value investing

Classical Language, Mostly Classic Ideas

© Can Stock Photo / franckito

A surprising number of Latin phrases are woven into modern society, considering the language has not been widely used for centuries. From simple truisms like tempus fugit (time flies) to mottos like e pluribus unum (from many, one), the wisdom and ideas of a civilization lost to antiquity survive.

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote “experientia docet,” experience teaches. We must take issue with this one. Investors make a critical mistake in learning from experience, in our view. They often learn the wrong lesson.

People sometimes adopt tactics and strategies that would have worked great in the last cycle. Unfortunately, times change and the outdated strategies usually fail to perform like they did before.

In the year 2000, following the stock market bust stocks fell—but home values rose. This taught people the wrong idea that “you can’t lose money in real estate”, which caused a lot of damage during the 2007 financial crisis. Then, by 2009, lenders learned the wrong lesson again—because auto loans outperformed in the downturn. Today they may be setting up future losses by putting too much money into substandard auto loans.

A related problem is best illustrated by a product pitch we recently received from an investment sponsor. Their latest offering is based on “the top performing asset class of the last decade!”

Clients, you know what our issue is with this. We love to buy bargains. The best performer over the past decade is, by definition, no bargain. Piling in after a big runup may be jumping on the bandwagon right before it goes off a cliff. However, the experience of the last decade evidently taught many that the specific sector was the one to buy now. Wrong lesson, again.

One interesting facet of all this is that experience actually can teach us. We just need to be certain we are learning the right lesson.

There were useful and profitable lessons in the tech wreck of 2000 and the real estate bust that began in 2007. In our view, those lessons are that it is dangerous to invest in over-priced assets—and it doesn’t pay to join a stampede in the market. Those lessons help us live with attractively priced stocks, and avoid the flight to safety that made historically more stable assets overpriced (in our opinion.)

So let us leave you with a little Latin of our own devising: cognitio ad felicitatem. (Knowledge leads to prosperity.) Clients, if you have any questions, comments or insights 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. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Because of their narrow focus, sector investing will be subject to greater volatility than investing more broadly across many sectors and companies.

Safe is the New Dangerous

© Can Stock Photo / onepony

We strive to see the world as it is, and act accordingly. Going by the textbook and implementing conventional wisdom without testing it against actual conditions is not in our playbook. What we see today is nothing short of astonishing—for two reasons.

“Safe” has become the new dangerous. We are astonished at how the investment world appears to be upside down in some respects. And we are astonished that so few of us seem to have noticed.

During the year 2000, the technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite index fell over 39%1. This crushing of technology and growth stocks at the start of the millennium and the financial crisis that arose just seven years later drove fear of the stock market deep into the psyche of some investors. Consequently, we believe there has been a flight to safety that has created some real anomalies.

Yields on long term government bonds and high yield corporate bonds have fallen to near historical lows not seen in over 50 years2. It isn’t just in bonds, either. Supposedly safe stocks appear to be the most expensive part of the market.

Standard & Poors reports that the market average price to earnings (P/E) ratio is about 18. Food companies, shampoo makers, toothpaste sellers, medical supply companies and utilities are priced at a premium because those lines of business are assumed to be recession-proof…you know, safe. In an 18 P/E market, these companies are priced at 22, 25, 30, or 34 times earnings3.

We have owned many of these companies in the past at P/E’s of 10 or 12 or 14. Why anyone would own an electric utility when solar plus battery technology is bound to turn them upside down is beyond us. (We wrote about the coming change here.)

Consequently, we believe that allegedly “safe” stocks have become so expensive they are dangerous. The textbook says utility stocks are safe. We look at the world and say, “Not really.” Safe is the new dangerous.

Meanwhile, there are market sectors and companies priced below the market average P/E, including some with dynamic prospects in the years ahead. We believe the stocks we own are bargains. That’s an opinion, not a guarantee. You know we don’t offer guarantees, except that values will fluctuate.

