Posts tagged ‘Warren Buffett’

The Art & Science of Successful Investing

As I described in my book, How I Managed $20,000,000,000.00 by Age 32, I believe successful investing is achieved by integrating aspects of both art and science. The science aspect of investing is fairly straightforward – most of the accounting and valuation math involved could be solved by a 7th grader. The more challenging aspect to successful investing is controlling the vacillating emotions of fear and greed when searching for attractive investments.

When people ask me about my investment philosophy, I do not like to be pigeon-holed into one style box because normally my portfolios hold investments that outsiders would deem both value and growth oriented. Since I am an absolute return investor, I am more concerned about how I can maximize upside returns while minimizing downside risk for my investors.

Because valuation is such an important factor in my process (price always matters), the most accurate description of my style would likely be “high octane GARP” (Growth At a Reasonable Price). While many GARP investors limit themselves to current or historical valuation metrics, my process has allowed me to take a more long-term, forward looking analysis of valuations, which has directed me to participate in some large winners, like Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), and Google/Alphabet (GOOGL), to name a few. To many observers, positions like these have traditionally been falsely considered “expensive” growth stocks.

Case in point is Google/Alphabet, which went public at $85 per share in 2004. At the time, the broad Wall Street consensus was the IPO (Initial Public Offering) price was way overheated. As it turned out, the stock has reached $1,000 per share and the Price-Earnings ratio (P/E) was a steal at less than 3x had you bought Google at the IPO price. ($85 2004 price/$33.98 2017 EPS estimate). Google is a perfect example of a dominant market leader that has been able to grow earnings dramatically for many years. In short order after going public, Google’s earnings ended up more than quintupling in less than three years and the stock price quintupled as well, proving that ill-advised focus on stale, traditional valuation metrics can lead you to wrong conclusions. Certainly, finding stocks that can increase in value by more than 11x fold is easier said than done, however, applying longer-term valuation metrics to dominant growth leading franchises will allow you to occasionally find monster winners like Google.

The greatest long-term winners don’t start off as the largest weightings, but due to the compounding of returns, position sizes can explode over time. As Peter Lynch states,

“You don’t need a lot of good hits every day. All you need is two to three good stocks a decade.”

 

Google/Alphabet proves what can appear expensive in the short-run is, in many cases, wildly cheap based on future earnings growth. Earnings tomorrow may be significantly larger than earnings today. Lynch emphasizes the importance of earnings over current prices,

“People concentrate too much on the ‘P’ (Price), but the ‘E’ (Earnings) really makes the difference.”
 “Just because a stock is cheaper than before is no reason to buy it, and just because it’s more expensive is no reason to sell.”

 

The Google/Alphabet chart below shows the incredible price appreciation that can be realized from compounding earnings growth.

The Google example also underscores the importance of patience. Although the stock has been a massive home-run since its IPO, the stock barely budged from late 2006 through 2011. Accurately picking the perfect timing to make an investment is nearly impossible. I concur with Bill Miller when he stated,

“We expect the stocks we buy today to contribute to our performance several years hence. While it’s nice if they contribute to this year’s performance, this year’s performance should be driven by decisions we made in previous years. If we keep doing this, we hope that we will provide adequate returns in the future.”

 

Regarding timing, Miller adds,

“Nobody buys at lows and sells at highs except liars.”

 

The Sidoxia Philosophy

Over time, as I have fine-tuned my investment philosophy, I have not been bashful in borrowing winning ideas from growth gurus like Peter Lynch, Phil Fisher, William O’Neil,  and Ron Baron, to name a few. By the same token, I am not shy about stealing ideas from value veterans like Warren Buffett, Seth Klarman, and Bill Miller as well.

While I don’t agree with Warren Buffett’s “forever” time horizon, I do believe in the power of compounding he espouses, which requires a longer-term investment horizon. The power of compounding is accelerated not only by committing to a long-term horizon, but also by the benefits accrued from lower trading costs and taxes. What’s more, taking a long view lowers your blood pressure and creates fewer ulcers. Legendary growth manager, T. Rowe Price, captures the essence of this idea here:

“The growth stock theory of investing requires patience, but is less stressful than trading, generally has less risk, and reduces brokerage commissions and income taxes.”

