About a week ago, Starboard Value disclosed a 9.9% position in Cars.com (CARS). Starboard Value is an activist hedge fund. It is probably best known for its 294-page presentation on Darden Restaurants (DRI) back in 2014. You can read that presentation here (PDF). Cars.com is a 2017 spin-off from Tegna (TGNA). Tegna is the rump of the old Gannett. It consists mostly of local TV stations. The public company now called Gannett (GCI) was spun-off from Tegna (then known as Gannett) in 2016. It consists...… Read more
Richard Beddard recently wrote a blog post about company strategy. And Nate Tobik recently wrote one about how you – as a stock picker – have no edge. I’d like you to read both those posts first. Then, come back here. Because I have something to say that combines these two ideas. It’ll be 3,000 words before our two storylines intersect, but I promise it’ll be worth it.
Stock Picking is Like Playing the Ponies – Only Better
Horse races use a pari-mutuel betting system. That is, a mutual betting system where the bets of all the gamblers are pooled, the odds adjust according to the bets these gamblers place, and the track takes a cut regardless of the outcome.
At the race track, a person placing a bet has a negative edge. He places a bet of $100. However, after the track takes its cut, it may be as if he now “owns” a bet of just $83.
At the stock exchange, a person placing a buy order has a positive edge. He places a bet of $100. However, after a year has passed, it may be as if he now “owns” a bet of $108.
All bets placed at a race track are generically negative edge bets. All buy orders placed at a stock exchange are generically positive edge bets.
In horse racing, the track generally has an edge over bettors. In stock picking, the buyer generally has an edge over the seller.
In the Long Run: The Buyers Win
The Kelly Criterion is a formula for maximizing the growth of your wealth over time. Any such formula works on three principles: 1) Never bet unless you have an edge, 2) The bigger your edge, the more you bet and 3) Don’t go broke.
In theory, the best way to grow your bankroll over time is to make the series of bets with the highest geometric mean. Math can prove the theory. But, only in theory. In practice, the best way to prove whether a system for growing your bankroll works over time is to back test the strategy. Pretend you made bets in the past you really didn’t. And see how your bankroll grows or shrinks as you move further and further into the back test’s future (which is, of course, still your past).
Try this with the two “genres” of stock bets:
1) The 100% buy order genre
2) And the 100% sell order genre
Okay. You’ve run multiple back tests. Now ask yourself…
Just how big was your best back test able to grow your bankroll over time by only placing buy orders – that is, never selling a stock. And just how long did it to take for your worst back test to go broke only placing buy orders.
Now compare this to back tests in the sell order genre.
Just how big was your best back test able to grow your bankroll over time by only placing …Read more
“Are we in a bubble?”
Right now: This is the most common question I get. For a long time, my answer to this question has been: “yes, stocks are overvalued but that does not mean the stock market has to drop.”
This exact phrasing has been my way of hiding behind a technicality. Technically, logic allows me to argue that just because stocks are overvalued does not mean they have to drop – after all, stock prices could just go nowhere for a long time.
And history does show that the combination of a sideways stock market in nominal dollars and high rates of inflation can “cure” an expensive stock market (see the late 1960s stock market Warren Buffett quit by winding down his partnership).
Unfortunately, the question asked was “are we in a bubble” not “do all bubbles pop with a crash”.
So, as of today: I will stop hiding behind that technicality.
What Today’s Bubble Looks Like
To get some idea of how expensive U.S. stocks are check out GuruFocus’s Shiller P/E page.
For a discussion of the psychological aspects of whether or not we are in a bubble, read two 2017 memos by Howard Marks: “There They Go Again…Again?” and “Yet Again?”
I don’t have much to say about the psychology of bubbles other than:
1. When we’re in a bubble: I tend to get emails asking about the price of stocks rather than any risks to the economy or fears of a permanently bleak future.
2. When we’re in a bubble: the emails I get tend to acknowledge that prices are high but then assert that there is no catalyst to cause them to come down.
3. When we’re in a bubble: people tend to talk about their expectation for permanently lower long-term rates of return rather than the risk of a near-term price drop.
