Sunday, August 24, 2014

Good to Great: The Stockdale Paradox

After watching a video of Carlos Brito pounding the table on the book, Good to Great by Jim Collins, I had to reread it.  I read it years ago when it came out and thought it was a great book, but rereading it now, I enjoyed it even more.  That's because I've spent more time since then reading about businesses, annual reports, and watching companies succeed and fail over the years.  So I have many more reference points to relate all of this stuff to.

It is fun to read about Wells Fargo and how together they are, and it's nice to see that they have maintained their "greatness".  Unfortunately, Circuit City and Fannie Mae no longer exist, but most of the others have been doing well since then.  Collins did say that if these 'great' companies change, or don't continue their great ways, they will quickly fall back to mediocrity or worse.

By the way, here are the great companies in the book:
Circuit City
Fannie Mae
Philip Morris
Pitney Bowes
Wells Fargo
An interesting point is the contrast between this book and the Outsiders book.  Jim Collins even points out Teledyne and Henry Singleton as an example of a "genius with a thousand helpers"; a company that did well under a genius and then stumbled when the genius departed.

As an investor, either one is fine with me.  I don't mind investing with "geniuses" (that's what we do when we invest in Berkshire Hathaway and other companies not to mention some funds/hedge funds).  And I would love to invest in great companies too even if they are not dependent on a single genius.

Anyway, both are great books so there is no need to compare.  Each book looks at businesses from a different angle (one looks at great companies (and how they became so) and the other looks at great CEOs).

Stockdale Paradox
But the thing that really got me (again) is what Collins calls the Stockdale Paradox.  It is a well-known concept now; it is mentioned in survival books (like Mt. Everest survival stories) etc.

And the idea is really similar to what I wrote about in my recent post, Catmull's Mental Models.  

For those who don't know, Admiral James Stockdale was a POW during the Vietnam war; the highest ranked 'guest' in the Hanoi Hilton.   He was there for eight years and was tortured more than twenty times.

Many POWs didn't make it but Stockdale and some others did.

Collins asked Stockdale, "Who didn't make it out?"
"Oh, that's easy," he said.  "The Optimists."
Collins was confused as he thought Stockdale was an optimist as he had no doubt he would get out of his situation.

Stockdale clarified:
"The optimists.  Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.'  And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go.  Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.'  And Easter would come, and Easter would go.  And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.  And they died of a broken heart."
"This is a very important lesson.  You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."
Collins defines the Stockdale Paradox as:
Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, reglardless of the difficulties.
                                                       AND at the same time
Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. 

Stockdale Paradox and Value Investing
And of course, I have to tie all of this to value investing.  This concept is very similar to the stuff that the Pixar people shared with Catmull in his book.  They all had mental models to help them get through the inevitable tough times in making movies.  And those models were really good models that would apply to value investing as value investing is not at all easy and have some rough periods.  Bear markets are inevitable, and even the best stocks will go down 50% every now and then (as we know, even Berkshire Hathaway stock does that too!).

And the Stockdale Paradox is a perfect model to deal with this.

Optimists and Perma-bulls
It's interesting how Stockdale puts it when he says that the "optimists" didn't make it.  This sort of reminds me of a perma-bull.

But first, we must define a perma-bull.  Is Warren Buffett a perma-bull?  He is always talking up the future of America, and he is always almost fully invested (he may build up cash every now and then).

Buffett is not a perma-bull in the sense that he is always bullish the stock market (because he is not).  He is more of a market agnostic.  Bull markets will happen, bear markets will happen, but nobody will really know when, so don't try to figure it out.  That's his stance, so it's not really perma-bullish at all.

Perma-bulls are people who always think the markets will go up.  You see this in wire-house investment strategists etc.

So I distinguish perma-bulls from market agnostics.

Optimistic Investors That Fail
So Buffett is a long term optimist, confident that the U.S. will do well over the longer term, just like Stockdale was confident he will get out of his situation.  But like Stockdale, Buffett just doesn't know when things will happen, just that things will work out over time.

Like Stockdale's colleagues that didn't make it, though, there are a lot of optimistic investors that don't make it.  For example, people who were excited about stocks in the late 1990's were optimistic that stocks will continue to earn 15-20%/year just as it had in the recent past.  This was sort of the "we'll be home by Christmas" optimism in Stockdale's story.  Maybe it doesn't seem so bad as the market hasn't done much since then, but most likely, these people piled in at the top and then puked out their positions in the following bear market (and most likely didn't get back in).

If you buy stocks and expect them to go up 10% every single year, you will be disappointed when it doesn't and will probably end up dumping stocks at the wrong time. If you don't think a bear market will come any time soon, then you will be disappointed when one does come and you will probably sell out at the worst possible moment.

Some became value investors after seeing the 1999/2000 internet bubble/crash.  And then they got hit in the financial crisis and swore off stocks altogether.  They were optimistic that they wouldn't lose money as they would stay away from bubble stocks.  When value stocks got hit hard in the crisis, they were disappointed and left.  This too, is sort of like the "we'll be home for Christmas" optimism.

Or how about optimists that believe that their stock will keep beating earnings estimates; once the streak of 'beats' ends, they get disappointed and dump their stock (regardless of whether it is a good long term investment).

Or optimists that believe their stock or fund will beat the market every single year, year in and year out.  A recent study showed that very few people can do that but I found it interesting because it is sort of irrelevant; you don't need to beat the market every single year in every single time period to beat the market.  Most good funds have periods of outperformance and periods of underperformance.  Insisting on outperformance at all times is what leads to trouble.

I can go on and on (and so can most of you).

Most of us who have been in the business have seen this sort of thing happen over and over.  And it's amazing because it perfectly fits the Stockdale Paradox model.

So let's take a look, again, at the Stockdale Paradox as defined in Collin's book:
Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, reglardless of the difficulties.
                                                       AND at the same time
Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. 

For retaining faith, we have to believe that whatever happens (recessions, near depressions) that we in this country (including the government) will (eventually) do the right thing.  In severe recessions, they will step in.  Corporations will cut costs and do what needs to be done to survive.   Just as we figured out how to make more food (after Malthus' prediction), whatever problem we face, we will figure it out.

We also have to retain faith that value investing does work over time.  As Joel Greenblatt says, no investment strategy or approach works all the time.  There will be times when value investing doesn't seem to work (and many value investors will abandon the idea).  If you buy something for less than it is actually worth, then over time you will make money.  We value investors can't lose that faith. 

The brutal facts that we have to confront are usually bear markets (in the whole market or just the stock or stocks we own).  The stock market will fluctuate.  No matter how much due diligence we do and how well we know a company, the stock price of that company will go down 50% or more at some point if you own it for the long haul.   That's just a fact that we have to face, and one that many people can't (and that's why they dump stocks at the wrong time!).  If that is not acceptable to us, then we simply shouldn't be investing in stocks.  

This is not fair to Admiral Stockdale, but think of bear markets as sort of the market torturing investors (losing money can't fairly be compared to physical torture).  This is what markets do.  If we hope that there won't be any more bear markets, or that we will be smart enough to get out before the next one, that is sort of like "home by Christmas" optimism and we would inevitably die of heartbreak.

Friday, August 22, 2014

WL Ross Holding Corp (WLRH)

As I was looking through the new lows list in the newspaper, I stumbled upon WL Ross Holdings Corp (WLRH).  Wilbur Ross is a very successful distressed investor so I was surprised to see a listed entity with his name on it.

This is a blank check investment company (or Special-Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC)), and who cares about those these days?  I am not a big fan of these things, usually, as they tend to just do nothing for a long time and then they either make a good deal or a bad deal and the stock price responds accordingly.   I don't follow these systematically so don't know what the historical record is (even though a quick googling shows that they have generally performed poorly), but off the top of my head, the disasters were things like American Apparel and Crumbs.  Even RLJ Entertainment (RLJE) run by the legendary Robert Johnson (founder of BET) looks like a disaster.   Recent success stories are Burger King and Platform Specialty. 

