Category Archives: Book Review

International Index Investing: A Metric to Measure Quality

themazeA recap of my thinking

Recapping the last few blog posts: I think valuations are too high in the United States. Choose your poison: CAPE ratios, market cap to GDP, or the average investor allocation to equities. All suggest low returns in the coming decade.

At the same time, I know that attempting to time the US market using valuation is a fruitless effort. Markets can stay expensive for a long time. Since 2000, the US market has only gone to its “average” historical valuation once, in the depths of the 2009 financial crisis. Avoiding the market for a long time in a low return asset like cash or t-bills ultimately hurts future returns. It can even result in negative real returns if inflation picks up. If interest rates stay this low, then the market can certainly remain expensive. The direction of interest rates is the key question when determining future valuations.

For value investors, timing based on the valuation of the broader market is particularly tricky because there is often value in individual securities even if the broader market is overvalued. For instance, in the early 2000s, value stocks had a nice bull market while the broader market melted down. In Japan, while the broader market was crushed, Joel Greenblatt’s magic formula returned an amazing 18% annual rate of return from 1993-2006.

So, I think that a portfolio of 20-30 cheap stocks over the next 10 years will handily beat the S&P 500.

The caveats to this:

(1) Value doesn’t usually experience a bull market while everything else goes down. The only time this happened was the early 2000s. Value stocks normally go down with everything else. I suspect the current disconnect between value and growth stocks will see value triumphant, but we likely won’t see that happen until a decline happens in the broader market.

I suspect the current cycle will be more like the 1970s when value stocks went down with the broader market in 1973 and 1974 and then staged a very nice bull market after ’74.

The current cycle has much more in common with the early ’70s than it does with the late 1990s. The high flying stocks of the early ’70s weren’t crazy speculative companies like they were in the late ’90s. The hot stocks of the ’70s weren’t garbage like Pets.com, they were quality companies like McDonalds and Xerox. It’s the same thing today. The high valuations aren’t in junky speculative companies, they are in quality names like Facebook and Amazon.

The decline of 1973-74 wasn’t driven by a bubble popping like 2000, it was caused by a macro event (the oil crisis), which brought down the richly valued companies by bigger drawdowns than everything else. I think the same thing will probably happen to the US market this time around. What event will cause this is unpredictable (a war with North Korea, inflation causing a hike in interest rates?), but I think something is likely to come along that will cause a major drawdown.

A smart guy like Nassim Taleb would call this a “black swan” or “tail risk” event. I prefer a simpler way to express this: shit happens.

(2) Trying to time the US market with CAPE ratios is ineffective. The alternatives (cash, T-bills) do not yield enough to justify moving in and out of the US market. Tobias Carlisle did some great research on this here.

(3) Even value stocks are expensive in this market. For instance, a stock screen I like to comb through is the number of stocks trading at an EV/EBIT of less than 5. Out of the entire Russell 3000, I can only find 16 of them outside of the financial sector. Of these, half of them are in the retail sector.

At the beginning of 1999, there were 38 of these opportunities in a diversified group of industries. After the manic tech euphoria of 1999 where money flowed from “boring” stocks into tech, the number grew to 70 at the start of 2000. This group of stocks returned 20% in 2000, while the S&P 500 went down by 10.50%.

Expensive Value Stocks

The value opportunity set in the United States is currently limited.

Much of what fueled the early 2000s bull market in value stocks was the wide availability of cheap stocks in diverse industries. This simply isn’t the case today, as the small number of value opportunities in the U.S. is concentrated in one industry: retail.

I currently have 30% of my portfolio invested in the retail sector, which I’m comfortable with. If I were to buy all the cheap stocks in the United States, over 60% of my portfolio would be invested in retail. While I think retail stocks will ultimately stage a resurgence, I’m not certain of it. A 60-80% concentration in one industry is too risky. The sector could easily be cut in half again. 30% is the maximum extent that I am willing to commit to an individual industry. If retail were cut in half, my potential loss if 15% of my portfolio. If I expanded that to 60% or 80%, I could lose 30-40% of my entire portfolio. That’s a much more difficult event to recover from.

I could achieve more diversification by taking a relative valuation mindset to the current market, but I think this is dangerous. I prefer absolute measures of valuation — like a P/Sales of less than 1, the price is below tangible book, EV/EBIT of less than 5, 66% of net current asset value, earnings yields that double corporate bonds, etc.

A major reason I prefer absolute measures of valuation is that I think high valuation ratios in the cheapest decile of a market is a sign that the valuation metric is losing its effectiveness. A good example of this is price/book.

Price/book worked marvelously prior to the 1990s, but its effectiveness has been dramatically reduced since then. This is because Fama & French identified price/book as the best value factor. This made it respectable to buy low price/book stocks, while previously low price/book investors were regarded as oddballs (rich oddballs who consistently beat the market, like Walter Schloss!). Once Fama & French gave it their blessing, vast amounts of institutional money poured into low price/book strategies. Price/book became synonymous with value and this ruined the effectiveness of the factor.

If too much money chases low P/E, P/Sales, EV/EBIT stocks, then they will suffer the same fate as price/book. They will still work due to human nature (investors will always find ridiculously cheap stocks repulsive), but the effectiveness will be diminished. Institutional big money can ruin the factor. I think a good way to tell that this is happening is to focus on absolute metrics of valuation rather than relative valuation compared to the rest of the market. If too much money chases the value factor, then absolute measures of valuation will rise. By focusing on absolute levels of valuation, I can avoid this.

EV/EBIT is by far the best of all value factors, but if too much money chases it, the effectiveness will be reduced.

This is why I think focusing on absolute valuation is a way to prevent falling into this trap. Think about it through the prism of the real estate bubble: a house cheaper than the rest of the neighborhood was still a bad bet in 2006 because all real estate was in an inflated bubble. A single house might have been a good relative value and suffered less of a price decline than everything else, but it was still expensive. Focusing on an absolute level of valuation would have helped avoid this trap.

Going International

The beauty of the modern world is that I’m not limited to the United States. Previous generations of investors had a handful of options: cash, bonds, US stocks. Fortunately, I don’t have to sit on a pile of cash earning nothing while I wait for US markets to deliver me juicy opportunities, which is a bad strategy that can cause real inflation-adjusted losses the longer that the adjustment takes. I could wind up sitting on cash for a decade, absolutely decimating my real returns.

A great alternative to cash while the US market is expensive is investing internationally. While I don’t trust my ability to research foreign companies, I am comfortable investing in an index of a foreign country. While I think foreign stocks are more prone to fraud, I don’t think the financial results of an entire index can be fraudulent.

A few weeks ago, I did this in a very crude way. I invested 10% of my portfolio into a basket of the 5 cheapest country indexes on Earth.

If I’m going to do this in a bigger way, I need a better quality metric. It seems obvious to me that higher quality countries (like the United States) should command a higher valuation than a low-quality country. The definition of a bargain would also depend on the economic quality of that country. For instance, the US at a CAPE Ratio of 15 (where it was in 2009) is a screaming bargain, while Russia at a CAPE of 15 is probably a bit expensive in comparison to the risk. I’ll invest in a country of any quality – but I should demand a higher margin of safety if it is a low-quality country.

But how does one measure the “quality” of an entire country? This is a tough thing to quantify. Mainstream economists do this by splitting up the “developed” (i.e., already rich) parts of the world from “emerging” (trying to get rich) and “frontier” (poor). This doesn’t make sense to me to use as a quality metric. An emerging or frontier market may have better prospects than a developed, rich country.

What makes a country’s economy “quality”?

One of my favorite books about this subject is P.J. O’Rourke’s “Eat the Rich“.  P.J. has written some of my favorite books of all time (Parliament of Whores in particular).

eattherich

In the book, P.J. tries to define what makes countries “good” economically. His question is pretty simple: “Why do some places prosper and thrive, while others just suck?”

P.J. explains the conundrum in the following passage:

It’s not a matter of brains. No part of the earth (with the possible exception of Brentwood) is dumber than Beverly Hills, and the residents are wading in gravy. In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they’re boiling stones for soup. Nor can education be the reason. Fourth graders in the American school system know what a condom is but aren’t sure about 9 x 7. Natural resources aren’t the answer. Africa has diamonds, gold, uranium, you name it. Scandinavia has little and is frozen besides. Maybe culture is the key, but wealthy regions such as the local mall are famous for lacking it.

Perhaps the good life’s secret lies in civilization. The Chinese had an ancient and sophisticated civilization when my relatives were hunkering naked in trees. (Admittedly that was last week, but they’d been drinking.) In 1000 B.C., when Europeans were barely using metal to hit each other over the head, the Zhou dynasty Chinese were casting ornate wine vessels big enough to take a bath in–something else no contemporary European had done. Yet, today, China stinks.

Government does not cause affluence. Citizens of totalitarian countries have plenty of government and nothing of anything else. And absence of government doesn’t work, either. For a million years mankind had no government at all, and everyone’s relatives were naked in trees. Plain hard work is not the source of plenty. The poorer people are, the plainer and harder is the work that they do. The better-off play golf. And technology provides no guarantee of creature comforts. The most wretched locales in the world are well-supplied with complex and up-to-date technology–in the form of weapons.

You should read the whole book (it’s really funny), but the gist is pretty simple: what causes prosperity is economic freedom. Economic freedom doesn’t just mean “people can do whatever they want”, it is capitalism within a defined rule of law that is enforced.

The magic ingredient that can make a country rich is economic freedom, and it’s what turned the United States from a third world nation of farmers into the richest country on Earth that it is today over a relatively short span of history. The people of the United States weren’t more talented or better than anyone else. We were the first to wholeheartedly embrace capitalism while the rest of the world fiddled around with bad ideas like feudalism, mercantilism, socialism, and communism.

The secret to US success is now out.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, economic freedom has been advancing throughout the world (even though it has retreated in its birthplace, the United States). The worldwide spread of capitalism and economic freedom have been profoundly positive for humanity. In fact, the global rate of poverty has been cut in half since 1990. It’s not a coincidence that this decline began at the exact moment that the Soviet Union collapsed. As the world embraces capitalism, it is growing increasingly prosperous as a result.

If we acknowledge that economic freedom is the best measure of the “quality” of a country, how do we quantify that?

The Index of Economic Freedom

The Heritage Foundation has done the world a service by quantifying economic freedom in their index of economic freedom, which they update annually.