 

The Science of Investing

As discussed earlier, successful investing is an endeavor that involves the practices of both art and science – too much of either approach can be detrimental to your financial health. Quantitative screening can be an excellent tool for identifying new securities for research along with streamlining the fundamental analysis process. However, many investment funds rely too heavily on the quantitative science. The adage that “correlation does not equal causation” is an important credo to follow when reviewing various quantitative models (see Butter in Bangladesh).

The collapse of the infamous, multi-billion Long Term Capital Management hedge fund should also be a lesson to everyone (see When Genius Failed ). If world renowned Nobel Prize winners, Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, can single-handedly bring the global market to its knees as a result of using inconsistent and unreliable quantitative models, then I feel validated for my fundamentally-based investment approach.

While there are some artistic facets to valuation techniques, in large part, the valuation science is a fairly straightforward mathematical exercise. Unfortunately, the market consists of emotional and unpredictable individuals who continually change their opinions. Eventually the financial markets prod prices in the right direction, but over shorter time intervals, proper investment analysis requires some imperfect estimation.

Emotions regularly result in individuals overpaying for stocks, and this tendency is a risky strategy for any investment. In many cases investors chase darling stocks highlighted in news headlines, but regrettably these pricy investments often end up performing poorly. When it comes to hot stocks, I’m on the same page as famed value investor Bill Miller,

“If it’s in the papers, it’s in the price. One needs to anticipate, not react.”

 

Usually a news event that makes headlines is already factored into the stock price. The financial markets are generally forward looking mechanisms, not backward looking.

The Art of Investing

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

-Yogi Berra

Investing is undoubtedly a challenging undertaking, but like almost any profession, the more experience one has, the better results generally achieved. Experience alone does not guarantee extraordinary performance, in large part due to emotional pressures. Investing would be much easier for everyone, if you didn’t have to worry about controlling those pesky emotions of fear and greed. The best investment decisions, and frankly any decision, are rarely made under these heightened emotions.

The most successful set of investors I have studied and modeled my investment process after are professionals who have married the quantitative science with the fundamental art of investing. At Sidoxia, we use a disciplined cash flow based valuation approach, along with thorough fundamental analysis to identify attractively valued, market leading franchises that can sustain above average growth. It sounds like a mouthful, but over time, it has worked well for the benefit of my clients and me.

The market leading franchises we invest in tend to have a competitive advantage, whether in the form of superior research and development, low-cost manufacturing, leading marketing, and/or other exceptional functions in the company that allow the entity to consistently garner more growth and more market share from its competitors. Quality franchises tend to also employ first-class management teams that have a proven track record, along with thoughtful, systematic processes in place to maintain their competitive edge. These competitive advantages are what allow companies to produce exceptional earnings growth for extended periods of time, thereby producing outstanding long-term performance for shareholders.

Finding sustainable growth in competitive niche markets is nearly impossible, and that is why I center my attention on large or emerging sectors of the economy that can support long runways of growth. When analyzing companies with durable, long runways of earnings growth, I concentrate on those developing, share-taking companies and dominant market leaders. In other words, disruptive companies that are entering new markets with vast potential and established companies that are gaining significant share in large markets. Well-known growth authority, Phil Fisher summarized the objective,

“The greatest investment rewards come to those who by good luck or good sense find the occasional company that over the years can grow in sales and profits far more than industry as a whole.”

 

I am privileged and honored to manage the hard earned investments of my clients. If this was a simple profession, everyone would do it, and I would not be employed as an investment manager. I have developed what I believe is a superior way of managing money, but I realize my investment process is not the only way to make money. If you were to assemble 10 different investment managers in the same room, and ask them, “What is the best way to invest money?,” you are likely to get 10 different answers. Having been in the investment industry and managed money for over 25 years, my experience has shown me that the vast majority of professional managers have underperformed the passive benchmarks. However, there are investment managers who have survived the test of time. For those veterans incorporating a disciplined, systematic approach that integrates the artistic and scientific aspects of investing, exceptional long-term returns can be achieved and have been achieved.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, AMZN, GOOG/GOOGL, and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in 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.

