Can a Small Investor Beat Wall Street?

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One of the common responses I hear when I tell people that I buy and sell stocks using my own analysis goes something like this:

“Why even bother? There are so many smart people researching these stocks with far more time to devote to it than you. They have better information and can do more homework. You might as well buy an index fund.”

Indeed, there are many people trying to beat the market and Wall Street spends a vast amount of money on research and analysis, which is likely superior to the analysis that I have the time to do.

The Data

I decided to step back and check the actual data about Wall Street recommendations. I wondered what would happen if you systematically bought baskets of each Wall Street recommendation (buy, sell, etc.), held on to them for a year and then re-balanced annually. The results from the Russell 3000 universe are below:

Wall Street Analyst

If Wall Street analysis were on point, there would be a more linear result. Each basket should outperform the next.

Instead, the actual data produces this choppy result. Neutral ratings outperform buys and strong buys. Meanwhile, those rare “strong sell” ratings actually outperform the sell recommendations.

This analysis of Morningstar star ratings comes to a similar conclusion. Morningstar assigns star ratings to mutual funds (5 stars are the best, 1 star is the worst). The paper linked to analyzes the resulting returns after Morningstar issues the rating. The 5 star ratings outperform the 1 star ratings, but in the lower end it gets lumpy. The 1 star rated funds outperform the 2 and 3 star funds.

Also, consider this tidbit of stock market history which is quite shocking: in November of 2001, more than half of Wall Street analysts rated Enron as a buy or better.

Why This Result?

This leaves one to speculate: why do we get this result? I think there are three key reasons:

1. Human nature makes us extrapolate the present into the future. Analysts aren’t immune to this tendency.

Any analyst can look at Amazon, for instance, and tell me that they are doing a great job at growing their revenues. Any analyst can look at the retail sector and tell me that retail is hurting as more consumers shift their buying preferences online. In 2006, any analyst could tell you that the financial sector was enjoying a nice upswing and would also provide you with a very convincing explanation (i.e., the “financial supermarkets” created in the wake of Gramm-Leach-Biley were leading to higher returns on equity for banks) or that the energy sector was doing well thanks to advancing oil prices (they would probably say that oil would continue to increase due to growing demand from emerging market economies and peak oil). In 1999, any analyst could have looked at the growth in fiber-optics and told you that JDS Uniphase was doing very well and would continue to do so because the rapidly growing information economy would fuel greater demand for fiber optic cable. Analysts are frequently deceived because they underestimate the tendency of things to change. Some have expressed this sentiment with greater eloquence.

When you look at a Wall Street research recommendation, what you’re seeing is the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is usually an extrapolation of what is going on right now into the future. The conventional wisdom usually becomes more ingrained when we listen to really smart people provide convincing explanations for why the trend will continue.

Things change and the conventional wisdom is frequently incorrect. It is human nature to take trends and extrapolate them into the future. This worked for our ancestors trying to evade a predator, but it doesn’t work when trying to predict changes in the modern world. The tendency of trends to reverse (for great businesses to falter, for bad businesses to turn around) defies the ingrained expectations of human nature.

2. Wall Street doesn’t care about valuation as much as it should.

Valuation plays another role. Stocks with “strong buy” recommendations are frequently overvalued. Of the 32 analysts covering Amazon, for instance, 23 of them have a strong buy recommendation. Clearly, valuation isn’t even considered the analysis, as Amazon currently has a P/E ratio of 179.84. Amazon might continue it’s ascendancy, but history shows that stocks with such lofty valuations frequently under-perform. Amazon’s business may continue to succeed, but that doesn’t mean that the stock is a good investment when the lofty valuation is taken into consideration.

3. Wall Street prizes access to management.

Wall Street values good relationships with companies. Sell ratings or critical analysis hurts the relationship that banks have with companies. As this Bloomberg article explains, relationships are the reason that only 6% of the 11,000 Wall Street recommendations are sell ratings.

Relationships are critical to Wall Street. A good relationship with a company means that the Wall Street banks are more likely to underwrite deals for those companies, such as mergers and acquisitions, which generate high fees for the banks. Good relationships can also improve their odds in being selected to underwrite new loans for that company, another important source of income.

Another reason is that they want access to management to get better information about the companies. They feel that access to management is a critical component of gathering information about potential investments.

My unconventional view is that talking to management can be counterproductive. Management is always going to say things that are positive about the company no matter what, so what’s the point of even entertaining them? CEOs typically get their jobs not because of any technical expertise, but because they are masters at dealing with people. They are typically wildly charismatic people.

Charisma is usually not matched off with any real expertise or insight. When Wall Street analysts talk to management, they are simply being charmed by a charismatic person into believing a more optimistic portrayal of the company than is actually deserved. I think an investor is better off going to sec.gov and reading through the financial data published in quarterly and annual reports rather than allowing themselves to be manipulated by a charismatic management team.

