Tag Archives: Geoff Gannon

The Infinite Regression Investment Philosophy ($FRMO, $DNB, $SPY, @GeoffGannon)

Courtesy of the 2012 FRMO Letter to Shareholders [PDF]:

If one were to look at the 100 US public companies with the largest defined benefit pension plans, one would find the likes of Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Pepsi, Verizon and UPS. As of the end of 2011, using these largest 100 as a proxy, American companies recorded perhaps the largest underfunded status ever, certainly within the past dozen years, both in dollar and percentage terms. And this follows a helpful three years of double-digit annualized returns on their plan assets.

Moreover, there is much reason to expect this position to worsen. The discount rates they use to determine the present value of all their future estimated pension obligations is about 3 times higher, at an average 4.8%, than it should be, since we know the average investment grade bond yield today to be about 1.3%. This means that the obligations are actually far larger than currently presented in these companies’ financial statements. Moreover, these pension plans, on average, still presume to earn almost 8% on their plan assets. Yet, over 40% of the plan assets are invested in bonds. Assuming, as one must, that 40% of these pension plan assets will earn 1.3% at best, then those bond portfolios, all else equal, can contribute only 0.5% to the return of the entire plan assets. This leaves the remaining 60%, most of which is invested in equities, to produce the balance of the 8% expected return, which means the balance must produce about a 13% return every year.

First, one is hard pressed to suggest that this reality will come to pass, so that one should expect much larger funding deficits in the coming years and, it follows, much larger contributions to those pension plans, which in turn must detract from shareholder earnings and earnings growth. That pending reality, though, is less interesting than this one: that these companies, by dint of their investment philosophy and practice, place the major portion of their equity assets in the S&P 500 (and other indices representing essentially the same, largest companies in the US), in order to attempt to earn the highest risk-adjusted expected returns. Yet the S&P 500 to a significant degree is composed of the set of companies with the largest pension plans, which are problematic as described above– these companies are investing in themselves for future returns to restore their pension plans, even as they themselves are problematic because of these pension plans. But this is their formulaic process, and the tools by which this process is measured and implemented are these self-same indices.

This is Free Lunch-thinking.

By the way, value investor Geoff Gannon (much beloved on this site) has written a lot about Dun & Bradstreet, a company with an underfunded pension liability sword hanging over its neck. He makes the case for why this is not something to worry about with DNB but I have to say it’s the one thing making me hesitate about jumping in to an otherwise compelling franchise opportunity.

In general, I try to avoid companies with employee pension plans, at least the defined benefit variety. They may be “private” and “voluntary” but to me they smack of socialism-lite. They’re uneconomic and based upon absurd assumptions and unrealistic expectations. They are, like Social Security, promises that can’t be kept and must eventually be broken.

The trouble is, shareholders will almost always be sacrificed first because we exist in a culture today that penalizes capital and sees the equity holder as a villain and cheat.

Geoff Gannon Digest #5 – A Compilation Of Ideas On Investing (@geoffgannon)

The “Geoff Gannon Digest” is a series of posts highlighting some of my favorite wit, wisdom and investment advice from value investor Geoff Gannon. Each post provides a link to the parent article with bullet-pointed lists of key-takeaways from each. For the complete discussion by the original author, please click the link to the parent article.

Why I Concentrate On Clear Favorites And Soggy Cigar Butts

  • Graham and Schloss had >50 stocks in their portfolio for much of their career
  • They turned over their portfolios infrequently; probably added one position a month
  • To avoid running a portfolio that requires constant good ideas:
    • increase concentration
    • increase hold time
    • buy entire groups of stocks at once
  • With his JNets, Gannon purchased a “basket” because he could not easily discriminate between Japanese firms which were both:
    • profitable
    • selling for less than their net cash
  • Portfolio concentration when investing abroad is based upon:
    • which countries do I invest in?
    • how many cheap companies can I find in industries I understand?
    • how many family controlled companies can I find?
  • Interesting businesses are often unique

How Today’s Profits Fuel Tomorrow’s Growth

  • To elements to consider with any business’s returns:
    • How much can you make per dollar of sales?
    • How much can you sell per dollar of capital you tie up?
  • Quantitative check: Gross Profit/ ((Receivables + Inventory + PP&E) – (Payables + Accrued Expenses))
  • Once an industry matures, self-funding through retained earnings becomes a critical part of future growth; it’s the fuel that drives growth
  • A company with high ROIC isn’t just more profitable, it can more reliably grow its own business
  • Maintaining market share usually means increasing capital at the same rate at which the overall market is growing
  • Higher ROIC allows for the charting of a more reliable growth path
  • Industries where ROIC increases with market share present dangers to companies with low market share or low ROIC
  • The easiest place to get capital is from your own successful operations; tomorrow’s capital comes from today’s profits

