Q3 2017 Performance Update

performancetable

I had a nice run this quarter after underperforming for most of the year. We will see if it lasts.

Interestingly, nearly all of the gains occurred in the last month. A month ago, I was down 2.72% for the quarter and the portfolio then staged a resurgence. Even after the resurgence, I still lag the S&P significantly by 8.8%

For most of the year, richly valued large-capitalization growth stocks dominated the market, and cheap stocks have lagged. This appears to have reversed in the last month, but we will see if the trend can be sustained.

As explained in a previous blog post, value stocks have lagged the market in the United States for the longest period of time since World War II. The trend will ultimately reverse itself, but there is no telling how that will take. I expect my portfolio to perform in a more exaggerated fashion to a standard value portfolio due to my concentration in 20 stocks. It should keep up with value as a group but it will be more volatile. This should lead to bigger gains in the long run with periods of pain and volatility.

STS, SAFM, BLD

While staying put for most of the year, I traded a bit this quarter. The sales are below.

sold

The first trade was in STS (Supreme Industries) on August 9th. A buyout was announced at $21 per share. I sold for $20.95, securing a 31% gain from my purchase price. Buyouts are one of the key drivers of performance in value stocks. I think once the buyout is announced, it makes sense to sell rather than capture a tiny gain. All that can happen after a deal is announced is the deal falling through or a bidding war. A bidding war didn’t seem likely in this situation.

The next trade was in Sanderson Farms (SAFM). I have a weird temperament: I get nervous when a stock goes up too much, and I don’t really care when it goes down. I got out of Sanderson Farms because the valuation simply got too high and I already secured a 59% gain. Nevertheless, the rally continued with the stock going up another 12.9%. I probably should have let the momentum continue.

I feel the same way about TopBuild (BLD) in which I am up 71%. To avoid a repeat of the Sanderson Farms situation, I am going to let that position continue to run. When it looks like the momentum has faded, I will sell. I will indeed sell at the end of the year when I do my complete portfolio rebalance.

This is the chief drawback of deep value investing. Time is not on your side. You’re buying businesses when they look dead (or they’re just so tiny that they’re being ignored) and selling when they’ve had a modest improvement in their outlook, which leads to a massive increase in price because the market was so downbeat in the first place.

Deep Value vs. Buy & Hold

I am not a “buy and hold” investor. Contrary to popular belief, neither was Benjamin Graham. Buy and hold forever was Phil Fisher’s idea, which Warren Buffett later picked up on. Phil Fisher recommended buying stock in excellent companies and then keeping them forever. This is advice that Warren Buffett then picked up when he shifted his investment philosophy from the purchase of undervalued cigar butts to investing for the long term in good companies

In contrast, Graham’s recommendation was to hold a stock for two years or after a 50% gain, then sell. In other words, buy undervalued stocks and sell them when they reach fair value. While most value investors moved on from this philosophy, Walter Schloss stuck to it and delivered impressive results throughout his career.

One of the drawbacks of a deep value approach (contrasted with the Warren Buffett approach) is that, as Warren Buffett likes to say, time is the friend of the good business and the enemy of the bad business. I am not buying the Coca-Cola’s of the world: I am buying ignored, hated, beaten up stocks in which a problem caused Wall Street to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I like this approach for three reasons.

1) I’m not as smart as Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger to evaluate how “good” business is. Most of the people trying to emulate Warren and Charlie aren’t either, despite their claims to the contrary. Buffett and Munger have a genius at identifying companies with strong returns on capital that have an economic “moat” which allows them to sustain those high returns on capital. This looks easy in retrospect, but it ‘s hard to pull off in practice. Most of the Fortune 500 from 1950 is gone today. Most of those businesses thought they had a “moat” of some kind, but the relentless pressure of competition made it wither away.

Buffett’s 1987/1988 purchase of Coca-Cola looks like a slam dunk in retrospect, but hindsight is 20/20. Coca-Cola had just made some blunders. They were steadily losing market share to Pepsi in the early 1980s, which lead them to change the formula of Coca-Cola which caused an incredible public relations backlash. Buffett also bought Coke in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash, when many in the investing public suspected that the US may go through another Great Depression.

Buffett also had the insight to buy Coca-Cola at the right price. There is no such thing as a “good company at any price.” Coke made sense in its 1987/1988 price. It didn’t make sense at its 1998 price.

Once Wall Street and the investing public caught on to Coke’s greatness, Coke surged throughout the 1990s, reaching a peak P/E ratio of 50 in 1998. From there, it proceeded to plunge 44% in the bear market of 2000-2002. Coke didn’t change: it was still a great company, just as it was when Buffett first bought it. Since the 1998 peak, the stock price is only up about 9% (although it has consistently paid dividends over that time).

Not only did Buffett have the genius to recognize Coke’s natural moat and economic advantages: he had the talent to identify the right price to pay for Coke. That isn’t something that I can do.

The good news is: it’s not something I need the capacity to do because I’m not a billionaire. Buffett was forced into this style of investing when he became too big. Buffett’s best returns were actually when he was buying and selling cigar butts of the net-net and low P/E variety in the 1950s and 1960s. He had to stop doing that because he became too big. He was so big that he had to buy controlling interests in net-nets, which caused a lot of pain on his part. Trying to run bad businesses is not fun.

In fact, Buffett had this to say in 1999:

“If I were running $1 million today, or $10 million for that matter, I’d be fully invested. Anyone who says that size does not hurt investment performance is selling. The highest rates of return I’ve ever achieved were in the 1950s. I killed the Dow. You ought to see the numbers. But I was investing peanuts then. It’s a huge structural advantage not to have a lot of money. I think I could make you 50% a year on $1 million. No, I know I could. I guarantee that.”