The great Walter Schloss had this to say about meeting with management: “When I buy a stock, I never visit or talk to management because I think that a company’s financial figures are good enough to tell the story. Besides, management always says something good about the company, which may affect my judgment.”

Conclusion

My conclusion is simple: small time investors can win at this game even though we are at an informational disadvantage. This is because much of the Wall Street “analysis” is clouded by behavioral biases, an under-appreciation for value and a tendency to be manipulated by management.

A small investor can also operate in corners of the market where Wall Street banks fail to look, as their focus is usually on extremely large companies that can generate fee income.

Moreover, as has been discussed previously on this blog, Wall Street is increasingly short term oriented. In a world where investors obsess over their returns on shorter and shorter time periods, an investor with a long term outlook and willingness to under-perform in the short run is at a significant behavioral advantage.

I’ll end this with a quote on this subject from the master himself, Benjamin Graham:

“The typical investor has a great advantage over the large institutions . . . Chiefly because these institutions have a relatively small field of common stocks to choose from–say 300 to 400 huge corporations–and they are constrained more or less to concentrate their research and decisions on this much over-analyzed group. By contrast, most individuals can choose at any time among some 3000 issues listed in the Standard & Poor’s Monthly Stock Guide. Following a wide variety of approaches and preferences, the individual investor should at all times be able to locate at least one per cent of the total list–say, 30 issues or more–that offer attractive buying opportunities.”

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.

Q1 2017 Performance Update

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My Q1 2017 Performance: Down .11%

S&P 500 Q1 2017 Performance: Up 5.53%

My portfolio is regularly tracked here.

The S&P 500 had an amazing quarter and I had a lackluster one in relative terms. Overall I’m down 2% since I started tracking the portfolio in mid December 2016. At one point I was down 5% earlier this quarter.

Anti-Amazon Trade (GME, CATO, DDS, AEO)

Much of my under-performance is attributable to my anti-Amazon trade. As mentioned in the earlier post, the conventional wisdom is that Amazon is going to destroy conventional retail. I remain unconvinced that retail is going to die. People will always shop in physical stores. While retail may be in decline, it will not go away. For clothing in particular, people will always want to see the item and try it on. There is also the instant gratification aspect of conventional retail that will allow it to endure. Moreover, no matter how technologically sophisticated we become, people will always want to leave the house and occasionally go shopping. They are not going to hang out at home all day and never shop in a physical location again. Even Amazon realizes this truth, which is why I find it amusing that they are thinking about expanding into physical retail!

My unsophisticated thesis is simple: the retail stocks are all priced like retail is going to die soon and I don’t think it is going to happen. Simultaneously, the price of Amazon has been bid up to an extreme P/E ratio (180.98) and the momentum continues.

While I may be early to the anti-Amazon trade, I don’t think I am wrong. Predicting when the market will accurately value a stock is not possible. You can only buy when there is a mismatch between price and intrinsic value and wait.

IDT

IDT is my worst performer. During the week of March 6th after reporting disappointing earnings, the stock collapsed from $19.50 to $13.11, a decline of 33%. The stock plummeted further to $12.03. I was certainly wrong on this one, but I do not want to sell. $5.66 of that $12 price is cash. IDT has no debt. They also aren’t cutting their dividend and while the core business is struggling, it’s not dying. I’m sticking with it.

MN

Manning and Napier is also not doing well. Active management continues to be punished after the amazing track record of the indexes since 2009. Investors don’t want to pay high fees to asset managers when they can buy a low-cost index fund that will outperform them. Assets under management are declining, which is hurting the business. I don’t think this trend will last forever and in the meantime I am at least being paid a nice dividend yield to own Manning and Napier. The company currently has a negative enterprise value, with the current price less than the cash on hand, which currently stands at $9.19 per share. It’s a ridiculously cheap stock and the slightest glimmer of hope should allow me to take at least one free puff from this cigar butt.

Bubble Basket

David Einhorn refers to a “bubble basket” that he’s short on, which includes Amazon and Netflix. Q1 2017 was a good time for bubble basket. Tesla, a company with no earnings trading at 6.48 times revenue, is up 30% year to date. Amazon is up 18.23% and trades at 180 times earnings. Netflix, trading at 347 times earnings, is up 19.39%. Facebook, trading at 40 times earnings, is up 23.47% year to date. These are simply crazy valuations and I suspect they eventually they will go down in history with the Nifty Fifty.

Snapchat also debuted on the markets this quarter, as a symbolic representation of the frothy mood. The IPO felt like a flashback to the late ’90s, when an IPO and a dot com at the end of a name was a key to instant riches. SNAP has no earnings, $404 million in revenue. $27.11 billion market cap. This isn’t Pets.com crazy, but it’s still pretty crazy.