June 18, 2017 at 7:25 pm Leave a comment

Political Showers Bring Record May Stock Flowers

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (June 1, 2017). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

There has been a massive storm of political rain that has blanketed the media airwaves and internet last month, however, the stock market ignored the deluge of headlines and focused on more important factors, as prices once again pushed to new record highs. Over the eight-year bull market, the old adage to “sell in May, and go away,” once again was not a very successful strategy. Had investors heeded this advice, they would have missed out on a +1.2% gain in the S&P 500 index during May (up +7.7% for 2017) and a +2.5% surge in the technology-driven NASDAQ index (+15.1% in 2017).

Keeping track of the relentless political storm of new headlines and tweets almost requires a full-time staff person, but nevertheless we have summarized some of the political downpour here:

French Elections: In the wake of last year’s U.K. “Brexit”, fears of an imminent “Frexit” (French Exit) resurfaced ahead of the French presidential. Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old former investment banker, swept to a decisive victory over National Front candidate Marine Le Pen by a margin of 66% to 34%.

Firing of FBI Director: President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey based on the recommendation of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who cited Comey’s mishandling of Hillary Clinton’s private email server investigation. The president’s critics claim Trump was frustrated with the FBI’s investigation into the administration’s potential ties with Russian officials in relation to the 2016 presidential elections. Comey is expected to testify next week to Congress, where he will likely address reports that President Trump asked him to drop the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn during a February meeting.

Trump Classified Leak to Russians: Reports show that President Trump revealed classified information regarding the Islamic State (ISIS) to the Russian foreign minister during an Oval Office meeting. The ISIS related information emanating from Syria reportedly had been passed to the U.S. from Israel, with the provision that it not be shared.

Impeachment Talk and Appointment of Independent Special Prosecutor: Heightened reports of Russian intervention coupled with impeachment cries from the Democratic opposition coincided with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s announcement that former FBI director Robert Mueller III would take on the role as an independent special counsel in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Rosenstein had the authority to make the appointment after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself after admitting contacts with Russian officials. The White House, which has denied colluding with the Russians, issued a statement from President Donald Trump looking forward “to this matter concluding quickly.”

Kushner Under Back Channel Investigation: President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, is under investigation over discussions to set up a back channel of communication with Russian officials. At the heart of the probe is a December meeting Kushner held with Sergey Gorkov, an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of the state-owned Vnesheconombank, a Russian bank subject to sanctions imposed by President Obama. Back channels have been legally implemented by other administrations, but the timing and nature of the discussions could make the legal interpretation more difficult.

Trump’s First Foreign Trip: A whirlwind trip by President Trump through the Middle East and Europe, resulted in commitments to Middle East peace, multi-billion contract signings with the Saudis, pledges to fight Muslims extremism, calls for NATO members to pay their “fair share,” and demands for German President Angela Merkel to address the elevated trade deficit with the U.S.

Subpoenas Issued to Trump Advisors: The House Intelligence Committee issued subpoenas to ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, as it relates to potential Russian interference in the presidential campaign. Flynn reportedly plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights in response to a separate subpoena issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Repeal and Replace Healthcare: The Republican-controlled House of Representatives narrowly passed a vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act after prior failed attempts. The bill, which allows states to apply for a waiver on certain aspects of coverage, including pre-existing conditions, received no Democratic votes. While the House passage represents a legislative victory for President Trump, Senate Republicans must now take up the legislation that addresses conclusions by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). More specifically, the CBO found the revised House health care bill could leave 23 million more Americans uninsured while reducing the federal deficit by $119 billion in the next decade.

North Korea Missile Tests: If domestic political turmoil wasn’t enough, North Korea conducted an unprecedented number of medium-to-long-range missile tests in an effort to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the mainland United States. Due to the rising tensions, the U.S. and South Korea have been planning nuclear carrier drills off the coast of the Korean peninsula.

Wow, that was a mouthful. While all these politics may be provocative and stimulating, long-time followers of mine understand my position…politics are meaningless (see Politics-Schmolitics). While a terrorist or military attack on U.S. soil would undoubtedly have an immediate and negative impact, 99% of daily politics should be ignored by investors. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the stock market, which continues to make new record highs in the face of a hurricane of negative political headlines. What the stock market really cares most about are profits, interest rates, and valuations:

  • Record Profits: Stock prices follow the direction of earnings over the long-run. As you can see below, profits vacillate year-to-year. However, profits are currently surging, and therefore, so are stock prices – despite the negative political headlines.

Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog

  • Near Generationally Low Interest Rates: Generally speaking, most asset classes, including real estate, commodities, and stock prices are worth more when interest rates are low. When you could earn 15% on a bank CD in the early 1980s, stocks were much less attractive. Currently, bank CDs almost pay nothing, and as you can see from the chart below, interest rates are near a generational low – this makes stock prices more attractive.
  • Attractive Valuations: The price you pay for an asset is always an important factor, and the same principle applies to your investments. If you can buy a $1.00 for $0.90, you want to take advantage of that opportunity. Unfortunately, the value of stocks is not measured by a simple explicit price, like you see at a grocery store. Rather, stock values are measured by a ratio (comparing an investment’s price relative to profits/cash flows generated). Even though the stock market has surged this year, stock values have gotten cheaper. How is that possible? Stock prices have risen about +8% in the first quarter, while profits have jumped +15%. When profits rise faster than prices appreciate, that means stocks have gotten cheaper. From a multi-year standpoint, I agree with Warren Buffett that prices remain attractive given the current interest rate environment. To read more about valuations, check out Ed Yardeni’s recent article on valuations.
Overall, the political showers continue to come pouring down, but the economic flowers have been blooming. Politics are fun to talk about, but when it comes to your investments, do yourself a favor and pull out your umbrella, turn off the politics, and take advantage of the sweet smell of the flowers.

 

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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 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.

June 3, 2017 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment

You Can’t Kiss All the Beauties

When I was in high school and college, kissing all the pretty girls was not a realistic goal. The same principle applies to stock picking – you can’t buy all the outperforming stocks. As far as I’m concerned, there will always be some people who are smarter, better looking, and wealthier than I am, but that has little to do with whether I can continue to outperform, if I stick to my systematic, disciplined process. In fact, many smart people are horrible investors because they overthink the investing process or suffer from “paralysis by analysis.” When it comes to investing, the behavioral ability to maintain independence is more important than being a genius. If you don’t believe me, just listen to arguably the smartest investor of all-time, Warren Buffett:

“Success in investing doesn’t correlate with I.Q. once you’re above the level of 125. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.”

 

Even the best investors and stock pickers of all-time are consistently wrong. When selecting stocks, a worthy objective is to correctly pick three outperforming stocks out of five stocks. And out of the three winning stocks, the rationale behind the outperformance should be correct in two out of those three stocks. In other words, you can be right for the wrong reason in one out of three outperforming stocks. The legendary investor Peter Lynch summed it up when he stated, “If you’re terrific in this business you’re right six times out of 10.”

Yes, it’s true, luck does play a role in stock selection. You just don’t want luck being the major driving force behind your success because luck cannot be replicated consistently over the long-run. There are so many unpredictable variables that in the short-run can work for or against the performance of your stock. Consider factors like politics, monetary policy, weather, interest rates, terrorist attacks, regulations, tax policy, and many other influences that are challenging or impossible to forecast. Over the long-run, these uncontrollable and unpredictable factors should balance out, thereby allowing your investing edge to shine.

Although I have missed some supermodel stocks, I have kissed some pretty stocks in my career too. I wish I could have invested in more stocks like Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) that have increased more than 10x-fold, but other beauties like Apple Inc. (AAPL), Alphabet Inc. (GOOG), and Facebook Inc. (FB), haven’t hurt my long-term performance either. As is the case for most successful long-term investors, winning stocks generally more than compensate for the stinkers, if you can have the wherewithal to hold onto the multi-baggers (i.e., stocks that more than double), which admittedly is much easier said than done. Peter Lynch emphasized this point by stressing a focus on the long-term:

“You don’t need a lot of good hits every day. All you need is two to three goods stocks a decade.”

 

Sticking to a process of identifying and investing in well-managed companies at attractive valuations is a much better approach to investing than chasing every beauty you see or read about. If you stick to this simple formula, you can experience lovely, long-term results.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in AAPL, FB, GOOG, AMZN, and certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in 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.

