Winning The Loser’s Game – It’s Like Tennis

Tennis Player

It’s that time of year when we review our investment performance over the last year and some of us realise that it would have been lot better if it was not for the few disasters in our share holdings. For example, this is what well known investor David Stredder tweeted before Xmas: “End of 2018 and most of this year has been pretty awful investing wise for me…ACSO, CRAW, BUR, SOM, OPM & JLH were all top 15 holdings and lost 50% or more. CRAW actually went bust. First signs of recovery in two of those and thankfully my top three holdings GAW, JDG & INL have all doubled and covered most my losses but shows investing cannot be fab returns every year. Often a roller coaster ride and must prepare yourself…Sell half on first bad news, slice profits, make friends, share bad and good times as happen to all of us. Enjoy the festive break”.

For those like me that cannot remember all the TIDMs of the several thousand listed companies, the failings were in Accesso, Crawshaw, Burford Capital, Somero, 1PM and John Lewis of Hungerford. The positives were Games Workshop, Judges Scientific and Inland Homes. As an aside I do wish investors would put the company name not just the TIDM (EPIC) code when referencing companies in tweets. A lot of the time I have no idea what they are talking about.

As in most years, I have also had failures. Patisserie was a wipe-out. It went bust after a massive fraud. Thankfully not one of my bigger holdings but I ignored two of the rules I gave in my book “Business Perspective Investing” – namely avoid Executive Chairmen, and directors who have too many roles. I lost money on a number of other newish holdings but not much because I did not hold on to the duds for long.

One of the keys to successful long-term investing is to simply minimise the number of failures while letting the rest of your investments prosper. It is important to realise that investment is a “loser’s game”. It is not the number of sound investments one makes that is important, but the number of mistakes that one avoids that affects the overall performance of your portfolio.

A good book on this subject which I first read some years ago is “Investment Policy – How to Win the Loser’s Game by Charles D. Ellis”. It covers investment strategy in essence but it also contains some simple lessons that are worth learning. He points out that investing is a loser’s game so far as even professional investors are concerned, let alone private investors. Most active fund managers underperform their benchmarks. A lot of the activity of investors in churning their portfolios actually reduces their performance. The more they change horses with the objective of picking a winning steed, the worse their performance gets as their new bets tend to be riskier than the previous holdings, i.e. newer holdings are just more speculative, not intrinsically better. That is why value investing as followed by many experienced investors can outperform.

But Charles Ellis supplied a very good analogy obtained from Dr. Simon Ramo who studied tennis players. He found that professional tennis players seemed to play a different game to amateurs. Professionals seldom make mistakes. Their games have long rallies until one player forces an error by placing a ball just out of reach. But amateurs tend to lose games by hitting the ball into the net or out of play, i.e. they make a lot of unforced errors. The amateur seldom beats his opponent, but more often beats himself. Professional tennis is a winner’s game while amateur tennis is a loser’s game.

In a recent review of my book by Roy Colbran in the UKSA newsletter he says “the book takes a somewhat unusual line in telling you more about things to avoid than things to look for”. Perhaps that is because I have learned from experience that avoiding failures is more important to achieve good overall returns. That means not just avoiding investing in duds to begin with, but cutting losses quickly when the share price goes the wrong way, and getting out at the first significant profit warning.

However, the contrary to many negative qualities in companies are positive qualities. If they are unexceptional in many regards, they can continue to churn out profits without a hiccup if the basic financial structure and business model are good ones. Compounding of returns does the rest. If they avoid risky new business ventures, unwise acquisitions or foreign adventures, that can be to the good.

The companies most to avoid are those where there might be massive returns but where the risks are high. Such companies as oil/gas exploration businesses or mine developers are often of that nature. Or new technology companies with good “stories” about the golden future.

There were a couple of good articles on this year’s investment failures in the Lex column of the FT on Christmas Eve. This is what Lex said about Aston Martin (AML): “Decrying ambitious ventures is relatively safe. Many flop. We gave Aston Martin the benefit of the doubt, instead”. But Lex concedes that the mistake was to be insufficiently cynical.

Lex also commented on Sirius Minerals (SXX) a favourite of many private investors but where Lex says equity holders are likely to be wiped out. Well at least I avoided those two and also avoided investing in any of the Woodford vehicles last year.