They define economic freedom in four key categories:

  1. Rule of law – property rights, judicial effectiveness, government integrity.
  2. Government size – tax burden, government spending, fiscal health.
  3. Regulatory efficiency – business freedom, labor freedom, monetary freedom.
  4. Market openness – Trade freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom, openness to foreign competition.

Each category is scored and the total is grouped in the following levels:

Free: 100-80 (Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore)

Mostly Free: 79.9-70 (The United States, Ireland, the UK, Sweden)

Moderately Free: 69.9-60 (Israel, Japan, Mexico, Turkey)

Mostly Unfree: 59.5-50 (Russia, Egypt, Iran, China)

Repressed: 49.9-40 (Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, Afghanistan)

Going forward, I think I will buy “free” and “mostly free” countries (a score of 70-100) if their CAPE Ratio is below 15. By this metric, Singapore is the most attractive market in the world right now, with a CAPE ratio of 12.9 against an economic freedom score of 88.6.

If I’m going to buy countries that are “mostly unfree”, I should demand a higher margin of safety — i.e., it should be a compelling bargain, with a CAPE ratio below 10. Russia would be defined as “mostly unfree” (Russia currently has a score of 57.1). However, at Russia’s current CAPE ratio of 5.6, it would still meet my requirements and provide an adequate margin of safety.

The quick and dirty way I think about P/E ratios or CAPE ratios is in terms of earnings yield. Take the P/E or CAPE ratio and divide it with 1. For instance, Russia’s CAPE is 5.6, so its earnings yield (1/5.6) is an astounding 17.85%, well worth the heightened risk of owning that country’s stocks. The US, with a CAPE ratio of 30, would have an earnings yield of 3.33%. This means US investors can expect a total return of about 34% in the coming decade. In comparison, if Russia delivers a compounded return of 17.85%, it’s a return of 438%.

It’s also important to consider that the returns will be lumpy. Much of the return could be concentrated in a few years and there will likely be a large drawdown at some point. Stocks deliver high returns because of these drawdowns. The high returns of stocks are a compensation for this risk. The US returns aren’t terrible, especially when compared to bonds, but they’re nothing to get excited about.

Among the other two positions I chose, Poland and Turkey, they are in the murkier area of “moderately free”. I think I’ll buy these type of markets when they get below a CAPE ratio of 12.

Here is where my current positions stack up in terms of both CAPE ratio and standings in the index of economic freedom:

Capture

Using these guidelines, I made a good choice with both Singapore and Russia, but likely paid too much for Brazil and Poland. As I expand my position in international indexes while the US market is expensive, I will use the index of economic freedom as a rough quality metric when determining the appropriate price to pay for each country.

When I rebalance my portfolio in December, I am going to expand this segment of my portfolio. When the US market suffers a drawdown, I will reduce this segment of my portfolio and purchase more bargain stocks boasting low absolute valuation metrics.

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.

“There’s Always Something to Do” by Christopher Risso-Gill

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I just finished “There’s Always Something To Do” and enjoyed the book. It is a quick read about one of the greatest investors of all time, Peter Cundill. Peter was a fascinating and wise individual. In addition to successfully navigating the markets, Peter also valued fitness and regularly ran marathons in under 3 hours.

Sadly, Peter passed away at the age of 72 after a struggle with a rare neurological disorder, ActiveX.

Peter Cundill’s Epiphany

Peter Cundill was a Canadian investor who began investing in the late 1950s and 1960s. He had value instincts, but never took a true value-oriented approach during that period and was disappointed by his results.

In 1973 at the age of 35, Cundill read “Super Money” by Adam Smith on a plane ride. “Supermoney” took a close look at the insane money culture of the 1960s (not dissimilar from the insane money culture that rears its ugly head during every bull market) and found one group of people who stuck out as different: the disciples of Benjamin Graham. Featured prominently were a young Warren Buffett and Walter Schloss.

Reading the book was an epiphany for Cundill. He absorbed all of Graham and Dodd’s work. Of particular interest to him was Chapter 41 of Security Analysis, “The Asset Value Factor in Common Stock Valuation”. After a careful evaluation of Graham and Dodd’s work, Cundill decided to launch his value-oriented strategy. He explained the shift in strategy in a letter to his investors in which he said:

“The essential concept is to buy under-valued, unrecognized, neglected, out of fashion, or misunderstood situations where inherent value, a margin of safety, and the possibility of sharply changing conditions created new and favorable investment opportunities.”

The Peter Cundill Stock Screen

In addition to explaining the overall strategy, Cundill also set strict quantitative criteria for his fund. The criteria included:

  • The price must be less than book value, preferably less than net working capital.
  • The price must be less than one half of the former high and preferably at or near its all-time low.
  • The price-earnings multiple must be less than 10 or the inverse of the long-term corporate bond rate, whichever is the less.
  • Over the last five years, the company was profitable each year and increased its earnings over the five year period.
  • The company must pay dividends
  • Low levels of long-term debt.

Peter also set sell rules for his fund, agreeing to sell at last half of any given position after its price had doubled. Peter looked throughout the world for bargain stocks. He didn’t restrict himself to North American markets and scoured the world for bargains. Every year, he visited the worst performing market in the world while searching for investment opportunities.

He launched his fund at an opportune moment for value investing in 1974, after the calamitous bear market of 1973-74 when everything was crushed.

To give some perspective on how many bargains were available on the market in 1974, here is a great exchange between Forbes magazine and Warren Buffet. Forbes: “How do you feel?” Buffett: “Like an oversexed guy in a whorehouse. Now is the time to invest and get rich.”

Peter’s first decade of deep value investing was extraordinarily successful: from 1974 to 1984, his fund delivered a 26% rate of return.

International Cigar Butts

Peter pursued investment opportunities of the “cigar butt” variety. He didn’t adhere to the Buffett style of buying wonderful companies and holding for the long term. Cundill bought deeply undervalued securities and sold when they reached fair value.

He also didn’t restrict himself to stocks and he took up large positions in distressed debt.

Peter was called the “Canadian Buffett,” but I think his approach shares more similarities with the investment style of Seth Klarman.

Peter’s Wisdom

The book is a short, quick read and covers Peter’s investment career and his unfortunate illness. I wish the book covered Peter’s personal life a bit more in depth, but it was still a good read and filled with bits of Peter’s wisdom. Some of my favorite Peter Cundill quotes are below:

  • “The most important attribute for success in value investing is patience, patience, and more patience. The majority of investors do not possess this characteristic.”
  • “The value method of investing will tend to give better results in slightly down to indifferent markets and less relatively sparkling results in a raging bull market. What matters, however, is that the method will provide a consistent compound rate of return in the middle teens over very long periods of time.”
  • “I’m buying your stock because it’s cheap and for no other reason.” – Peter’s response to the management of J. Walter Thompson, who didn’t understand why Peter was buying their stock!
  • “I think that the financial community devotes far too much time and mental resource to its constant efforts to predict the economic future and consequent stock market behavior using a disparate, and almost certainly incomplete, set of statistical variables.”
  • Particularly relevant: “Computers actually don’t do much more than making it quicker for investors to react to information. The problem is that having the information in its raw state on a second by second basis is not all the same thing as interpreting and understanding its implications, and this applies in rising markets as well as falling ones. Spur of the moment reactions to partially digested information are, more often than not, disastrous.”
  • “If it is cheap enough, we don’t care what it is.”
  • “Curiosity is the engine of civilization. If I were to elaborate it would be to say read, read, read and don’t forget to talk to people, really talk, listening with attention and having conversations, on whatever topic, that are an exchange of thoughts. Keep the reading broad, beyond just the professional. This helps to develop one’s sense of perspective on all matters.”
  • “I think it is very useful to develop a contrarian cast of mind combined with a keen sense of what I would call “the natural order of things.” If you can cultivate these two attributes you are unlikely to become infected by dogma and you will begin to have a predisposition towards lateral thinking – making important connections intuitively.”

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.

“The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe

fourthturning

A Lucky Trip to the Bookstore

When I was a kid, I went with my family to Wildwood, NJ every summer.

As a geek, instead of spending time in the sun like a normal kid, I was mainly drawn to the shore for the pizza and arcades. I would spend most of my time either in an arcade or reading a book.

I’d also make a habit of taking my lawn mowing earnings and buying a book on the boardwalk that I would read back in the motel.

In the summer of 1998, I came across a book that grabbed my attention. It was called Generations: A History of America’s Future from 1584 to 2069. The book (published in 1991) told the story of America’s history as a series of generational biographies. It also informed me that those born during 1982 and after were part of a new generation, called Millennials. (Yes, they coined the term.)

The authors, William Strauss and Neil Howe, were trying to find out if the generation gap that existed between the baby boomers and the G.I. generation during the 1960s was a unique event. They found out that not only was it not a unique event, but there is a rhythm to history caused by different generations interacting with each other.

I finished Generations in that weekend, and I was transfixed by the story. It was a unique way to look at history. Most history books are simply a recounting of events. It never captured what people actually experienced and thought during those times. I went home to my dial-up internet connection and found that they just came out with another book, The Fourth TurningI found that one at a local bookstore and quickly devoured it.

I then found out that Strauss and Howe were active in an online forum hosted on their website for The Fourth Turning. I signed up for an account and interacted with a brilliant community of people who were quite accepting and tolerant of me, a 16-year-old kid who knew very little about anything. I learned a lot interacting with them.

Eventually, I went with my parents and traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet the authors. They were kind and wonderful people. I was very sad to hear years later that William Strauss passed away after a struggle with pancreatic cancer.

I was very fortunate to meet them and become familiar with their unique ideas.

Strauss & Howe’s Theory

Strauss & Howe noticed a rhythm to history. They discovered that there is a cycle of generations that persists throughout history. The generational cycle fuels a sequence of historical moods, defined below. These 4 distinct moods last for roughly 20 years and form an 80-year sequence.

Cycles of History

High – The most recent high was the “American High” that lasted from the end of World War II through the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A high takes place after a civilization-defining crisis. The last crisis was the Great Depression & World War II. After the Crisis is over, everyone wants to get back to normal. Pragmatic civic solutions are embraced and the culture has a long-term orientation. Think of the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower: interstate highway systems, the establishment of NASA, reductions in public debt. It is an era of strong public institutions and public cohesiveness. Critics would say that highs are also eras of stifling conformity and a lack of creativity. During a high, the outer world is doing well, while the inner world is neglected.

