back to talking about value investing

badly-managed companies

A highly-skilled former value colleague of mine used to say that there are no bad businesses–there are just bad companies.  What he meant was this:  let’s call any revenue-generating activity as a business; when revenue generation establishes a desire for a product or service, there is always a way to make a profit.  What stands in the way is most often bad management, although it might also be a poor configuration of assets.  (There are also highly cyclical firms, which are typically viewed through lenses that are too shortsighted, and firms that have temporarily stumbled.  Let’s put cases like those aside for now.)


In the US, it is legally and culturally acceptable to call bad companies into account.  This is usually done either by replacing management or by causing the company to be sold and returning the proceeds to shareholders.

Because of these factors, it makes sense to hold the shares of firms where the share price is substantially below asset value, even if the company is doing poorly.

As reader Alan Kaplan points out in a comment to last Thursday’s post, however, change is occuring at such a rapid rate in the current globalizedl and Internet-connected economy that it’s more difficult to make an assessment of how much assets are worth than it was when the tenets of value investing were being laid down almost a century ago.

a plummeting stock

Anyway, I recently noticed a holding that was sinking like a stone in a fund I’ve recently taken a small position in.  The stock is down about 60% over the past year in a market that’s up by 16%.  The portfolio manager, who doesn’t seem to have had much of a plan where this company is concerned, managed to lose two-thirds of his (i.e., my) money before kicking the stock out.


The stock in question is Seaspan (SSW), a container ship leasing company.

My first reaction was to think the stock should never have been in a portfolio, based on the industry it’s in.  My experience of shipping is that it’s a snake pit of public subsidy and private double dealing in which an outsider like me will be lucky to escape with any of the clothes on his back.

On the other hand, my experience is also that people who are as horribly wrong about buying a stock as the pm I mentioned above end up also being horribly wrong again when they sell it.  I used to console myself when I was in this position by thinking that the stock would never bottom as long as I held it, so, yes, I was helping new buyers by selling–but I was helping my portfolio as well.  In any event, the last bull capitulating is usually an important positive sign.

SSW is now trading at $6.67.  Book value is $16+.  The dividend has recently been cut but the stock is still yielding 7%.  By the way, that’s not a good thing, in my view.  My preference would be for the payout to have been eliminated entirely, but I’m willing to give management the benefit of the doubt.

I’m still working myself through the financials.  There are potential issues with new ships now being built that SSW has contracted to buy but has as yet found no one to lease them.  There’s also the worry that existing customers will return ships before charters end and simply refuse to pay amounts still owed.  On the other hand, there’s some chance SSW will be able to refinance its existing debt.  And to some degree–not a great degree, but some–book value for older vessels is underpinned by the ability to sell them for scrap.

In sum, this is high-risk deep-value stuff that I would never recommend anyone else should consider.

Still, I’m surprised and intrigued to find a–to me, at least–plausible value story in such an unlikely place.





revisiting (again) value investing

As regular readers will know, I’m a growth stock investor.  That’s even though I spent my first six years as an analyst/portfolio manager using value techniques almost exclusively–and then worked side by side with a motley crew of value investors for a ten-year period after that.

One way of describing the difference between growth and value is that:

–growth investors know when potentially price-moving news will happen (that is, when quarterly earnings are announced) but are less sure what that news will be

–value investors know what the news will be (if they’ve done their job right, they’re holding stocks where the market has already priced in every possible thing that could go wrong.  All they need is one thing to go right).  However, they may have little idea when good news will occur.


Each style has an inherent problem:

–for growth, it’s hard to find rising earnings during an economic downturn

–for value, it’s possible that a long time (say, two years) may pass before any of a portfolio’s diamonds in the rough are discovered by the market.  In that case, the manager will likely be fired before the portfolio pays off.  His/her successor will either reap the rewards of the predecessor or will dismantle the portfolio before any good stuff can occur.


At times, I do buy what I conceive of a value stocks.  Intel when it was $19, trading at 8x – 9x earnings and yielding almost 4% (I’ve since sold most of what I own) is an example.  But deep value investors would scoff at the notion that this is truly value.


For some time, I’ve been maintaining that value investing has lost its appeal in the 21th century.  Two reasons:

–the stronger one is that the shelf life of physical plant, traditional distribution networks and brand names is no longer “forever” in a globalized, Internet-driven world.  So buying companies that are rich in such assets but not making money is much, much riskier today than it used to be.  Such assets can erode in the twinkling of an eye.

–a weaker claim would be that while there are still value names, it’s hard/impossible to fill out a portfolio of, say, 100 of them, which is the traditional value portfolio structure, in today’s world.


I’m rehashing the growth/value debate here because I’m thinking the stronger position isn’t as unassailable as I’ve believed.

More tomorrow.


Snap (SNAP) non-voting shares (iii)

forms of capital

Traditional financial theory separates a company’s long-term capital into two types:

–debt capital.  This is money the firm has borrowed, either through bank loans or company-issued bonds.  Creditors may have influence over company operations through restrictions spelled out in the loan documents, called covenants.  They generally specify measures to accelerate loan repayment that the company must take if it fails to meet stipulated profit or cash flow measures.  (An example:  the firm may be forced to devote all cash flow to loan repayment if profits decline sharply.  Money can’t be spent on things like capital improvements or dividends unless creditors give the ok.)

–equity capital.  Equity means ownership.  Common stock ownership is typically established by the means equity owners have to assert/protect their interests–usually the ability to vote on appointment of members of the firm’s board of directors.  The board, in turn, hires and evaluates management.

