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Archive for the ‘Net Quick Value’ Category

This is an oldie, but a goodie (via CNN). The travails of buying net nets, as told by the master’s apprentice:

Warren Buffett says Berkshire Hathaway is the “dumbest” stock he ever bought.

He calls his 1964 decision to buy the textile company a $200 billion dollar blunder, sparked by a spiteful urge to retaliate against the CEO who tried to “chisel” Buffett out of an eighth of a point on a tender deal.

Buffett tells the story in response to a question from CNBC’s Becky Quick for a Squawk Box series on the biggest self-admitted mistakes by some of the world’s most successful investors.

Buffett tells Becky that his holding company (presumably with a different name) would be “worth twice as much as it is now” — another $200 billion — if he had bought a good insurance company instead of dumping so much money into the dying textile business.

Here’s his story:

BUFFETT:  The— the dumbest stock I ever bought— was— drum roll here— Berkshire Hathaway.  And— that may require a bit of explanation.  It was early in— 1962, and I was running a small partnership, about seven million.  They call it a hedge fund now.

And here was this cheap stock, cheap by working capital standards or so.  But it was a stock in a— in a textile company that had been going downhill for years.  So it was a huge company originally, and they kept closing one mill after another.  And every time they would close a mill, they would— take the proceeds and they would buy in their stock.  And I figured they were gonna close, they only had a few mills left, but that they would close another one.  I’d buy the stock.  I’d tender it to them and make a small profit.

So I started buying the stock.  And in 1964, we had quite a bit of stock.  And I went back and visited the management,  Mr. (Seabury) Stanton.  And he looked at me and he said, ‘Mr. Buffett.  We’ve just sold some mills.  We got some excess money.  We’re gonna have a tender offer.  And at what price will you tender your stock?’

And I said, ‘11.50.’  And he said, ‘Do you promise me that you’ll tender it 11.50?’  And I said, ‘Mr. Stanton, you have my word that if you do it here in the near future, that I will sell my stock to— at 11.50.’  I went back to Omaha.  And a few weeks later, I opened the mail—

BECKY:  Oh, you have this?

BUFFETT:   And here it is:  a tender offer from Berkshire Hathaway— that’s from 1964.  And if you look carefully, you’ll see the price is—

BECKY:  11 and—

BUFFETT:   —11 and three-eighths.  He chiseled me for an eighth.  And if that letter had come through with 11 and a half, I would have tendered my stock.  But this made me mad.  So I went out and started buying the stock, and I bought control of the company, and fired Mr. Stanton.  (LAUGHTER)

Now, that sounds like a great little morality table— tale at this point.  But the truth is I had now committed a major amount of money to a terrible business.  And Berkshire Hathaway became the base for everything pretty much that I’ve done since.  So in 1967, when a good insurance company came along, I bought it for Berkshire Hathaway.  I really should— should have bought it for a new entity.

Because Berkshire Hathaway was carrying this anchor, all these textile assets.  So initially, it was all textile assets that weren’t any good.  And then, gradually, we built more things on to it.  But always, we were carrying this anchor.  And for 20 years, I fought the textile business before I gave up.  As instead of putting that money into the textile business originally, we just started out with the insurance company, Berkshire would be worth twice as much as it is now.  So—

BECKY:  Twice as much?

BUFFETT:  Yeah.  This is $200 billion.  You can— you can figure that— comes about.  Because the genius here thought he could run a textile business. (LAUGHTER)

BECKY:  Why $200 billion?

BUFFETT:  Well, because if you look at taking that same money that I put into the textile business and just putting it into the insurance business, and starting from there, we would have had a company that— because all of this money was a drag.  I mean, we had to— a net worth of $20 million.  And Berkshire Hathaway was earning nothing, year after year after year after year.  And— so there you have it, the story of— a $200 billion— incidentally, if you come back in ten years, I may have one that’s even worse.  (LAUGHTER)

Hat tip SD and David Lau.