Awakening – The most recent Awakening was the “Consciousness Revolution”. Young people rebelled against the conformity and strong institutions created during the Crisis and strengthened during the High. This is an era during which the established institutions are criticized. A new generation of young people emerges with their own take on morality and culture. It is an era of the challenge to the status quo and a focus on new ideas about values and morality. Cultural creativity surges. While institutions were strong and conformity was reinforced during the high, during an awakening the emphasis of society begins to shift to individualism and new ideas. An awakening is an era in which culture undergoes a renaissance and is fundamentally changed.

I think that Awakenings are the most enlightening and thought-provoking eras in history.

Unraveling – The most recent Unravelling was defined as the “Culture Wars” by Strauss and Howe. In retrospect, I think “The Great Moderation” (coined by economists) is a tremendous alternative term for it. After society has gone through a consciousness-altering and culture shattering awakening, the values of the Awakening begin to become ingrained in our culture. People want to move on and focus on their own lives. This was very much the attitude of the mid-1980s. After the Generation Gap, Vietnam, Watergate, and cultural upheaval, people wanted to settle down and focus on their own lives. The attitude is “after all that, let’s have a good time.”

The culture becomes fragmented and individualistic, with everyone free to pursue their own interests and passions. From the perspective of some, this is an isolating force. Meanwhile, distrust in institutions is high, and they began to show signs of stress. Problems start to brew but are ignored (slavery before the Civil War, the sovereignty of the colonies before the American Revolution, the lack of an international order due to the decline of the British Empire before World War II).

I think that Unravellings are probably the most fun of all the historical eras. Of course, all of that fun comes at a dire cost.

Crisis – We are currently in a Crisis. When the current crisis began is subject to debate. I would argue that it started on 9/11, while I believe Neil Howe says it started in 2008. I prefer 9/11 . . . because I’m an optimist and I would like the Crisis to be resolved sooner rather than later!

The last Crisis was the Great Depression & World War II. This is when the problems that were brewing during the Unravelling come to a head. The institutions that were weakened during the Unravelling, now fall apart and are replaced.

During a Crisis, problems that were mounting during an Unravelling become too big to ignore any longer. Old institutions are torn down and new ones are created. Unfortunately, this unique mood tends to create wars and financial crises.

On the positive side, while Crises throw everything into turmoil, they make the world a stronger place. They create institutions and leadership that beget a stabler and stronger world.

The cycle of historical moods creates a cycle of generations that are shaped by the events. The generations at different life stages create the unique cultural mood of each turning in the cycle. The two drive each other in a kind of historical ecosystem. The generational cycle is below:

Prophets – These are the children of a High. The current example of this is the baby boom generation. Their parents went through hell in the Crisis, and they are determined to create a good life for their children. They are indulged as children. They are encouraged to be inquisitive and to think about the weightier issues facing their civilization. They grow up with a distinctly ideological, moralistic, crusading attitude that carries them through into adulthood. Growing up in a stifling and conformist world that values the technical over the spiritual, they want to create the opposite of that.

Prophets produce intensely ideological leaders and some of the most creative people in history. There is a reason that this generation produced people like Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg. Creativity and expression are a part of the baby boomer DNA.

Nomads – Nomads are the children of an Awakening. While adults focus on their inner world and challenge cultural conventions, Nomads are left with a mostly unsupervised childhood in which they are encouraged to find themselves and learn about the world on their own. Their parents, the “artist” archetype, grew up with a stifling and strict childhood during the Crisis. They want to give their children more freedom and less structure. This childhood causes Nomads to get into a lot of trouble, but it also creates a generation of richly individualistic and rugged people. Think about ’80s teen movies. There are no parents in sight and if they are around, they’re clueless about what’s going on. They don’t make movies like that anymore because the dynamic wouldn’t resonate with modern audiences.

Parents in modern movies tend to be deeply involved in their child’s lives (for good or bad) because that’s the current dynamic.

Pathologies increase during Nomad youth (drugs, crime, teen pregnancy, etc.), but so does entrepreneurialism. The current example of this is Generation X. It includes some of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time, people like Jeff Bezos. Before them, the last example was the Lost Generation — veterans of World War I, participants in the roaring 20s, and people like Dwight Eisenhower who led society through the Crisis. Growing up in a world that has its head in the clouds, they want to return the world to pragmatic reality.

Heroes – Heroes are the children of an Unravelling. Their parents are predominantly Prophets who want to instill their ideas and values into their children. They are fiercely devoted to raising their children and maximizing their future. They are nurtured as children but given more structure and attention from society than Nomads. The current example is the Millennial generation.

While Generation X was growing up, for instance, Disney ceased making animated films, and the culture became somewhat indifferent towards young children. All of that changed with the arrival of Millennials, with a society entirely focused on preparing children for the future. Pathologies get better — Millennials actually improved crime rates, SAT scores, and have lower rates of teen pregnancy than their Xer peers. They are conformist and prone to groupthink, far less individualistic than their Xer and Boomer elders. They also tend to be more optimistic than Prophets and Nomads.

The last hero generation was the G.I. Generation, Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”. This was the generation that was young adults during the Great Depression and World War II, who rose to the occasion and acted as a group to save the country. It’s yet to be seen if Millennials will live up to the last Hero generation. I think they will rise to the occasion if challenged. If they don’t . . . well, then I guess I’ll have to focus more on my low Shiller PE international strategy. (I’m biased.)

Growing up during a complacent Unravelling with weakening institutions, Heroes want to see a world that is the opposite of that. Instead of weak institutions, they want healthy institutions, and they want to see those institutions do big things. Big things can be good or bad – think of the Moon landing and the Vietnam War. They are two sides to the same coin. Instead of rampant individualism, they want to create a cohesive conformist culture.

Hero generations are marked by their positive and optimistic attitude. You can see this in modern Millennials. This is in sharp contrast to the youthful attitudes of the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, when it was “cool” to be cynical. It’s not anymore.

Artists – Artists are the children of a Crisis. They are raised primarily by Nomads. Nomads become strict and structured parents after seeing all the trouble that they got into with free reign in their youth. Artists are raised during a civilization-threatening Crisis and this also impacts their outlook. They grow up to be largely conformist young adults, with a deep yearning to break free of that. Entering midlife during an Awakening, they lead the charge into breaking free of conformity and rules. Think of Martin Luther King Jr.

The last Artist generation is the Silent Generation, born between roughly 1930 and 1945. Growing up with strong conformist institutions, they want to see society break free of that and create a more individualistic world. The most prominent member of the Silent Generation in the investing world is the one and only Warren Buffett.

Side note: I love to think of the dynamic between Benjamin Graham (a Nomad  member of the Lost Generation) and Warren (an Artist member of the Silent Generation). Graham was focused in an almost cynical way on intrinsic value to eliminate losses (i.e., the cigar butt approach) after experiencing the speculative fervor of the Unravelling (the 1920s). Graham’s focus was always on how much he could lose and not how much he could make. Warren, while he internalized Graham’s lessons about margin of safety and intrinsic value, took a much more optimistic view of the world (as Artists tend to do) and instead pursued the purchase of “wonderful companies at good prices” and holding for the long term. That right there shows a dynamic between a Nomad view of the world and an Artist perspective.

Criticisms

On the surface, the theory of generational archetypes coming in sequence and seasons of history sounds a bit new-agey and mystical. It’s really not. Strauss and Howe’s observation is simply that different generations raise their children in unique ways (usually in critical ways that are different from the way they were raised). Those children then grow up and raise their children differently than the way their parents raised them. They think they are doing something “unique,” but most of it was already done before.

The cycle of different generations raising their children in different ways creates unique personalities to generations.

These personalities align at different life stages create unique cultural moods. A society in which Artists are calling the shots (i.e., the ’80s and ’90s) will be uniquely individualistic to a point where younger generations will find it isolating (think Bowling Alone). A society in which Nomads are calling the shots (the late 1940s and 1950s) will be pragmatic to the point where younger people find it soul-deadening (think The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit).  A nation run by Prophets (the 2000s and today) will seem overrun with overblown ideology. A society run by Heroes (the 1960s and 1970s) will seem capable of achieving anything, but spiritually empty.

Another criticism is the claim that the generational theory is a vain attempt to predict events. This is not the case. Good and bad events happen throughout each stage of history. Strauss and Howe are quick to point out that they are not anticipating specific events, they are predicting a general cultural mood that will react to events in unique ways.

A Crisis era generational alignment (Prophets are in power, Nomads are in Midlife, Heroes are young adults) will react to events differently than an Unravelling era generational alignment (Artists are in power, Prophets are in Midlife, Nomads are young adults). In an Unravelling, after a foreign attack, the country will try to find a quick solution. In a Crisis, after a foreign attack, the Prophet instinct will be to use this as an opportunity to enact sweeping changes and mobilize. Think of George W. Bush’s declaration of an “Axis of Evil” after 9/11.

A crisis is merely an era in which institutions are run by Prophets. Prophets tend to have itchy trigger fingers to impose their moral will, and they will have a compliant cohort of young Heroes who can help them make that happen. This doesn’t mean a war must be the way that the crisis is resolved, but the unique assembly of generations at different lifecycles raises the probability of it.

That’s the key to generational theory. It’s not the events themselves that drive history, it is the reaction of civilization to those unique events.

Similarly, an Unravelling is an era in which Artists are running the show and want society to fully embrace individualism. With crumbling institutions and an individualistic entrepreneurial “kill what you eat” young cohort of Nomads, it’s natural for a society to become financially reckless.

Another criticism is that this theory ignores the unique personality of people within a generation, who may not ascribe to these stereotypes. This is valid, but I think it’s hard to deny that each generation has a unique personality. There are people within the generation who defy generational stereotypes, but on the whole, they do have a distinct character, and there are commonalities.

The Bad News & The Good News

The next 10 years will likely see this era resolve itself. 2025 is exactly 80 years after 1945, the year that the last crisis ended. This means that we are entering a dangerous time in history in which we will need to rise to the occasion. We will face a challenge of history on par with the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. New institutions will likely be created, and old ones will be torn down.

I hope this era doesn’t end the United State’s position are the world’s preeminent superpower, but that is indeed a possibility. It might very well set the stage for another country’s emergence as a superpower. It may also result in better global institutions and cooperation.

