What’s obvious is obviously priced in…

The title of this post is a quote from a famous bond investor Jeffrey Gundlach. Gundlach is the manager of DoubleLine Capital, a huge bond fund, which has earned him the nickname the Bond King. 

It is clear to me that information that is obvious, should be priced into the market price of a public asset. This is logical. But if you abide by this logic, you should also agree with the statement that everything that is not obvious, is not priced in. 

By this logic, you would also have to assume that, unless every possible event is inherently obvious to market participants, the price of a public security is inevitably always wrong, since it does not account for the obvious. 

In the same vein, being a contrarian is a valuable stance, but only if there is an non-obvious truth that the market isn’t accounting for. Successful contrarians, try to approach the world from a different perspective. But they only act on it when they feel they have discovered an under appreciated possibility. 

The key is that thinking contrarian is a process, being contrarian is an action. You don’t always think contrarian, but only sometimes be contrarian.

The Efficient Market Paradox

Two economists are walking down a street, discussing the Efficient Market Hypothesis, when one of them suddenly stops in his tracks. He points to the street and says “look, there’s a $10 bill!”

The other economist looks at him with a mixture of amazement and disgust as he replies in a reprimanding tone: “Obviously, if there was a $10 bill there, someone would have already picked it up.”

What this joke illustrates is the inherent paradox of the Efficient Market Hypothesis. For markets to be efficient, they are active participants. For participants to be active in a market, there needs to be an arbitrage. In a perfectly efficient market, the arbitrage is competent away by the activity of the participants. 

The Markets are Mostly Efficient

No market is perfectly efficient. New information is constantly entering the collective perception of the market. Once information becomes obvious, it will obviously be priced in, when markets are efficient. 

WIth the internet and other technological advancement in data gathering, analytics and distribution, markets have undoubtedly become more efficient. In the early value investing days of Warren Buffett, he would read through Standard and Poor’s manuals, making mental calculations of stock’s intrinsic valuation. Nowadays, this information is readily available and calculated, practically in real time. 

In a podcast interview on the Invest with the Best Podcast, Michael Mauboussin, presented a fascinating statistic:  

I think that one of my other favorite statistics in the paper is that in 1976, there were less than 1 CFA charter holder, for every public company in the United States, and today there are 27 CFA charter holders for every public company in the United States. So a lot more eyeballs on the companies that are out there. And maybe there is clearly more dispersion in smaller midcap companies. But look, the world is just a super dynamic place. You see these value changes are quite dramatic. You think about 2020 and hardly anybody had any idea what was going to go on. It was really hard.

Degrees of Market Efficiency

It goes without saying that there are different degrees of efficiency. When you invest in big S&P 500 stocks such as Apple, Amazon or Netflix, you should be aware that there are hundreds of analysts that cover those stocks. You have to ask yourself what kind of an edge you have over those market participants. 

At the same time, there are plenty of markets and asset classes that are less efficient. There are many publicly traded stocks that don’t have a single analyst covering them. Outside of the stock markets there are all sorts of asset classes and markets where an individual can develop expertise and investment edge. Internet domains, for example, is an asset class that has a very vibrant secondary market and dedicated investors. 

There are plenty of $10 bills out there, waiting to be picked up.

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.

If God was the Only Active Investor

In active investing the investor aims to outperform an index. In passive investing the investor aims to match or track the performance of an index. 

Now imagine if God was the only active investor in a theoretical market. 

God is all knowing, so he knows all the future cash flows of all the investments available in the market. Since he is the only active investor and all other investors mimic him, all the investments in the market will be priced based on their discounted future cash flows. As such, all the investments will have exactly the same expected return. 

There are two fundamental problems with this thought exercise:

  • If God knows the future cash flows, then he’s not taking any risk. If God isn’t taking any risk, what discount factor should God use? The rate of inflation? 
  • If God is the only active investor, then who is he buying from? If God is the only investor that sets prices and all other investors are trying to mimic his returns, then all the other investors would want to buy when God buys and sell when God sells. Does this mean that no orders will be matched?

The Primacy of the Income Account

Have you ever listened to an earnings conference call or read a transcript from one of those calls? If you have, you will know that these calls usually have a question and answer session following the prepared remarks, In the Q&A sessions, sell-side analysts that cover these stocks can ask management about anything that is on their mind. 

I remember when I started following conference calls, how weird I thought the questions posed were. To me, the questions were unusually specific. It wasn’t until I realized what a sell-side analyst does, that the questions started to make sense. The analysts are simply trying to fish for inputs into their valuation models. They build these models, primarily by using discounted cash flow analysis, to come up with price targets for the stocks that they employed to cover. 

