Kopernik Q4: You Have Just Crossed Over Into…The Twilight Zone

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Kopernik Global Investors letter titled, “You Have Just Crossed Over Into…The Twilight Zone.”

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone. – Opening narration (Season 1)

For those younger readers who may not know of the Twilight Zone, Wikipedia offers the following description:

“The Twilight Zone is an American science-fiction/fantasy anthology television series created by Rod Serling, which ran for five seasons on CBS from 1959 to 1964. The series consists of unrelated stories depicting paranormal, futuristic, Kafkaesque, or otherwise disturbing or unusual events; each story typically features a moral and a surprise ending.”

Beyond being a show, and later on a movie, it has become part of the modern lexicon. As presented in the Urban Dictionary:

“A state of surrealism, where things that should not make sense seem to do so. Term taken from the 1960’s TV show hosted by writer Rod Serling.”

What an apropos way to describe the current monetary system! The financial markets are a fascinating arena. They are interesting, intellectually stimulating, economically lucrative, filled with intelligent, provocative individuals, and are a perfect showcase of behavioral psychology. The fact that markets are usually a step or two removed from reality is much of the fun and is ultimately the reason that they can be so lucrative over meaningful periods of time. We are all so lucky to be a part of it.

In 1999, the world’s stock markets ventured beyond being a little off-kilter and “crossed over into the Twilight Zone.” While this was happening, it was the most painful time of my career. The subsequent dozen years were the most satisfying and rewarding of my life, as our clients benefitted handsomely from the market’s inevitable return toward the direction of reality. I think 1999 is still fresh enough in people’s memories that I don’t need to spend much time on it. Suffice it to say that stocks of tech, media and telecom companies ran to inconceivable heights even as “old-economy” stocks were figuratively given away.

From my vantage point, the world’s stock markets recently, for the second time in a one-third century long career, “crossed over into the Twilight Zone.” To co-opt the opening narrative from the show’s second season, in this Commentary we will “travel through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose only boundaries are that of imagination.”

It is important to ask questions. Sometimes it can be fun. For example:

  • Why are a wise man and a wise guy opposites?
  • Why do you park in a driveway and drive in a parkway?
  • Why does a ship carry cargo and a car carry shipments?
  • Why are there interstate highways in Hawaii?
  • If you try to fail, and you fail, have you succeeded or failed?
  • If pro is the opposite of con, is progress the opposite of congress?
  • How do a fool and his money get together in the first place?
  • Is a metaphor like a simile?
  • Did Noah keep his bees in archives?
  • How come we choose from just two people for president and 50 for Miss America?
  • Does expecting the unexpected make the unexpected expected?
  • Is it good if your vacuum really sucks?
  • Have you ever imagined a world with no hypothetical situations?
  • Why do you recite at a play but you play at a recital?
  • Why is quite a few the same as quite a lot?
  • Why do people who know the least know it the loudest?

Often it is imperative to ponder more serious questions. Before getting to the important questions du jour, a little background is in order. What Kopernik Global Investors (“Kopernik”) do for a living is appraise businesses and opportunely buy these businesses when the market offers them at large discounts to our estimate of their risk-adjusted intrinsic value. History demonstrates that when inexpensive stocks have been falling for years, they seldom extend to us the courtesy of immediately reversing course. Before rewarding our patience handsomely, they usually force us to look foolish for a period of time. Being wrong approximately 30% of the time is the expected cost of investing against the crowd. Being right 70% is our expected reward. Similarly, subpar years worming their way into the mix is a requisite byproduct of looking different from the crowd.

Endeavoring to continue our long-term record of generating significant alpha, we willingly endure the occasional unpleasant period. The fourth quarter of 1999, the July through October period of 2008, and the September through December 2014 chapters of my career warrant special attention. These three periods all demonstrated the bipolar nature of the market at its worst, and our propensity to drastically underperform during these environments. Valuable properties that had reached levels that appeared to be too low to be true, dropped significantly further as they were “puked-out” (sorry, can’t come up with more fitting words) by “investors” who simply couldn’t bear any more pain. These periods of capitulation can be very painful. Compounding the discomfort, this often happens in conjunction with expensive stocks catapulting upward. At these moments, two things are important. It is very important not to lose one`s conviction at these pivotal moments in time. Equally important though, is not to cavalierly dismiss the situation. One must, in good times and bad, question everything. Does the wholesale dumping of tangible assets, and of growing businesses in emerging countries, represent the figurative “canary keeling over in a coal mine,” or does it present thoughtful investors with one of the better buying opportunities of the century? Proceeds from this wholesale dumping of tangible value are apparently being used to finance purchases of the polar-opposite, expensive financial claims on miniscule expected future cash flow from securities that lack meaningful asset backing. Does this mean that a new paradigm is underway, or that supreme caution is in order?

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