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.

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.

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.

The Entrepreneur vs The Investor

In this speech by Peter Thiel, he says the following when talking about how to detect patterns when trying to recognizing entrepreneurs as a venture capitalist: 

“You always want to invest in the ones where they speak in definite future tense. You sometimes have to be careful they’re not totally crazy people, but that’s the sort of person you want to invest in. You do not want to invest in people who are talking too much about probabilities or risks or things like that because my experience has been that the people who think they’re involved in some sort of lottery ticket-like dynamic are already setting themselves up to already somehow get the probabilities wrong and invariably lose.”

“There is a similar version of this that I experience as an investor in these ventures. There’s always this very tricky question of the role of luck and chance in these things working. There certainly is this external truth perspective that there is a certain amount of luck that is built into the nature of the universe and you try to model it. You try to account for it. You try to get the probabilities right, as you assess these things. So, when people say that luck is involved, this is a statement about the deep nature of our universe.”

“And then there is this sort of internal truth version. Whenever we have thought that it is a matter of work. Psychologically I can say that this has often been a very bad sign. Where you say, “well, we don’t know if this is going to work. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. So, let’s just invest a slightly smaller amount for our lack of knowledge.”  And as a pattern, I would say, those are investments that have generally gone very badly wrong.”

“If I had to sort of explain why. When you think you are multiplying a small probability by a big payoff, you sort of psycho yourself into playing the lottery and you psych yourself into losing. Because you somehow are being sloppy and not doing that much work.” 

I think these thoughts do a great job of highlighting the inherent differences between entrepreneurs and investors. The entrepreneurs Peter looks for speak of the future through a deterministic mindset. They have a clear sense of the future and how they are going to shape it. Peter himself, on the other hand, as a venture capitalist does not invest his all his funds in one company. In his role he needs to have a more probabilistic mindset, even though he bets big once he has a high conviction on particular investments. 

The World According to…

The EntrepreneurThe Investor
Deterministic mindsetProbabilistic mindset
Risk is endogenic Risk is exogenic
AnalyticalStatistical
Concentration Diversification
High ConvictionRisk Management
Entrepreneurs vs Investors: Different Characteristics

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.

The Net Benefits of Gaming

Is the video game industry a net benefit or a cost to society? Does it do more harm than good? If you were to perform a cost-benefit analysis of the video game industry you would go about trying to quantify the economic benefits (job creation, research and development, etc) against the societal costs (addition, power consumption, etc).

From a qualitative perspective, I would image that the effect of the video game industry on societies would be somewhat similar to wars. Wars have a huge cost to society. They take up huge resources both in terms of labor and capital but more importantly is the destruction of human lives and the irreparable damage it can leave on its participants.

Wolfenstein 3D" Graphics Compared to "Wolfenstein: The New Order ...
Castle Wolfenstein (1981) vs Wolfenstein: New Order (2019)

At the same time, wars have been known to accelerate the advancement of certain technologies and scientific discovery. Often, these advancements will have applications far beyond than just some wartime utility.

In the same vain, there are undoubtedly victims of the video gaming industry. Games are hyper-optimized to reward the user of playing and video game addiction is well recorded academically. Countless hours are spent daily on video games, that could otherwise have been deployed to more productive uses.

Yet, the video game industry is also a hotbed for technological advancement. There are countless examples of technologies that were originally developed for the gaming industry, which subsequently found application elsewhere. Slack – a public company with a $16 billion market capitalization as I write this – was originally developed as an internal chap application for a gaming company.


Cost-Benefit Analysis of the South Korean Digital Game Industry

In this cost-benefit analysis of the South Korean Gaming Industry, the researchers attempted to estimate the economic costs and benefits of the digital game industry. Addiction to digital games induces economic costs such as increase in crime, facilities investments for curbing addiction, increase in counselling costs and other welfare losses. The digital game industry in South Korea which is known to have one of the highest rates of game addiction.

The annual cost of game addiction is estimated to be approximately $3.5B while the annual benefit is approximately $24.3B ($3.7B for addicted user market). The proportion of the total costs to total benefits from the game industry is an alarming 14% (95% for addicted user market).


Should Companies be Philanthropic?

On August 10, 2020, GAMCO Investors proudly announced via a press release a “Shareholder Designated Charitable Contribution” of $7 million. The contribution was equal to $0.25 per GAMCO share, a 25% increase since the year before. According to the program, a registered shareholders in GAMCO Investors would be able to communicate which charitable organization they wanted to donate their pro rate allocation to.

Donating to charities is undoubtedly a noble act, but you might ask your way on earth a company is donating on behalf of its shareholders. GAMCO’s particular program is modeled after a similar program that Berkshire Hathaway implemented from 1981 to 2003.

In a letter to shareholders in 1981, Warren Buffett explained the rationale behind Berkshire Hathaway’s Charitable Giving Program: “In a widely-held corporation the executives ordinarily arrange all charitable donations, with no input at all from shareholders […] A common result is the use of the stockholder’s money to implement the charitable inclinations of the corporate manager, who usually is heavily influenced by specific social pressures on him. Frequently there is an added incongruity; many corporate managers deplore governmental allocation of the taxpayer’s dollar but embrace enthusiastically their own allocation of the shareholder’s dollar.

I can certainly agree with the view, that owners should have a say in deciding how the charitable giving of a company should be allocated. The giving should not be seen as a perk for management. I can also see the light in the tax efficiency of having the philanthropy happen inside of the company than post-dividend.

But at the same time – and this particular case is illustrative of this – I can’t help to think that in certain situations, programs like this will cause more aggravation than goodwill among shareholders.

You see, had you bought GAMCO Investors stock in August 2015, each share would have cost you about $32. Five years later, the GAMCO’s share value is around $13. GAMCO’s earnings per share for the last twelve months was $2.25. This implies, that GAMCO is devoting about 10% of the companies operating profits to charity.

The company gives more to charity than it pays its shareholders in dividend.

I can’t help to think of that story of Karl Marx’s wife saying to him that perhaps he should have spent less time in thinking about how to divide Das Kapital and more to thinking about how to earn Das Kapital…