Finding an Edge

The stock ticker is like a tote board. It gives the public odds. A trader who wants to beat the market must have an edge, a more accurate view of what bets on stocks are really worth.

—William Poundstone, “Fortune’s Formula”

Everyone needs an “edge” in both investing and business. If it were just a matter of finding and purchasing a security below its intrinsic value, anyone could go out and buy “The Intelligent Investor” and become great. In other words, value investing, in and of itself, is not a competitive advantage.

An “edge” is any method that gives an investor a leg up over the market by obtaining higher returns with lower risk. (Risk in this case being the risk of permanent capital loss–or the size of potential loss times the probability of loss.)

From what I’ve seen, there are six basic advantages, each of which can give investors an edge over the market:

  1. Psychological – discipline, patience, and the avoidance of common biases and misjudgments. An extremely difficult advantage to have, but is probably the most common among good investors. (Easier said than done.) Continue reading “Finding an Edge”

Wisdom, Virtue and Some Common Sense

In one of the best TED talks I’ve seen, here is Barry Schwartz:

The talk applies to everything we do but (staying on subject) I’m going to talk about its relation to business.

In my post The Real Causes of the Financial Crisis, I talked about how misaligned incentives led the system astray. But even if you properly incentivize people to do the right thing, that doesn’t mean everything is going to work out. In my previous post, I left it at “However, there’s no perfect solution.” But now I’d like to elaborate.

Dick Fuld, Jimmy Cayne and other financial execs had significant share ownership relative to their personal net worth. In other words, their interests were strongly aligned with shareholders. But that didn’t stop them from making bad decisions that were not only harmful to their company, but bad for society as a whole.

Optimally, you want management that doesn’t need incentives to do the right thing. Good incentives can help, but they aren’t going to cut it. Financial managers in particular need risk aversion ingrained in their personality. They need to be willing to stray from the herd and not follow the crowd. They need to have the wisdom, as Barry Schwartz described it, to do the right thing.

In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. … If you hire somebody without the first, you really want them to be dumb and lazy.
Warren Buffett

In terms of business and finance, you can’t find a better example of a wise person than Warren Buffett.

As an investor or an employee, you want a business leader who is passionate about their company and the product they are selling—not about the money.* Qualities like this can be very difficult to determine. Buffett not only shares them, but he’s good at seeing them in others (one of the major reasons he is so successful).

In business school, you’re not taught to have character. You’re given the numbers, the statistics, the “how to” in a step-by-step fashion. But sometimes, its better to focus on common sense instead of what the figures say. Wisdom, virtue and common sense: all things that can’t be taught, no matter how prestigious the school.

* One last note — if I were the shareholder of a company that has received TARP funds, and will now have salary/bonus caps at $500k, here’s what I’d think: 1) if management gets paid a little less while we’re receiving a safety net from our government, that’s fine. 2) If one of my managers wants to jump ship so he can get paid more somewhere else, then great. It turns out I didn’t want him at the company in the first place.

Buffett on Franchises

Warren Buffett talks a lot about competitive moats and franchises. However, I think he most succinctly describes his entire philosophy in this short passage:

An economic franchise arises from a product or service that: (1) is needed or desired; (2) is thought by its customers to have no close substitute and; (3) is not subject to price regulation. The existence of all three conditions will be demonstrated by a company’s ability to regularly price its product or service aggressively and thereby to earn high rates of return on capital. Moreover, franchises can tolerate mis-management. Inept managers may diminish a franchise’s profitability, but they cannot inflict mortal damage.

In contrast, “a business” earns exceptional profits only if it is the low-cost operator or if supply of its product or service is tight. Tightness in supply usually does not last long. With superior management, a company may maintain its status as a low-cost operator for a much longer time, but even then unceasingly faces the possibility of competitive attack. And a business, unlike a franchise, can be killed by poor management. [From the 1991 Berkshire annual report]

The first sentence basically lays out—in only a few words—the definition of a competitive advantage. So a company can be either a franchise or a business. But the separation between the two doesn’t have to be that clear cut.

Some franchises can be much more lucrative and powerful than others. Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have moats, but Coke has the upper hand when it comes to customer mindshare. Because of this, Coke has always maintained higher worldwide and domestic market share than Pepsi.

Some companies can have both qualities: they are in extremely competitive industries (where lowest-cost wins), but also share some of the benefits of a franchise. The sit-down restaurant business is extremely difficult to operate in—but chains like In-N-Out and Steak ‘n Shake have created a brand that holds a special place in the minds of customers.

One more thing: I think when Buffett talks about mis-management, he really means short-term mis-management. A long period of poor management can have significant impact on any franchise—even one like Coca-Cola. And even with a strong economic franchise, every investment needs to be monitored just in case the moat starts to shrink (like newspapers over the last few decades).

