Live By The Sword, Die By The Sword

Good management teams are first and foremost good storytellers. They’re shapers of reality. I don’t care whether you’re Warren Buffett, Elon Musk or Reed Hastings. If you are the Big Guy (or Big Gal) most of your job is storytelling. You spend most of your time telling stories to your stakeholders. Employees. Customers. Investors.

What’s truly amazing about Reed Hastings’s ability as a CEO/storyteller is how he’s managed to make Netflix’s free cash flow burn irrelevant. Here’s a screenshot directly from the company website:

NFLX_FCF_FAQ
Source: NFLX website

This is a company burning billions in cash a year, that is utterly dependent on the amity and goodwill of the capital markets (specifically, the high yield debt market) to support its continued existence.

And no one cares.

The reason no one cares is Reed Hastings is a great CEO/storyteller. He’s convinced the market it’s subscriber growth and not free cash flow that matters.

Well, yesterday NFLX (badly) missed expectations for subscriber growth. The result?

NFLX_180716_Price
Source: Google

Live by the sword, die by the sword, as the saying goes. This is the kind of reaction you get when you train the market on a certain narrative, and then that narrative is called into question. The market freaks out.

This is something short sellers understand deeply and intuitively. If you are a short seller who doesn’t understand this deeply and intuitively, you’re not going to last very long.

A short needs to understand the narrative driving a stock. The time to short a stock is when the narrative breaks. When a narrative breaks, investors start casting around, looking for a new narrative. If the CEO can’t get control of the narrative again, they might start to fixate on things like profitability and cash flows and leverage.

Of course, a good management team will have a new narrative ready to go to replace the old one. In NFLX’s case, they are talking about the limitations of their internal forecasting methods. Short selling is a hard life.

I literally have no opinion on NFLX’s subscriber growth numbers. But I do understand the narrative around them, and the purpose it serves.

Once you start looking for this stuff, you see it everywhere. Tesla is the best example, but it’s a more controversial stock than NFLX. The reason Elon Musk is coming apart at the seams is he’s losing control of TSLA’s narrative. That’s bad for TSLA, which is going to have to pay down or refi about $7 billion worth of debt in the next couple of years.

For these large cap cash incinerators, narrative is a matter of life and death.

Disclosure: No position in either NFLX or TSLA.

Pop Quiz, Hotshot

“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?”

This is literally the second act of the movie Speed. Never seen Speed? You’re missing out. It’s a pretty hokey movie, truth be told. Funnily enough, it is mostly concerned with decision-making under uncertainty.

We have our own version of this pop quiz in investing, and we are tested regularly. The quiz goes something like this:

“Pop quiz, hotshot. You hold a 10% position in [whatever]. It draws down [a lot]. Average down? Sell? Or hold? What do you do?”

I don’t think you should ever own anything without being able to answer that quickly and succinctly. It’s a good test of whether you understand what you own. If you don’t know what you own, a violent drawdown will shake you out of the position. Likewise, repeatedly averaging down losers is a recipe for bankruptcy. Conviction gets you nowhere if all your ideas suck.

A while back, John Hempton explored the pitfalls of averaging down pretty comprehensively. He wrote, in part:

At a very big picture: averaging down when you are right is very sweet, averaging down when you are wrong is a disaster.

At the first pick the question then is “when are you wrong?”, but this is a silly question. If you knew you were wrong you would never have bought the position in the first place.

So the question becomes is not “are you wrong”. That is not going to add anything analytically.

Instead the question is “under what circumstances are you wrong” and “how would you tell”?

So “know what you own” is Level 1 advice. Level 2 runs along these lines: “how do I know if I’m wrong about what I believe I know about what I own?” (There’s no point in asking how you know if you’re right about what you own. You can’t prove a positive with inductive reasoning)

An Embarrassing Example

One of the first stocks I ever bought turned out to be a classic value trap. I got suckered so bad I actually averaged it down after a dividend cut. I had been seduced by a stock that was statistically cheap and statistical cheapness overrode my objectivity. In reality the dividend cut said everything I needed to know. The nature of the position had changed. The stock had crossed over from a value play to a deep value or even distressed situation. I had not underwritten a distressed situation. This was the “tell” that I was wrong and I missed it (badly).

