Posts tagged ‘Buffett’

Shoring Up Your Investment Stool from Collapse

With March Madness just kicking into full gear, there’s a chance that your gluteal assets may be parked on a stool in the next two weeks. When leaning on a bar countertop, while seated on a stool, we often take for granted the vital support this device provides, so we can shovel our favorite beverage and pile of nachos into our pie holes. OK, maybe I speak for myself when it comes to my personal, gluttonous habits. But the fact remains, whether you are talking about your rump, or your investment portfolio, you require a firm foundation.

The main problem, when it comes to investments, is the lack of a tangible, visible stool to analyze. Sure, you are able to see the results of a portfolio collapse when there is no foundation to support it, or you may even be able to ignore the results when they remain above water. But many investors do not  evenperform the basic due diligence to determine the quality of their investment stool. Before you place your life savings in the hands of some brokerage salesman, or in your personal investment account, you may want to make sure your stool has more than one or two legs.

In the money management world, investors typically choose to buy the stool, rather than build it, which makes perfect common sense. Many people do not have the time or emotional make-up to manage their finances. If left to do it themselves, more often than not, investors usually do a less than stellar job. Unfortunately, when many investors do outsource the management of their investments, they neglect to adequately research the investment stool they buy. Usually the wobbly industry stool operates on the two legs of performance chasing and commission generation (see Fees, Exploitation, and Confusion).  For most average investors, it doesn’t take long before that investment strategy teeters and collapses.

If the average investor does not have time to critically evaluate managers that take a long-term, low-cost, tax-efficient strategy to investing, those individuals would be best served by following Warren Buffet’s advice about passive investments, “A very low-cost index is going to beat a majority of the amateur-managed money or professionally-managed money.”

The Four Legs of the Investment Stool

For DIY-ers (Do-It-Yourself-ers), you  do not need to buy a stool – you can build it. There are many ways to build a stool, but these are the four crucial legs of investing that have saved my hide over my career, and can be added as support for your investment stool:

1.)       Valuation: I love sustainable growth as much as anything, just as much as I would like a shiny new Ferrari. But there needs to be a reasonable price paid for growth, and paying an attractive or fair price for a marquis asset will improve your odds for long-term success.

“Valuations do matter in the stock market, just as good pitching matters in baseball.”

-Fred Hickey (High Tech Strategist)

2.)   Cash Flows: Cash flows, and more importantly free cash flows (cash left over after money is spent on capital expenditures), should be investors’ metric of choice. Companies do not pay for dividends, share buybacks, and capital expenditures with pro forma earnings, or non-GAAP earnings. Companies pay for these important outlays with cash.

“In looking for stocks to buy, why do you put so much emphasis on free cash flow? Because it makes the most sense to me. My first job was at a little corner grocery store, and it seemed pretty simple. Cash goes into the register; cash comes out.”

-Bruce Berkowitz (The Fairholme Fund)

3.)   Interest Rates: Money goes where it is treated best, so capital will look at the competing yields paid on bonds. Intuitively, interest factors also come into play when calculating the net present value of a stock. Just look at the low Price-Earnings ratios of stocks in the early 1980s when the Fed Funds reached about 20% (versus effectively 0% today).  In the long run, higher interest rates (and higher inflation) are bad for stocks, but worse for bonds.

“I don’t know any company that has rewarded any bondholder by raising interest rates [payments] – unlike companies raising dividends.”

-Peter Lynch (Former manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund)

4.)  Quality: This is a subjective factor, but this artistic assessment is as important, if not more important than any of the previous listed factors. In searching for quality, it is best to focus on companies with market share leading positions, strong management teams, and durable competitive advantages.

“If you sleep with dogs, you’re bound to get fleas.”

-Old Proverb

These four legs of the investment stool are essential factors in building a strong investment portfolio, so during the next March Madness party you attend at the local sports bar, make sure to check the sturdiness of your bar stool – you want to make sure your assets are supported with a sturdy foundation.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in Fairholme, Ferrari, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

March 15, 2011 at 1:07 am Leave a comment

Killing Patients to Investment Prosperity

All investors are optimistic, every time they open up a position, but just like surgeons, sometimes the outcome doesn’t turn out as well as initially anticipated. When it comes to investing, I think this old Hindu proverb puts things into perspective:

“No physician is really good before he has killed one or two patients.”