Over the years I've read a bunch of S-1's for these things and for me it really boils down to the people.  Who is running it and making the investment decisions?  We've had SPACs run by ex-CEOs, private equity guys and even celebrities.   But for many of them, there were no verifiable, independent track records.  So how do you evaluate someone who is going to make one big acquisition without something to look at?

Free Option
The reason why SPACs can be interesting (and the Special Opportunities Fund (SPE) has almost 10% of assets in SPACs) is that they often have a term of two years and if they can't make an acquisition by then the cash is returned to shareholders.  If they make an interesting acquisition, the stock price will pop up and you make a quick profit on the difference between private market value and public market value.   They are usually offered with warrants too, so you can buy warrants in anticipation of making money on the 'pop'.

Hedge funds like them (or used to like them) as they can buy them at a discount to the cash redemption value and vote down acquisitions or redeem their shares for a decent return, especially with leverage (plus the optionality). 

Flat Stock Price Can Be Good
And then it occurred to me that these investment vehicles that remain flat for the most part until some event occurs, with the option of getting your cash back instead of holding onto the shares through an acquisition might be interesting to some in this market where people seem worried about an imminent crash or bear market. 

From the prospectus (dated June 5, 2014):
We will provide our public stockholders with the opportunity to redeem all or a portion of their shares of our common stock upon the completion of our initial business combination at a per-share price, payable in cash, equal to the aggregate amount then on deposit in the trust account described below as of two business days prior to the consummation of our initial business combination, including interest (which interest shall be net of taxes payable) divided by the number of then outstanding shares of common stock that were sold as part of the units in this offering, which we refer to collectively as our public shares, subject to the limitations described herein. If we are unable to complete our business combination within 24 months from the closing of this offering, we will redeem 100% of the public shares at a per-share price, payable in cash, equal to the aggregate amount then on deposit in the trust account, including interest (less up to $50,000 of interest to pay dissolution expenses and which interest shall be net of taxes payable) divided by the number of then outstanding public shares, subject to applicable law and as further described herein. 
If the stock market crashed tomorrow, these SPACs will not move in price at all.  OK, maybe there would be some selling pressure in a severe crash, but since the asset is mostly cash, the value wouldn't change at all. 

In fact, SPACs might actually benefit in a crash as it may lead to more investment opportunities. 

So let's just take a quick look at WLRH.  What I like about WLRH is that Wilbur Ross himself is listed as the Chairman and CEO.  Of course, this does not guarantee that he will spend a lot of time on WLRH.  But if he is going to hold those titles, I don't think he is going to just let anything happen.  He will make sure whatever deal happens is a good one. 

There is obviously some conflict here as Ross runs other funds and dealings between WLRH and his other funds are not forbidden.   Will he save the best ideas for his other funds?  Will he dump a bad asset / lemon in his private funds into this entity?  Of course, that is possible.  

But as usual when looking at these things, we have to look at the people.   There are some names that come to mind that I wouldn't trust at all in this sense.  But Ross, as far as I know, has a very good reputation and I wouldn't worry about funky self-dealing here. 

For those who don't know much about him, from the prospectus: 
We believe that our management team is well positioned to identify a value-oriented investment opportunity in the marketplace and that our contacts and transaction sources, ranging from owners and directors of private and public companies, private equity funds, investment bankers, attorneys, accountants and business brokers across various sectors will allow us to generate attractive acquisition opportunities. Our management team is led by Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., our Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, who has 17 years of experience in the private equity industry and 24 years of prior experience in the restructuring financial advisory industry. Over the course of his career, Mr. Ross and his team have invested in approximately 135 portfolio companies across four continents, deploying approximately $10 billion of invested capital. Mr. Ross is the only individual who has been elected to both the Private Equity Hall of Fame and the Turnaround Management Association Hall of Fame.
Mr. Ross is the Founder, Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer of WL Ross & Co. LLC, which we refer to throughout this prospectus as WL Ross, an affiliate of our sponsor. Mr. Ross was also formerly the Chief Executive Officer of WL Ross prior to stepping down from this role on April 30, 2014 to become its Chief Strategy Officer. Founded in 2000, WL Ross is a global distressed private equity firm with approximately $8 billion of assets under management as of December 31, 2013, across private equity, credit, infrastructure and mortgage funds. Mr. Ross and our management team will leverage the relationships of the investment professionals of WL Ross to identify and complete an initial business combination. Acknowledged as one of the world’s leading turnaround groups, WL Ross invests in and restructures financially distressed companies in industries in which the investment professionals of WL Ross have knowledge. WL Ross seeks niche opportunities in markets where it believes its knowledge, insight and experience offer an advantage in assessing and cultivating new investment opportunities. WL Ross has offices in the United States, China and Japan, and WL Ross’ current network of approximately 40 portfolio companies, which operate in over 10 industries and 12 countries across the globe, provide a broad network of relationships and market insights that we believe will help our management team source attractive value-oriented investment opportunities.
Prior to founding WL Ross in 2000, Mr. Ross was the Executive Managing Director of the Restructuring Advisory Group of Rothschild, Inc., where he and his team advised various constituencies through bankruptcies and workouts around the world, assisting in restructuring in excess of $200 billion of liabilities. In 1997, Mr. Ross and his investment team organized their first private equity fund, Rothschild Recovery Fund L.P. In April 2000, Mr. Ross founded WL Ross and acquired from Rothschild Inc. its general and limited partner interests in Rothschild Recovery Fund L.P., which was renamed WLR Recovery Fund, L.P. Our executive officers, Stephen J. Toy and Wendy L. Teramoto have worked at WL Ross since its founding and Michael J. Gibbons has been with WL Ross for 12 years. 
Some of the spectacular failures in SPACs have occured when they bought crappy companies (American Apparel), or companies that were simply not ready to be public (Crumbs?).  This is why I would avoid venture-type SPACs.

Here is what WLRH is going to look for:

Investment Criteria

Consistent with this strategy, we have identified the following general criteria and guidelines that we believe are important in evaluating prospective target businesses, including value-oriented investment opportunities. We will use these criteria and guidelines in evaluating acquisition opportunities, but we may decide to enter into our initial business combination with a target business that does not meet these criteria and guidelines. We intend to seek to acquire companies that we believe: 
Are Well Positioned within Industries Undergoing a Period of Dislocation.  Whole industries or sub-segments within industries routinely undergo periods of dislocation, often due to non-recurring macro-economic forces or disturbances, and our management team has a track record of contrarian investing in such industries and sectors, including banking institutions, basic building materials, financial services, metals and mining and transportation. We believe that the perceived risks inherent in these investment opportunities are often greater than the actual risks, and we believe that we are able to analyze and estimate the size of the actual risks through our diligence process. Within dislocated industries, we intend to target companies that have leading market shares, low-cost operations relative to peers or the ability to attain low-cost operations, defensible competitive characteristics or high barriers to entry, entrenched positions with customers and high potential returns on net assets where our capital and sponsorship can assist companies during periods of dislocation.
Offer Opportunities to Create Investment Platforms for Consolidation or Growth.  Our management team has an aggregate of over 70 years of experience creating platform investments and often consolidating meaningful portions of large industries. Mr. Ross and our management team have previously applied this investment strategy, creating horizontally and vertically integrated platforms, in industries such as steel, coal, automotive component parts and marine transportation. We intend to capitalize on their history of analyzing global macro-economic trends and industry-wide investment themes in the context of potentially creating investment platforms for consolidation or growth.
Have Significant Situational or Structural Complexity.  We believe that our management team has expertise undertaking complex transactions and providing flexible, long-term capital solutions, which often enable us to distinguish ourselves from other financial buyers. We believe that situational or structural complexity often hides compelling value that competitors may lack the time, inclination or ability to uncover. Our management team has historically capitalized on such investment situations, which have often taken the form of business, regulatory or legal complexity. We believe that successful private equity investing in complex special situations requires investment structuring expertise, which Mr. Ross and our management team have developed through their experience investing in approximately 135 portfolio companies. We intend to leverage the operational experience and financial acumen of our management team and the investment team of WL Ross to identify structurally complex opportunities where we believe we have the ability to unlock value for the benefit of our stockholders.
Are Underperforming Their Potential Peak Operational and/or Financial Performance Capabilities.  Companies underperform operationally and financially for various reasons, including due to cost mismanagement, weak relationships with organized labor groups, poorly strategized market positioning, capital investment misallocation, capital structure inefficiencies and ineffective management teams. We believe that given our management team’s experience with value-oriented investing, we are well-positioned to identify investment situations where additional capital investment, effective sponsorship, board of directors supervision and, often, a new management team, will result in improvements in operational and/or financial performance.
Offer a Value Proposition that is Not Recognized by the Market.  Our management team and the investment professionals of WL Ross typically conduct substantial due diligence with respect to potential acquisition targets, with a goal to uncover value that is unrecognized by the market and would allow us to invest in companies and buy assets at prices that we believe to be below intrinsic value. Our due diligence process typically involves an in-depth analysis of the target’s industry, including competitive positioning and barriers to entry; a strategic, operational and technical review; an analysis of downside protection and alternative channels through which we can realize value; a detailed historical and projected financial review focusing on revenue potential and earnings margins, which is done in concert with a stress test of projected financials and, often, a quality of earnings review; capital structure analysis; and an evaluation of a company’s management team and their financial incentives. 

