As I described in my book, How I Managed $20,000,000,000.00 by Age 32, I believe successful investing is achieved by integrating aspects of both art and science. The science aspect of investing is fairly straightforward – most of the accounting and valuation math involved could be solved by a 7th grader. The more challenging aspect to successful investing is controlling the vacillating emotions of fear and greed when searching for attractive investments.
When people ask me about my investment philosophy, I do not like to be pigeon-holed into one style box because normally my portfolios hold investments that outsiders would deem both value and growth oriented. Since I am an absolute return investor, I am more concerned about how I can maximize upside returns while minimizing downside risk for my investors.
Because valuation is such an important factor in my process (price always matters), the most accurate description of my style would likely be “high octane GARP” (Growth At a Reasonable Price). While many GARP investors limit themselves to current or historical valuation metrics, my process has allowed me to take a more long-term, forward looking analysis of valuations, which has directed me to participate in some large winners, like Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), and Google/Alphabet (GOOGL), to name a few. To many observers, positions like these have traditionally been falsely considered “expensive” growth stocks.
Case in point is Google/Alphabet, which went public at $85 per share in 2004. At the time, the broad Wall Street consensus was the IPO (Initial Public Offering) price was way overheated. As it turned out, the stock has reached $1,000 per share and the Price-Earnings ratio (P/E) was a steal at less than 3x had you bought Google at the IPO price. ($85 2004 price/$33.98 2017 EPS estimate). Google is a perfect example of a dominant market leader that has been able to grow earnings dramatically for many years. In short order after going public, Google’s earnings ended up more than quintupling in less than three years and the stock price quintupled as well, proving that ill-advised focus on stale, traditional valuation metrics can lead you to wrong conclusions. Certainly, finding stocks that can increase in value by more than 11x fold is easier said than done, however, applying longer-term valuation metrics to dominant growth leading franchises will allow you to occasionally find monster winners like Google.
The greatest long-term winners don’t start off as the largest weightings, but due to the compounding of returns, position sizes can explode over time. As Peter Lynch states,
“You don’t need a lot of good hits every day. All you need is two to three good stocks a decade.”
Google/Alphabet proves what can appear expensive in the short-run is, in many cases, wildly cheap based on future earnings growth. Earnings tomorrow may be significantly larger than earnings today. Lynch emphasizes the importance of earnings over current prices,
“People concentrate too much on the ‘P’ (Price), but the ‘E’ (Earnings) really makes the difference.”
“Just because a stock is cheaper than before is no reason to buy it, and just because it’s more expensive is no reason to sell.”
The Google/Alphabet chart below shows the incredible price appreciation that can be realized from compounding earnings growth.
The Google example also underscores the importance of patience. Although the stock has been a massive home-run since its IPO, the stock barely budged from late 2006 through 2011. Accurately picking the perfect timing to make an investment is nearly impossible. I concur with Bill Miller when he stated,
“We expect the stocks we buy today to contribute to our performance several years hence. While it’s nice if they contribute to this year’s performance, this year’s performance should be driven by decisions we made in previous years. If we keep doing this, we hope that we will provide adequate returns in the future.”
Regarding timing, Miller adds,
“Nobody buys at lows and sells at highs except liars.”
The Sidoxia Philosophy
Over time, as I have fine-tuned my investment philosophy, I have not been bashful in borrowing winning ideas from growth gurus like Peter Lynch, Phil Fisher, William O’Neil, and Ron Baron, to name a few. By the same token, I am not shy about stealing ideas from value veterans like Warren Buffett, Seth Klarman, and Bill Miller as well.
While I don’t agree with Warren Buffett’s “forever” time horizon, I do believe in the power of compounding he espouses, which requires a longer-term investment horizon. The power of compounding is accelerated not only by committing to a long-term horizon, but also by the benefits accrued from lower trading costs and taxes. What’s more, taking a long view lowers your blood pressure and creates fewer ulcers. Legendary growth manager, T. Rowe Price, captures the essence of this idea here:
“The growth stock theory of investing requires patience, but is less stressful than trading, generally has less risk, and reduces brokerage commissions and income taxes.”