So too, an investor does not become really good until he kills off some investment positions. But like surgeons, investors also have to understand the most important aspect of tragic events is learning from them. In many cases, unexpected outcomes are out of our control and cannot be prevented. This conclusion, in and of itself, can provide valuable insights. But on many occasions, there are procedures, processes, and facts that were missed or botched, and learning from those mistakes can prove invaluable when it comes to refining the process in the future – in order to further minimize the probability of a tragic outcome.

My Personal Killers

Professionally, I have killed some stocks in my career too, or they have killed me, depending on how you look at the situation.  How did these heartrending incidents occur? There are several categories that my slaughtered stocks fell under:

  • Roll-Up, Throw-Up: Several of my investment mistakes have been tied to roll-up or acquisition-reliant growth stories, where the allure of rapid growth shielded the underlying weak fundamentals of the core businesses. Buying growth is easier to create versus organically producing growth. Those companies addicted to growth by acquisition eventually experience the consequences firsthand when the game ends (i.e., the quality of deals usually deteriorates and/or the prices paid for the acquisitions become excessive).
  • Technology Kool-Aid: Another example is the Kool-Aid I drank, during the technology bubble days, related to a “story” stock – Webvan, a grocery delivery concept. How could mixing Domino’s pizza delivery (DZP) with Wal-Mart’s (WMT) low-priced goods not work? I’m just lazy enough to demand a service like that. Well, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars and never reaching the scale necessary to cover the razor thin profit margins, Webvan folded up shop and went bankrupt. But don’t give up hope yet, Amazon (AMZN) is refocusing its attention on the grocery space (mostly non-perishables now) and could become the dominant food delivery retailer.
  • Penny Stocks = Dollars Lost: Almost every seasoned investor carries at least one “penny stock” horror story.  Unfortunately for me, my biotech miracle stock, Saliva Diagnostics (SALV), did not take off to the moon and provide an early retirement opportunity as planned. On the surface it sounded brilliant. Spit in a cup and Saliva Diagnostic’s proprietary test would determine whether patients were infected with the HIV virus. With millions of HIV/AIDS patients spread around the world, the profit potential behind ‘Saliva’ seemed virtually limitless. The technology unfortunately did not quite pan out, and spit turned into tears.

The Misfortune Silver Lining

These stock tragedies are no fun, but I am not alone. Fortunately for me, and other professionals, there is a nine-lives feline element to investing. One does not need to be right all the time to outperform the indices. “If you’re terrific in this business you’re right 6 times out of 10 – I’ve had stocks go from $11 to 7 cents (American Intl Airways),” admitted investment guru Peter Lynch. Growth stock investing expert, Phil Fisher, added: “Fortunately the long-range profits earned from really good common stocks should more than balance the losses from a normal percentage of such mistakes.”

Warren Buffett takes a more light-hearted approach when he describes investment mistakes: “If you were a golfer and you had a hole in one on every hole, the game wouldn’t be any fun. At least that’s my explanation of why I keep hitting them in the rough.”

Some investors purposely forget traumatic investment experiences, but explicitly sweeping the event under the rug will do more harm than good. So the next time you suffer a horrendous stock price decline, do your best to log the event and learn from the situation. That way, when the patient (stock) has been killed (destroyed), you will become a better, more prosperous doctor (investor).

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, WMT, and AMZN but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in DZP, Webvan, Saliva Diagnostics, American intl Airways, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

March 11, 2011 at 1:38 am Leave a comment

More Eggs in Basket May Crack Portfolio

NOT putting all your eggs in one basket makes intuitive sense to many investors. Burton Malkiel, Princeton Professor, economist, and author, summed it up succinctly, “Diversity reduces adversity.” Diversification acts like shock absorbers on a car – it smoothens out the ride on a bumpy financial road (read more on diversification). Jason Zweig, Wall Street Journal writer, acknowledges the academic findings that underpin these diversification benefits by stating the following:

“As many studies have shown, at least 40% of the variability in returns can be reduced by moving from a single company to 20. Once a portfolio contains 20 or 30 stocks, adding more does little to damp the fluctuations in wealth over time.”


Despite the evidence, Jason Zweig explores the conventional views on diversification more closely. 

Turning the Diversification Concept on its Head

Zweig, not satisfied with the standard thinking on the topic, decided to explore the work of Don Chance, a finance professor at the Louisiana State University business school. Professor Chance asked more than 200 students to consecutively select stocks until they each held a portfolio of 30 positions. Here are two of the main findings:

1)      Averages Hold Firm: On average, for the group of students, diversifying from a single stock to 20 reduced portfolio risk by roughly 40% – just as would be expected from the academic research.

