Archive for the ‘Greenbackd’ Category

President’s Day

Have a good break. See you tomorrow.

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As I foreshadowed yesterday, there are several related themes that I wish to explore on Greenbackd. These three ideas are as follows:

  1. Quantitative value investing
  2. Pure contrarian investing
  3. Problems with the received wisdom on value investment

Set out below is a brief overview of each.

A quantitative approach to value investment

I believe that James Montier’s 2006 research report Painting By Numbers: An Ode To Quant presents a compelling argument for a quantitative approach to value investing. Simple statistical or quantitative models have worked well in the context of value investing, and I think there is ample evidence that this is the case. (Note that simple is the operative word: I’m not advocating anything beyond basic arithmetic or the most elementary algebra.) Graham was said to know little about the businesses of the net current asset value stocks he bought. It seems that any further analysis beyond determining the net current asset value was unnecessary for him (although he does discuss in Security Analysis other considerations for the discerning security analyst). Perhaps that should be good enough for us.

As Oppenheimer’s Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Values: A Performance Update paper demonstrates, a purely mechanical application of Graham’s net current asset value criterion generated a mean return between 1970 and 1983  of “29.4% per year versus 11.5% per year for the NYSE-AMEX Index.” Oppenheimer puts that return in context thus, “[one] million dollars invested in the net current asset portfolio on December 31, 1970 would have increased to $25,497,300 by December 31, 1983.” That’s a stunning return. It would have put you in elite company if you had been running a fund blindly following Oppenheimer’s methodology from the date of publication of the paper. Other papers examining the returns over different periods and in different markets written after Oppenheimer’s paper have found similar results (one of the papers is by Montier and I will be discussing it in some detail in the near future). The main criticism laid at the feet of the net net method is that it can only accommodate a small amount of capital. It is an individual investor or micro fund strategy. Simple strategies able to accommodate more capital are described in Lakonishok, Shleifer, and Vishny’s Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation and Risk. In that paper, the authors found substantial outperformance through the use of only one or two value-based variables, whether they be price-to-book, price-to earnings, price-to-cash flow or price-to-sales.

I believe these papers (and others I have discussed in the past) provide compelling evidence for quantitative value investing, but let me flip it around. Why not invest solely on the basis of some simple value-based variables? Because you think you can compound your portfolio faster by cherry-picking the better stocks on the screen? This despite what Montier says in Painting By Numbers about quant models representing “a ceiling in performance (from which we detract) rather than a floor (to which we can add)”? Bonne chance to you if that is the case, but you are one of the lucky few. The preponderance of data suggest that most investors will do better following a simple model.

Pure contrarian investing

By “pure” contrarian investing, I mean contrarian investing that is not value investing disguised as contrarian investing. LSV frame their Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation and Risk findings in the context of “contrarianism,” arguing that value strategies produce superior returns because most investors don’t fully appreciate the phenomenon of mean reversion, which leads them to extrapolate past performance too far into the future. LSV argues that investors can profit from the market’s (incorrect) assessment that stocks that have performed well in the past will perform well in the future and stocks that have performed poorly in the past will continue to perform poorly. If that is in fact the case, then contrarian strategies that don’t rely on value should also work. Can I simply buy some list of securities at a periodic low (52 weeks or whatever) and sell some list of securities at a periodic high (again, say 52 weeks) and expect to generate “good” (i.e. better than just hugging the index) returns? If not, it’s not contrarianism, but value that is the operative factor.

It is in this context that I want to explore Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “naive empiricist.” If contrarianism appears to work as a stand alone strategy, how do I know that I’m not mining the data? I also want to consider whether the various papers written about value investment discussed on Greenbackd and the experiences of Buffett, Schloss, Klarman et al “prove” that value works. Taleb would say they don’t.  How, then, do I proceed if I don’t know whether the phenomenon we’re observing is real or a trick? We try to build a portfolio able to withstand stresses, or changes in circumstance. How do we do that? The answer is some combination of employing Graham’s margin of safety, diversifying, avoiding debt and holding an attitude like Montaigne’s “Que sais-je?”‘ (“What do I know?”). It’s hardly radical stuff, but, what I believe is interesting, is how well such a sceptical and un-confident approach marries with quantitative investing.

Problems with the received wisdom on value investment

Within the value investment community there are some topics that are verboten. It seems that some thoughts were proscribed some time ago, and we are now no longer even allowed to consider them. I don’t want delve into them now, other than to say that I believe they deserve some further consideration. Some principles are timeless, others are prisoners of the moment, and it is often impossible to distinguish between the two. How can we proceed if we don’t subject all received wisdom to further consideration to determine which rules are sound, and which we can safely ignore? I don’t believe we can. I’ll therefore be subjecting those topics to analysis in any attempt to find those worth following. If I’m going to make an embarrassing mistake, I’m betting it’s under this heading.

