Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cooking a recipe for an excellent investment opportunity

This article builds upon what was addressed in Investment Methodology. All the articles should neatly sum up what I believe defines an excellent investment opportunity from a business perspective. For the uninitiated, this series of articles are probably useful as a start read, but for the seasoned value investors, perhaps you can look elsewhere (or share your thoughts via comments/shoutbox)

Disclaimer: The belowmentioned recipe cooks a soup not for the faint-hearted or the ordinary man on the street.

Reference material: The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham, Common Stocks Uncommon Profits by Philip Fisher, Built to Last by Jim Collins

The First Ingredient of an excellent investment opportunity: Outstanding Management

The directors own a significant stake in the company, increase their stakeholdings over time and never sell out any single stock.

The intent of going public listing must be to purely raise capital and still retain control to expand the business further. It must never be a case of a shrewd businessman who desires to sell-off the business and start washing his hands off for retirement with millions of dollars from the equity issuance. Knowing that a director has a significant vested interest gives the retail investor an added assurance that the directors take complete ownership in ensuring the company's profitability. Also, it is desirable to know that the directors never sell down his stakes and instead continues to buy in when prices are depressed.

The management stays within its circle of competency and does not diversify into areas of business that they are not familiar with.

If the company is good at producing bubble gum and has been doing so profitably for the last 20 years, that is their circle of competency. I would not expect them to diversify into unfamiliar industries. This dilutes their area of focus and it is also much more difficult to perform valuation and business analysis. A company that produces soft drinks and also invest in investment property clouds the financial statements too much for a valuation on ROE to be accurately measured. Likewise, a company that is adept at producing beer should continue to develop to eventually achieve world domination in the beer industry.

The directors are humble people who stay out of the media limelight

Based on a whole spate of scandals of directors in listed companies, it has been quite obvious that CEOs that bask in the media limelight, with so many public interviews and constant stream of over-promising news have been correlated to an issue with integrity. Hence, this theory of good directors stay out of media limelight has a certain element of truth in it.

The directors are prudent people who avoid using derivatives and complicated financial instruments, and are very transparent in their financial records

This is very arguable. But given the difficulties where accounting methods and standards were not originally designed to accurately reflect such derivative instruments and coupled with the risk arising from internal control and possible abuse, I would prefer corporations that stay away from such financial instruments.

Financial records tell a million tales. Directors who accord a high degree of transparency in the accounts allow the retail investor greater insights of the business. We may be informed that the company has grown it's revenue 20+% for the last year, but for a good investment valuation we would also like to know how the various market segments and different product ranges have performed. Some companies provide good resolution, while some do not as it is not a requirement in Singapore's Financial Reporting Standards.

The company grows the leaders from internal succession planning, not through a 'musical chair' change of white knights

There are many case studies of how the descent of white knights bring about a turning point in the companies, like how Carlos, who serves on both Renault and Nissan as CEO, manages to turn Nissan around in a matter of years with his visionary ideas. But I would prefer that the management team are the ones that grew up together with the company. Such people are the ones who knows what works and has been working well to bring in profits; they are the ones who have a closer rapport with the entire company crew.

(This is an interesting trait that Jim Collins concluded in his empirical study of all the NYSE companies, as written in
Built to Last. He and 60 graduates performed a thorough study that sifted through all NYSE companies to identify the winning traits of a 100-years-old corporation. It was concluded that corporations that last beyond a lifetime of profitability promote the CEOs through internal succession and growth. Corporations that rely on a white knight usually rise fast but vanish into oblivion like fireworks.)

The Second Ingredient for an excellent investment opportunity: Outstanding Business

When Warren Buffett acquired Berkshire Hathaway, it was an almost-drowning textile company. But he repeatedly injected fresh capital in a bid to revive the flagging business before finally arriving at a neat conclusion that is subsequently widely termed as "flogging a dead horse" - you can change the management team of any business, but you will not be able change a business with poor economics and prospects. Having an outstanding business is another ingredient for an excellent investment opportunity.

High barriers to entry; high returns on equity, high profit margin for the last 5 years

A good business must be one that possesses a strong moat to prevent an erosion of its profitability. It must be sufficiently difficult to break into the market either because of the complexity of the business or the brand and reputation of the incumbents are immensely strong. Companies that own rubber plantations are also ruled out here because the barriers to entry are so low and the companies have to compete on being the lowest cost producer.

Large corporations which are blue chips generally produce lower returns on equity by virtue of their size. As an investor, I will prefer a company that is at its growth stage and have a very high returns on equity for the last 5 years.

Asset light, conservatively financed, powerful cashflow generators

Companies that are heavy in assets require an immense amount of capital to generate revenue. An example is airline companies that own million dollar jets. And usually, such companies have a comparatively low holding in cash type assets. This makes them immensely vulnerable in times of economic recession. What is happening to US airline companies now is self-evident: where they are seeking for mergers or takeovers to survive declining revenue due to declining passengers; without which business continuity is in question.

Companies that are powerful cashflow generators are the ones that can grow organically with minimal debt or necessity to raise capital through issuing capital. They are either providers or high value services like event management or creative designs, or they can be those that rely on a few machinery that run 24-hours a day to generate a disproportionately large amount of revenue.

A case in point

Have you not forgotten the days in the recent past where we hear of U.S. airlines failing and seeking mergers? It's the same thing. The airline industry heavily rely on high cost fixed assets to expand their capacity and grow revenue, with low operating cashflows. This inevitably makes then immensely vulnerable in bad times.

The Third Ingredient of an excellent investment opportunity: Outstanding Value

Significant margin of safety, extreme market pessimism

You can elect to own a part of an outstanding business run by an outstanding management at a fair price and it is still a sound investment decision. But being able to own it a significant discount in terms of price to intrinsic value makes it an outstanding investment decision. You have a good margin of safety for provision of errors in estimates, and you can sleep soundly at night.

Such moments of good value will only emerge when the market is extremely pessimistic about the future outlook of the economy.

Measuring value using a summation of free cash flow discounted to present day

Buffett and various value investing thinkers have conceptualised the measurement of value as such: the company's intrinsic value is basically a summation of estimated cashflow that will be generated over a period of years and discounted to present day prices by factoring in risk-free rates and inflation.

The components of this cashflow or free cashflow is basically: operating cashflow - estimated annual capital expenditure - estimated depreciation expense.

Why the presence of the annual capital expenditure and depreciation expenses? Machines break down over time to a point of beyond economic repair, and capital has to be continuously injected over time to replenish the production capability. Also, such machines are usually capitalised as an asset on the balance sheet and the cost is slowly expended off from the books using accounting depreciation methods; an accurate measure of incoming cashflow has to account for this.

What about company operating in the red?

For companies that are operating in the red for the short run with negative cashflows, the discounted cash flow model cannot be applied to obtain a quantifiable measure of the value of the company.

Under such situations, discerning true business value from a bad business operating model requires astute judgment. It requires the investor to examine the existing business and market conditions. A qualitative assessment has to be made: (a) Are the losses accrued to a weakening in business fundamentals of shifting market demands, profitability, cost-push reasons, leadership capability, or other hidden reasons? (b) Or are the losses a temporal condition due to rapid expansion or internal restructuring and the effects are not likely to persist in the longer run. And given time, the business will surge forward?

Such kind of investments are only for the stout-hearted investors who are able to see value that is beyond apparent value.

Concluding Remarks

All three elements are crucial in identifying an excellent investment opportunity - the Man, the Machine, the Moment. No single element stands on its own. When rigorously applied, one should be able to seek out conservative, and yet excellent investment opportunities.

As usual, your mileage may vary (YMMV).