Market volatility and circle of competence

The markets have been roiled these last few days to put it mildly. Dow Jones has been down 8.5% in the last four days. Indian Sensex is down 7.8%. Lots of individual stocks are down a lot more. There are a lot of investors wondering what’s in store next. Will the market fall another 10%? 20%? We have a very profound answer. We don’t know. And we don’t try to act or predict on something we don’t know.

However, whenever there is a sale, we are usually in the background looking around trying to see if something catches our eyes. When market goes down, assets get cheaper. It is akin to a shopping sale for us. If the market goes really, really down, it is a garage sale.

We believe what we do have is what Buffett calls a circle of competence. Limited number of companies where we think we have a good understanding of the fundamentals and what the companies might be worth 10 years from now. The intrinsic value of some of these companies is getting very interesting. We do not know what Mr Market will value these companies one year from now and even two years from now. However, we will still be okay if these companies go down 10-20-30% down after we buy it as we think the probabilities are high that the companies that we are investing in will be bigger, better, stronger ten years from now and that knowledge is our competitive advantage that enables us to deploy capital now when there is uncertainty and volatility around in the market. Once the capital is deployed, the key is to be patient and wait for the market to move from a voting machine to a weighing machine.

We are deploying some capital and watching to see if further bargains open up. Our war chest is ready. If none do, we just go back to whatever we were doing before and wait for more shopping festival seasons. If some bargains do further open up, we will be there buying things we understand.


What are we reading? — Berkshire

Mondelez International — a possible target for Kraft Heinz (Brooklyn investor)

Berkshire Hathaway profit drops 37% (WSJ)

Berkshire Hathaway nears deal to buy Precision Castparts (WSJ)

Stock owners of Precision Castparts (Dataroma)

Warren Buffett might bet on Aerospace boom to lift precision castparts deal (WSJ)

Why a takeover of precision castparts would be typical Buffett (WSJ)

Disclosure: Own BRK

Buffett’s Capital Structure and Alpha; Greenlight Re

Lots of work has been done trying to reverse engineer how Buffett managed to build his $350B behemoth. Tons of books discuss about value investing as practiced by Buffett, while some of the smarter ones delve deeper into the insurance operations that Berkshire operated. When we look closely at the insurance operations, some of the key advantages of this structure are:

  • Float generated by insurance offers good amount of leverage for the portfolio that Buffett manages
  • Cost of float has been less than zero; Buffett gets paid to manage the float; (see below table) Buffett can borrow cheaper than the U.S. government.
  • Float is not directly connected to the markets but to events; the debt will not disappear overnight or cannot be called overnight and hence almost non-recourse
  • As long as the insurance companies continues operations, a significant piece of this float will be available for long time (almost permanent capital)
  • Insurance operations are exempt from the investment act of 1940 which place restrictions on operations; Berkshire could not have intervened in Geico, Salmon, special situations or own whole public companies; Berkshire would have been regulated as a mutual fund
  • Insurance operations can buy whole public companies

.Table from: Paper on Buffett’s Alpha (here)

Cost of Float

So, float provided a cheap source of leverage and (almost) permanent capital. What would Berkshire look like if Buffett had invested in S&P 500 instead of handpicking companies? Joseph Taussig of Taussig capital did do the work and reverse engineered the investments.

S&P grew 9.7% CAGR for 40 years between 1969 and 2009. Warren Buffett’s investments grew at 12.4% CAGR.  If one had taken the taken all the money (close to $70M when Warren Buffett assumed Berkshire in 1969) and put it in S&P 500, one would have $2.5B and with Warren Buffett’s stock picks, one would have $4.3B. Around 2009, Berkshire’s market cap was about $150B. Why the difference? The study from Taussig capital does a great job of explaining this difference in simple terms,  for every $ of equity capital, Buffett used 2$ of reserves, with 12% return on investments, Buffett earned 12% of equity plus 2 times 12% on reserves = 36% net of 4% cost of float (2% for every 1$ of leverage / reserves) and ended with a ROE of 32%. Since Berkshire is domiciled in the US, it has to pay taxes, and the post tax returns are 20% CAGR which takes us close to $150B. The difference between $4.3B and $150B (in 2010) came from the insurance structure.

So, a huge piece of the returns came for Berkshire because of the capital structure than from the investing alpha that Buffett created. Warren Buffett did pick the right insurance companies to buy which mattered a lot. Buffett’s big alpha were from picking the right insurance vehicles that have created the massive conglomerate. As long as the insurance operations do fine and returns on incremental investments is decent, Berkshire will do fine in the future as well.

How does an investor starting today structure an operations with a capital structure better than Berkshire? Remember that Buffett also defers taxes by not selling securities and compounding the float from the taxman. Also note that the ROE’s came down from 32% to 20% because of taxes.

Enter David Einhorn and Greenlight Re. David Einhorn started a re-insurer based in Bermuda (which is tax free) and re-directs all the cash to Greenlight capital to invest which creates better economics than Berkshire does. Although, as Warren often points, insurance as an industry runs at a net loss through the cycle. Greenlight Re has been struggling to keep the combined ratio low and there are additional headwinds for a shareholder. Einhorn charges 2% management fee and 20% of profits of every year (with watermark). It is a very lucrative deal for David Einhorn. With earned premiums close to 50% of capital, the portfolio is levered at 0.5X. If S&P returns 10% and David Einhorn invests to meet the market returns of 10%. With the leverage, it will be 15% minus the  2% management fee and 20% incentive fee, it will be worth 10%.  The effects of leverage are being eaten up by Einhorn and not flowing to the shareholders. However, if the unearned premium does go up, it might present interesting possibilities as he has returned 18.9% CAGR on investments in Greenlight Capital since inception in 1996. Einhorn’s ability to create alpha plus the fact that the stock is trading at a discount to book value offers additional possibilities if the unearned premiums go up.