The Science of Investing
As discussed earlier, successful investing is an endeavor that involves the practices of both art and science – too much of either approach can be detrimental to your financial health. Quantitative screening can be an excellent tool for identifying new securities for research along with streamlining the fundamental analysis process. However, many investment funds rely too heavily on the quantitative science. The adage that “correlation does not equal causation” is an important credo to follow when reviewing various quantitative models (see Butter in Bangladesh).
The collapse of the infamous, multi-billion Long Term Capital Management hedge fund should also be a lesson to everyone (see When Genius Failed ). If world renowned Nobel Prize winners, Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, can single-handedly bring the global market to its knees as a result of using inconsistent and unreliable quantitative models, then I feel validated for my fundamentally-based investment approach.
While there are some artistic facets to valuation techniques, in large part, the valuation science is a fairly straightforward mathematical exercise. Unfortunately, the market consists of emotional and unpredictable individuals who continually change their opinions. Eventually the financial markets prod prices in the right direction, but over shorter time intervals, proper investment analysis requires some imperfect estimation.
Emotions regularly result in individuals overpaying for stocks, and this tendency is a risky strategy for any investment. In many cases investors chase darling stocks highlighted in news headlines, but regrettably these pricy investments often end up performing poorly. When it comes to hot stocks, I’m on the same page as famed value investor Bill Miller,
“If it’s in the papers, it’s in the price. One needs to anticipate, not react.”
Usually a news event that makes headlines is already factored into the stock price. The financial markets are generally forward looking mechanisms, not backward looking.
The Art of Investing
“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Investing is undoubtedly a challenging undertaking, but like almost any profession, the more experience one has, the better results generally achieved. Experience alone does not guarantee extraordinary performance, in large part due to emotional pressures. Investing would be much easier for everyone, if you didn’t have to worry about controlling those pesky emotions of fear and greed. The best investment decisions, and frankly any decision, are rarely made under these heightened emotions.
The most successful set of investors I have studied and modeled my investment process after are professionals who have married the quantitative science with the fundamental art of investing. At Sidoxia, we use a disciplined cash flow based valuation approach, along with thorough fundamental analysis to identify attractively valued, market leading franchises that can sustain above average growth. It sounds like a mouthful, but over time, it has worked well for the benefit of my clients and me.
The market leading franchises we invest in tend to have a competitive advantage, whether in the form of superior research and development, low-cost manufacturing, leading marketing, and/or other exceptional functions in the company that allow the entity to consistently garner more growth and more market share from its competitors. Quality franchises tend to also employ first-class management teams that have a proven track record, along with thoughtful, systematic processes in place to maintain their competitive edge. These competitive advantages are what allow companies to produce exceptional earnings growth for extended periods of time, thereby producing outstanding long-term performance for shareholders.
Finding sustainable growth in competitive niche markets is nearly impossible, and that is why I center my attention on large or emerging sectors of the economy that can support long runways of growth. When analyzing companies with durable, long runways of earnings growth, I concentrate on those developing, share-taking companies and dominant market leaders. In other words, disruptive companies that are entering new markets with vast potential and established companies that are gaining significant share in large markets. Well-known growth authority, Phil Fisher summarized the objective,
“The greatest investment rewards come to those who by good luck or good sense find the occasional company that over the years can grow in sales and profits far more than industry as a whole.”
I am privileged and honored to manage the hard earned investments of my clients. If this was a simple profession, everyone would do it, and I would not be employed as an investment manager. I have developed what I believe is a superior way of managing money, but I realize my investment process is not the only way to make money. If you were to assemble 10 different investment managers in the same room, and ask them, “What is the best way to invest money?,” you are likely to get 10 different answers. Having been in the investment industry and managed money for over 25 years, my experience has shown me that the vast majority of professional managers have underperformed the passive benchmarks. However, there are investment managers who have survived the test of time. For those veterans incorporating a disciplined, systematic approach that integrates the artistic and scientific aspects of investing, exceptional long-term returns can be achieved and have been achieved.