On 22 December, value investor and philanthropist Mohnish Pabrai and Srini Pulavarti, President and CIO of UCLA Investment Company delivered a wonderful lecture to my students at MDI. Here are the links
Precisely at 1:46pm on December 28, a fax arrived at the Bombay Stock Exchange.
This rare gesture by Mr. Chandran was largely ignored by the media but when I learnt about it, I was delighted.
I do recall that in 2008, Siddhartha Lal offered to his minority shareholders at Eicher Motors a deal that he was not obliged to offer. As part of a JV transaction with Volvo, he sold a 13% of his family’s stake in Eicher Motors at a price which was more than twice the prevailing stock price. In a buyback transaction subsequent to that deal, he offered the same terms to Eicher’s minority shareholders by initiating a stock buyback program in which Eicher gave them an option to sell 13% of their holdings at the same price at which Siddhartha Lal had sold his family’s shares to Volvo. He didn’t have to do this. There was no legal obligation to do it. But he did. And that gesture went largely ignored by the media.
I am a stockholder at Ambika and a fan of Mr. Chandran. When I learnt about his gesture towards his junior partners, I wrote a thank you note to him.
Here’s what he wrote back:
I intend to live a simple life and the expenditure for that is very limited. The dividend that I receive from my Company is excess for my expenditure. The Shareholders of my company have reposed faith in me while investing in my Company and I should live up to their expectations. While they receive only dividends, I felt it should be the same for me as well.
A few days ago, I sent a note to my students titled “The Hedonic Treadmill” in which I reproduced Ben Franklin’s writings on the virtues of frugality and simplicity — virtues that are clearly present in Mr. Chandran in abundance.
NOTE: THIS IS NOT A RECOMMENDATION TO BUY THE STOCK OF AMBIKA COTTON MILLS. IT IS A RECOMMENDATION TO LEARN FROM THE VALUE SYSTEM OF A HUMAN BEING.
Last October, Rana Pritanjali of Motley Fool reached out to me for an interview. Here is the transcript of the email interview which took place towards the end of November.
None of the stocks mentioned in the interview are being recommended for purchase or sale. Also, about the title of the interview, I wish Motley Fool had not called me some kind of a genius. I have done plenty of foolish things in my investment life and there’s no doubt that I’ll continue to do more foolish things. Keep that in mind, when you read the transcript. :-)
My friend Amit Wadhwaney, who spent a couple of decades managing money at Third Avenue Value came to my class at MDI in 2014 and addressed my students on global value investing.
This year, Amit returned to MDI as portfolio manager and co-founding partner of Moerus Capital — an investment firm based out of NYC. The website of Amit’s firm tells us the story behind term “Moerus.”
Moerus’ name is derived from the Classical Latin word describing a city’s defensive walls, which were designed to protect both a city and its inhabitants from risks, both predicted and unforseen. Though we are unabashed value investors, we cannot emphasize enough that cheapness alone is not enough to warrant an investment. We believe a keen awareness of the risks facing an investment is essential to generating solid returns over the long run.
The opportunities that we often find ourselves pursuing typically face near term challenges, risks, and uncertainties. We welcome such transitory turmoil, as it sometimes provides unusually compelling opportunities. However, because of this short term turmoil, we seek to populate our portfolios with companies that have a “Moerus” – the strength, staying power and wherewithal – to withstand a variety of risks.
My students and I totally enjoyed learning from Amit who spoke about his firm’s approach towards investing with a particular focus on risk. I particularly enjoyed the part when Amit spoke about the importance of “knowing the neighbourhood that you are going to.” There’s a fabulous lesson in there and many more in the talk. I am confident that you’ll enjoy watching Amit’s lecture video and slides.
A while back I clarified what Warren Buffett really meant when he said:
You should invest in a business that even a fool can run, because one day a fool will.
Now, it’s time to clarify another one of his famous, and often misunderstood quotes which goes like this:
There are only two rules in investing. Rule # 1: Never Lose Money. Rule # 2: Never Forget Rule # 1
Here’s what I think Mr. Buffett really means with those words.
The thoughts behind this post were triggered because of a tweet by Mr. Samir Arora on twitter for which I thank him.
Remember, back in school, when you were learning elementary probability?
One of the topics covered was the “multiplication rule.” My favorite mathematician, John Paulos explains the rule.
Like you, I too encountered the multiplication rule in school. I learnt how to use it to solve questions of probability relating to flipping coins, drawing cards, rolling dice or picking marbles. And then I forgot all about it.
Many years later, when I became a student of business and value investing, I started appreciating the practical significance of the multiplication rule. I found that its utility lay beyond the textbook probability world of coins, cards, dice or marbles.