Value Investing Word Clouds

Berkshire Hathaway Letters (1983-1987)

Berkshire Letters 83-87

Berkshire Hathaway Letters (2003-2007)
Berkshire Letters 03-07

A word cloud is a visual representation of a group of words, with the size of each word weighted to how many times it appears. The above two examples use the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters for the 5-year periods ending in 1987 and 2007. You can see some often-used words between the 20-year period: business, earnings, value, company, insurance. Word clouds are a good representation of what subjects the author is focusing on.
Below are a few more examples: (all created at Wordle) Continue reading “Value Investing Word Clouds”

Early Berkshire Hathaway Letters

Derek from Stableboy Selections has posted two of the "missing" Berkshire Hathaway letters (1969 – 1977). The first is written by Ken Chace, the CEO that Buffett put in charge after he ousted Seabury Stanton. These go along with the previously released 1973 and 1976 letters, which I link to below.

Berkshire Hathaway 1969 & 1971 Shareholder Letters

1973 Shareholder Letter

1976 Shareholder Letter

In the 1976 letter, equity investments are listed, and GEICO accounts for 31% of total holdings. I don’t believe these include any equities purchased through Blue Chip Stamps. That’s a fairly large position for most modern-day funds. However, it doesn’t compare to the concentration of Buffett’s portfolio before he managed other people’s money: (in the 1950’s, courtesy of Robert Miles)

Company Industry Value %
GEICO Insurance $10,150 61.6%
Greif Brothers Storage $3,650 22.1%
Timely Clothes Retail $2,600 15.8%
Thor Corp. Power tools $2,550 15.5%
Baldwin Music $2,200 13.3%
Other $330 2.0%
Total holdings $21,480
Bank loan ($5,000)
Total equity $16,480

UPDATE: I reformatted both letters into PDF’s to make them a little more readable. For the PDF formats, follow these links: 1969; 1971

An Early Christmas for Value Investors

Christmas comes but once a year.

This year, it comes three months early for those in the world of value investing. The following two books will be released at the end of September:

September 26 — ::amazon(“0071592539″,”Security Analysis: Sixth Edition”)::

After a 20 year hiatus, McGraw-Hill is releasing the latest updated edition of Ben Graham’s original Security Analysis. The update includes: a forward by Warren Buffett; a chapter by James Grant; introductions by Howard Marks, Bruce Berkowitz, and Bruce Greenwald; and commentary from Seth Klarman, Roger Lowenstein, and Glenn Greenberg. An impressive lineup. New subjects will include international investing, hedge funds, absolute return strategies, and the efficient market hypothesis.

September 30 — ::amazon(“0553805096″,”The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life”)::

The definitive, nearly 1,000 page biography on Warren Buffett. Written by Alice Schroeder, the insurance analyst who caught Buffett’s eye after her report on Berkshire Hathaway. Much has been written about Buffett’s life, but never from his perspective. My guess is that many details will emerge about Buffett’s personality and the mindset that makes him the greatest investor of all time.

Berkshire Part 2: Selling Puts

Buffett has pulled it off again. He’s made a creative, favorable bet that may pay off handsomely for long-term Berkshire shareholders.

Over the past year, Berkshire Hathaway sold put options on the S&P 500 and three foreign indices. Expiration of these puts range from 12 to 20 years out, and Berkshire collected $4.5 billion in premiums. Unlike regular puts, these are exercisable only at their expiration dates. On those dates, Berkshire makes a payment only if the index has lost money over the period of the option.

Selling these puts is essentially saying: In 15 years, I promise to buy the S&P 500 from you at a price of $1,468 (closing 2007), if it trades below that price. In exchange, you give me $4.5 billion right away.

Buffett doesn’t disclose the size of the actual options. The $4.5 billion in premiums tells you they are big, but apparently not big enough relative to Berkshire to cause any problems.

The counterparties (the people who made the agreement and paid the premium) are most likely large financial institutions who are hedging their long-term bets in favor of the market. So it may turn out to be a dumb bet for them, but they’re essentially purchasing insurance on what they have or will have in the market.

For Berkshire to lose money, a few things have to happen. To keep it simple, let’s just talk about the S&P 500, because we don’t know which foreign indices were used.

  1. First, over the next 12 to 20 years, the market would have to have a negative cumulative return.
  2. Second, that negative return would have to be large enough to overcome the premiums received.

How large? Once again, we don’t know the size of the options. But the premiums, which were $4.5 billion at the time they were written, will have compounded for more than 15 years by the time of expiration. If Buffett (or future Berkshire managers) can achieve 15% annual returns, the premium cash will have grown to over $36 billion. So the aggregate losses on the put options—the size of the options times the amount of negative returns—would have to exceed $36 billion for any profits to be erased.

Because of their long-term length, it mitigates the risk of a short-term Black Swan-type event affecting the options. A “Black Monday” one day anomaly would have little effect, other than a temporary quarterly adjustment. Something could still happen (i.e. a long depression, or a nuclear war, God forbid) that would cause losses. But this bet seems pretty favorable as long as the world economy does alright in the long run. Chalk one up for the Oracle of Omaha.

