Tag Archives: inflation

Book Blog – The Great Deformation, Part III, “New Deal Legends” (#economics, #newdeal #FDR)

Book Blogs are notes about books I’m reading, as I read them. They may or may not be followed up by wholesale reviews in traditional format.

The Great Deformation, by David A. Stockman published 2013 (buy on Amazon.com)

Chapter 8
Stockman doesn’t go into much detail on where the boom ending in 1929 came from, but he does provide an interpretation of why the bust lasted so long and went so deep– the forcible closing off of international trade via protectionist policies and the undermining of the global gold-backed monetary regime by American and European governments alike.

In Stockman’s telling, American president Herbert Hoover was a mostly free enterprise and sound money kind of guy who wanted to avoid inflationist solutions to the economic slump. By 1932 the economy had liquidated the bulk of the malinvestments in excess inventories and capital assets and was ready to turn toward genuine recovery. This process only took as long as it did because ill-reasoned policies like the Smoot-Hawley Act in the United States and similar nationalistic policies in European states along with uncertainty about the British plans to keep the gold-backed pound sterling in place hampered international trade flows. According to Stockman, the United States between 1914 and 1929 had become, much like China circa 1994-2012, a major exporter of capital and consumer goods to the rest of the world particularly in response to trade and economic disruptions of industry and agriculture in European economies during the First World War. The US economy was geared up to provide steel, cotton, cereal grains and other commodities to the rest of the world and had a hard time adjusting output to meet domestic demand when the collapse came in 1929.

Then came FDR and his unique brand of economically inane autarkic nationalist policy. Stockman faults FDR for prolonging, nay, creating, the actual Depression singlehandedly. First, FDR began his presidency by fomenting a banking crisis and declaring a major bank holiday which Stockman saw as unnecessary. As Stockman tells it, the 12,000 some bank failures in the United States during this period mostly occurred in over leveraged regional/rural banks centered around the agricultural and export-oriented areas of the economy representing at most 3% of banking system deposits. Major money center banks in financial centers such as New York never faced a solvency crisis, making FDRs response a solution to a nonexistent problem and therefore a serious problem-creating blunder itself.

Second, FDR torpedoed the London Conference on international monetary mechanisms, throwing the whole system into chaos and instigating another round of protectionist measures at home and abroad. Third, he arbitrarily decided to undermine the USs own commitment to a constant redeemability ratio for the dollar, creating further fear and uncertainty in the economy. And finally, he created a cartel system (National Recovery Administration) which served to freeze prices, arbitrarily shift capital around the economy and buy votes as necessary but did nothing to create the kind of stable conditions preferred by businesspeople and entrepreneurs attempting to make capital investments to serve anticipated consumer demand.

The Depression was a recession that was working itself out despite the protectionist political measures put in place which made adjusting the structure of production to domestic rather than foreign needs, but then FDR came along and made the economy his plaything as he tinkered according to his whims and played powerbroker on the side. That’s what turned the recession into a true Depression.

Chapter 9
Fannie Mae, which was envisioned as a way to revitalize a moribund middle class housing market during the Great Depression by creating a “secondary market” for uneconomic 30 year mortgages at subsidized interest rates, has in the 75 years since its founding led to the total corruption and now nationalization of the home loan market. The creation of the secondary market divorced mortgage underwriting from mortgage servicing as it allowed for mortgages to be easily issued, packaged up and sold to investors as government-backstopped financial products. Further, it resulted in local savings funding local housing investments being transformed into a national and now international market, with the final result being that “Red China” bankrolls $1T+ of the federal home loan market due to balance of payment issues tied to competitive currency issuance.

Social Security, rather than being the crowning social achievement of the New Deal, was its greatest fiscal folly and has created an embarrassing Ponzi legacy that is with us even today. The systems actuarial projections were based on an impossible 5% continual GDP growth rate. The payroll tax used to fund it has proved “regressive” and continues to grow over time, with a current 6.5% of GDP consumed by the tax. The $3T of “trust fund reserves” have been lent out and spent by other parts of the government and represent nothing more than future taxes due.

In so many words, the innovation of deposit insurance combined with the Glass-Steagall act, a bout of inflationary monetary policy which destroyed the profitability of traditional deposit lending under Glass-Steagall and then a round of “deregulations” designed to create new areas of profitability for banks at the expense of growing moral hazard resulted in the utter corruption of the system and the inevitability of a major financial meltdown as witnessed in 2008.

With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 and the initiation of a war loan program by the United States government, US farms became the breadbasket of the world. They took on massive debt to expand capital machinery and bring additional acreage into cultivation which resulted in growing farm output prices. When the war ended, the capital investments, including the debt overhang, remained. The financial collapse in the 1930s further exacerbated the situation, leaving farmers as a desperate coalition looking for a political solution to their contractual obligations.

With the nations farmers the hardest hit by the twin spikes of failing cash flow and high debt burdens, they became a powerful voting bloc that got FDR elected which allowed for the cartelization of the farming industry to take place. The thought was that cartelizing the industry and pushing up farm and farm output prices would result in a return to prosperity as rural buyers bought manufactured products from city centers. With their programs in place, the farming lobby was then willing to trade votes for growth and maintenance of these subsidies and controls going forward into the future.