Why Capital Turns Matter — And What Warren Buffett Means When He Talks About Them

  • Capital turns = Sales/Net Tangible Assets
  • Buffett nets tangible assets against A/P and accrued expenses; gives companies credit for these zero-interest liabilities, rather than assuming shareholders pay for all of a company’s assets
  • Buffett’s businesses tend to have higher sales per dollar of assets
  • Companies with higher sales per dollar of assets have higher ROIC than competitors even if they have the same margins
  • There’s more safety in a business in an industry with:
    • adequate gross margins
    • adequate capital turns
  • Industries dependent upon margins or turns open themselves to devastating attacks from the player who can maximize key variables you control:
    • price
    • cost
    • working capital management
    • etc.
  • Companies often compete on a specific trait; it has to be a trait that is variable and can be targeted for change

How to Lose Money in Stocks: Look Where Everyone Else Looks — Ignore Stocks Like These 15

  • It’s risky to act like everyone else, looking at the same stocks everyone else looks at, or by entering and exiting with the crowd
  • Don’t worry about which diet is best, worry about which diet you can stick to; find an adequate approach you can see through forever
  • Having Buffett-like success requires every day commitment
  • You should aim to earn 7% to 15% a year for the rest of your investing life if you aren’t going to fully commit like Buffett did
  • A good investment:
    • reliable history of past profitability
    • cheap in terms of EV/EBITDA
    • less analyst coverage
  • A list of such stocks:
    • The Eastern Company (EML)
    • Arden (ARDNA)
    • Weis Markets (WMK)
    • Oil-Dri (ODC)
    • Sauer-Danfoss (SHS)
    • Village Supermarket (VLGEA)
    • U.S. Lime (USLM)    
    • Daily Journal (DJCO)
    • Seaboard (SEB)
    • American Greetings (AM)
    • Ampco-Pittsburgh (AP)
    • International Wire (ITWG)
    • Terra Nitrogen (TNH)
    • Performed Line Products (PLPC)
    • GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT)

Geoff Gannon Digest #4 – A Compilation Of Ideas On Investing (@geoffgannon)

The “Geoff Gannon Digest” is a series of posts highlighting some of my favorite wit, wisdom and investment advice from value investor Geoff Gannon. Each post provides a link to the parent article with bullet-pointed lists of key-takeaways from each. For the complete discussion by the original author, please click the link to the parent article.

How To Think About Retained Earnings

  • Grab 15 years of data from EDGAR and compare receivables, inventory, PP&E, accounts payable and accrued expenses to sales, EBITDA, etc.; E.g., if receivables rise faster than sales, this is where “reinvestment” is going
  • For a quick comparison, look at:
    • Net income
    • FCF
    • Buybacks + dividends
  • Compare debt (total liabilities) between the start of the period and the end and subtract the difference to get growth in debt
  • Then, sum all dividends and buybacks over the period, and all net income over the period
  • Then, subtract the change in debt from dividends/buybacks; what is left is dividends/buybacks generated by the business, rather than growth in debt
  • Then, compare this to net income to see the ratio of earnings paid out to shareholders
  • You can compare the growth in net income to retained earnings to get your average return on retained earnings
  • Look at the change in net income and sales over 10 years and then the ratio of cumulative buybacks and dividends to cumulative reported earnings
  • You’re looking for the central tendency of return on retained earnings, whether it is approx:
    • 5%, bad business
    • 15%, good business
    • 30%, great business
  • Companies with single products easily generate high returns on retained earnings, but struggle to expand indefinitely