The excellent news is that regardless of how this crisis shakes out, it’s eventually going to be over and we will enter the First Turning in the next decade. The First Turning will be rigid, conformist and corporatist — but the economy will likely do very well, and I’ll take that over a Crisis.

Investing & Economics

In terms of investing ideas, I was struck by how Strauss and Howe’s ideas align with Ray Dalio’s thoughts about the long-term debt cycle. Dalio identified an 80-year debt cycle (the last one culminated in 2008, the one before that in 1929) that strongly aligns with Strauss and Howe’s theories.

Dalio has a mammoth paper about this, that is well worth your time. He also has an excellent short video explaining this that I’ve mentioned before on this blog.

Another interesting parallel is the work of Hyman Minsky. Minsky described a financial cycle which I think fits into the larger 80-year cycle. Minsky’s idea (similar to Dalio’s) is that debt drives the long-term economic cycle. After a financial crisis (the Great Depression or the 2008 financial crisis), firms avoid debt. This reduces the risks to the financial system. Over time, the reduced financial risk will ultimately spur more lending and borrowing. Increasing debt levels increases the risks to the financial system, which ultimately turn into a Crisis moment. The Crisis moment changes attitudes towards debt, and the cycle repeats.

(Disclaimer: As I wrote earlier, while Macro is a lot of fun to think and theorize about, it is in most investor’s interest to avoid it. Even though I know this, I simply can’t help myself!)

Conclusion

I think you should read this book. This book changed the way I look at the world and I think it will change your perspective, too. You’ll not only gain unique insights into history, you will begin to see people of different generations in a new light. Current events will also make a lot of sense through a generational lens.

Even if you don’t buy into Strauss and Howe’s theory, you will enjoy looking at history through the perspective of culture and people instead of a simple recounting of events.

“Deep Value” by Tobias Carlisle

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Deep Value” by Tobias Carlisle is one of my favorite books. I have a brief review in the books section of this website, but I think it is worthy of a more in depth review. The price of the book is expensive, but it is well worth it!

Mr. Market is Crazy

For years, I’ve believed that value investing works. It makes sense to me intuitively. It’s better to buy something cheap than something that’s expensive. I’ve read The Intelligent InvestorSecurity Analysis and all of Joel Greenblatt’s books and internalized the lessons. It just makes sense to me to buy earnings and assets for as little as possible.

It also makes sense to me that markets are fallible. I spent my high school years (I graduated high school in 2000) fascinated with a seemingly unstoppable market. I was only a teenager, but it seemed crazy to me that companies producing no earnings could command such high valuations. I remember thinking at the time: “It makes no sense, but these people know more than I do about the subject.” It turns out that they didn’t. An army of market prognosticators with extensive experience and impressive academic credentials were no smarter than me, a 17-year-old kid who hadn’t even gone to college yet.

I went through a similar experience during the real estate bubble. When I looked at charts of real estate prices, I once again instinctively thought that it was insane. Homes were increasing by 30% a year when incomes were stagnant and the raw materials to build the homes weren’t going up. It made no sense. Once again, I turned to the experts. Few were raising any alarms or taking the problem seriously. Surely, a financial bubble couldn’t form in an asset as illiquid and solid as real estate. I assumed that the experts must be right and I must be missing something. After all, they were more knowledgeable than I was. Then, along came 2008.

In 2008 during the crash, I kept thinking back to Benjamin Graham’s description of Mr. Market that I read about in The Intelligent Investor. Ben Graham was right. The stuff I learned in college about efficient markets couldn’t be true. Mr. Market is crazy and Ben Graham was right all along.

Why does it work?

While I believed that value investing works and this was confirmed by my observations, I never understood why it worked. It makes sense that buying dollar bills for 50 cents will work out in the long run, but how is this value realized?

Ben Graham was actually asked this question by Congress in the following exchange:

Chairman J. William Fulbright: What causes a cheap stock to find its value?

Benjamin Graham: That is one of the mysteries of our business, and it is a mystery to me as well as to everybody else.

This is the key question that “Deep Value” delves into, through an analysis of data and real world examples.

Mean Reversion

The most powerful force through which value is realized is mean reversion. I always thought of mean reversion in the sense of a stock chart, a price will revert to the mean.

What Tobias explains is that mean reversion applies less to stock charts and more to the actual performance of a business. Tobias explains, for instance, that the biggest earnings gainers of the next few years are typically the worst performing businesses. Other similar studies are brought up in the describing this tendency of businesses to change course.

Poorly performing businesses are trying to turn things around. They are not resting on their laurels. Meanwhile, changes are typically occurring in their industries that are improving things for the better.

I think it’s easiest to think of this phenomenon in terms of chemical companies and basic economics. Chemical companies can all produce the same thing. They all have the same resources. If a chemical runs up in price, all of the chemical companies are going to make more of it. At this point, all of the chemical companies are doing great and their stocks are likely to be bid up to high valuations. Eventually, the chemical will be over-produced and it will drop in price. All of the chemical companies will drop to low valuations. This situation sets the stage for the recovery. The chemical companies will inevitably scale back production. Some companies may go out of business, which will further reduce supply. The reduction in supply will eventually spur an increase in the price, which will ultimately lead to a recovery in the chemical business.

Meanwhile, news stories will be written about what a terrible business it is to produce this chemical, causing this wisdom to seep into the minds of investors. There then exists a situation where chemical companies can be purchased at a discount at a nadir in the business that is about to turn around.

The situation is doubly lucrative: a cheap stock at a point in the business cycle where it is about to turn around.

The lesson here is that human beings tend to think that the future will unfold like the past. Trends that are in place today will go on forever. This is rarely the case and it is one that Tobias demonstrates through a careful analysis of the data.

Mean reversion in business is the main force driving the realization of value.

The Illusion of “Quality”

Prior to reading deep value, I always assumed that the best course for the value investor was to combine “cheap” with “quality”. Yes, there are cheap ugly stocks out there, but many of them are dreaded “value traps”. Meanwhile, careful analysis can lead an astute investor to value investing gems: cheap companies that don’t have any real problems, companies that are growing and generating attractive returns on capital.

Tobias reveals that adding elements such as growth or high returns on capital to a value model actually underperforms cheap by itself. The ugliest value stocks are frequently the ones that lead to the highest future outperformance. This makes sense: if something is truly cheap, there must be a reason for it, and the scarier the reason then the better the bargain an investor will get. Moreover, the uglier the stock, the more likely its prospects for mean reversion.

This lesson is reinforced throughout the book with real world examples and massive quantities of data.

The Acquirer’s Multiple

Tobias’s preferred metric of “cheapness” is Operating Income/Enterprise Value (or other variants, such as EBIT/EV or EBITDA/EV). He provides data showing this metric’s historic outperformance. I found the same thing in my own backtesting, and O’Shaughnessy also verifies this in his most recent edition of What Works on Wall Street in which EBITDA/EV is given a prominent chapter.

The multiple works because it identifies stocks that are not only cheap but have healthy balance sheets. The balance sheet health allows them to survive whatever problems that the business (or industry) is enduring.

Another reason it works is that the metric is most often used by acquirers such as private equity firms.

What is Deep Value?

Another goal of this book is explaining how “deep value” is distinct from other types of value investing.

Most associate value investing with the investing style of Warren Buffett. Buffett began his career buying what he derisively called “cigar butts”, or simple cheap stocks. They were cigar butts in the sense that you could pick them up off the street for free because they were so cheap, and enjoy one last puff.

Buffett moved on from this style for a few reasons. The first was the influence of Charlie Munger, who was less influenced by Graham and was more interested in buying quality businesses.

The second was scale. Buffett became too big to nimbly buy a cheap low capitalization cigar butt, take his free puff, and move on. Frequently, Buffett had to buy up such large quantities of cigar butts where he became mired in the operational struggle.

The second was a handful of experiences that pushed Buffett in the direction of greater quality investments. In investments such as Dempster Mill (a struggling manufacturer of farm equipment) and Hochschild Kohn (a retailer forced to compete at razor thin margins in Baltimore), Buffett had to take controlling influence in each company to turn them around. In both situations, controlling a struggling company took its toll and consumed significant time from Buffett.

The experiences with Dempster and Hochschild stood in contrast to a different kind of investment that Buffett made in the 1970s: See’s Candy. See’s was a good business with a great brand. It generated high returns on capital and required little meddling. Once Buffett bought See’s and saw the benefits of high returns on capital, there was no turning back, and this became the basis for his future investment style. From then on, he bought large stakes in companies generating high returns on capital and held onto them for long periods of time to let them compound.

The 1970s and onward style of Buffett’s investing career is what most people think of when they hear “value investing”. Deep value, in contrast, is the style of investing that Warren Buffett used earlier in his career when he was managing smaller sums of capital and generated higher rates of return. Deep value is the style originally advocated by Benjamin Graham and later applied by investors such as Walter Schloss.

Deep value is buying cheap for the sake of being cheap and allowing mean reversion to return the stock to its intrinsic value.

The Buffett style of investing is certainly preferable because it generates higher compounded returns for longer periods of time, but it is extremely difficult to find businesses that generate high returns on capital that will not succumb to the forces of mean reversion. It is also a crowded trade, as all value investors are attempting to marry quality with cheapness.

Practical Application

Tobias maintains an excellent free stock screener keeping track of the best-ranking stocks according to the acquirer’s multiple, which you can use to systematically implement a value investing strategy. The large cap version is free, he also offers a paid version for the all-cap universe.

Recommendation

It’s rare that a book comes along that changes my mind and makes me see things from a different perspective. “Deep Value” was one of those books. I’ve read it three times so far and each time I gain a greater insight into the ideas that it conveys. I can’t give it a higher recommendation.

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.

“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

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Years ago, I heard about a book called “Ready Player One“. I fully intended to check it out, but forgot about it and was sidetracked.

A short time ago, I read that Stephen Spielberg was working on a movie adaptation of the book and thought I had to check it out for myself.

Boy, was that a great decision! “Ready Player One” was one of the most fun books I’ve read in years.

The Book

“Ready Player One” is set in a dystopian 2044.  The world finally hit “peak oil” decades earlier and the world has been consumed by an energy crisis ever since.  The energy crisis triggered a worldwide depression and increases the occurrence of war, famine. The middle class has essentially disappeared and the poor live in trailers stacked high into the sky.