The “Thomas Amendment” created four options for expanding the money supply via currency issuance or gold or silver content debauchery. This inflationary response was seen as the proper antidote to too much debt and too little money and political authorities of the day figured it would give them a free pass to avoid the pains of the bust following the ill-gotten gains of the boom.

FDR channeled the $2.8B windfall from his emergency dollar “revaluation” against gold into his Exchange Stabilization Fund, which the Secretary of the Treasury was then able to disburse at his discretion, turning him into what Stockman calls a “money czar” much like Hank Paulson and Neil Kashkari during TARP.

Chapter 10
In this chapter, Stockman argues that World War II and the Korean War were the last wars to be mostly financed by current taxation in the US. WWII in particular saw a rise in household saving and a decline in household indebtedness that offset the massive rise in public indebtedness. He attributes this in part to the fact that wartime command economy measures dictated that there was little to consume on store shelves, in part to the fact that the government’s propaganda campaigns for war bond drives were a success and in part because the government had adopted an arbitrary bond yield peg that lowered investment returns in competing assets and made government bonds more attractive as a conservative savings vehicle.

Stockman claims that William McChesney Martin, who headed the Fed through the 1950s, was a “tribune of sound money” and saw it as his mission to restrain credit expansion and tame the inflation rate, rather than to stoke it like modern Fed heads. He also claims that the Fed only lent on liquid commercial receivables during this era, compared with the present where the Fed has become a warehouse for illiquid claims on real assets.

Chapter 11
Stockman argues that President Eisenhower was the “last of the fiscal Mohicans” dedicated to trimming federal budgets and making government spending respectful of tax revenue means. At the same time, a growing chorus of voices on the right and the left begin arguing for a “new economics”, Keynesian government planning of the macro economy, to not only fight recessions but “fine tune potential GDP” during recoveries and booms. This theory comes at the expense of sound money and has a pro-inflation bias.

Chapter 12
Following World War I, Great Britain attempted to return to the pre-war parity between the pound Sterling, gold and the US dollar despite a massive inflation during the war years. At the same time, the British government embarked on an expansion of its domestic welfare programs which ultimately broke the back of the pound culminating in the London gold conference in 1931 which proved the futility of maintaining the old exchange ratios in the face of inflationary chaos.

At the end of World War II, the United States attempted to take the lead with a gold-backed dollar as the world’s reserve currency in a new arrangement, the gold exchange standard, engineered at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. Of course, the architect of this scheme was the exact same architect of the doomed British plan (monetary and social policy), the imperious Lord Keynes. And rather than a true gold standard, what Keynes wrought was a feeble attempt to hide dollar inflation by creating a scheme where foreign exchange was to be exchanged for dollars, not gold, which was ostensibly suppose to allow additional credit and currency to be pyramided atop the same amount of gold reserves at formal exchange rates.

For a time, this precarious system seemed to work, helped along by the US-led international “gold pool” which sought to exchange gold against currency to calm price increases in the private London gold market.

However, the decision to engage in fiscal expansionism in the US via welfare spending increases and costly wars abroad (ie, Vietnam) all financed by deficit spending rather than real tax increases led to an unhinged inflation and a boiling London gold market. The international gold pool was quickly depleted in a series of panics in the late 1960s, eventually culminating in Nixon’s infamous closing of the US gold window.

This “guns and butter” policy, led by the intellectual disciples of Keynes ensconced in major US universities, was the final nail in the coffin of sound money in the US, and perhaps even the world, and ushered in a new era of freely floating currencies, chronic deficits, massive credit expansion and a seemingly never-ending series of financial and economic bubbles that we are all living with the consequences of today– ironically, the media at the time was fooled into believing this “enlightened” policy had permanently tamed the (government-policy induced) business cycle.

Chapter 13
Milton Friedman, hailed as a staunch libertarian and champion of small government politics and free market economics, gave intellectual blessing to the greatest economic bastardization of all time– the transformation of the gold standard US dollar, once and for all, into the “T-bill Standard”.

Friedman’s erroneous analysis of the cause of the Great Depression — a crashing M1 money supply caused by an overly tight Federal Reserve — led him to faith in a new standard for monetary policy, a simple inflation targeting of 3% per annum, with the market smoothing out the rest. Friedman believed that if the Fed could credibly adhere to a uniform rate of inflation over time, the business cycle could be banished and the economy would be free to grow without abatement and without the restrictive context of a gold-backed currency.

This new policy proved its danger almost immediately with the out of control inflation of the 1970s and opened the door for unending deficit finance by the federal government. And while Friedman had hoped for a series of Fed chairmen who would objectively guide the M1 money supply along this path (a strategy destined to failure because it turns out the Fed doesn’t control M1, market demand for loanable funds does) instead the office has been inhabited by activist acolytes since the tight money days of Volcker.

