“You Can be a Stock Market Genius” is Joel Greenblatt’s classic 1997 book. Don’t be dissuaded by the ridiculous title. This is a money making handbook for the small investor who is willing to get their hands dirty and do a lot of homework.
Joel Greenblatt is one of the best investors of all time. I reviewed another book of his: The Big Secret for the Small Investor in this blog post.
The two books have the same philosophical value investing orientation but are polar opposites in terms of difficulty. The Big Secret is for passive buy-and-hold investors who don’t want to deal with all of the homework of actively picking stocks. You Can Be a Stock Market Genius is a homework-intensive strategy that Joel employed when he was running his hedge fund from 1985-1995 and achieved 50% annual returns.
No passive strategy will get you 50% returns. No systematic quantitative approach will get you 50% returns. Achieving that kind of stellar performance requires a hell of a lot of work and luck. The book is Joel’s outline of the various hunting grounds that he used to generate those amazing returns.
The Small Investor’s Advantages
The book opens with an inspiring message. The small investor has advantages over prominent professionals. Big professionals managing billions of dollars in capital can’t: (1) concentrate in a handful of small positions, (2) take the career risk of dramatically underperforming the benchmark (they’ll get fired), (3) won’t invest the time and resources necessary to investigate weird and tiny situations that they can’t allocate a significant portion of their capital to.
A small investor can do all of those things.
In a world where ETFs with 50 positions are considered “concentrated”, Joel’s definition of “concentrated” is wildly different than the mainstream view. The mainstream view is that “risk” is volatility of returns and “risk” can be reduced by holding more positions. Joel suggests that as few as 8 stocks in different industries is sufficient to properly diversify a portfolio.
8 stocks would result in so much volatility that it would be career suicide for any professional investor. Most people can’t handle volatility. A small investor with the right temperament can. Unfortunately, most small investors squander this advantage. We’re never going to beat Wall Street at their own game: namely, smoothing out returns and reducing volatility (i.e., pain) with fancy financial engineering.
What we should do is focus on the advantages that we have: (1) Temperament – If we have the proper temperament to endure volatility, we can achieve better results. (2) Size – If we’re willing to focus on areas that are hated and ignored, roll up our sleeves and do the work, we can concentrate in situations that Wall Street pros can’t.
I did some backtesting of my own a few months ago to test the limits of concentration. I looked in a Russell 3000 universe with a straightforward strategy of buying the cheapest stocks on an EV/EBIT basis. I constructed portfolios rebalanced annually beginning with 1 stock (the cheapest in the universe) and then just adding the next cheapest. I then plotted the monthly standard deviation of returns (Wall Street’s definition of risk – which is a flawed concept, but whatever).
It looks like Joel Greenblatt is correct. Most of the volatility is meaningfully reduced with a handful of positions. He offers a caveat, however, and suggests that if you are going to run a concentrated portfolio, it is best to diversify among a group of different industries. In today’s market, for instance, it may be tempting for a value-driven bottom feeder like myself to own 10 retail stocks. This would be a bad idea.
Wall Street pros and most investors have no stomach for volatility. We saw a vivid example of this in February. The market fell 10%. This is a remarkably normal event in the grand scheme of things. I was on vacation at the time that this happened and couldn’t help but laugh at the insane overreaction to this little event. It generated headlines like this: “Stocks Plunge and Traders Panic” – The Wall Street Journal, “Dow falls more than 1,000 in biggest daily point-drop ever” – thehill.com
If you want to achieve better than average results, you need a better than average temperament to ignore this nonsense.
How to think about the market
Joel tells two stories in the book that represent excellent ways to think about the stock market.
The first is a story about his in-laws. His in-laws were amateur art collectors. They weren’t looking for the next Rembrandt or Picasso, they were looking for small-scale mispriced works of art. They went to yard sales and flea markets looking for paintings that were cheaper than their value. They would find paintings that were at the yard sale for $100 that they knew were worth $1,000, for instance.
This is a useful way for small investors to think about the stock market. The professionals need to find the next Rembrandt and Picasso. We should let them fall over themselves trying to figure out what company is going to be the next Facebook or Microsoft. Most of them will fail and a handful will be lauded as geniuses (they were probably just lucky). For us, we can achieve satisfactory results by merely finding things off the beaten path that is a decent discount against their intrinsic value.
Joel tells another great story where he went to the best restaurant in New York, Lutèce. Joel asked one of the chefs if an appetizer on the menu was good. The chef replied with: “it stinks.” The message was clear: it didn’t matter what you ordered off the menu. Everything was excellent because Joel was at the best restaurant in New York. The best way to invest in the stock market is to identify those places that are the best places to invest, where no matter what you pick, the chances are that it will be good.
The book outlines some key hunting grounds where Joel had success finding these opportunities.
The goal of investing is to find mispriced assets. You want to seek out areas of the market where stocks are prone to mispricing.
One area that Joel finds to be replete with mispricings is spin-offs. Spin-offs are divisions or subsidiaries of a larger company. The larger company decides to “spin off” that piece into a separate company.
Why do companies do this? They may think that if they isolate the entity in the market, it will be able to command a higher valuation. For instance, let’s say (in an extreme example) that an insurance company owned a financial software division. Software companies have higher P/E ratios than insurance companies. However, the market might not appreciate the software company because it is buried in an insurance company. If they spun it off – the software company would probably command a higher valuation if it were isolated.