Clients, if you would like a longer conversation about this upside down situation or any other topic, please email us or call.

1Nasdaq, Inc.

2Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

3Standard & Poor’s, Inc.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Floating rate bank loans are loans issues by below investment grade companies for short term funding purposes with higher yield than short term debt and involve risk.

High yield/junk bonds (grade BB or below) are not investment grade securities, and are subject to higher interest rate, credit, and liquidity risks than those graded BBB and above. They generally should be part of a diversified portfolio for sophisticated investors.

Government bonds are guaranteed by the US government as to the timely payment of principal and interest and, if held to maturity, offer a fixed rate of return and fixed principal value.

Would You Take Every Drug on the Shelf?

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We have written quite a bit about the conventional investing wisdom recently. This essay puts the focus on what we do here at 228 Main.

One of our principles is to find the best bargains. We cannot be sure where they are, but we will still try to find them. We look for seemingly healthy investments at historically low-seeming valuations.

We recognize this means buying investments which are unpopular. This is fine with us. In fact, we rely on it. One of our core principles is to avoid stampedes. The more of something everyone else is buying, the more expensive it is going to get.

A natural consequence of our approach is that our portfolio construction may not be as diversified as conventional wisdom dictates. But we are not interested in trying to own everything. We want to own the bargains.

We may not always be able to pick them. We may miss out on some high flyers because we thought they were too expensive to buy. Sometimes a “bargain” turns out not to be one. Generally, though, we believe that our odds are better if we at least try to find the bargains.

An alternative to our way is like going to a doctor who prescribes every drug he can think of in case one of them works. “Chances are some of them will make things better and some of them will make things worse, but in theory one of them should cure you.” Wouldn’t you run out the door?

There are many unknowns in both medicine and investing. A doctor may have to try several courses of treatment before finding one that works. Similarly, we frequently implement several promising tactics at the same time. Some don’t work out and need to be replaced.

We think it is reckless, however, to simply give up trying to find successful investments in favor of simply grabbing a little bit of everything. Yet that seems to be a popular, if lazy, strategy with some investment professionals.

Clients, please call or email us if you want to discuss how our investment ideas apply to your situation.


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

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Bargain Hiding in Plain Sight

© Can Stock Photo / mrivserg

Imagine a product that has these uses1:
• Vital part of every home and building.
• Goes into every vehicle; hybrids and electrics use up to four times more.2
• Needed for manufacture, installation and use of solar panels and wind turbines.
• Key requirement in making batteries.

One might imagine that demand for this product will rise in coming years, as technology changes our power grid and transportation, and the world continues to modernize.

Now consider the supply side. It takes billions of dollars and four years or more to create a new production facility. The industry that produces it went through a depression as prices for the product got cut in half from 2011 to 20163. Revenues disappeared, losses mounted, spending got slashed. New projects were cancelled.

Rising demand, constricted supply: we know how this works. Prices will rise, revenues and earnings for producers will go up, stock prices may follow. No guarantees, of course, and the timing is always uncertain.

The product is COPPER. There is no replacement for it. The question we face as investors is, can we get involved on a favorable basis?

We know companies that produce a lot of copper, along with other resources. Their stocks are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The valuation on their shares seems compelling. A dollar of profit in one trades for a third less than that of the average stock; the other one carries a two-thirds discount. One is trading at one-third of its all-time peak a few years back, the other is discounted even more.

Both stocks have been about twice as volatile as the average stock. (This is measured by a statistic called ‘beta.’) We don’t care. Downside volatility is wonderful if you are trying to buy bargains. But owners should be prepared for the roller-coaster.

Clients, we are telling you this story for a reason. When you hear that ‘the market is too high’ or things are at some unsustainable peak, remember that at 228 Main, we are pounding the table and jumping up and down about the bargains we are finding. If you would like to discuss this or anything else at greater length, please email us or call.

1The World Copper Factbook 2014, International Copper Study Group

2The Electric Vehicle Market and Copper Demand, International Copper Alliance

3Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.