The current global monetary regime of competitive free floating currencies is truly without precedent and much of the modern US’s largesse was financed by willing mercantilist politicians in foreign trading partner nations. It remains to be seen what happens to this system when one or more countries reach the end of their rope, domestically, and are not longer willing to import the United States’ inflation as they export their wealth to foreigners for consumption.

Book Blog – The Great Deformation, Part II “The Reagan Era Revisited” (#politics)

Book Blogs are notes about books I’m reading, as I read them. They may or may not be followed up by wholesale reviews in traditional format.

The Great Deformation, by David A. Stockman published 2013 (buy on Amazon.com)

David Stockman was the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 1981 through 1985 until he resigned in frustration from the Reagan White House. The desire to set the record straight on a failed political crusade (“The Reagan Revolution”) by a knight who feels betrayed by the politics of the crusade itself is strongly felt throughout Stockman’s polemical revisionism of the Reagan years and the regimes that set the stage for this period and whose stage was set in turn by Reagan’s failed policies.

In Part II, Stockman asserts that the Reagan defense budget process resulted in an unprecedented commitment to real top line growth that was arbitrary in calculation and resulted in almost no creation of additional anti-Soviet nuclear deterrent capability which was the stated need for the top line increase. Instead of getting more nuclear subs and nuclear-tipped ICBMs (which Stockman insists weren’t needed anyway), the Reagan spending was used to greenlight hundreds of billions of dollars worth of conventional military purchases on DoD shopping lists ranging from naval carrier groups to attack helicopters to tank fleets and front line soldiery. Not only was the supposed Soviet nuclear buildup non-existent due to the Soviet Union’s own decrepit economic system and ill envisaged forays into places like Afghanistan, but this conventional force build-up could do nothing to stop a Soviet nuclear first strike and in time proved to be good for nothing other than projecting American imperial might across the globe via conventional military conquest and occupation of targeted nations. The spending increase accomplished little more than to further exacerbate the problem of federal deficit finance and the future financial bubble of the late 90s and 2000s because the increase in spending was not offset with additional tax increases.

Stockman also challenges the idea that Reagan cut back on welfare entitlements. Stockman argues that he tried but then gave up under political pressure during the failed “Schweicker” gambit. This resulted in Republican acknowledgement that federal welfare entitlements such as the Social Security Administration were political sacred cows, committing the government to continued and growing structural deficits related to their funding and concluding in the short term with a Republican administration stewarding a thinly veiled payroll tax increase under the Greenspan solvency plan. Stockman suggests this was a critical political turning point for the Republican party which led them to shed their last fiscal conservancy feathers in favor of a more Keynesian stance of attempting to juice the economy through periodic tax cuts and business subsidies rather than by imposing fiscal rectitude on the government’s programs by cutting spending.

Now an obvious question at this point is, why didn’t all this spending and deficit finance create hyperinflation in the US as the Fed balance sheet tripled and bank credit expanded by an even greater multiple? Stockman’s answer is that when Nixon screwed the monetary pooch by deciding the freely float the US dollar, he ended up getting a free pass because the major trading partners of the US, especially in Asia (read: China and Japan) engaged in competitive currency devaluation to maintain their currency pegs. And the reason they did this is because their governments and local politics were dominated by mercantilist beliefs and export-oriented structures. Letting their currencies and interest rates rise against the US dollar would have caused painful adjustments to occur in home markets and industries that the various political regimes had no interest in making. The end result is that Nixon’s arbitrary gaming of the US economy via direct monetary manipulation in order to secure an economic boom as he approached reelection did cause problems and inflationary pressures at home (including unprecedented jumps in peacetime cost of living indexes and a commodity price boom) but it did not get completely off the rails because global central banks, guided by their home regimes, wouldn’t let it.

Again, Stockman argues that this was not only a short term economic disaster for the country, but it was also a long term political disaster because the fact that this happened under a Republican administration and was signed off on by the biggest “free market economists” of the day after the meeting with Nixon at Camp David meant that going forward there would be no real political or intellectual resistance to the agenda of perpetual deficit finance and continuous bubble-making in the economy that such a fiscal regime allows for.

Does Net-Net Investing Work In Japan? (#JNets, #valueinvesting, #Japan)

If you took a look at the companies I purchased off my Japanese net-net (“JNet”) worksheet about six months ago, you’d probably conclude net-net investing doesn’t “work” in Japan, at least not over a six month period. The cheap, crappy companies I bought then are cheaper, still crappy companies today.

However, if you took a look at all the companies I didn’t buy from my list, you might get a different impression altogether. While there are a few companies of this group whose fundamentals worsened and/or whose stock price fell, most are up anywhere from 10-15% with several up substantially more, 30-50%. About 10% of the total list seems to have gone private as you can’t find financial info nor trade the symbol any longer, which in my experience in JNet-land typically means they received an MBO.

And if you look at an entirely different list of JNets I generated about two months ago (because all my original picks were no longer JNets), which I finished researching one month ago and which I failed to do anything about until yesterday, the story is even better (or worse, if you’re me). How would you like to see the top pick on your list closed up 25% the day prior and about 40% total since you composed your list? How would you like to see the average company on your list priced 15% or more higher from where you first researched it, meaning you could’ve locked in your 15% annual return for the year in a few months time?!