Einhorn is losing money shorting these stocks, but I still think he’s right. Therein lies the problem with shorting: there is no way to predict how long the market will be crazy and ignore reality. It will eventually happen, but there is no telling how long it will take.

If you’re short and the stock goes up 100%: you lost all of your money. This is why shorting technology stocks in the ’90s was a risky move even though there was a bubble and the shorts were vindicated. If you were early to the short (in, say, 1998), then you would have lost a tremendous amount of money even though the thesis was vindicated in the early 2000s. Take a look at the percentage returns for the NASDAQ 100 from 1998 through 2002:

1998: Up 85.30%

1999: Up 101.95%

2000: Down 36.84%

2001: Down 32.65%

2002: Down 37.58%

“The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” – John Maynard Keynes

That is why I don’t short stocks or use leverage. Timing is hard, even if you’re a pro like Einhorn. If Einhorn can’t do it, then I certainly can’t do it!

Portfolio Value

On an EBITDA/Enterprise Value basis, many of the worst performing stocks in my portfolio are some of the most attractively valued. Why sell now?

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The frequent under-performance of value strategies is a key reason that they outperform over the long run.

If a fund manager delivered the kind of relative under performance that I delivered this quarter, they would probably be yelled at by their boss or at the very least forced to endure a healthy dose of corporate passive aggressiveness.

It’s moments like this (which can last years) during which there is a strong incentive to simply buy stocks that look like the S&P 500 or had some recent momentum. This strategy is a recipe for long term under-performance.

Behaviorally, it is easier to go with the crowd. If you’re right and the crowd is right, then you’re doing great! If you’re wrong and the crowd is wrong, then at least everybody else was wrong too!

If, however, you take a contrarian opinion and the crowd is right and you’re wrong (as I am with the anti-Amazon trade for now) then you lose your job. Contrarian opinions are eminently risky. Things are even more behaviorally difficult when you look at the companies in a value portfolio. Why am I even investing in this garbage? Everybody knows that retail is dead, Gamestop will be replaced by streaming video games, etc. This makes it all the easier to click that tempting “sell” button and end the pain.

This is why having one investor (me!) and no boss is advantageous and makes for better investing.

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.

What is the best measure of quality?

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In an earlier post, I examined the performance of different value metrics. My conclusion was simple: cheap stocks beat expensive stocks.

Most value investors don’t simply look for cheap alone. They try to find companies that are both cheap and good. Good is typically defined as companies that can earn high returns on their capital.

Finding these companies is a worthwhile pursuit but it is difficult to pull off systematically because companies earning high returns on capital are going to attract significant competition. I think it is far more difficult to do this than most value investors appreciate. Mean reversion, fueled by competition, inevitably pulls these returns down. Finding the rare birds that don’t succumb to this is hard.  These companies usually have a “moat“, which is hard to identify. Needless to say, this kind of investing requires a touch of genius that I don’t have. When investing, I operate under the assumption that every company succumbs to mean reversion.

With that said, finding these rare opportunities certainly pays off over the long run. You can park money in a company like Coca-Cola or Nike and earn high returns over long stretches of time, while reducing taxes and transaction costs.

The Magic Formula 

Joel Greenblatt sought out a systematic quantitative method to find companies that are simultaneously cheap and earn high returns on capital. The result was The Little Book that Beats the Market. In the book, Greenblatt demonstrated that simultaneously buying cheap companies that earn high returns on invested capital will outperform. He calls this the magic formula and generously maintains a free screener here.

Tobias Carlisle took this a step further in Deep Value and discovered that the quality metric of high returns on invested capital actually reduces returns from the magic formula. He explains in Deep Value how mean reversion tends to bring these returns down. Cheap alone is better than cheap plus good. In other words, it takes qualitative insight to determine which companies have a moat that will allow them to sustain high returns on capital. Tobias maintains a free large cap screen for this here.

I would recommend reading both The Little Book That Beats the Market and Deep Value.

Backtesting Quality Metrics

I decided to test the returns for myself and try to see which “quality” metric works best when combined with a value factor. The test I ran is limited to Russell 3000 components. My definitions of cheapness were:

  • EBITDA/Enterprise Value is higher than 20%
  • Price to free cash flow is less than 15
  • Price to sales is less than 1
  • Earnings Yield is over 10% (i.e., P/E is less than 10)
  • Price to book less than 1
  • Price to tangible book less than 1

In addition to examining metrics that define high returns on capital, I also included metrics for financial quality, such as the debt to equity ratio and the Piotroski F-Score. Below is a summary of all of the quality metrics that I tested.

Return on Equity – This is the oldest and most simple method of corporate quality. It is simply the company’s net income divided by equity (assets – liabilities). For the purposes of the test, I define high ROE as over 20%.