To escape from the world, users go to the OASIS. The OASIS is a virtual world. Users can put on a pair of virtual reality glasses and be transported to any place, limited only by their imaginations. Most fictional worlds are covered — there are authentic recreations of different universes: Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Middle Earth, Blade Runner . . . just to name a few. Most of humanity spends all of their time in this virtual universe, mainly because the outside world is so horrific and the online world is so completely immersive.

At the beginning of the book, the creator of the OASIS (James Halliday) dies. With no living heirs, he leaves behind his entire fortune and controlling interest in the OASIS to whoever can find it in a series of puzzles embedded in the OASIS. Halliday creates a series of quests and puzzles in the OASIS for whomever can solve them. They are all rooted in his obsession with the 1980s and early video games.

The protagonist of the book (Wade Watts, known in the OASIS as Parzival) is one of millions of people looking for Halliday’s Easter Egg. He’s poor and growing up in a stack of trailer homes. As you might imagine, he’s up against significant competition, including a rival multi-billion dollar corporation intent on seizing the OASIS and Halliday’s fortune for themselves by any means necessary.

The Fun

The book is incredibly fun. Not only is it a great adventure with interesting characters and a compelling vision of the future, but it is a deep nostalgic trip into the 1980s. It includes references to everything imaginable from the decade. The protagonist’s virtual meeting room in the OASIS is modeled after the living room from “Family Ties“. One of the quests involves the movie “War Games”. Things covered include Rush, Pac-Man, obscure video games like “Dungeons of Daggorath“, pizza shop arcades . . . actually, it’s hard to think of what facets of pop culture from the ’80s aren’t covered. The protagonist even drives a Back to the Future inspired Delorean in the Oasis. Naturally, it is capable of space flight and light speed!

I grew up completely absorbed in the pop culture of the 1980s and the decade has a special place in my heart, so that’s probably a major reason why I loved this book. It was also nice to read a book written by fellow geek who loves the decade even more than I do. My video game experiences are mostly from the NES and SNES era, but I could still appreciate all of the Atari references.

Recommendation

If you’re looking to kick back and go on a rip roaring adventure, I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s the perfect summer read. Definitely check it out before the movie comes out next year.

Next on the agenda is Cline’s second book, Armada.  I’ll let you know what I think when I finish 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.

“The Map and the Territory” by Alan Greenspan

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I recently finished Alan Greenspan’s 2013 book, The Map and the TerritoryThe book is Greenspan’s attempt to explain what went wrong in 2008 and why it shocked most economists.

Greenspan Hate

Since 2008, it has become quite fashionable to hate on Alan Greenspan. Right wingers in the mold of gold bugs and Ludwig von Mises acolytes look at him as someone who fine-tuned the economy into oblivion. Left wingers look at him as a libertarian ideologue who was close friends with Ayn Rand and stripped the financial sector of regulation and let banks do whatever they want, leading the economy into oblivion.

In the current environment of bipartisan vitriol, it seems crazy that back around the year 2000, Greenspan was lauded as a genius and the greatest Fed chairman of all time. The title of Bob Woodward’s 2000 book about Greenspan reflects the popular sentiment: MaestroGreenspan was the Mozart of economics, solely responsible for the economic miracle of the late 1990s.

When someone’s reputation becomes that pumped up, it’s bound to mean revert.

Mean reversion can be quite nasty. The praise heaped on Greenspan in the late ’90s and early 2000s was more than he deserved. Similarly, the hatred heaped on him lately is also not deserved. What is amusing is that the recent criticism simultaneously paints him as both an interventionist and a libertarian ideologue. Greenspan hatred is bipartisan, but the reasons for the hatred are completely contradictory.

The Record

I think that Greenspan made some mistakes, but they have to be weighed against his triumphs. His record as Fed chairman was often exemplary, even considering the mistakes he made at the end. He wasn’t an ideologue. He was a pragmatist who tried to navigate the mess of our government to achieve the best possible result. My guess is that he started out as a gold-bug Ayn Rand libertarian, but realized that purist libertarian idealism wasn’t compatible with getting jobs in government where he could actually wield influence. He wanted to actually influence public policy, not just talk about it. To be effective, he had to be open to compromise.

That Greenspan era is referred to as “The Great Moderation“. The Great Moderation was an amazing economic achievement. The Greenspan era was one of infrequent shallow recessions, low inflation, low unemployment, climbing asset prices and resiliency in the face of multiple crises.

Resiliency is a key point. During his tenure, the United States faced the following crises: the crash of 1987, the Asian financial crisis, the demise of Long Term Capital Management, the collapse of the dot com bubble, the savings and loan crisis and 9/11. While the markets experienced some wild gyrations over these events, the real economy barely noticed. Even after the collapse of the dot com bubble and 9/11, unemployment peaked at only 6.3%. To put that in historical perspective, 6.3% was the unemployment rate in 1994 and 1987 during times of expansion.

The failures are the focus right now. The failures include: believing that banks wouldn’t take excessive risks with capital (a preposterous position in retrospect), fighting the regulation of derivatives (covered in this excellent Frontline documentary). He likely took interest rates too low for too long in the wake of 9/11 and the dot com bubble (as has been theorized by the economist John Taylor). Indeed, low rates in the early 2000s might be the very reason that the recession of that period was so shallow. The Great Recession might very well have been the bill coming due for having such a relatively easy recession earlier in the decade.  None of that can be proven, of course.

Although, imagine if Greenspan did not respond to the collapse of the dot com bubble and 9/11 and didn’t let interest rates plummet. He would have been blamed for making a recession worse than it needed to be at a time when we had low inflation and could have handled lower rates because inflation was so low. It all would have been to lessen the severity of a future recession which, in this alternate universe, might never have even happened. Hindsight is 20/20, which is an advantage of being a pundit and a cost to getting your hands dirty and taking positions in the public arena, as Greenspan did.

As for regulations, Greenspan should have pursued tougher regulation of banks and regulated derivatives. Although, it is important to keep in mind that this would have put him at odds with all the banks and the entire Washington establishment. The Clinton administration and the Republicans in Congress back in the ’90s loosened restrictions on banking and didn’t want to regulate derivatives. There was a bipartisan consensus on these issues back then, as demonstrated by the passage of Gramm-Leach-Biley. The deregulation combined with public policy that actually encouraged risky lending as a form of social justice was simply toxic. A good example of this is the Community Reinvestment Act and its intensification under the Clinton adminstration.

If Democrats are on board with deregulating, then who is going to stop it? When it comes to tearing down regulations, Republicans are the gas and Democrats are the brakes. In the ’90s, there were no brakes. It was all gas, with predictable long term results. Greenspan should have sounded the alarms, but I don’t think that one man (albeit, a very influential man) could stop an out of control Mack truck barreling down a highway.

Everyone deserves blame for the financial crisis. Certainly some more than others, but most people had a hand in it. The regulators failed, Washington failed, the banks failed. More importantly and less discussed is the fact that we failed. We failed as citizens to appropriately monitor our institutions. Growing up back in the ’90s, I was always amazed at the complete and total lack of interest that most adults had in current affairs. Civic engagement fell off a cliff. The voters were asleep at the wheel while our politicians made reckless decisions. A democracy is only as strong as its participants. We weren’t paying attention when Washington was engaging in reckless actions. We gladly borrowed the money without doing the arithmetic, but then blamed the banks when the bills came due. Nearly everyone had a hand in what happened. Greenspan failed, but one man is not singularly responsible for our collective failing as a society to appropriately monitor our institutions and act with financial prudence.

The Book

This is a book review, so I suppose I should actually review the book and stop talking about Greenspan!

The book itself is a real tour-de-force of ideas. Greenspan takes the reader through a tour of his thoughts and insights into the economy, which are too numerous to list them all. The book does contain a few very big ideas, which I’ll discuss here.

Much of the book is devoted to retelling the story of the crisis and the mistakes made. Greenspan doesn’t come out and say: “I screwed up and I am sorry”, but I think it amounts to that. He discusses how we need stronger regulations. He laments the bailout and the actions of the banks. He also makes a strong argument that we need to address the risks posed by too big to fail institutions.

He even talks about better ways to deal with the environment and takes the reader through a seemingly crazy experiment of trying to determine the actual weight of GDP.

Animal Spirits

It’s clear that Alan Greenspan spent most of his career trying to reduce the economy to equations, to mathematical arrangements that can be measured. That’s why it is fascinating in the book to see him examine the importance of flesh and blood human beings to the economy. John Maynard Keynes referred to human emotions driving economic activity as animal spirits. Humans don’t always make sense. 2008 helped Greenspan wake up and realize that animal spirits are key even if they can’t be measured.

That’s why the first chapter is called “Animal Spirits”, as Greenspan catalogs all of the ways that human emotions affect our economic judgement, which isn’t a surprise to most of us, but is indeed a revelation to economics that have spent their careers trying to reduce human behavior to beautiful mathematical models.

Greenspan tries to quantify some of these emotional judgments. For instance, he observes that the yield curve (where longer maturities supply higher interest rates), has been firmly in place throughout the history of civilization.  The earnings yield of the US stock tends to stay around 5-6% over long stretches of time, implying that this is the human preference of return for the risk of owning equities. (Sidenote: This might explain why Jeremy Siegel observes that the long-term return of equities after inflation is around 6% for nearly 200 years in his book Stocks for the Long Run.)

Greenspan marvels throughout the book at the extent to which human emotions drive economic behavior. He observes that the cultural diversity of Europe is a major reason for the Euro’s struggles as a currency to unite the region. Culture plays a role in determining the savings rate of a country (does the country value consumption in the present over long term saving?) as well as the effectiveness of regulation (is the culture permissive towards corruption and cheating?).

The Entitlements-Savings Trade Off

The most interesting point that Greenspan makes in the book is that there is a trade-off between entitlement spending and savings. This makes intuitive sense because in societies with generous entitlement programs, there is less incentive for people to save money. If you know that the government will pay for your retirement, what is the point of foregoing consumption in your youth to save for retirement? Should a 30 year old pick a vacation or increased 401(k) contributions? Our tendency is definitely towards the vacation and a generous safety net only makes that choice more appealing.

In fact, Greenspan demonstrates that the sum of total savings and entitlement spending adds up to 28-32% of GDP. Over time, as entitlement programs expand and the population becomes older, increases in entitlement spending reduce the nation’s savings rate. Every dollar that we spend on entitlement programs like social security and Medicare is one less dollar that we save.