Once again, this list also had several symbols which no longer trade, presumably because they received buyouts or other going private transactions.

So, in the last few days I learned a few things about JNets:

  1. They “work”
  2. The “M&A activity in Japan, particularly in the small cap space, is a non-starter” claim, is a myth
  3. Even crappy businesses with cash-rich balance sheets are moving like hotcakes in Abenomic Japan
  4. The strengthening of the dollar against the Yen does impact your $ returns, but so far Yen prices on JNets have outpaced the move of the Yen against the dollar
  5. Contrary to my belief that I could take my time allocating idle capital in Japan, it now appears that time is of the essence

My old motto for JNets was, “Steady as she goes.” My new motto is, “Churn and burn” or “Turn and earn.” I’m going to be watching things much more closely than I had before.

To be clear, my experience so far has been frustrating, but it hasn’t been catastrophic as I suggested in my introduction. I have captured some of the windfall moves myself although I continue to have laggards in the portfolio, at least in dollar terms. Very few of the original companies I picked are trading lower than when I bought them, though some have not moved up enough yet to make up for the exchange rate loss. My first portfolio of JNets was bought when the Yen/$ rate was 79. It’s now almost 99 Yen to the dollar and I made my second portfolio purchase around 94 Yen to the dollar.

Overall, in dollar terms my first portfolio is up 5%, with one MBO and apparently another just recently as I found out the stock is up 43% with no ask but I haven’t found a news item explaining why yet. Several others traded above NCAV so I am culling them and putting them into new opportunities. I have not yet determined what the “secret formula” is for picking the JNets that will really take off– oddly, it was mostly the companies whose prospects seemed least fortunate that I neglected to purchase and was in shock to see their stock prices 35% higher or more. As a result, I plan on wider diversification and a more random strategy in choosing between “best” companies and cheapest stocks.

I’m sure many investors have done much better than 5% in Japan in the last half year, and many more have done better still in the US and elsewhere. This isn’t a contest of relative or absolute performance. This is simply an opportunity to settle the score and point out that yeah, Benjamin Graham’s philosophy is alive and well in Japan.

Notes – Buffett Partnership Letters, 1957-1970 (#valueinvesting)

Recently I sank into my overstuffed armchair (in this situation, “sank” is used derisively to connote frustration and discomfort with regards to ideal reading conditions) with a copy of Buffett’s partnership letters from the 1957-1970 period in my hands. I found them on CSInvesting.org and had never taken the time to read them before, but figured it was about time as I was curious to consult a primary source on this period of Buffett’s investment career, having already read a 3rd-party recounting in The Snowball.

My interest was to read critically. Buffett’s letters have been read and analyzed and mulled over by thousands of investors and business people and have been discussed ad nauseum. But everyone seems to come away with the same lessons and the same pithy quotes that they throw up on their blogs when appropriate. I wanted to see if I could find anything original. From my own set of knowledge and understanding of Buffett and “how he did it”, I achieved my goal, but I can not guarantee creativity to anyone else who may be reading this. Somehow, somewhere in some overlooked nook of this vast interweb, I may have missed the discussion where someone went over these exact points.

Market timing, or the “value climate”

Amongst value investors, the sin of attempting to time the market is considered to be one of the greatest (for example, see the special note at the end of my recent review of The Intelligent Investor). Luminaries like Graham warn us that attempting to jump in and out of the markets according to their perceived price level being high or low is a speculative activity that will be rewarded as such, which is to say, it’ll eventually end in disaster.

However, while value gurus like Graham warned against market timing as a primary tool of analysis in an investment program, it’s also true that both Graham and Buffett were nonetheless intimately aware of market valuations and sentiment and both of them discussed the way their perception of market valuation influenced their portfolio orientation at any given time. For Graham and his intelligent investors, the response was to weight the portfolio toward bonds and away from stocks when the market was high and the opposite when the market was low. Similarly, Buffett advised in his 1957 letter:

If the general market were to return to an undervalued status our capital might be employed exclusively in general issues… if the market should go considerably higher our policy will be to reduce our general issues as profits present themselves and increase the work-out portfolio

This quote alone, along with many others just like it throughout the partnership letters, makes it clear the Buffett did not ignore broad market valuations. And not only did he not ignore them, he actively manipulated his portfolio in response to them. However, there are a few key things to note in terms of the heavily nuanced differences between what Buffett did and what the average market timer does:

  • Market timers are forecasters, they act on a perceived market level because of their anticipation about future market levels; Buffett refused to speculate about what the future of the market level might be and instead accepted it for what it was, changing what he owned and in what proportions, not whether he was invested or uninvested
  • Market timers are binary, choosing between “risk on” or “risk off”; Buffett responded to higher market levels by seeking to gain greater exposure to market neutral opportunities (special situations revolving around corporate action) while still continuing to make investments in individual undervalued businesses as he found them
  • Market timers always maintain the illusion of “full control” knowing they can always sell out or buy in any time they like in response to market valuations; Buffett acknowledged that many times he might desire to have greater market neutral exposure but that such opportunities might dry up in the late stages of a bull market, dashing his plans

The importance of relative performance

Another concept of Buffett’s money management style that stood out was his obsession with relative performance. I found this interesting again because the orthodox value investment wisdom is that it is not relative, but absolute, performance which matters– if you permanently lose a portion of your capital in a period, but your loss is smaller than your benchmark, you’ve still lost your capital and this is a bad thing.