4. And finally: when we’re in a bubble, people ask more about assets that are difficult to value.
This last point is the one historical lesson about the psychology of bubbles I want to underline for you.
Eventually, manic and euphoric feelings have to lead investors to focus on assets that are difficult to value.
It’s easier to bid up the prices of homes (which don’t have rental income) than apartment buildings (which do have rental income). It’s easier to bid up the price of gold (which doesn’t have much use in the real economy) than lime (which is mined for immediate use).
Generally, assets which are immediately useful are the most difficult to bid up in price.
Stocks without earnings are easier to bid up than stocks with earnings.
And stocks in developing industries are easier to bid up than stocks in developed industries.
The less present day earnings and less of a present day business plan a company has – the more a manic or euphoric investor can project on to the stock. The asset takes on a Rorschach test quality.
The 3 topics …Read more
Someone emailed me this question:
“…how do you consider negative shareholder equity? Is this good, bad or other?”
Before I give my answer, I apologize to the roughly 60% of my audience that I know is made up of non-Americans. I’m about to use a baseball analogy.
Like Warren Buffett has said: the best businesses in the world can be run with no equity now.
I’ve invested in companies with negative equity. Most notably, IMS Health in 2009.
I would always notice negative shareholder equity. It would make me more likely to want to learn about the stock – because it’s odd.
Remember, you are looking for extraordinary investment opportunities.
We can break that search into two parts: “extra”+”ordinary”.
Sometimes, we know whether something is a “plus” or a “minus”. Other times, we only know it’s an anomaly without knowing whether it’s “good odd” or “bad odd”.
As an investor, you always want to investigate anomalies. However, you don’t always want to invest in anomalies. There’s a difference.
Say we’re searching for a good or even a “great” stock. The first thing we know for sure about this hypothetical good or great stock we haven’t yet found is that it’s not ordinary.
Negative shareholder equity is very not ordinary.
In the past, I’ve compared negative shareholder equity to the number of strikeouts a Major League batter has.
We know high strikeout rates are good for a pitcher.
However, there is considerable debate about whether high strikeout rates are good or bad for a batter.
Theoretically, it’s better to have positive equity than negative equity. For example: if IMS Health looked exactly like it did when I found it plus it had billions in extra cash on the balance sheet – that’d be better.
But, that’s like saying it’s better to have a stock with a 17% growth rate and a P/E of 7 rather than just a P/E of 7. In the real world: a P/E of 7 is plenty interesting all on its own.
And, using our baseball analogy: Theoretically, it’s always better to have not struck out rather than struck out (excluding the possibility of double-plays).
Yes, if Babe Ruth had the same number of home runs plus some of his strike outs were instead balls he put into play – he’d be an even better batter. But, let’s face it: if your job was picking the right guy to have on your team – identifying the next Babe Ruth is all you need to do.
So, let’s forget theory for a second. Let’s look at the cold, hard facts.
What does the data say?
The data actually says that some of the best batters in Major League history had unusually high strike out rates.
And the data says that some of the best stocks around have unusually low shareholder’s equity.
So, if I’m a general manager who sees a batter with an absurd number of strike outs, I know I want to learn more. I don’t …Read more
A blog I read did a post on goodwill. The discussion there was about economic goodwill. I’d like to talk today about accounting goodwill – that is, intangibles. Technically: accounting goodwill applies only to intangible assets that can’t be separately identified. In other words, “goodwill” is just the catch-all bucket accountants put what’s left of the premium paid over book value that they can’t put somewhere else.
For our purposes though, accounting for specific intangible items is often more interesting than accounting for general goodwill. That’s because specific intangibles can be amortized. And amortization can cause reported earnings to come in lower than cash earnings.
The first thing to do when confronting a “non-cash” charge is to figure out if it is being treated equally or unequally with other economically equivalent items.
I’ll use a stock I own, NACCO (NC), as an example. As of last quarter, NACCO had a $44 million intangible asset on the books called “coal supply agreement”.
