#5: The Six Commandments of Value Investing

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Although it has been some time since speaking live with busy colleague Vitaliy Katsenelson CFA, I review his internet material frequently and appreciate this ME-P series contribution. I encourage all ME-P readers to do the same and consider his value investing insights carefully.

By Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA

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5. Risk is a permanent loss of capital (not volatility)

Conventional wisdom views volatility as risk. Not value investors. We befriend volatility, embrace it, and try to take advantage of it. For someone who has not researched a company, it is not readily apparent whether a decline in shares is temporary or permanent. After all, if you don’t know what the company is worth, the quoted price becomes the quotient of intrinsic value. If you do know what the company is worth, then the change in intrinsic value is all that is going to matter. The price quoted on the exchange will be your friend, allowing you to take advantage of the difference between intrinsic value and quoted stock price. If the quoted stock price is significantly cheaper than your estimated intrinsic value, you buy it (or buy more of it if you already own it). If the opposite is true, you sell it.

What is a company worth?

Determining the intrinsic value requires a combination of art and science, in that order – it is not quoted on the exchanges. We go about this the same way a businessman would figure how much he’d want to pay for a gas station or a McDonald’s franchise. Analysis of each company will be different, but at the core we estimate the cash flows the business will produce for shareholders in the long run (at least ten years) and what the business will be worth then (based on our estimate of its earnings power at the time). The combination of the two provides us an approximation of what the business is worth now. To further embed “the right” type of risk analysis into our investment operating system, we build financial models. Models help us to understand businesses better and provide insights as to which metrics matter and which don’t. They allow us to stress test the business: We don’t just look at the upside but spend a lot of times looking at the downside – we try to “kill” the business. We look at known risks and try to imagine unknown ones; we try to quantify their impact on cash flows. This “killing” helps to us understand how much of a discount (margin of safety) we should demand to what the business is worth. By applying this discount to fair value, we arrive at a buy price. For every stock we buy we probably look at a few dozen (at least).

For instance, if we are looking at a company that is selling products or services to consumers, we’ll be focusing on customer-acquisition costs. We try to drill down to the essential operating metrics of each company. If it’s a convenience store retailer, we’ll look into gallons of gas sold and profit per gallon. If it’s an oil driller, we’ll look at utilization rates, rigs in service, average revenue per rig per day. If it’s a pharmaceuticals company, we’ll have revenue lines for each major drug it sells and model the company for the eventuality that patents will run out. (Revenues usually decline 80-90% when a patent expires).

These models help us to understand the economics of the business. We usually build two type of models. We start with what we call the “tablecloth” model. This is a very detailed, in-depth model that zeros in on different aspects of the business. But the risk we run with a tablecloth model is that we get lost in the trees and forget about the forest.

This brings us to our “napkin” model. It’s a much simpler and smaller model that focuses only on the essentials of the business. It is easier to build the tablecloth model than the “napkin.” If we can build a napkin model, that means we understand the drivers of the business – we understand what matters. Models are important because they help us remain rational. It is only the matter of time before a stock we own will “blow up” (or, in layman’s terms, decline).

In this type of analysis, what happens this month, this quarter, or even this year is only important in the context of the long run – unless the company’s good or bad earnings report in any quarter changes our assumptions on the company’s long-term cash flows. If you methodically focus on what the company is worth and if your Total IQ is maximized, then price fluctuations are just noise. Volatility becomes your friend because you can rationally take advantage of it. It’s an under-appreciated gift from Mr. Market.

Side Note: As an advisor, I feel it is one of my great responsibilities to be an honest and clear communicator. There is an asymmetry of information between us and our clients. We have invested weeks and months of research into the analysis of each stock; therefore, we have a good idea what each company is worth. Our clients have not done this research, and they should not have to – that is what they hired us to do.This is why we pour our heart and soul into our quarterly letters – we want to close this informational gap and so we try as hard as we can to explain what we think the companies in our portfolio are worth. Our letters are often 15-20 pages long. 

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