In fact, to date all of my worst mistakes have come from trying to catch falling knives. Going forward the goal isn’t to avoid these mistakes completely. That’s not realistic. Rather I need to be extra careful about minimizing the damage when they occur. That’s what the pop quiz is all about.

Skin In The Game

I am paid to evaluate investment managers for a living. In doing so I’ve come to believe you aren’t really qualified to sit in judgement of money managers without going through the exercise yourself. When you underwrite a name yourself and have to watch it sell off 20% on a quarterly earnings miss and make the add/trim/sell decision and feel the hit to your own net worth you develop a new and healthy appreciation for investment processes.

You then begin to cultivate two other important qualities: empathy and enhanced BS detection.

Empathy is important because investing is an activity where things can go against you for a long time, and for no particularly good reason. If you are going to hire and fire managers based solely on statistical performance reviews and rankings versus peers you will end up chasing your tail. When you can look at the world through the eyes of the people you are evaluating you realize the right decision is usually to be patient.

Enhanced BS detection is important for obvious reasons. However, people are worse at BS detection than you might think. Investment managers tend not to be complete idiots. In fact they have a habit of dazzling you with their brilliance. Everything always sounds great on paper and in pitch meetings. And yet out in the wild things have a habit of going horribly awry.

Listening to real estate people talk, for example, you would think everyone who has every done a real estate deal has earned a 30% compound annual return with no risk. Yet, real estate investments go to zero all the time.

This doesn’t happen because the real estate itself ends up worthless. It happens because you’re levered maybe 4x into the deal and there is a delay in the project or a hiccup in occupancy and, oops! the debt ahead of you in the cap structure is about to mature. So some enterprising soul comes in with a slug of equity and dilutes you to the point where you’re unlikely to make any money. Or she demands a massive preferred return, with the same result.

Anyway, after getting hosed on a couple “can’t miss” opportunities you wise up. You begin to appreciate just how unfair the universe can be in dishing out random dollops of catastrophic loss. Risk management becomes a bit more intuitive. You are more humble about your ideas, your intelligence and your fallibility.

You don’t get that from reviewing manager peer group rankings.

You get it from risking (and, occasionally, incinerating) real dollars of your own net worth.

Noble Lies

The noble lie is a concept that originated in Plato’s Republic. In The Republic, Plato is concerned with the ideal structure for society (spoiler: it’s not democracy). The noble lie is a myth taught to everyone in Plato’s hypothetical society. It justifies the social order and encourages people to do their civic duty. According to the myth this is consistent with the order of the natural world. Even if it means doing things like handing your infant child over to another social caste.

Here in the investing world we push our own noble lie. We’ve built up a mythology around asset allocation, where the long-run risk and return characteristics of different asset classes are assumed to be both knowable and relatively consistent over time.

This is simply not true. The long-run risk and return characteristics of different asset classes are neither knowable nor consistent. What we’re really doing with asset allocation is making inferences based on historical data. From an epistemological perspective, we’re just winging it.

But, as in Plato, our noble lie has a purpose. In our case it’s to facilitate the creation of financial plans. Even though every plan we create is deeply and fundamentally flawed.

I have never tried explaining the epistemological issues involved in asset allocation to a client. In fact, I have never heard of anyone, anywhere explaining this to a client. Sure, there are folks who soft-pedal the idea of “uncertainty.” But I’ve never seen it hammered home. (You would know if the blow landed because the client’s head would explode)

That’s not a criticism. The whole point of our noble lie is that this stuff shouldn’t be hammered home to clients.

It’s simply not productive to get hung up on epistemology. Most people just need to be encouraged to increase their savings rate. They also need talked off the ledge before doing dumb shit like going all-in on PonziCoin or cashing out at a market bottom or allocating 100% of retirement savings to a small biz employer’s ESPP.

