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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Brexit Investment Strategies

Investors may have noticed that the pound is in free fall and heading towards US$1.20. That’s near the low after the initial Brexit vote. Pundits, not that they can be relied on for forex forecasts, suggest it could go lower now that we seem to be heading for a “no-deal” Brexit.

With the pound falling, and potential damage to the UK economy from a hard Brexit, investors should surely have been avoiding companies reliant on UK sales, or UK consumers, or those such as engineers and manufacturers that rely on just-in-time deliveries from Europe. The key has been to invest in those UK listed companies that make most of their sales overseas in areas other than the EU.

One such company that announced interim results today is 4Imprint (FOUR), a supplier of promotional merchandise. Most of its sales are in the USA and its accounts are in dollars. Revenue in dollar terms was up 16% at the half year and pre-tax profit up 22%. The share price rose 6.5% yesterday and more this morning but the former suggests the good news leaked out surely. With the added boost from currency movements, this is the kind of company in which to invest but there are many other companies with similar profiles. For example, many software companies have a very international spread of business, or specialist manufacturers such as Judges Scientific (JDG). Those are the kind of companies that have done well and are likely to continue to do so in my view if the US economy remains buoyant and the dollar exchange rate remains favourable.

The other alternative to investing in specific UK listed companies with large export revenues and profits is of course to invest directly in companies listed in the USA or other markets. But that can be tricky so the other option is to invest in funds such as investment trusts that have a global spread of investments with a big emphasis on the USA. Companies such as Alliance Trust (ATST), Scottish Mortgage (SMT) or Polar Capital Technology Trust (PCT) come to mind. Alliance Trust has a one-year share price total return of 11% according to the AIC and the share price discount is still about 5%. I received the Annual Report of PCT yesterday and it makes for interesting reading. Net asset total return up 24.7% last year and it again beat its benchmark index. The investment team there has been led by Ben Rogoff for many years and what he has to say about the technology sector is always worth reading. Apparently the new technology to watch is “software containerisation” which is compared to the containerisation of cargo shipments in its revolutionary impact.

Another interesting comment is from the Chairman complimenting Ben on having the skill of buying shares and holding those which go on to outperform, but also knowing when to sell at the right time which the Chairman suggests is not common in fund managers.

Another hedge against a hard Brexit is to invest in companies that own warehouses because a lot more stockpiling is already taking place as a protection around the Brexit date by importers, but also more will be required to hold buffer stocks for manufacturers in the future. Companies such as Segro (SGRO), Tritax Big Box (BBOX), and Urban Logistics (SHED) have been doing well for that reason. They have also been helped by the trend to internet shopping which requires more warehousing space and less retail space. These trends are likely to continue in my view and the retail sector is likely to remain difficult for those retailers reliant on physical shops. You can see that from the results from Next (NXT) this morning. Shop sales down while internet sales up with the overall outcome better than expected as on-line sales grew rapidly. Anyone who expects the high street or shopping malls to revive is surely to going to be disappointed in my view.

There are bound to be some problems for particular sectors if we have a hard Brexit. The plight of Welsh sheep farmers was well covered by the BBC as Boris Johnson visited Wales yesterday. Most of their production currently goes to Europe but they may face 40% tariffs in future. The Prime Minister has promised assistance to help them but they have been heavily reliant on subsidies in the past in any case. There will need to be some difficult decisions made about the viability of farming on marginal land in future.

The falling pound has other implications of course. It will help exporters but importers will face higher prices with the result that inflation may rise. However, there are few products from Europe that cannot be substituted by home grown or produced equivalents, or by lower cost products from the rest of the world. With import tariffs lowered on many imports the net effect may be very low in the long term. But it will take time for producers and consumers to adjust. Tim Martin of JD Wetherspoon is well advanced in that process so you can see just how easy it will be to adapt.