The larger firm might also want to separate itself from a “bad” business that is weighing it down. They might just want to use the spin-off to unload debt on a smaller firm. There could be tax or regulatory reasons. They might have difficulty selling the business, so they decide to dump it in the form of a spin-off.
Whatever the reason, spin-offs are prone to mispricing. This is because institutions and people often sell them for reasons other than the intrinsic value of the company. Some institutions might not even be allowed to own it due to small market capitalization, or it doesn’t fit into their “strategy.” Individual investors probably wanted to hold the larger business and have no interest in owning something completely different. In any case, spin-offs are prone to indiscriminate selling, which creates mispricings and opportunities for smaller investors like us.
In the book, Joel takes you through several real-world examples of spin-offs. He explains why the spin-off was pursued and why he thought it was an attractive opportunity to invest in.
Currently, I own one spin-off in my portfolio: Madison Square Garden Networks (MSGN). My rationale for holding it is described here. I became aware of the opportunity when looking at a list of recent spin-offs back in 2016.
Joel then moves onto mergers as an opportunity for mispricings.
He first addresses the obvious: merger arbitrage. Merger arbitrage is buying a stock after a deal is announced and trying to earn a spread between the buyout price and the market price. For example, let’s say a company is trading at $30 and another company buys it out for $40. As soon as the deal is announced, the stock will rally to $39. A merger arbitrage strategy would buy the stock at $39 and wait for the deal to be consummated.
Joel thinks this is a dumb strategy and I agree with him. The reason is that you are taking on the risk of the deal not going through, in which case the stock will plummet. Mergers fall apart all the time, usually for regulatory reasons. Why take on that risk to make a measly 2.5% gain in the example I provided (in the real world, those spreads are even smaller and keep getting smaller as more people become involved in merger arbitrage).
It’s a strategy that might make sense for a big institution that can hire lawyers and analysts to know for sure whether a deal will indeed go through, but that’s not something small investors like myself can take advantage of.
Where Joel does believe there are opportunities for investors is in the world of merger securities. Often, a buyout can’t be financed entirely with cash and debt. Sometimes, strange derivative securities are sold (usually warrants) to fund a piece of the transaction. Investors will often indiscriminately unload these merger securities, and this will create mispricings.
The difference between a warrant and an option is that a warrant is issued by the company. That’s it. Both of them are merely a contract to buy or sell a stock at a pre-determined price on a future date.
Joel thinks this is a good area of opportunity. I don’t disagree, but I think that pricing merger securities are beyond the abilities of most small investors like myself. I’ve never owned an option or warrant in my life and place it in my “too hard” pile. You might want to tackle it and more power to you.
Like the spin-off section, Joel takes you through a few real-world examples of times that he purchased merger securities and did very well. I think the strategy is too hard to implement for the small investor, but you might disagree.
Emotions create mispricings. Greed and comfort with consensus create insane valuations for amazing companies. Revulsion, hatred, and fear create mispricings among “bad” companies. Nothing generates an “ick” feeling more than bankruptcy.
Joel does not recommend buying stock in bankrupt companies (that’s in the “too hard” pile”). The reason is apparent: equity holders can get wiped out in a bankruptcy. He does believe that the debt of bankrupt companies is often mispriced and offers incredible mispricings. Unfortunately, distressed debt investing is not only challenging to research for small investors but frequently impossible for anyone but an institution to invest in.
He believes that small investors can invest in companies emerging from bankruptcy or going through a restructuring. Often, a company went bankrupt only because it was loaded up with too much debt. They might have a viable business model that was merely being weighed down by too much debt. After emerging from bankruptcy or going through a healthy restructure, it may give the company an opportunity to shine. Meanwhile, the stigma of the bankruptcy creates a nice discount from intrinsic value.
Most classic value investors (me included) think that options are an area that is best for most people to avoid. I agree with this sentiment. Options (and warrants, which are the same thing) are a zero-sum game. Only one side of the trade wins: either the person who wrote the contract will win, or the person who bought the contract will win. They can’t both make money. Zero-sum games are usually areas of the market that are difficult for small investors to make money.
Joel takes a bit more of a liberal attitude towards options. While he doesn’t recommend actively trading options, he does suggest using long-term options (LEAPs – options contracts that mature in over a year) as a way to leverage up the return on a value stock. A LEAP will experience much more significant price swings than the overall stock. If a reasonably priced value stock experiences a 20% gain, for instance, the underlying LEAPs contract will experience a much more significant increase. It’s a way of leveraging up the bet, with the caveat that if the stock falls below the strike price, it will expire worthless. More risk, more reward.
Joel does not recommend that these bets comprise a significant portion of a portfolio, but argues that they can serve a place to amplify returns.
For me, I put all of this in my “too hard” pile. When I contemplate buying options or warrants, it sounds to me like someone saying “Let’s try crack. What could go wrong?”
You should read this book! My brief summary doesn’t do the book justice. While I gave you the broad strokes in this blog post, there is nothing like reading the book and going through the case studies which Joel provides. He provides you with his entire process: how he found out about a specific opportunity, what he liked about, where he researched it and how the idea worked out.
The first and last chapters are useful for developing a template for thinking about markets. As I stated earlier, the goal is to find mispricings. That often means going off the beaten path and finding forgotten and hated corners of the market. Joel provides a roadmap to a few areas that served him well, but they are by no means the only ways to do it.
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.