To return to the loser’s game theme, many private investors might do better to invest in an index tracker which will give consistent if not brilliant returns than in speculative stocks. At least they will avoid big losses that way. Otherwise the key is to minimise the risks by research and by having a diverse portfolio with holdings sized to match the riskiness of the company. As a result I only lost 0.7% of my portfolio value on Patisserie which has been well offset by the positive movements on my other holdings last year. It of course does emphasise the fact that if you are going to dabble in AIM stocks then you need to hold more than just a few while trying to avoid “diworsification”.

Not churning your portfolio is another way to avoid playing the loser’s game. And as Warren Buffett said “Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1.” – in other words, he emphasised the importance of not losing rather than simply making wonderful investment decisions.

Those are enough good New Year resolutions for now.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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IPOs, Platforms, Growth Stocks and Shareholder Rights

I agreed with FT writer Neil Collins in a previous article when discussing the prospective IPO of Aston Martin (AML) – “never buy a share in an initial public offering” he suggested because those who are selling know more about the stock than you do. We were certainly right about that company because the share price is now 24% below the IPO price.

Smithson Investment Trust (SSON) did rather better on its first day of trading on Friday, moving to a 2% premium. That’s barely enough to have made it worth stagging the issue though. But I think it will be unlikely to outperform its benchmark in the first year simply because as the largest ever investment trust launch it might have great difficulty investing all the cash quickly enough. On the other hand, if the market continues to decline, holding mainly cash might be an advantage.

One company that is lining up for a prospective IPO is AJ Bell who operate the Youinvest investment platform. They reported positive numbers for the year ending September recently but I suspect the IPO may be delayed given recent stock market conditions. One symptom of this is perhaps their rather surprising recent missive to their clients that discouraged some people from investing in the stock market. This is what it said: “In this year’s annual survey we had a small number of customers who identified themselves as ‘security seekers’, which means, ‘I am an inexperienced investor and I do not like the idea of risking my money and would prefer to invest in cash deposits’. If this description sounds like you, please consider whether an AJ Bell Youinvest account is right for you. If in doubt, you should consult a suitably qualified financial adviser”. It rather suggests that a number of people have moved into stock market investment after a long bull run and have not considered the risks of short-term declines in the market.

An interesting article was published on another platform operator, Hargreaves Lansdown (HL.), in this week’s Investors Chronicle. Phil Oakley took apart the business and showed where it was generating most of its profits – and it is undoubtedly highly profitable. Apart from the competitive advantage of scale and good IT systems it enjoys, it also benefits from promoting investment in funds, and running its own funds in addition. The charging structure of funds that it offers means it makes large amounts of money from clients who invest mainly in funds – for example £3,000 per annum on a £1 million SIPP portfolio. Other platforms have similar charging structures, but on Youinvest Mr Oakley suggested the charges on such a portfolio might be half.

His very revealing comment was this: “It is not difficult to see how this is not a particularly good deal for customers. It’s the main reason why I don’t own funds at all”. That goes for me also in terms of investing in open-ended funds via platforms.

Hargreaves Lansdown has been one of those typical growth stocks that do well in bull markets. But with the recent market malaise it has fallen 20% in the past month. Even so it is still on a prospective p/e of over 30. I have never invested in the stock because I was not convinced that it had real barriers to competition and always seemed rather expensive. Stockbroking platforms don’t seem greatly differentiated to me and most give a competent and reliable service from my experience. Price competition should be a lot fiercer in this market than it currently appears to be.

Almost all growth stocks in my portfolio have suffered in the last few weeks as investors have moved into cash, or more defensive stocks such as property. One favourite of private investors has been Renishaw (RSW) but that has fallen 35% since July with another jerk down last week. The company issued a trading statement last week that reported revenue growth of 8% but a decline in profits for the first quarter due to heavy short-term investment in “people and infrastructure”. According to a report in the FT Stifel downgraded the company to a “sell” based on signs that demand from Asian electronics and robotics makers has weakened. But has the growth story at this company really changed? On a prospective p/e now of about 20, it’s not looking nearly as expensive as it has done of late. The same applies to many other growth companies I hold and I still think investing in companies with growing revenues and profits in growing markets makes a lot more sense than investing in old economy businesses.

