Saturday, April 29, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Howard Marks: Markets Richly Valued but You Don't Have a Choice

Howard Marks gave his opinion on the markets and I thought it succinctly captured the current state quite nicely. His area of expertise is the credit market but given how stocks and bonds are all at high valuations, the views are applicable across the whole investment universe in my opinion.

He basically says the market is richly valued but does not think it is overvalued or in a bubble. He thinks high-yield spreads--this is the spread between junk bonds and treasuries--needs to be smaller for it to be a bubble, at least in bonds.

I also like how he thinks about the market and talks about how it is what it is and you don't get to pick how you want it to be. He states the market can be highly valued, fairly valued, or undervalued and right now it is highly valued--but you don't really pick how it is.

If you are a professional investor or money manager, you kind of have to be invested in something so it comes down to earning the best out of the various possibilities. It will be difficult to earn high returns and investors will be reluctant to give money to managers (maybe that's one reason passive indexing is taking off?).

The current situation poses a bigger dilemma for small investors (who have more discretion on where and when to invest) and those nearing retirement (who can't afford to lose money; even if markdowns are temporary, they don't have enough time to "make it back"). It's kind of scary to be investing right now because you are basically locking in low future long-term returns. And if you tried going for higher returns, there is high likelihood you are reaching into lower quality securities and possibly increasing risk.

I see numerous amateur investors, including so-called value investors, who appear to be taking on much higher risk in order to aim for higher returns--the worst thing is that I don't think they realize they are doing that. Examples include some who are investing in preferred shares, which are generally poor investments (neither safe as bonds nor provide potentially high returns like stocks) and are better suited for corporations (depending on country, it can be tax-advantageous for corporations to own preferred shares of other companies) and certain special investing styles/strategies. I also see some investing in large-cap or mega-cap companies at P/Es over 20 even though those companies have low growth prospects (since they are so large) and questionable capital allocation (so many are buying back shares at seemingly high valuations).

It's really tough to invest right now. I have been researching a bunch of stocks and hardly anything seems cheap; and the ones that do appear cheap are cyclicals vulnerable to economic recession.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXXIII

Cannabis (Marijuana) Stock Performance

Still not fully legal and market likely to be limited for a few years more but the Bloomberg Intelligence Global Cannabis Competitive Peers Index is worth around $55 billion. Not all stocks are 100% marijuana-related and most of the value is so far in the bio-pharma sector but still indicates market pricing for this emerging industry.

source: "54 Stocks Deep in the Weeds," Laurie Meisler, Bloomberg, April 20, 2017

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Friday, April 21, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sold: Khan Resources (KRI)

Some third party is making an offer (approved by Board) for $0.05 for remaining shares of Khan Resources and I figured the deal was going to be approved by shareholders so I sold out at $0.055. Overall I'm satisfied with this return given how most of the capital was returned very quickly last year. This is an ideal liquidation situation and I would invest most of my money in these situations if I could. Unfortunately the stock was lightly traded and hard to acquire many shares so couldn't build up any meaningful position.

Sale Price: $0.055
Total Return: 5.1% (annualized approx. 10% -- meaningless since less than 1  year holding period)

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Thursday, April 20, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Graham and Doddsville 2013 Li Lu Interview

The game of investing is a process of discovering: who you are, what you’re interested in, what you’re good at, what you love to do, then magnifying that until you gain a sizable edge over all the other people.
-- Li Lu, Graham & Doddsville newsletter, Spring 2013
When I first encountered him many years ago, I didn't know how good of an investor Li Lu was. Now, it seems like he is one of the top ones. I don't consider him a superinvestor (yet) but that's partly because his record and his stockpicking is unclear to me. In any case, Charlie Munger is a big fan of him so Li Lu is definitely in the top 25% of the investing world.

I ran across a very good interview with him in the Spring 2013 Graham & Doddsville newsletter (Columbia Business School). Some of you may have seen it already but it was the first time I read it--I was away from investing the last few years around the time of this report--and it is an excellent interview. If you haven't read it before, I highly recommend it. Even if you don't care for Li Lu or his investing style, the content is very insightful.

The good thing about Li Lu is that he is very open and tries to explain his thoughts so newbies and amateur investors can learn a lot. In contrast, there are many other successful investors who don't really say anything insightful and I hardly learn anything from them. In fact, I think this interview might be one of the best investment pieces I have read in my investing career. It covers so many important topics and Li Lu's thoughts are worth pondering. For future historical purposes, I thought I would extract the key points and post briefly about them. I recommend that you read the full interview though.

(as is usually the cast on my blog, anything in bold is by me and my comments within quotes are in square brackets)

On Shorting
G&D (interviewer): You don’t short stocks at Himalaya, correct?

LL (Li Lu): That’s right; not any more. That change occurred nine years ago. Shorting was one of the worst mistakes I’ve made.

G&D: Is your lack of a short book due to your desire to be a constructive third-party for companies and their management teams?

LL: Yes. But also, you can be 100% right, and you could still bankrupt yourself. That aspect of shorting just frustrated me too much! [laughs] Three things about shorting make it a miserable business. On the long side, you have 100% downside but unlimited upside. On the short side, you have 100% upside and unlimited downside. I do not like that math. Second, the best short has some element of fraud. However, a fraud can be perpetrated for a long time. Of course you borrow to short, so they could really just wear you down. That’s why I could be 100% right and bankrupt at the same time. But, you know what, you go bankrupt first! Lastly, it screws up your mind. Shorts just grab your mind and take away from the concentrated effort that is required to do proper long investing. ... economy overall has been really growing at a compounding rate for 200-300 years, ever since the modern science technology era. So, naturally, the economic trend favors long positions rather than short.
I don't short so I don't have much to say. The only time I ever did was through an inverse ETF about 10 years ago--it was more like a bet against a market--and I said that I would never do that ever again. I actually made a positive return and it contributed to better performance during the stock market sell-off in 2008 but it was an unpleasant experience. The problem for me was that I had no idea what was going on (regardless of whether it went up or down) or what  the end result was. It is completely unlike a long position where you have some idea of why a position is rising or falling. The market rises in the long run so you are really fighting against time.

As Li Lu also points out, short selling sort of messes up your mind and is totally distracting. If you are betting against anything--in my case I was betting against the market so it was even worse--it just clouds your long positions and any positive thoughts you may have. For instance, it's easy to second-guess any bullish thought if you also have any sort of short position.

Finally, short selling is very expensive for small investors (whether you are borrowing shares, using inverse ETFs, or buying/writing put/call options). I never actually short sold directly because whenever I inquired, the costs seemed really high. It seemed like it wasn't for small investors. It sort of reminded me of bonds, where I'm quoted really high costs (bid-ask spread for instance) and feel that bonds aren't cost-effective for small investors.

Sourcing Investment Ideas
G&D: Can you talk about your investment process?

LL: Ideas come to me from all sources, principally from reading and talking. I don’t discriminate how they come, as long as they are good ideas. You can recognize good ideas by reading a great deal and also by studying a lot of companies and constantly learning from intelligent people...

G&D: Are the people that you talk to fellow investors or are they people like customers, suppliers, and management?