The fast price swings in commodities and currencies will result in significant volatility in an investor’s holdings.

A Drop or a Loss?

© Can Stock Photo / jamdesign

Recently a client informed us that another person told her that her primary investment account may be invested too aggressively. We asked what the basis was for that conclusion. The explanation: “If the market corrects, I would lose money.”

Anyone who has followed us for any length of time could probably spot the two questionable ideas contained in those eight words. It is worth discussing, because, in our opinion, getting these ideas right may help our clients build wealth more effectively.

1. There is no “if” about the next market correction, it should be when the market corrects. Why act as if we could avoid corrections when we know they will happen and they cannot be reliably predicted nor traded?

2. Is a drop in the market a loss?

We have many long term clients who have lived through dozens of 3-5-7% drops, a fair number of 10-20% declines known as ‘corrections,’ and three or four bear markets with drops of more than 20% in the major market averages. Yet they are sitting on cumulative gains—account balances in excess of the net amount they invested. One might reasonably ask, “what losses?”

The key to our plan, of course, is remaining on course even in difficult conditions, which we know will happen from time to time. We described our efforts to build a client group with this characteristic in our article Niche Market of the Mind.

It is worth mentioning that much of the conventional wisdom about investing assumes that, indeed, a drop in the market is a loss. Furthermore, since many people behave ineffectively when it comes to investing, the conventional wisdom seems to be that everybody behaves ineffectively—doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, again and again—as if it is inevitable for everyone.

It is almost as if statistics about the average weight and exercise habits of Americans are taken as proof that no group of relatively fit people show up at the gym at 6 AM to work out.

We are grateful to be working with you, a group of clients who are disciplined and fit when it comes to effective wealth-building behavior. If you have questions about this or any other topic, please call or email us.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

Alternative Facts, Alternative Investments

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Over the past few months, there has been a lot of hay made in the press about “alternative facts.” The term is a sarcastic euphemism; when something is labeled an alternative fact, the clear implication is that it is not a fact at all.

There is a certain class of investments which are collectively called “alternative investments.” This term is unrelated to the term “alternative fact”, but the similarities are undeniable.

Traditional investments are based on the notion of putting your money to work in order to generate more money. When you invest in a company’s stock, you are buying a piece of a going concern that generates revenue. When you invest in bonds, you are buying a debt obligation that bears interest. Even if you are just holding cash reserves, when you leave your cash with a bank, they are paying you interest to hold onto your money. In today’s interest rate environment you are probably earning close to nothing, but at least in theory there is some return on cash.

This is not to say that traditional investments are not without risks. You are not guaranteed to break even, let alone make money—companies may go broke, leaving stocks and bonds at a fraction of their former value. But you still have the hope that your money can grow into more money over time.

“Alternative investments” is a very large category which encompasses a wide range of assets. The only common element is that they do not fall into traditional investment categories such as stocks and bonds, and in many cases, arguably do not qualify as investments in the traditional sense at all.

Commodities are one form of alternative investment. These are gold, silver, oil, corn, and so on—actual, physical products, not the companies that produce them. If you buy a bar of gold, all you will ever have is a bar of gold. It will never turn into two bars of gold. If you are lucky, maybe you can sell it to someone for more than you paid for it. But that is speculation, not investment.

Derivatives contracts are another type of alternative investment. A derivative’s value is based on (“derived from”) the value of another asset, such as a stock or commodity. When you buy options to purchase a company’s stock, you are making a bet that the company will be successful, just like owning stock. However, stock options tend to have a very short time horizon. You are speculating on short term price fluctuations, not really investing in a company’s long term growth.

Undoubtedly some people make good money speculating on alternative investments. As a result, some portfolio managers believe in buying small slices of alternative investments for everyone in case they happen to outperform traditional investments. Our response: nuts! We want to build an orchard big enough to live off the fruit crop. We have no interest in owning a smaller orchard and trying to make up the difference buying and selling fruit with other fruit speculators.

