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Circle Of Competence Issue #10

More news on Eddie Lampert and Sears. It is painful watching someone who has made a costly mistake continue to defend his or her position until the bloody end. And this could very well end bloody.

Ever thought of buying a wind farm? Look no further.

Interesting twist home equity loans (or rather, simply taking an equity position in a person's home) discussed here. Point Digital Finance invests for a minority equity position in a person's homes with plans to simply recoup their portion of equity upon sale of the property. The idea seems neat, but two things stick out to me that I don't like about the idea. 1) The entry into some markets (California, Colorado, etc.) seems a bit late in the game for equity returns and 2) I am not sure from the article, but it seems that this is more of an equity product than a loan/debt product and therefore the returns do not include cash flow over time. The model seems innovative, but would have been much better timed closer to the aftermath of 2008-09 recession when there were better home prices to be had nationwide.

I have always wanted to read letters to shareholders by John Malone, long heralded as one of the best capital compounders of his day. He invested $500,000 in BET with Bob Johnson and returned $805 Million. Need I say more?

Just great advice for any investor from Guy Spier.

Department of Podcasts

Highly recommend The Investor's Podcast by Preston Pysh and Stig Brodersen. Preston was featured on the Warren Buffett Documentary the night before the Berkshire Annual Meeting.

Great episode and interview with Doug McCormick, a partner at HCI Equity Partners in DC, about the business of Private Equity.

Department of Technology

New breakthrough in the CRISPR-Cas9 method to improve accuracy of genetic editing.

How long until someone uses a human brain to run this same experiment? The ethics here are dicey at best...

Interesting article on “deep” tech investments - less software application and more hard science problems (chemistry, physics, biology). Would love to get my hands on some reports that give more numbers and insight into these investment themes and areas.

Freshly funded cloud robotics platform company. I’ve been waiting for the next wave of robotics - namely when most of the processing is done off of the hardware and in the cloud. This gives the robots vastly more capabilities with larger deep learning models being deployed in the cloud in real time vs. being trained and stored on the robot itself. What’s more exciting is the fact that many robots can learn different skills and environments... and simultaneously upload these learnings to the cloud, enabling other robots to download and learn the new skill. I get excited about exponential ideas like this.

Soft Robotics Funded with $20 MillionInteresting company solving the problem of “one size robot does not fit all” solution space - I.e. picking up various sorts of objects without damaging them. Hence, “Soft” Robotics.

Interesting company that has raised quite a bit of cash for humanoid robots. The robots are coming. This is certainly a trend worth watching.

Department of Letters

I've been re-reading the Master's letters recently and I find a few nuggets in each one. One that caught my attention was this quote from his section on non-insurance operations (emphasis mine):

"Take another look at the figures on page 51, which aggregate the earnings and balance sheets of our non-insurance operations. After-tax earnings on average equity in 1990 were 51%, a result that would have placed the group about 20th on the 1989 Fortune 500.

Two factors make this return even more remarkable. First, leverage did not produce it: Almost all our major facilities are owned, not leased, and such small debt as these operations have is basically offset by cash they hold. In fact, if the measurement was return on assets - a calculation that eliminates the effect of debt upon returns - our group would rank in Fortune's top ten.

Equally important, our return was not earned from industries, such as cigarettes or network television stations, possessing spectacular economics for all participating in them. Instead it came from a group of businesses operating in such prosaic fields as furniture retailing, candy, vacuum cleaners, and even steel warehousing. The explanation is clear: Our extraordinary returns flow from outstanding operating managers, not fortuitous industry economics."

Wow. 51% ROE!

Another couple of interesting tidbits I noticed:

Buffett's wife, Susan, was nominated to the board to replace Ken Chace.

The section on the economics of property/casualty insurers vs. reinsurers is very educational and I would highly suggest paying close attention here, because it seems that this year marked the entry of Berkshire into long-tail, select cat(astrophe) insurance contracts which provided for additional, long duration float.

Wonderful article by Research Affiliates on certain bubbles in history, the current investing environment, and certain stocks and individual assets (Tesla, Cryptocurrencies, etc.). My favorite quote:

"At the beginning of 2000, the 10 largest market-cap tech stocks in the United States, collectively representing a 25% share of the S&P 500 Index—Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, IBM, AOL, Oracle, Dell, Sun, Qualcomm, and HP—did not live up to the excessively optimistic expectations. Over the next 18 years, not a single one beat the market: five produced positive returns, averaging 3.2% a year compounded, far lower than the market return, and two failed outright. Of the five that produced negative returns, the average outcome was a loss of 7.2% a year, or 12.6% a year less than the S&P 500."

Negative Equity, Veiled Value, and Erosion of Price-to-Book Every investor should read this piece by O’Shaughnessy asset management on how price to book ratios do not always reflect whether a company is truly cheap or expensive. Based on book values that are biased lower via stock buy backs, understated intangible assets, and long lived assets that are depreciated too quickly, they show how some stocks can appear to be expensive but in reality are quality companies that offer solid value going forward. After studying Buffett for years, this is one of his biggest lessons learned that he explains in several of his shareholder letters - i.e. that often times a company has a fantastic brand or hidden assets that don’t always show up in a balance sheet. In fact, his favorite companies are the ones that don’t need heavy capital expenditures but continue to compound wealth based on intangibles (think See’s Candies) - Capital-light compounders. This is a must read!

Another great letter from Jeff Bezos on the incredible growth of Amazon's underlying business products. I've seen many an investment pitch on Amazon, and I understand the entire flywheel approach, the 'invest for the future cashflows' philosophy, the customer-centric approach... but for the life of me, I can't seem to make ends meet on the current valuation. Love the company, can't get square with the current price. Maybe I never will and it will look expensive forever. Only time will tell.

Interesting discussion of systematic (algorithmic, robotic decision making) funds vs. discretionary (human decision making) funds and the different investment horizons between the two. Can you guess who has a shorter vs. longer investment horizon?

Also interesting tidbits regarding relative valuation of UK market at 15x CAPE vs. 33x for US market. The author seems bullish despite Brexit.

"We continue to be very concerned about the level of the U.S. stock market as discussed in our 1996 and 1997 Annual Reports – even though the S&P 500 increased again by 26.7% in 1998. The possibility of deflation, mindless long term investing in mutual funds and a lack of investment ‘‘values’’ in the North American stock markets do not appear to bother most investors. In fact, speculation is rampant in the U.S. markets as demonstrated by the ‘‘internet’’ stocks. America Online has a market cap that exceeds the total market cap of the five largest Canadian banks even though AOL has been a public company for only six years. Amazon.com has a market cap that is in excess of Sears (U.S.) even though Sears annually earns more than twice Amazon.com’s revenues. Finally, Yahoo! has a market cap in excess of Boeing even though the latter has revenues of $55 billion compared to Yahoo!’s $190 million. The speculative juices are flowing freely in the U.S. but the music will stop and many investors (speculators!) will not have any chairs to sit on. Caveat emptor!"

How times have changed for Sears and Amazon! But nonetheless, are we surprised about the market crash that ensued when valuations were at such insane levels?

Feature: Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting Stream

This is by far my favorite day each year when it comes to investment related events. At 87 and 94, Buffett and Munger continue to share wonderful advice and experiences with the investment community that is principled and timeless. What a legacy they have created. THIS IS A MUST WATCH!

What are YOU reading this week? Drop me a line if you have an interesting article, company, or theme I should be studying! You can also give me a shout on Twitter at @competence_co

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