My first encounter with the multiplication rule outside the abstract world of coins, cards, dice and marbles occurred when I discovered Ben Graham.
Graham never really talked formally about the rule. But, he did recognize the need to “spread the risk” over somewhat uncorrelated (“independent”) risks.
For example, in these these passages in two of his books — Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor — he wrote about diversification.
Graham drew strong parallels between the worlds of value investing and insurance underwriting. Both the value investor and the insurance underwriter, according to Graham, should worry about aggregation of risks. Don’t put all your eggs (portfolio positions) in one basket (e.g. one industry). They may be different eggs, but they are one basket and if the basket falls, they will all break together.
Graham’s most famous student — Warren Buffett — has also written about the multiplication rule, although like Graham, he too didn’t mention it specifically. For example, in an essay in one of his letters, he described a principle followed by disciplined insurance underwriters.
The Deceptive Guise of Independence
Independence of events is a very important notion in probability but is also a deceptive one. This is especially true for some domains like financial markets which lie outside the world of coins, cards, dice or marbles.
Many global investors who practice wide diversification by spreading their money across “seemingly-unrelated risks” across geographies and asset classes found this in 2008 and 2009 when the global financial apocalypse of the time proved diversification to be a fair weather friend. He failed to come to their rescue just when they needed him the most just like an home insurance policy which expires moments before an earthquake strikes.
When shit hit the ceiling, their so-called diversified portfolios were slaughtered by the carnage that took place in asset prices across geographies and asset classes. The prices of almost every financial asset other than US treasuries crashed. Having one’s eggs in many baskets didn’t really help because what was thought to be “independent” and “uncorrelated” turned out to be anything but.
That experience, made Warren Buffett make an acute observation:
So much for the multiplication rule!
My own thinking about diversification changed quite a bit post the 2008-09 experience but that’s not the subject matter of this post. Let’s stay focused on the multiplication rule instead.
A few years ago, while researching the idea of “margin of safety” for my class, I came across another idea related to the multiplication rule from the world of engineering. That idea is called “redundancy.” Here’s an example from the world of aircraft design, as illustrated by Wikipedia:
Obviously, this is a very powerful idea. The practical applications of the multiplication rule in engineering — of which aircraft design is just an illustration — have proven to be hugely beneficial for civilization by providing it with, amongst many other things, safer and more reliable planes, cars and nuclear power plants.
What I found interesting was that while “seemingly unrelated risks” in the world of financial markets proved to be not so unrelated after all, in the world of engineering, this wasn’t so. And so, my respect for the multiplication rule returned.
Over the years, my appreciation of the multiplication rule has only increased. And even though the rule failed to protect widely-diversified investment portfolios (including mine) from collapse during the global financial meltdown of 2008-09, I continue to apply it to my investment process in other ways.
One of them involves the application of a related principle:
Let me explain this with the help of an example. A few days ago, my colleagues and I were discussing the investment merits of a situation involving a company which had, a few quarters earlier, announced plans to manufacture a product related, but not identical to, it’s existing products. The new product required a new plant. Moreover the company would need to sell the new product to its existing customers. Also, before the company could start manufacturing the new product, it needed some environmental approvals which, as it happened, had already been delayed.
Furthermore, our analysis revealed that a very significant part of the total expected return from the proposed ownership of this business (acquired at prevailing market price) over the next few years was largely dependent on the success of this initiative. So, in a sense, the entire investment thesis rested on this project.
We saw three, independent risks on this project:
For the project to succeed, none of the risks should materialise and the probability of that was simply the product of the probabilities of each of these risks not materialising or
(1-0.5)*(1-0.2)*(1-0.1) = 0.36 or 36%
Therefore, there was only a 36% chance of success on all three parameters which, of course, meant that there was 64% chance of failure. As the consequences of failure were no return for us, we passed the opportunity.
To be sure, this type of thinking is deeply subjective but to paraphrase Keynes, we would rather be subjectively right than be objectively wrong.
Now, imagine that the company does indeed get the environmental clearances. So, risk # 1 is eliminated. What is the joint probability of success now? The multiplication rule tells us that the probability of success has now doubled to
(1-0.2)*(1-0.1) = 0.72 or 72%
Suppose, however the market ignores this development or under-reacts to it. Clearly then, there might be an excellent opportunity to make an investment in this situation, if it looks attractive in relation to other opportunities available at the time.
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A few years ago, Warren Buffett wrote on probability chains derived from the multiplication rule, which would serve as an even better example on how the rule should be used in one’s investment thinking.