There are several other related topics that I wish to consider, but they are tangential to the foregoing three.

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Welcome back to Greenbackd for 2010. I hope the holidays were as good to you as they were to me.

The break has afforded me the opportunity to gain some perspective on the direction of Greenbackd. Away from the regular posting schedule I found the time to write some Jerry McGuire The Things We Think and Do Not Say treatises, quickly consigning most of them to trash so that they couldn’t come back to haunt me at a later, more lucid and, perhaps, sober moment (I did say the holiday was good to me). Some (heavily edited) remnants of those rambling essays will filter through onto this site over the coming weeks. I’m charged up about several topics that I want to explore in some depth, which is a change from the net net ennui that was starting to creep in before the break.

The beauty of the Graham net net as a subject for investment is its simplicity. Conversely, that same characteristic makes it a poor subject for extended contemplation and writing. There is a limit to which the universe of Graham net nets, even those entwined in activist or special situations, can be subject to analysis before the returns to additional analysis diminish asymptotically to approaching zero. Note that in this context I don’t mean investment returns, but returns to the psyche, good feelings, the avoidance of boredom…in other words, the really important stuff. The investment returns in that area are good, but we all already know that to be the case. What am I contributing if I keep digging up undervalued net nets? Not much. Graham invented it. Oppenheimer proved it. Jon Heller writes about it better than anyone else. The rest of us are just regurgitating their work.

Really, this is old news. Greenbackd passed the point some time ago at which it was possible to hold off the tedium of net nets and evolved organically to embrace several related topics. I still love the activist dogfight for control or influence and I think a well-written 13D makes for excellent copy. I also still love finding blatantly misplaced securities, each one a little slash at the heart of the EMH. Greenbackd will continue to study individual securities and follow interesting activist situations, however, it will not be the sole focus of the site. For me, there are more interesting problems to tackle. My concern has been whether Greenbackd can contain the new topics or whether I’ll just annoy old Greenbackd readers with the new direction. My favorite blogger wrestled with same issue several years ago, and so I’m using her experience as a guide.

I think the smartest thinker and most lucid writer in the financial and political (in the broadest sense of the word) sphere is Marla Singer at Zero Hedge and occasionally Finem Respice (formerly Equity Private at Going Private). Marla, then writing as Equity Private, started out with a narrowly focussed blog about the “sardonic memoirs of a private equity professional,” but gradually expanded to cover only tangentially related topics like the role of government, economics, philosophy, literature, art, duelling, card sharping and cargo cults (the implications of which won’t be lost on most readers). For me, it was a thrilling departure, but Marla must have felt that Equity Private was too limited, and created Finem Respice before moving on to Zero Hedge. I was only too happy to follow, but I would have been equally happy for Equity Private to keep posting as Equity Private. (As an aside, I recommend following Marla at Zero Hedge. Her ability to tease out the hidden story from some granular detail in legislation or data is simply breathtaking and unmatched in the mainstream media.)

I’ll persist with Greenbackd because I like this boat, but it will be embarking for new shores. Pure net net investors are well served by other sites, so it’s probable that some readers will depart. This site will always be dedicated to deep value, but I want to find some uncharted territory. The voyage might not yield any new land, but I think it will be more fun than continuing to orienteer on Graham’s old maps. I have an inkling there is something interesting out there at the intersection of Montier, Montaigne, Taleb and Graham. Tomorrow, I’ll start to sketch out the new world. It also coincides with a personal change for me. Working in someone else’s fund has been enjoyable, but I feel it’s time to graduate to principal. I’m presently considering entering into an established partnership or starting my own fund. Whichever direction I go will likely have some influence on Greenbackd.

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I find it interesting to see which posts on Greenbackd attract the most attention and I thought you might too. To that end, here are the 10 most popular Greenbackd posts of 2009:

  1. The best unknown activist investment of 2009
  2. Seth Klarman on Liquidation Value
  3. Tweedy Browne updates What Has Worked In Investing
  4. Marty Whitman’s adjustments to Graham’s net net formula
  5. Walter Schloss, superinvestor
  6. Sub-liquidation value ten baggers
  7. VXGN gifted to OXGN; VXGN directors abandon shareholders, senses
  8. Valuing long-term and fixed assets
  9. Where in the world is Chapman Capital?
  10. Counterintuition

Why was The best unknown activist investment of 2009 the most popular post of 2009, attracting 5 times the traffic of the Seth Klarman on Liquidation Value post, which is number 2 on the list? Who knows? It seems you guys like stories about idiosyncratic investors who trade in odd securities found off the beaten track.