LL: All of them. I don’t talk to as many investors – very few. I am more interested in talking to people who are actually running businesses and entrepreneurs or CEOs or just good businessmen. I read all of the major newspaper publications and annual reports of the leading companies. I get a lot of ideas out of those too.
One interesting thing is that Li Lu says he doesn't rely on investors for ideas. Instead, he gets ideas from management, media, etc. This is sort of opposite of many others I have read who ignore management and instead rely on other investors. I think this depends on your investment style and your personality and thought processes.

Always Need to Beat Opportunity Cost

I really like how Li Lu thinks about portfolio management:
You start out by holding cash, and that is a pretty good opportunity cost, because it doesn’t go down. So any time you find an investment, it has to be an improvement on an overall risk-adjusted basis. You may find some very interesting things, and now you’ve got a basket of a few interesting securities plus cash. That is a pretty good opportunity cost, and the next time you add another security, it better make the portfolio better than the existing one. You just constantly improve your opportunity cost.
Sounds obvious but I have a feeling many don't think about this much. I see a lot of people just adding money to whatever position or selling something because it has gone up, and then seemingly pursuing even worse ideas. I think people often go off on tangents and weaken their portfolio.

For small investors, it's probably better to follow some rigid approach that forces you to think about whether you are actually improving your opportunity cost. I like some of the things Geoff Gannon has said, such as limiting yourself to five stocks at a time or one new stock purchase per year (this is along the same line as Warren Buffett's thinking that small investors should limit themselves to 20 picks--punches in a punchcard--over their life). Even if you don't follow that perfectly, some approach like that will definitely force you to think about whether you are indeed improving your overall portfolio.

Change & High Technology Companies
G&D: How to you get comfortable with the risk/ reward of a high tech company like BYD that is undergoing pretty rapid technological change? Do you think you have a good sense of what BYD will look like 10 years from now?

LL: Most businesses are subject to change if you stay with them long enough. There’s not a single business that I know of that will never change. ... Every company in today’s age is a technology company somehow, but the technology may not be on the cutting edge, and may not play an important role in the success or failure of the overall business. ... So culture really plays an important role in those faster-changing environments, enabling certain companies to always surge ahead of everybody else.
Many value investors mistakenly think that it is high-tech (or similar) companies that change rapidly but as Li Lu alludes to, almost every industry can change. In fact, right now, I think the retail industry is going through even faster change than most technology companies. There is probably more innovation and disruption at Macy's and Ralph Lauren and Under Armour than at Oracle, Alphabet or Intel.

One thing I learned from Bill Miller is that some technology companies actually don't change much, even if they appear to. The products might change but their market share doesn't. In other words, just because some company introduces a new product every year doesn't mean the company is changing rapidly. A company like Intel might introduce a new microprocessor every few years but it isn't really changing much and the relationship with customers isn't really changing.

When to Sell
G&D: How do you make your sell decisions?

LL: One should make sell decisions on one of three occasions.
Li Lu goes over three reasons one should sell:
Number one, if you make a mistake, sell as fast as you can, even if it’s a correct mistake...Let’s say you go into a situation with 90% confidence that things will work out one way and a 10% chance they work out another way, and that 10% event happens. You sell it. Then there’s a mistake that your analysis is completely wrong. You thought it was 99% one way but it was actually 99% the other way. When you realize that, sell as fast as you can. Hopefully at not too much of a loss, but even if it is a loss it doesn’t matter – you have to sell it.
Easy to say but many people, including me, hang on to mistakes way too long. I haven't done it but one thing I plan to do, based on advice from others, is to write down why I would sell (the negative scenario) and do it if that scenario develops. Easier to think about it when you buy the stock than trying to do it when the adverse scenario is unfolding.
The second time you want to sell is when the valuation swings way too much to the other end of the extreme. I don’t sell a security because it’s a little overvalued, but if it is way overboard on the other side into euphoria, then I will sell it.
Warren Buffett obviously doesn't sell even if the valuation is extremely high (likely to preserve his reputation and relationships e.g. Coca-Cola in late 1990's) but most other investors should.
The third occasion when to sell is when you find something that is better. Essentially, a portfolio as I said is opportunity cost. Your job as a portfolio manager is to constantly improve on your basket. You start with a high bar. You want to increase the bar higher and higher.

Li Lu's Intellectual Honesty
The most important thing in our business is intellectual honesty. What I mean is four different things: know what you know, know what you don’t know, know what you don’t have to know, and realize that there is always a possibility that “you don’t know that you don’t know.” Those four things are distinctly different. In a crisis, things emerge that test you on all four categories.
That’s why people freeze in the midst of a crisis. People freeze because they were not intellectually honest before. They never quite distinguished certain issues or questions and put them into the appropriate basket.
Christopher Davis’s grandfather used to say that you make the most money out of a bear market financial panic – you just don’t know it at the time.
Probably the hardest thing for newbie investors like me is to understand what I know and what I don't know. This is probably the hardest thing to develop and probably takes time and experience.

Macro Thoughts or Lack Thereof
G&D: How do you view the overall attractiveness of equities today?

LL: I also put that into "too hard" and "I know I don’t have to know." ...

G&D: A lot of smart people believe that renewable energy is the next big revolution. You’ve done a lot of work on battery technology and BYD, so is that something that you think about beyond batteries? What do you think the energy revolution will look like?

LL: I pay attention to those macro trends only in the hope that I can have comfort that they’re a tailwind as opposed to a headwind. Now, how much they can help if they’re a tailwind, or how much they can hurt if they’re in my face, I don’t know. But I want such macro trends to be behind me rather than in front of me. So that’s the extent that I want to know mega trends.
You could tell Li Lu is a pure value investor: he doesn't really care about the macro situation or where market valuation is at. The advantage of ignoring macro stuff is that you don't get confused by macro thoughts and don't waste time sifting through macro data/arguments/etc. The downside is that you are vulnerable to macro-driven "storms," such as when many value investors suffered huge losses on real estate and financials in the financial crisis (many macro investors were bearish on housing due to price run-up in mid-2000s but value investors piled into financials/homebuilders/etc because they were very cheap), or how numerous value investors were exposed badly to oil&gas a few years ago but many macro-oriented investors were very concerned.

I don't think being macro-oriented is necessarily better. One just needs to figure out what they are good and try to get good at it. Macro is definitely distracting and confuses you more.

Parting Words

Advice for upcoming investors:
LL: Understand one business and what really makes it tick: how it makes money, how it organizes its finances, how management makes its decisions, how it compares to the competition, how it adjusts to the environment, how it invests extra cash, and how it finances the business.
The way I categorize what Li Lu is saying is sort of like the following:
  • how it makes money [business model, business analysis]
  • how it organizes its finances [structure of the corporation, financial analysis]
  • how management makes its decisions [corporate culture, management incentives]
  • how it compares to the competition [competitive landscape, moat]
  • how it adjusts to the environment [employee capabilities, culture]
  • how it invests extra cash [capital allocation, ownership]
  • how it finances the business [capital structure]
These are all important things one should keep in mind! If I get some time, I might write a post on this alone. I think I'm going to incorporate this into all my future investment evaluations. I should use this as a broad checklist going forward.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXXII

Source of American Government Funding

Ever wondered how taxation has changed in America over the last 100+ years?

Following charts show the sources of government revenue in America from 1873 to 1940. Other developed countries are somewhat similar from a long-term perspective.

Until the early 1900's, there was really no personal income taxes or corporate income taxes. Most of the revenue in the distant past was through customs levies and tobacco/liquor taxes. So basically nearly all government tax was consumption tax. The amount government collected was very small by modern standards (US government collected no more than 800 million in taxes in the 1800's whereas it generated 3+ billion by 1918).

