The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

By Edward A. Studzinski

“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

                             Oscar Wilde

There are a number of things that I was thinking about writing, but given what has transpired recently at Sequoia Fund as a result of its investment in and concentration in Valeant Pharmaceuticals, I should offer some comments and thoughts to complement David’s. Mine are from the perspective of an investor (I have owned shares in Sequoia for more than thirty years), and also as a former competitor.

Sequoia Fund was started back in 1970. It came into its own when Warren Buffett, upon winding up his first investment partnership, was asked by a number of his investors, what they should do with their money since he was leaving the business for the time being. Buffett advised them to invest with the Sequoia Fund. The other part of this story of course is that Buffett had asked his friend Bill Ruane to start the Sequoia Fund so that there would be a place he could refer his investors to and have confidence in how they would be treated.

Bill Ruane was a successful value investor in his own right. He believed in concentrated portfolios, generally fewer than twenty stock positions. He also believed that you should watch those stock investments very carefully, so that the amount of due diligence and research that went into making an investment decision and then monitoring it, was considerable. The usual course of business was for Ruane, Dick Cunniff and almost the entire team of analysts to descend upon a company for a full day or more of meetings with management. And these were not the kind of meetings you find being conducted today, as a result of regulation FD, with company managements giving canned presentations and canned answers. These, according to my friend Tom Russo who started his career at Ruane, were truly get down into the weeds efforts, in terms of unit costs of raw materials, costs of manufacturing, and other variables, that could tell them the quality of a business. In terms of something like a cigarette, they understood what all the components and production costs were, and knew what that individual cigarette or pack of cigarettes, meant to a Philip Morris. And they went into plants to understand the manufacturing process where appropriate.

Fast forward to the year 2000, and yes, there is a succession plan in place at Ruane, with Bob Goldfarb and Carly Cunniff (daughter of Dick, but again, a formidable talent in her own right who would have been a super investor talent if her name had been Smith) in place as President and Executive Vice President of the firm respectively. The two of them represented a nice intellectual and personality balance, complementing or mellowing each other where appropriate, and at an equal level regardless of title.

Unfortunately, fate intervened as Ms. Cunniff was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, and passed away far too early in life, in 2005. Fate also intervened again that year, and Bill Ruane also passed away in 2005.

At that point, it became Bob Goldfarb’s firm effectively, and certainly Bob Goldfarb’s fund. At the end of 2000, according to the 12/31/2000 annual report, Sequoia had 11 individual stock positions, with Berkshire representing 35.6% and Progressive Insurance representing 6.4%. At the end of 2004, according to the 12/31/2004 annual report, Sequoia had 21 individual stock positions, with Berkshire representing 35.3% and Progressive Insurance representing 12.6% (notice a theme here). By the end of 2008, according to the 12/31/2008, Berkshire represented 22.8% of the fund, Progressive was gone totally from the portfolio, and there were 26 individual stock positions in the fund. By the end of 2014, according to the 12/31/2014 report, Sequoia had 41 individual stock positions, with Berkshire representing 12.9% and healthcare representing 21.4%.

So, clearly at this point, it is a different fund than it used to be, in terms of concentration as well as the types of businesses that it would invest in. In 2000 for instance, there was no healthcare and in 2004 it was de minimis. Which begs the question, has the number of high quality businesses expanded in recent years? The answer is probably not. Has the number of outstanding managements increased in recent years, in terms of the intelligence and integrity of those management teams? Again, that would not seem to be the case. What we can say however, is that this is a Goldfarb portfolio, or more aptly, a Goldfarb/Poppe portfolio, distinct from that of the founders.

Would Buffett, if asked today . . . still suggest Sequoia? My suspicion is he would not . . .

An interesting question is, given the fund’s present composition, would Buffett, if asked today for a recommendation as to where his investors should go down the road, still suggest Sequoia? My suspicion is he would not with how the fund is presently managed and, given his public comments advocating that his wife’s money after his demise should go to an S&P 500 index fund.

A fairer question is – why have I held on to my investment at Sequoia? Well, first of all, Bob Goldfarb is 70 and one would think by this point in time he has proved whatever it was that he felt he needed to prove (and perhaps a number of things he didn’t). But secondly, there is another great investor at Ruane, and that is Greg Alexander. Those who attend the Sequoia annual meetings see Greg, because he is regularly introduced, even though he is a separate profit center at Ruane and he and his team have nothing to do with Sequoia Fund. However, Bruce Greenwald of Columbia, in a Value Walk interview in June of 2010 said Buffett had indicated there were three people he would like to have manage his money after he died (this was before the index fund comment). One of them was Seth Klarman at Baupost. Li Lu who manages Charlie Munger’s money was a second, and Greg Alexander at Ruane was the third. Greg has been at Ruane since 1985 and his partnerships have been unique. In fact, Roger Lowenstein, a Sequoia director, is quoted as saying that he knows Greg and thinks Warren is right, but that was all he would say. So my hope is that the management of Ruane as well as the outside directors remaining at Sequoia, wake up and refocus the fund to return to its historic roots.

Why is the truth never pure and simple in and of itself. We have said that you need to watch the changes taking place at firms like Third Avenue and FPA. I must emphasize that one can never truly appreciate the dynamics inside an active management firm. Has a co-manager been named to serve as a Sancho Panza or alternatively to truly manage the portfolio while the lead manager is out of the picture for non-disclosed reasons? The index investor doesn’t have to worry about these things. He or she also doesn’t have to worry about whether an investment is being made or sold to prove a point. Is it being made because it is truly a top ten investment opportunity? But the real question you need to think about is, “Can an active manager be fired, and if so, by whom?” The index investor need not worry about such things, only whether he or she is investing in the right index. But the active investor – and that is why I will discuss this subject at length down the road.

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About Edward A. Studzinski

Ed Studzinski has more than 30 years of institutional investment experience. Until January of 2012, he was a partner at Harris Associates in Chicago, Illinois. Harris is known for its value-oriented, bottom-up investment approach that frames the investment process as owning a piece of the business relative to the business value of the whole, ideally forever. At Harris, Ed was co-manager of the Oakmark Equity & Income Fund (OAKBX). During the eleven plus years that he was in that role, the fund increased more than 35 times in size. Concurrently Ed was also an equity research analyst, providing many of the ideas that contributed to the fund’s success. He has specialist knowledge in the aerospace & defense, financial services, and spirits & tobacco industries, having followed and owned companies as diverse as Alliant Techsystems, Catellus Development, GATX, General Dynamics, InBev, Kirby, Legacy Hotels, L-3, Nestle, Partner Re, Philip Morris International, Progressive Insurance, Rockwell Collins, Safeco Insurance, Teledyne, Textron, and UST. Before joining Harris Associates, over a period of more than 10 years, Ed was the Chief Investment Officer at the Mercantile National Bank of Indiana, and also served on their Executive and Asset-Liability Committees. Prior to Mercantile, Ed practiced law. A native of Peabody, Massachusetts, he received his A.B. in history (magna cum laude) from Boston College, where he was a Scholar of the College. He has a J.D. from Duke University and an M.B.A. in marketing from Northwestern University. A Chartered Financial Analyst, Ed belongs to the Investment Analyst Societies of both Boston and Chicago. He is admitted to the Bar in Illinois, the District of Columbia, and North Carolina.