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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Bad News from Crawshaw and ULS, Ideagen AGM, Victoria Doubts and Other News

The real bad news today is that butchers Crawshaw (CRAW) is going into administration, “in order to protect both shareholders and creditors”. They hope the business will be sold as a going concern but it is unusual for shareholders to end up with anything in such circumstances. The shares have been suspended and the last share price was 2p. It actually achieved a share price of 3425p at its peak in 2005. Revenue have been rising of late but losses have been also.

I never invested in the company although I do recall seeing a presentation by the company when it was the hottest stock in the market but I considered it to be a business operating in a market with no barriers to entry and likely to suffer from competition once the supermarkets had woken up to what it was doing. That’s apart from the difficulties all high street retailers have been facing of late. Well that’s one disaster I avoided at least.

Another AIM stock I do hold is ULS Technology (ULS) who operate a conveyance service platform. A trading statement this morning for the first half year said the revenue is expected to be up 3% and underlying profit up 5%, despite a fall of 4% in the number of housing transactions across the UK market. But the sting in the tail was the mention of a slowdown in mortgage approvals which “may well be short lived but is likely to have some impact on the Group’s second half results”. The share price promptly dropped 20% this morning. It’s that kind of market at present – any negative comments promptly cause investors to dump the shares in a thin market.

One piece of good news for the housing market which I failed to mention in my comments on the budget was that the “Help to Buy” scheme is not being curtailed as some expected, but is extended for at least another two years to 2023.

Yesterday I attended the Annual General Meeting of Ideagen (IDEA), another company I hold. It was unexciting with only 4 ordinary shareholders in attendance so I won’t cover it in detail. But boring is certainly good these days.

It was the first AGM chaired by David Hornsby who is now Executive Chairman. One pertinent question from a shareholder was “what keeps the CEO awake at night?”. It transpired that the pound/dollar exchange rate was one of them simply because a lot of their revenue is in dollars (their US market seems to be a high growth area also). I suggested they might want a “hard Brexit” when the pound would collapse and improve their profits greatly. But the board somewhat ducked that issue. Note that this business is moving to a SAAS revenue model from up-front licence fees which may reduce organic growth slightly but increase revenue visibility. The point to bear in mind here is that even on a hard Brexit it is unlikely that trade tariffs would impact software income because there are no “goods” exported on a SAAS model.

Another question asked was about financing new acquisitions which the company does regularly. These are generally purchased for cash, and share placings are done to raise the funds required. Debt target revenue is only one times EBITDA so debt tends to be avoided.

It is worth comparing that with Victoria (VCP) a manufacturer of floor coverings who issued a trading statement on the 29th October which did not impress me or anyone else it seems. Paul Scott did a devasting critique on Stockopedia of the announcement. In summary he questioned the mention of a new debt being raised, although it was said that this would be used to repay existing debt, when there were few other details given. He also questioned the reference to reduction in margins to maintain revenue growth. The share price promptly headed south.

The company issued another RNS this morning in response to the negative speculation to reassure investors about the banking relationships, covenants and credit rating.

I have held a few shares in Victoria since the board bust-up a few years back and attended their last AGM in September when I wrote a report on it here: https://roliscon.blog/2018/09/11/brexit-abcam-victoria-and-the-beaufort-case/ . The share price was already falling due to shorters activities and my report mentioned the high level of debt. The companies target for debt was stated to be “no more than 2.5 to 3 times” at the AGM which is clearly very different to Ideagen’s!

I did have confidence in Geoff Wilding, Executive Chairman, to sort out the original mess in Victoria but the excessive use of debt and a very opaque announcement on the 29th has caused a lot of folks to lose confidence in the company and his leadership. Let us hope he gets through these difficulties. But in the current state of the stock market, the concerns raised are good enough to spook investors. It’s yet another previously high-flying company that has fallen back to earth.

One more company in which I have a miniscule number of shares is Restaurant Group (RTN) which I bought back in 2016 as a value/recovery play. That was a mistake as it’s really gone nowhere since with continuing declines in like-for-like sales. At least I never bought many. Yesterday the company announced the acquisition of the Wagamama restaurant chain, to be financed by a rights issue. The market reacted negatively and the share price fell.

I did sample some of the restaurants in the RTN portfolio but I don’t recall eating in Wagamama’s so it’s difficult to comment on the wisdom of this move. All “casual dining” chains are having difficulties of late as the market changes, although Wagamama is suggested to have more growth potential. The dividend will be rebased and more debt taken on though. With those reservations, the price does not look excessive. However, while they are still trying to get the original business back to strength does it really make much sense to make an acquisition of another chain operating in the same market? Will it not stretch management further? I will await more details but I suspect I may not take up the rights in this case.

One other item of news that slipped through in the budget announcements was the fact that in future Index-linked Saving Certificates from NS&I will be indexed by Consumer Price Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Price Index (RPI). This is likely to reduce the interest paid on them. But it will only affect certificates that come up for renewal as no new issues have been made of late. These certificates are becoming less and less attractive now that deposit interest rates are rising so investors in them should be careful when renewing to consider whether they are still a good buy. I suspect the Chancellor is relying too much on folks inertia.

At least even with the bad news, my portfolio is up significantly today. Is the market about to bounce back? I think it depends on consistent price rises in the USA before the UK market picks up, or a good Brexit deal being announced.

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

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