This is a pretty big SPAC, I think, with $500,250,000 in cash held in the trust account.  Common stock outstanding subject to redemption is 47,789,319 shares.  That's a bit more than $10.00/share redemption value ($10.00/share is an estimate and not a guaranteed or fixed redemption amount).  Included in the trust account is deferred underwriting commission of $18,309,150 which is to be paid upon the closing of a deal.  Excluding that, you have $10.08/share in cash in the trust account.

Here's an interesting twist on the deferred underwriting commission:
The underwriters have agreed to waive their rights to their deferred underwriting commission held in the trust account in the event we do not complete our initial business combination within 24 months from the closing of this offering and, in such event, such amounts will be included with the funds held in the trust account that will be available to fund the redemption of our public shares.
So if a deal is not closed within two years, this underwriting commission doesn't have to be paid and will instead go to the public shareholders (shares offered in the IPO).  That would be an extra $0.38/share.  If none of the trust account cash is touched, the redemption value would be $10.46/share if a deal is not done.   With the stock currently at $9.85/share, that implies a 6.2% return over two years (actually, 1.8 years through June 11, 2016); that's 3.4% annualized return.  With interest rates so low, you can see how this might not be such a bad idea.

If a hedge fund can get 7x leverage with funding at Libor+50 bps (which might amount to 70 bps funding cost today), then a hedge fund can earn 18.9%/year ((3.4% - 0.70%) x 7).  

[ Correction after the fact:  The above analysis is not correct, please see comments section; redemption value should be based on 50 mn shares, not 47.8 mn shares ]

Not bad at all in this environment.  7x leverage is usually for long / short positions, but since this position is basically against cash held in a trust, it may be doable.  But I don't know.  Liquidity and other factors might make the economics not applicable here.

Think about that.  They can earn 18.9%/year with optionality; if a nice deal happens, they get a nice pop.

Others would have to settle for 3.4%/year with possible upside.  You can see why the Special Opportunities Fund folks like it; as a basket, it's a reasonable proxy for cash with some upside potential.

This sort of basket approach has never been that interesting to me as you would need a lot of them to 'pop' for your returns to get interesting without leverage.

In this case, you only get that nice return if a deal doesn't get done and the underwriting commission doesn't get paid (and instead goes to the public, non-founder shares).

If a deal goes through and you redeem your shares for cash, then you wouldn't get that extra $0.38/share; at this point you would get only $10.00 (or $10.08 according to my math, but I'm not sure what else is in the trust that I may not have accounted for).  In that case, it's only a 1.5%-2.3% return over 1.8 years.  I'm assuming the cash will generate no interest income.

So of course, someone will just buy up a ton of shares and then make sure a deal doesn't get done.   To prevent that, they have this provision:
Limitation on redemption rights of stockholders holding more than 15% of the shares sold in this offering if we hold stockholder vote
Notwithstanding the foregoing redemption rights, if we seek stockholder approval of our initial business combination and we do not conduct redemptions in connection with our business combination pursuant to the tender offer rules, our amended and restated certificate of incorporation provides that a public stockholder, together with any affiliate of such stockholder or any other person with whom such stockholder is acting in concert or as a “group” (as defined under Section 13 of the Exchange Act), will be restricted from redeeming its shares with respect to more than an aggregate of 15% of the shares sold in this offering. We believe the restriction described above will discourage stockholders from accumulating large blocks of shares, and subsequent attempts by such holders to use their ability to redeem their shares as a means to force us or our management to purchase their shares at a significant premium to the then-current market price or on other undesirable terms. Absent this provision, a public stockholder holding more than an aggregate of 15% of the shares sold in this offering could threaten to exercise its redemption rights against a business combination if such holder’s shares are not purchased by us or our management at a premium to the then-current market price or on other undesirable terms. By limiting our stockholders’ ability to redeem to no more than 15% of the shares sold in this offering, we believe we will limit the ability of a small group of stockholders to unreasonably attempt to block our ability to complete our business combination, particularly in connection with a business combination with a target that requires as a closing condition that we have a minimum 

Also, there are some more complicated issues that you have to think about, but the above is basically the gist of it.

The reason why I made this post is not because I am interested in SPACs or that this one has a particularly interesting structure; it's because it is run by Wilbur Ross, a well-regarded distressed investor.  I have known about him for a while and even doubled my money in International Coal a while back and have a very good impression of him.  Of course, I don't know him or understand him as well as, say, Buffett or Dimon.  But still, he seems like a decent, straight-shooting dealmaker.

This would also be interesting if this entity became a platform for further acquisitions and not just a one-off deal situation.  One of the bullet points in the investment criteria (Offer Opportunities to Create Investment Platforms for Consolidation or Growth) seems to suggest that this may be the case.

So anyway, this is not for everyone.  I thought I would just make a quick post as it was interesting to me that there is an entity to invest with Ross with this SPAC twist today.

And for those market scaredy-cats, this is a 100% cash investment, so what is there to fear?!  If you owned this you would wish for a crash, and as soon as possible too!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Value Stocks In Market Corrections

So with all of this talk of a market correction coming and people wondering what to do in this toppy market, Pzena put out an interesting newsletter back in June.  It looks at value stocks and how they performed in market corrections in the past.

They define value stocks as the lowest quintile of stocks based on price-to-book.   We can argue all day what a value stock is, but since many value studies seem to show similar results whether you use p/b, p/e or whatever, let's just say p/b is a decent proxy for value.

Another question is whether there is survivorship bias in the data.  Companies that go bust often get kicked out of a database so when you go back and do a p/b ratio study, it excludes all the cheap stocks that went to zero (and therefore improves the performance of the low p/b group).  I think Greenblatt, in his studies, used a Compustat database that showed actual data that was available at the time (so eliminates this bias), and since Greenblatt and Pzena both spent time together researching these things, I assume that he is using a similar database for this study.

Anyway, read the whole thing here:

Pzena Second Quarter Newsletter

Here's an excerpt:
Recessions alone or corrections driven by excessive valuations absent a financial crisis appear to favor value stocks, which outperformed in nine out of ten of these periods by an average of 6.8%. One of the most dramatic of these periods was the bursting of the internet bubble which started in March, 2000. During the subsequent thirty-five months, value stocks went on to outperform the S&P 500 index by 14.1%, as the massive overvaluation of “new economy” stocks unwound. Although the magnitude of value’s outperformance was smaller during the stock market crash of 1987, this sudden adjustment in valuations saw value stocks outperform by 7.9%. Four other periods associated with economic recessions but no financial crises also saw value stocks outperform.