April 9, 2017 at 9:49 am Leave a comment

No April Fool’s Joke – Another Record

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (April 3, 2017). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

Having children is great, but a disadvantage to having younger kids are the April Fool’s jokes they like to play on parents. Fortunately, this year was fairly benign as I only suffered a nail-polish covered bar of soap in the shower. However, what has not been a joke has been the serious series of new record highs achieved in the stock market. While it is true the S&P 500 index finished roughly flat for the month (-0.0%) after hitting new highs earlier in March, the technology-laden NASDAQ index continued its dominating run, advancing +1.5% in March contributing to the impressive +10% jump in the first quarter. For 2017, the NASDAQ supremacy has been aided by the stalwart gains realized by leaders like Apple Inc. (up +24%), Facebook Inc. (up +23%), and Amazon.com Inc. (up +18%). The surprising fact to many is that these records have come in the face of immense political turmoil – most recently President Trump’s failure to deliver on a campaign promise to repeal and replace the Obamacare healthcare system.

Like a broken record, I’ve repeated there are much more important factors impacting investment portfolios and the stock market other than politics (see also Politics Schmolitics). In fact, many casual observers of the stock market don’t realize we have been in the midst of a synchronized, global economic expansion, helped in part by the stabilization in the value of the U.S. dollar over the last couple of years.

Source: Investing.com

As you can see above, there was an approximate +25% appreciation in the value of the dollar in late-2014, early-2015. This spike in the value of the dollar suddenly made U.S. goods sold abroad +25% more expensive, resulting in U.S. multinational companies experiencing a dramatic profitability squeeze over a short period of time. The good news is that over the last two years the dollar has stabilized around an index value of 100. What does this mean? In short, this has provided U.S. multinational companies time to adjust operations, thereby neutralizing the currency headwinds and allowing the companies to return to profitability growth.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

And profits are back on the rise indeed. The six decade long chart above shows there is a significant correlation between the stock market (red line – S&P 500) and corporate profits (blue line). The skeptics and naysayers have been out in full force ever since the 2008-2009 financial crisis – I profiled these so-called “sideliners” in Get out of Stocks!.

As the stock market continues to hit new record highs, the doubters continue to scream danger. There will always be volatility, but when the richest investor of all-time, Warren Buffett, continues to say that stocks are still attractively priced, given the current interest rate environment, that goes a long way to assuage investor concerns.

Politically, a lot could still go wrong as it relates to healthcare, tax reform, and infrastructure spending, to name a few issues. However, it’s still early, and it’s possible positive surprises could also occur. More importantly, as I’ve noted before, corporate profits, interest rates, valuations, and investor sentiment are much more important factors than politics, and on balance these factors are on the favorable side of the ledger. These factors will have a larger impact on the long-term direction of stock prices.

With approval ratings of Congress and the President at low levels, investors have had trouble finding humor in politics, even on April Fool’s Day. Another significant factor more important than politics is the issue of retirement savings by Americans, which is no joke. As you finalize your tax returns in the coming weeks, it behooves you to revisit your retirement plan and investment portfolio. Inefficiently investing your money or outliving your savings is no laughing matter. I’ll continue with my disciplined financial plan and leave the laughing to my kids, as they enjoy planning their next April Fool’s Day prank.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in AAPL, FB, AMZN, and certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in 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.

April 3, 2017 at 12:03 pm Leave a comment

Munger: Buffett’s Wingman & the Art of Stock Picking

Simon had Garfunkel, Batman had Robin, Hall had Oates, Dr. Evil had Mini Me, Sonny had Cher, and Malone had Stockton. In the investing world, Buffett has Munger. Charlie Munger is one of the most successful and famous wingmen of all-time –  evidenced by Berkshire Hathaway Corporation’s (BRKA/B) outperformance of the S&P 500 index by approximately +624% from 1977 – 2009, according to MarketWatch. Munger not only provides critical insights to his legendary billionaire boss, Warren Buffett, but he was also Chairman of Berkshire’s insurance subsidiary, Wesco Financial Corporation from 1984 until 2011. The magic of this dynamic duo began when they met at a dinner party 58 years ago (1959).