Clearly, Buffett learnt an important lesson there. The way I see it is that some business models, by their very nature are so complex (e.g. drug discovery) that one has to worry about lots of “moving parts” — independent risk factors. For the investment to be successful, all of those risks must be mitigated. And given the way the multiplication rule works, that’s a long shot. To be sure, long-shots can sometimes be offset by bonanza profits if success does occur, but that kind of investing is more in the nature of a venture capital operation than a value investing operation.
In contrast, other things remaining unchanged, simple, easy to understand businesses with fewer moving parts carry much lower risk of disappointment. As Buffett writes:
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My own, intuitive application of the multiplication rule can also be understood by another example.
I followed that tweet up with a blog post titled “Who will Bail Shale” in which I was asked to comment on the probability of oil prices remaining low for the next few years. While my original, tongue-in-cheek response was to estimate that probability to be “somewhere between zero and 1,” I subsequently wrote:
Contrast the complexity involved in predicting the future price of oil or other commodities with the simplicity of investing in a business like Relaxo — India’s largest footwear manufacturer which despite volatility in input prices, does not experience volatility in its profit margins.
Because Relaxo follows the simple notion of buying commodities and selling brands. It has the ability to pass through cost inflation to customers without fear of loss of unit volume or market share. The business that manufactures EVA has lot more “moving parts” than the business that uses EVA to make and sell branded footwear.
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If you have used the multiplication rule in your investment process in a manner different from what I described above, I would love to know more about it.
Note: The use of Relaxo in the post was just an example to illustrate a point and must not be construed as a stock recommendation.
On 17 November, Achal Bakeri, founder and CEO of Symphony Limited, delivered a fantastic talk to my students at MDI.
Many students later told me or wrote to me that they accumulated more wisdom in this lecture than any other lecture they had attended. For me too, it was a wonderful learning experience to meet Mr. Bakeri for the first time and learn from him.
As per my request, Mr. Bakeri covered the following topics:
He also described in detail the business model innovation that he and his team have brought about at Symphony and the remarkable results that innovation resulted in excellent fundamental financial performance.
There is much to learn from Mr. Bakeri’s lecture. You can view the recording from here.
An earlier note sent to students from here.
My introductory comments are here.
And you can get the teaching notes I had sent to students before the lecture from here.
NOTE: This was an academic event focusing on a listed company’s financial performance over the years and the likely causes of that performance. The lecture video and any material referenced above should not be construed as a stock recommendation.
Text of a Note I sent to my students at MDI today:
Achal Bakeri, Learning Machine
In July 2015, I delivered a talk in which I profiled Achal Bakeri — founder and CEO of Symphony Limited as a “learning machine.”
Next week, Mr. Bakeri will deliver a talk in your class where he will share with you some of the most important lessons he learned as an entrepreneur.
This talk is not going to be about the valuation of Symphony. Rather, it will be about the journey of a very successful entrepreneur who learnt a few key lessons and who has generously agreed to come to MDI to share them with you.
You should regard Mr. Bakeri as a role model. But to get the maximum out of your interaction with him, you must spend time reading about how, over the course of a few years, he transformed Symphony from an unfocused, asset-heavy, highly leveraged, unprofitable business to an extremely focused, asset-light, debt-free, and one of the highest return on operating assets businesses in India.
There are two methods by which you can do this — the long method and the short method. The long method involves reading the past annual reports of the company slowly while making notes about improvements led by Mr. Bakeri to the company’s business model.
If you use the long method, try to relate business improvements in fundamental operating performance with specific business model changes by focusing on key words like “asset-light,” “debt” and “learning.”
You can get the annual reports from here.
The short method would be to simply read recent media coverage about Mr. Bakeri and Symphony. Here are three links:
I urge you to use the long method. It’s a lot of fun to learn directly from source documents than to learn from media coverage where you rarely get to read about success stories before they have been recognized by the world out there. So, clearly, it’s in your interest as an investor to take the long road.
I have never met Mr. Bakeri before and so, like you, I will be meeting him for the first time next week. Together, let’s learn whatever we can from the accumulated wisdom of a learning machine.
14 November, 2015
Earlier this year — on 24 August — I had the privilege of sitting down for a chat with Shane Parrish who publishes the Farnam Street blog. That chat took place in the room of the wonderful Waldorf Astoria hotel in NYC — the one where Indian PM stayed recently and the one in which one of my favorite movies — Scent of a Woman — was shot in 1992. (Watch this scene).
Needless to say, meeting Shane and interacting with him was a memorable experience.
Shane, who has been a dear friend for many years, has now generously allowed me to make the transcript of our chat public. You can get it from here.