For now, we are content just monitoring Greenlight Re and Third Point Re (Daniel Loeb’s version of the same structure) and watch it for more time.

Allan Mecham — Links of interest

Came across a few articles of Allan Mecham from Arlington Capital who has been beating the pants out of S&P 500 since 1999. He does not use spreadsheets or any models, he just sits, reads and thinks. While we have not seen the audited performance, it does seem like that certain audits were carried out and it was kosher. Sharing a few links to read more about this guy. It makes an interesting read.


Is this the next Warren Buffett? (Forbes & Forbes)

The 400% man (MarketWatch)

The 400% man – A lesson for aspiring investors (BaseHitInvesting)

Musings on the 400% man (Alephblog)

Interview with Allan Mecham (ManualOfIdeas)

Allan Mecham — The Early Years (ValueWalk)

Allan Mecham 2014 Letter (Valuewalk)

Allan Mecham on the Bull Case for Sony and Alleghany (Valuewalk)

Allan Mecham Unloads Berkshire and Loads Up Outerwall (Valuewalk)

Allan Mecham a Businesslike approach to Investing like Ben Graham (Valuewalk)

What are we reading?

Email Communication between Muthu and Prof. Bakshi (WiseWealthAdvisors)

Hedge Fund Due Diligence Uncovers Serious Questions (ValueWalk)

How Warren Buffett Calculated ROE (ValueResearchOnLine)

Deutsche Bank: An inside look at Former CEO’s role in LiborGate (ZeroHedge)

Why Microsoft’s Windows 10 Upgrade is bad news for Intel (BusinessInsider)

Manpasand Beverages IPO

Warren Buffett’s words on IPO continue to ring true — “It’s almost a mathematical impossibility to imagine that, out of the thousands of things for sale on a given day, the most attractively priced is the one being sold by a knowledgeable seller (company insiders) to a less-knowledgeable buyer (investors).”

  • 2008-2013 soft drink market has been growing at 20% CAGR
  • The soft drink market is expected to grow at 14% CAGR between 2013 and 2018
  • Mango Sip is a single product contributing to 98% of the sales for the company
  • 17 crores of net debt versus 157 crores of net worth; net debt is pretty low
  • Return on equity for last three years has been 11.9%; 30.4% and 21.9%
  • Net profit declined from 2013 to 2014 by 10% from 22 crores to 20 crores
  • First four months of 2014, the company clocked 15 crores in net profit and 148 crores in sales (against 293 crores preceding 12 months — goosed up before IPO?); 9M 2015 sales is 239 crores and profits are 13 crores;
  • The issue size is for 400 crores, the company has outlined proposals to use up around 270 crores to building a new plant, setting up a new corporate office, drawing down corporate debt etc. and rest to be used for corporate expenses (what does that even mean?)
  • At expected market cap at 1400 crores to 1600 crores based on the IPO price; and expected 12 months trailing earnings at INR 20 crores, we are looking at a trailing PE of 70 to 80;
  • Very aggressive sales growth assumptions are built into the IPO price to justify the valuations

As Warren Buffett mentioned above, we are going to sit aside and watch this company play over the next couple of years.


“I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s fantastic brand loyalty.”
— Warren Buffett, ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ on RJR Nabisco

Cigarette company discussions often start and end on moral stands that investors take about tobacco usage. While we will leave the individual preferences to the respective investors to evaluate and act upon, we will discuss a bit about ITC which commands over 75% share in the legal Indian cigarette industry.

Cigarette businesses comes with investment characteristics that are highly desirable (leaving aside the moral question of public good or increasing the value of the ecosystem they operate in)

  •  Cost a penny and can be sold for a dollar
  • Great brand loyalty
  • Government restrictions on ads and regulations means it is legally very tough to take market share away from incumbent players
  • India still does not suffer from the punitive legal hurdles present in the western world

ITC however has been going through a different challenge. Over 85% of Indian tobacco consumption is not legal or not subject to regulation. This has meant that companies like ITC bear the burnt of the high excise taxes which are increasing every year and VAT as well. Smaller companies that operate outside the legal boundaries have a huge cost advantage over the ITC’s of the world. If the government does get serious about tobacco usage and curbs the usage of illegal tobacco, it might actually strengthen ITC’s business model. Though, the chances are slim and might take a few years at least.

Currently, ITC is suffering a huge volume decline on the back of the big tax hike in the last few years. The volume decline has accelerated in the last two quarters. There is a possibility that the demand is not as inelastic as we believe it to be.

2014 2015
Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
-2% -4% -2% -3% -3% -4% -13% -13%

In the backdrop of this, the already weak shares of ITC might see further weakness of the next few quarters. While we are not predicting the short term stock movements, as long term holders, we are hoping for a sale in ITC stock.

There are two catalysts that we see in the long run

  •  The sustainability of the cigarette over the longer period of time and its robustness. You cannot kill this business model except by banning cigarettes in India.
  • The cash engine ten years from now will be from FMCG along with Cigarettes that will ensure that the sustainability of the model will continue for the future. This change while tough to evaluate from a cash flow perspective is rather easy to evaluate from a predictability perspective.

You have a good cash cow, a new growth engine (yet to see cash flows though), a terrific management and a solid business model with a fair amount of predictability. For a long term investor, who does not care about short term weakness, price declines and can be  contrarian, some pain might be in order but definitely commands a look.

Disclosure: Long ITC