One Ratio to Rule Them All: EV/EBITDA

  • EV/EBITDA is the best ratio for understanding a business versus a corporate structure
  • Net income is not useful; FCF is complicated, telling you everything about a mature business but nothing about a growing one
  • General rule of thumb: a run of the mill business should trade around 8x EBITDA; a great business never should
  • Low P/E and low P/B can be misleading as it often results in companies with high leverage
  • P/E ratio punishes companies that don’t use leverage; they’re often worth more to a strategic buyer who could lever them up
  • The “DA” part of a financial statement is most likely to disguise interesting, odd situations; if you’re using P/E screens you miss out on companies with interesting notes on amortization
  • Control buyers read notes; why use screens that force you to ignore them?
  • FCF is safer than GAAP earnings or EBITDA because it’s more conservative and favors mature businesses
  • EBITDA misses the real expense in the “DA”, but FCF treats the portion of cap-ex that is an investment as expense, so they’re both flawed; investment is not expense
  • No single ratio works for all businesses in all industries; but to get started, EV/EBITDA is the best for screening
  • Example: cruise companies have huge “DA”, but no “T” as they pay no taxes
  • “Only you can calculate the one ratio that matters: price-to-value; there is no substitute for reading the 10-K”
  • Empirical evidence on ratios:

Blind Stock Valuation #2: Wal-Mart (WMT) – 1981

  • There is something wrong with believing a stock is never worth more than 15 times earnings
  • “Growth is best viewed as a qualitative rather than a quantitative factor.”
  • Buffett’s margin of safety in Coca-Cola was customer habit– repeatability
  • Buffett looks for:
    • Repeatable formula for success
    • Focus
    • Buybacks
  • “The first thing to do when you’re given a growth rate is not geometry. It’s biology. How is this happening? How can a company grow 43% a year over 10 years?”
  • Stable growth over a long period of time tells you a business has a reliable formula; look for businesses that behave like bacteria
  • Recognizing the value of changes after they happen is important, not predicting them ahead of time
  • You can’t post the kind of returns Wal-Mart did through the 1970s without a competitive advantage
  • Buffett gleans most of his info from SEC reports, things like 10-year records of gross margins, key industry performance metric comparisons, etc.

GTSI: Why Net-Net Investing Is So Hard

  • The challenge of net-nets is you often have no catalyst in sight and no wonderful future to visualize as you hold a bad business indefinitely
  • Graham’s MoS is integral– you can be off in your calculation of value by quite a bit but Mr. Market will often be off by even more
  • Focusing too much on time could be a problem in net-net investing
  • Two pieces of advice for net-net investing:
    • Put 100% of focus on buying and 0% on selling
    • Put 100% of focus on downside and 0% on upside
  • Money is made in net-nets not by the valuing but by the buying and holding
  • “You want to be there for the buyout.”
  • The hardest part of net-net investing: waiting
  • Graham and Schloss were successful likely because they built a basket, so they were always getting to buy something new that was cheap instead of worrying about selling
  • Focus on a process that keeps you finding new net-nets and minimizes your temptation to sell what you own

Can You Screen For Shareholder Composition? 30 Strange Stocks

  • Shareholder composition can help explain why a stock is cheap
  • A company’s shareholder base changes as the business itself changes; for example, a bankruptcy turns creditors into shareholders
  • Shareholders often become “lost” over the years, forgetting they own a company and therefore forgetting to trade it
  • Some companies go public as a PR ploy, so investors may be sleepy and inactive
  • Buffett understood this and understood that a stock could be a bargain even at 300% of its last trade price– National American Fire Insurance (NAFI) example
  • Buying a spin-off makes sense because many of the shareholders are stuck with a stock they never wanted
  • An interesting screen: oldest public companies with the lowest floats (in terms of shares outstanding); a lack of stock splits combined with high insider ownership is a recipe for disinterest in pleasing Wall St

How My Investing Philosophy Has Changed Over Time

  • Info about Geoff Gannon
    • high school dropout
    • bought first stock at 14
    • read Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor at 14
    • over time, became more Buffett and less Graham
    • made most money buying and holding companies with strong competitive positions trading temporarily at 6, 10 or 12 times earnings
  • I like a reliable business with almost no history of losses and a market leading position in its niche
  • Geoff’s favorite book is “Hidden Champions”, which is part of a set of 3 he recommends to all investors:
  • Everything you need to know to make money snowball in the stock market:
    • The Berkshire/Teledyne stories
    • Ben Graham’s Mr. Market metaphor
    • Ben Graham’s margin of safety principle
    • “Hidden Champions of the 21st Century”
  • Once you know this, if you just try to buy one stock a year, the best you can find, and then forget you own it for the next 3 years, you’ll do fine; over-activity is a major problem for most investors
  • Bubble thinking requires higher math, emotional intelligence, etc.; that’s why a young child with basic arithmetic would make a great value investor because they’d only understand a stock as a piece of a business and only be able to do the math from the SEC filings
  • There are always so many things that everyone is trying to figure out; in reality, there are so few things that matter to any one specific company
  • One key to successful investing: minimizing buy and sell decisions; it’s hard to screw up by holding something too long
  • Look for the most obvious opportunities: it’s hard to pass on a profitable business selling for less than its cash
  • Extreme concentration works, you can make a lot of money:
    • waiting for the buyout
    • having more than 25% of your portfolio in a stock when the buyout comes
  • I own 4-5 Buffett-type stocks (competitive position) bought at Graham-type P/E ratios
  • “There is a higher extinction rate in public companies than we are willing to admit.”
  • Most of my experience came through learning from actual investing; I wish I had been a little better at learning from other people’s mistakes

