down from the sector and niche should have the ability to deliver excess returns over a very long period of time to let compounding do its work. Consumer staples is filled with lots of interesting companies and niches. But how many will continue to generate excellent returns decade over decade? The companies that sell products from older generations like Wal-Mart Coke, General Mills, and Pepsi are finding some headwinds with new generations of consumers. The consumer companies that are more on point with current norms like Whole Foods or Monster are pretty expensive. Of course, the old school brands will probably muddle through but its not always clear the profitability will be as robust as today, for example profit margins on Coke where Coke controls the brand versus profit margins on water where the barrier to entry is way lower.

But there are some areas where growth appears sustainable, for example spice. McCormick Spice is over 125 years old, and as the largest manufacturer, it dominates the spice niche. McCormick estimates the global spice market at $10B, McCormick has a 22% share of the market and is 4 times larger than the nearest competitor. If you add in the fact that McCormick produces many store brands, the combined set of brands is pretty much the whole spice aisle.
Better still, you see McCormick's brands everywhere, you see them in Walmart, regular grocery stores, and unlike most Coke/Pepsi/General Mills products you see their brands on the shelves of Whole Foods with brands like Thai Kitchen and organic lines. McCormick has pyramid of profit that lets it sell from low end to high end, not many companies can pull that off. McCormick has a B2B unit as well and customizes spices for larger companies like Frito-Lay.

How about durability of consumer demand? Well, the first IPO was a spice trading company. Don't let the IPO scare you off, gentle investor, the IPO was the Dutch East India company on September 9, 1606. The history of spice goes back to the origins of the stock market.

So McCormick operates in a sector with demand measured in centuries, dominates its niche in the favorable consumer staples sector.  Further, its got a safe balance sheet with a Debt/Equity ratio at 0.5. So why almost perfect not perfect? Well, by now you guessed it - price.

McCormick is a premium company and its priced accordingly (source- Morningstar). Its excellence is not subjective, but valuation is. its current P/E of 30 is too high for a low growth company, but at the same time even in 2008-09 McCormick still traded in the 16-17 range for P/E. There is downside protection in pepper, basil, and  mayo.

What if we use sustainable growth rate as a measure to approximate future returns? The Sustainable growth rate for McCormick can be estimated using its current 56.1% Dividend Payout ratio, and a 5 year average ROE of 24.1% which yields a Sustainable Growth rate of 10.6%. That projection dovetails pretty nice with McCormick's actual 10 year average dividend growth rate which is 10%. Assuming, McCormick can continue to deliver that dividend growth even with an expensive entry point it can work out fine for investors over long time frames. If you invested in McCormick in Nov 1, 1995 and held through to now, you earned 12.4% annualized return, and $1,000 turned into over $10,000. Run it yourself on LongRunData.

So that 1995 McCormick investor earned a tenbagger over 20 years. I would submit that investor did not take much risk at the time, no dotcom, no tech, just time. But here is an interesting side note, what do you suppose the 1995 investor paid? As we have discussed, McCormick is a stock that is never really cheap, and in 1995 the P/E was 33 which is 10% higher than today (source YCharts).

So while its difficult for a cheapskate like myself to work up much enthusiasm over a current P/E of 30, and a low current yield at 1.9%, the reality is that in the past McCormick has been able to deliver stellar long run returns even with high multiple. If long run consumer trends on spice and flavor seem durable, and if the Sustainable Growth Rate is close to what the company can deliver, then a low double digit return seems reasonably likely if you take the long view.

Personally, I would still hold out for a discount from today's price, but what is interesting to me in this analysis is that my gut reaction to a 30 P/E is to say well I guess I need to wait for a big 40% pullback or something. The history shows that instead a pretty small reduction could still potentially offer long run excellent returns. Note, this is not buy, sell or any other kind of guidance just a thought experiment on valuation and the impact of quality over the long run.

"Over the long term, it’s hard for a stock to earn a much better return that the business which underlies it earns. If the business earns six percent on capital over forty years and you hold it for that forty years, you’re not going to make much different than a six percent return – even if you originally buy it at a huge discount. Conversely, if a business earns eighteen percent on capital over twenty or thirty years, even if you pay an expensive looking price, you’ll end up with one hell of a result." – Charlie Munger

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Limits of the Outsider approach to investing

Often great books, even business books, do not directly translate into actionable investing concepts. "The Outsiders" by William Thorndike is one of the best business books I have read. It details the exploits of John Malone, Henry Singleton, Buffett and others, and how they built incredibly successful businesses.