Return on Invested Capital – Joel Greenblatt’s preferred measure of quality. This is earnings before interest and taxes divided by invested capital. Invested capital is defined as working capital plus net fixed assets. For the purposes of the test, I define high ROIC as over 15%.

Gross Profits/Assets – Robert Novy-Marx created a very simplistic measure of quality, gross profits/assets. He found that this  method works extremely well, because it uses profits further up of the income statement where it is more difficult for a firm to manipulate the numbers. You can read his paper on the subject here. For the purposes of the test, I define good gross profitability as over 30%.

Debt/Equity – This is another simplistic measure of financial quality. It is simply total debt divided by equity (assets-liabilities). For the purposes of the test, I define a good debt/equity ratio as under 50%.

F-Score – This is a more complex measure of financial quality designed by Joseph Piotroski, who is currently a professor at Stanford. Piotroski designed a 9 point scale of financial quality in a paper written back in 2000. Piotroski backtested combining this measure of financial quality with price to book and found that the results greatly exceeded the market. Each component adds to the score. A perfect F-Score would be a 9. It’s too bad F-Scores don’t go up to eleven. The components of the F-Score are defined below.

  • A net decline in long-term debt for the current year.
  • A net increase in the current ratio in the current year. The current ratio is current assets/current liabilities. It measures the liquidity of the company’s balance sheet to meet short-term obligations.
  • A positive increase in gross margins in the current year.
  • Faster asset turnover in the current year.
  • The total number of shares outstanding is flat or decreasing. In other words, the company isn’t issuing new equity and diluting the current pool of shares.
  • Return on assets is positive.
  • Operating cash flow is positive.
  • Return on assets for the current year is higher than the previous year.
  • Operating Cash Flow/Total Assets is higher than return on assets.

The results of the backtest are below. The results are in the Russell 3000 universe with annual rebalancing beginning in 1999.

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The High Return Metrics – ROE, ROIC, GP/Assets

Measures for returns on capital – ROE, ROIC and GP/Assets – actually detract from the performance of EBITDA/Enterprise Value. They add performance to the other valuation metrics slightly, with Gross Profits/Assets being the best.

The middling performance of high return quality metrics is due to mean reversion, or the propensity for high return businesses to eventually succumb to the pressures of competition.

With that said, if you are trying to identify high return businesses, the best metric to use appears to be Gross Profits/Assets.

Financial Quality (The Debt/Equity Ratio and the F-Score)

In contrast, measures of financial quality, such as the debt/equity ratio and the F-Score, supercharge all of the valuation metrics that are examined here. Why is this?

Cheap stocks are only cheap because they are in some kind of trouble. There is an “ick” factor. Any time you run a value screen, you will scratch your head and think “Do I really want to invest in this garbage?”

This is why financial quality metrics are more useful than business quality metrics. If a company has a good balance sheet and is financially healthy then it has time to resolve its problems. Managers have time to implement a new strategy that can turn things around. Even without a new strategy, time will help the financially healthy company. For instance, if the company is in a crowded, competitive industry, the financially healthy company can weather the storm while the highly leveraged firms will go out of business first. Less firms means less competition. Less competition means that future returns in the industry will improve.

This is the essence of the simple Graham method that I follow with my own portfolio. I am looking for cheap companies that have the financial ability to weather the storm that they’re in.

This is also why the high return metrics add a little to the other valuation metrics but detract from the EBITDA yield. Unlike the other valuation metrics tested here, the EBITDA yield is the only one here that uses Enterprise Value in the calculation. Enterprise Value brings balance sheet health into the valuation ratio. For EBITDA/Enterprise Value to result in a high yield, the company must have little debt and a lot of cash on hand. In other words, valuation metrics that use Enterprise Value will identify companies that are both cheap and have safe balance sheets.

RadioShack vs. Best Buy

This reminds me of an article I read over at the Motley Fool. The author explains why Radio Shack fell apart and Best Buy was able to turn around.

Radio Shack had numerous problems, including asking for your phone number when you buy batteries.

Best Buy’s problem is that it basically became a showroom for Amazon. The referenced article explain how Best Buy successfully turned things around by cutting costs, emulating the Apple Store, expanding the Geek Squad and improving their website.

I have a more simplistic explanation for why Best Buy was able to recover and Radio Shack fell apart. Radio Shack had a lot of debt and Best Buy didn’t. Radio Shack’s debt to equity ratio was over 670%. Best Buy’s debt to equity ratio was 41% a few years ago and is 29% today.

Best Buy’s balance sheet gave them an edge: time. They had time to work through their problems and try to find a solution. If Best Buy had Radio Shack’s debt levels, the CEO would have never been able to pursue the turnaround strategy. All troubled companies are trying to turn things around, but only those with financial strength will have the time to do so.

