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…

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.

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.

What is Inflation Anyway?

I feel like we have made inflation deceptively simple. We have this exact number for it. The Bureau of Statistics will declare something like “last month, the inflation was 2.46%, annually adjusted.” It will do so with an number that is so precise that at will have at least two decimals, implying the surgical accuracy employed to get to that particular number.

We don’t seem to ask ourselves how we come up with these number, do we?

Do We Even Know What Inflation Is?

The great Milton Friedman did not have even a shadow of a doubt: “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” Well, here is what the equally great Robert Solow said about Milton Friedman: “Another difference between Milton [Friedman] and myself is that everything reminds Milton of the money supply. Well, everything reminds me of sex, but I keep it out of my papers.”

In Japan they have been expanding the money supply for decades. They can’t seem to produce inflation, no matter how hard they try. If we ask the European Central Bank what inflation is, they say something like “inflation occurs when there is a general rise in prices.” (They will also ask if you have seen the inflation monster and offer you to watch a cartoon about price stability).

If inflation is just general rise in prices, then why do prices rise or fall? Most would say, because changes in supply and demand. Don’t prices of products and services tend to drop over time? How do we even measure this?

How to Measure Inflation?

This seams to me an exceptionally tricky undertaking. If inflation is supposed to measure changes in the price of the stuff we buy over a period of time, what happens when we start buying different stuff over time? Our behaviors and preferences are constantly changing? Imagine a lab scientist that has to test his experiment on rats one day and then repeat the experiments with hamsters.

Do you see the problem here? The stuff we buy is not constant. Take mobile phones for example. How can you realistically measure the inflation in mobile phones from one year to another? Or even, how do you compare the price inflation of mobile phones to a period 20 years ago, when there were no mobile phones?

What about all the stuff we don’t pay for yet derive some benefit from? How do you factor in the change in cost of consuming Google searches into any inflation measurement? Should you measure the increase and decrease in paid ads displayed with organic searches? 

And there there are substitute products. If pork rises in value, relative to beef, you might be inclined to consume more beef and less pork. But the baskets of goods and services will take that into account.

So next time, when you see an inflation number with a couple of decimal points. Ask yourself how it was measured and how accurate that measurement could be.

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. 

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.

How to Value Your Job

The worst career advice that you get from people is when they say stuff like “you need to take control of your career, you need make sure you get what is coming to you, no one is going to care about you the way you do, so you need to make sure you fight for all of this stuff”, etc, etc. Those are all terrible advises. 

Your job, whatever your job is, is to add value to your employer. It is not your job to try to extract value from your employer and try to get as much of it into your pocket. Rather, your job is to add as much value as you can for the employer and then you can capture some of that value. 

Contrary to what most people think, being underpaid is a very powerful position to be in. Because, if you are adding more value than you are costing then it means also means that you are a very valuable employee. And if your employer is rational, you are going to be treated well.

Nobody has ever gotten fired for creating too much value for their employer. And nobody keeps a job very long if they are getting paid more than they are worth. 

This text was adapted from a podcast interview with legendary investor Bill Miller on Master in Business. The whole podcast is well worth the listen

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.

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.

How to Value a Brand?

The intriguing thing about brands is that they are mostly intangible. You generally won’t find the brand value of a company on its balance sheet. As an example, the $90 billion that Coca-Cola has spent on advertising in its history has no value that is shown on Coca-Cola’s balance sheet. Nonetheless, the brand value clearly is there. The market value of Coca-Cola’s common stock is ten times that of the stated book value of the equity. 

So how do we value a brand? The problem with a task like trying to value a brand is that there will always be some form of circular logic in this kind of exercise.

Is Coca-Cola such a strong business because it is built around such a strong brand, or is Coca-Cola such a strong brand because it is built around such a strong business? 

Where is the boundary where the value from the business model stops and value add from the brand begins? Is it even possible to separate those two things from each other? Brands are contextual. If you could buy the brand out of Coca-Cola, Inc and pivot it to sell Coca-Cola branded furniture, value would most definitely be destroyed. 

Brand Valuation Frameworks

As it turns out, ISO – the International Organization of Standards – has formulated a standard on Brand Valuation. You can even find an old version of the standard online.

Interbrand we the first company to get a certification for standard ISO 10668, the standard for Brand Valuation. Interbrand publishes an annual list of the most valuable brands in the world. You can read more about the Interbrand brand valuation methodology here.

Brand Valuation Resources

Something more to add? Let us know in the comments section!