Government wasn't large and it didn't provide much in the 1800's (there was no standing armies for a long time, not to mention any notion of social welfare, public education, large-scale healthcare, no major public infrastructure projects, and so forth.) Government became very large in the 1900's and started providing way more services (particularly public education and healthcare). I would guess that large government probably didn't have as much positive impact on economic growth but it probably increased standard of living by orders of magnitude (which isn't really captured in GDP or other economic measures).

Chart stops in 1940 but my opinion is that, by the 2000's, government in most countries, certainly developed countries like USA or Canada, have gotten too large. I think the pendulum has swung too much towards larger government and government needs to shrink. I don't think we should go back to the 1800's but society will likely benefit if government were, say, 1/3 smaller.

(click on image for a larger version; note that top graph scale is different from bottom one)

source: Extracted from the book, Wall Street Waltz (Ken Fisher, 2007)

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Sunday, April 9, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXXI

American Retail Bankruptcies
(to Q1 2017)

So far, retail industry is on pace to set a post-financial-crisis peak. Retail is definitely overbuilt in America and consumer debt is also too high, so the shrinking of the industry is not a huge surprise to me (the industry is growing overall but most of it is in Internet sales and the number of retailers are shrinking). Internet cannibalization is also hurting retail but I think that is a slow long-term threat; the real issue is overbuilt retail with way too many retail chains, not to mention malls/shopping centers/etc.

Retail is a tough industry for investors--generally no barrier to industry of any kind, and driven a lot by unpredictable hits, fads and trends (sort of like the consumer technology industry)--but I wonder if the current situation presents an opportunity.

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Friday, April 7, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Purchase: Syngenta (SYT)

Added more to my risk arbitrage position in Syngenta (SYT). American and more importantly, European regulators approved the buyout a few days ago and I think this deal will close (a few other countries like China and India still need to approve but they generally don't challenge such deals). There is still a spread of a few percent and I figure it is a low risk bet. I think the spread should be smaller and not sure why it still exists (there is the possibility that this deal is too big and all risk arbitrage firms are tapped out; it's also complicated by the fact that the underlying shares trade in Switzerland).

Purchase Price: $89.70

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Sunday, April 2, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXX

Forbes 2000 Largest Companies in the World (2016)

Top public companies in the world according to Forbes, which uses a combination of revenue, profits, assets, and market value.

source: "The World's Largest Companies 2016,", May 25, 2016.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Canadian Real Estate Lender, Home Capital Group, Terminates CEO

Not sure if this an isolated event or a symptom of a possible Canadian housing bubble, but Home Capital Group (TSX: HCG), just terminated its CEO. I don't follow Canadian financials so not sure but I think HCG may be the largest alternative real estate lender in Canada. CBC News reports (Mar 28 2017):

Home Capital announced Monday after stock markets had closed that that Martin Reid, its president and CEO, was out, effective immediately.

Investors responded by sending shares of Home Capital down $2.66 to finish at $25.06 on the TSX.

Reid has been replaced by Bonita Then, a member of Home Capital's board of directors, until a new permanent CEO can be hired.

"Home Capital requires leadership that can bring to bear a renewed operational discipline, emphasis on risk management and controls, and focus on improving performance," said Kevin P.D. Smith, the chair of company's board, in a statement.

In February, Home Capital said it had received an enforcement notice from the Ontario Securities Commission related to its disclosure in 2014 and 2015 about the impact of the company's findings that income information submitted on some loan applications had been falsified, and its subsequent move to suspend some brokers and brokerages.

The company said in February that the OSC issued a preliminary conclusion that Home Capital. failed to meet its continuous disclosure obligations during that period in 2014 and 2015. Home Capital has said it believes its disclosure met requirements.

Home Capital also announced on March 14 that several company officers and directors had also received enforcement notices from the OSC.
HCG has been under attack by short-sellers for a few years now but as someone living in Canada, it's not entirely clear what is going on with real estate.

Canadian residential real estate--not sure about commercial real estate but might be worth looking into that if you are thinking of shorting (likely easier and less costly short for small investors)--looks like a blatant bubble if you look at traditional metrics like price vs rent, price vs household income, average mortgage duration (to pay off mortgage), etc. The numbers make little sense if you look at income or any sort of serviceability metric.

But a lot of the prevalent causes of the American real estate bubble a decade ago (or some of the other ones in Europe) don't appear to be present in Canada. Part of the reason is that everyone (particularly lenders and investors) has learned from the financial crisis and watch for those signs. In other cases, due to the structure in Canada, the same thing doesn't apply. For instance, secrutization was never big in Canada. You also don't have a multitude of lenders/mortgage insurers/etc that was common in USA (partly because Canadian banking is an oligopoly and difficult for smaller/new lenders to survive).

Market is likely pricing in a lot of the negativity surrounding HCG. It is trading close to book value (versus big banks at multiples of book) and P/E is something like 7 if I remember. But then again a lot of the crisis-stricken firms during the financial crisis trading at low valuations as well (the most notable in my eyes was the homebuilders who were trading at really low valuations). One big red flag I see is that the CEO has apparently been in the role for less than an year (although he was president for many years) and the board references "risk management" which is a big concern given how leveraged financials are.

Remains to be seen if the issues faced by HCG are something isolated to the company or a harbinger of something bigger...

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Monday, March 27, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sold: BCE (via MBT merger)

BCE (TSX: BCE) buyout of Manitoba Telecom Services (TSX: MBT) was successfully completed. I ended up with a return of about 1.8%, which is satisfactory.

The best case outcome (if payment was 100% cash) of about 2.1% didn't materialize; instead, I ended up with a mix of cash and stock (original expectation was 0.7% but BCE shares rose (and I didn't hedge) so I gained about a percent from it).

I wouldn't entertain these situations in the past but my portfolio is a little bit larger and transaction costs have come down a lot in a decade, so it is worthwhile for the time being.

Sold: $59.06

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Is the Market Overvalued?

We are in a very unusual time in my opinion. Presently valuations are high--whether you look at P/E (or the inverse, earnings yield), P/Sales, stock market valuation to GDP, Q ratio, or whatever else you want to use--but many argue it is not a bubble.

Generally, the majority can make seemingly plausible arguments for high valuations during the bubble (otherwise you wouldn't end up in a bubble in the first place) so the fact that consensus says there is no bubble doesn't mean much. However, what is different right now, is that the contrarians and those that believe we are in a bubble, can't seem to make a strong case. I think the reason is due to there being no psychological or behavioural elements that are driving the bubble--the mania is missing.

I think what is happening is that the mania is not in stocks but in bonds. The bond market, which is larger than the stock market, has a big bubble. Investors are literally buying bonds without any regard for yield, with big chunks of capital being deployed at less than 2% yields (including some very close to negative yield). Long-term inflation in USA is around 3% so you are essentially look at a loss in real terms. Basically, the mania is in bonds.

The bond mania is impacting stocks hence it is not directly observable in the stock market. That's my view right now.

In any case, if you are a contrarian or macro-oriented, you might want to check out this piece by James Montier of GMO, "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast" (Mar 2017) [main page link]. Montier is in the minority and doesn't share the general consensus (i.e. enthusiasm for stocks). He goes over 6 things he feels investors are assuming that are likely false. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says--is secular stagnation really due to policy?--but do share his overall stance. I'll just list the 6 items he addresses and leave it up to you to read the piece if you are interested.