Again, from the 1957 letter, Buffett turned this idea on its head:

I will be quite satisfied with a performance that is 10% per year better than the [Dow Jones Industrial] Averages

Because Buffett calculated that over the long-term the DJIA would return 5-7% to shareholders including dividends, Buffett was aiming for a 15-17% per annum performance target, or about 3x the performance of the Dow. But, as always, there was an important twist to this quest for relative out performance. In his 1962 letter, Buffett stated in no uncertain terms:

I feel the most objective test as to just how conservative our manner of investing is arises through evaluation of performance in down markets. Preferably these should involve a substantial decline in the Dow. Our performance in the rather mild declines of 1957 and 1960 would confirm my hypothesis that we invest in an extremely conservative manner

He went on to say:

Our job is to pile up yearly advantages over the performance of the Dow without worrying too much about whether the absolute results in a given year are a plus or a minus. I would consider a year in which we were down 15% and the Dow declined 25% to be much superior to a year when both the partnership and the Dow advanced 20%

And he concluded by noting:

Our best years relative to the Dow are likely to be in declining or static markets. Therefore, the advantage we seek will probably come in sharply varying amounts. There are bound to be years when we are surpassed by the Dow, but if over a long period we can average ten percentage points per year better than it, I will feel the results have been satisfactory.

Specifically, if the market should be down 35% or 40% in a year (and I feel this has a high probability of occurring in one year in the next ten– no one knows which one), we should be down only 15% or 20%. If it is more or less unchanged during the year, we would hope to be up about ten percentage points. If it is up 20% or more, we would struggle to be up as much

In his 1962 letter, he added further detailing, sharing:

Our target is an approximately 1/2% decline for each 1% decline in the Dow and if achieved, means we have a considerably more conservative vehicle for investment in stocks than practically any alternative

Why did Buffett focus so much on relative out performance in down years? Because, as a value investor, he was obsessed with permanent loss of capital. In a broad sense, making money in the market is somewhat easy as over long periods of time as the market has historically tended to rise higher and higher. Every now and then, however, it corrects sharply to the downside and it is in these moments when the average investor panics and sells out at a loss, thereby permanently impairing his capital.

Buffett believed that by buying at a discount and taking a more conservative approach to the investment problem from the outset, he would limit any losses he might sustain in the inevitable downturns in the market. This by itself would put him ahead of other market participants because he’d have more of his capital intact. The real power behind this strategy is what comes afterward, as then the just-as-inevitable recovery would continue the compounding process again– with more of his original capital than the other guy, Buffett would enjoy greater pure gain over time as he would have a relatively shallower hole to climb out of each time.

True Margin of Safety: two pillars of value

Fellow value investor Nate Tobik over at OddballStocks.com has talked repeatedly about one of Ben Graham’s concepts which he refers to as the “two pillars of value”, namely, that a company which represents a bargain both on the basis of a discount to net assets and a discount earnings is the most solid Margin of Safety one can possess because you’re not only protected two ways but you also have two ways to “win.”

Reading the Buffett partnership letters, it’s clear that the reason Buffett was knocking it out of the park in his early years was because he relied upon the same methodology. Buffett later was critical of his own early practices and many others have derided the investment style as akin to picking up soggy cigar butts and taking the last puff before discarding them, but there is no denying in studying several of the investments Buffett disclosed that Buffett was buying things which were “smack you over the head” cheap.

For example, in the 1958 letter, Buffett disclosed the partnerships’ investment in Commonwealth Trust Company of New Jersey, a small bank. Buffett claimed the company had a computed per share intrinsic value of $125, which was earning $10/share and trading for $50. This meant that Buffett bought the company for 40% of book value, or at a 60% margin of safety to indicated value. And, in two pillar tradition, he was also buying at a 5x multiple of net earnings– by any standards, an incredibly cheap value. If one were to look at the company as a bond and study it’s earnings yield, this company was offering a 20% coupon!

Making good buys, not good sales

In the example of Commonwealth Trust Co. discussed earlier, though Buffett calculated an intrinsic value of $125/share, he ultimately sold for only $80/share. He did not sell out near intrinsic value but rather far below it. Still, because he had originally bought at $50/share, he nonetheless earned a 60% return despite the company trading at a still-substantial discount to intrinsic value.

As Buffett chirped in his 1964 letter:

Our business is making excellent purchases– not making extraordinary sales

Why does Buffett harp on this idea so frequently? There are a few reasons.

One, an excellent purchase price implies a substantial discount to intrinsic value and earnings power, therefore there is a built-in margin of safety and the downside is covered, a principle of central importance to sound investing.