In an article he published in 2006, the magnificent Munger describes the “Art of Stock Picking” in a thorough review about the secrets of equity investing. We’ll now explore some of the 93-year-old’s sage advice and wisdom.

Model Building

Charlie Munger believes an individual needs a solid general education before becoming a successful investor, and in order to do that one needs to study and understand multiple “models.”

“You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”

 

Although Munger indicates there are 80 or 90 important models, the examples he provides include mathematics, accounting, biology, physiology, psychology, and microeconomics.

Advantages of Scale

Great businesses in many cases enjoy the benefits of scale, and Munger devotes a good amount of time to this subject. Scale advantages can be realized through advertising, information, psychological “social proofing,” and structural factors.

The newspaper industry is an example of a structural scale business in which a “winner takes all” phenomenon applies. Munger aptly points out, “There’s practically no city left in the U.S., aside from a few very big ones, where there’s more than one daily newspaper.”

General Electric Co. (GE) is another example of a company that uses scale to its advantage. Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO, learned an early lesson. If the GE division is not large enough to be a leader in a particular industry, then they should exit. Or as Welch put it, “To hell with it. We’re either going to be # 1 or #2 in every field we’re in or we’re going to be out. I don’t care how many people I have to fire and what I have to sell. We’re going to be #1 or #2 or out.”

Bigger Not Always Better

Scale comes with its advantages, but if not managed correctly, size can weigh on a company like an anchor. Munger highlights the tendency of large corporations to become “big, fat, dumb, unmotivated bureaucracies.” An implicit corruption also leads to “layers of management and associated costs that nobody needs. Then, while people are justifying all these layers, it takes forever to get anything done. They’re too slow to make decisions and nimbler people run circles around them.”

Becoming too large can also create group-think, or what Munger calls “Pavlovian Association.” Munger goes onto add, “If people tell you what you really don’t want to hear what’s unpleasant there’s an almost automatic reaction of antipathy…You can get severe malfunction in the high ranks of business. And of course, if you’re investing, it can make a lot of difference.”

Technology: Benefit or Burden?

Munger recognizes that technology lowers costs for companies, but the important question that many managers fail to ask themselves is whether the benefits from technology investments accrue to the company or to the customer? Munger summed it up here:

“There are all kinds of wonderful new inventions that give you nothing as owners except the opportunity to spend a lot more money in a business that’s still going to be lousy. The money still won’t come to you. All of the advantages from great improvements are going to flow through to the customers.”

 

Buffett and Munger realized this lesson early on when productivity improvements gained from technology investments in the textile business all went to the buyers.

Surfing the Wave

When looking for good businesses, Munger and Buffett are looking to “surf” waves or trends that will generate healthy returns for an extended period of time. “When a surfer gets up and catches the wave and just stays there, he can go a long, long time. But if he gets off the wave, he becomes mired in shallows,” states Munger. He notes that it’s the “early bird,” or company that identifies a big trend before others that enjoys the spoils. Examples Munger uses to illustrate this point are Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Intel Corp. (INTC), and National Cash Register from the old days.

Large profits will be collected by those investors that can identify and surf those rare large waves. Unfortunately, taking advantage of these rare circumstances becomes tougher and tougher for larger investors like Berkshire. If you’re an elephant trying to surf a wave, you need to find larger and larger waves, and even then, due to your size, you will be unable to surf as long as small investors.

Circle of Competence

Circle of competence is not a new subject discussed by Buffett and Munger, but it is always worth reviewing.  Here’s how Munger describes the concept:

“You have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.”

 

For Munger and Buffett, sticking to their circle of competence means staying away from high-technology companies, although more recently they have expanded this view to include International Business Machines (IBM), which they are now a large investor.

Market Efficiency or Lack Thereof

Munger acknowledges that financial markets are quite difficult to beat. Since the markets are “partly efficient and partly inefficient,” he believes there is a minority of individuals who can outperform the markets. To expand on this idea, he compares stock investing to the pari-mutuel system at the racetrack, which despite the odds stacked against the bettor (17% in fees going to the racetrack), there are a few individuals who can still make decent money.

The transactional costs are much lower for stocks, but success for an investor still requires discipline and patience. As Munger declares, “The way to win is to work, work, work, work and hope to have a few insights.”

