Sunday, July 20, 2008

Book Review-"Even Buffett Isn't Perfect"

I am a complete sucker for investment books. My wife accuses me of owning several thousand books that have essentially the same title, usually some variant of Value Investing, valuation, or intrinsic value, or securities analysis. Of course, I have every Buffett or Munger book known to man as well as everything about or by Benjamin Graham. By the way, speaking of Graham, my good friend Geoff Gannon is putting together a series which will review Securities Analysis chapter by chapter. For those who are serious value investing students, I suspect that you will enjoy Geoff's always thorough and thoughtful posts.

Vahan Janjigian, a fellow CFA, is executive director of Forbes Investment Advisory Institute and publishes a number of newsletters with Forbes. He also has a blog and serves on the investment committee of a large RIA.

Dr. Janjigian's book gingerly attempts to criticize some of Buffett's mistaken investments and controversial points of view. I think the book is more successful with the latter than the former.

Janjigian admires Buffett's discipline and capital allocation methodologies. He admires Buffett's ability to manage executive talent. His last sentence in the book summarizes his viewpoint,"Based on the evidence, it is certainly fair to conclude that WB is one of the greatest investors-if not the greatest investor-of all time."

So where are Buffett's mistakes? Janjigian criticizes Buffett's views on taxation, especially those on estate taxes. I agree with Janjigian that there is an irony if not an artificiality or phoniness about urging the continuity of high estate taxes and concomitantly avoiding the situation through setting up trusts and foundations Evidence of avoiding income taxes is evident throughout Berkshire's life...the company and Buffett have always used the IRS Tax Code to their advantage. There is clearly nothing wrong with that but similarly. it is somewhat disingenuous to urge higher taxes after a career of avoiding them.

Like any investor, Buffett has made some mistakes. This is not a game of perfect, but rather one where investors should attempt to understand the downside risks in making an investment. The outcomes can be highly uncertain...the future always is hazy and usually, initial assumptions are plain wrong, either on the optimistic or the pessimistic side of expectations.

Janjigian addresses the Buffett diversification versus concentration question. "Buffett believes that if you can't invest enough money to have some say in how the company's capital is to be deployed, you are better off diversifying your portfolio." This is simply not true. Most Buffetteers and wannabes certainly attempt to focus their portfolios. WB does not say not to fact, for the average investor who is not inclined to do sufficient due diligence, diversification is a salvation. For many professional portfolios, the great bulk of the portfolio is indexed. But in cases where one has specialized knowledge or skills, satellite investments outside the cord index are made and should add performance. Diversification is a protection against ignorance. If one is able to do due diligence, and select successful businesses at reasonable valuations, diversification will not serve you other than to reduce volatility and an unfortunate corollary, reduce returns.

VJ does a decent job in discussing attributes of diversification in a non-mathematical approach to statistical correlation. This is one of the strongest elements in this book.

Much of the rest of the book is in my view, completely obvious. "Buffett buys stocks cheap, not cheap stocks." "Successful investors must be able to distinguish between great companies and great stocks." VJ has an amazing grasp of the obvious and adds little insight into valuation of growth stocks. There are far better sources than this book for this element.

VJ addresses the fact that value works over the long run but growth or rather momentum can work over the short run. Buffett never trashes growth but views it as a partner in helping undervalued stocks recover when growth becomes temporarily disrupted. Other than Buffett's famous comments about lemmings, he has never discussed momentum investing per se, at least to my knowledge.

VJ makes some dangerous statements about PIPE stocks indicating that WB has been successful in buying special issue "Private Investment in Public Equity" holdings such as Salomon Brothers or US Air. True, these had special terms that a large buyer can extract but it is misleading to believe that what some brokers present as PIPEs will offer the average investor better returns. Most PIPE offerings are made in very small cap, highly risky businesses. VJ does suggest that the best access to such investments is through a hedge fund or through Berkie itself.

