If you’ve seen one financial crisis, you’ve seen one financial crisis

The title of this post is a quote from former Fed governor Kevin Warsh. It’s reminiscent of the line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that says happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

At the same time, our behavior is highly mimetic. Not only do we base most of our learning on imitation, but we are constantly searching for clues by comparing the current to the historic. I do this myself, literally all the time. 

When I’m looking at potential investments or trying to value stuff, I find myself searching for historical comparisons. When looking at XL Media, I immediately connected it with American Express and the famous Salad Oil Scandal. When I looked at CentralNic, I started drawing comparisons between the domain industry and cable industry in its early days.

Performing these mental model checks and looking for similar histories, is the default setting, in my experience. It seems to happen almost automatically. I need to force myself to not do it. It is in our nature. It’s a survival thing (see, I just looked for a comparable mental model and found evolutionary theory…).  

Peter Lynch: “I Love Volatility”

There is this great short clip on YouTube with the legendary former mutual fund manager Peter Lynch (of Magellan Funds). In the video, Lynch declares his love for volatility and explains how he approached it: 

Volatility will occur. The markets will continue to have these ups and downs. I think that is a great opportunity, if people can understand what they own. If they don’t understand what they own mutual funds. And keep adding to it. Basically, corporate profits have grown about 8% per year, historically. So corporate profits double every nine year. The stock market ought to double every nine years.

The operative phrase here is “if people can understand what they own”. We can also invert what Lynch is saying in the video and ask ourselves what value we can provide by understanding the assets that have a volatile price?  

The Social Value of Active Investing

There’s a fantastic podcast interview with Micheal Mauboussin on the Invest with the Best Podcast, where he talks about the value that active investors bring to the market. Mauboussin says the following: 

Now, one of the things we’ve talked about quite a bit is, is there a role for indexing? And the answer is, absolutely yes. And I think for many people, that’s a very sensible solution. But that does not mean that the active management industry can go away. It’s not going to go away, because there are two things that it does that are still really important. One is price discovery, and again, indexing benefits from that positive externality, I think we can never lose that.” 

Essentially the fees paid to active management subsidize the indexing industry. And the other is liquidity. And even in these environments, we see that index people don’t trade that much. And so we need liquidity if you have it. I think those are public goods, those are vital, and those will continue to play a role. So the debate should be, what percent of the assets should be active versus passive?” 

By this logic, you could also posit that as an active investor the best way for you to add value is to find areas where you can add value by pricing the securities in question (research, know-how, etc), especially in securities where (or time when) liquidity is scarce.

How to Invest like Warren Buffett?

If you are asking yourself this question, you are asking yourself the wrong question. At the very least, I would propose you implement a minor tweak to it: How would Warren Buffett be investing if he were in your shoes? 

The thing is that the investing style of Warren Buffett has changed immensely over time. That’s just because he is extremely smart and extremely adaptable. And you wouldn’t want to mimic Buffett’s investments today, for the simple reason that he is severely disadvantaged compared to yourself. 

If Buffett were in your shoes, he most definitely wouldn’t be looking at Berkshire Hathaway for copycat ideas. You see, one of the things that is not talked enough about, when people are discussing Buffett is that he has been extremely adaptable. 

There are assets worth a total of $788 billion on the Berkshire Hathaway balance sheet. If the company would want to deploy 1% of its assets base to one investment, that investment would have to be valued at $7.8 billion. By comparison, the smallest company in the S&P 500 index has a market cap of $1.5 billion.

Therefore, if Buffett wants to make an investment that actually moves the needle today, his universe of available investment opportunities is actually tiny. 

The Buffett Partnership

So, how did Buffett invest early in his career, when he was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond? This question brings you to the the Buffett Partnership, which Buffett managed from 1956 to 1969. When Buffett dissolved the Partnership in 1970, he kept his stake in Berkshire Hathaway, which the Partnership had had a controlling shareholder in. The rest is history, I guess.

First of all, during the Partnership years, Buffett invested in smaller, less liquid companies. Secondly, Buffett was a relatively concentrated investor, focusing on a few high conviction ideas. Nonetheless, this does not mean he didn’t try to diversify the Buffett Partnership Portfolio. The way he did it was not through quantity of exposure, but through the quality of exposure. 

By quality, I don’t mean that the stocks he chose were of higher quality than the stocks in the general market. But rather that he managed the stock portfolio by allocating its capital into three buckets that each had exposure to qualitatively different factors. 