Screening for High F-Scores and EBITDA Yield

One of the most robust combinations tested was the F Score and the EBITDA Yield, with a 17.69% rate of return since 1999. I ran a screen for companies with an EBITDA yield over 20% and an F-Score of 8 or higher. This combination of criteria is very stringent. It only returned 5 results out of the entire Russell 3000. Best Buy actually comes up in this screen, implying that it is still a financially healthy bargain. Output from the screen is below.

Companies

I am not going to buy positions in these companies, but wanted to share the results of what I found. Hopefully this will give you some useful leads that are worthy of further research.

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.

Is the Bubble About to Burst?

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Q4 2016 Data

In an earlier post I referenced an excellent market valuation model that I found at the Philosophical Economics blog. To sum it up: the model projects the next 10 years of market returns by using the average investor allocation to equities. The theory is that most bull markets are fueled by rising valuations as investors move money from other asset classes into stocks. The model tells you how much “fuel” is out there to push equities higher.

The Q4 2016 number recently became available over at Fred. The current average equity allocation at the end of the year was 41.279%. Let’s plug this into the equation I referenced in my earlier blog post on this topic:

Expected 10 year rate of return = (-.8 * Average Equity Allocation)+37.5

(-.8 * 41.279) + 37.5 = 4.48%

We can therefore expect the market to deliver a 4.48% rate of return over the next ten years. Not particularly exciting, but not the end of the world either.

Market Timing

Most hedge fund letters this year emphasized how market valuations are at historic highs and take a cautionary approach to stocks. I agree with their spirit because I think everyone should always approach the market with caution. If someone cannot handle losing half of their money, then they have no business in the stock market. A drop of that magnitude can happen at any time no matter where valuations stand. That short-term risk is the very reason that stocks outperform other asset classes over the long-term.

If I were an alarmist, I would agree with some of the hedge fund letters and say: “The market hasn’t traded at these valuations since 2007! Get to the chopper!” This implies that we are on the brink of another historic meltdown in stocks. This is the prognostication that is often heard about stocks today. I think it is misleading.

Valuation simply predicts the magnitude of future returns over the long run. Higher valuations mean lower returns and lower valuations mean higher returns. That’s it. It does not predict what the market will do over the next 12 months. It does not mean that if you wait long enough, you’ll have an opportunity to buy when valuations are at more attractive levels. Anything can happen in the next year. There could be an oil embargo. A war could break out. Terrorists could strike. Our politicians could cause another crazy showdown that imperils the economy. Trump-o-nomics might actually work. Maybe it won’t. No one really knows and anyone who proclaims otherwise is lying.

It is tempting to look at market valuations as a tool to time the market. Wouldn’t it be great to sell in 2007 and buy in 2009? Get in when the market is depressed and get out when valuations rise and the market looks like it is due for a correction? My view is that market valuations should not be used as a market timing tool. When it comes to timing the market, I think Peter Lynch put it best when he said:

“Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections, or trying to anticipate corrections, than has been lost in corrections themselves.” – Peter Lynch

This is great advice. Today’s market valuations may be at 2007 levels — but they were also around these levels in 2004 (S&P 500 up 8.99%), 1968 (up 7.32%), 1997 (up 25.72%) or 1963 (up 17.51%). It makes little sense to try to time the market based on valuation or refuse to participate simply because the market isn’t offering the kind of compelling bargains that it presented in 2009. The question is: is this 2007 or 1997?

Stopped clocks are always right twice a day. This is how I feel about the permanent bears. They certainly called it in 2008, but did they call the turnaround? How many of them have been predicting disaster for the last decade and have been proven wrong year after year? There is bound to be another meltdown at some point in the future, but there is no way to predict when that will happen. The wait can be long. While you wait, more money can be lost through unrealized gains than is lost in the actual correction. 2017 may be the year for a major market meltdown of and the end of the bull market. Perhaps. Taking the advice of the permanent bears will help you avoid it, but how much more money was lost listening to their advice since 2009? It doesn’t make sense to refuse to participate in the market simply because the market isn’t offering compelling valuations.

Valuation in a Vacuum

Stock market valuation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. One should always compare the expected returns in stocks against the expected returns in other asset classes. My view is that the best asset to compare stocks to is AAA corporate bonds. The way to think about stocks is as corporate bonds with variable yields. The question isn’t “is the market overvalued?” The question is “Do current earnings yields justify the risk of owning stocks when compared to the returns on safer asset classes?”

This is why interest rates drive the stock market.

“Interest rates act on asset values like gravity acts on physical matter.” – Warren Buffett

Below is a historical perspective of market valuation compared to the interest rates on corporate bonds. The expected 10 year S&P 500 return is derived from the equation described earlier in this post.

