Value and Growth are Joined at the Hip

Most people think Warren Buffett is a value investor but if you want to go into the particulars, one could argue that he is primarily a fundamental investor. Buffett famously said that growth and value are joined at the hip. Both are areas of fundamental analysis.

One could also argue that many business owners would not easily understand the question if you would ask if they focus more on growth or value in their capital allocations. Business owners simply allocate capital to the projects with the highest expected IRR, irrespective of any category you might want to fit it into. 

Personally, I really like the framework put forth by the late Marty Whitman. In his opinion, there are are 5 main areas of fundamental finance: 

  1. Value Investing (limited to minority positions in public co’s) 
  2. Distress Investing
  3. Control Investing
  4. Credit Analysis
  5. First and Second Stage Venture Capital Investments

Warren Buffett, as an example, has been active in all of those categories, either directly or indirectly. Henry Singleton, as well, is someone you could not classify as a value investor specifically. He just went where he thought the highest IRR was at any given time.

Why is Chuck Royce such a Good Investor?

The title of this post is a question posed by Tobias Carlisle to his guest Micheal Green of the Logica Fund, on his The Acquirers Podcast. Micheal’s answer to this question was pretty interesting, to say the least, and beautifully formulates the investment framework of Chuck Royce and the Royce Funds.

Michael Green: “First of all, Chuck has just an incredible mind and an incredible awareness of the embedded optionality in securities. And so, his philosophy as it relates to securities selection at Royce [Funds] was that he focused on small cap stocks, but he required that they have very low levels of leverage. And the reason why he did that…I think he intuitively knew this but I don’t think certainly he was explicitly modelling it in the same way I would be forced to do.

When he recognized this, that they had option-like characteristics, right, owning a portfolio that has small cap names in it is the greatest potential to exhibit that lottery-like winner capability. And he was very agnostic between value and growth from that standpoint. Always looking for that option-like characteristic. But his simple rule was that the company couldn’t have enough leverage that would lead to aggregation or a shortening of that option duration.

So he was effectively trying to pick infinitely lived option-like assets. And he just did it extraordinary well. I mean, he had seen so many management teams and he had seen so much. I met him in 2003 for the first time and he had been running Penn Mutual Fund which was the core of the Royce universe. Which he acquired for $1 in 1974. People forget how bad things got.

There is maybe a little bit of this feeling in the active manager community today. But he was able to buy Penn Mutual Fund for $1 dollar. Because the owner, it had assets, and it had a bit of a track record. But the owner was incapable of paying directors salaries, registration fees etc. So he bought it for a dollar and then it proceeded to lose money for some time as he paid directors and others. But it turned into this extraordinary vehicle on the back of his talent. 

Tobias Carlisle: My interpretation of the Royce firm is that they seem to have a holding in every single stock I ever look at. A tiny holding. 

Michael Green: So, I think that’s true. I think that is again a reflection of Chuck’s philosophy that each of his securities represents this option like characteristics. A typical portfolio of Royce would have somewhere in the neighborhood of 160 to 300 stocks. There would be multiple portfolios.

Portfolios would typically be launched in a new fund when we thought it was a peak of a market. Which sounds counter-intuitive. Until you realize that what this actually means is that you have launched a vehicle that has an excess of cash in an environment of high valuations. And so as the markets sell off, that cash creates actually an out-performance characteristic.

So when the next cycle emerges, not only did you have cash to deploy at more attractive valuations, but you benefited from the cash component. And I mean, that type of insight. And again, I highly doubt that Chuck modeled it, but he just knew it intuitively. And that’s part of what I referred to with my respect to Chuck. I think he is probably the single finest investor I have encountered.

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…).  

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.

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.

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.

Largest S&P 500 Single Day Drop

One of the things that has preoccupied my mind lately are the underlying differences in approach between active investing and passive investing.

Imagine the two following hypothetical money managers: One of them is an active investor. He performs bottom-up fundamental research of companies, trying to determine their “intrinsic value”.

The other investor is passive. He uses quantitative analysis in order to find factors would have lead to out performance compared to a specific benchmark (these strategies are called “smart-beta” as they are passive in nature, but still aim to outperform the benchmark).

Analytical vs Statistical Approaches

For lack of better terminology, lets say that the active investor has an analytical approach, while the passive investor has a statistical approach.

The active investor is focused on the future cash flows of the company. He is tries to understand the business model of the company he is analyzing how the company creates value. He might try to study historical transaction multiples or how similar public compare in terms of valuation ratios. But primarily, the fundamental investor is trying to analyse future events.

The quantitative investor, however, is looking at a universe of stocks. He mines datasets to find a relationship between factors and performance. He designs different strategies and uses backtesting to see how these strategies would have performed.

The Limits of History

But what is data? Data is history.

Consider the following: Suppose you ask the investors about the largest single day drop in the S&P 500. The quant tells you that the largest single daily drop of the S&P 500 occurred on October 19, 1987, when the index fell by 20.47%.

The fundamental investor, however, tells you that the largest single day drop hasn’t happened yet.

Strawman & Steelman Valuations

A strawman argument is a frequently used tactic in rhetoric and oratory debate. It’s used in business, in politics and Twitter arguments alike. It’s simple and effective. You basically pick an argument of your opponent and rephrase it in a way that makes it easy to refute. Strawman arguments are not real arguments. They don’t even have to be true. 

Peter Thiel argues that for decision making, you should really steelman your opponents arguments. If you try to find the strongest and most compelling reasons for your opponents stand, it allows you to improve your side of the argument or even discover flaws in your own reasoning. 

The same should apply to valuation. You should always try to steelman the potential risk factors that you apply to your investment thesis.