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Recently I’ve been discussing Michael Mauboussin’s December 2007 Mauboussin on Strategy, “Death, Taxes, and Reversion to the Mean; ROIC Patterns: Luck, Persistence, and What to Do About It,” (.pdf) about Mauboussin’s research on the tendency of return on invested capital (ROIC) to revert to the mean (See Part 1 and Part 2).

Mauboussin’s report has significant implications for modelling in general, and also several insights that are particularly useful to Graham net net investors. These implications are as follows:

  • Models are often too optimistic and don’t take into account the “large and robust reference class” about ROIC performance. Mauboussin says:

We know a small subset of companies generate persistently attractive ROICs—levels that cannot be attributed solely to chance—but we are not clear about the underlying causal factors. Our sense is most models assume financial performance that is unduly favorable given the forces of chance and competition.

  • Models often contain errors due to “hidden assumptions.” Mauboussin has identified errors in two distinct areas:

First, analysts frequently project growth, driven by sales and operating profit margins, independent of the investment needs necessary to support that growth. As a result, both incremental and aggregate ROICs are too high. A simple way to check for this error is to add an ROIC line to the model. An appreciation of the degree of serial correlations in ROICs provides perspective on how much ROICs are likely to improve or deteriorate.

The second error is with the continuing, or terminal, value in a discounted cash flow (DCF) model. The continuing value component of a DCF captures the firm’s value for the time beyond the explicit forecast period. Common estimates for continuing value include multiples (often of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization—EBITDA) and growth in perpetuity. In both cases, unpacking the underlying assumptions shows impossibly high future ROICs. 23

  • Models often underestimate the difficulty in sustaining high growth and returns. Few companies sustain rapid growth rates, and predicting which companies will succeed in doing so is very challenging:

Exhibit 12 illustrates this point. The distribution on the left is the actual 10-year sales growth rate for a large sample of companies with base year revenues of $500 million, which has a mean of about six percent. The distribution on the right is the three-year earnings forecast, which has a 13 percent mean and no negative growth rates. While earnings growth does tend to exceed sales growth by a modest amount over time, these expected growth rates are vastly higher than what is likely to appear. Further, as we saw earlier, there is greater persistence in sales growth rates than in earnings growth rates.

  • Models should be constructed “probabilistically.”

One powerful benefit to the outside view is guidance on how to think about probabilities. The data in Exhibit 5 offer an excellent starting point by showing where companies in each of the ROIC quintiles end up. At the extremes, for instance, we can see it is rare for really bad companies to become really good, or for great companies to plunge to the depths, over a decade.

For me, the following Exhibit is the most important chart of the entire paper. It’s Mauboussin’s visualization of the probabilities. He writes:

Assume you randomly draw a company from the highest ROIC quintile in 1997, where the median ROIC less cost of capital spread is in excess of 20 percent. Where will that company end up in a decade? Exhibit 13 shows the picture: while a handful of companies earn higher economic profit spreads in the future, the center of the distribution shifts closer to zero spreads, with a small group slipping to negative.

  • Crucial for net net investors is the need to understand the chances of a turnaround. Mauboussin says the chances are extremely low:

Investors often perceive companies generating subpar ROICs as attractive because of the prospects for unpriced improvements. The challenge to this strategy comes on two fronts. First, research shows low-performing companies get higher premiums than average-performing companies, suggesting the market anticipates change for the better. 24 Second, companies don’t often sustain recoveries.

Defining a sustained recovery as three years of above-cost-of-capital returns following two years of below-cost returns, Credit Suisse research found that only about 30 percent of the sample population was able to engineer a recovery. Roughly one-quarter of the companies produced a non-sustained recovery, and the balance—just under half of the population—either saw no turnaround or disappeared. Exhibit 14 shows these results for nearly 1,200 companies in the technology and retail sectors.


Mauboussin concludes with the important point that the objective of active investors is to “find mispriced securities or situations where the expectations implied by the stock price don’t accurately reflect the fundamental outlook:”

A company with great fundamental performance may earn a market rate of return if the stock price already reflects the fundamentals. You don’t get paid for picking winners; you get paid for unearthing mispricings. Failure to distinguish between fundamentals and expectations is common in the investment business.