2)      Individual Portfolios Riskier: After the first few initial stock picks, for each individual portfolio, were made from a list of large cap household names (e.g., XOM, SBUX, NKE), Professor Chance found in many instances students dramatically increased portfolio risk. These students juiced up the octane in their portfolios by venturing into much smaller, more volatile stock selections.

Deceiving Diversification

Gur Huberman, a Columbia Finance Professor also points out a tendency for investors to clump stock selections together in groups with similar risk profiles, thereby reducing diversification benefits. Diversifying from one banking stock to 20 banking stocks may actually do more damage. Statistically, Zweig points out, “Thirteen percent of the time, a 20-stock portfolio generated by computer will be riskier than a one-stock portfolio.”

Professor Chance found similar results according to Zweig:

“One in nine times, they [students] ended up with 30-stock portfolios that were riskier than the single company they had started with. For 23%, the final 30-stock basket fluctuated more than it had with only five stocks.”


Diversified Views on Diversification

Chance and Huberman are not the only professionals to question the benefits of diversification:

Warren Buffett: A diversification skeptic declares, “Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket very carefully.” Alternatively, Buffett says, “Diversification is protection against ignorance.”

Peter Lynch: He referred to diversification as “deworsification,” especially when it came to companies diversifying into non-core businesses.

Charlie Munger: “Wide diversification, which necessarily includes investment in mediocre businesses, only guarantees ordinary results.”

Zweig’s Solution:  

“If you want to pick stocks directly, put 90% to 95% of your money in a total stock-market index fund. Put the rest in three to five stocks, at most, that you can follow closely and hold patiently. Beyond a handful, more companies may well leave you less diversified.”


Portfolio diversification and concentration have been issues studied for decades. As you can see, there are different viewpoints regarding the benefits. As Zweig establishes, through the research of Don Chance, putting more eggs in your basket may actually crack your portfolio, not protect it.

Read Complete WSJ Jason Zweig Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in XOM, SBUX, BRKA/B or NKE. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

December 2, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Buffett Sells Insurance: Weapons of ANTI-Destruction

Writing Options is the Opposite of Mass Destruction

Writing Options is the Opposite of Mass Destruction

Those same “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that Warren Buffett so ardently warned investors against are the same derivatives that catapulted Berkshire Hathaways (BRKA) Q2 earnings performance. Chris McKhann at OptionMonster summarized Buffet’s moves:

Buffett has sold a large number of puts on four major indexes starting in 2007: the S&P 500, the FTSE 100, the Euro Stoxx 50, and the Nikkei 225. He took in $4.9 billion, with a potential loss of more than $35 billion–but only if all four indexes were at zero come the expiration date (at which point we would be worrying about other things).


Derivatives are like a gun, if used responsibly for gaming or for self-defense, then they can be a useful tool. Unfortunately, like guns, these derivatives are used irresponsibly in many instances. This point is especially true in areas like Credit Default Swaps where there were inadequate regulations and capital requirements to prevent disastrous outcomes (e.g., AIG’s collapse). With proper transparency, capital requirements, and proper regulation, derivatives can be used to manage risk rather than create additional risk. 

Although I wouldn’t categorize myself as a value investor like Warren, I would prefer to call myself a growth investor with a value conscience. With that said, if you incorporate valuation within your investment discipline, I believe writing (selling) options is a brilliant idea. I can make this assertion because I’ve used this strategy for myself and my hedge fund. Volatility has a direct impact on the amount of premiums collected; therefore the trading levels of the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) will have a directly correlated impact on option writing profitability. For example, if I’m selling flood insurance, I’m going to collect much higher rates in the period right after Katrina occurred.

If you are willing to accept free money from speculators betting on short-term swings in prices (Warren sold long-term, multi-year options), while being forced to sell/buy stock at price levels you like, then why not?! However, buying and selling puts and calls is a different game in my book, and one I personally do NOT excel at. I’ll keep to utilizing “Weapons of Anti-Destruction” and collect premiums up-front, like Warren, from speculators and leave the rest of the options strategies to others.

Read Seeking Alpha Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management and client accounts do not have direct positions in AIG or BRKA/B at the time the article was published. Sidoxia Capital Management and its clients do have long exposure to TIP shares. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

August 19, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment

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