value investing

Schrödinger’s Market

canstockphoto20919748

Quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger once came up with a thought experiment to illustrate a difficult conceptual problem. Suppose you have an opaque box with a cat inside. In the box is a mechanism that is designed to release a poison gas based on the random actions of subatomic particles on a quantum level.

Now according to quantum theory, it is literally impossible to know what these particles will do in advance. You cannot even accurately measure what they are currently doing beyond general probabilities. In fact, until you observe them they act as though they are doing multiple mutually exclusive things—including behaving as though they are two places at once!

Hence Schrödinger’s box. Without observing the contents of the box you have no way of knowing if quantum action triggered the poison or not. Thus, until you open the box and look the cat is simultaneously alive and dead: a surprising conclusion, and a difficult paradox for physicists!

You and I can leave that problem to the scientists, but Schrödinger’s box can be a useful metaphor for other unknowable states. The actions of financial markets are theoretically not as complicated as quantum mechanics. But predicting market action is so far beyond our current mathematical understanding that they might as well be.

Like quantum particles, the value of a market cannot accurately be measured without interacting with it. This leads to a great deal of uncertainty and can sometimes make it feel like multiple conflicting realities are true at once.

Reading the financial press you will often be presented with competing headlines declaring that we are simultaneously in the midst of a great bull market and a terrible bear market.

As with the box, we prefer to leave these paradoxes to people with more time on their hands. Instead of trying to time the market, we believe in sticking to timeless principles like avoiding stampedes and finding bargains in the hopes of finding quality companies. We cannot predict what market prices will do from moment to moment, but we can guess at general probabilities.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Pain and Gain

© Can Stock Photo / Anke

Great thinker Morgan Housel talks about the scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which one man snuffs a match out with his fingers and doesn’t flinch. Another tries it, yells in pain, and asks what the trick is. “The trick is not minding that it hurts.”

Housel concludes “accepting a little pain has huge benefits. But it will always be rare, because it hurts.”

The implication for our business with you is clear. Housel concisely states what we’ve been working to convey for years: “The upside when you simply accept and endure the pain from market declines is that future declines don’t hurt as bad. You realize it’s just part of the game.”

That you have learned this lesson, and tend to live by it even when it is uncomfortable is why we say you are the best clients in the world. We feel fortunate, because it is rare. Somehow we found or attracted people with effective investing instincts, or helped to instill those.

The key to making this work in the real world is avoiding the need to sell at bad times. Cash reserves and adequate cash flow are the things that let us live with short term fluctuations with our long term money.

When we are all on the same page, we spend less time worrying about, and explaining, day to day or week to week market action. Almost all financial market commentary may be summarized by saying “it goes up and down.”

This gives us time to hunt for bargains, think about trends on the horizon, and work on your plans and planning. All of these are more worthwhile uses of our time than attempting to explain why the market went up or down yesterday, or predict what it might do tomorrow.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Can You See the Forest?

© Can Stock Photo / Elnur

The old saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees,” refers to the difficulty we humans have in maintaining perspective, of keeping the larger context in mind. Our current challenges bring us reminders of this.

Recently we were discussing the prospects for investing in a food processing company. Market disruptions have knocked the cost of $1 of annual earning power down to $10 – an earnings yield of 10%. (Another way to say it: a price-earnings ratio of 10.) If one can purchase durable earning power in an enduring industry at valuations like that, the holding might be owned a very long time.

(No guarantees – there are a lot of assumptions in that last paragraph.)

A colleague asked us whether we were concerned about the impact of processing plant shutdowns. After agreeing that any shutdowns would likely be limited to a matter of weeks, this seemed to be one of those problems of perspective.

For none of the past few decades have the plants been shut down for a virus. Apart from the next few weeks, it seems unlikely that virus-related shutdowns will be much of a factor in the decades ahead.

The forest is that we humans will still need to eat in the future, and there is probably money to be made by meeting that need. The trees are the virus and the shutdowns and the disruptions. One of our key roles is working to see the big picture and striving to act accordingly. We need to be able to see the forest in spite of the trees.

Interestingly, the challenge of maintaining perspective may play a role in creating bargains. Investors who get too wrapped up in transitory effects may push prices to levels that don’t reflect the long term value. When current conditions fade, as they will, that value may become apparent. Again, no guarantees.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Deepwater Disaster and Expectations

© Can Stock Photo / curraheeshutter

A decade ago, perhaps the biggest environmental disaster in American history began to unfold. The Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded in a fireball from high pressure methane gas coming up from the well.

Eleven workers were never found; seventeen were injured. Two days later, a slick began to form. It was the harbinger of the biggest oil spill ever, over 200 million gallons.

Day after day, the nightly news and cable channels showed images of oil billowing up from the sea floor. It was like a never-ending horror show, dragging out for eighty-seven days. Environmental damage to the waters of the Gulf and its beautiful beaches would clearly exact a heavy toll on the fisheries and tourism industries.

The well owner, BP, was rightly vilified for operational lapses and safety practices. Civil penalties and restitution were bound to be in the many billions of dollars. Many people wondered how the company could even survive, or do business afterward.

In the face of these challenges, it is not surprising that the price of BP stock was more than cut in half in less than three months.

The surprising part is that the stock bottomed and began to move up even before the oil stopped billowing into the Gulf.

There is a lesson here about expectations and unfolding reality. When the consensus expectations got below the reality that would eventually emerge, the stage was set for unexpected gains. As a company, BP did pay in many ways for its failures, in amounts that did get into the many billions of dollars.