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Yesterday I ran a post on Dr. Michael Burry, the value investor who was one of the first, if not the first, to figure out how to short sub-prime mortgage bonds in his fund, Scion Capital. In The Big Short, Michael Lewis discusses Burry’s entry into value investing:

Late one night in November 1996, while on a cardiology rotation at Saint Thomas Hospital, in Nashville, Tennessee, he logged on to a hospital computer and went to a message board called techstocks.com. There he created a thread called “value investing.” Having read everything there was to read about investing, he decided to learn a bit more about “investing in the real world.” A mania for Internet stocks gripped the market. A site for the Silicon Valley investor, circa 1996, was not a natural home for a sober-minded value investor. Still, many came, all with opinions. A few people grumbled about the very idea of a doctor having anything useful to say about investments, but over time he came to dominate the discussion. Dr. Mike Burry—as he always signed himself—sensed that other people on the thread were taking his advice and making money with it.

Michael Burry’s blog, http://www.valuestocks.net, seems to be lost to the sands of time, but Burry’s techstocks.com “Value Investing” thread (now Silicon Investor) still exists. The original post in the thread hints at the content to come:

Started: 11/16/1996 11:01:00 PM

Ok, how about a value investing thread?

What we are looking for are value plays. Obscene value plays. In the Graham tradition.

This week’s Barron’s lists a tech stock named Premenos, which trades at 9 and has 5 1/2 bucks in cash. The business is valued at 3 1/2, and it has a lot of potential. Interesting.

We want to stay away from the obscenely high PE’s and look at net working capital models, etc. Schooling in the art of fundamental analysis is also appropriate here.

Good luck to all. Hope this thread survives.

Mike

Hat tip Toby.

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Jon Heller of the superb Cheap Stocks, one of the inspirations for this site, has published the results of his two year net net index experiment in Winding Down The Cheap Stocks 21 Net Net Index; Outperforms Russell Microcap by 1371 bps, S&P 500 by 2537 bps.

The “CS 21 Net/Net Index” was “the first index designed to track net/net performance.” It was a simply constructed, capitalization-weighted index comprising the 21 largest net nets by market capitalization at inception on February 15, 2008. Jon had a few other restrictions on inclusion in the index, described in his introductory post:

  • Market Cap is below net current asset value, defined as: Current Assets – Current Liabilities – all other long term liabilities (including preferred stock, and minority interest where applicable)
  • Stock Price above $1.00 per share
  • Companies have an operating business; acquisition companies were excluded
  • Minimum average 100 day volume of at least 5000 shares (light we know, but welcome to the wonderful world of net/nets)
  • Index constituents were selected by market cap. The index is comprised of the “largest” companies meeting the above criteria.

The Index is naïve in construction in that:

  • It will be rebalanced annually, and companies no longer meeting the net/net criteria will remain in the index until annual rebalancing.
  • Only bankruptcies, de-listings, or acquisitions will result in replacement
  • Does not discriminate by industry weighting—some industries may have heavy weights.

If a company was acquired, it was not replaced and the proceeds were simply held in cash. Further, stocks were not replaced if they ceased being net nets.

Says Jon of the CS 21 Net/Net Index performance:

This was simply an experiment in order to see how net/nets at a given time would perform over the subsequent two years.

The results are in, and while it was not what we’d originally hoped for, it does lend credence to the long-held notion that net/nets can outperform the broader markets.

The Cheap Stocks 21 Net Net Index finished the two year period relatively flat, gaining 5.1%. During the same period, The Russell Microcap Index was down 8.61%, while the Russell Microcap Index was down 9.9%. During the same period, the S&P 500 was down 20.27%.