The description of this item (appearing as a footnote in the 10-K) reads:
“Coal Supply Agreement: The coal supply agreement represents a long-term supply agreement with a NACoal customer and was recorded based on the fair value at the date of acquisition. The coal supply agreement is amortized based on units of production over the terms of the agreement, which is estimated to be 30 years.”
All of NACCO’s customers are supplied under long-term coal supply agreements which often had an initial term of 30 years. These agreements are economically equivalent. However, one of the agreements is being treated differently from the rest.
The amortization of this coal supply agreement is probably meaningless.
Because: if NACCO acquired a company that had a 29-year coal supply agreement in place, it would record this item on its books as an intangible asset and it would amortize it over the life of the contract. But, if NACCO itself simply signed a coal supply agreement with a new customer – no intangible asset would be placed on the books. And there would be no amortization. What’s the difference between creating a contract and acquiring a contract?
There is none.
Now, that doesn’t mean the economic reality is that NACCO’s earnings never need to be replaced. Many of the contracts NACCO has in place only run for about 13-28 years now. And, far more importantly, the power plants NACCO supplies with coal might close down long before their contracts expire. So, earnings really will “expire” and need to be replaced. But, this has nothing to do with whether a certain coal supply agreement is or is not being amortized. The amortization charge is irrelevant. But, the limited remaining economic lifespan of NACCO’s customers – which isn’t shown anywhere on NACCO’s books – is relevant.
Therefore, two adjustments need to be made. One, amortization has to be “added back” to reported EPS to get the true EPS for this year. And, two, that EPS number has to …Read more
I recently mentioned, commenting on Jayden Preston’s excellent post analysing the Cheesecake Factory, one of my holdings, Young and Co’s Brewery PLC (“Young’s”). I thought it would be interesting to do a write-up of the company as it’s a very interesting company and also one that, I suspect, most members may not have heard of. You can find information on the company here: http://www.youngs.co.uk/ http://www.youngs.co.uk/investors https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk/company/00032762/filing-history?page=1 [this link is to Young’s entry at the registry of publicly available company filings in...… Read more
A blog reader sent me this email:
“Do you ever pay attention to insider transactions when analyzing a company?”
I do read through lists of insider buys from time-to-time. I follow a blog that covers these kind of transactions. But, I can’t think of any situation where I incorporated insider buying or selling into my analysis.
Learn How Executives are Compensated
I can, however, think of situations where a change in how insiders were compensated was included in my analysis. For example, years ago, I was looking at a stock called Copart (CPRT). It had a high enough return on capital and generated good enough cash flow that it was going to have more cash on hand than it could re-invest in the business pretty soon. Up to that point, it had been able to plow a lot of the operating cash flow back into expanding the business. However, it seemed like they had gotten too big to keep that up. So, they were going to have to buy back stock, pay a dividend, do an acquisition, or let cash pile up on the balance sheet.
I saw that the Chairman and the CEO (two different people, the CEO is the Chairman’s son-in-law) were now going to be compensated in a form that meant the share price a few years down the road is what mattered (if I remember right: compensation would now be a big block of five-year stock options combined with an elimination of essentially all other forms of compensation for those next 5 years). I had also read an interview with the Chairman (it was an old interview I think) where he didn’t strike me as the kind of person who was going to venture out beyond his circle of competence if and when he had too much cash.
So, I felt the likelihood of big stock buybacks happening soon was high.
To answer your question: no, I don’t really pay attention to insider buying and selling. But, yes, I do pay attention to whether insiders own a lot of stock, how they are compensated (what targets the company has for calculating bonuses), etc.
I can think of one situation where both the company and the CEO were buying a lot of stock at the same time. And, I should have bought that stock. If I had, I would’ve made a ton of money. However, to be honest, even if the CEO wasn’t buying shares and the company wasn’t buying back stock I should’ve seen this was a stock to bet big on.
It was trading for less than the parts would’ve fetched in sales to private owners. It was an obvious value investment. And that’s probably why insiders were buying.