The Problem with DCF-Analysis

When you build a Discounted Cash Flow Model, you need to make a bunch of assumptions. By how much will the company grow its revenues in the next few years? How much capital expenditure will it require to maintain that growth? What is the cost of capital? Etc, etc, etc. 

DCF models can be very useful and it is imperative for business analysts to understand the possibilities as well as limitations of a DCF analysis. DCF analysis is useful when cash flows are stable and relatively predictable. DCF analysis gets difficult to use if the companies that are being analysed have extremely high growth rates or if they create value by other means than by consuming cash to generate earnings. 

Capital Allocation and Balance Sheets

The late Marty Whitman, a legendary value investor, often talked about the Primacy of the Income Account. In his opinion, analysts and other investors where too preoccupied with the income statement and earnings of companies. As a result, the wealth creation that happen through the balance sheet was often overlooked. 

I heard a great example of this the other day. I don’t remember which podcast it was, but the interviewee gave the following example:

Imagine if you had run a discounted cash flow analysis of Berkshire Hathaway shortly after Warren Buffett took over as CEO. You would have totally missed the point, since Buffett created value through capital allocation and by utilizing the balance sheet. 

A normal DCF model would nerver have captured this.

The Implied Meaning of a Market Cap

Apple is worth $2,000,000,000,000. That is a lot of money” said Anthony Pompliano on Twitter the other day. Dave Collum promptly corrected him: “priced at.” This is a very important and warranted distinction. We talk about the market capitalizations of companies all the time, but less often we think about what it actually implies. 

For Every Buyer there is a Seller

The current price of a publicly traded stock is the most recent point where the most willing seller and most eager buyer matched. So when Apple stocks ended a trading day at $498, the last buyer and seller that were matched were willing to do business for that price. For someone to buy, someone also has to sell. 

But the market price only gives us some information about the marginal sellers and buyers. One an average day, somewhere between 100 to 200 million shares of Apple stock will change hands. That’s a lot of shares. On particularly busy days, this will exceed 300 million. On a slow day, however, as little as 50 million shares will change hands. But Apple has 4.35 billion shares outstanding. So, even on the most hectic days, less than 7% of the outstanding shares will change hands.

The 7% figures is likely deceptive as high frequency trading and other forms of day trading and market making might overstate the fact that the majority of stockholders will not sell on a given day. 

Therefore, the market cap and stock price of a company will tell you where it is priced at by the market. it won’t tell you where the stock is valued at by the market.

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.

Covid-19 and Corporate Darwinism

On August 10, 2020, small company in Columbus, Ohio issued a press release announcing its second quarter financial results. There is nothing particularly special about that. Core Molding Technologies, a so-called dark company that trades over the counter, does this every quarter.

In this particular press release, the company disclosed to the world, just like any other public company on the planet, how it was being affected by the Corona-virus Pandemic. So, nothing particularly special about that either.

But what came next was, to me at least, something that caught my attention. The quote, which comes from David Duvall, President and Chief Executive Officer of Core Molding Technologies says “When customers reopened in June and revenues rebounded, to approximately 85% of first quarter’s average monthly revenues, we recorded our highest monthly operating profit of the past five years. It is a clear statement that we have created a stronger company and more resilient organization.”

The underline was added by me.

Darwin’s theory was that the fittest survive. Not the strongest, but the fittest. The fittest for its particular environment. And when the environment changes drastically, the fittest are the ones with the most adaptability.

Every company on this planet has been desperately trying to adapt fast to a new reality. In their struggle to survive, they try to eliminate any excess in their being. Some will go extinct, many will survive.

In many cases, the survivors will have similar things to report as Core Molding. They will be leaner. They will be meaner. And their streamlined costs structures will make them more profitable.

Universal Basic Income and Inflation

Imagine if the government would decide that everybody would receive a monthly check of $4,000 as a Universal Basic Income. Now imagine that you are in need of a good plumber. How much do you think the plumber will charge:

  • Less than before UBI.
  • Same as before UBI.
  • More than before UBI.

If you think that the plumber will charge less than he did before UBI, you are probably overestimating the compassionate nature of plumbers. If you think a plumber would charge the same as before, you are assuming that plumber will disregard the effect of extra monthly $4,000 to their life.

My assumption would be that most plumbers are not plumbers of passion. Rather, they entered into plumbing because it paid well. The reason it pays well is because nobody aspires to be a plumber. But there is a price where the occupation of plumbing attracts enough of people to satisfy the need for plumbing.

My guess would be that many people would of alternative uses of their times when presented with Universal Basic Income. But the jobs aspire to leave behind would still need be done…just at another price.