Year Expected 10 Year S&P 500 Return AAA Corporate Bond Yield Equity Risk Premium
2017 4.48% 3.05% 1.43%
2012 9.38% 3.85% 5.53%
2007 5.06% 5.33% -0.27%
2002 4.33% 6.55% -2.22%
1997 7.86% 7.42% 0.44%
1992 14.43% 8.20% 6.23%
1987 14.37% 8.36% 6.01%
1982 19.24% 14.23% 5.01%
1977 15.03% 7.96% 7.07%
1972 5.22% 7.19% -1.97%
1967 4.41% 5.20% -0.79%
1962 5.66% 4.42% 1.24%
1957 9.81% 3.77% 6.04%
AVERAGE 2.60%

Historical

As you can see, there are times when the market adequately compensates investors for the risk of owning stocks and there are times when it does not. It is also evident that there is a strong correlation between interest rates and future market returns. Higher interest rates mean that stocks need to deliver higher earnings yields, something that is usually achieved by a market correction that depresses P/E ratios and boosts earnings yields.

From this perspective, the market isn’t wildly overvalued. The current market valuation is largely in line with historical norms based on where interest rates are today.

That is the right way to think about stocks. It is folly to think “valuations are too high, therefore I will not participate because a correction is imminent.” That is short-term prognostication and it is typically wrong. No one knows what will happen over the next year and market valuations won’t provide the answer.

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.

The Psychology of Human Misjudgment by Charlie Munger

This is a great speech given by Charlie Munger. Throughout the speech, Charlie runs through the common causes of human beings to misjudge.

I think it’s important for everyone to understand these concepts, but it’s particularly important for investors. The goal of an investor ought to be to take advantage of human misjudgment. With markets, you’re dealing with the collective judgment of human beings. To make any money, you have to be able to make good decisions and understand why other people are making comparatively bad decisions.

Whenever you find yourself coming to a conclusion about something, I think it’s a good idea to think about this speech and think about whether or not you are succumbing to these common misjudgments.

The common causes that Charlie summarizes in the speech are listed below:

  1. Under-recognition of the power of what psychologists call ‘reinforcement’ and economists call ‘incentives.’ Always think in terms of whether or not someone is gaining from a course of action and whether that lines up with your own goals. “Is my realtor just trying to maximize his commission, or is this house actually a decent value?” Never underestimate the power of incentives.
  2. Psychological denial. The inability of people to accept truths that are too painful to accept.
  3. Incentive-cause bias, or when the interests of two parties aren’t aligned.
  4. Bias from consistency and commitment tendency. This is sticking to your guns over “core beliefs” and refusing to change in the face of evidence to the contrary.
  5. Bias from Pavlovian association, or misconstruing past correlation as a reliable basis for decision-making.
  6. Bias from reciprocation tendency, including the tendency of one on a roll to act as other persons expect.
  7. Lollapalooza: bias from over-influence by social proof. Social proof is your desire to agree with other people for the sake of agreeing. The ultimate examples I can think of are both the real estate bubble and the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s. The prices made no sense, but everyone else was doing it.
  8. “To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail”. Economists are cited as an example of loving the efficient market hypothesis because the math was beautiful and that was what they were trained to use even though it was largely useless for the problem that they were tackling.
  9. Bias from contrast-caused distortions of sensation, perception and cognition. In other words, limiting yourself to your own experiences when making decisions instead of looking at the bigger picture.
  10. Over influence by authority. Valuing someone’s opinion more just because they’re an authority figure. Also known as the expert fallacy. You’re more likely to listen to someone in a suit than someone in a t-shirt and jeans.
  11. Bias from deprival super-reaction syndrome, including bias caused by present or threatened scarcity, including threatened removal of something almost possessed, but never possessed. I.e., the reaction of a dog when you try to remove its food or the reaction of the American public when Coca-Cola tried to change the flavor.
  12. Bias from envy or jealousy.  “It’s not greed that drives the world, but envy.” – Warren Buffett
  13. Bias caused by chemical dependency, such as drugs or alcohol.
  14. Bias from a gambling compulsion.
  15. Liking and disliking distortion. This is the tendency to agree with the opinions of someone just because you like them personally. Conversely, there is the same tendency to disagree with the opinions of someone you dislike just because you dislike them. In other words, not analyzing the actual merits of an opinion, but basing your thoughts on your attitude towards the person. You see this a lot in politics. When a President does something that the opposing party dislikes, think of the different reactions that would be caused in the same people if someone from their own party proposed the same course of action.
  16. Bias from the non-mathematical nature of the human brain. Letting yourself be fooled by statistical tricks.
  17. Bias from the over influence of extra vivid evidence. Not looking closely at something because the answer seems obvious. Look closer because the truth isn’t always obvious.
  18. Mental confusion caused by information not arrayed in the mind and theory structures, creating sound generalizations. In other words, you need models to understand the world. Your mind isn’t just randomly collecting scattered facts. They have to exist in some kind of structure to be useful.
  19. Other normal limitations of sensation, memory, cognition and knowledge.
  20. Stress-induced mental changes, small and large, temporary and permanent.
  21. Mental illnesses and declines, temporary and permanent, including the tendency to lose ability through disuse.
  22. Development and organizational confusion from say-something syndrome. In other words, it’s the idea that you feel you have to do or say something for the sake of doing it, not because it will actually achieve anything. Anybody who ever sat in a meeting in corporate America knows this truth. 90% of the people who say something in these meetings have nothing useful to say.
  23. Combinations of these tendencies. Examples cited include Tupperware parties, Alcoholics anonymous and open outcry auctions. All combine several of the psychological biases that Charlie previously described to obtain a result.