The Three Arrows of Buffett’s Capital Allocation

His objective, as I understand it, was to be able to keep his options open and be flexible under different market conditions. For example, if the overall market went up, he would be able to allocate capital to the bucket of stocks that were not driven by the overall market, and vice versa if market sentiment was overly pessimistic. 

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is Buffett’s explanation of the three qualitative areas that he allocated capital to. The following is taken from the 1961 Buffet Partnership Letter Shareholders:


Our Method of Operation 

Our avenues of investment break down into three categories. These categories have different behavior characteristics, and the way our money is divided among them will have an important effect on our results, relative to the Dow in any given year. The actual percentage division among categories is to some degree planned, but to a great extent, accidental, based upon availability factors. 

The first section consists of generally undervalued securities (hereinafter called “generals”) where we have nothing to say about corporate policies and no timetable as to when the undervaluation may correct itself. Over the years, this has been our largest category of investment, and more money has been made here than in either of the other categories. We usually have fairly large positions (5% to 10% of our total assets) in each of five or six generals, with smaller positions in another ten or fifteen. 

Sometimes these work out very fast; many times they take years. It is difficult at the time of purchase to know any specific reason why they should appreciate in price. However, because of this lack of glamour or anything pending which might create immediate favorable market action, they are available at very cheap prices. A lot of value can be obtained for the price paid. This substantial excess of value creates a comfortable margin of safety in each transaction. This individual margin of safety, coupled with a diversity of commitments creates a most attractive package of safety and appreciation potential. Over the years our timing of purchases has been considerably better than our timing of sales. We do not go into these generals with the idea of getting the last nickel, but are usually quite content selling out at some intermediate level between our purchase price and what we regard as fair value to a private owner. 

The generals tend to behave market-wise very much in sympathy with the Dow. Just because something is cheap does not mean it is not going to go down. During abrupt downward movements in the market, this segment may very well go down percentage-wise just as much as the Dow. Over a period of years, I believe the generals will outperform the Dow, and during sharply advancing years like 1961, this is the section of our portfolio that turns in the best results. It is, of course, also the most vulnerable in a declining market. 

Our second category consists of “work-outs.” These are securities whose financial results depend on corporate action rather than supply and demand factors created by buyers and sellers of securities. In other words, they are securities with a timetable where we can predict, within reasonable error limits, when we will get how much and what might upset the applecart. Corporate events such as mergers, liquidations, reorganizations, spin-offs, etc., lead to work-outs. An important source in recent years has been sell-outs by oil producers to major integrated oil companies. 

This category will produce reasonably stable earnings from year to year, to a large extent irrespective of the course of the Dow. Obviously, if we operate throughout a year with a large portion of our portfolio in workouts, we will look extremely good if it turns out to be a declining year for the Dow or quite bad if it is a strongly advancing year. Over the years, work-outs have provided our second largest category. At any given time, we may be in ten to fifteen of these; some just beginning and others in the late stage of their development.

I believe in using borrowed money to offset a portion of our work-out portfolio since there is a high degree of safety in this category in terms of both eventual results and intermediate market behavior. Results, excluding the benefits derived from the use of borrowed money, usually fall in the 10% to 20% range. My self-imposed limit regarding borrowing is 25% of partnership net worth. Oftentimes we owe no money and when we do borrow, it is only as an offset against work-outs. 

The final category is “control” situations where we either control the company or take a very large position and attempt to influence policies of the company. Such operations should definitely be measured on the basis of several years. In a given year, they may produce nothing as it is usually to our advantage to have the stock be stagnant market-wise for a long period while we are acquiring it.

These situations, too, have relatively little in common with the behavior of the Dow. Sometimes, of course, we buy into a general with the thought in mind that it might develop into a control situation. If the price remains low enough for a long period, this might very well happen. If it moves up before we have a substantial percentage of the company’s stock, we sell at higher levels and complete a successful general operation. We are presently acquiring stock in what may turn out to be control situations several years hence.

Leverage + Arbitrage

I like reading books on business history and biographies of business people. One thing that I feel is often a common thread in there stories is that substantial wealth creation often seems to stem from some combination of leverage and arbitrage.

I’ll elaborate. Often, the initial businesses are created around some sort of arbitrage. The arbitrage might be that the entrepreneurs have some information or ideas that others don’t. But an arbitrage usually doesn’t sustain. Once the word is out the trade gets crowded, which in turn erodes the profitability.

Some arbitrage are more sustainable than others and cane be ridden for longer. And I suapect that there are plenty of business people out there that found powerful arbitrages to take advantage of and did so for a long time. The reason we never heard about them, is because they were constrained. They were not scalable. They couldn’t not be levered.