In order to make sense of today’s pricing, you need to believe in six impossible (okay, I’ll admit some of them are just very improbable as opposed to impossible) things.

1. Secular stagnation is permanent and rates will stay low forever. As we have argued at length elsewhere, secular stagnation is a policy choice and we could exit it reasonably quickly by implementing appropriate policies.

2. The discount rate for equities depends on cash rates. This is nothing more than a belief. It has no foundation in data and not a scrap of evidence exists that supports this hypothesis.

3. Growth rates and discount rates are independent. This is a very questionable assumption. If, as I believe, it is false, then it makes the “Hell” outcome Ben has discussed in previous Quarterly Letters less likely, unless the first two beliefs hold completely.

4. Corporates carry out buybacks ad nauseum, raising EPS growth despite low economic growth. This would imply rising leverage, which is already close to all-time highs. Remember Minsky: Stability begets instability.

5. Corporate cash piles make the world a safer place. Cash levels aren’t high by historic standards, and valuations are extreme even when cash is fully accounted for.

6. The “Hell” scenario is the most probable outcome. This requires “this time is different” to be true and, unlike Jeremy Grantham, I am not yet ready to assign this exceptionally useful rule of thumb to the waste bin of history. Put another way, Hell requires that stock prices have reached a “permanently high plateau,” and I’m not about to embrace that statement.

Sunday, March 26, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXIX

Plastics & Pollution

A new environmental scourage created over the last 50 years has arisen due to the invention of plastics. Very useful and unique but plastics don't degrade in nature very easily. Unfortunately, they are starting to pollute the oceans on a large scale...

source: "The World's Oceans Are Infested With Plastic" (Niall McCarthy,, Mar 22, 2017)

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Saturday, March 25, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

The Thing About Healthcare...

Adam Davidson of The New Yorker had a good opinion piece about why healthcare is so important and unlike anything else and I thought I would highlight some of his points here. I struggle with healthcare spending and government policy because, on the one hand, healthcare is spiraling out of control and growing way beyond inflation or economic growth (not just in USA but in Canada and most of the developed world actually); but on the other hand, it is so important that as Davidson alludes to below, it should really be thought of more as an investment in the long-run future of the country rather than an expenditure per se.

Titled "What the G.O.P. Doesn't Get about Who Pays for Healthcare" (Mar 23 2017) and directly addressing the Republican Party in USA, Adam Davidson writes (as usual, bolds are by me):

In economics, when a person has some money, they can do one of two things: invest it or use it to buy something they want to consume. Most of the time, they consume. That can mean buying a slice of pizza, or “consuming” a vacation, a movie, or a new car. Health care is typically classified as a form of consumption. But if my relative spent some of his money with a back-pain specialist, who could teach him exercises that would prolong his working life by another decade, shouldn’t that be considered an investment? He would be choosing to forego paying for something that he actually wants today so that he can make more money in the future.
This is a very important point that is largely ignored in all the arguments and shouting matches: a big chunk of healthcare spending actually contributes to the economy in the long run. It's not like discretionary consumption spending whose benefits are very temporary.
In 1993, the economic historian Robert Fogel wrote an influential paper (it was his Nobel Prize acceptance speech) in which he demonstrated that improvements in health accounted for fully half of the economic growth in the United Kingdom in the first two centuries of the industrial revolution. Because of improvements in sanitation, food production, and medical treatment, people were living longer and spending much less time incapacitated by illness and hunger. Health was more important than railroads, electricity, mass production, and every other technology we more readily associate with economic success.
Wow! Until reading this, I never knew that half of the benefit of the industrial revolution was healthcare-related. It sort of makes sense when one thinks about it but it's still not well appreciated. I think things like railroads and mass production probably contributed to the improvement in healthcare (it's hard to isolate causes and effects of specific technologies and scientific advances) but, nevertheless, the main point that improvement in, say, sanitation, contributed mightily to the improvement in society is widely ignored.
If we deny someone care today, we will be paying that cost later, in the form of more expensive treatment or lost years of productive employment.
I think people who try to reform healthcare, often by blindly cutting costs, are completely ignorant of the point above. Namely, long-term productivity is sacrificed and completely ignored.

Having said all that, I think healthcare costs are spiraling out of control and need to be reigned in--this goes for Canada too even though no one is complaining yet (my province, Ontario, spends about 40% of its budget on healthcare, whereas 30 years ago, most of that was spent on building roads, airports, electricity grid, etc--no wonder there is no money for that now). However, I think anyone trying to reform healthcare shouldn't focus blindly on costs. Cutting healthcare has adverse long-term outcomes.

I think the reformers and politicians need to separate out the healthcare costs that prolong people's lives past 70 years (or whatever number you want to pick). This isn't going to be popular with Baby Boomers but the reality is that such healthcare spending has low (to almost zero) long-term societal benefits. I think people should try to cut those costs. Unfortunately that's not going to happen any time soon since the Baby Boomers control most of the voting power in most developed countries.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

The Bizarre Case of Sears Holdings

Concerns that Sears (SHLD) is headed toward bankruptcy have been reignited. The company's shares closed Wednesday down more than 12 percent, falling below $8, after the struggling department store expressed doubt about its future as a retailer. "Our historical operating results indicate substantial doubt exists related to the company's ability to continue as a going concern," Sears said in an annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. (source: "Sears tells investors nothing's changed, despite 'going concern' statement," Krystina Gustafson, CNBC, Mar 22 2017)
Headed for bankruptcy, right? Yet...
Hopes raised by a chairman’s letter on future strategy March 9 were crushed Wednesday when Sears Holdings listed a “going concern” statement in its annual report. The same day, Bruce Berkowitz increased his position in the dying retailer 2.05% in his third purchase of the month. (source: "Bruce Berkowitz Buys More Shares of Sears," Holly LaFon, GuruFocus, Mar 23 2017)

An insider, who owns about 26% of the shares and also owns some loans(?)/debt, adds more common shares*.

Not just that, it is one of the best investors over the last few decades**.

And, he happens to be a value investor***.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately...

Are we looking at a Bill Miller buying Bear Stearns in 2008 (or me buying Ambac)? Or is this one of the rare buying opportunities of our lifetime--Berkowitz used those same words to justify his Sears purchase a few years ago with disastrous outcome?

* Given the precarious situation Sears is in, and the somewhat low prices the bonds are trading at, he could have just bought those (which are trading way below par and will likely earn at least 15% annualized return for the next 10 years if the company doesn't go bankrupt).

** I'm not a huge fan of Bruce Berkowitz--quite frankly, I don't understand his thinking and strategies, from the more recent Fannie/Freddie preferreds to the older bets on St. Joe, and yes, Sears--but he still has one of the best records of any public investor and I admire him as a master contrarian.

*** If this were a different type of investor, say a short-term trader, quant investor, special situation investor, and so forth, it may not signal much. Even with most hedge fund investors, it may not mean much (since they could be hedging or something). But mutual fund value investors tend to buy undervalued stocks so it means a lot.