VJ makes the point that "Unless you have access to Buffett-like resources, it is better to think of yourself as a stock buyer than a business buyer." The argument that managements will rarely listen to outside advice is humbling for both institutional and retail investors. However, retail investors and small institutional investors can be very successful in motivating and organizing larger investors to add pressure to a board. The principle of thinking long term as an owner of a business rather than a punter of stocks is an important part of any real value investor's credo. I have known many managers who "played" stocks rather than owned businesses and who were looking for trends rather than valuation rationales for stocks. They are assuredly not value managers. I have had investee company managements who have indicated that I should just sell the stock if I didn't like what they are doing. Again, these are managements who just don't get "it." If the business has a strong moat that is not being defended, get rid of the management but hang onto the business. VJ's advice is ill-conceived at best in this topic.

Swinging for the fat pitch is WB's approach. WB does not suffer from analysis paralysis and VJ believes that some of WB's recent deals have had inadequate due diligence. Sometimes the obvious should not take very long!

WB readily admits to being "dead wrong." Salomon was a mistake that took an extraordinary amount of work to escape. Gen Re was much worse with poor judgment on WB's part re underwriting discipline and the derivatives book of GenRe securities. NetJets capital intensity does not seem to fit the usual Buffett textbook. Pier One had no moat. Mistkaes all. VJ actually misses the most egregious errors that I recall, namely Dexter Shoe which gave away 1.6% of BRK or about $3.5 Billion in value for what is now a tiny fragment of H.H. Brown Shoe Group, another BRK sub. Dexter, Buffett calls his worst mistake. VJ doesn't even address this. There have been others. WB was the largest investor in Handy and Harman, the silver processor and refiner. Unfortunately, it was also an auto parts supplier and metal bender. Buffett's endless fascination with silver attracted him to H&H. H&H ultimately merged into WHX, which went chapter 11 in 2003. Berky had escaped H&H many years before this ignominious end.

VJ dislikes WB's views about corporate governance. It is incorrect to say that Buffett opposes employee stock options. It was the accounting for them that he faulted as well as the low hurdles that most company's managements clear to get them. In many cases, the only requirement for managements to achieve is respiration, and there are even cases where compensation continues into the after-life! There is nothing misleading about WB issuing options in subsidiary companies with clear performance mandates versus his public statements about employee stock options issuance.

The composition of WB's board has been controversial in the past. No it certainly was not independent historically with Warren and Charlie, Susan and Howard Buffett; Malcolm Chace, Walter Scott were old business cronies; Ron Olson was a partner in Munger's old firm. But VJ missed the most obvious point, Buffett for most of the time that he was involved in BRK owned over half the stock. It was absolutely iron clad clear that management's interests were aligned with shareholders. Unlike most public corporations, management owned most of the stock. The role of the board is not to protect minority shareholder interests but rather to ensure that shareholders' interests are protected. This point is missed by VJ.

Bottom-line, if you are looking for advice to imitate WB's investment style, this is not the best source. If you are looking for a comprehensive list of WB's mistakes in judgment, this is incomplete. If you are looking for views on taxation contra to those of WB, read Steve Forbes rather than VJ's book.

The key takeaways after each chapter provide an excellent summary of each chapter. The final chapter, "Conclusion" successfully highlights the important points.

Dr. Janjigian has attempted to provide an antidote to the usual glorious heaping of praise that most Buffett books (and CNBC coverage) provide. The reality is that nobody walks on water (or parts the sea depending on your point of view.) Even great investors frankly screw up royally. But the incidence in the case of Buffett is remarkably low, the damage is a scratch or fender bender rather than a complete wreck. Should all of us be so fortunate, or disciplined!!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

John Templeton- The Triumph of Optimism

Sir John Templeton passed away yesterday. He died, much as he spent his life, peacefully.Geoff Gannon (and it is great to have him back in the blogosphere) has an extensive list of articles outlining Templeton's life as well as a list of his books. John Bethel of Controlled Greed also has a good post on Templeton, with reminiscences about Templeton's appearance on Wall Street Week immediately following the October 1987 crash.