Here are four near misses:

  1. The end of value investing?
  2. Buffett on gold
  3. Marty Whitman discusses Graham’s net-net formula
  4. John Paulson and The Greatest Trade Ever

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It seems to me counterintuitive that book value should be useful as a value metric. Book value, after all, is a historical accounting measure of a company’s balance sheet. It has nothing to do with “intrinsic value,” which is the measure conceived by John Burr Williams in his 1938 treatise The Theory of Investment Value. Warren Buffett is a well-known proponent of “intrinsic value.” In his 1992 letter to shareholders he provided the following explication of the concept:

In The Theory of Investment Value, written over 50 years ago, John Burr Williams set forth the equation for value, which we condense here: The value of any stock, bond or business today is determined by the cash inflows and outflows – discounted at an appropriate interest rate – that can be expected to occur during the remaining life of the asset. Note that the formula is the same for stocks as for bonds. Even so, there is an important, and difficult to deal with, difference between the two: A bond has a coupon and maturity date that define future cash flows; but in the case of equities, the investment analyst must himself estimate the future “coupons.” Furthermore, the quality of management affects the bond coupon only rarely – chiefly when management is so inept or dishonest that payment of interest is suspended. In contrast, the ability of management can dramatically affect the equity “coupons.”

The investment shown by the discounted-flows-of-cash calculation to be the cheapest is the one that the investor should purchase – irrespective of whether the business grows or doesn’t, displays volatility or smoothness in its earnings, or carries a high price or low in relation to its current earnings and book value. Moreover, though the value equation has usually shown equities to be cheaper than bonds, that result is not inevitable: When bonds are calculated to be the more attractive investment, they should be bought.

Buffett’s explanation draws a sharp distinction between intrinsic value and book value – “The investment shown by the discounted-flows-of-cash calculation to be the cheapest is the one that the investor should purchase – irrespective of whether the business…carries a high price or low in relation to its…book value.” While Buffett’s statement may be true, that does not mean that book value is useless as a value metric. Far from it. As the various studies we have discussed recently demonstrate – Roger Ibbotson’s Decile Portfolios of the New York Stock Exchange, 1967 – 1984 (1986), Werner F.M. DeBondt and Richard H. Thaler’s Further Evidence on Investor Overreaction and Stock Market Seasonality (1987), Josef Lakonishok, Andrei Shleifer, and Robert Vishny Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation and Risk (1994) and The Brandes Institute’s Value vs Glamour: A Global Phenomenon (2008) – low price-to-book value stocks outperform higher priced stocks and the market in general. Why might that be so?

In Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation and Risk, Lakonishok, Shleifer, and Vishny frame their findings in the context of contrarianism, what I like to call the Ricky Roma style of investing:

I subscribe to the law of contrary public opinion. If everyone thinks one thing, then I say, “Bet the other way.”

The problem, as I see it, with low price-to-book investment is that the strategy always flashes a buy signal. When the market is getting very toppy, you can still find the cheapest decile, quintile, quartile, or whatever on a price-to-book basis to buy. That decile might not recede as much as the market in general, but I’d bet odds on that it will still recede. That might not be a problem if, in the aggregate, the price-to-book strategy is able to generate satisfactory long-term returns. A better strategy, however, would remove the opportunities to trade as the market gets expensive, forcing you to sit in cash. I believe this is why Piotroski’s F_SCORE and Graham’s Net Current Asset Value strategies perform so well. When the market gets expensive, those opportunities disappear.

The American Association of Individual Investors website offers various value and growth screens to its membership. Piotroski’s F_SCORE is one such screen. The AAII reports that, of the 56 screens it offers, the only screen that had positive results in 2008 was Piotroski’s F_SCORE (via Forbes):

Believe it or not, the five stocks that AAII bought using Piotroski’s strategy in 2008 gained 32.6% on average through the end of the year. The median performance for all of the AAII strategies last year? -41.7%.

It’s clearly an austere screening criteria if it only lets a handful of stocks get through when the market is high, and in this respect very similar to Graham’s Net Current Asset Value strategy. Right now it has one stock on its screen. That stock? Tune in next week for the full analysis. (I’m starting to sound like The Motley Fool).