Insiders Are Like You – Only Confident
Insiders tend to be value investors in their own companies. So, I think outside investors assume that insiders are acting more on inside information and less on just pure confidence than is really …Read more
In your post on NACCO from 15 December 2017, you state: “I don’t trade around a position. I buy all my shares at one point and sell all my shares at another.”
However in your post from 29 May 2017, your verdict is: “Geoff will never voluntarily exit a position entirely. Once he owns a stock, he’ll keep owning at least some of that stock forever unless that company is taken over or goes bankrupt. He will simplify things down to a true “buy and hold” approach. No thought will be given to selling a stock ever again.”
Don’t you think that these two statements are contradictory? Do you have a true “buy and hold” approach?
I don’t have a true buy and hold approach. I’m not a buy and hold investor. I’m always 100% open to selling a stock because I no longer like something about the business, the balance sheet, the management, the capital allocation, etc.
However, I’m not really open to selling a stock because it’s gotten too expensive.
Keep in mind: I find new stocks to buy over time. There are dry spells. Recently, I went almost two years without buying anything. But, my tendency to feed new ideas into the portfolio – in big initial position sizes – means that old ideas tend to become a smaller part of my portfolio over time.
So, even if a stock does become more expensive, I’d still be selling some shares of that stock over time just to fund new purchases. The stock could rise as a percent of my portfolio, but I’d still have sold shares in it. Two good examples are Frost and BWXT. Frost is a more than 25% position now (so, it’s slightly bigger in percentage terms than when I first bought it even though I’ve sold shares) and BWXT is close to a 15% position now while it was only originally part of a 20% position that got broke up (I bought Babcock & Wilcox stock pre-spinoff). I’ve sold about a third of BWXT and Frost, and yet they’re both just about the same percentage of my portfolio as when I first bought them.
Having said that, it should tend to be the case the the “stale” ideas in my portfolio will tend to get sold down and the “fresh” ideas in my portfolio will tend to be the biggest positions. The one exception to this would be if something in my portfolio was rising in price at a really unusual – probably very momentum driven – way.
It’ll be an interesting test of my resolve not to sell based on price if and when that ever happens.
So, I’m always open to selling a stock because I no longer like that stock (however, …Read more
I’ve done a couple posts recently that have too many “rules” type statements in them. As investors: it’s less important what we tell ourselves we’re doing and more important what we’re actually – habitually – doing.
So, how do I spend my day?
If I told you I spend 95% of my time thinking about new stock ideas and 5% of my time thinking about the stocks I already own – I’d be exaggerating how much time I spend thinking about the stocks I already own.
I’m on a constant quest to find new stocks. That might not be obvious judging by how rarely I buy something new. But, that’s how I spend my days. I’m always looking to buy something new.
I don’t really think about what I own. And I don’t really think about “selling right”.
I just think about “buying right”.
Which really consists of:
1) Picking the right business to be in
2) Paying the right price
Using NACCO as an example, I decided early on in my research on that spin-off that the coal business was the business I wanted to be in and the small appliance business was the business I didn’t want to be in. It then became a question of the price I was willing to pay.
In very rough terms, I’d decided that I wanted to pay less than $40 a share for the coal business. When I first looked at the price after the spin-off, the coal business was selling for about $32.50. So, I bought it.
The truth is: I’m not really going to re-visit NACCO at all – except sometimes to write a little about it – till the end of 2018.
Someone asked me recently if writing about stocks made me a better investor or a worse investor. I’ll answer that question on the first Q&A episode of my new podcast (reminder: read this post, and send us a question if you get a chance).
It certainly makes me a different investor. The investor part of me spent all my time thinking about NACCO before buying it. The writer has spent all his time thinking about NACCO after buying it.
If I wasn’t writing about the stock, I would’ve bought it in October 2017 and then only checked in again with it around December 2018.
I’ve always thought my attention is best spent focused 100% on finding new ideas. And I know from past experience that thinking a lot about what you own is as likely to hurt your returns as to help those returns.
I know that a lot of attention and effort spent on a stock in the research phase generates better returns. I’m not sure that extra attention and effort spent on a stock you already own generates better returns.
For some people, I think it leads to worse returns.…Read more