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Don't Blindly Accept SEC Filings

Matt Levine of Bloomberg highlights how anyone can file anything on EDGAR, the SEC online report dissemination system (same thing probably can happen in other countries as well?). The person may still be criminally liable depending on what they file but that is after-the-fact, so one shouldn't blindly accept regulatory filings:

The Securities and Exchange Commission's Edgar system for making securities filings is notoriously prone to hacking. "Hacking" maybe isn't the word; it's very low-tech. You submit an application to the SEC, have a notary stamp it, and get back your Edgar ID. Then you can just make whatever filings you want on Edgar. Want to say that you just bought Facebook Inc.? Sure, whatever, go right ahead, knock yourself out. Want to buy stock in a smallish public company, make an Edgar filing claiming that it's being taken over, and then sell your stock on the reaction to the fake news? Yeah that can sometimes work, though not as well as you'd hope
Anyway here's a funny story about a guy who said on Edgar that he had sold his art company to Alphabet Inc. for $3.6 trillion of Alphabet stock. He doesn't seem to have made any money off the fake filing; he just did it for fun, or for art. I don't mind that so much.
Yes, you can literally file anything, including this guy who claimed he is the richest man on earth ;) That was a joke but some people do try to manipulate it for personal gain, which is generally illegal (depending on what they do). Worth checking out the main Bloomberg story.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXVIII

2008 Redux:
Mitsubishi UFJ's $9 Billion Cheque to
Save Morgan Stanley

From Andrew Ross Sorkin:
As detailed in Too Big to Fail: How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System — and Themselves, Morgan Stanley received a $9 billion investment from Mitsubishi UFJ in the fall of 2008 that kept the firm from collapsing. The payment was supposed to be wired electronically, but because it needed to be made on an emergency basis on a holiday, Mitsubishi cut a physical check, perhaps the largest ever written. Below is a copy of the $9,000,000,000.00 check.  

Great book by the way--Too Big to Fail. One of the best ones on the Financial Crisis. There is a lot of whitewashing--particularly Henry Paulson's actions during the crisis; and the whole George Bush administration, Ben Bernanke and some of the incompetent bank executives' actions before the crisis--but all the inside details makes up for the book's shortcomings.

Sunday, March 12, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXVII

Charging Bull was controversial and this Fearless Girl statue is bound to be as well...

Sunday, March 5, 2017 2 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXVI

Value of US Residential Real Estate & Rent

Not entirely sure how accurate the figures are but, based on computations by Zillow, Reuters reports that the total value of US residential real estate is around $29.6 trillion. Total rent paid is around $478.5 billion. The rental yield is only like 1.6% -- does that seem right? Anyway, here is the data.

(source: "Data Dive: What $30 trillion will get you," Beth Pinsker, Reuters, January 5, 2017)

Saturday, March 4, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Articles for Week Ending March 4, 2017

Various articles I encountered over the last few months that you may find interesting...

  • (Recommended) "When Bankers Started Playing With Other People's Money" by William D. Cohan (The Atlantic, Feb 28 2017) --  (Except from Why Wall Street Matters by William D. Cohan) : When Wall Street investment banks became public: "On April 10, 1970, nearly a year after first filing its IPO prospectus with the SEC, DLJ pulled it off, raising $12 million from the public and as a result fundamentally altering how Wall Street has functioned ever since. “Going public changed Wall Street permanently and forever,” Richard Jenrette (the J in DLJ) told the Times. “If Wall Street had remained in a private mode, it would have acted like a club and been so vastly undercapitalized that someone would have taken it over long ago. There would have been no alternative but to have let the [commercial] banks take over”—something that the Glass-Steagall law, of course, had made illegal."
  • "Toshiba’s Nuclear Reactor Mess Winds Back to a Louisiana Swamp" (Jason Clenfield and Yuji Nakamura, Bloomberg, February 12, 2017) & "How Toshiba Lost $6 Billion" (Jason Clenfield , Yuji Nakamura , Takashi Amano , Pavel Alpeyev , and Stephen Stapczynski, BloombergBusinessWeek, ‎February‎ ‎17‎, ‎2017‎) : Talk about total management incompetence. How could you buy a company and declare billions in losses within an year? Now you end up selling your crow jewels--a lucrative memory chip division--just to keep afloat.
  • On Amazon Echo - "Short Cuts" (John Lancaster, London Review of Books, February 2, 2017, Vol. 39 No. 3): Voice could revolutionize computing, especially when partnered with advanced AI. Not sure how close we are to it.
  • "Retail Has Good Reason to Hate a Border Tax" (Shelly Banjo, Bloomberg, Feb 16 2017): Good article showing how free trade can benefit nations. USA lost its clothing manufacturing capability but offshoring has essentially resulted in clothing prices staying flat (to slightly declining) over 25+ years. Believe it or not, USA has the cheapest clothing (adjusted for purchasing power) than any other country. Workers in manufacturing lost their jobs but I would argue that the country as a whole benefitted even more.
  • "Volatility Trades and Explosive Shorts" (Matt Levine, Bloomberg, Feb 10 2017): Talk about total incompetence -- some dude was trying to profit by bombing retailer, Target, and then buying its stock. LOL. Not only is it a criminal action for very little profit--good things most criminals are dumb or else the world would be worse--it isn't even the proper way to profit from declining prices ;)
  • (Highly Recommended) "Dole Food Had Too Many Shares" (Matt Levine, Bloomberg, Feb 17, 2017): Another great article by Matt Levine. Even if you don't care about mergers or Dole Foods or pineapples--yes I realize this story probably won't help you become a better investor--the article provides a good explanation of how share ownership recordkeeping works.
  • "Number of distressed U.S. retailers at highest level since Great Recession" (Ciara Linnane, Marketwatch, Feb 27 2017): I feel retail is outside my circle of competence but occasionally I do get attracted. I doubt retail is being hurt by online as many assume (online share is still kind of low) and wonder if it is due to a possible long-term secular decline in consumption (American consumers can't continue to spend more than they earn, with debt making up the difference, and wonder if we are seeing a change in trend).
  • (Recommended) "Is the Chicken Industry Rigged?" (Christopher Leonard, BloombergBusinessWeek, February 15, 2017): Apparently Geoff Gannon's favourite business article over the last year or so. Can't go wrong reading anything he recommends. Article delves into the competitive pricing of chickens. Lots of photos of chickens for chicken fans ;)
  • Transcript of Warren Buffett Feb 27 2017 CNBC Interview (CNBC, Feb 27 2017): Current thoughts from Buffett on Apple (thinks it is a sticky consumer product), why they don't like to go over 10% holding (never knew of short-swing rule until now), market valuations (thinks equities attractive if rates don't move up materially), border adjustment tax (not in favour and says it is just a sales tax that will impact average consumer), tax reform (doesn't think anything complex can be implemented quickly), 3G capital (thinks they are the best he has seen in a boardroom), self-driving cars (negative for auto insurers but thinks it will take a long time and doesn't think even 10% of cars will be self-driving in 10 years), Amazon (admires Jeff Bezos but retailing is tough to figure out--gives good history of it), Wells Fargo scandal (incentive system may have been an issue but real problem was not attacking the issue when it first came up; says of any problem, "get it right, get it fast, get it out, get it over"), investment climate (thinks it is much harder than past and only a few will succeed but can post good returns with small amounts of capital)
  • (Highly Recommended) "Financiers Fight Over the American Dream" (Sheelah Kolhatkar, The New Yorker, March 6, 2017 issue): Very good long-form journalism on William Ackman's battle with Herbalife. I have no idea what the truth is but the story provides a look behind the scenes, which can provide important lessons for investors.
  • (Recommended) "Buying a Good Business in a Bad Industry" (Geoff Gannon, GuruFocus, Feb 20, 2017) & "What's a No Growth Business Worth?" (Geoff Gannon, GuruFocus, Mar 6, 2012): Kind of scary and not sure if I'm making a mistake but I have been researching a few declining industries recently. So I have been reading some present and historical articles by Geoff Gannon, whom I consider the top freely accessible investment writer. I love reading Gannon's thoughts since he is very closely aligned with what is ideal for small, amateur, investors. I am presently thinking hard about the radio broadcasting industry and office products retailer, Staples (SPLS). Both are declining and in trouble but are they worth it if they drop a bit more? I also started doing some preliminary research on one of the stocks Gannon mentioned, Western Union (WU), which may sell off if Trump administration cracks down on Mexican migrant money transfers.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Charlie Munger post-Daily Journal Feb 2017 meeting Q&A