Berkshire Part 1: See’s and PetroChina

You’ve probably read Warren Buffett’s 2007 letter to shareholders that was released a week ago. If not, stop everything you’re doing, and read it now.

Below are a few comments I have on some of the things Buffett mentions in the letter. The second part of this post should be up later today.

On See’s Candy

The best part of the letter is the section entitled “Businesses – The Great, The Good, and the Gruesome.” In it, Buffett talks about the qualities of a great business using See’s Candy as an example.

Six months ago I wrote a two part story on See’s Candy. In Part I of Quality Without Compromise I talk about the history and background of the See’s acquisition. In Part II, I discuss some of the technical and qualitative aspects of the purchase. (Click here for a single PDF version of the articles.)

In the letter, Buffett reveals some interesting new information about See’s and his mindset regarding the business.

Fun with numbers:

  • Pre-tax profits in 2007 were $82 million.
  • Over the years, total profits distributed come to $1.32 billion.
  • Current Return on Capital is 205%.
  • Since the purchase, only $32 million in additional capital was required.
  • Profits at acquisition were about $5 million, so total increase has been $77 million over the 35 year period. This comes out to a return on incremental capital invested of 241% ($77/$32).
  • For every $1.00 Berkshire sent to See’s, they got back $41.19.

Talking about some of the reasons for the high Return on Capital, Buffett made the comment: “First, the product was sold for cash, and that eliminated accounts receivable. Second, the production and distribution cycle was sort, which minimized inventories.” Working capital is one of the major reasons businesses must invest more capital to keep up with sales growth. Fixed assets are another requirement where See’s has advantages. There are relatively few production facilities. More recently, the internet has allowed See’s to sell more pounds of candy (to anywhere in the country) with little to no additional capital expenditures.

Low volume is a problem at See’s, but the ability to raise prices made up for it: “Last year See’s sold 31 million pounds [of candy], a growth rate of only 2% annually.” In See’s early years (the 11 years after Buffett’s purchase), prices per pound of chocolate were raised about 10% per year. These increases accounted for 86% of sales gains over the period. Small volume gains accounted for the rest.

See also: Shai Dardashti asks if See’s Candy is a Magic Formula Stock from 1972. I like Shai’s conclusion that “See’s Candy is effectively a (rising) royalty on love men pay, annually, in the state of California.

On PetroChina

Buffett goes into a little more detail on the sale of Berkshire’s stake in PetroChina. In October I wrote up a short case study on the investment in PTR, which you can see here. He confirms in writing that when they sold PTR back in September, he believed it was fairly valued. This echoes the research I did on the gap between price and value over the years (and the effect of oil prices on that value).

“By 2007, two factors had materially increased its value: the price of oil had climbed significantly, and PetroChina’s management had done a great job in building oil and gas reserves. … We paid the IRS tax of $1.2 billion on our PetroChina gain. This sum paid all costs of the U.S. government – defense, social security, you name it – for about four hours.”

On Selling Market Puts

Stay tuned for Part 2…

PetroChina: A Look Back

Warren Buffett first began purchasing shares of PetroChina (PTR) sometime in 2002 (because it was on a foreign exchange, we don’t know the exact date), and filed his first 13G on April 30, 2003. The following is a short case study of Berkshire Hathaway’s investment—from when the first purchase was made five years ago to when the entire stake was sold over the past month. For disclosure, oil companies like PetroChina are not in my circle of competence, so in this study I’ll stick to the very basic themes of the investment and simplified calculations of intrinsic value.

By the time Buffett finished buying in 2003, Berkshire’s total cost for the 2.3 billion shares was $488 million. This gives the investment an average cost per share of about $21 for the ADSS (for the rest of the post, all figures will be in US$ and refer to the PTR shares traded on the NYSE). On October 18, Buffett sat down with Liz Clayman for an interview on the Fox Business Network where she asked him about his investment in PetroChina. In addition to confirming they had sold the entire stake, Buffett mentioned that at the time of purchase he read through the annual report and pegged PetroChina’s intrinsic value at around $100 billion.

PetroChinaPetroChina was established in 1999 as the publicly traded arm of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the largest producer of oil in China. PetroChina is vertically integrated where it explores, refines, and sells oil and natural gas. Because of the company’s duopoly in China with Sinopec, PetroChina is the most profitable company in Asia. Continue reading “PetroChina: A Look Back”

The Forbes 8 Value Investor Index

Warren BuffettAfter looking over the recently released Forbes 400 list (the richest 400 people in America), I noticed the list has included more and more individuals in the “Finance/Investments” category. The growth in assets managed by Hedge Funds and Private Equity companies has been a major cause of this increase. In the Forbes 400 magazine, it shows a graphic representation of each category since the first list in 1982 (25 years ago). In 2007, Finance and Investments had the largest number of members in the list. Below I list which categories have grown or shrunk over the years:

Higher: Service, Finance/Investments, Technology, Retail

Lower: Food, Oil, Media/Communications, Real Estate, Manufacturing, Other Continue reading “The Forbes 8 Value Investor Index”