Its a series of stories that elaborate on inspiring vision and execution, but there is one problem - for sure, these outsiders were wildly successful, but how can an outside individual investor recognize these companies and managers a priori to join them on their ride? Ay, there's the rub.

The exact tactics that John Malone and many others used to build their companies - massive amount of debt, continuous M&A, buybacks, and eschewing earnings - look like many of the exact things that a defensive investor seeks to avoid.

Interestingly enough one of the questions that came up when the book came out was, nautrally, so we know the historic examples of Outsider CEOs, but what current CEOs embody that approach? One of the main examples given was Michael Pearson the Outsider CEO of Valeant.

Valeant seemed to tick all the Outsider boxes - a new CEO with an unconventional approach, shaking up a staid industry, massive debt, 9x revenue growth in the last five years, a Debt/Equity ratio of 4.8,  and one acquisition after another, each one larger than the last. Most people(*) including Thorndike tabbed this as the next Outsider.

But when I tried to apply The Outsider theory in investing, as an outside, individual, non-professional investor, I found that its not so easy. Again, the very metrics I look to avoid are the hallmarks of many Outsider approaches. In fact, John Malone even mocks the lower risk approaches

“Their philosophy is low leverage, low risk and high cash payout to their shareholders,” Malone said of Vodafone. “I prefer to grow equity value.”

Who am I to argue with Malone's approach? Of course, Malone can say that with confidence, his track record speaks for itself, but what about lesser skilled CEOs of which there are many? And again, how should we recognize a Malone up front? So what works for Malone and Singleton is probably not going to work as well for an individual investor, because the difference between Malone versus Leo Apotheker and Carly Fiorina is not always obvious at the time in terms of tactics.

Now Valeant shareholders are having to wrestle with these questions. Is this a great buying opportunity, because Philidor is totally copacetic, should they back up the truck? Or is it time to run for the exits? Either way, its potentially very expensive to find out.

Sanjay Bakshi's excellent lecture on Klein vs Kahneman distills decision making down to Klein's expert insights versus Kahneman's mistake avoidance. Individual investors already have major implicit advantages - time and patience, not sure they need more, because they can harvest satisfying returns simply from time and patience assuming they can avoid mistakes.  In my view, bravery is required to capitalize on your view of what scenario Valeant is in at present. Bravery can yield great results when you are right, but patient quality offers a better margin of safety the rest of the time.

* Well, one person did not: "Valeant is like ITT and Harold Geneen come back to life, only the guy is worse this time." - Charlie Munger (March 2015)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Dwelling on Quality

In an oped in the FT two years back, Nick Train asks a great question - "what is the right price for quality shares?" That's a deceptively important and potentially difficult problem actually.

Its important because of Munger's three laws of investing

Its a potentially difficult problem because while most intermediate investors can recognize a bargain price and they can recognize high quality, the intersection of the two is problematic. Take a company like Diageo, its P/E is 20 right now. For a cheapskate like myself that is a bit on the high side. On the other hand, its a high quality franchise. For one example its Return On Equity has ranged between 32-48% for the last decade. But because the market is not generally stupid, it never gets classically cheap. The last time it was in bargain territory was 2008 (when everything was) when the P/E was down to 14.

So what to do? Sit on cash for a decade or two waiting for that one opportunity? Or pay up a bit for higher quality.

Nick Train: "...should Diageo’s shares really be trading at 20 times historic earnings? 

Any discussion of these issues has to begin with an acknowledgment of the fundamental investment attractions of these shares – which are self-evidently great. I would contend that more investment weight should be placed on the excellence of a business than its valuation. 

It is easier to be certain that Diageo is a great business than it is to decide whether or not it is overpriced on 20 times earnings, or still cheap on 15 times. The excellence is not debatable; the valuation discussion is worryingly arbitrary. So, I tend not to worry about valuation unless truly egregious levels are struck – say a price/earnings ratio of 30 times or more. "

Morgan Housel did some digging on this topic, he went back to 1995 and looked at what P/E would you pay for an 8% return. Interestingly enough, many of the higher priced companies (on a P/E basis) had excellent returns, and many apparently cheap companies just stayed cheap or outright floundered.

In the Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Sherlock Holmes said, "Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore, it is upon logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell." There are plenty of cheap stocks, even today, however the number of great companies that can compound over decades is very small. That kind of quality is rare, but it is knowable with investigation. Therefore, in the case of price and quality, the investor should dwell on quality.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Book Review: Tren Griffin's "Charlie Munger - the Complete Investor"

A key question I had going into reading Tren Griffin's new book "Charlie Munger - The Complete Investor" was - what would the work add to the previous books on Munger? I am happy to report that the book is an excellent addition to the family of Munger books.