Now, I sure as hell can’t make 50% a year, but it seems absurd to me that most people try to invest like a billionaire when they don’t have to. An average person like me can operate in the small and micro-cap corners of the market and buy screaming bargains, then sell when they’ve had a modest improvement.

2) The other reason I prefer the deep value approach is because it is quantitative. I don’t have to visit management, I don’t have to have profound insights into the economy or future of the business, I don’t have to understand the “culture” of the firm, I don’t have to figure out if there is a moat.

It’s all right there in the annual reports and the quantitative signals from the stock. I look for a variety of signals: low P/E, cheap price/sales, bargain Enterprise multiples. I don’t need to have incredible insights into the operation and future of the business. I buy companies that are priced like they’re going to die and they are not for obvious reasons a) they don’t have a lot of debt and b) are still profitable.

Peter Lynch once pointed something out that is so obvious and so grounded in common sense that it eludes the smartest investors: “Companies that have no debt can’t go bankrupt.”

I think the leading “edges” that will exist in the future are behavioral. There is nothing more behaviorally challenging than deep value investing. You’re buying businesses with “stories” that make the stomach churn. You’re suffering short-term volatility and underperformance. Over the long run, however, the rewards will compound.

This is why I have an aversion to buying and holding great businesses, growth investing and momentum investing. It’s behaviorally easy. If it’s easy, it is eventually going to be arbitraged away. Buffett-style investing requires a stroke of genius that most people simply do not have.

Finally,

3) Every value investor is trying to be the next Warren Buffett. “Wonderful companies at good prices” is a crowded game that I’m not interested in playing because everyone else is playing it. Deep value, in contrast, is a niche. As long as it stays a niche, it should outperform over the long term.

Warren and Charlie make it look easy. It’s not.

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent. Back to the portfolio!

UIHC & FNHC

It also appears that I made a mistake with these two stocks. They are both well run Florida insurance operations. I bought them last year in the wake of hurricane Matthew related losses. I figured that they were a great value and if Florida avoided a massive hurricane, they should do well.

When hurricane Irma was barrelling towards Florida, I got scared and sold both stocks. This looked like a smart move at the time, but both have recovered nicely.

One of the points that Tobias Carlisle makes is that models outperform humans in most fields.  In fact, simple models outperform experts when equipped with the model. The tweaks that the experts bring to the design usually create a drag on performance.

For instance, if you have a model indicating when someone will go to the bar for the evening, you should be able to override that model if the patron has a broken leg. The research suggests the opposite: you are better off going with the model.

I think I should have done this with UIHC & FNHC. I let my emotions make me frightened during the hurricane, and I sold both at a loss for the year. Both stocks completely recovered from the Irma sell-off and are back to where they were before.

I let my emotions get the best of me. Hopefully, I can control this a bit better in the future and let the statistical cheapness of the portfolio work over time.

Global Low CAPE Indexing

I wrote a blog post earlier in the month discussing the idea of buying indexes for countries with low CAPE ratios. I still haven’t decided to pull the trigger on this idea. I still hold a lot of cash, (about 17%). I deployed some of it this month in two incredibly cheap stocks: Foot Locker & Game Stop. I still haven’t decided on whether or not I want to pull the trigger on this idea.

FL & GME

I increased my bet on the physical retail space. I initiated a new position in Foot Locker and increased my position in Gamestop. Both are ridiculously cheap by all metrics. Foot Locker trades at a P/E of 8 and Gamestop trades at a P/E of 6. They are similarly cheap on an enterprise multiple and price to sales basis. They both have clean balance sheets: little financial debt relative to their assets and earnings.

Retail stocks have an inverse relationship with Amazon’s stock this year, which has been on fire. This is due to the ubiquitous narrative: physical retail is dead and Amazon is taking over the world.

I believe that investors have overreacted to Amazon’s success. They have bid up Amazon to an insane multiple (242 times earnings as of this writing). Amazon is a good company, but as I stated earlier in my Coca-Cola 1998 example, there is no such thing as a company so good that it is worth any price. Meanwhile, physical retail stocks have been hammered down to levels not seen since the Great Recession even though their financial situation is better than it was back then.

There is certainly some truth to the rise of Amazon, but I think investors are overreacting. This is why retail stocks now comprise 25% of my portfolio. If you want to outperform the market, you have to do things that are different than the market.

The popular perception is that most shopping will occur online, but the fact of the matter is that 91% of all retail sales still take place in a store. E-commerce has increased at a relatively steady pace since 2000, gaining a little less than 1% a year. This means that in 10 years, 80% of all retail sales will still occur in a store. The revenues spent on retail sales will also be higher than they are today through normal economic growth.

There will also be a peak to online shopping. There is only so far you can go with shipping products. There is only so much you can reduce prices and still maintain economies of scale. I don’t think e-commerce will eat into physical retail’s market share forever. At some point, the two will probably reach an equilibrium. Whether that’s 50-50 or 80-20 is yet to be seen.

Retail is a declining market and some operations will go out of business, but this is an opportunity for the physical retail stores that survive. As companies like Sears and K-Mart go out of business, their less indebted competitors should benefit from their demise. The goal is identifying the retail operations that will survive and whose stocks have been unduly punished in the current shake out.

All of the retail stocks that I own have common characteristics: they all are profitable, and they all have very little debt. I’m betting that they will survive the shake-up and the slightest glimmer of hope should cause their stocks to appreciate nicely.

Or maybe I’m just crazy. That is altogether possible!

In any case, we’ll see how this continues to shake out in Q4 2017. Hopefully, the value resurgence continues.

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings.  Read the full disclaimer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s