Two, an individual has 100% control over when they buy a security but relatively little control over when and in what conditions they sell, particularly if they use margin. You may not always get the price you want when you are ready to sell but you will always get the price you want when you buy because that decision is made entirely by you and doesn’t require the cooperation of anyone else. Buying at a discount ensures you “lock in” a profit up front.

Three, buying at a discount gives one optionality. If a better deal comes along, it is more likely you can get back out of your original investment at cost or better when you buy it cheap. When your original purchase price represents a substantial discount you have a better chance of finding a buyer for your shares because even at higher prices such a sale would probably still represent a bargain to another buyer meaning both parties can feel good about the exchange.

This last point was critical in Buffett’s Commonwealth situation. He was happy to sell at only $80/share despite a $125/share intrinsic value because he had found another opportunity that was even more compelling and because his original purchase price was so low, he still generated a 60% return. Meanwhile, the other party who took this large block off his hands was happy to provide the liquidity because they still had a 56% upside to look forward to at that $80/share price.

Early activism, the value of control

Another lesson from Buffett’s partnership letters is the importance and value of activism and control. From an activism standpoint, the examples of Sanborn Maps and Dempster Mills are well-known and don’t require further elaboration in this post (follow the links for extensive case study analysis at CSInvesting.org, or even read Buffett’s partnership letters yourself to see his explanation of how these operations worked).

But activism is something that is best accomplished with control, and often is its by-product. On the topic of control, Buffett said in his 1958 letter with regards to Commonwealth:

we became the second largest stockholder with sufficient voting power to warrant consultation on any merger proposal

By gaining a large ownership share in an undervalued company, an investor can play a more active role in ensuring that potential catalysts which might emerge serve to adequately reward shareholders. Similarly, time is money and when one has control,

this has substantial advantages many times in determining the length of time required to correct the undervaluation

An investment situation offering, say, a 30% return, offers a 30% annualized return if captured within a year, a 15% annualized return if gained after two years and only a 10% annualized return if it takes 3 years to realize value. Having control can often be the difference between a 30% and a 10% annualized return by allowing an investor to accelerate the pace at which they turn over their capital.

It is a myth, therefore, that Buffett only became a wholesale/control buyer as he employed greater amounts of capital in his later years. While many of his investments were passive, minority positions in the partnership years, Buffett never shied away from control and activism, even saying in his 1961 letter:

Sometimes, of course, we buy into a general with the thought that it might develop into a control situation. If the price remains low enough for a long period, this might very well happen

In this sense, “value is its own catalyst” and something which is cheap and remains cheap for an extended period of time can actually be a unique opportunity to accumulate enough shares to acquire control, at which point the value can be unlocked through asset conversion, a sale or merger of the company or through a commandeering of the company’s earnings power.

Portfolio buckets: generals, work-outs and control

In his 1961 letter, as well as later letters, Buffett outlined the three primary types of investments that could be found in the partners’ portfolios, the approximate proportion of the portfolio to be involved with each and the basis upon which such investments should be chosen.

The “bread and butter” according to Buffett was his “generals”, businesses trading at substantial discounts to their intrinsic value which were purchased with the intent of eventually being resold at a price closer to the intrinsic value:

our largest category of investment… more money has been made here than in either of the other categories… We usually have fairly large positions (5% to 10% of our total assets) in each of five or six generals, with smaller positions in another ten or fifteen… Sometimes these work out very fast; many times they take years. It is difficult at the time of purchase to know any specific reason why they should appreciate in price… individual margin of safety coupled with a diversity of commitments creates a most attractive package of safety and appreciation potential… [we] are usually quite content selling out at some intermediate level between our purchase price and what we regard as fair value to a private owner

While admitting that the particular and eventual catalyst was often not known with the average investment in a general security, Buffett also admitted in his 1963 “Ground Rules” letter section:

Many times generals represent a form of “coattail riding” where we feel the dominating stockholder group has plans for the conversion of unprofitable or under-utilized assets to a better use

The next category was workouts:

our second largest category… ten or fifteen of these [at various stages of development]… I believe in using borrowed money to offset a portion of our work-out portfolio since there is a high degree of safety in this category in terms of both eventual results and intermediate market behavior

The beauty of work-outs is that they relied on corporate action, not market action, to realize value. In this sense, they could provide a meaningful buffer to share price declines in generals during bear markets as their performance was largely “market neutral.” For example, in his 1963 (1962 being a bear market) letter Buffett said:

This performance is mainly the result of having a large portion of our money in controlled assets and workout situations rather than general market situations at a time when the Dow declined substantially

The final category was control, which started out as something of an after-thought or an accidental consequence of investing in certain generals which remained cheap, but later turned into an active category Buffett would search for opportunities in.

Buffett also mentioned the idea of the “two-way stretch” in control situations– if bought at a significant discount, there were generally two ways to profit from a control investment. Either the stock price remained low for a long period of time and control was acquired, in which case “the value of our investment is determined by the value of the enterprise,” or else the stock would move up in the process of consolidating a position in which case it could be sold at a higher level in the way one would normally “complete a successful general operation.”

