The Honorable Thing

By Edward A. Studzinski

“Advertising is the modern substitute for argument; its function is to make the worse appear the better.”

               George Santayana

So we find one chapter at Sequoia Fund coming to a close, and the next one about to begin.  On this subject my colleague David has more to offer. I will limit myself to saying that it was appropriate, and, the right thing to do, for Bob Goldfarb to elect to retire. After all, it happened on his watch. Whether or not he was solely to blame for Valeant, we will leave to the others to sort out in the future. Given the litigation which is sure to follow, there will be more disclosures down the road.

A different question but in line with Mr. Santayana’s observations above, is, do those responsible for portfolio miscues, always do the honorable thing? When one looks at some of the investment debacles in recent years – Fannie and Freddie, Sears, St. Joe, Valeant (and not just at Sequoia), Tyco, and of course, Washington Mutual (a serial mistake by multiple firms)  – have the right people taken responsibility? Or, do the spin doctors and public relations mavens come in to do damage control? Absent litigation and/or whistle blower complaints, one suspects that there are fall guys and girls, and the perpetrators live on for another day. Simply put, it is all about protecting the franchise (or the goose that is laying the golden eggs) on both the sell side and the buy side. Probably the right analogy is the athlete who denies using performance enhancing drugs, protected, until confronted with irrefutable evidence (like pictures and test results).

Lessons Learned

Can the example of the Sequoia Fund be a teaching moment? Yes, painfully. I have long felt that the best way to invest for the long-term was with a concentrated equity portfolio (fewer than twenty securities) and some overweight positions within that concentration. Looking at the impact Sequoia has had on the retirement and pension funds invested in it, I have to revisit that assumption. I still believe that the best way to accumulate personal wealth is to invest for the long-term in a concentrated portfolio. But as one approaches or enters retirement, it would seem the prudent thing to do is to move retirement moneys into a very diverse portfolio or fund.  That way you minimize the damage that a “torpedo” stock such as Valeant can do to one’s retirement investments, and thus to one’s standard of living, while still reaping the greater compounding effects of equities. There will still be of course, market risk. But one wants to lessen the impact of adverse security selection in a limited portfolio. 

Remember, we tend to underestimate our life expectancy in retirement, and thus underweight our equity allocations relative to cash and bonds. And in a period such as we are in, the risk free rate of return from U.S. Treasuries is not 12% or 16% as it was in the early 1980’s (although it is perhaps higher than we think it is). And for that retirement equity position, what are the choices?  Probably the easiest again, is something like the Vanguard Total Stock Market or the Vanguard S&P 500 index funds, with minimal expense ratios. We have been talking about this for some time now, but Sequoia provides a real life example of the adverse possibilities.  And, it is worth noting that almost every concentrated investment fund has underperformed dramatically in recent years (although the reasons may have more to do with too much money chasing too few and the same good ideas). Is it really worth a hundred basis points to pay someone to own Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, as their top twenty holdings? Take a look sometime at the top twenty holdings of the largest actively managed funds in the respective categories of growth, growth and income, etc., and see what conclusions you draw.

The more difficult issue going forward will be deflation versus inflation. We have been in a deflationary world for some time now. It is increasingly apparent that the global central banks are in the process (desperately one suspects) to reflate their respective economies out of stagnant or no growth. Thus we see a variety of quantitative easing measures which tend to favor investors at the expense of savers. Should they succeed, it is unlikely that the inflation will stop at their targets (2% here), and the next crisis will be one of currency debasement. The more things change.

Gretchen Morgenson, Take Two

As should be obvious by now, I am a fan of Ms. Morgenson’s investigative reporting and her take no prisoners approach. I don’t know her from Adam, and could be standing next to her in the line for a bagel and coffee in New York and would not know it. But, she has a wonderful knack for goring many of the oxen that need to be gored.

In this Sunday’s New York Times Business Section, she raised the question of the effectiveness of share buybacks. Now, the dirty little secret for some time has been that growth of a business is not impacted by share repurchases. Yet, if you listened to many portfolio managers wax poetic about how they only invest with shareholder friendly managements (which in retrospect turn out to have not been not so shareholder friendly after they have been indicted by a grand jury). Share repurchase does increase per share metrics, such as book value and earnings.  While the pie stays the same size, the size of the pieces changes. But often in recent years, one wonders why the number of shares outstanding does not change after a repurchase of what looked to have been 5% or so of shares outstanding during the year. 

Well, that’s because management keeps awarding themselves options, which are approved by the board. And the options have the effect of selling the business incrementally to the managers over time, unless share purchases eliminate the dilution from issuing the options.  Why approve the options packages? Well, the option packages are marketed to the share owners as critical to attracting and retaining good managers, AND, aligning the interests of management with the interests of shareholders. Which is where Mr. Santayana comes in  –  the bad (for shareholders) is made to look good with the right buzzwords.

However, I think there is another reason. Obviously growing a business is one of the most important things a management can do with shareholder capital. But today, every capital allocation move of reinvesting in a business for growth and expansion directly or by acquisition, faces a barrage of criticism. The comparison is always against the choices of dividends or share repurchase. I think the real reason is somewhat more mundane. 

The quality of analysts on both the buy and sell side has been dumbed down to the point that they no longer know how to go out and evaluate the impact of an acquisition or other growth strategy. They are limited to running their spread sheet models against industry statistics that they pull off of their Bloomberg terminals. I remember the horror with which I was greeted when I suggested to an analyst that perhaps his understanding of a company and its business would improve if he would find out what bars near a company’s plants and headquarters were favorites of the company’s employees on a Friday after work and go sit there. Now actually I wasn’t serious about that (most of the analysts I knew lacked the social graces and skills to pull it off). I was serious about getting tickets to industry tradeshows and talking to the competitor salespeople at their booths.  You would be amazed about how much you can learn about a company and its products that way. And people love to talk about what they do and how it stands up against their competition. That was a stratagem that fell on deaf ears because you actually had to spend real dollars (rather than commission dollars), and you had to spend time out of the office. Horrors!  You might have to miss a few softball games.

The other part of this is managements and the boards, which also have become deficient at understanding the paths of growing and reinvesting in a business that was entrusted to them.

Sadly, what we have today is a mercenary class of professional managers who can and will flit from opportunity to opportunity, never really understanding (or loving) the business. And we also have a mercenary class of professional board members, who spend their post-management days running their own little business – a board portfolio. And if you doubt all of this, take a look again at Valeant and the people on the board and running the business. It was and is a world of consultants and financial engineers, reapplying the same case study or stratagem they had used many times before. The end result is often a hollowed-out shell of a company, looking good to appearances but rotting away on the inside.

By Edward Studzinski 

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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.