Here are the components, including the weightings and returns of each:

Adaptec Inc (ADPT)
Weight: 18.72%
Computer Systems
+7.86%
Audiovox Corp (VOXX)
Weight: 12.20%
Electronics
-29.28%
Trans World Entertainment (TWMC)
Weight:7.58%
Retail-Music and Video
-69.55%
Finish Line Inc (FINL)
Weight:6.30%
Retail-Apparel
+350.83%
Nu Horizons Electronics (NUHC)
Weight:5.76%
Electronics Wholesale
-25.09%
Richardson Electronics (RELL)
Weight:5.09%
Electronics Wholesale
+43.27%
Pomeroy IT Solutions (PMRY)
Weight:4.61%
Acquired
-3.8%
Ditech Networks (DITC)
Weight:4.31%
Communication Equip
-56.67%
Parlux Fragrances (PARL)
Weight:3.92%
Personal Products
-51.39%
InFocus Corp (INFS)
Weight:3.81%
Computer Peripherals
Acquired
Renovis Inc (RNVS)
Weight:3.80%
Biotech
Acquired
Leadis Technology Inc (LDIS)
Weight:3.47%
Semiconductor-Integrated Circuits
-92.05%
Replidyne Inc (RDYN) became Cardiovascular Systems (CSII)
Weight:3.31%
Biotech
[Edit: +126.36%]
Tandy Brands Accessories Inc (TBAC)
Weight:2.94%
Apparel, Footwear, Accessories
-57.79%
FSI International Inc (FSII)
Weight:2.87%
Semiconductor Equip
+66.47%
Anadys Pharmaceuticals Inc (ANDS)
Weight:2.49%
Biotech
+43.75%
MediciNova Inc (MNOV)
Weight:2.33%
Biotech
+100%
Emerson Radio Corp (MSN)
Weight:1.71%
Electronics
+118.19%
Handleman Co (HDL)
Weight:1.66%
Music- Wholesale
-88.67%
Chromcraft Revington Inc (CRC)
Weight:1.62%
Furniture
-54.58%
Charles & Colvard Ltd (CTHR)
Weight:1.50%
Jewel Wholesale
-7.41%

Cash Weight: 8.58%

Jon is putting together a new net net index, which I’ll follow if he releases it into the wild.

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Jae Jun at Old School Value has updated his great post back-testing the performance of net current asset value (NCAV) against “net net working capital” (NNWC) by refining the back-test (see NCAV NNWC Backtest Refined). His new back-test increases the rebalancing period to 6 months from 4 weeks, excludes companies with daily volume below 30,000 shares, and introduces the 66% margin of safety to the NCAV stocks (I wasn’t aware that this was missing from yesterday’s back-test, and would explain why the performance of the NCAV stocks was so poor).

Jae Jun’s original back-test compared the performance of NCAV and NNWC stocks over the last three years. He calculated NNWC by discounting the current asset value of stocks in line with Graham’s liquidation value discounts, but excludes the “Fixed and miscellaneous assets” included by Graham. Here’s Jae Jun’s NNWC formula:

NNWC = Cash + (0.75 x Accounts receivables) + (0.5 x  Inventory)

Here’s Graham’s suggested discounts (extracted from Chapter XLIII of Security Analysis: The Classic 1934 Edition “Significance of the Current Asset Value”):

As I noted yesterday, excluding the “Fixed and miscellaneous assets” from the liquidating value calculation makes for an exceptionally austere valuation.

Jae Jun has refined his screening criteria as follows:

  • Volume is greater than 30k
  • NCAV margin of safety included
  • Slippage increased to 1%
  • Rebalance frequency changed to 6 months
  • Test period remains at 3 years

Here are Jae Jun’s back-test results with the new criteria:

For the period 2001 to 2004

For the period 2004 to 2007

For the period 2007 to 2010


It’s an impressive analysis by Jae Jun. Dividing the return into three periods is very helpful. While the returns overall are excellent, there were some serious smash-ups along the way, particularly the February 2007 to March 2009 period. As Klarman and Taleb have both discussed, it demonstrates that your starting date as an investor makes a big difference to your impression of the markets or whatever theory you use to invest. Compare, for example, the experiences of two different NCAV investors, one starting in February 2003 and the second starting in February 2007. The 2003 investor was up 500% in the first year, and had a good claim to possessing some investment genius. The 2007 investor was feeling very ill in March 2009, down around 75% and considering a career in truck driving. Both were following the same strategy, and so really had no basis for either conclusion. I doubt that thought consoles the trucker.