Of the five periods of underperformance, four were associated with financial crises. This included the Global Financial Crisis of 2008/09, European “echo” crisis of 2011, the Asian currency crisis of 1998, and the U.S. Savings & Loan crisis of 1990/91. Although the 1968-70 correction, where value stocks underperformed, included the Penn Central bankruptcy (the largest such event in U.S. history to that date), we have not included it in the financial crisis category.

The history of value in periods following market corrections is one predominantly of outperformance, in many cases by a significant margin. During our study period, value outperformed in thirteen of fourteen periods post-correction (Figure 1), leading to value stocks adding almost 2.5% per annum of excess return over the S&P 500 for the entire fifty-four year period. 

Figure 1:  Value Stocks In Market Corrections

Source:  Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., Pzena Analysis

Pzena points out that we can't really know what is going to drive the next bear market (recession, financial crisis or just valuation correction without either).

But if you don't think a financial crisis in the near term is likely, then value stocks is the place to be.

Buffett has said that he thinks it is highly unlikely that the next crisis will come from the banks.  I tend to agree with that as there is some institutional memory and people tend not to make the same mistakes twice in a row.  Of course, there will be crises in banking/finance.  But I don't think the next one will be anything like the last one.

More Fear Now?
I don't really follow sentiment figures or anything like that, but it does feel like there is a lot more fear in the market than earlier this year.  A lot of that is due to the situation in Iraq, Israel, and of course Ukraine.   I think there have been more calls of a market crash or severe market correction.

So people seem to have a different vibe when asking about what to do in the stock market.  I still point people to Buffett's annual letter and the market hasn't moved all that much since he wrote it earlier this year.

This is what he wrote:

It's interesting to ponder what Buffett might have written if the S&P 500 index was trading at a p/e ratio of 150x, but he suggests a 90% S&P 500 index fund and 10% cash (to pay expenses/bills etc).

Buffett says the S&P 500 index is fine now, regardless of all the things the pundits worry about.  But let's take a look at some of the things that people worry about.

Profit Margins Unsustainable
I've sort of looked at this in the past in various posts.  This is an interesting topic.  There is an argument that some of the higher profit margins is due to increasing globalization of U.S. corporations (especially when looking at profit to GDP), that some of it is due to more value-added businesses in the stock market now compared to in the past (more Googles and Apples rather than Bethlehem Steels; low margin businesses moving out of the U.S. to low labor cost countries etc...).  Pzena made a case that return on capital was consistent and that is what matters.

All of these arguments are interesting.

But for me, I just look at what I own and see if they have unsustainably high profit margins. And for most of the businesses that I talk about here on this blog, that is not the case.  For a lot of the larger big caps, I don't see anything like that either; margins seem stable over time.  Look at BRK's businesses, for example.  Which businesses are over-earning?  Housing?  Nope. Insurance?  Nope. Retail?  Nope.

Unsustainably Low Interest Rates
This too is a concern as it impacts the stock market in various ways.  It affects the discount rate, of course, and also the cost of capital for corporations with debt.  It can also affect final demand (sales) as low debt encourages consumption/investment.

As for the discount rate aspect of it, I don't worry too much about it as earnings yields stopped going down long before interest rates kept declining.  If the market kept going up with the decline in interest rates, the stock market would be trading at 40x p/e (using the Greenspan model of earnings yield = 10 year treasury rate).   The S&P 500 didn't go up to 70x p/e when interest rates went down to 1.5%.  This is why the market hasn't collapsed as interest rates came back up to 2.5%.

And this is why I don't believe the market has to collapse if interest rates goes back up to 5.0%.

As for financing costs, higher interest rates would reduce earnings of companies with a lot of debt for sure.  But many firms actually have a lot of cash and would benefit from higher interest rates.  Banks and insurance companies come to mind (and we like financials).

Companies with a lot of debt also anticipate higher interest rates in the future so are locking in rates at  current low levels, and future capital allocation decisions can be made with higher interest rates built into the model.  If anyone is expecting low rates forever, we should just stay away from that business!

Market Crash is Coming!
And of course, one major argument is that the market is just overvalued, plain and simple.  For that too, I just take a look at my holdings and see what might be overvalued.  If I don't see anything overvalued, I don't worry.

As Pzena has shown above, when the market is overvalued and there is a valuation correction, the overvalued stocks tend to get hit and value stocks tend to do way better.  This is a major reason why I am usually not worried too much about crashes/corrections.

Anyway, nothing new here, but I just thought the Pzena study was interesting.  And I thought I'd recap my thoughts about the market and why I am so at peace despite people calling for a market crash.

Of course, I am not saying that the market won't crash or go into a bear market.  I just have no idea about that.  I do have no doubt that something like that will happen at some point.    But I don't worry too much about it (for the above reasons).

TETAA: Teton Advisors, Inc.

Speaking of nanoo, nanoo, how about a nano-cap?  

There is some interest in small cap stocks as they tend to outperform over time, but small caps are now looking really expensive.  So I was kind of surprised to take a look at this thing and notice that it's not that expensive.

Teton Advisors (TETAA) is a 2009 spinoff from Gamco (and spinoffs outperform over time so check that box! You can also check the owner-operator box too and then maybe the tiny-cap/below-the- radar box too).  They have been doing really well since the spin, but that's because they were spun off at the bottom of the bear market.  I don't think what they did from 2009 through 2013 can be considered 'normal'.

Tiny Cap with No Float!
But first, let's get this out of the way.  This is a highly illiquid stock on the pink sheets so doesn't even have decent filings (well, OK, not so bad.  But the proxy is a little thin).  Plus you can forget about any shareholder rights as Gabelli basically controls this entity and it is still intertwined with Gamco.  How this gets untangled over time is something I have no clue about.  But I do like and respect Mario Gabelli and think he wouldn't do anything to hurt minority shareholders.  He is sometimes criticized for his 10% pretax profit bonus he gets at GBL but that sort of thing doesn't bother me at all either.

According to the last 10-K they filed in 2009, Gabelli owned 600,000 shares and the CEO Nicholas Galluccio owned 260,000.    Westwood Management owned 200,000 shares but TETAA has since repurchased those shares.  Assuming there has been no big change in ownership since then, Gabelli would currently own 55% and Galluccio owns 26%.    Between them they own 81% of TETAA.   So float would be less than $10 million.   So let's not all go out and buy some at once!

Historical Performance
So let's look at how TETAA has done in the recent past.  Below are some figures I pulled out of the financial reports.  Some of the 2013 AUM figures are rounded to the nearest $100 million because reference to the AUM in the earnings release and 10-Q only gave a figure like $1.8 billion instead of a more precise number.  It may be posted somewhere else, but I just grabbed what was convenient for me.  And besides, it shouldn't make much of a difference.

Quarterly Results for TETAA
(figures are in $thousands except EPS and AUM)

As you can see, AUM has been growing nicely and they are making decent money with pretax margins up into the 30's.  In the last twelve months, they earned $3.34/share and pretax earnings of $5,883 million or $5.35/share.    At the current $49/share, that's 14.7x p/e and 9.2x pretax earnings.  I remember money management companies being valued at 10x pretax earnings in a post a while back, and TETAA is trading at below that.  At the risk of annualizing and capitalizing peak earnings, if you annualized the $0.95 2Q2014 EPS, you get $3.80/share in run-rate EPS; TETAA is trading at 12.9x that (or 8.0x pretax earnings).

Given this growth (and potential), it does look cheap.

Of course, the counterargument is that we are at the top of the stock market so equity managers should trade cheap, just as old, industrial cyclicals trade at a low p/e at the top of the economic cycle.  This is true to some extent, but if you look through-the-cycle, I don't think that is necessarily the case for asset managers (unless their AUM is bloated and unsustainably high due to a bubble; AUM here at $2 billion doesn't seem like that).