In 1965, for instance, about 5% of GDP was social benefits and 25% of GDP was saved. A total of 30%.  By 1992, about 10% of GDP was devoted to social benefits and 20% of GDP was saved. Again, a total of 30%, with the increased social spending crowding out private savings. In 2010, the amounts converged. 15% of our GDP went to social spending and 15% of our economy was devoted to savings.

Due to increased entitlement spending, national savings declined from 25% to 15%.

This is bad because savings is the raw fuel of investment. That’s less money for banks to lend, that’s less money available to issue corporate bonds, that’s less money that can be raised in the equity markets. The less capital that is available, the less investments are being made in the future productive capacity of our economy.

I think Greenspan argues pretty conclusively that there is very likely a trade off between the two. Does this mean we should tear down our entitlement programs completely to maximize our savings rate? Of course not. With that said, entitlement reform should be pursued to contain the growth of entitlement spending before it endangers the federal budget and crowds out private savings.

I think this shows a larger trade off at the core of all public policy, which we like to pretend doesn’t exist. What liberalism offers in its most extreme form is a society with maximum safety and public comfort (i.e., generous safety nets, government funded retirement, a universal basic income). What conservatism offers in its most extreme form is a society with maximum dynamism (i.e., high economic growth and creative destruction). It seems foolish to think that we can have it all: have government take care of everyone’s materials need in a dynamic and fast growing economy. This trade off is at the core of our public policy debate. We should stop pretending that the trade off doesn’t exist.

Conclusion

You should read this book! Even if you dislike Greenspan (I’m imagining Ron Swanson on the right and Lisa Simpson on the left), it doesn’t hurt to get his perspective. He was at the center of most economic policy for the last 50 years and has some useful insights. I also think it’s impressive that he took the time to write this book and take us down his own intellectual journey in the wake of 2008. Most people develop their opinions about the world around the age of 20 and barely budge after that. Greenspan is 91 years old and approaches everything with an open mind, ready to look at the data and reevaluate his opinions. The world would be a better place if we all took that approach.

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.

“Coming Apart” by Charles Murray

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In Coming Apart, Charles Murray tackles the widening inequality and distrust between the classes in our society. Murray argues that the growth in inequality is driven by higher wages assigned to high intelligence and the focus of his book is on the growing cultural chasm between what he calls the “cognitive elite” and the new lower class.

Murray refers to two fictional communities to describe the widening divide, “Fishtown” (where the new lower class live) and “Belmont” (where the upper middle class live). The book also focuses exclusively on white Americans. Murray focuses on this to focus the analysis exclusively on class and not on race.

The World of 1960

The book begins with a trip back in time to 1960. In 1960, there were rich people, but the their lives weren’t very different from other classes. Their houses were bigger, but a slightly higher square footage didn’t make them mansions. Their cars were nicer, but were largely similar to the sedans that everyone else drove and everyone owned American cars. Aside from occasionally going out to a fancy dinner, the meals that they ate were largely the same as everyone else. Americans all watched the same tv shows, read the same newspapers and lived roughly the same lifestyle.

There was a cohesive American culture. There wasn’t much disconnect between the views of elites and everyone else. This kept the elites largely in touch with the nation as a whole.

Today

Today the residents of Belmont live a life that would be foreign to the lower classes in the country. They watch different tv shows, their news comes from different sources, they eat healthier, they exercise more, they don’t smoke, they go to expensive schools, they spend radically more money on childcare, they marry more, they divorce less, etc.

Murray attributes this divide to the country becoming a cognitive meritocracy. The popularization of standardized testing (like the SAT) in the 1950s and 1960s was designed to identify and propel smart kids to dramatic heights. To reward intelligence and ability instead of class. This effort succeeded succeeded and kids that would have probably stayed in their home towns their entire lives were now able to go to elite universities and earn six figure incomes. It also occurred at a moment when the economy changed in a way where cognitive abilities were rewarded more richly than ever before. They then married other smart people. Intelligence is hereditary, so their kids were usually smart as well. They then had the income to prepare these kids for standardized tests and elite universities. The cycle then repeats.

Meanwhile, the cultural and material dispersion that occured since the 1960s creates more choices than ever before for those with high incomes. This allows those high earners to create an entirely different life than those afforded to other classes. While a high earner in the 1960s lived in a large house, they lived in a house that would be familiar to most Americans and they shared most of the same cultural tastes. This is no longer the case.

Murray claims that the elites and the upper middle class are living in a “bubble”. In fact, he created a test to determine if you indeed live in a bubble. You can take the test here.

Culture

Murray believes that the differences in culture are accelerating the gap between the classes. The upper middle class is still defined by “traditional” marriage that rarely ends in divorce. They marry, they stay married, children are typically born during marriage and the parents stay together. They highly value education and push their children to focus on this area. This helps keep their wealth intact and sets their children up for similar success.

In 1960, social institutions were strong in Fishtown. There were community institutions that held neighborhoods together (churches, men’s organizations, etc.). Marriages remained intact. When marriages were unable to discipline and help children, neighbors and members of the community frequently stepped in. As these institutions collapsed since the 1960s, there has been a corresponding increase in various problems.

Marriage and two-parent child rearing are on the decline in Fishtown. Marriage is down, divorce is up.

Noteworthy is the decline of men in Fishtown. They are no longer the primary breadwinners. Without marriage and without work, many of these men men are rudderless and losing their sense of purpose. Women in Fishtown are thus more likely to be employed and taking the primary head-of-household role.

Men in Fishtown show steadily increasing rates of unemployment and lower incomes. Many would attribute this to globalization and a decline in working class jobs, but Murray points out that the decline was occurring when the economy was booming in the 1990s. With this decline in work, there has been a sharp rise in disability benefits in recent decades, despite less manual labor intensive jobs and advancing medical technology. The decline appears to be largely cultural.

Herein we get into a chicken or the egg argument. Are men in decline because of a lack of economic opportunity, or has the character of the men in Fishtown fundamentally changed? Murray addresses this issue by talking about the economic climate of the 1990s, in which jobs were plentiful, but were frequently difficult to fill. He also takes word of mouth anecdotes from business owners who talk about the difficulty they have in finding diligent workers.

Meanwhile, all of these trends are widening the cultural and economic divide between Fishtown and Belmont.

Conclusions

The book was written in 2012, but I think that it foreshadows the 2016 election. The Bernie Sanders insurgency on the Left and the rise of Donald Trump on the right took those living in the “bubble” completely by surprise. There was a deep dissatisfaction with the “elites” that drove the election. After reading this book, I think much of it is fueled by this wide class divide that Murray describes. Murray’s description of the bubble also explains why it took everyone living in the bubble completely by surprise.

Murray offers prescriptions for the shrinking the divide and all of them are difficult because they involve a fundamental change in culture. The government can certainly pursue programs to alleviate the economic causes of inequality, but I don’t really understand how we can collectively change the course of a culture.

I actually think the re-integration of the culture may happen on its own and hopefully with a more 21st century style. I certainly wouldn’t want to return to the social mores of 1950s America. The 1950s wasn’t all malt shakes, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and hula-hoops. There was severe racial segregation, marriage was a prison for many women and equal rights were certainly not enjoyed by all.

When it comes to divorce, it is a tricky issue. Murray contends that divorce hurts children and this is true when you look at the numbers. What’s difficult to measure statistically is how harmful parents staying in bad and unhappy marriages is to children. A major reason divorce skyrocketed in the 1960s and 1970s is because women finally had the freedom to get out of bad marriages, when in previous eras they remained trapped with emotionally abusive (or even physically abusive) men. Would we be better off returning to the era of the 1950s, when people married when they were 18-21 and barely knew each other and stayed in marriages that made them unhappy? I don’t think so. Bottom line, whatever new institutions we develop to address these issues, I certainly hope we don’t return to the marriage culture of the 1950s.

One of the worst ways to predict our cultural future is to take present trends and extrapolate them into the future. The U.S. has been through cultural divides in the past and overcome them. The Civil War was certainly more serious than today’s Budweiser/Dom-Perignon class divide. The post-World War II and pre-JFK assassination era of American history was an unparalleled era of social cohesiveness. Despite the divisions of the Civil War, Gilded Age and roaring 1920s, the pendulum eventually swung to social cohesiveness and I think the same will happen again naturally. The irony is that when it happens, I suspect we will find it soul-deadening just like the youth of the 1950s and 1960s did!

Investing

This is an investing blog, so I have to tie this back into that critical question that touches our souls: how do we make money off of this? 🙂

When reading about the bubble, I constantly thought that most people on Wall Street are living in a bubble and the bubble affects their judgment. If upper middle class people in suburbia are in a bubble, then wealthy financial professionals in Manhattan certainly are. Living in the bubble likely affects the values that they assign to stocks.

Two companies come to mind when I think of the bubble. One is Tesla. People with money are flocking to Tesla. However, at $83k per car, Tesla is so far out of reach for most Americans that they might as well be sold on Venus. Among the rich, Tesla is the epitome of cool. Elon Musk is cool. Electric cars, space tourism and hyperloops are cool. The problem is that cool is kryptonite to investors. A notable exception is Google’s 2004 IPO. Google was cool and it worked out. That doesn’t usually happen. You can ask anyone who bought a dot com stock in 1999, or even a legitimate tech company like Cisco back then. Tesla is barely making a profit and their market cap now exceeds General Motors! Interestingly, at the height of the tech mania, Cisco’s market cap exceeded General Electric’s. GM has 22 times the annual revenues of Tesla. The valuation makes no sense. It looks to me like the Murray’s cultural bubble is creating financial bubbles.

Another example is Shake Shack. Shake Shack is all the rage in Manhattan. They introduced one by me (I live in suburbia) and I tried it out. The meal was basically a double cheeseburger from Wendy’s and a frosty, but double the cost in a cool looking building. Except I thought Wendy’s was better. This is the cultural divide at work. In Manhattan, a Wendy’s burger and a frosty is a foreign concept. For the rest of the country, we drive by it every day. Shake Shack currently trades at 67 times earnings and 2.84 times revenue.

If you’re removed from the bubble, it’s probably easier to spot absurdities in the market than it is for your typical Wall Streeter. In that sense, stepping outside of the bubble can likely help you recognize opportunities in today’s markets.

