Appearance versus substance

One of the most frustrating parts of being a professional investor is being pleased with how an investment company is doing only to see Wall Street sell it off time after time.

It’s bad enough to invest other people’s money into investment companies that do poorly, but when the one’s that are doing well get crushed, it’s hard not to heave a big sigh.

I was reminded of this ever-present need for patience watching a couple portfolio companies report earnings this week.

In both cases, I was pleasantly surprised to see things were going better than expected only to find Wall Street selling the companies down to the tune of 5% and 10% one-day losses. Why, oh why?

The answer may be frustrating, but it is simple. 1) Wall Street doesn’t focus on the same metrics as rational owners. 2) Wall Street is focused on 6-9 month results because that’s its average holding period.

Wall Street is enamored with certain metrics that business owners care much less about. In retail, it’s same store sales. In computers, it’s market share. In telecommunications, it’s new customer additions.

I don’t mean to imply that such metrics would be unimportant to rational owners, but they wouldn’t necessarily be the all-consuming focus that it is to Wall Street.

What matters most to owners? Cash flow. How much money came in and how much money did was spend to get it. That’s it.

Warren Buffett calls it owners earnings–the earnings an owner could use to build the business, buy back stock, pay off debt or pay a fat dividend.

An easy way to think about this number is to look at a company’s cash flow statement: subtract maintenance capital expenditures (capex required to keep the same level of sales and profits) from cash flow from operations.

Perhaps a couple of other adjustments may be necessary, but in general that’s it.

Both of my portfolio companies reported strong free cash flows.

A retailer reported 12 month free cash flows that are a mere 5.6x current price, or a free cash flow yield of 17.9%. It’s price was down 5% that day.

A computer company reported quarterly free cash flows that are a mere 5.7x current price (minus cash on the balance sheet), or a 17.5% free cash flow yield. It’s price was down 10%.

Owners of such companies would be salivating to have such returns in a lousy economic environment like this. But, Wall Street is not full of stock owners. It’s full of renters.

Renters don’t care what will happen over the long term (even 3-5 years, it seems). They are just in it for the quick “kill.” Does anyone wash a rented car?

With a time horizon of 6-9 months, Wall Street doesn’t care about free cash flow yields. All they want is to beat “estimates.” Estimates of what? You may have guessed: market share, incremental revenues, same-store sales, new customer adds, average revenue per user, etc.

What matters to owners? Free cash flows to price. That’s the bottom line.

I know I’m whining, but I also know that patience is well-rewarded in the end. Eventually, Wall Street does wake up to free cash flow yields. Eventually they notice how much value resides in businesses that throw off a lot of cash relative to price.

It takes a lot of patience to wait for that fish to come in. But, when it does, my whining sighs turn into war-whoops of triumph.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

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The more attractive the package, the greater the chance of a scam

Ancient Egyptians were so fond of both pets and what specific animal breeds symbolized, they frequently mummified animals to be buried with them.

These mummifications were usually done with loving care because animals symbolized special earthly and other-worldly qualities in addition to an owner’s personal feelings.

Unfortunately, like so many other things in life, some of these mummifications were not done honestly.

As a recent National Geographic article put it, “Despite the lofty purpose of the product, corruption crept into the assembly line.” A researcher’s x-rays “revealed a variety of ancient consumer rip-offs: cheaper animal substituted for a rarer, more expensive one; bones or feathers in place of a whole animal; beautiful wrappings around nothing but mud.” In fact, a generalization emerged from this research, “The more attractive the package…the greater the chance of a scam.”

That last sentence is worth it’s weight in gold and worth repeating: the more attractive the package, the greater the chance of a scam.

I’m surprised how frequently I see this with investing or other parts of my life.

When I read an annual report that’s super-glossy and makes it sound like the company and its management have never made a mistake in their life, there’s almost always something wrong.

When a salesperson makes a pitch to me that sounds too good to be true, it almost always is.

When I read marketing material that highlights all the benefits but none of the risks, I start to become skeptical.

I was struck by the ancient Egyptian example, because it shows it’s as old as man. If human beings exist, there’s bound to be someone making the package look attractive and stuffing it with fluff.

Just because somethings looks and sounds good doesn’t mean it is. It’s easy to be taken in by flashy materials and a polished presentation, but that doesn’t mean you have to buy into it.

Sometimes the right product or service doesn’t look flashy and the presenter isn’t terribly polished. One look at my website or one hearing of my “pitch” would convince you that I’m a heavily biased on this matter. I’ll readily admit (or rationalize), flash and polish aren’t my strong points.

But, I’m guessing that if the attractive package approach has been around for at least 5,000 years, it’s probably not going to go away any time soon. The line to be ripped off will probably be around the block because it works as well today as it always has.

Or, perhaps I’m wrong, and people really do learn. That, too, is as old as man.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

The dash to trash

When the stock market climbs or falls, it’s always interesting to see which segments are doing best or worst.

Not surprisingly, the stocks that have done best since the March bottom are some of the junkiest companies out there. This makes some sense because such companies were priced for bankruptcy last spring.

As early investors realized junky companies weren’t going under, they jumped at the chance to bag 200%, 300% and higher returns.

The problem with staying with such an approach, now that the trash rally has had its day, is that it’s hard to see how it can continue. Junky stocks have junky business models with weak competitive advantages, low margins, too much debt, etc. From here, there isn’t a lot of upside, and the downside is becoming more perilous.

In contrast, the best-run companies have hardly participated in the rally since March. Granted, they didn’t go down as far, but it’s nonetheless surprising that investors haven’t turned back to them now that the dash to trash has become stretched.

This is most likely due to the pervasive influence of momentum. Momentum investing is the process of buying what’s moving. If it’s climbing, buy it. If it’s sinking, sell it or sell it short. This process can continue for quite some time…until it doesn’t.

Predicting when is impossible, but predicting that it will end is a given. Or, as Herb Stein put it, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

At some point in time, investors will realize that junky companies have problems and aren’t delivering. That’s when investors will fall over each other trying to buy franchise, high-quality businesses that make money regardless of how well or poorly the economy is doing.

It’s no fun to be under-performing as the market makes a continued mad dash to trash. But, I’m not foolish enough to chase the heard, and I know it doesn’t work over the long run anyway. Or, as our mothers rhetorically asked us, “if your friends jumped off a bridge, would you follow?”

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.