Two Key Checklist Items by John Huber

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I am not a big fan of going through specific “checklist” items one by one when evaluating an investment idea. I know this idea has gained enormous popularity in recent years, partly due to the good book The Checklist Manifesto, and partly popularized in value investing circles by Mohnish Pabrai.

I respect Mohnish a lot, and I think his idea of evaluating previous investment mistakes (both his own mistakes and especially the mistakes of other great investors) is an excellent exercise.

Checklist
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Checklist

One investment mistake to study would be Pabrai’s own investment in Horsehead Holdings (ZINC). This investment would be a case study that maybe I’ll put together for a separate post sometime, as it’s one that I followed during the time he owned it. There are a few reasons why I always scratched my head at why he bought ZINC, and there are a few reasons why I think it ultimately didn’t work, but one thing I’ll point out is what Buffett said in his 2004 shareholder letter (thanks to my friend Saurabh Madaan who runs the Investor Talks at Google for pointing me to this passage):

“Last year MidAmerican wrote off a major investment in a zinc recovery project that was initiated in 1998 and became operational in 2002. Large quantities of zinc are present in the brine produced by our California geothermal operations, and we believed we could profitably extract the metal. For many months, it appeared that commercially-viable recoveries were imminent. But in mining, just as in oil exploration, prospects have a way of “teasing” their developers, and every time one problem was solved, another popped up. In September, we threw in the towel.

“Our failure here illustrates the importance of a guideline—stay with simple propositions—that we usually apply in investments as well as operations. If only one variable is key to a decision, and the variable has a 90% chance of going your way, the chance for a successful outcome is obviously 90%. But if ten independent variables need to break favorably for a successful result, and each has a 90% probability of success, the likelihood of having a winner is only 35%. In our zinc venture, we solved most of the problems. But one proved intractable, and that was one too many. Since a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, it makes sense to look for—if you’ll excuse an oxymoron—mono-linked chains.”

This sounds very similar to the problem that Horsehead Holdings (ZINC) had with its zinc facility in North Carolina. Without going into details, I think there were too many variables that needed to go right for ZINC to work out as an investment.

But let me just say that mistakes are part of investing. So many people are so quick to cast judgment on investors like Pabrai, David Einhorn, or Bill Ackman when they make big mistakes. I’m not apologizing for these investors, but I think that those who are criticizing these investors should look at their entire body of work to draw conclusions, not just one bad investment. These three are very good investors with outstanding long-term records that have vastly exceeded the S&P 500, and they should be judged on that record, not the underperformance of the past couple years.

But regardless of what you think of these investors, it helps to try and learn from their mistakes. I wrote a post on Valeant a while back, which is Ackman’s biggest error. I also looked at SunEdison, which was an Einhorn investment. It is infinitely easier in hindsight (the rearview mirror is always clear) to attribute reasons for why these investments didn’t work out, but nevertheless, I think it’s helpful to study these mistakes.

I don’t think a 100-point checklist would have been necessary to pass on any of these three investments (ZINC, VRX, or SunEdison). Two of the three companies were ultra-focused on growing revenue regardless of the return on capital associated with that growth, using the so-called “roll-up” approach. All three of these investments saw their losses dramatically accentuated by debt.

I think each of these investments hinged on a few key variables (in addition to debt), and I think rather than running through a generic “pre-flight” checklist, a better method is to have a few very broad checklist items, and then determine the key variables that really matter regarding the business in question.

What do I mean by “broad checklist items”? One general checklist that Buffett and Munger use:

  1. Do I understand the business?
  2. Is this a good business? (Competitive advantages, high returns on capital, etc…)
  3. Is management competent and ethical?
  4. Is the price attractive?

It doesn’t get much simpler than that, and I think this 4-point filter is a common denominator that could be used on just about every investment.

Obviously, there is a lot of thought and analysis that goes into answering those simple questions, and so there are sub-categories that might pop up.

Key Checklist/Concept #1

This isn’t really a checklist item. But it’s a takeaway I’ve had through my own experiences:

  • Whenever I find myself getting more attracted to the security than I am to the business, it’s often a good reason to pass

My mistakes have almost always come from investing in “cheap” stocks of subpar businesses. I’ve learned that I’m better off focusing on good businesses. This means missing certain opportunities, but for me, it also means reducing errors. Also, when it comes to managing other people’s money at Saber Capital Management, I don’t feel comfortable owning low-quality businesses, regardless of how attractive the valuation appears to be. I mentioned this on Twitter recently and it sparked some interesting discussions.

There are a number of investors who disagree with me on this point. Some investors make a lot of money buying crappy businesses that are beaten down to really cheap valuation levels. It’s possible to make excellent returns buying garbage that no one else wants and selling them when the extreme pessimism abates some. This is the approach that guys like Walter Schloss used to great success in the 1950’s-1970’s—the so-called “cigar butt” style of investing.

But I think one big difference between the cigar butts of yesteryear and the stocks that investors get attracted to today is the debt levels on the balance sheet. The cigar butts that I read being pitched today are often questionable businesses that are loaded with debt. If things turn around and the company survives, the equity can appreciate multiples from its current level. If not, the company goes bankrupt and the equity gets wiped out.

It’s possible to become very good at handicapping these types of situations, but it’s not my style of investing. I choose to pass on these overleveraged companies with minimal chances of success.

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Low Probability, High Payoff Investment Ideas

This brings me to another point I want to make regarding estimating probabilities. I read investment pitches all the time that discuss the probability of various outcomes. This makes sense—Buffett himself has talked about assigning probabilities to various outcomes of an investment. And certain odds might tell you that even a low probability event can be a very good bet to take. For example, a

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