"Poor Charlie's Almanack" by Peter Kaufman is one of my favorite all time books, its a compendium and includes lengthy speeches from Munger. It is unique.

"Damn Right" by Janet Lowe is not nearly as well known, but it covers some useful biographical material on Munger's life. It also explains a key component as to why Munger is worth studying. Buffett is a prodigy and became a millionaire very early on. Its hard for most people to relate to whiz kids who have astonishing success from very early ages. We can all admire Buffett, Gates, and Mozart. We can draw many lessons, but its not always as relatable. Damn Right shows in a lot of detail how Munger worked his way through some tough personal periods including a divorce and did not achieve great financial wealth until much later in life. Overcoming these challenges is something that everyone can comprehend.

"Seeking Wisdom" by Peter Bevelin puts Munger's thought processes into a historical context of thinkers from Charles Darwin to Michel de Montaigne. It shows you certain habits that you can improve your thinking and avoid common errors of judgement.

I had many takeaways from all of these books and the numerous transcripts available on line, so I had a bit trepidation picking up Griffin's effort. What would Griffin add on a life that is well covered from many perspectives? Like Poor Charlie's Almanack, The Complete Investor contains a diverse array of Munger's wit and wisdom. Like Seeking Wisdom, The Complete Investor shows how Munger's analytical process fits into a larger context.

The Complete Investor goes on to tackle a couple of areas that are fundamentally new. Note, as I am reading I fold pages so that I can revisit, the middle part of the book is chock full of things worth revisiting.

The two areas that I see where Griffin broke new ground were first in assembling Munger's ideas into an investing context. It sounds a bit crazy, but Munger is such an original thinker that the previous books focused mainly on his thought process. Griffin's book deftly brings together incisive quotes from Munger, decades apart, into a tossed salad where each idea slots into a business and investing context.

The other area is my favorite chapter, "The Seven Variables in the Graham Value Investing System." I spent a fair bit of the early part of the book a bit perplexed by how Griffin continually referred to Munger in the context of a Graham value investor. One key insight I have learned from Munger is how he helped move Buffett away from the strict bargain basement Graham school of cheap stocks and towards wonderful businesses at fair prices. So it was initially disconcerting for the early stage of the book to look at Munger mainly in a Graham context.

But that made the Seven Variables work all the more enjoyable because Griffin brings that evolution into clear focus. To summarize the seven variables that Griffin distilled from Munger's work I have chosen one of my favorite quotes. Again, what is interesting to me here is that Griffin's work is the first attempt that I have seen by someone attempting to pull together an investing framework based on Munger's thinking. That alone makes the book very useful.

To give you an idea on this important chapter, I have copied the variables that Griffin distilled below along with my favorite Munger quote (of the several that Griffin includes and comments on in the section). Notice the progression. The first two variable are old testament Graham, and then Griffin shows how Munger builds upon that foundation to a new, quality at a reasonable price style.

First Variable - Determining the Appropriate Intrinsic Value of a Business
"There are two kinds of businesses: The first earns 12 percent and you can take it out at the end of the year. The second earns 12 percent, but all the excess cash must be reinvested - there's never any cash. It reminds me of the guy who looks at all of his equipment and says, "There's all of my profit." We hate that kind of business." - Charlie Munger, Berkshire Annual Meeting, 2003

Second Variable - Determining the Appropriate Margin of Safety
"Ben Graham had this concept of value to a private owner – what the whole enterprise would sell for if it were available. And that was calculable in many cases. Then, if you could take the stock price and multiply it by the number of shares and get something that was one third or less of sellout value, he would say that you’ve got a lot of edge going for you. Even with an elderly alcoholic running a stodgy business, this significant excess of real value per share working for you means that all kinds of good things can happen to you. You had a huge margin of safety – as he put it – by having this big excess value going for you." - Charlie Munger, USC Business School, 1994

Third Variable - Determine the Scope of an Investor's Circle of Competence
"Warren and I have skills that could easily be taught to other people. One skill is knowing the edge of your own competency. It’s not a competency if you don’t know the edge of it. And Warren and I are better at tuning out the standard stupidities. We’ve left a lot of more talented and diligent people in the dust, just by working hard at eliminating standard error." - Charlie Munger, Stanford Lawyer, 2009

Fourth Variable - Determining How Much of Each Security to Buy
"I always like it when someone attractive to me agrees with me, so I have fond memories of Phil Fisher.  The idea that it was hard to find good investments, so concentrate in a few, seems to me to be an obviously good idea.  But 98% of the investment world doesn’t think this way." - Charlie Munger Berkshire Annual Meeting, 2004