Notes – Geoff Gannon Digest #3 – A Compilation Of Ideas On Investing (@geoffgannon, #ncav, #netnet, #valueinvesting)

The “Geoff Gannon Digest” is a series of posts highlighting some of my favorite wit, wisdom and investment advice from value investor Geoff Gannon. Each post provides a link to the parent article with bullet-pointed lists of key-takeaways from each. For the complete discussion by the original author, please click the link to the parent article.

Is Negative Book Value Bad?

  • Negative equity itself is meaningless (could be good or bad)
  • Compare net financial obligations to EBITDA
  • Think of borrowed money as the price of time; ask yourself if you’d rather they borrow money or spend time
  • Stocks in Geoff’s portfolio tend to:
    • have positive FCF
    • have unusually high ratios of FCF to reported earnings
    • buy back shares
    • pay dividends
    • have excess cash after the above
  • “I have found I do not make good decisions when I have to juggle 10 or more opportunities in my head at once”
  • “I don’t believe in taking a risk where I think if everything goes perfectly the upside is still going to be in the single digits”
  • How much debt is too much debt is a separate issue from whether the debt is being used productively
  • When soaring over the market trying to find bargains, these are useful as screening tools:
    • tangible book value
    • EV/EBITDA
  • If an entire country’s market has a low P/TBV or EV/EBITDA, this is important to know; you can buy indexes on this info alone
  • However, ultimately the following matter more:
    • liquidation value
    • market value
    • replacement value
    • Owner Earnings
  • Move beyond being a record keeper — an accountant — and become an appraiser
  • The assets that matter most on the balance sheet:
    • cash
    • investments
    • land
    • intellectual property
    • tax savings
    • legal claims
  • Cash flow protection is much better than asset protection
  • Businesses with special assets that are not separable from the operating business are most likely to not be reflected on the balance sheet and present hidden value
  • Being in a strong, safe liquidating position does not necessarily mean you are in a strong, safe operating position
  • Working capital needs and capital spending needs are part of the DNA of a business; “you can’t turn a railroad into an ad agency”
  • Negative equity itself is not a risk; poor interest coverage is
  • Non-aggressive long-run return assumptions:
    • stocks – 8%
    • bonds – 4%
  • When looking at companies with negative equity and stock buybacks, ask yourself the following:
    • Earnings yield of stock buybacks > interest rate on borrowed money?
    • Need to adjust financial obligations (such as unfunded pension liability) to determine true extent of liabilities?
    • Are net financial obligations (debt and pensions minus cash) a low enough multiple of their EBITDA?
    • How many years of FCF would it take to pay off all financial liabilities?
    • Is the price of the entire company in terms of EV/EBITDA low enough to justify investment?
    • How reliable is EBITDA, FCF, etc?
  • Common concerns in these situations:
    • Moat not wide enough
    • High risk of technological obsolescence
    • No pricing power/cost cutting potential to support margins
  • The right company can have negative equity and be investable if it is a wide moat business with almost no need for tangible investment:
    • Negative working capital
    • Minimal PP&E
    • A wide moat

Is It Ever Okay For A Company To Have No Free Cash Flow?