In summary, investors should be looking at their current portfolios and how they might be impacted by Brexit now, if they have not already done so. There will clearly be winners and losers from the break with Europe and investors should not rely on any last-minute deal with the EU even if Boris is expecting one. Any solution may only be a temporary fix and the policies suggested above of international diversification are surely wise regardless of the political outcome.

Note: the author holds some of the stocks mentioned.

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

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Audit Market Shake-Up, Ocado on TV, and Judges Scientific Presentation

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have issued their final recommendations to improve competition in the audit market after an earlier public consultation. This follows widespread concerns over the dominance of the big four audit firms, the lack of apparent competition on price or quality, and repeated complaints about the quality of audits following several big and small company failures. Audit firms seem to have got off relatively lightly if the CMA’s recommendations are implemented by the Government. Here’s a brief summary of the proposed changes:

  1. Audit firms will have to operationally split their auditing operations from their consulting operations. This is not a requirement to totally split their businesses but to have separate management, accounts and remuneration.
  2. Mandatory joint audits are proposed for large companies where a big four firm is involved, with a few exceptions. This will enable smaller audit firms (“challengers” as they are referred to), to increase their capacity and credibility.
  3. Audit committees of companies will come under closer scrutiny with the audit regulator having powers to mandate standards, monitor those standards and issue public reprimands where appropriate. But the latter is surely going to be a somewhat ineffective remedy to incompetent audit committees. The CMA have rejected the idea of an independent body to select auditors as proposed by John Kingman due to legal barriers to that change, although they suggest it might be worth keeping under consideration.

One interesting statement in the CMA’s report is this: “In light of the consultation responses, we are recommending a combination of joint audits for most FTSE 350 companies and peer review for others”. That is important because previously it was suggested that only large companies be covered by either rule.

The key question is whether this will improve the quality of audits which is the major issue. I suspect not because more price competition might simply result in more bids at minimum cost with the result of cutting corners on the audit itself. Improved regulation is the key to improving audit quality. But improving competition by reducing the dominance of the big four is otherwise surely to be welcomed.

For more information on the CMAs report, go to https://www.gov.uk/cma-cases/statutory-audit-market-study#final-report . You can see what I said in my response to the original consultation here: https://www.roliscon.com/CMA-Audit-Market-Review-Response.pdf

There was an interesting glimpse into the operations of on-line supermarket operator Ocado (OCDO) on BBC television last night (programme entitled “Supermarket Secrets”). It showed their automated warehouse picking system although the final bagging up is still done manually – however that might change in future. Ocado is of course different to other on-line supermarket operations who mainly pick from in-store stock whereas Ocado have only central distribution operations with no physical retail outlets. Apparently most supermarkets have lower profits on their on-line sales as opposed to their in-store sales because the costs of delivery are not fully recovered in delivery charges. There are also more replacement items when delivery is from local supermarkets rather than from Ocado’s system.

There was an interesting review of Ocado’s business by Ian Smith in an FT supplement a month ago under the title “Pick of the Bunch”. It covered how Ocado moved from being a favourite of short-sellers to one of the best performing stocks in 2018. The change has been brought about because it is now perceived as more of a technology company than a simple retailer. That’s because it is selling its automated systems to other companies. That includes sales to Casino in France and Kroger in the USA.

Ocado lost money last year and is still forecast to lose money in the next two. But I bought a few shares regardless recently. It is interesting to see how the shopping habits in our family have changed. My wife does most of our food shopping and used to go to our local Sainsburys supermarket a couple of times per week. She started to occasionally use their on-line service when she was unwell. But now she uses it most of the time for her big weekly shop with only occasional visits to the store. If the habits of other families change in this way, one can see supermarkets adapting to the Ocado model.

A more long-standing holding of mine is Judges Scientific (JDG). This is a company that is an acquirer of small scientific instrument makers, and as with all good companies the management has a strong focus on return on capital. An interesting breakfast presentation after the results announcement can be seen here: https://www.piworld.co.uk/2019/03/26/judges-scientific-jdg-2018-full-year-results-presentation/ . It explains a lot about how the company operates.

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

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