But How Are Their Funds?!
The important thing for me, though, is the funds.  Do they perform?  If they don't outperform, they can still be great businesses (as mutual fund/retail assets tend to be sticky), but for me, I would get more excited about an asset manager if I think they have a reason to exist.  And the only reason they should exist is if they can outperform.

Unfortunately, most of their funds aren't that interesting at all.  They started a new mid-cap fund, but it is too new to evaluate.

But the one big fund is actually really good.

Teton Westwood Mighty Mites Fund
This fund name makes me itchy, but let's take a look at it.   I pasted the table from their annual report since it includes a benchmark (and their semi-annual report doesn't).

Average Annual Returns Through September 30, 2013 (a) (Unaudited)  1 Year  5 Year  10 Year  Since
Mighty Mites Fund Class AAA
  36.18%    14.57%    12.20%    12.48%  
Russell MicrocapTM Index
  32.12       11.12       7.55       N/A(b)  
Russell 2000 Index
  30.06       11.15       9.64       6.81      
Lipper Small Cap Value Fund Average
  28.19       11.17       9.90       8.26(c


*Past performance is not predictive of future results. The performance tables and graph do not reflect the deduction of taxes that a shareholder would pay on fund distributions or the redemption of fund shares.
**The Russell Microcap™ Index inception date is June 30, 2000 and the value of the Index prior to July 1, 2000 is that of the Mighty Mites Fund (Class AAA). 

It does look pretty impressive, no?

The Teton website lists Mario Gabelli as the lead portfolio manager for this fund.   Here's a cut and paste from the website:


Fund Characteristics

  • The TETON Westwood Mighty MitesSM Fund seeks long-term capital appreciation.
  • The Fund focuses on securities of companies which appear underpriced relative to their Private Market Value (PMV) with Catalysts to unlock that value. PMV is the price the Fund's Adviser believes a strategic buyer would be willing to pay for the entire company.
  • The Fund primarily invests in micro-cap equity securities that have market capitalizations of $500 million or less at time of investment.

Investment Strategy

  • Diversified portfolio of micro-capitalization equities
  • Invests in companies with above average revenue and earnings growth
  • Focus on underpriced companies relative to their private market value
  • Seeks to exploit market inefficiencies associated with micro cap companies

Portfolio Management

Mario J. Gabelli, CFA
Chief Executive Officer
GAMCO Investors, Inc
  • M.B.A. Columbia Graduate School of Business
  • B.S. Fordham University
  • Founded GAMCO Investors, Inc. in 1977
  • Fund manager since inception
  • Co-Portfolio Manager with Laura S. Linehan, CFA, Elizabeth M. Lilly, CFA and Paul Sonkin.

So that would sort of be a problem if Gabelli's contribution is not perpetual.  Gabelli and some other employees work for both TETAA and GBL, and this will not last forever.  I think there is an agreement for two more years of GBL employees working for both GBL and TETAA.  After that, who knows what will happen. 

The question obviously is how much does Gabelli do for the Mighty Mite fund?  There is a team of co-managers, but can they perform as well without Super Mario?  Or will he stick around long enough for others to be able to step in as lead manager?  Or is he not doing much these days anyway?  I have no idea. 

The other interesting thing about TETAA is that Paul Sonkin of Hummingbird value has joined the company.  Sonkin is the co-author of the highly regarded book, Value Investing: From Graham to Buffett and Beyond.  His presentation(s) from value investing conferences were very interesting.  

I wonder what happened to Hummingbird Value fund?  Why would he join another asset manager?  Maybe his business didn't scale well?  I don't know.  I do remember him digging deep and alone into below $15 million market caps.  Maybe that sort of business model was unsustainable? 

But whatever the reason, it looks like Sonkin will be looking at stubs, spin-offs and other special situations.  He is currently listed as a co-manager of the Itchy Bites fund  Mighty Mites fund, but there might be a special situations fund offering in the future.

Hmmm...  Interesting... 

This is a tiny idea with only $10 million (or less) in float so not an idea for most.   And there is a lot I don't know.  If you buy TETAA, you will be a super-minority so you will just be along for the ride.  And whatever deal happens between TETAA and GBL (and Gabelli personally), too bad.  There is nothing you can do about it.

But I do have faith in the character of Gabelli and his team.  I don't think they would do anything funky.

This is a tiny spinoff with $50 million in market cap, so just a few ideas can really create value here.  Compared to running an asset management conglomerate with $100 billion in assets, you don't need a whole lot of ideas to work to get the market cap up.  And the fact that the highly regarded (as far as I know) Paul Sonkin of Hummingbird has joined is a very interesting development.  It's almost like getting in on the ground floor of whatever they do going forward.

Some would argue for a liquidity discount, but sometimes maybe there should be an easy-to-move-the-needle premium.

Oh, and at the very least, looking at the fund holdings (Mighty Mites) might be a great place to find some ideas. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Y So Cheap?

Alleghany (Y) announced earnings earlier this week; BPS is up +9.4% in the first six months to $451.65/share.  The stock is trading at $417.70/share so is trading at around 0.92x BPS.  The stock market is down 1.5% since then, so maybe less of a discount now.   But it does look cheap. 

Interestingly, book value was up 6.9% but thanks to share repurchases (2%+ of outstanding), BPS went up +9.4%.  

I guess in this market that seems expensive, why not repurchase shares at below book value?  That makes a lot of sense.  
Is 0.9x BPS Really Cheap? 
OK, so the question is, should Y trade at or above BPS?  I always liked Y; their annual reports, how they think, how they operate etc.  But they have always been a little bit on the conservative side for my taste.  The annual reports read like gloom and doom reports, and I always wondered if that would get in the way of good performance.  Warren Buffett is conservative too, but he'll back up the truck when he sees something he likes regardless of the outlook.   

Anyway, here's a look at Y's BPS performance over the years and the P/B ratio of the stock:

Y Long Term Performance and P/B Ratio

So it looks like Y has always traded at around BPS since 1987.   It traded above book in 1997 and 2000 (bubble times?) and most recently between 2004 and 2007 (peak of the credit bubble).  So judging from that, we can't really expect Y to trade very much above book in a normal environment.  The business model sort of evolves and has changed over time so we can't really say for sure.  But a prudent expectation is for Y to trade at around BPS over time.   Their big transformational merger with Transatlantic also increases the size of a business that comes with low multiples (many reinsurers, even with much higher ROE than Y trade at or below BPS). 

Long Term Relative Performance
Now let's take a closer look at the long term performance of Y.  Getting long term BPS change for Y is sort of a pain because of their 2% stock dividends they used to pay (so you can't just compare BPS values in different years to each other like you can with BRK or MKL.  Someone should ban these stock dividends that make comparisons a pain!) 

This is really not that surprising given the extremely conservative nature of the folks at Y.  Check this out: 

For the 26 years since 1987, Y has actually underperformed the S&P 500 index total return.  Y's BPS grew +9.6%/year versus a total return of +10.7% for the S&P 500 index (and +17.4%/year for BRK; I put BRK's BPS growth there just for fun). 

Y also underperformed in the 20 year time period. The five year time period is sort of irrelevant because that is off of the financial crisis low and is more a function of how far down something went during the crisis.

So that's really disappointing. 

But Wait! 
Weston Hicks became CEO in December 2004, so the important performance metric here might be to see how he has done.  In the above table, I put the returns for Y, S&P 500 and BRK since the end of 2004.  By this measure, despite Y's (to me) overly conservative and gloomy-doomy world view, Y has outperformed the index by +1.2%.  

Other interesting metrics are returns since previous market peaks.  This can also be pretty telling.  Since the peak (on a year-end basis) in 2000, Y has outperformed the S&P 500 index by +5.5%/year, and since the 2007 peak by +0.4%.

Here's a nice chart from a June investor presentation: 

Y also talks about risk adjusted return in their annual report.  It's not the most important thing for me, but it may be of interest to others who are more worried about the stock market.  