That stuff alone can be a lot to handle. So when it comes to asset allocation, it’s usually best to just throw up some historical numbers and talk “stocks for the long run.” No one does this better than Warren Buffett. He functions as high priest of our cult, and he gives a hell of a sermon. Take this one from 2016:

It’s an election year, and candidates can’t stop speaking about our country’s problems (which, of course, only they can solve). As a result of this negative drumbeat, many Americans now believe that their children will not live as well as they themselves do.

That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.

American GDP per capita is now about $56,000. As I mentioned last year that – in real terms – is a staggering six times the amount in 1930, the year I was born, a leap far beyond the wildest dreams of my parents or their contemporaries. U.S. citizens are not intrinsically more intelligent today, nor do they work harder than did Americans in 1930. Rather, they work far more efficiently and thereby produce far more. This all-powerful trend is certain to continue: America’s economic magic remains alive and well.

There are actually multiple layers of mythology at work here. I won’t bore you with a play-by-play. (I have written about Buffett’s public persona before. See here) Suffice it to say this is tremendously effective writing. But from an epistemological point of view it’s meaningless. It’s just an inference–naive extrapolation from historical data.

I suspect if you carefully examine the world around you, you will find more and more noble lies hidden in plain sight. Mythology is quite powerful. And, as demonstrated by Plato and Warren Buffett, it can also be quite useful.

Time Horizon Alignment

In a previous post I discussed the idea of time dilation. Time is not absolute. This idea comes to us from physics, which is a fairly exacting and mathematical discipline. The measurement depends on the relative velocity of the observer and whatever it is she is observing. It’s relative. Hence, “relativity.”

Likewise with portfolio management, the velocity of activity in your portfolio will tend to reflect your investing time horizon. Someone managing money trying to think about what a business will look like in a decade may go entire years without placing a single trade. However, this is unlikely to be the case for someone operating on a one to three year time horizon. Especially if that person is managing other people’s money. And doubly so if the other people whose money is being managed are evaluating performance on a quarterly or annual basis.

The tendency among institutional investors these days is to track performance on shorter and shorter intervals. I follow hedge funds that provide weekly performance estimates. This despite offering quarterly liquidity or less! I haven’t the slightest idea what someone is supposed to do with that information. It’s random noise. (Someday I mean to do a piece on the collective delusions of institutional investment committees)

I am convinced the way you should deal with this is to scale your input data to your time horizon. So for example if you are trying to puzzle out what a business might look like in five or ten years you probably should limit your focus to annual reports and proxy statements (at least once your initial due diligence is done). Even quarterly results are likely to introduce a lot of unwelcome noise into the picture.

What if something material changes halfway through the year?

Well, you can still risk manage the portfolio on more frequent intervals (an underlying assumption here is that you are thesis-driven versus trading on technicals). If something nasty, unexpected and material happens to a stock halfway through the year you are going to see it sell off sharply. That’s the trigger to dig in further to see if the investment is impaired. If you own a good business with a strong balance sheet it is going to decline over a period of years, not months. You will have time to get out before things get catastrophically bad.

Now, this only works with high quality businesses. It doesn’t work with classical value investing. It doesn’t work with merger-arb type special situations. It definitely doesn’t work with distressed investing. I watch value investments much more closely. Also cyclicals. Particularly if there is leverage involved. Levered cyclicals (think banks) can deteriorate very rapidly, and fatally.

So it’s not that a long time horizon is always superior.

It’s that mismatches create problems.

Oh, and if anyone happens to know what those weekly performance estimates are good for, drop me a line in the comments.

Investing vs. “Getting Market Exposure”

Like “financial advisor” and “hedge fund,” the word “investing” is probably one of the most abused terms in our financial lexicon. These days many people use the word “investing” when what they are really talking about is “getting market exposure.”