Fifth Variable  - Determining When to Sell a Security

"There are huge advantages for an individual to get into a position where you make a few great investments and just sit back and wait: You’re paying less to brokers. You’re listening to less nonsense. And if it works, the governmental tax system gives you an extra 1, 2 or 3 percentage points per annum compounded." - Charlie Munger, Damn Right, 2000

Sixth Variable - Determining How Much To Bet When You Find a Mispriced Asset
"We came to this notion of finding a mispriced bet and loading up when we were very confident that we were right." - Charlie Munger, USB Business School, 1994

Seventh Variable - Determining Whether the Quality of a Business Should be Considered
Grahamites ...realized that some company that was selling at 2 or 3 times book value could still be a hell of a bargain because of momentum implicit in its position, sometimes combined with an unusual managerial skill plainly present in some individual or other, or some system or other. And once we’d gotten over the hurdle of recognizing that a thing could be a bargain based on quantitative measures that would have horrified Graham, we started thinking about better businesses. We’ve really made the money out of high quality businesses. In some cases, we bought the whole business. And in some cases, we just bought a big block of stock. But when you analyze what happened, the big money’s been made in the high quality businesses. And most of the other people who’ve made a lot of money have done so in high quality businesses.” -Charlie Munger, USC Business School, 1994

(Interestingly enough the chapter called "The Seven Variables in the Graham Value Investing System has an eighth variable)

Eighth Variable - Determining What Businesses to Own (in Whole or in Part)
The difference between a good business and a bad business it is that good businesses throw up one easy decision after another. The bad businesses throw up painful decisions time after time.” - Charlie Munger, Berkshire Annual Meeting, 1997

In the spirit of Munger I have nothing to add to these variables. 

As to the book, the above example shows exactly how Tren Griffin takes a broad range of Munger's ideas and assembles them to compose a set of the key insights on the investor's decision tree.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Joys of Hunkering Down

Its been a crazy week in the market, but it has been another quiet week in Lake Wobegon. Usually, people think about hunkering down in the winter time, but Josh Peters has a great quote on the pullback (emphasis added)-

Glaser: The pullback was caused by a lot of things--everything from concern about China to the Federal Reserve. Do any of these concerns lead you to think there could be dividend cuts on the horizon or weakness in the real economy, or are these just things that are impacting the market but not the businesses themselves?

Peters: Nothing new has emerged on that front. I still think that, in looking at the energy sector, you have to be concerned. You want to make sure that you're on very high ground and that you've got companies with very strong balance sheets so that they can afford to have their earnings and cash flow drop significantly for a period of time without having to force a dividend cut.

Outside of that area, we're still at a pretty high level of profitability across the board. Where payout ratios are generally higher tend to be in the more stable industries--like your REITs, like your utilities, like your staples. So, overall, the backing for dividends in most of the market still looks pretty good. The question that arises is, "Does this presage some recession that, even if it starts in China or in some other emerging market, rolls around the world and eventually drags the U.S. down with it?"

This is why I try to stay hunkered down all the time and why the bulk of my portfolio--typically 75%--is going to be in very defensive names like the ones we've already been talking about. I reserve some of my portfolio for more cyclical names. I own Chevron (CVX)--that falls in the cyclical category. Wells Fargo (WFC)--a bank, to me, is cyclical. Industrials are cyclical. But even in those cases, I feel like I'm getting the sufficient protection, as well as long-run total-return prospects, that make owning those stocks worthwhile. The rest of it, I really want to be able to trust those cash flows and trust the dividends and even continue to grow the dividends even in the downturn. That's a standpoint that has served the strategy very well over more than a decade now. 

Indeed, why not stay hunkered down all the time?

I wrote about some research via John Authers and SocGen that showed that patient quality investing beats the market and that patient value was better still. However, most people do not work in finance, they have jobs and lives. And so this is a case where second best (quality) is beats first (value) when you have a job. Monday was a prime example.

I know a few folks got great bargains on Monday am, kudos to them. I would have been very excited to buy Visa in the lows 60s, for example. Here is the thing - I was too busy to act on it, because I am not a full time pro I missed the brief window.

Here is another point, I know a handful of folks who got great bargains on Monday, but I know multiples more who spent the weekend worrying about their portfolio. You know what? You only get a few dozen Augusts. Do you really want to burn any time on an August weekend fretting? No. How much time would you spend worrying about whether people are going to still eat Cheerio's between Sunday and Monday? I will round it down to the nearest digit - zero.

So value is great when it works, but quality is a fantastic plan B, you may be a step behind the great value investors, but you will still have a fair chance to beat the market and enjoy your summer weekends, too.