If you are going to invest in a stock but are worried about the stock market, you may want to invest in a business that is almost overly conservative and has a world view that is very gloomy.  This way, you can rest assured that they won't overreach for performance and get hit in a bear market (or I should say, get hit too hard in a bear market). 

Y has proven itself over time through various insurance cycles (huge events in the past decade+), some bear markets and a 100-year event financial crisis.  So in that sense, I would view Y as on the safe side of things. 

Of course, with insurance, you can never really know.  All surprises tend to be on the downside.

Why Not Other Insurers? 
OK, so why bother with Y when we have BRK and MKL?  Well, BRK and MKL are really good investments. It's amazing how well BRK has done even in recent years given it's size.  So I won't argue there.  I won't say Y is better than BRK/MKL.  But I still like it, even though I may not give it a big allocation (again, just due to their seeming over-conservatisim). 

There are plenty of other insurance companies with higher ROE's trading at book or less.  So why not look at the others? 

Well, I am more interested here in Y as an investment conglomerate than as an insurance company.  I look at them more as value investors.  I think a lot of us who follow Y, MKL, FRFHF and others think of it the same way.   So yes, there are other insurance companies that are very good businesses. 

I think Y is a solid investment.  It may not trade much above BPS in the near term; their stated goal is to increase BPS 7-10%/year over time, and I think it's great if they can achieve that and worth BPS if that is the case. 

With BRK now trading at 1.4x book and intrinsic value expected to grow at 10% (on the high side, I think), Y is not so bad at 0.9x if it can achieve 7-10%/year growth in EPS.  (How many mutual funds can you name that have long term records comparable to Y?  And even if you find some that do, fund returns are pretax (you would have had to pay taxes on dividends and capital gains along the way). 

Either way, this is an interesting situation to watch as there have been changes since the Transatlantic merger which I tend to view as positive (more disclosure etc.).  Check out the financial supplement they put out on their website, for example.   Also, their interest income is increasing due to their investments with Ares.  I know there is added risk in reaching for yield here with risk spreads as low as they are, but the folks at Y, given their conservative nature, would no doubt keep overall exposure in check. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Catmull's Mental Models

OK, so I mentioned this book in my last post:

      Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.

This is written by Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar.  It's always great to read something written by such an amazing person about an incredible business they built.  Just as I like to read investment books written by people who have actually done it well, business books tend to be better when they are written by the actual people who have done it.  Yes, there is self-serving drivel sometimes too, but this is definitely not such a book.

I think it should be required reading for just about anyone involved in business and investing.  There is something for just about everyone to learn from it, even if they are not in necessarily creative industries.  It's about human nature and organizational dynamics too, so there are lessons to be learned from anyone who deals with people.

But what prompted this post was some mental models, as Catmull calls them, that he says has helped the people at Pixar get through the tough times.  And without getting through the tough times, there would have been no great movies (just as there would be no Berkshire Hathaway today without having gone through tough times.  If Buffett wanted to avoid nasty bear markets, nobody would know who he is today!)  None of their blockbuster movies came easily.  I think there is a perception, that Catmull meticulously dismantles, that Pixar is such a wonderful, talent-full business that they can crank out these amazing movies like Model T's on an assembly line.

These mental models, by the way, aren't the sort of mental models that Munger talks about.  They are more like metaphors that help people get through the inevitable rough periods that they go through when making movies.  He says that all of their movies suck at first (OK, maybe he didn't put it that way), and they have to keep working on it to make them better.   Sometimes it doesn't work out.

Tangent (already?)
OK, so as I was looking through the book to find the quotes, I found this quote and it immediately reminded me of a recent event so I can't help mentioning it:  Catmull quotes Apple's chief scientist, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."  Of course, the first thought that came to mind when I read this was Bill Ackman's purchase and activism in Allergan  (or any activist investment for that matter, actually).   I actually like and respect Ackman, so this is just for fun (I know this is not the unanimous view of him in the value investing world).

Back to Mental Models
Before getting into Catmull's mental models (which, by the way, aren't really Catmull's mental models, but models he has observed and were articulated to him by his directors etc.), there is a similar model that I found in Chris Davis' letter to fund holders back in 2008:
Shelby M. C. Davis offers a sailing metaphor to describe this fundamental challenge of investing: "To sail across the ocean, you must balance making progress in fair weather with the ability to withstand the inevitable storms. Those who think only of the storms will never leave the shore. Those who think only of fair weather will never reach the other side."
So this is very similar to Andrew Stanton's model, and what's interesting is that Shelby Davis is talking about investing and Stanton is talking about directing a movie. 

I think Shelby Davis also said something about guiding the ship by the lights of the lighthouses in the distance and not by the waves tossing the ship around.  This metaphor was really helpful to me in getting through big down days/weeks/months in the market or my portfolio.

Anyway, here are some of the models that made me go, "wow, that's exactly the same as in investing!".

Brad Bird (directed Ratatouille, The Incredibles at Pixar) 
The themes Catmull recognizes in Bird's dreams (read the book to get the whole story) are blindness, fear of the unknown, helplessness and lack of control.  All us traders and investors experience this too.  Bird's mental model is skiing.  He relates:

This is where directing is a lot like skiing, "I like to go fast," Brad says, before launching into a story about a trip he took to Vail when, "in the course of a week, I cracked the lens of my goggles four times.  Four times I had to go to the ski store and say, 'I need a new piece of plastic,' because I had shattered it crashing into something.  And at some point, I realized that I was crashing because I was trying so hard not to crash.  So I relaxed and told myself, 'It's going to be scary when I make the turns really fast, but I'm going to push that mountain away and enjoy it.'  When I adopted this positive attitude, I stopped crashing.  In some ways, it's probably like an Olympic athlete who's spent years training for one moment when they can't make a mistake.  If they start thinking too much about that, they'll be unable to do what they know how to do."
This reminds me of those people who get in and out of the market all the time due to all sorts of fears.   Many of them understand that value investing works over time, but they just can't stand losing money, so they sell out every time the market looks scary to avoid a drawdown.  This sort of thing just totally destroys their performance.

This fear of failure also reminds me of what I talked about in the previous post about non-founder CEO's; they so fear destroying the wonderful business that a super-genius created that they become timid, avoid taking risks and make the easy decisions.  Catmull talks about how avoiding risk, going for the sure thing and making safe decisions in movie-making will most definitely create a mediocre, derivative movie.  Think about what happens to a company after a superstar, founding CEO retires.  Hmmm....

Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo, A Bug's Life etc.)
If you're sailing across the ocean and your goal is to avoid weather and waves, then why the hell are you sailing?  You have to embrace that sailing means that you can't control the elements and that there will be good days and bad days and that, whatever comes, you will deal with it because your goal is to eventually get to the other side.  You will not be able to control exactly how you get across.  That's the game you've decided to be in.  If your goal is to make it easier and simpler, then don't get in the boat." 
As Buffett says, if it will upset you if a stock you buy goes down by 50%, then don't buy stocks because stocks will inevitably go down.  And we usually can't know when it will go down so we won't be able to enjoy the upside and then get out just in time to avoid a downturn.  Stanton's view is exactly the same idea.

Pete Docter (Up, Monsters Inc. etc.)
Peter Docter compares directing to running through a long tunnel having no idea how long it will last but trusting that he will eventually come out, intact, at the other end.  "There's a really scary point in the middle where it's just dark," he says.  "There's no light from where you came in and there's no light at the other end; all you can do is keep going.  And then you start to see a little light and then a little more light and then, suddenly, you're out in the bright sun."  For Pete, this metaphor is a way of making that moment - the one in which you can't see your own hand in front of your face and you aren't sure you'll ever find your way out - a bit less frightening.  Because your rational mind knows that tunnels have two ends, your emotional mind can be kept in check when pitch blackness descends in the confusing middle.  Instead of collapsing into a nervous mess, the director who has a clear internal model of what creativity is - and the discomfort it requires - finds it easier to trust that light will shine again.  The key is to never stop moving forward. 
This reminded me of 2008/2009.  I had no doubt that we would come out the other end, eventually.  I just didn't know when.  But I was 100% confident that we would come out of it.  After all, the banking crisis was just about money and liquidity.  We weren't facing nuclear annihilation.  Some entities were insolvent and/or had no liquidity, but there was a lot of cash/liquidity lying around.  It was just a matter of some traffic cop moving things around to avoid a total collapse.