Some companies may also issue preferred stock.   Preferreds qualify for their name because they have some advantage, or preference, over common.  The typical preferences are: higher/more secured dividend payment; and/or priority over common equity in liquidation proceedings.  On the other hand, preferreds typically either have restricted/no voting rights.  In the US, preferreds, despite the equity in their name, typically trade as if they were a form of corporate debt.

SNAP non-voting shares

Where do the SNAP shares fit in this scheme?

They’re clearly not debt    …but are they equity?

They are certainly not traditional equity.  They have no ability to exercise any influence on company operations, and certainly no way to replace an underperforming board of directors.  On the other hand, they don’t appear to have any of the greater security of preferreds.  In fact, they seem to be a hybrid that combines the riskier features of both.

The closest I can come, in my past experience, to US non-voting shares like SNAP’s (or Google’s for that matter) are Korean preferreds and Italian certificates of participation.  In both cases, they traded well in up markets but underperformed very signficantly during market declines.


value investing and mergers/acquisitions

buy vs. build

When any company is figuring out how it should grow its existing businesses and potentially expand into other areas, it faces the classic “buy or build” problem.  That is to say, it has to decide whether it’s more profitable to use its money to create the new enterprise from the ground up, or whether it’s better to acquire a complementary firm that already has the intellectual property and market presence that our company covets.

There are pluses and minuses to either approach. Build-your-own takes more time.  The  buy-it route is faster, but invariably involves purchasing a firm that’s only available because it has been consigned to the stock market bargain basement because of perceived operational flaws.  Sometimes, acquirers learn to their sorrow that the target they have just bought is like a movie set, something that looks ok from the outside but is only a veneer.

when the urge is greatest

Companies feel the buy/build expansion urge the most keenly at times like today, when they are flush with cash after years of rising profits.

so why isn’t value doing better?

Many economists are explaining the apparent current lack of capital spending by companies by arguing that firms are opting in very large numbers to buy rather than to build.

The beneficiaries of such a universal impulse should be value investors, who specialize in holding slightly broken companies that are trading at large discounts to (what value investors hope is) their intrinsic value.  Growth investors, on the other hand, typically hold the strong-growing companies with high PE stocks who do the acquiring.

On the announcement of a bid, the target company typically goes up.  The bidder’s stock, on the other hand, usually goes down.  That’s partly because the bid is a surprise, partly because the target is perceived to be priced too high, partly simply because of arbitrage activity.

All this leads up to my point.

Over the past couple of years, growth investing has done very well.  Value has lagged badly.  How can this be if merger/acquisition activity continues to be large enough that it is making a significant dent in global capital spending?



plusses and minuses of using book value

on the plus side…

–book value is a simple, easy to understand, concept.  Discount to book = cheap, premium to book = a potential red flag.

–it’s very useful for financials, which tend to have huge numbers of often complex, short-lived transactions with hordes of different customers, and where financial disclosure may not be so transparent (financials aren’t my favorite sector, by the way).  So the 30,000 foot view may be the best.

…maybe a plus?…

–in the inflationary world most of us grew up in, and that is still reflected in the financials of older companies, historical cost accounting tends to understate the current value of long-lived assets.  Think:  a piece of land bought in Manhattan or San Francisco in 1950 or an oilfield discovered in 1970–or 1925.  Many of the older retail chain acquisitions of the past twenty years have been motivated by the undervaluation on the balance sheet of owned real estate.

…definitely a minus

–in my experience, accountants tend to be very reluctant to compel managements to write down the value of assets whose worth has been impaired by, say, advanced age or technological obsolescence.

–more important, we are living in a period of rapid change.  The Internet is the most obvious new variable, although I think we tend to underestimate how profound its transformative power is.  In the US, we are also seeing a generational shift in economic power away from Baby Boomers and toward Millennials, who have distinctly non-Boomer preferences and a desire to live a different lifestyle from their parents.

Online shopping undermines the value of an extended physical store network.  Software (which by and large doesn’t appear on the balance sheet) replaces hardware (which does) as a key competitive edge between companies.


Warren Buffett’s key innovation as an investor was to recognize the value of intangibles like this in the 1950s.  In his case, it was that the positive effect of advertising expense and strong sales networks in establishing brand power appeared nowhere on the balance sheet.  In a world where his competitors were focused only on price-to-book, he could buy these very positive company attributes for free.  Price to book was still a solid tool, just not the whole picture.

…vs. structural change

The situation is different today.

The Internet is eroding the value of traditional distribution networks and of other physical assets positioned to serve yesterday’s world.  The shift in economic power to Millennials is likewise calling into question the value of physical assets positioned to serve Boomers.

In more concrete terms:

Tesla doesn’t need a car dealer distribution network to sell its cars.  A retailer can use Amazon, or Etsy or a proprietary website, rather than an owned store network.  A writer can self-publish.  These all represent radical declines in the capital needed to be in many businesses today.

Millennials like organic food and live in cities; Boomers eat processed food and live in the suburbs.

This all calls into question the present economic worth, still expressed on the balance sheet as book value, of past capital spending on what were at the time anti-competition “moats.”

Another issue:   I think that the institutional weight of the status quo has pressured managements of older companies into ignoring the need for substantial repositioning–including writedowns of no-longer viable assets–so they can compete in a 21st century environment.  Arguably, this makes low price to book a warning sign instead of an invitation to purchase.