But reality almost had to be better than the expectations, since the expectations were so low.

(This is not a recommendation, or a recital of our research prowess. We never advocated for the purchase of BP stock near the low point, believing it to be too much to ask of you.)

Near this tenth anniversary of the disaster, we recall this history to note that taking the contrarian approach against the prevailing consensus may sometimes be a fruitful way to invest.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

20% – 30% – 40% Off!

© Can Stock Photo / PaulMatthew

Some say the seeds of future gains are planted in the downturns. The future is always uncertain, but the past is not: we know many investments can be owned for less money today than last month or last year.

As we go about our work, we are seeking three kinds of bargains.

  • Great companies available at good prices.
  • Cyclical companies at low points in their cycle.
  • The best bargains in the investment universe, wherever they are.

Often, the companies we most admire seem expensive. We know farmers that are always excited to talk about buying their favorite iconic tractor maker. We hear the same thing from parents about the entertainment conglomerate that makes the movies and runs the theme parks their children enjoy. Downturns sometimes reduce stock prices to attractive levels.

Everyone knows that recessions usually hurt company revenues and profits. We are thinking how the inevitable recovery might improve revenues and profits. That long view improves our appetite for temporarily depressed cyclical companies.

Some of our favorite past bargains have come from the sector politely known as “high yield bonds.” (You and I can use a more descriptive term, junk bonds.) From time to time, at rare intervals over the past twenty years, we have found something we believed to be investable hiding in the junk pile. Times might be ripe for that again.

Now is the time. We are studying and thinking and researching to make the most of it.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Making Money the Old-Fashioned Way

© Can Stock Photo / stokkete

Years ago, the Wall Street firm of E.F. Hutton advertised “We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it.” This tag line evoked a world of indepth research into securities and markets, and investment analysis by experienced professionals.

E.F. Hutton disappeared into a series of mergers, and making money the old-fashioned way is increasingly scarce. One popular theory now is that security selection does not matter, only the allocation of money across the different sectors of the market.

Combined with the idea that past patterns of volatility and past returns by sector should dictate what one should own for the future, many modern ‘investment advisors’ pay no attention to individual company stocks or bonds.

It seems to us that owning stock in a failing chain of department stores is a lot different than owning the world’s largest online retailer. A few automakers survived, hundreds did not. Buying a corporate bond for 50 cents on the dollar is a totally different proposition than selling it for 50 cents on the dollar. Owning some of everything is different than being selective.

Our experience says security selection DOES matter.

One of our strategies is to try to find ownership in great companies at decent prices, to buy and hold. Looking for cyclical companies at low points in the cycle is another strategy. And simply seeking bargains anywhere in the investment universe is a third.

This is not easy. Conditions are always uncertain. There are no guarantees. It takes a lot of effort and energy. There is no assurance that the old-fashioned way will make money, as E.F. Hutton claimed.

But we are trying.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

The Anti-Buffett

© Can Stock Photo / Leaf

We had back-to-back conversations recently with clients who are big fans of Warren Buffett. Oddly, they seem to dislike the application of his principles to their portfolios. It is a good illustration of why Buffett’s success has endured, in our opinion. His ideas are easy to understand, hard to do.

Consider these quotations, investor first, then Buffett in bold.

“This stock has done nothing but go down since I bought it. I want to sell.”
I love it when stocks I like go down, then I can buy more at a better price.

“That company is in the news all the time with problems. I don’t think we should buy it.”
The troubles everyone knows about are already in the stock price.

“Everyone I know is afraid of this market, so I’m thinking of getting out.”
Be greedy when others are fearful.

“This stock is doing great, it’s gone up a lot since we bought it.”
Watch the company, not the stock.

These conversations are noteworthy because they are rare. The tagline on our digital archives, ‘for the best clients in the whole world,’ reflects our high esteem for you.

Clients, if you would like to talk to us about this or anything else, please email us or call.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Extreme Discounts

© Can Stock Photo / konephoto

One of the basic distinctions made in the stock market is between growth and value. Growth stocks offer the potential or history of above-average growth in revenues and earnings. Investors are buying a brighter future.

Value stocks present a low cost in terms of price for a current dollar of earnings, or price/earnings (P/E) ratio. In the late 1990’s growth stock boom, value stocks were derided as “old economy” stocks. The exciting “new economy stocks,” computer chip and internet and fiber optic companies, were all firmly in the growth camp.

Investing in growth worked well until it didn’t. Value stocks went nowhere until the Tech Wreck, when growth stocks peaked and then fell a long way. The stock market often experiences periods where one of these factors outperforms, and the other one lags.

A recent article at MarketWatch.com1 detailed the work of a Wall Street analyst who claims that value stocks are at their biggest discount relative to growth in many years. The charts show that valuation differences generated by a decade of strong growth stock returns put value stocks at perhaps the biggest discount in history relative to growth.

In plain language, the bargain stocks have generally become bigger bargains.
When there are sound reasons for expecting better stock prices at some point in the future, we may own companies that are underwater, or down from what we paid for them, for an extended period.

We strive to own the best bargains. It is hard to watch as bargains become even better bargains while more expensive stocks do better. But we know how this works. We believe that sooner or later the bargains will produce gains.

If the differences in valuations are at extreme levels, perhaps the trend change is coming sooner rather than later.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.

Notes & References

1. MarketWatch, “Value Stocks are Trading at the Steepest Discount in History”. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/value-stocks-are-trading-at-the-steepest-discount-in-history-2019-06-06. Accessed June 14th, 2019


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.