(update Mar 5: Replaced the video with the list version which lists all the videos and added a URL link in case embedded video doesn't work. Actual video is the same but now it is easier to navigate to the other videos.)

Here is a good Q&A with Charlie Munger that occurred after the Daily Journal meeting (refer to post from prior week for that). I like Munger because he is opinionated and speaks his mind, and these set of videos are great. I think there is more to be learned from these videos than the main meeting video. I am always impressed with how much knowledge Munger has. I'm amazed at how much he knows about topics that has little to do with him and doesn't invest in.

Thanks to J. Bryan Scott for posting these videos. First few videos are short but they get longer afterwards.

Monday, February 27, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Purchase (Special Situation): Manitoba Telecom Services

Talk about picking up pennies in front of a steamroller...

The market becomes less and less attractive by the day so I'm mostly just doing research on various industries/stocks and tracking numerous special situations (mostly risk arbitrage). Even investing in mergers has become risky in my eyes because I don't have a good feeling for the new US administration. There is elevated risk of the US government blocking deals (particularly CFIUS blocking foreign deals).

I don't recommend this to anyone who doesn't invest in Canadian dollars since the returns very miniscule compared to potential currency movements. So, unless you invest directly in C$ or can hedge the fx rate, this isn't a very safe deal.

Anyway, I decided to take a position in the Manitoba Telecom Services (TSX: MBT) buyout by BCE (TSX: BCE). It's a cash and stock deal with maximum cash limit (prorated) so it complicates matters. The return is very tiny but it closes within a month. I have typically not done deals with such tiny returns so not really sure if I'm going down the wrong path here.

Deal details

BCE has agreed to buy MBT and MBT shareholders can receive: (A) $40 cash, or (B) cash+share.

Full deal is prorated so that BCE only pays a maximum of 45% in cash. This means that if all MBT shareholders choose cash, only 45% of the payment with be cash, with the remaining in BCE stock (0.6756 BCE share for each MBT share). But if only some MBT shareholders accept cash then the payment can be full cash ($40). Professional investors will have difficulty hedging this transaction since you don't know which outcome is going to materialize (although I think it is highly probable that you will end up with the cash & share option).

Shareholder votes and regulatory approvals have been granted. I consider there to be zero risk of deal not being closed. The last major regulatory approval was granted on February 15, 2017 and parties expect transaction to close by March 17, 2017.  I wasn't following this closely enough but it would have been better to invest before the final regulatory approval given how the spread narrowed significantly after that.

Current Prices (Feb 27 2017)
 $    39.17 MBT
 $    57.76 BCE

A. All cash
$40     best case all cash 2.1%
B. Cash+Stock 
0.6756     ratio
worst case if only 45% cash (if less MBT shareholders take BCE shares, can receive more cash)
 $    18.00 45% cash
 $    21.46 55% BCE
 $    39.46 0.7%

So, in the best case, where you receive 100% cash, you are looking at a return of 2.1%.
Worst case, with the proration, is 0.7% based on my calculations.

If you end up receiving BCE stock, there is risk that your return can be worse if BCE share price falls. I am not hedging by shorting BCE stock here so I'm fully exposed to potential downside in BCE shares. (Professional arbitrageurs will short BCE stock here but the possibility of cash payment makes it a bit difficult to fully hedge.)

I think 2.1% return is very attractive given the very short holding period. Even the 0.7% seems ok to me for the less than 1 month holding period. The question is whether it is worth it if BCE shares fall.

The way I look at it, I'm comfortable holding BCE shares if I end up with them. BCE is a well-run low-growth telecom/media oligopoly in Canada. Here are some key points I wrote down when I started following this deal (not necessarily from today's price): P/E 18, net profit margin 12%, ROE 22%, div 4.5%+; wide moat, low/no-growth, high ROE. I  think a P/E of 15 is more reasonable in the long-run for BCE, so this means it is probably overvalued by 20% and can easily fall by that much. This is not a bad company to hold long-term and should do ok even in bear markets or recessions (share price will obviously fall but don't think intrinsic value will decline).

Last time I got involved in a BCE special situation (LBO, in 2007 I think), the deal collapsed and I ended up losing some money. I sold the stock after deal failed but if I had kept it for an year, I would have broken even. Not saying the stock will recover the same way if it collapses, but one thing about stable high ROE companies is that they will continuously compound and make up a lot of the lost ground.

Purchase Price (TSX: MBT): $39.16

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Sunday, February 26, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXV

American Consumer Debt

Since consumer spending is a huge driver of American GDP (almost 70% of GDP), it's a big deal for any investor. The same isn't true for some other countries where consumers aren't a big part of the GDP. Consumer spending is heavily influenced by consumer debt and here is how the picture stands right now.

As can be seen from the very good Bloomberg chart (original source is New York FedRes I think), consumer debt shot up to around $13 trillion in 2008. After the financial crisis, debt declined, as mortgages shrunk. But as the economy improved in the last few years, it looks like debt has been increasing and is near the pre-crisis levels.

(source: "Car Loans on the Rise as U.S. Households Borrow More: Chart," Anne Riley Moffat‎, Bloomberg, February 17, 2017)

Not easy to tell from the chart but the big changes in my opinion are the increased auto loan and student loan portions. Auto loans apparently stand at the highest amount in more than 17 years (based on another article I read recently). Anyone investing in the auto sector should be careful. There is no doubt that auto loans should be higher now than, say, in 2000, because the economy is bigger and population is higher. However, it's not clear how much of it is unsustainable. The market is already pricing some of this in--P/E ratios of many car companies are at or less than 10 vs S&P 500 at more than 25--but you should still be cautious.

Student loans are much bigger (at least 2x more) than what it was a decade ago. More of the population is pursuing higher education so it should be higher. However, it seems far larger than what it should be, and I suspect it is unsustainable (given that median household income has not increased materially for almost 20 years). Having said that, we probably won't see as much adverse outcome from student loan defaults since it is largely socialized (i.e. government subsidized and government will probably write off a chunk of the student loans).

As for credit card debt, it looks similar to what it was for the last few decades. In fact, it looks a little bit smaller than 2008. Not sure what happens if interest rates rise but we shall see.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXIV

Emerging Market Valuations & Returns

Most people already know this but emerging markets tend to have lower valuations and produce higher returns. The difficulty is that emerging markets have much higher valuations, with a few countries/regions experiencing catastrophic declines. If you can avoid those blow-ups then emerging market generally offer higher return potential.