Jae Jun’s Old School Value NNWC NCAV Screen is available here (it’s free).

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Jae Jun at Old School Value has a great post, NCAV NNWC Screen Strategy Backtest, comparing the performance of net current asset value stocks (NCAV) and “net net working capital” (NNWC) stocks over the last three years. To arrive at NNWC, Jae Jun discounts the current asset value of stocks in line with Graham’s liquidation value discounts, but excludes the “Fixed and miscellaneous assets” included by Graham. Here’s Jae Jun’s NNWC formula:

NNWC = Cash + (0.75 x Accounts receivables) + (0.5 x  Inventory)

Here’s Graham’s suggested discounts (extracted from Chapter XLIII of Security Analysis: The Classic 1934 Edition “Significance of the Current Asset Value”):

Excluding the “Fixed and miscellaneous assets” from the NNWC calculation provides an austere valuation indeed (it makes Graham look like a pie-eyed optimist, which is saying something). The good news is that Jae Jun’s NNWC methodology seems to have performed exceptionally well over the period analyzed.

Jae Jun’s back-test methodology was to create two concentrated portfolios, one of 15 stocks and the other of 10 stocks. He rolled the positions on a four-weekly basis, which may be difficult to do in practice (as Aswath Damodaran pointed out yesterday, many a slip twixt cup and the lip renders a promising back-tested strategy useless in the real world). Here’s the performance of the 15 stock portfolio:

“NNWC Incr.” is “NNWC Increasing,” which Jae Jun describes as follows:

NNWC is positive and the latest NNWC has increased compared to the previous quarter. In this screen, NNWC doesn’t have to be less than current market price. Since the requirement is that NNWC is greater than 0, most large caps automatically fail to make the cut due to the large quantity of intangibles, goodwill and total debt.

Both the NNWC and NNWC Increasing portfolios delivered exceptional returns, up 228% and 183% respectively, while the S&P500 was off 26%. The performance of the NCAV portfolio was a surprise, eeking out just a 5% gain over the period, which is nothing to write home about, but still significantly better than the S&P500.

The 10 stock portfolio’s returns are simply astonishing:

Jae Jun writes:

An original $100 would have become

  • NCAV: $103
  • NNWC: $544
  • NNWC Incr: $503
  • S&P500: $74

That’s a gain of over 400% for NNWC stocks!

Amazing stuff. It would be interesting to see a full academic study on the performance of NNWC stocks, perhaps with holding periods in line with Oppenheimer’s Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Values: A Performance Update for comparison. You can see Jae Jun’s Old School Value NNWC NCAV Screen here (it’s free). He’s also provided a list of the top 10 NNWC stocks and top 10 stocks with increasing NNWC in the NCAV NNWC Screen Strategy Backtest post.

Buy my book The Acquirer’s Multiple: How the Billionaire Contrarians of Deep Value Beat the Market from on Kindlepaperback, and Audible.

Here’s your book for the fall if you’re on global Wall Street. Tobias Carlisle has hit a home run deep over left field. It’s an incredibly smart, dense, 213 pages on how to not lose money in the market. It’s your Autumn smart read. –Tom Keene, Bloomberg’s Editor-At-Large, Bloomberg Surveillance, September 9, 2014.

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Regular readers of Greenbackd know that I’m no fan of “the narrative,” which is the story an investor concocts to explain the various pieces of data the investor gathers about a potential investment. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently as I grapple with the merits of an investment in Japanese net current asset value stocks. The two arguments for and against investing in such opportunities are as follows:

Fer it: Net current asset value stocks have performed remarkably well throughout the investing world and over time. In support of this argument I cite generally Graham’s experience, Oppenheimer’s Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Values: A Performance Update paper, Testing Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Value Strategy in London, a paper from the business school of the University of Salford in the UK, and, more specifically, Bildersee, Cheh and Zutshi’s The performance of Japanese common stocks in relation to their net current asset values, James Montier’s Graham’’s net-nets: outdated or outstanding?, and Dylan Grice’s Are Japanese equities worth more dead than alive.