Before making a decision, take a step back and think about whether or not any of these biases are at work. The more we can avoid these biases, the better decisions we can make.

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.

Ed Thorp: The Man Who Beat Las Vegas and Wall Street

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I just finished Ed Thorp‘s new book, A Man for All Markets, and give it a strong recommendation. Ed Thorp is a genius who mastered card counting, built the first wearable computer to beat roulette and created the first market neutral hedge fund. The book takes the reader on a fascinating adventure through Thorp’s Depression-era childhood, his academic career in mathematics, his successful assault on Las Vegas and his wildly successful career in the financial markets.

Lifelong Learning

One of the things that struck me about Edward Thorp was his enduring lifelong love of learning, which fueled much of his success. Edward Thorp didn’t have a one-dimensional interest in mathematics. He was constantly fascinated by new ideas which likely led him to study unconventional subjects such as gambling. In his childhood he experimented with radio, attempted to win mathematics competitions, conducted funny experiments (such as attempting to create a hot air balloon and playing a prank on a local swimming pool with red dye that turned the entire pool blood-red). These funny pranks and interests show a deeply inquisitive mind willing to learn new things. While few of us are anywhere near the intellect of Ed Thorp, that’s an important lesson to take away. Remaining curious and developing a lifelong love of learning is a positive attribute that we should all strive to achieve.

The Original Black Scholes

I never knew that Thorp developed the original black scholes model, but he developed this and used it to make money for himself in the 1960s. He wrote about it in a 1967 book about it along with other arbitrage strategies, Beat the Market . Thorp was looking for a way to successfully invest his money that he accrued through his gambling activities and best-selling book Beat the DealerHe tried stock picking and wasn’t pleased with it, looking instead for something more precise and scientific. He ended up employing his own brand of convertible arbitrage and his own version of the Black Scholes model, before Fisher Black and Myron Scholes wrote their 1973 paper about it. In 1997, Myron was awarded the Nobel prize for an insight that Thorp discovered first. While Fisher Black and Myron Scholes appeared to have engaged in outright theft of Thorp’s ideas, he is surprisingly cool and level-headed about it. I suppose the lesson of this is that it doesn’t pay to hold grudges and needlessly create enemies. In fact, Thorp maintained a good relationship with them and was pleased that they were able to prove his idea. In any case, Thorp put the ideas to work in the world’s first market neutral hedge fund, Princeton Newport Partners.

A Unique Perspective

Something I thoroughly enjoyed about the book was reading Ed Thorp’s outlook on financial and political issues. What was fascinating to me was how non-ideological Thorp’s approach is. It’s hard to pin him down as a conservative or liberal. He does not subscribe to any kind of orthodoxy. Thorp’s approach is pragmatic and relies primarily on logic.

For instance, when discussing welfare, Thorp isn’t opposed to welfare as would be standard conservative orthodoxy but he also doesn’t subscribe to the standard liberal worldview. Thorp’s attitude is that welfare and unemployment benefits are necessary, but believes that these individuals should be put to work as occurred during the Great Depression’s Works Progress Administration.

Thorp is certainly no friend of Wall Street and takes a critical eye towards the actions of investment banks. A standard liberal response would be to load up Wall Street with as many regulations as possible. A standard conservative response would be that laws created by Washington, DC (such as the community reinvestment act) forced the banks to take unnecessary risks and that they therefore are not directly responsible for the outcome of the crisis. Thorp acknowledges the bad behavior of banks and believes in sensible regulation, but thinks that we would do much better off by enabling shareholders to better combat bad behavior by the management of public companies rather than pursuing excessive regulation.