Winning the Game – 10 Insights / 20 Punches

As the previous section implies, outperformance requires patience and a discriminating eye, which has allowed Berkshire to create the bulk of its wealth from a relatively small number of investment insights. Here’s Munger’s explanation on this matter:

“How many insights do you need? Well, I’d argue: that you don’t need many in a lifetime. If you look at Berkshire Hathaway and all of its accumulated billions, the top ten insights account for most of it….I don’t mean to say that [Warren] only had ten insights. I’m just saying, that most of the money came from ten insights.”

 

Chasing performance, trading too much, being too timid, and paying too high a price are not recipes for success. Independent thought accompanied with selective, bold decisions is the way to go. Munger’s solution to these problems is to provide investors with a Buffett 20-punch ticket:

“I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only 20 slots in it so that you had 20 punches ‑ representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card, you couldn’t make any more investments at all.”

 

The great thing about Munger and Buffett’s advice is that it is digestible by the masses. Like dieting, investing can be very simple to understand, but difficult to execute, and legends like these always remind us of the important investing basics. Even though Charlie Munger may be slowing down a tad at 93-years-old, Warren Buffett and investors everywhere are blessed to have this wingman around spreading his knowledge about investing and the art of stock picking.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, BRKA/B, GE, MSFT, INTC, IBM but at the time of this 3/12/17 updated publishing, SCM had no direct position in National Cash Register, 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 12, 2017 at 7:32 pm Leave a comment

March Madness or Retirement Sadness?

bball

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (March 1, 2017). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

“March Madness” begins in a few weeks with a start of the 68-team NCAA college basketball tournament, but there has also been plenty of other economic and political madness going on in the background. As it relates to the stock market, the Dow Jones Industrial Average index reached a new, all-time record high last month, exceeding the psychologically prominent level of 20,000 (closing the month at 20,812). For the month, the Dow rose an impressive +4.8%, and since November’s presidential election it catapulted an even more remarkable +13.5%.

Despite our 45th president just completing his first State of the Union address to the nation, American voters remain sharply divided across political lines, and that bias is not likely to change any time soon. Fortunately, as I’ve written on numerous occasions (see Politics & Your Money), politics have no long-term impact on your finances and retirement. Sure, in the short-run, legislative policies can create winners and losers across particular companies and industries, but history is firmly on your side if you consider the positive track record of stocks over the last couple of centuries. As the chart below demonstrates, over the last 150 years or so, stock performance is roughly the same across parties (up +11% annually), whether you identify with a red elephant or a blue donkey.

dem-v-rep

Nevertheless, political rants flooding our Facebook news feeds can confuse investors and scare people into inaction. Pervasive fake news stories regarding the supposed policy benefits and shortcomings of immigration, tax reform, terrorism, entitlements, foreign policy, and economic issues often result in heightened misperception and anxiety.

More important than reading Facebook political rants, watching March Madness basketball, or drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, is saving money for retirement. While some of these diversions can be temporarily satisfying and entertaining, lost in the daily shuffle is the retirement epidemic quietly lurking in the background. Managing money makes people nervous even though it is an essential part of life. Retirement planning is critical because a mountain of the 76 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 – 1964 have already reached retirement age and are not ready (see chart below).

eld-pop-growth

The critical problem is most Americans are ill-prepared financially for retirement, and many of them run the risk of outliving their savings. A recent study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows that nearly half of families have no retirement account savings at all. The findings go on to highlight that the median U.S. family only has $5,000 in savings (see also Getting to Your Number). Even after considering my tight-fisted habits, that kind of money wouldn’t be enough cash for me to survive on.

Saving and investing have never been more important. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that government entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are at risk for millions of Americans. While I am definitely not sounding the alarm for current retirees who have secure benefits, there are millions of others whose retirement benefits are in jeopardy.

Missing the 20,000 Point Boat? Dow 100,000

Making matters worse, saving and investing has never been more challenging. If you thought handling all of life’s responsibilities was tough enough already, try the impossible task of interpreting the avalanche of instantaneous political and economic headlines pouring over our electronic devices at lighting speed.