Agin it: Japan is a special case because it has weak shareholder rights and a culture that regards corporations as “social institutions with a duty to provide stable employment and consider the needs of employees and the community at large, not just shareholders.” In support of this argument I cite the recent experiences of activist investors in Japan, and Bildersee, Cheh and Zutshi’s The performance of Japanese common stocks in relation to their net current asset values (yes, it supports both sides of the argument). Further, the prospects for Japan’s economy are poor due to its large government debt and ageing population.

How to break the deadlock? Montier provides a roadmap in his excellent Behavioural Investing:

We appear to use stories to help us reach decisions. In the ‘rational’ view of the world we observe the evidence, we then weigh the evidence, and finally we come to our decision. Of course, in the rational view we all collect the evidence in a well-behaved unbiased fashion. … Usually we are prone to only look for the information that happens to agree with us (confirmatory bias), etc.

However, the real world of behaviour is a long way from the rational viewpoint, and not just in the realm of information gathering. The second stage of the rational decision is weighing the evidence. However, as the diagram below shows, a more commonly encountered approach is to construct a narrative to explain the evidence that has been gathered (the story model of thinking).

Hastie and Pennington (2000) are the leading advocates of the story view (also known as explanation-based decision-making). The central hypothesis of the explanation-based view is that the decision maker constructs a summary story of the evidence and then uses this story, rather than the original raw evidence, to make their final decision.

All too often investors are sucked into plausible sounding story. Indeed, underlying some of the most noted bubbles in history are kernels of truth.

As to the last point, arguably, the converse is also true. Investors have missed some great returns because the ugly stories about companies or markets were so compelling.

There are several points that are not contentious about an investment in Japan. The data suggests to me and to everyone else that there are a large number of net current asset value bargains available there. The contention is whether these net current asset value stocks will perform as they have in other countries, or whether they are destined to remain net current asset value bargains, the classic “value traps.” My own penchant for value investing, and quantitative value investing in particular, makes this a reasonably simple matter to resolve. I am going to invest in Japanese net current asset value stocks. Here are the bases for my reasoning:

  • I believe that value investing works. I believe that this is the case because it appeals to me as a matter of logic. I also believe that the data supports this position (see Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Values: A Performance Update or Lakonishok, Shleifer, and Vishny’s Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation and Risk). Where a stock trades at a significant discount to its value, I am going to take a position.
  • I believe that Graham’s net current asset value works. In support of this proposition I cite the papers listed in the “Fer it” argument above.
  • I believe that simple quantitative models consistently outperform expert judgements. In support of this proposition generally I cite James Montier’s Painting By Numbers: An Ode To Quant. Where the data looks favorable to me, I am going to take a position, and I’m going to ignore the qualitative factors.
  • I believe that value is a good predictor of returns at a market level. In support I cite the Dimson, Marsh and Staunton research. I am not dissuaded from investing in a country simply because its growth prospects are low. Value is the signal predictor of returns.

The arguments militating against investing in Japan sound to me like the arguments militating against any investment in a NCAV stock, which is to say that they are arguments rooted in the narrative. I’ve never taken a position in a NCAV stock that had a good story attached to it. They have always looked ugly from an earnings or narrative perspective (otherwise, they’d be trading at a higher price). As far as I can tell, this situation is no different, other than the fact that it is in a different country and the country has economic problems (which I would ignore in the usual case anyway). While the research specific to NCAV stocks in Japan is not as compelling as I would like it to be, I always bear in mind the lessons of Taleb’s “naive empiricist,” which is to say that the data are useful only up to a point.

This is not to say that I have any great conviction about Japan or Japanese net current asset value stocks. Far from it. I fully expect, as I always do when taking a position in any stock, to be wrong and have the situation follow the narrative. Fortunately, the decision is out of my hands. I’m going to follow my simple quantitative model – the Graham net current asset value strategy – and take some positions in Japanese net nets. The rest is for the goddess Fortuna.

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