Time horizons for performance

This particular point is more well-known but it bears repeating here. Buffett was obsessed with long-term performance and constantly advised his partners about appropriate timelines for judging investment performance, especially based-upon the particular type of investment being considered. For example, in his 1960 letter he said:

My own thinking is more geared to five year performance, preferably with tests of relative results in both strong and weak markets

In the 1961 letter, Buffett discussed “establishing yardsticks prior to the act” and again emphasized:

It is my feeling that three years is a very minimal test of performance, and the best test consists of a period at least that long where the terminal level of the Dow is reasonably close to the initial level

In other words, what did your performance look like after a three year period where the broad market index made no progress, or even reversed?

With control situations specifically, Buffett advised:

Such operations should definitely be measured on the basis of several years. In a given year, they may produce nothing as it is usually to our advantage to have the stock be stagnant market-wise for a long period while we are acquiring it


It’s clear that Buffett had 15-21 “generals” or about 50-60% of his portfolio, with another 10-15 positions in workouts or another 15-30%, with the remainder in control situations. However, control situations could scale up to as much as 40% of the portfolio in an individual investment if the situation called for it in Buffett’s mind.

And while Buffett mentioned in an earlier letter of having approximately 40 positions in the portfolio in total, he later (around the time he started being influenced by Charlie Munger and other “quality over quantity” investment practitioners) became more critical of the idea of diversification. In the 1966 letter, Buffett lamented:

if anything, I should have concentrated slightly more than I have in the past

He also castigated “extreme diversification”:

The addition of the one hundredth stock simply can’t reduce the potential variance in portfolio performance sufficiently to compensate for the negative effect its inclusion has in the overall portfolio expectation

Buffett was learning the merits of “concentration” in areas outside the portfolio, as well. In discussing slight additions to the office space at Kiewit Plaza and the hiring of additional support personnel, Buffett added:

I think our present setup unquestionably lets me devote a higher percentage of my time to thinking about the investment process than virtually anyone else in the money management business

Of course, the results of this focus were obvious to all in time.

Sizing things up

Buffett dwelled on “the question of size” at length in his letters to partners. He made it clear that portfolio size and investment opportunity looked something like a continuum with small size on the left of the spectrum and large size on the right, with “generals” hanging near the left pole (size is a disadvantage), workouts inhabiting some kind of middle ground where they were neither benefitted nor impaired by size and control situations distinctly on the right where size was an enormous advantage.

Generals and control situations are, in this sense, almost opposites because Buffett warned that some generals were too small to buy meaningful stakes in for a large portfolio, whereas a small portfolio might never be able to acquire enough shares to gain control of certain investments.

Inflation-adjusting Buffett’s portfolio positions and capital at various points in time also gives important clues to the role size played in his operations. For example, Sanborn Maps was apparently around a $4.5M market cap when he mentioned the company in his letters. This would be about $35M or so in today’s dollars (this is not an endorsement of BLS/CPI measurement techniques, just a convenient rule-of-thumb), so clearly Buffett was hunting in a small/micro-cap space at least at this time.

In a similar vein, Buffett started with $105,000 in capital in 1956, which is about $893,000 in 2012. In his 1966 letter, he complained that the amount of capital being managed at the time, $43,645,000, was beginning to be burdensome in terms of size versus opportunities. This would be about $312,000,000 in 2012, to put it into perspective.

Apparently, the value investment framework Buffett created could work quite well even at a scale that we might consider to be decently large.

Serendipity: the reason for Buffett’s rise, and retirement

Few ever think to mention the incredible role serendipity played in Buffett’s early fortunes, but Buffett himself was well-aware. Not only did he begin his career at the outset of an astounding decade-long-plus bull market, but in 1952,

and for some years subsequently, there were substantial numbers of securities selling at well below the “value to a private owner” criterion we utilized for selection of general market investments

As the bull market started to grow gray hairs in the late 1960s and Buffett began contemplating an exit from the business, he similarly remarked in his 1967 letter:

Such statistical bargains have tended to disappear over the years. This may be due to the constant combing and recombing of investments that has occurred during the past twenty years, without an economic convulsion such as that of the ’30s to create a negative bias toward equities and spawn hundreds of new bargain securities

The comment on the aftermath of the 1930s bears repeating. The primary reason for the prevalence of bargain issues in the market around the time Buffett started investing was due to a massive psychological paradigm shift in attitudes about the stock market following the crash of 1929 and subsequent depression of the 1930s. By the late 1960s, a new inflationary thrust had managed to erase this psychology and great gains were actually made in sending it in the reverse direction. Buffett was convinced of

the virtual disappearance of the bargain issues determined quantitatively

the kind whose figures “should hit you over the head with a baseball bat”, which were being replaced by

speculation on an increasing scale

So how did Buffett respond to these new market conditions where his toolkit didn’t seem to work as well? Did he compromise his standards, or try to shape-shift his style into the “New Era” of investors and keep going? Well, anyone who has studied Buffett already knows the answer. Buffett knew his circle of competence and he knew what worked. When what he knew worked stopped working (because the opportunities weren’t available), he quit.