Having said all that, we had a massive global trade boom, with massive growth in developing countries--right from Brazil to China to Vietnam. It's not clear to me if we are entering a protectionist era where emerging markets, who tend to be exporters and hence will get hit asymmetrically during any trade war, will suffer for a long period, maybe a decade.

(source: "Trump Puts U.S. Valuation Premium at Risk," Nir Kaissar, Bloomberg, February 14, 2017)

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Saturday, February 18, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Charlie Munger's Daily Journal February 2017 Annual Meeting

I don't really agree with many of Charlie Munger's political, and some business and economic, views, but the thing I love about him is that he is outspoken and doesn't care what people think of him. Munger hosted the 2017 Daily Journal annual meetings and here is a video someone shot, along with a transcript.

The last part of the transcript file contains 2 articles written by Charlie Munger (possibly never published anywhere?) starting on PDF page 11. I haven't read them yet but if I find it interesting, I'll blog about it. I wish someone close to Charlie Munger or with access to his files publishes similar stuff that he wrote (especially when he was more active and at his prime in the 70's/80's) and is probably lost to time. It's going to be hard to get access or permissions to his writings once he isn't around (it'll be hard for his family or estate to tell what is confidential and sensitive and what's not). Some of Munger's thoughts are very insightful and his article/speech(?), Art of Stockpicking, is one of the best investment/business articles I have ever read (it changed my perspective of the stock market and I came to understand it as a pari-mutuel betting system). If you have never read the Art of Stockpicking, I suggest you go and download that -- read that instead of my blog!

Other than the 2 articles, I don't think there was anything radically insightful from Munger's comments, but if you haven't heard him in a while, like I am who was away from investing for a few years, it is a good listen/read. As usual, he didn't comment much on specific stocks and most of it was broad comments. Here are some things I noticed:

  • He mentioned the Daily Journal is transforming into a software business which is a tough battle with long sales cycles--may not see profit for as long as 5 years--but he is ok with investing for the long run
  • He did suggest that Berkshire Hathaway invested in airlines because the structure of the industry has improved (he likened it to railroads which were terrible for decades but then economics improved in the last decade).
  • He is bullish on China and not India--I share the same view but am medium-term bearish on China due to credit bubble--and mentioned that some established, strong, Chinese companies are trading with low valuations. I suspect he is talking about the Chinese SOEs (state-owned enterprises) which are some of the largest companies in the world and typically trade at somewhat low P/Es. For example, Sinopec trades at a P/E of 8 vs Valero at 14; China Mobile P/E is 14 vs AT&T at 18; etc (these are my quick semi-random and companies are not necessarily comparable but the Chinese companies have far higher growth rates). Obviously market is discounting China due to its capital controls, dubious accounting--one joke is that there are 3 accounting books: one for the tax authorities, one for the shareholders/public, one that is the truth--weak shareholder rights, and less efficient companies. But in the long run, I would agree that Chinese companies provide greater investment potential. Chinese companies that are run like American companies are good candidates. Maybe something like BYD is like that--I don't know.
  • Munger had some comments on the rising popularity of index funds. He said it made it tough for the investment industry but didn't think it was an issue in general. However, he seemed to suggest that index funds could cause bubbles in certain narrow areas: as index funds buy more, they drive up the price and as more people pile into the funds, price will rise, and so on (he didn't seem to think this is an issue with broad large-cap index like S&P 500). He gave the Nifty-Fifty bubble example saying how everyone wanted to be in a select few top/best stocks and kept driving up the price to something like P/E of 50.
  • Munger reiterated his preference for extremely concentrated portfolios. I think he was saying the vast majority of his net worth (over $1 billion) is tied up in just 3 positions: Berkshire Hathaway, Costco, and Li Lu's fund. He doesn't think any of them will go to zero and thinks it's almost impossible for all three to go to zero. He did suggest one needs to be able to tolerate temporary declines of 50% (as mentioned by one of the attendees, his portfolio was down around 50% during the brutal 1974 bear market). His view is that it only takes a few good choices to be successful and make it in life. Munger pointed out that if you had a rich uncle who offered you a job/ownership in his business, you would go and work for him, and be basically betting 100% on your uncle's business. He also speculated that Berkshire Hathaway only made around 100 good decisions over 50 years, or around 2 good decisions per year. His point is that you don't need to make many good decisions (especially with an even smaller portfolio) and when you see a great opportunity, you invest heavily. This is very hard to do and if you don't know what you are doing--maybe for people like me--you could lose a lot. Yet, Munger's view is consistent with the pari-mutuel betting system approach where you only bet when odds are in your favour and to do so heavily if the odds are really good.

I. 2017 Daily Journal Annul Meeting transcript by Adam Blum (DropBox PDF)
II. Charlie Munger Daily Journal 2017 Video by Laixin Wei (YouTube link)

Thanks to Adam Blum for providing the transcript of the event, and Laixin Wei for the YouTube video. (h/t @MohnishPabrai on Twitter for mentioning them

This could be one of the last times we hear much from Charlie Munger so check it out while he remarks about current events...

Sunday, February 12, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXIII

Wage Gap Continues to Widen in USA
(and likely other countries too)

(source: "U.S. Wage Disparity Took Another Turn for the Worse Last Year," Sho Chandra and Jordan Yadoo, Bloomberg, January 26, 2017)

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Sunday, February 5, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Sunday Spectacle CCXII

Potential Impact of US Border Tax

Bloomberg recently had an article quoting Deutsche Bank report on the impact of the proposed American border tax--there are several ones being floated around but this report seems to assume 20% tax, which is closer to the Republican House position--and there was a nice graphic of the impact on various countries. The biggest negative impact is forecast to be in Mexico, Vietnam, and Canada. All three will likely enter a recession immediately (assuming retaliatory taxes offsetting the GDP contraction aren't enacted). For some reason the data doesn't seem to include China, which will probably be the #2 loser from such a tax.

(source: "Here's a Glimpse of the Global Trade Carnage From a U.S. Border Tax," Jeff Black, Bloomberg, February 1, 2017)

When we are closer to the imposition of the US border tax, which seems almost certain under the Trump administration, I'll write a more detailed post but here are some quick thoughts. The last time there was a big global trade boom followed by big trade wars was the 1930's. At that time, countries running trade surpluses (like USA, which occupied a place similar to China now), suffered a lot, while the trade deficit countries (such as the UK, which was similar to USA now) did not suffer much. In the present, USA, which has big trade deficit, will likely not suffer as much as others. But the situation is very different now (vs 1930s) and I wonder how things will play out.

In particular, we are not on a gold standard (or any quasi-gold standard) or a fixed exchange rate. Unlike the 1930's, most currencies (except something like Chinese renminbi or Indian rupee) are freely convertible. It is quite possible that an adjustment may happen through the currency and the competitive position--basically comparative advantage of one country over another--may end up being maintained, resulting in trade relationship continuing (i.e. imports still flooding into USA in manufactured electronic goods, clothing, etc). Indeed, already, the Mexico peso has fallen around 10% since the Trump election--it fell a lot the prior few years due to the collapse in oil prices--and is down something like 40% over the last 3 years. Even with a border tax, Mexico might be competitive--their labour definitely will be.