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.

“The Big Secret for the Small Investor”, by Joel Greenblatt

I recently completed The Big Secret for the Small Investor by Joel Greenblatt. I’ve read all of Joel Greenblatt’s books and this is his easiest strategy to implement for the average investor. What’s the big secret and who is Joel Greenblatt?

Who is Joel Greenblatt?

Joel Greenblatt, as I’ve discussed before on this blog, is one of the greatest investors of all time. In terms of investing prowess, Joel delivered 50% returns from 1985 to 1995, at which point he returned all outside capital to his investors and focused on managing his own money with his parter, Robert Goldstein. What do 50% returns look like?  $1 was turned into $51.97 over the 10 year period.performancejoel

Source: You Can be a Stock Market Genius, by Joel Greenblatt

Joel Greenblatt’s Previous Books

In addition to achieving stellar returns, Joel has done small investors numerous favors by outlining the strategies that he uses to make money in his books. Most investors like Joel are highly secretive with their strategies, but Joel has been generous enough to share the strategies that he uses, at least on a very high level. His first two books briefly summarized below:

  1. You Can Be a Stock Market Genius – Written in 1997, this book provides a nice road-map to places in the market that the average investor can investigate to find bargains. They are areas where the large professionals won’t tread due to size, complexity and opportunity cost. This is the approach that Greenblatt used to achieve the 50% returns from 1985 to 1995 described above. Joel encourages readers to look into these areas of the market where the professionals fear to tread. He encourages finding things that are off the beaten path and doing your homework. Areas covered include: spin-offs, recapitalizations, rights offerings, risk arbitrage, merger securities, bankruptcies, restructurings, LEAPs, warrants and options. This is by far the most informative of Joel’s books, but it is also the most difficult to implement. It is geared towards investors who already have a familiarity with the markets and want a road-map to the roads less traveled. At some point, I will review this book in depth on this blog.
  2. The Little Book That Beats the Market – This was written in 2005. Realizing that his original book was at too high of a difficulty level for the average investor, Joel formulated a more simple approach in this book. The little book outlines the magic formula strategy of investing. The magic formula ranks all companies in the market by cheapness (defined as EBIT/Enterprise Value) and then ranks all the companies by quality, or return on invested capital. The rankings are then combined into a list of companies that are both cheap and have high returns on capital. Joel recommends that readers buy 20-30 magic formula stocks annually and then sell after a year unless the stock is still on the list. The book was written so he could explain investing to his kids. As a result, it distills the concepts of value investing in a manner that is very readable. I find it incredible that Joel shared this research with the public. He even generously maintains a free screener at https://www.magicformulainvesting.com/

Why Write the Big Secret?

The Little Book was a best seller and the magic formula was sensational. The magic formula continued to beat the market after the book was written. If Joel outlined a winning strategy that could be easily implemented by small investors and provided them with the tools for doing so, what was the point of another book? The problem wasn’t the magic formula. The problem was human investors.

While the magic formula continued to work after Joel wrote the book, investors implementing the formula failed to achieve the results. During the two-year period studied by Greenblatt, the S&P 500 was up 62%. The magic formula beat the market during this period, earning 84%. However, actual investors choosing from the list of magic formula stocks only earned 59.4%.

In other words, investors took a winning strategy and systematically ruined it. This is likely because they avoided the scariest stocks on the list and went with the ones that had the best story.

If most investors can’t successfully implement the magic formula, should they simply passively index?

Indexing

Index investing works over long periods of time because over the decades the economy will grow, inflation will increase and the combination of economic growth and inflation will translate into higher corporate profits, which will translate into higher stock prices. Index funds are also extremely low cost.

Warren Buffett is in the final stages of a high profile bet with Ted Seides about indexing. In 2008, Buffett bet Ted $1 million (with the proceeds going to charity) that index funds would beat a group of hedge fund investment vehicles (fund-of-funds) hand picked by Ted. It looks like Buffett will handily win the bet. In Berkshire’s most recent letter, Buffett explains why he won. To sum it up: a lot of managers try to beat the market, and mathematically some will beat it and most won’t. The indexes reflect average performance, and mathematically a majority of managers can’t do better than average. Because hedge funds charge such high fees (typically 2% of assets under management and 20% of the profits), it will be nearly impossible for a group of them to beat the market.

Ted Seides tried to explain the reasons for his loss in this Bloomberg article. Reasons cited include: most investors didn’t stick with the index, there are many nuances to the returns of hedge funds, they provide protection during bear markets, etc. To save you the time from reading through the litany of excuses, I’ll leave you with this Upton Sinclair quote:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

What is The Big Secret?

The Big Secret that Joel unveils in this book is simple: index investing works, but it is flawed and there are better passive strategies that can help investors do even better than indexing.

Indexing will deliver returns over the long run and will beat most active managers. I index myself in my 401(k). The portfolio I track here is my IRA that I have specifically dedicated to a concentrated hand picked value strategy.

However, Joel argues in The Big Secret that even though indexes deliver decent returns over long (i.e., 10-40 year) stretches of time, they are fundamentally flawed. The flaw as Greenblatt sees it is the fact that they are market cap weighted. The allocation of a stock in an index fund corresponds to the total market cap of the stock in relation to other companies in the index. In other words, stocks in an index fund are all weighted to the current relative valuations of the companies that make up an index. In other words, when a stock goes up in an index, the index buys more of it. If a stock goes down, it is weighted less heavily in the index. From a value perspective, this is the wrong approach.

This also explains the momentum that we see in the late stages of a bull market. As the indexes have a nice run, money pours into index funds. Money then flows to the largest components of the index, inflating their valuations even more. You see this happening today and you saw the same thing in the late 1990s. The irony is that the more we embrace indexing to capture average performance, then the less efficient the markets become. This isn’t a bad thing. It is an opportunity.

The opposite of this occurred in 2008. All stocks declined regardless of the prospects for the company. This was because money was pulled from stock funds with no rhyme or reason, causing all stocks to decline.

These trends go on until they can’t. Eventually the market recognizes the true value of companies. In the short run, massive money flows into and out of index funds can cause inefficiencies. As Benjamin Graham taught us, in the short run the market is a voting machine. In the long run, it is a weighing machine.

Seth Klarman discussed this phenomenon in his recent investor letter:

“One of the perverse effects of increased indexing and E.T.F. activity is that it will tend to ‘lock in’ today’s relative valuations between securities.

When money flows into an index fund or index-related ETF, the manager generally buys into the securities in an index in proportion to their current market capitalization (often to the capitalization of only their public float, which interestingly adds a layer of distortion, disfavoring companies with large insider, strategic, or state ownership).

Thus today’s high-multiple companies are likely to also be tomorrow’s, regardless of merit, with less capital in the hands of active managers to potentially correct any mispricings.”

Passive Alternatives to Indexing

If the Stock Market Genius approach is too hard for most, if most investors struggle with the Magic Formula approach due to behavioral errors and passive indexing systematically does the wrong thing — then what can the small investor do?

Due to these issues, in The Big Secret Joel recommends a few passive choices that investors can implement. The passive aspect is key, as all of these approaches avoid buying and selling individual stocks and don’t require any homework.

The passive choices Joel recommends as alternatives to indexing are:

  1. Equally weighted index funds. While most index funds are market-cap weighted, equally weighted funds are exactly as they sound. They buy every stock in the index, but equally weight them. This prevents the fund for systematically buying more of a “hot” stock that is likely overvalued. An example of this kind of fund is the Guggenheim Equal Weight ETF (RSP). In the last 10 years, the S&P 500 returned 58.75%. Over the same period, the Guggenheim equal weight S&P 500 ETF is up 77.11%.
  2. Fundamentally weighted index funds. A fundamental index weights stocks not on market capitalization, but on the size of their business. This can be measured by revenues or earnings. This makes sense, because the size of an enterprise is a better determinant of its true value than simple market cap. It also helps investors avoid the hot stocks of the moment with high market caps while simultaneously having low sales or earnings (like Tesla, for instance). An example of this kind of fund is the Revenue Shares Large Cap ETF (RWL), which weights stocks in the fund based on their revenues instead of market cap. This fund returned 85.12% over the last 10 years, compared to 58.75% for the S&P 500.
  3. Value weighted index funds. Value funds are exactly as they sound: they concentrate the fund’s holdings into the cheapest stocks in the market based on metrics like price-to-book and price-to-earnings. While over the long run these strategies have been proven to work, in the last 10 years they’ve had a tough time. The Vanguard Value ETF (VTV) is up on 30.63% in the last 10 years compared to 58.75% for the S&P 500. Much of the underperformance is attributable to concentration in bank stocks during the financial crisis (they appeared to have low price to book values, but the book value turned out to be fiction) along with lagging the momentum of the market in the last few years. This isn’t the first time that value lagged the S&P. The last time that value strategies experienced this kind of under-performance was in the 1990s. Value went on to perform extremely well in the 2000s, while the indexes lagged due to the high market cap weightings in the technology sector early in the decade. I think history will likely repeat. Another great example of a value oriented ETF is the quantitative value ETF. QVAL implements the strategy outlined by Tobias Carisle and Wesley Grey in their book Quantitative Value. They use quantitative approaches to find value bargains (using the enterprise multiple as the value metric) and then further trim down the list to eliminate potential financial fraud, avoiding stocks with excessive short selling, for instance, and use a variety of quantitative criteria to find quality bargain stocks. QVAL launched in 2014, so it doesn’t have a long enough track record to compare it with the S&P 500, but it is worth your consideration. I would check out the book if you want to learn more.

Conclusions

Joel did small investors a great service by writing this book. I suspect that the passive strategies outlined will outperform indexes over the long run. They are much easier to implement than the magic formula or the homework intensive You Can Be a Stock Market Genius style of investing. Simply buy the funds and leave it alone.

I prefer my own strategy of individual stock selection, but I realize that this is not implementable for most investors. While I think it’s fun, it is a lot of work and most people don’t find it to be all that enjoyable.

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.

“Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight

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I recently finished Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. I love memoirs and biographies. When they are combined with business insights, I am particularly interested.