  • Four cash flow measures:
    • Owner’s Earnings (most important)
    • EBITDA
    • CFO
    • FCF
  • You can get a hint where a company is tripping up in delivering cash to shareholders (FCF) when:
    • EBITDA is positive
    • CFO is positive
    • Net income is positive
  • EBITDA measures the capitalization independent cash flow of the business; it doesn’t take into account spending today for benefits that won’t be realized until tomorrow; also misses working capital changes
  • Look for companies that are growing quickly in an industry that is not
  • Avoid companies that are fast growing in a fast growing industry; it will face more competition every year
  • To judge the future ROI of FCF reinvestment with a company that has no FCF, look at:
    • Will they be competitive?
    • Will competitors over expand?
    • Do they have a moat?
  • When a company spends so much on growth for so long, you really are betting on what the ROI will be way out in the future
  • “There isn’t necessarily a prize for being the last one to succumb to the inevitable. It’s usually more of a moral victory than an economic one”
  • Don’t short a great brand; if you want to short something, short a company:
    • with a product with inherently poor economics
    • a bad balance sheet
    • with deteriorating competitiveness
    • preferably in an industry with a high morality rate
  • When a company reinvests everything, you need to worry about what they’ll earn on their capital many years out

Value Investor Improvement Tip #1: Settle For Cheap Enough

  • A lot of people look for:
    • lowest P/Es
    • lowest P/Bs
    • highest div yields
    • new lows
  • This creates lists of companies that are quantitative outliers, instead of companies you know something about
  • You should feel comfortable throwing out 7/10 names found on a screen
  • Better to cast a wider net and then focus on companies you can learn a lot about by reading 10-Ks
  • Try a screen that combines (Ben Graham-style):
    • above average div yield
    • below average P/E
    • below average P/B
    • fewest unprofitable years in their past
  • Start with the company that sounds simplest, then move out slowly and carefully to those you understand less well; stop when you find something cheap that you know you can hold as long as it takes
  • Another screen:
    • EV/EBITDA < 8
    • ROI > 10%
    • 10 straight years of operating profits
  • You need a good reason for picking stocks that don’t meet this criteria
  • It’s hard to figure out companies with a lot of losses in their past; so don’t try
  • Familiarize yourself with a few stocks; what insiders have is familiarity
  • You want to find companies where you can think more like an insider
  • For long-term investing health, it’s better to find a slightly less cheap — but still cheap enough — stock you can get familiar with than a super cheap one that is a mystery
  • Anything less than NCAV is cheap enough
  • “Some of value investing is in the buying; most of value investing is in the holding; almost none of value investing is in the selling”

Notes – How To Pick Net-Nets: Two Philosophies From Geoff Gannon And Gurpreet Narang (@geoffgannon, #net-nets)

Buying Net-Nets: What Is The Right Margin Of Safety? by Gurpreet Narang

  • Margin of safety demanded depends on the quality of assets and quality of earnings
  • The subtext of Graham’s 2/3 Rule is that asset values on the balance sheet are inexact
  • In liquidation, liabilities are real but asset values are questionable
  • Liquid assets are easily squandered by bad management or bad operating businesses
  • In addition to discounting assets, look for other positive factors to enhance margin of safety:
    • excess cash relative to assets
    • high return on invested capital
    • ten straight years of operating income
    • ample free cash flows
  • The more liquid the assets, the better the margin of safety
  • One way to improve upon NCAV is P/NQAV, or Price-to-Net Quick Asset value (cash, securities and receivables)
  • Discount demanded moves in inverse proportion to:
    • quality of assets
    • quality of management
    • quality of return on assets
  • Earnings should be backed up by cash flows, preferably with free cash flows
  • Net-nets should be chosen for inherent cheapness, not a hope for liquidation
  • Walter Schloss: “A stock well-bought is half-sold.”
  • Michael Burry: buy at prices “so low that a potential acquirer proposing them would be laughed out of the boardroom”

How To Pick Net-Nets by Geoff Gannon

  • Best Net-Nets:
    • Are around $25M market cap or les
    • High insider ownership
    • High F-score
  • Biggest risks for Net-Nets:
    • Fraud
    • Bankruptcy
    • Share dilution
  • Look for Net-Nets:
    • In the US
    • With positive retained earnings
    • Z-score >3
    • Highest F-scores amongst current crop of NCAVs
    • Highest insider ownership %
  • Similarly, avoid:
    • Foreign
    • Negative retained earnings
    • Z-score <3
    • Lower/lowest F-score
    • Lower/lowest insider ownershi
  • Magic Formula for NCAVs:
    • Rank by F-score
    • Rank by insider ownership
  • Add up the two ranks and choose the highest combined scores
  • You don’t need upside potential, you need downside protection
  • Hold them for longer than a year
  • Take the 10-Q and read it like a credit analyst, asking yourself, “Would you be willing to lend money to this company?”
  • More by Geoff Gannon at How To Pick Solid Net-Nets