It'll be interesting to see how a trade war plays out. As a free-market proponent, I'm against trade barriers but Trump and his associates are not fans of free markets.

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Saturday, February 4, 2017 0 comments ++[ CLICK TO COMMENT ]++

Articles for the Week Ending February 4, 2017

Certainly an interesting start to the year, with an unusual US presidency, FedRes tightening underway, US$ strengthening, and Chinese capital outflows still continuing (or at least seems that way). Some governments appear to be becoming nationalist and protectionist and we may be seeing the end of the global trade boom. I need to think about this more but it sort of resembles the change from 1910s/1920s to 1930s. Things aren't exactly the same but that period was also characterized by a trade boom--countries were different and Asia/Latin America didn't play much of a role--followed by extreme retrenching from global trade.

I also have a feeling that labour (workers) may do better over the next decade while capital (investors) don't do as well (relatively speaking). Basically the opposite of the last decade (if you are interested in this thinking, read the Jeremy Grantham GMO letter). Note that everything I say is from a developed country (USA/Canada/Europe/etc) point of view (situation is very different in developing countries).

Anyway, here are some articles over the last month or so that you may find interesting (not in any order):

  • (Highly Recommended) Importance of ROIC: 'Reinvestment' vs 'Legacy' Moats (article by Connor Leonard; John Huber via GuruFocus): Good comparison of a company that is able to reinvest at high ROIC vs one that doesn't.
  • "Is Emirates Airline Running Out of Sky?" (Matthew Campbell for BloombergBusinessweek, January 5, 2017): I haven't read this article fully but seems an interesting read. On another note, some US airlines are lobbying Trump administration to ban the Middle-Eastern airlines on the grounds they are subsidized. Whatever it may be, it's truly remarkable that Emirates has come out of nowhere to be one of the top airlines in the world.
  • "Tesla Flips the Switch on the Gigafactory" (Tom Randall, Bloomberg, January 4, 2017): Important event for Tesla and may end up being one the key events in the history of the electric vehicle (EV) industry. If EVs are to take off, battery prices need to drop significantly--$10,000+ of the cost of an EV can be the battery alone--and it remains to be seen if Tesla's massive factory (along with its partners like Panasonic) can lower the cost of batteries.
  • H&M: Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place? (Hurricane Capital, Jan 28, 2017): Very good evaluation of the retailer, H&M. I don't know much about the company as an investment but I do like the store as a customer. I think retailers are outside my circle of competence--although I AM looking at Staples (SPLS) and Whole Foods (WFM)--and I don't really understand them very well. All I know is that many chains come and go and the ones that grow to national level seem to last about 30 years in North America (maybe it is a generational thing). H&M's P/E seems high (20+) and its operating margins have been declining for several years (always risky) but its balance sheet is strong (no debt), big chunk (almost 38%) owned by founders (they will be more careful than random outside management), and is still a top global brand.
  • "Why Trump Tariffs on Mexican Cars Probably Won’t Stop Job Flight" (David Welch and Dave Merrill for Bloomberg, January 4, 2017): Good, quick, summary of the auto manufacturing situation. It doesn't seem like a tariff on Mexican car production will level the competitiveness of American car production as much as some (particularly in the Trump administration) imagine. It will definitely reduce production and hurt Mexico in the near-term but when it comes to the long run, as economists, perhaps going all the way back to Adam Smith, might say, comparative advantages are hard to overcome via tariffs.
  • "Who Will Pay for San Francisco's $750 Million Tilting Tower?" (James Tarmy and Kartikay Mehrotra, bloomberg, February 1, 2017): Sad story for the buyers of condominiums in a recently-built skyscraper in San Francisco that is tilting over :(
  • "“Becoming Warren Buffett,” The Man, Not the Investor" (James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, January 31, 2017): HBO produced a new documentary on Warren Buffett. Haven't seen it but it seems to be more of a recap of his life.
  • (Recommended) "Immigration Orders and Odd Tenders" (Matt Levine, Bloomberg, Jan 30 2017): "If the president can, without consulting the courts or Congress, banish U.S. lawful permanent residents, then he can do anything. If there is no rule of law for some people, there is no rule of law for anyone. The reason the U.S. is a good place to do business is that, for the last 228 years, it has built a firm foundation on the rule of law. It almost undid that in a weekend. That's bad for business." Very good opinion piece by Matt Levine on the Trump immigration order. Not sure if it is incompetence or if they purposely did some of the things they did but I suspect we are going to see even more draconian measures in the future. Biggest future action I can think of is Trump's idea of confiscating Mexicans' (but it can apply to anyone) own money they send back home in order to pay for a wall. Talk about government intrusion into one's personal property (although US laws don't necessarily have to apply to migrants)--anyway we shall see what actually happens. 
  • GMO Quarterly Letter - 4Q 2016 (click here for link to main site): Jeremy Grantham suggests the rise of Trump had a lot to do with rising inequality.
  • (Recommended) "The Real Legacy of Steve Jobs" (Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books, Feb 11 2016)(review of "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine" film directed by Alex Gibney; "Steve Jobs" film directed by Danny Boyle; "Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader" by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli"). New York Review of Books is sort of radical and left-leaning but some of their articles are amazing (not this one though). Not sure Steve Jobs fans will agree with everything said here but it's a good read. The documentary, "Steve Jobs: The Main the Machine," is quite good in portraying the negative aspects of Steve Jobs and is more balanced than many Steve Jobs films I have seen. I would recommend that. Another unrelated documentary that shows Steve Jobs' brilliance and his vision of the future is the raw 1990's documentary-interview, "Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview." Most of Steve Jobs' interviews are promotional or attempts to sell his products but this one is not. If you are into technology and want to see why many say he was waaayyyy ahead of the time, check out that interview. Both are on Netflix Canada presently.
  • (Highly Recommended) A Half-Dozen Ways to Look at the Unit Economics of a Business (Tren Griffin,, Dec 31, 2016): "McCaw Cellular Communications sold to AT&T for $12.6 billion in September 1994. And yet the business did not show an accounting profit on its income statement until the second quarter of that year (after the deal was announced on August 17, 1993). The McCaw  Cellular example shows that you can create a tremendous amount of value for shareholders without showing any profit on an income statement. Or not...Amazon and Netflix are examples of the same value creation phenomenon as are many businesses that John Malone has created over the years. This post will try to help people understand why this is true." Very good post on how companies that show losses or very low profits can still be creating value for shareholders. John Malone and Jeff Bezos famous for doing this.
  • "Is the World Big Enough for Huawei?" (Scott Cendrowski, Fortune, Feb 1, 2017): Many may remember Huawei for its dominance in networking equipment but now it has risen to be one of the top mobile phone manufacturers.
  • (Highly Recommended) "The Best Advice I Ever Got" (Fortune, March 21 2005 archive article): From Fortune's archives, here is a gem. Short responses from many successful individuals such as Warren Buffett, Richard Branson (Virgin), Sumner Redstone (Viacom), Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Peter Drucker (great management strategist), and so on. A very good collection of diverse thoughts. Some of them are obvious whereas some of them probably don't apply to you but I always find simple wisdom can go a long way. I said this in the early days of this blog and I'll say it again: most people reading this blog won't be good at investing--probability of outperforming is slim--and many will give up; but even if you don't go anywhere in investing, I hope you learn something that improves your career or family life or entrepreneurship or something...

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