Templeton's life was one of great inner reflection and his original sale of Templeton, Dobbrow and Vance was motivated partially by his resolve to never let himself get so busy in managing clients that he ran out of time to think, not only about investments, but also about the larger world, especially spiritual matters and religion. His investment career became focused on just one thing, a small Canadian domiciled mutual fund that Piedmont Management, the buyer of the rest of his firm had declined. So at age 56, Templeton started his career with a clean slate and a single client, the mutual fund.

I believe there is a valuable lesson in Templeton's life, the importance of keeping your perspective. The distance from his home at Lyford Cay to the floor of any global stock exchange was measured in psychological light years, not unlike the distance from Buffett's Kiewit Plaza office to those exchanges.John Train, in his book Money Masters describes this as "a silent reproach to excitement and hyperactivity."

One of the best books about Templeton's investment approach is,at least in my opinion, The Templeton Touch by William Proctor, published in 1983.In it, he highlights twenty-two maxims that Templeton said were his enabling principles. Let me highlight them:

  1. For all long-term investors, there is only one objective-"maximum total real return after taxes."
  2. Achieving a good record takes much study and work, and is a lot harder than most people think.
  3. It is impossible to produce a superior performance unless you do something different from the majority.
  4. The time of maximum pessimism is the best time to buy, and the time of maximum optimism is the best time to sell.
  5. To put "Maxim 4" in somewhat different terms, in the stock market the only way to get a bargain is to buy what most investors are selling.
  6. To buy when others are despondently selling and to sell what others are greedily buying requires the greatest fortitude, even while offering the greatest reward.
  7. Bear markets have always been temporary. Share prices turn upward from one to twelve months before the bottom of the business cycle.
  8. If a particular industry or type of security becomes popular with investors, that popularity will always prove temporary and, when lost, won't return for many years.
  9. In the long run, the stock market indexes fluctuate around the long-term upward trend of earnings per share.
  10. In free-enter[rise nations, the earnings on stock market indexes fluctuate around the book value of the shares of the index.
  11. If you buy the same securities as other people, you will have the same results as other people.
  12. The time to buy a stock is when the short-term owners have finished their selling, and the time to sell a stock is often when the short-term owners have finished their buying.
  13. Share prices fluctuate more widely than values. Therefore, index funds will never produce the best total return performance.
  14. Too many investors focus on "outlook" and "trend." Therefore, more profit is made by focusing on value.
  15. If you search worldwide,you will find more bargains and better bargains than by studying only one nation. Also, you gain the safety of diversification.
  16. The fluctuation of share prices is roughly proportional to the square root of the price.
  17. The time to sell an asset is when you have found a much better bargain to replace it.
  18. When any method for selecting stocks becomes popular, then switch to unpopular methods. As has been suggested in "Maxim 3," too many investors can spoil any share-selection method or any market-timing formula.
  19. Never adopt permanently any type of asset, or any selection method. Try to stay flexible, open-minded, and skeptical. Long-term top results are achieved only by changing from popular to unpopular the types of securities you favor and your methods of selection.
  20. The skill factor in selection is largest for the common-stock part of your investments.
  21. The best performance is produced by a person, not a committee.
  22. If you begin with prayer, you can think more clearly and make fewer stupid mistakes.
Templeton was never afraid to maintain cash reserves when he got edgy about market opportunities, though he always said he had little ability to time markets. He was a pioneer in international investing, as much at home in Japanese and Canadian exchanges as he was in American exchanges. His funds frequently had positions in small, less familiar names.Basically, it came down to this:

"Search among many markets for the companies selling for the smallest fraction of their true worth."

He was always ware of socialism and regulation, which he viewed as disguised expropriation...entanglements that inhibit business and destroy the investor's incentive.

Like Buffett, he greatly feared the impact of inflation on his investments and sough beneficiaries of inflation, companies that possessed the ability to pass through cost increases.

A confident optimistic outlook and a willingness to not follow the crowd over the cliff with momentum stocks served his clientele very well.

And hopefully, following such discipline will continue to serve all of us well. I am grateful for the contribution he made to to world.

May he rest in peace.

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