Shareholder rights have been a long-standing interest of mine. It is good to see that the Daily Mail has launched a campaign on that subject – see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/money/markets/article-6295877/We-launch-campaign-savers-shares-online-fair-say-company-votes.html .

They are concentrating on the issue of giving shareholders in nominee accounts a vote after the recent furore over the vote at Unilever. But nominee account users lose other rights as well because they are not “members” of the company and on the share register. In reality “shareholders” in nominee accounts are not legally shareholders and that is a very dubious position to be in – for example if your stockbroker goes out of business. In addition it means other shareholders cannot communicate with you to express their concerns about the activities of the company which you own. The only proper solution is to reform the whole system of share registration so all shareholders are on the share register of the company. Nominee accounts only became widespread when it was necessary to support on-line broking platforms. But there are many better ways to do that. We just need a modern, electronic (i.e. dematerialised) share registration system.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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The Market, Dunedin and Standard Life Smaller Companies Merger, and Aston Martin IPO

Is it not depressing when you go away for a week’s holiday and your portfolio falls every day in that time? I do monitor any exceptional movements while on vacation but try to avoid trading. It just seemed to be a general downward trend and reviewing the movement over that week my portfolio is down 1.73% while the FTSE All-Share is down 1.72%. So that is what I had already surmised.

Those stocks that seemed to have become overblown did fall and there were some like Scottish Mortgage Trust (SMT) were hit by specific news – in their case the events at Tesla. But the fall in my portfolio last week was less than it went up the previous week. I feel not quite so depressed now I have done the analysis.

Anyway, I am back from holiday now and on my desk is a proposed merger of Dunedin Smaller Companies Investment Trust (DNDL) and Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Investment Trust (SLS). I need to take a decision on this as I hold the latter.

DNDL is smaller than SLS and following the merger of DNDL’s manager, Aberdeen Asset Management, with Standard Life the merged manager now has two trusts with a similar focus. SLS has a superior performance record – 100.7% net asset value total return versus 68.9% for DNDL over the last 5 years. The merged trusts would be managed by Harry Nimmo who has managed SLS for some years.

The directors argue that the merger makes sense because it will result in reduced on-going costs and improved liquidity in the shares, although they don’t quantify either claim. There is no immediate change proposed to the fund management charges on SLS. DNDL will be paying the costs of both parties if the merger goes through.

It no doubt makes sense for the manager to merge these trusts. Not much point in having two trusts in the same stable with a similar focus and they will save on management costs. It also makes some sense for DNDL holders but does it for SLS shareholders?

Enlarging a trust or fund can degrade future returns particularly in small cap funds. This is because buying larger quantities of smaller company shares is more difficult and exiting is also difficult. In other words, the manager may find they cannot be as nimble as before. Alternatively the number of companies in the fund has to grow and we surely know that this is a recipe to reduce returns as there are only so many “good ideas” out there. The more companies in a portfolio, the more likely it is to approximate to a tracker fund.

Therefore, I think I will vote against this merger for that reason.

But what alternatives were there for DNDL shareholders? The company could have changed the manager to avoid the conflict of interest. Or simply wound up if it was too small to be viable. Perhaps a wider international focus when SLS is UK focused would be another alternative.

Luxury car maker Aston Martin is to float on the market. I agree with Neil Collins comments in the FT this weekend – “never buy a share in an initial public offering”. He suggested those who are selling know more about the stock than you do. Car companies, particularly of niche brands, are notoriously tricky investments. Aston Martin has been bust as many as seven times according to one press report. As Mr Collins also said “The private equity vendors are dreaming of a £5 billion valuation for a highly geared business with a decidedly unroadworthy past”.

Car companies exhibit all the worst features of technology businesses. Product reliability issues (which was a bugbear for Aston Martin for many years), very high cost of new model production, Government regulatory interference requiring major changes for safety and emissions, competitors leapfrogging the technology with better products, and sensitivity to economic trends. In a recession few people buy luxury vehicles or they simply postpone purchases – so it’s feast or famine for the manufacturers.

There can be some initial enthusiasm for companies after an IPO that can drive the price higher but the hoopla soon fades. Footasylum (FOOT) was a recent example but McCarthy & Stone (MCS) was another one where investors found that the market proved more challenging than expected.

Resist the temptation to buy IPOs!

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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