If you have an arbitrage, however, that is defensible and has the potential to be leverad to a larger scale, you have the components of substantial wealth creation.

Here are a few examples:

  • Sam Walton realized that by buying cheap and pricing low, he would create operating leverage, by maximizing inventory turns. He realized that the big stores would not go to smaller towns, an opportunity that he was able to arbitrage for a very long time.
  • Kirk Kerkorian built his initial wealth through a unique albeit limited arbitrage. After WWII, Kerkorian borrowed money to bid on surplus bombers which he picked up abroad and flew home. At the time, there was a shortage of jet fuel and Kerkorian was able to sell the remaining fuel in the bombers’ fuel tank. Selling the fuel raised enough money to repay the loans he had taken. He essentially got the planes for free.
  • Sam Zemurray made a fortune in the banana trade. In his early days, he took advantage of a brilliant arbitrage opportunity. When banana cargo came to New Orleans, bananas that were spotted were deemed unfit for the travel to metropolitan locations and were discarded at the port. Zemurray bought the ripe bananas very cheaply and sold them locally to grocers within a day of New Orleans. To get the bananas to grocers fast, he leveraged the train system.

The Joys of Compounding

On January 18, in 1963, a 32 year old Warren Buffett sent his annual letter to the limited partners of the Buffett Partnerships. The compound annul return for the limited partners that had been there from the start, five years ago, the return was 21.1%. The cumulative return for limited partners over the five years was 215.1%.

Gross of the management fees that he took as the general partner, Warren Buffett had compounded capital at 26% per year. In the letter, Buffett wanted to better educate his partners of the powers of compounding. In a section that he called “The Joy of Compounding”, he writes the following:

I have it from unreliable sources that the cost of the voyage Isabella originally underwrote for Columbus was approximately $30,000. This has been considered at least a moderately successful utilization of venture capital. Without attempting to evaluate the psychic income derived from finding a new hemisphere, it must be pointed out that even had squatter’s rights prevailed, the whole deal was not exactly another IBM. Figured very roughly, the $30,000 invested at 4% compounded annually would have amounted to something like $2,000,000,000,000 (that’s $2 trillion for those of you who are not government statisticians) by 1962. Historical apologists for the Indians of Manhattan may find refuge in similar calculations. Such fanciful geometric progressions illustrate the value of either living a long time, or compounding your money at a decent rate. I have nothing particularly helpful to say on the former point.

The following table indicates the compounded value of $100,000 at 5%, 10% and 15% for 10, 20 and 30 years. It is always startling to see how relatively small differences in rates add up to very significant sums over a period of years. That is why, even though we are shooting for more, we feel that a few percentage points advantage over the Dow is a very worthwhile achievement. It can mean a lot of dollars over a decade or two.

– Warren Buffett, 1963 Letter to Partners

Here’s the accompanying table:

Compounded Value of $100,000 at different rates and durations
Compounded Value of $100,000 at different rates and durations

All of Warren Buffett’s annual letters to partners are a treasure trove for any aspiring investor. You can find a compendium of the Buffett Partnership Letters over at CSInvesting.org.

3 Great Finance Films Available on YouTube

If you are a finance nut, chances are you already know this. But for the rest of you, I’ll let you in on a little secret: On YouTube – free to view – are three great full-length feature films about finance. And not just some random finance stuff. These are Hollywood quality movies about historic evens in finance.

Here you go:

The Last Days of Lehman Brothers

Written by Craig Warner and directed by Michael Samuels, The Last Days of Lehman Brothers is a British television film, first broadcast on BBC Two and BBC HD on Wednesday 9 September 2009.

A fictional character by the name of Zach narrates the story of how the collapse of Lehman Brothers unfolded and set the financial collapse of 2008 in motion. The film features a sloth of notable character, such Henk Paulson, Dick Fuld, Jamie Dimon and many more.

Barbarians at the Gate (1993)

Barbarians at the Gate is a 1993 television movie based upon the book by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, about one of the most famous leveraged buyout (LBO) in history. The 1988 buyout of RJR Nabisco.

In this one, you’ll see notable personas such as F. Ross Johnsson, Henry Kravis, George Roberts, Jim Robinson and Peter Cohen. Well written and entertaining account of a crazy era in the history of finance.

Rogue Trader (1999)

Rogue Trader tells the amazing story of Nick Leeson, an ambitious investment broker who singlehandedly bankrupted one of the oldest and most important banks in Britain, the Bearings Bank. It’s a well-executed film, starring Ewan McGregor as Nick Leeson.

Read more on How to Value Stuff