Clients, if you want to talk about your portfolio, please call or email. But if someone is trying to sell you “alternative investments”, you should perhaps treat them with the same skepticism you’d give to someone pitching “alternative facts.”


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

Alternative investments may not be suitable for all investors and involve special risks such as leveraging the investment, potential adverse market forces, regulatory changes and potentially illiquidity. The strategies employed in the management of alternative investments may accelerate the velocity of potential losses.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

The fast price swings in commodities and currencies will result in significant volatility in an investor’s holdings.

When Dark Clouds Fill the Sky

© Can Stock Photo / pzAxe

Warren Buffett’s latest shareholder letter contained a remarkable paragraph:

“Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons. And that we will do.”

Long-time clients saw how this worked in the recovery from the 2009 crisis low point, and the post-9/11 lows in 2002. You are a remarkable group: when others panicked and sold out, many of you stayed the course. There is no guarantee, of course, that history will repeat, or that past performance indicates future outcomes.

Like great chess players, we need to be thinking many moves ahead. In our opinion, the economy in the US and around the globe is pretty good. We do not buy the whole stock market, we pick our spots. And we are excited about those spots.

But we do need to be steeled to both occasional market corrections of up to 10%, and the deeper declines that occur from time to time. They cannot be reliably predicted. What is in our control, however, is how we react. Do we sell out at low points, or get in position for a possible recovery? We are taking steps that may mitigate a general market decline—no guarantees, of course.

We are a little more prone to keep a little cash in reserve, to diversify into lower-priced markets, to continue to prune holdings that may be extended and add names we believe to be bargains. Most of our holdings are not sitting at all-time highs, although overall market averages are–the S&P 500 for example reached a new high as recently as March 1st1. You can read about our current themes here.

In the very best case, markets and our account values fluctuate. This is the tradeoff we accept in order to seek the returns we need to pursue our goals.

We have a great partnership with you, our amazing group of clients. You understand living with volatility can lead to long term rewards. We think we know what to do, whether the skies are blue or the dark clouds have gathered. If you have questions or comments, please write or call.

1Market data from Standard & Poor’s


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

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk.

The Longest Journey, Part One

© Can Stock Photo / sabinoparente

We have seen many clients make the journey to become more effective investors with more productive attitudes, beliefs, and habits. We are proud of the client who made the longest journey of all. Because it has so much potential for so many others, we are telling the story of W, our client, in this series of three posts.

W reached a place in his career where he had money to invest in the late 1990’s. He consulted us about investing—but did not become a client then.

Our principles led us to conclude that the red-hot technology sector, which everybody seemed to be buying, should not be purchased. The bargains we preferred were incredibly boring to W. An annual dividend of a few percent was not appealing compared to the prospect of continued 30-40% gains from the shooting stars.

(Long-time followers will recognize our three principles in this episode: avoid stampedes in the market, find the biggest bargains, “own the orchard for the fruit crop.”)

After the wheels came off the technology boom and W lost half his money, he brought what was left of his portfolio to us.

Many victims of the massive decline that began in 2000 learned the wrong lesson. Although ‘old economy’ companies held their own or gained while tech stocks plummeted, some learned that “the stock market is dangerous.” The correct lesson, of course, is that popular but over-priced assets are dangerous.

W, to his credit, had learned the right lesson. He remembered the advice he did not take, saw how that would have worked, and became a client. Meanwhile, the people who learned the wrong lesson sold out and usually went on to repeat their mistake elsewhere.

This was the first leg of the journey of W, where it really began. But he was not an effective investor, yet. Two more lessons were needed, further along the path.

We’ll be writing about those next two lessons in the days ahead. If you just can’t wait to learn the rest of the story, or want to talk about your situation, please call or write.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

This is a hypothetical situation based on real life examples. Names and circumstances have been changed. To determine which investments or strategies may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

The payment of dividends is not guaranteed. Companies may reduce or eliminate the payment of dividends at any given time.