For fun I googled the definition of investing:

investing_definition
Source: Google

I also re-read this post from Cullen Roche where he discusses “allocating savings” (what I would call “getting market exposure”).

It’s funny how “investors” abuse the term “investing”. What we’re really doing when we buy shares on a secondary exchange is not really “investing” at all. It’s just an allocation of savings. Investing, in a very technical sense, is spending for future production. So, if you build a factory and spend money to do so then you’re investing. But when companies issue shares to raise money they’re simply issuing those shares so they can invest. And once those shares trade on the secondary exchange the company really doesn’t care who buys/sells them because their funds have been raised and they’ve likely already invested in future production. You just allocate your savings by exchanging shares with other people when you buy and sell financial assets.

Now, this might all sound like a bunch of semantics, but it’s really important in my opinion. After all, when you understand the precise definitions of saving and investing you realize that our portfolios actually look more like saving accounts than investment accounts. That is, they’re not really these sexy get rich quick vehicles. Yes, the allure of becoming the next Warren Buffett by trading stocks is powerful. But the reality is that you’re much more likely to get rich by making real investments, ie, spending to improve your future production. Flipping stocks isn’t going to do that for you.

This leads you to realize your portfolio is a place where you are simply trying to grow your savings at a reasonable rate without exposing it to excessive permanent loss risk or excessive purchasing power loss. It’s not a place for gambling or getting rich quick. In fact, it’s much the opposite. It’s a nuanced view, but one I feel is tremendously important to financial success.

I have promised myself I will stop using “investing,” “getting market exposure” and “allocating savings” interchangeably.

For me, the semantic line between investing and “getting market exposure” is a little different from what Cullen proposes. For me it’s this: as an investor you are looking to compound capital at a rate exceeding your cost of capital (opportunity cost), while avoiding permanent impairment of capital.

Yes, “extraordinary” is a fuzzy term. To me, pretty much anything above 10%, net of expenses, is extraordinary. That will give you nearly a 7x return over 20 years. If you can do 15% (an extraordinary achievement, btw), that multiple jumps to over 16x.

Some of you are no doubt thinking you can net 10% annually forever in an S&P 500 index fund. And maybe you are right. In my view the odds are stacked against you over the next 10 years. In fact, I would gladly take the other side of that bet over next 10 years. But beyond the next decade or so it is hard to tell.

The reason is broad market returns measured over long time periods are sensitive to starting valuations. If you ask the average equity analyst he will probably tell you the market is “fairly valued” today based on the one-year forward price/earnings multiple. Which is another way of saying “meh.” By other measures, such as the Shiller CAPE, the US market is extremely expensive. But if you are allocating your savings based on one-year forward earnings multiples you’ve got bigger problems than parsing the nuances of various valuation multiples.

2Q18_JPM_PE_Returns
Source: JP Morgan

Also, analysts kind of suck at forecasting earnings growth. So the forward price/earnings multiple is a flawed input at best.

BI_earnings_forecasts_vs_reality
Source: Business Insider

Anyway, if none of this stuff interests you, you aren’t thinking like an investor. The whole point of investing is to seek out asymmetric risk/reward propositions. That’s very different from “simply trying to grow your savings at a reasonable rate without exposing it to excessive permanent loss risk or excessive purchasing power loss.”

Netflix Levers Up (again)

From Dow Jones Newswires (emphasis mine):

Netflix Inc. (NFLX) said Monday it is planning to tap the high-yield bond market with a $1.5 billion deal. The company said it will use the proceeds for general corporate purposes, including content acquisition, production and development, capex, investments, working capital and potential acquisitions and strategic deals. The company’s most active bonds, the 4.875% notes that mature in April of 2028, last traded at 96.50 cents on the dollar to yield 5.332%, or at a yield spread of 239 basis points over Treasurys, according to trading platform MarketAxess.

I’m not going to belabor the point here. You can decide for yourself whether 5.332% is appropriate compensation for lending on a 10-year term to a company management says will burn $3bn to $4bn of free cash in 2018.

Disclosure: No position.