Shoe Dog focuses on the early years of Nike and focuses almost exclusively on the experience of Nike in the 1960s and 1970s before the company went public. The structure of the book is a part of its appeal. Most memoirs take you on long boring slogs through the author’s childhood, teen years and later life. This book focuses almost exclusively on the most exciting time in Phil Knight’s life: when Nike struggled in the 1960s and 1970s to make its mark. He is also remarkably honest about the experience. He discusses all of the problems he faced and the doubts and stress that went along with it.  With most business memoirs, you get the sense that the writer had it all figured out from day #1. Phil’s story is different. He is also an amazing writer.

I was born in 1982, so throughout my life Nike has always been one of those brands that was as iconically American as a can of Coca-Cola or a Big Mac from McDonalds. Whether it was Marty McFly’s power laces, or Forrest Gump’s trek across America in the Nike Cortez, Nike has been sewn into the fabric of our culture. I never realized how new Nike was until I read the book. Nike had only gone public two years before I was born and the company wasn’t even called Nike until the 1970s.

The Story

Phil Knight’s story begins in college where he ran track for the legendary Bill Bowerman, who would later become the co-founder of Nike. Phil went on to graduate school at Stanford, where he wrote a paper about how Japanese sneakers could take down German brands, just as the Japanese did the same thing to German camera manufacturers.

Phil took the idea with him as he toured the world after college. During his travel throughout the world, he went to Japan. He met with the executives of a shoe company called Onitsuka. He told them that he represented the Blue Ribbon company and wanted to sell their sneakers (called Tigers) in the United States. He bought $50 worth of sneakers and began selling them out of the back of his Plymouth Valiant.

He continued to sell sneakers but needed a full time job, so he earned his CPA and began working for Price Waterhouse. He also spends some time as a professor of accounting after leaving Price Waterhouse. As the ’60s wore on and the shoe business expanded, he ultimately quits and runs the company full time.

The book takes you through the ups and downs (mostly downs) of running the company. The downs are gut wrenching. The book is as much an inspiration for would be entrepreneurs as it is a cautionary tale about the perils that await those who want to go into business for themselves. Nike had multiple near death experiences, including:

  • An early brush with death when Onitsuka threatens to end the relationship with Phil Knight when it was just beginning.
  • Conflicts with an east coast seller of Tigers, a former Marlboro Man living in New York.
  • Constant conflicts with Onitsuka, including a threatened hostile takeover and threats to use other sellers. Phil fought against this (which was the impetus for creating the Nike line and finding alternative suppliers), but this resulted in a court showdown that could have also potentially destroyed Nike.
  • Dancing the razor’s edge of leverage throughout the 1970s. Unwilling to take the company public and use equity financing (he was afraid that it would ruin the company culture), Nike’s early growth was fueled almost entirely with debt, leading to terrible cash flow problems. At one point, payroll checks bounce and Nike’s bank threatens to call the FBI because they suspect fraud.
  • A showdown with US customs. Influenced by lobbying efforts by Nike’s competitors, customs fines Nike $25 million (its annual sales at the time) over customs technicalities. Nike would then have to wage a lobbying war of their own to defeat the injustice.

Through the struggles, Nike and Phil grow. The story of Nike’s growth and the problems it encounters make the book exciting. The story ends with Nike’s public offering in 1980. The following decades are covered at the end, but the focus of the story is almost entirely on Nike’s early development.

Life Lessons

If there is anything to be learned from Phil’s story it is: don’t give into negativity. Things may look dark at times, but it will get you nowhere if you give into negativity and stop trying. There were many times when Phil could have thrown in the towel, but he never gives up no matter how bad his problems are. I suspect a lot of this comes from Phil being a runner. When you are running, you constantly want to stop. Running is about resisting that. Mind over body. Phil takes the same attitude towards business.

Another great lesson of this book: cultivate relationships. You never know where a relationship might lead in the future. One of the most important relationships that Phil developed was with Bill Bowerman. Who could have imagined that his college track coach would help him found one of the greatest American companies of all time? Relationships must be cultivated, because you never know what dividends they might pay in the future.

The Stock

Nike is one of the best performing stocks of all time. Nike is one of those franchise stocks that are extremely hard to identify early on. It’s a Buffett/Munger kind of stock. (Although, Buffett owns Brooks, a Nike competitor, so he would probably disagree with the characterization!)

Nike is one of those firms with an amazing enduring brand and a high return on equity that won’t quit and is seemingly immune to the kind of mean reversion that brings down most high flying businesses (Nike’s return on equity was 27.58% in Q4 2016).

$1,000 invested in Nike stock back in 1981 at the IPO price would be worth $336,046.15 today.  Shockingly, that’s even better than Apple. A $1,000 investment in Apple at the IPO price would be worth $274,490 today.

Indeed, there is something magical about that swoosh.

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.

“American Desperado” by Jon Roberts & Evan Wright

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Cocaine Cowboy

Years ago, I saw the documentary Cocaine Cowboys. The documentary was about the transformation of Miami from a sleepy vacation and retirement destination in the 1960s to a hub of drug trafficking and murder in the late 1970s and 1980s. The story was enthralling. It transcended a normal documentary and unfolded like an action movie. The characters include drug traffickers, hitmen, murderers, shady attorneys, the cops on the front lines and the reporters of the era who documented the carnage. The documentary is on Netflix if you want to check it out.

In the documentary, the two most fascinating characters to me were the drug smugglers, Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday. In the documentary, both were portrayed as largely non violent, which made them more appealing. In the documentary, it was the hitmen that were the savage and violent characters. Munday and Roberts were largely non-violent, which made them stand out. They appeared to be far more intelligent than the characters they were forced to associate with. While they were criminals, they weren’t psychopaths like many of the hitmen and drug kingpins that they were dealing with. When I heard that Jon Roberts wrote a book called American Desperado about his experiences, I was excited to read it.

I feel that this blog entry is incomplete without Jan Hammer

The Dark Side

The book revealed a much darker side to Jon Roberts’ persona than what was in the documentary. Jon admits that he is an evil person. His motto for his life was “evil is strong”. While in elementary school, he witnessed his father murder another man and suffer no consequences for it. The young Jon was amazed that in real life (unlike the movies), bad people frequently got away bad things. This was a truly terrible lesson to absorb at a young age. As Jon learned far too late in life, bad things do catch up with bad people. Karma is real.

The early childhood trauma and lack of a positive father figure propelled Jon on a criminal path. In his youth, he was a juvenile delinquent. He spent his time robbing people and reacting violently to anyone who crossed him. He abused drugs and alcohol. After being arrested, Jon was offered the opportunity to avoid lengthy prison time by enlisting in the military during the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, where he behaved like a murderous psychopath. For instance, there is a section of the book where he describes how to skin a person alive. The description is terrifying. His criminal career evolved from early experiences setting up drug deals with the intention of robbing people, drug dealing, to becoming embedded in the New York mafia and managing night clubs.

Jon had some clashes with made men and was tied to a murder. This led to a falling out with the mafia. Jon had to flee New York City to get away from the police and the mafia. Jon was able to leave the geography of New York and reinvent himself in a new location. He decided on Miami because he had family there. He begins in Miami by trying to live a straight life with a dog training business but quickly strays back into his criminal ways.

Drug Kingpin

Slowly in Miami, Jon evolves in the preeminent drug smuggler in the area. He estimates that his fortune at one point exceeded $100 million. He still engages in violent behavior. He alludes to murders during this time period, but it is not nearly as violent as his time in New York. Still, Jon is relatively tame compared to his counterparts at the time. His lifestyle is unbelievably decadent and he describes this in depth as well.

In one amazing incident, Jon organizes a trafficking operation on behalf of the CIA. He then contends that Barry Seal did this as well, which appears to be supported by evidence. Barry Seal later became an informant. The Colombian drug cartels also ask Jon to kill him. Later, they did this themselves without Jon’s help.

Eventually, Jon is arrested after the government obtains information acquired through an informant and close business associate of Jon’s, Max Mermelstein. He spends years living as a fugitive in both Colombia and Mexico. While in Mexico, he is arrested as a result of their version of America’s Most Wanted. He ultimately escapes from the Mexican prison and hides in the United States in Delaware, until he is ultimately arrested in the early 1990s.

Jon also has a son, whom he genuinely loves. Despite his seemingly tranquil family life in the 2000s, Jon knows deep inside that his demise is coming. He actually says that he spent his life in service of the devil and expects God to punish him with a painful death. Ultimately, Jon died of cancer in 2011.

Mickey Munday

The book left me with a still largely positive image of Mickey Munday. Unlike Jon, Mickey was truly non violent and an incredibly smart guy. He didn’t engage in any materialistic flashiness. He was involved in drug smuggling solely for the challenge and fun of it. He is incredibly innovative. In one amazing section of the book, it is described how Mickey developed a stealth boat after reading about the stealth bomber in a magazine. He equipped the boat with a silent drive and navigated at night without lights while he wore night vision goggles and the boat was invisible to radar. As a nice touch, he would ride the stealth boat while listening to Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight on his headphones. Mickey didn’t do drugs and his main vice was milk and cookies. He was the most fascinating and likable character to me. I wish Mickey would write a book, as I would love to read more about him.

Recommendation

I liked the book, but I can’t recommend it to anyone who wants to read a book with a likeable protagonist. Jon is a scoundrel. With that said, he at least admits it and doesn’t try to sugar coat it. He is completely honest about the evil in his life. He was a murderer and likely a psychopath. I imagine watching his father commit murder seeped into him and left an impression which impacted his mentality throughout his life. At one point, he talks about the best way to kick someone’s face with a steel toed boot and you can detect that he actually enjoys it, as evidenced by the level of detail in his description. Amazingly, despite a lifetime spent in crime, the most horrific activities that Jon engages in are in Vietnam.

Despite Jon’s admitted evil, he is actually quite charming and at times very funny. A particularly humorous incident involves Jon and OJ Simpson, who apparently had an insatiable appetite for Jon’s drugs. After a drug binge, Jon must take Simpson to an airport on the morning of a game and leads Simpson through the airport in a wheelchair because he is unconscious and will not wake up.

Jon’s story is a fascinating one, but I was also left wondering how much of it was actually true because the stories are so extreme that some of them sound fabricated. To his credit, the co-author Evan Wright attempts to document as much as possible and offers his own commentary on the validity of Jon’s claims. Evan also conducted interview of Jon’s associates and those perspectives are also included in the book.

I can’t recommend this book to everyone, but if you can stomach reading the life of a truly evil man with extraordinary life experiences, then you should check it out.

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.