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The phenomenal Zero Hedge has an article, Goldman Claims Momentum And Value Quant Strategies Now Overcrowded, Future Returns Negligible, discussing Goldman Sachs head of quantitative resources Robert Litterman’s view that  “strategies such as those which focus on price rises in cheaply-valued stocks…[have] become very crowded” since August 2007 and therefore unprofitable. The strategy to which Litterman refers is “HML” or “High Book-to-Price Minus Low Book-to-Price,” which is particularly interesting given our recent consideration of the merits of price-to-book value as an investment strategy and the various methods discussed in the academic literature for improving returns from a low P/B strategy. Litterman argues that only special situations and event-driven strategies that focus on mergers or restructuring provide opportunities for profit:

What we’re going to have to do to be successful is to be more dynamic and more opportunistic and focus especially on more proprietary forecasting signals … and exploit shorter-term opportunistic and event-driven types of phenomenon.

In a follow-up article, More On The Futility Of Groupthink Quant Strategies, And Why Momos Are Guaranteed To Lose Money Over Time, Zero Hedge provides a link to a Goldman Sachs Asset Management presentation, Maybe it really is different this time (.pdf via Zero Hedge), from the June 2009 Nomura Quantitative Investment Strategies Conference. The presentation supports Litterman’s view on the underperformance of HML since August 2007. Here’s the US:

Here’s a slide showing the ‘overcrowding” to which Litterman refers:

And its effect on the relative performance of large capitalization value to the full universe:

The returns get really ugly when transaction costs are factored into the equation:

A factor decay graph showing the decline in legacy portfolios relative to current portfolios, lower means and faster decay indicating crowding:

Goldman says that there are two possible responses to the underperformance, and characterizes each as either a “sticker” or an “adapter.” The distinction, according to Zero Hedge, is as follows:

The Stickers believe this is part of the normal volatility of such strategies

• Long-term perspective: results for HML (High Book-to-Price Minus Low Book-to-Price) and WML (Winners Minus Losers) not outside historical experience

• Investors who stick to their process will end up amply rewarded

The Adapters believe that quant crowding has fundamentally changed the nature of these factors

• Likely to be more volatile and offer lower returns going forward

• Need to adapt your process if you want to add value consistently in the future

In Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation, and Risk, Josef Lakonishok, Andrei Shleifer, and Robert Vishny argued that value strategies produce superior returns because most investors don’t fully appreciate the phenomenon of mean reversion, which leads them to extrapolate past performance too far into the future. Value strategies “exploit the suboptimal behavior of the typical investor” by behaving in a contrarian manner: selling stocks with high past growth as well as high expected future growth and buying stocks with low past growth and as well as low expected future growth. It makes sense that crowding would reduce the returns to a contrarian strategy. Lending further credence to Litterman and Goldman’s argument is the fact that the underperformance seems to be most pronounced in the large capitalization universe (see the “A closer look – value” slide) where the larger investors must fish. If you’re not forced by the size of your portfolio to invest in that universe it certainly makes sense to invest where contrarian returns are still available. Special situations like liquidations and event-driven investments like activist campaigns offer a place to hide if (and when) the market resumes the long bear.

My firm Acquirers Funds® helps you put the acquirer’s multiple into action. Click here to learn more about our deep value strategy.

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November 30, 2009 marked the end of Greenbackd’s fourth quarter and first year, and so it’s time again to report on the performance of the Greenbackd Portfolio and the positions in the portfolio, and outline the future direction of Greenbackd.com.

Fourth quarter 2009 performance of the Greenbackd Portfolio

The fourth quarter was another satisfactory quarter for the Greenbackd Portfolioup 14.3% on an absolute basis, which was 9.8% higher than the return on the S&P500 return over the same period. A large positive return for the period is great, but my celebration is tempered once again by the fact that the broader market also had a pretty solid quarter, up 7.4%. The total return for Greenbackd’s first year (assuming equal weighting in all quarters) is 136.8% against a return on the S&P500 of 34.2%, or an outperformance of 102.6% over the return in the S&P500.

It is still too early to determine how well Greenbackd’s strategy of investing in undervalued asset situations with a catalyst is performing, but I believe Greenbackd is heading in the right direction. Set out below is a list of all the stocks in the Greenbackd Portfolio and the absolute and relative performance of each from the close of the last trading day of the third quarter, September 1, 2009, to the close on the last trading day in the fourth quarter, November 30, 2009:

*Note the returns for SOAP and NSTR include special dividends paid. See below for further detail.