Despite writing in his 1968 letter that the answer to a potential phase out of the partnerships was “Definitely, no.” Buffett nonetheless in his 1969 letter suggested that “the quality and quantity of ideas is presently at an all time low” and that “opportunities for investment that are open to the analyst who stresses quantitative factors have virtually disappeared” and for this reason, he decided to close up shop.

There’s a lesson for all of us here. As Joel Greenblatt has argued, value investing doesn’t work all the time, which is why it works. We should respect this, just as Buffett did– when the deals dry up, we should go fishing (or at the very least, look for bargains in other markets that are in a different stage of psychology/sentiment/valuation). Trying to make great long-term returns when valuations won’t support it is a fools game and more likely to end in failure.

A few miscellaneous notes

In the 1968 letter, Buffett referred to 10-12% as “worthwhile overall returns on capital employed”.

With regards to dividends, although Buffett always described the return of the Dow for each annual period inclusive of dividends earned, and although when describing his investment in Commonwealth he specifically mentioned that the company was not paying dividends, and although we know from an anecdote in The Snowball that Buffett was receiving substantial dividend checks from his partnership portfolios because his wife Susie accidentally through a few away one time, I noticed that Buffett makes no specific mention in any of the letters of the importance of dividends nor that dividends impacted his investment decisions or philosophy.

Notes – Doing The Hugh Hendry (#debt, #diversification)

Below is some commentary from Hugh Hendry I found in an FT.com editorial I since can not access as I don’t have a login. But I thought it was interesting when I first read it awhile back and I still think it’s interesting now. I meant to post it earlier. Rectifying my mistake:

For the moment, let us forget the chances of a hard landing in China. Forget the drama of Europe’s circus of politically inspired economic incompetency. Forget that the good news of the US economy’s succession of positive economic surprises is really bad news as fixed income managers have sold copious amounts of too cheap volatility and because it has made equity investors turn bullish, sending stock market volatility back to 2007 levels. This is dangerous. Improved US data may represent a classic short-term cyclical upturn amid a profound global deleveraging cycle.

Such moves have been commonplace for the past three years and have yet to prove a harbinger of any structural upswing. I worry that the pathological course of the last several years will see volatility rise sharply once again. Even so, there exists, in terms of my parochial world of hedge fund investing, a bigger issue.

I fear that my no longer small community has been compromised. Last year was generally very tough for long/short strategies and I commiserate with all concerned. But last year world class funds lost more than 15 per cent in just two months. Today they are celebrated again for making double digit returns in the last quarter even though they still languish below high water marks and their reputation for risk management, at least to those clients who have poured over their copious due diligence statements, has been sorely compromised.

You can probably live with that if you are a pension scheme or a large, sophisticated fund-of-fund because you have a global macro sub-sector that can benefit from short-term shifts in volatility. But the unfortunate thing is that this group exercised its stop losses somewhere between the great stock market rallies of 2009 and 2010. That is to say, they honoured the pact they had with clients. They adhered to the terms of their risk budget: they lost money and they reduced their positions. I fear that owing to this nasty experience the financial world is in danger of harvesting a monoculture of fund returns that could prove less than robust should the global economy suffer another deflationary reversal.

To my mind the situation has parallels with the plight of the banana. Today the world eats predominately just one type of banana, the Cavendish, but it is being wiped out by a blight known as Tropical Race 4, which encourages the plant to kill itself. Scientists refer to it as programmed death cell destruction. In stressful situations bananas fortify themselves by dropping leaves, killing off weaker cells so that stronger ones may live to fight anew. They operate a stop-loss system.

But modern mass production of single type bananas has replaced jungle diversity with commercial monocultural fields that provide more hosts to harbour the blight. The economy keeps producing stressful volatility events. Good managers keep shedding risk and monetising losses and are duly fired, leaving us with a monoculture of brazen managers who will never stop loss because they are convinced central banks will print more money.

Diversification has proven the most robust survival mechanism against failures of judgment by any one society, hedge fund manager or style. But what if we are now a single global hedge fund community afraid to take stop losses and convinced of an inflationary outcome to be all short US Treasuries and long real assets?

This is pertinent as I have always been fascinated by that second rout in US Treasuries in 1984, long after the inflation of the 1970s was met head on by Paul Volcker’s monetary vice and a deep recession. How could 10-year Treasury yields have soared back to 14 per cent and how could so many investment veterans have been convinced that a second even more virulent inflation wave was to hit the global economy?

Psychologists tell us the explanation is embedded deep in the mind. They refer to the “availability heuristic”. Goaded by the proximity to the last dramatic event, investors overreacted to the news that the US economy was pulling out of recession in 1984. They saw high inflation where there was none.

With this in mind, I would contend that it may take several more years before the threat of debt and deflation can be successfully exorcised from investors’ minds, even if the global economy were not set on such a perilous course. Such is the potency and memory of 2008’s crash that anything remotely challenging to the economic consensus could be met by a sudden and severe reappraisal to the downside.

Should such an event send 30-year Treasury yields back to their 2008 low of 2.5 per cent, we believe enlightened investors might better be served by thinking the opposite. Only then might it prove rewarding to short the government bond market and embrace what may turn out to be a much promised once in a lifetime buying opportunity for risk assets.