Knee-jerk reactions to headlines might give investors a false sense of security, but the near-impossibility of consistently timing the stock market has not stopped people from attempting to do so. For example, recently I have been bombarded with the same question, “Wade, don’t you think the stock market is overpriced now that we have eclipsed 20,000?” The short answer is “no,” given the current factors (see Don’t Be a Fool). Thankfully, I’m not alone in this response. Warren Buffett, the wealthiest billionaire investor on the planet, answered the same question this week after investing $20,000,000,000 more in stocks post the election:

“People talk about 20,000 being high. Well, I remember when it hit 200 and that was supposedly high….You know, you’re going to see a Dow [in your lifetime] that certainly approaches 100,000 and that doesn’t require any miracles, that just requires the American system continuing to function pretty much as it has.”

Like a deer in headlights, many Americans have been scared into complacency. To their detriment, many savers have sat silently on the sidelines earning near-0% returns on their savings, while the stock market has reached new all-time record highs. While Dow 20,000 might be new news for some, the reality is new all-time record highs have repeatedly been achieved in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and now 2017 (see chart below).

record-highs

While I am not advocating for all people to throw their entire savings into stocks, it is vitally important for individuals to construct diversified portfolios across a wide range of asset classes, subject to each person’s unique objectives, constraints, risk tolerance, and time horizon. The risk of outliving your savings is real, so if you need assistance, seek out an experienced professional. March Madness may be here, but don’t get distracted. Make investing a priority, so your daily madness doesn’t turn into retirement sadness.

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in FB and certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in 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 4, 2017 at 11:04 am 1 comment

Uncertainty: A Love-Hate Relationship

lovehateglass-heart-1144859

An often over-quoted saying is “The stock market hates uncertainty.” However, the wealthiest investor of all-time has a different perspective about uncertainty:

“The future is never clear. You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus. Uncertainty is the friend of the buyer of long-term values.”

-Warren Buffett

Buffett understands the benefits of long-term compounding and the beauty of buying fear and selling greed. Unfortunately, CNBC and every other media outlet do not carry the words “long-term” in their vernacular. Peddling F.U.D. (fear, uncertainty, doubt) equates to eyeballs and clicks, which equates to more advertising dollars. With the volatility index trading at fear-rich Brexit levels above 20, traders are certainly long on F.U.D. Time will tell whether the elections will increase or decrease F.U.D., but unless there is a contested election a la 2000 (Bush-Gore), there will be one less election to worry about and investors can then go back to normal worrying and political bashing.

As I have noted on multiple occasions, from a stock market standpoint, whomever wins (Republican or Democrat) should have no bearing on the performance of the stock market over the medium term as long as there remains gridlock in Washington (see also Fall is Here: Change is Near). Most Americans despise political inactivity, but if like many investors you believe in fiscal discipline, then you prefer fighting over spending, and generally, the more gridlock, the less spending.

In other words, fiscal discipline is likely to win IF there is a split Congress (House & Senate) or if the winning presidential party loses both the Senate and the House. For what it’s worth, Nate Silver, the guy who accurately predicted all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election is currently predicting gridlock (i.e., a split Congress), but the presidential and Congressional polls have been generally tightening across the board. For now, with just three days left before the election, investors have chosen to shoot now, and ask questions later, as evidenced by the 420 point decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average during the first half of the 4th quarter.

My crystal ball is just as foggy as anybody else’s, and increased volatility in the short-run should come as no surprise to anyone. As in any volatile investment environment, during periods of turbulence, you should compile your shopping list to opportunistically purchase securities selling at a discount. There is no reason to be a hero, but you should prudently deploy cash or readjust your asset allocation, if there is a significant sell-off in risky assets. The same principle works in reverse. If for some unlikely reason, there is a post Brexit-like snapback, one should consider trimming or selling overbought positions.

The main point in periods like these is to let objective reasoning drive your decisions (or lack of decisions), rather than emotions. There has always been a love-hate relationship with uncertainty for traders and investors alike. If you are doing your job correctly, long-term investors should relish F.U.D. because as the saying goes, “This too shall pass.”

investment-questions-border

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

www.Sidoxia.com

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in  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

November 5, 2016 at 6:11 pm Leave a comment

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