Can Haruspication Work For You?

© Can Stock Photo / DAIVI

We’re fairly certain we will meet one of our communication goals with this essay: to educate. We did not know the big word in the title until we went looking for it. If you knew it already, you are some kind of scholar.

Haruspication is one of many ways in which humans have attempted to divine the future. The practice came to ancient Rome from the Hittites via the Etruscans. It involved examining the entrails of animals that had been sacrificed to the gods for signs and portents. Perhaps it didn’t work that well, since the Hittites and the Etruscans haven’t been heard from for millennia.

In our day, technical analysts purport to be able to learn the future direction of investments by examining charts of various kinds. At the extreme, some say that fundamentals like earnings or financial statements or economic factors do not apply: everything one needs is supposed to be in the charts.

Our view is that facts matter, that understanding financial statements is important to investment analysis, that economic research has its place. By far the most important thing is to choose the questions you want to answer.

For a long term investor, the direction of the stock market or of any particular investment next week or next month or even next year is not all that pertinent. We already know that markets and investments go up and down; we also know what the underlying long term trend has been for many decades.

The questions we most want to answer are, where are the biggest bargains in today’s environment? Are there market stampedes we should avoid, or perhaps even go against? How can we own durable sources of investment income so we can live on our capital?

Neither haruspication nor technical chart analysis is likely to help you reach your goals. You may rely on us to do the work of reviewing quarterly reports, analyzing financial statements, studying economic developments, and thinking about trends in business and society—so that we can help you answer the important questions.

Please call if you would like to discuss your situation, and how our work might apply to it.


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

No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

The Melting Pot Matures

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A few weeks ago the Nobel Prize Committee announced the latest round of Nobel laureates for 2016. Seven Americans were named to this high honor—and six of the seven were immigrants, born outside of this country.

Immigration is frequently a hot topic during an election year, this one perhaps more than most. On the one side, we are told that immigration is costing us jobs, lowering our wages, and causing more crime. On the other side we are given a moral argument, that we are a nation of immigrants who should welcome others into our melting-pot culture as we have welcomed those who came before.

We set aside the moral side of this debate; while we occasionally dip into moral philosophy, this blog concerns itself chiefly with practical matters of economics. And as a practical matter, there are very good reasons why we should appreciate the value that immigrants bring to our country, above and beyond whatever Nobel prizes they may win.

As a country we are facing a demographic crisis. Since the 1970s, we have been having noticeably fewer children per family than we did previously. As our generation reaches retirement age, record numbers of Americans are leaving the workforce. I still plan on working until I’m 92—but many of my contemporaries have other plans. As we leave, there are more openings left behind than we have children and grandchildren to fill.

This demographic wall creates a major drag on the economy: we want to grow our economy faster, but we simply don’t have enough workers to do it. For the past year we’ve seen the unemployment rate hovering at 5% and below. Even as the economy recovers and we start to add jobs, there’s going to be a very real question as to who will be filling them. The workers simply aren’t there. To some extent this is a regional issue—some of our employment woes could be fixed by having job-seekers move from economically depressed areas to thriving areas where jobs are being created too quickly to fill. But not everyone can uproot their lives for work, and where people cannot or will not relocate, the only alternative is to import workers from elsewhere.

Ours is not the only country facing this demographic crisis. We need only look at Japan, Europe, and other parts of the developed world to see what happens when an aging population is not replaced. Many first world countries have a lower birth rate and lower immigration rate—and, not coincidentally, lower GDP growth. We would do well to learn from their example what not to do.

This is not to say that we endorse open borders or encourage illegal immigration. We are a nation of law. We should have sensible laws that are enforced in a fair and even-handed manner. But to suggest that we should slam the door shut on immigrants is to ignore the economic reality we face. One of the best and surest ways to expand our economy is to add new people to it—and we will need to, if we wish to continue growing at a reasonable rate.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only.