Thorp also has a very unique perspective on the 1980s junk bond boom. While acknowledging that Michael Milken was responsible for illegally enabling insider trading, he believes that Milken was not a target solely for his illegal acts. Milken’s illegal activity was magnified and pursued by the authorities because Milken financed an assault against the established corporate order. The established corporate order was far more entrenched politically and pleaded with politicians to shut him down. Thorp also has an unfavorable attitude towards Rudy Giuliani, whom he believes pursued these scandals less out of a sense of justice and more for political gain.

He’s also quite critical of the hedge fund industry, arguing accurately that hedge funds rarely deliver returns that justify their high expense ratios. This is quite ironic because Thorp launched one of the first modern hedge funds.

A Wild Trade

One of my favorite stories in the book involves an amazing trade that Thorp came across in 2000 at the height of the internet bubble. It is a story that could come straight out of Joel Greenblatt’s You Can Be a Stock Market Genius. It also gives insight into the level of financial insanity that fueled the internet bubble.

Back in March 2000, 3COM owned Palm Pilot. 3COM spun off 6% of its interest in Palm in an IPO. Due to the mania that was consuming market participants at the time, every technology or internet oriented IPO would immediately be bid up to an insane valuation on the first day of trading. Palm was no exception, but the level it was bid up to was truly absurd. After the first day of trading, the market valued the Palm IPO at $53.4 billion but valued the parent company (that owned the other 94% of Palm) at only $28 billion! In other words, the 6% share of Palm was valued more than the other 94% owned by 3COM plus all of 3COM’s other business interests. Thorp shorted Palm and went long in 3COM, in an incredible trade that would never have been possible if markets were efficient.

Investment Ideas

Thorp is a strong advocate for buying index funds, but he also offers a couple interesting ideas for investors to make above average returns.

The first fascinating idea is taking advantage of Savings & Loans that issue new equity. Thorp will open up a deposit account in a savings & loan that he suspects will eventually take a new equity offering public. Because depositors get a share of any new equity issue, Thorp then applies for a position in the new equity offer which typically sells for nearly double of the original price that Thorp paid for it. If he feels the savings & loan is well-managed, Thorp will hold onto the position for much longer periods of time. Thorp opens up multiple deposits in S&L’s throughout the country and then patiently waits for an equity offer. This was immensely profitable in the run up to the S&L crisis when S&L’s were hungry for new capital. The game has slowed down in recent years, but it sounds like those opportunities can still be identified.

The second idea is buying closed end funds at a discount and shorting closed end funds at a premium. This was an idea I was previously familiar with (Graham was an advocate of the strategy, at least the long portion of it). Closed end funds are publicly traded investment vehicles that can only be redeemed through trading activity. There are fixed number of shares and market participants determine the price. However, like a standard mutual fund, you can easily assign a net asset value to the shares. Unlike a mutual fund, you can’t redeem your investment at NAV, you have to sell it to someone in the open market at whatever they’re willing to pay.

In other words, there is no guesswork involved in determining the value of a closed end fund, but the shares trade openly and the price relative to the NAV frequently changes. Shares of closed end funds frequently trade at a significant discount or premium to their NAV. Efficient market types will say that these price discrepancies occur because the market is speculating on the riskiness or promise of the assets that the closed end fund owns. However, during the financial crisis, Thorp was able to acquire closed end funds that owned nothing but treasuries (an essentially risk free asset) at a substantial discount. Barron’s maintains a nice list of closed end fund NAVs and premium/discount that investors can take advantage of.

Bernie Madoff

A particularly fascinating passage in the book is one in which Thorp uncovers the Madoff scandal all the way back in 1990. While auditing investments for another firm, Thorp investigated Madoff because the firm had investments with Madoff. Thorp at first suspected that Madoff’s slow and steady returns every month (Madoff “earned” 1-2% every single month and never lost) might be fraudulent. Thorp confirmed this suspicion when, after checking with the exchanges, he confirmed that none of Madoff’s alleged trades actually happened. Thorp could have alerted the authorities back then, but he suspects they wouldn’t have done anything about it, so it wasn’t worth getting into the weeds. He’s right, of course. Harry Markopolos came to a similar conclusion and tried to alert the authorities about it and no one would listen (in fact, the SEC investigated and cleared Madoff of wrongdoing), and Harry spent years worrying that Madoff would try to take him out in some way. It sounds like Thorp made the prudent choice without making a big splash: advise his client to get out and lay low about the finding.

Conclusion

Edward Thorp is a living, breathing refutation of the efficient market hypothesis. He’s an iconoclast who refused to accept the conventional wisdom about markets or casinos. He had a lifelong love of learning which he allowed to pursue a fun (and profitable) adventure. His journey is a fascinating one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I recommend the book to anyone interested in a great story about a unique genius.

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.

I am a value investor. My outlook is inspired by the ideas of Benjamin Graham. This site is a real time chronicle of my portfolio and an outlet to share my ideas. I hope you enjoy.