If you own a business at a valuation you are comfortable with, and the business is sound and is run by good, competent people, then they should be able to get through the tunnel just fine and we as shareholders should hold on without too much fear.  If you have high confidence in their survival, there is nothing to worry about.

And it's amazing how he says "...and the discomfort it requires" about creativity.  We all know that value investing and even trading requires a lot of discomfort.  In my trading days, we used to say that the hard trade is the right trade, and that if a trade is easy, then it's probably wrong and you are probably about to get crushed.   Greenblatt says that most people don't do value investing because it's too hard.  Most can't take the ups and downs that is a must in this business.  Like my friend that was a temporary value investor; it was great during the bull market but once the market turned, he was no longer a value investor.

Michael Arndt
Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3,  and I have had an ongoing dialectic about the way he envisions his job.  He compares writing a screenplay to climbing a mountain blindfolded.  "The first trick," he likes to say, "is to find the mountain.".  In other words, you must feel your way, letting the mountain reveal itself to you.  And notably, he says, climbing a mountain doesn't necessarily mean ascending.  Sometimes you hike up for a while, feeling good, only to be forced back down into a crevasse before clawing your way out again.  And there is no way of knowing where the crevasses will be. 
Catmull, of course, has his own mental model and he describes it in the book.  It's basically about the concept of "mindfulness".  It resonated with many of the issues that he was thinking about at Pixar; control, change, randomness, trust, consequences.

All of this stuff is from Chapter 11, "The Unmade Future", pages 223 - 239 in the current hard cover book.  (Don't make me figure out what percentage that corresponds to on your Kindle. OK, the last numbered page is page 340 so figure it out yourself)

I am always fascinated when I read something and note the similarities to investing and in so many diverse endeavors. I don't think I would ever have imagined any connection between making films at Pixar and investing (that's not why I read the book!).

But I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that when going for excellence, there is a lot in common in just about every area.  One can learn to be a better investor by learning how others achieve what they do in other areas, and the Pixar book was very inspiring in that sense.

There is much, much more in this book than this sort of thing.  This is just what really struck me at the time and I just had to make a note of it.  I was actually going to write this out in my private notebook, but I thought other investors might get something out of it so decided to post it publicly.

Cost Cutting, R&D etc.

This is going to be a wandering post, just thinking out loud about a few things that have been on my mind.  I've been posting about "outsider" CEO's and now about 3G Capital.  They of course have a lot in common, but one thing is that these acquisitive CEO's cut costs, and sometimes a lot.  And this obviously raises questions about the sustainability of the business model.

This also ties in with the current Valeant / Allergan drama which I haven't posted about yet.  The bearish view is that Valeant's business model is unsustainable.

Many say the same thing about other cost cutters.  Popular examples would be Sears Holdings and Hewlett Packard.  The consensus seems to be that Lampert cut investments so deeply that it has destroyed Sears Holdings, and Mark Hurd cut R&D so deeply at Hewlett Packard that he destroyed the business.

I'm sure there is some truth in both.  When I used to go to K-mart at Astor Place in NYC, the elevator would make a scary, grinding sound.  I only rode it when I had to and it only went from the first floor to the basement; I would not have ridden an elevator that sounded like that to a high floor.  (I actually love that K-mart.  Since we don't have a Walmart or Target in Manhattan, it's great for cheap things you might need.)

And every time I walk into a Sears it was really a sad sight.  I actually really liked the kid's clothes at Sears.  I thought it was good stuff for the really low prices.  But I could get the same sort of thing at Target, Old Navy, Children's Place and many other places (so why would I go all the way to Sears just for that?).

But on the other hand, I'm not too sure more capex to make the stores look nicer would have made much of a difference.  Sears seems to have clearly lost business in their respective categories to Home Depot / Lowes, Best Buy etc.  And K-mart is just losing out to Walmart, Target and now the dollar stores.  Capex doesn't seem to me (and never did) to be the answer, really.   A nicer look wouldn't make me want to go to Sears versus Lowes.  They are just suffering from a much deeper existential problem.

Hewlett Packard too may be undergoing similar pressures; they could have pumped more money into R&D, but to achieve what?

This got me curious about what many consider the most innovative company on the planet:

Apple (AAPL)
So, let's take a look at AAPL.  Just out of curiosity, I looked at AAPL's sales and R&D since 1992.   Steve Jobs came back to AAPL in 1997, the iPod was launched in 2001, the iPhone hit the market in 2007 and the iPad came out in 2010.

Surely, Jobs must have come back to AAPL and boosted R&D and spent billions (like other tech companies) to create such great products.

Let's take a look:

Apple R&D History

What is stunning here is that AAPL spent an average $610 million per year in R&D between 1992 - 1996.  Jobs came back in 1997, and between 1997 through 2001 when the iPod was launched, R&D averaged only $382 million, 40% less than previous management!  OK, so the iPhone is really what shook the world.  Between 1997 and 2007 when the iPhone came out, R&D averaged $486 million per year, still 20% less than the previous management.  In terms of percentage of sales, previous management spent 6.9% of sales on R&D, and Jobs spent 5.6% over the following ten years until the iPhone came out.

If you only looked at the numbers, you might have been horrified.  My gosh, you would say.  AAPL is so "has been" that they should be boosting R&D, not cutting it!  This is a disaster in the making!

At the time, one of the most innovative companies was Nokia, so let's just look at what their figures looked like around the peak.  In 2013, they sold the phone business to Microsoft so I left out 2013.

Nokia R&D History

So these guys, the most innovative company in the world at the time, were spending between four to six billion euros per year on R&D, and double digits as a percentage of sales.   Nokia was spending more than ten times as much on R&D as AAPL.

OK, so this is an exception you say.  These disruptive innovations are always like this and they are unpredictable.  Jobs is also a special case; a super-genius, so we can't use this as a standard for anything.

This is also true.   But this would reinforce my doubts about AAPL's long term future (I have no position, but my view hasn't changed since the series of posts I made about AAPL in the past). If Jobs was able to create so much and change the world with less than $500 million per year in R&D, what are they coming up with now spending ten times that amount every year?!  Does AAPL now have the big company disease?

Other Companies
Being curious, I took a look at a bunch of other companies considered innovative (and not), and some others that are known for spending a lot on R&D:

                             Sales         R&D      R&D%
MSFT                   $77.8        $10.4       13.4%
AAPL                 $170.9        $ 4.5         2.6%
Samsung             $201.1       $11.5          5.7%   (converted at 1000 KRS/$, 2012)
GOOG                  $55.5         $8.0        14.4%
IBM                      $99.8         $6.2          6.2%
HPQ                    $112.3        $3.1           2.8%
INTC                     $52.7      $10.6         20.1%
Sony                      $45.2        $4.7         10.3% (converted at 100 yen/$, sales exclude financials, film                                                                              and music)
Nintendo                 $5.7        $0.7         12.5%

BA                        $86.6        $3.1           3.6%
GM                     $155.4        $7.2           4.6%
Toyota                $256.9        $9.1           3.6%  (converted at 100 yen/$)
Honda                 $118.4        $6.3          5.4%  (converted at 100 yen/$)

So there are some surprises here.  MSFT is spending $10 billion per year on R&D, or 13.4% of sales.  You wonder where that money is going given their lack of innovation.  Sure, there is some stuff going on; incremental improvements etc.  But nothing really exciting.  And that's after spending $10 billion per year?  Again, maybe it's not fair but it's stunning what AAPL was able to achieve with less than $500 million per year.