You may have noticed something odd about my presentation of performance. The S&P500 index rose by 7.4% in the fourth quarter (from 1020.62 to 1,095.63). Greenbackd’s +14.3% performance might suggest an outperformance over the S&P500 index of 6.9%, while I report outperformance of 9.8%. I calculate Greenbackd’s performance on a slightly different basis, recording the level of the S&P500 Index on the day each stock is added to the portfolio and then comparing the performance of each stock against the index for the same holding period. The Total Relative performance, therefore, is the average performance of each stock against the performance of the S&P500 index for the same periods. As we discussed above, the holding period for Greenbackd’s positions has been too short to provide any meaningful information about the likely performance of the strategy over the long term (2 to 5 years), but I believe that the strategy should outperform the market by a small margin.

Update on the holdings in the Greenbackd Portfolio

There are currently ten stocks in the Greenbackd Portfolio:

  1. TSRI (added November 12, 2009 @ $2.10)
  2. CNVR (added November 11, 2009 @ $0.221)
  3. NYER (added November 3, 2009 @ $1.75)
  4. ASPN (added October 1, 2009 @ $0.985)
  5. KDUS (added September 29, 2009 @ $1.51)
  6. COSN (added August 6, 2009 @ $1.75)
  7. FORD (added July 20, 2009 @ $1.44)
  8. DRAD (added March 9, 2009 @ $0.88)
  9. SOAP (added February 2, 2009 @ $2.50. Initial $3.75 dividend paid July 30)
  10. NSTR (added January 16, 2009 @ $1.91. Initial $2.06 dividend paid July 15)

Greenbackd’s investment philosophy and process

I started Greenbackd in an effort to extend my understanding of asset-based valuation described by Benjamin Graham in the 1934 Edition of Security Analysis. (You can see a summary of Graham’s approach here). Through some great discussion with Greenbackd’s readers, many of who work in the fund management industry as experienced analysts or even managing members of hedge funds, and by incorporating the observations of Marty Whitman (see Marty Whitman’s adjustments to Graham’s net net formula here) and Seth Klarman (the Seth Klarman series starts here), I have refined Greenbackd’s process. I believe that the analyses are now pretty robust and that has manifest itself in satisfactory performance.

Tweedy Browne provides compelling evidence for the asset-based valuation approach. In conjunction with a reader of Greenbackd I have now conducted my own study into the performance of sub-liquidation value stocks over the last 25 years. The paper has been submitted to a practitioner journal and will also appear on Greenbackd in the future.

The future of Greenbackd.com

Greenbackd is a labor of love. I try to create new content every weekday, and to get the stock analyses up just after midnight Eastern Standard Time, so that they’re available before the markets open the following day. Most of the stocks that are currently trading at a premium to the price at which I originally identified them traded for a period at a discount to the price at which I identified them. This means that there are plenty of opportunities to trade on the ideas (not that I suggest you do that without reading the disclosures and doing your own research). If you find the ideas here compelling and you get some value from them, you can support my efforts by making a donation via PayPal.

If you’re looking for net nets in the meantime, here are two good screens:

  1. GuruFocus has a Graham net net screen, with some great functionality ($249 per year)
  2. Graham Investor NCAV screen (Free)

I look forward to bringing you the best undervalued asset situations I can dig up in the next quarter and the next year.

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Happy Thanksgiving, Folks

See you Monday.

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I am absolutely thrilled that Greenbackd made The Reformed Broker’s superb Period Table of Finance Bloggers. I slept through most of my high school chemistry classes, but I think Greenbackd occupies the same esteemed place accorded to carbon on the periodic table of elements. Carbon’s got a bad rep at the moment, but that doesn’t bother me. Being a value investor, I know that “Many shall be restored that now are fallen and many shall fall that are now in honor.

Disclosure: Long Carbon (C).

Click to see a readable version (via The Reformed Broker):

Reformed Broker Periodic Table

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Distressed Debt Investing has today launched the Distressed Debt Investors Club, a “community of investors dedicated to sharing ideas and helping each other navigate the sometimes mine-filled path of the distressed debt world.”

Members are admitted on the strength of their application and the thought process evident in the investment idea. Only 250 members will be admitted. Hunter is taking applications for next few weeks and will then admit those accepted to the site at the same time to “allow each member to see other admitted applicant’s ideas and thus begin the process of idea generation and sharing.”

If, like me, deep value, liquidations and activism are your thang, I would encourage you to join. The ability to analyze and trade in the debt side of the ledger will markedly expand your investment universe. Buy up all the bonds and get control like old “Net Quick” Evans or just agitate like Icahn.

Here is the Distressed Debt Investors Club FAQ.

Further questions should be directed to hunter[at]distressed-debt-investing[dot]com.

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