Sony too spends $5 billion per year, and the iPod should have been their product.  GoPro too came out of nowhere and that's exactly the sort of product Sony would have come up with back in the 1970's and 1980's when Akio Morita was still running the place.

GOOG spends a lot, and who knows where that goes.  We know they are working on all sorts of things; Google Glass, driverless cars etc.

Owner-Operator Tangent
This AAPL and Sony talk gets me off on a tangent.  What's really interesting is that AAPL created the products that Morita would have no doubt created.  Why was Sony not able to?  There have been a bunch of books on the topic, but at the end of the day, I just think that true innovation is hard with non-founder-owners  (I use the term owner-operator, but I actually mean founder-owner).  Sony, like MSFT, had certain businesses to protect too; AV business that would have become obsolete due to digitization (which happened anyway!) etc...

(Which makes me wonder, how much of MSFT's $10 billion is actually spent on creating new things versus trying to protect the Windows business?  Imagine buggy manufacturers, upon seeing the automobile on the horizon,  investing massively in R&D for horse feed that might increase the speed of horses.  Is that what MSFT is doing?)

I read a few books written by Tadashi Yanai, the amazing CEO of Fast Retailing (which runs the Uniqlo stores).  At one point in 2002, he retired and handed off the CEO-ship to someone he thought was perfect for the part; he understood the culture and what drove Uniqlo's success, was smart, ambitious and hard-working.

But it didn't work out.  Why?  Yanai said that the new CEO set a modest growth target and got too comfortable.  He didn't want to take risk and make drastic actions to further the success of Uniqlo; he wanted to protect what was there and grow modestly with low risk.  This turned out to be a disaster for Uniqlo and Yanai had to come back.

Maybe it was a similar story with Howard Schultz and Starbucks.  He also retired once and had to come back.

This is what worries me about the generation directly after the founder/owner.  A founder/owner will take big risk and take bold actions because he can.  Employees can't complain.  He is the star.  Shareholders can't complain.  Suppliers, vendors and customers can't complain.   They are all there thanks to this one individual (well, OK, it's all teamwork.  But there is usually that one person that attracts the team).

But when a non-founder / non-owner takes over, they can't afford to upset people.  They can't take bold actions and take big risks because if they fail, it can be catastrophic.  They tend to work to maintain the status quo, or work for modest growth and improvement.

(This is something to think about too with Berkshire Hathaway, by the way.  Buffett can afford to take bold actions and goof up since he has so much goodwill (and cumulative performance) built up over the years that even a humongous blunder (unless it destroys BRK completely) will probably be forgiven.  Not so the next CEO.)

This, by the way, is why I think Samsung was able to give AAPL a run for it's money while Sony is nowhere on the map:  Samsung is still (or was until recently) founder-run and Sony is not.

A really great book written by a founder is:  Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration.   Catmull is really honest and discloses a surprising amount of stuff about Pixar in the book.  I guess only Catmull or one of the other co-founders would be allowed to disclose so much.  But reading this book, it makes you realize how hard it is to create and maintain a culture even when the founders are still there.  This makes it feel like it will be very hard to keep up the winning streak without Catmull, Lasseter, Stanton etc.

Other Innovative Companies
We can look at Facebook, Twitter, GoPro and many others; they were created with very little capital. But it's not fair to say that the cost of creating Facebook was a laptop, an internet connection and a college student.  For every Facebook, there are many others who try to follow in the footsteps of Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and most fail.  So the actual cost of creating a Facebook is much higher than that.

I suppose we can argue that that is the case with the recent AAPL too, that Steve Jobs is a special case.  Very few people change the world multiple times.   So Jobs can work wonders with $500 million and most others can't.  But does that mean they can with $5 billion?   If they can't do something with $500 million, why should we think they can do it with $5 billion?

Valeant, Allergan, Yahoo
So it makes me wonder, maybe Michael Pearson is right.  He has been in the business a long time and has seen a broad view of the pharmaceutical industry as a consultant so probably really understands the waste that goes on in R&D.   And his idea is to just spend R&D where it matters; go for the high probability bets like line extensions or alternative uses and forget about the shotgun approach that seems to be common in the industry (not sure if that's still the case but I think it used to be; just do everything and see what sticks).

And perhaps purchasing products via M&A is more efficient than spending a ton on R&D.

Which reminds me that Yahoo's best investments have been Yahoo Japan and Alibaba.  I suppose they could have spent the same money in R&D or marketing.

Masayoshi Son of Softbank is like that too; he has made some great bets over the years.  I've never owned Softbank or any of his entities only because he is just too far out for me.  He told Charlie Rose not too long ago that his stock price went down 99% but bounced back quite a bit.

Well, I tell people don't worry about stock price volatility and who cares what happens to the stock price as long as intrinsic value is growing.  But a 99% decline, however temporary, even for me, is too much.  We all have our limits, I suppose.

Does R&D Have to be Constant? 
Back to the subject of R&D.  I wonder if R&D has to be constant.  Ackman pointed out that Allergan actually pays the CEO to spend money on R&D. I think that is to deter a CEO from slashing R&D dramatically to boost profits to collect a bonus.  So it makes sense at some level.  But it also reduces the incentive to make R&D more efficient.  It's sort of the opposite of zero-based budgeting; they know R&D will not be cut regardless, because it can't be cut by contract.  Is that really the way to run a business?

What would happen if all of the R&D in every company was subject to zero-based budgeting?  Every year, you would have to justify every dollar of expense in R&D; why it is needed, the probability of success and potential return etc.

Unfortunately, for competitive reasons we shareholders really can't demand details on R&D spending.  But I guess we can demand more disclosure as to how efficient or useful the R&D actually is.  What the heck is MSFT spending $10 billion on?!  NASA (actually, a panel that includes NASA) says that they can get people to Mars with $80-100 billion in 20 years.  That's $4-5 billion per year to get a manned mission to Mars!   What's MSFT gonna do with twice that?!

In a lot of companies, particularly high margin companies, it may be that they spend on R&D because they can.  Their margins are high enough that even if they spend a ton on R&D, their margins would still be higher than anyone else, so why not spend and see what will come out of it?

Other Costs
So I looked at R&D and innovation (well, not really;  I just looked at some raw numbers), but the same argument applies to all other costs.  Just because you cut cost doesn't mean you are hurting the business, and just because you spend more doesn't mean you are improving the business.  It all depends on what the costs are for.  Is the cost really essential, or is it there because the business can afford it?  In companies, people constantly need to be promoted so organizations tend to get bigger and bigger.

The guys at 3G Capital have been doing this sort of thing for years (as have, for example, the folks at Danaher) so they understand this very well and obviously have a good grasp of what sort of costs can be cut and which can't.

Even though I have no proof, I tend to believe that more businesses go out of business or suffer due to lack of cost controls (complacency) rather than too much cost cutting (which no doubt occurs too).

Well, there's really no conclusion in this post.  Just more questions.  I've worked in a big company and understand the resistance to change.  Whenever we are asked to cut costs, all hell breaks loose and people fear that all sorts of bad things will happen.

Well, I did experience one bad cost-cutting drive.  A company I worked for hired an efficiency expert and all hell did break loose.  Suddenly there were no more paper towels, toilet paper or soap in the bathrooms and the hallways went dark as there were no more light bulbs.  A bunch of other problems popped up, and it turns out that this efficiency expert was paid a percentage of total costs saved.  Duh.   So this guy basically just cut everything he had an authority to cut and I think walked away with a nice bonus (or he may have gotten fired before collecting for cause, but I don't even know;either way he wasn't around for too long).

As it says in the Fifer book, the trick is to cut costs that don't add to business and increase spending on what does.  It's not about cutting cost across the board.

The problem with middle management is that when someone is in charge of a section or division, it's a rare manager that will work hard to shrink it.  Most people want to expand their divisions regardless of whether it's a profit center or cost center.   When you go to a budget meeting, who the heck goes, "I want my budget cut 10% next year!".

Sorry for the long, meandering post.  Eventually this will turn into an idea and a more cohesive post.