Friday, October 26, 2012

The Yankees' A Rod Problem: Sunk costs and investing

As any baseball fan knows, the New York Yankees have an A Rod problem. Just in case you have no idea what I am talking about, A Rod is Alex Rodriguez, the third baseman for the New York Yankees, signed in December 2007 to a one of the richest sports contracts in history. The Yankees, dazzled by the the numbers that A Rod posted in 2007 and by the possibility that he could become baseball's home run king (with 500 home runs, he seemed to be on a path to beating Barry Bond's record of 762 home runs), signed the then 33-year old to a ten-year contract worth $275 million (with numerous bonus clauses for breaking home run records). The five years since have not measured up to expectations, with the disappointment building to a crescendo in the 2012 post-season, when A Rod's anemic hitting led to his being benched in the last two games against the Detroit Tigers. Now, the Yankees owe $114 million over the next 5 years to a 38-year old third baseman, who is susceptible to injuries and has seem to have lost his home run power  and his capacity to hit right handed pitching.  

What should the Yankees do with A Rod? If they follow financial first principles, the contractual commitment of $114 million that they have already entered into should not be part of the calculus in any decision that they make now. Thus, if they feel that A Rod, based upon his current skill level (and age), is worth only $3 million a year for the next 5 years, they should be willing to consider trading him to another team (assuming he okays the trade) that will offer even a little bit more (say $3.1 million/year) in return, and eat the rest of the contract (about hundred million). Will they do it? I don't think so, because any such deal be an explicit admission that they made a horrendous mistake five years ago. Instead, what you are most likely to see is A Rod at third base for the Yankees, to start the next season, with everyone hoping and praying that he discovered the fountain of youth (at least a legal version of it) in the off season.

The financial principle I was referencing is of course the one of sunk costs and anyone who has taken a basic corporate finance class knows the rule. A cost that you have already incurred or are contractually committed to incur should be ignored in your decision making. That rule, though, is easier enunciated than put into practice and here is a simple exercise to see why:

1A. Assume that you are the manager of a business that is in ongoing development of a new product that will require spending an additional $100 million to bring to completion. Assume that you have just learned that a competitor has come up with a superior product at a lower cost and will be bring it to 
the market at the same time as you will. Would you spend the $100 million?
a) Yes
b) No

1B. Now assume that the same facts as in the prior case but also assume that you know that you have already spent $ 900 million on developing this product. Would you spend the additional $100 million?
a) Yes
b) No

For most of you, I am sure that the answer would have been an easy "No" for 1A, since spending an extra $ 100 million on a product that will not compete seems pointless. For some of you, though, was it more difficult to say "No" to 1B? If so, you are not alone since 80% of managers in an experiment that asked exactly these questions were swayed by the sunk costs into investing in a doomed project. Interestingly, there have also been follow up studies that find that if decision makers were responsible for incurring the sunk costs in the first place, they are even more likely to be swayed by those costs.  In behavioral finance, the capacity of sunk costs to affect decisions falls under what is termed the "Concorde fallacy", named after the ill-fated supersonic jet that the British and French governments poured billions of dollars into, even in the face of clear evidence that it would never be a commercial success, partly because they had already spent so many billions in development.

If you are an investor, you may wonder what this post has to do with you. I think we are all susceptible to the sunk cost problem. To illustrate, let's try a different experiment:
2A. Assume that you are looking at a stock trading at $10/share and that you have valued the shares at $8/share. Would you buy the stock?
a) Yes
b) No

2B. Now assume that you are looking at the same stock trading at $10/share, but that it already part of your portfolio and you bought it at $50/share. If your value per share is $8, would you continue to hold the stock?
a) Yes
b) No

2C.  Now assume that you are looking at the same stock trading at $10/share, but that it already part of your portfolio and you bought it at $2/share. If your value per share is $8, would you continue to hold the stock?
a) Yes
b) No

I am sure that the answer that you gave to question 2A was an unequivocal "No" but was your answer different for 2B? And how about 2C?  (Remember that holding a stock in your portfolio is equivalent to buying the stock....) If the answers were different, why? After all, on an incremental basis, the choice is exactly the same, and an investor who would not buy the stock in 2A would have also sold the stock in 2B and 2C.

The problem is that investors seem to have different sets of rules, one for new or marginal investments, and one for existing investments. Rationally, your decision on whether to keep an investment in your portfolio should be based on whether that investment is cheap or expensive, given its price and value today, and not on what you originally paid for the investment or its value then.  (I know that taxes can create a real issue here, but this problem seems to persist even for tax exempt investors.) However, we are human and almost by definition, we are not rational, and behavioral finance chronicles the costs that we bear. In particular, there is significant evidence that investors sell winners too early and hold on to losing stocks much too long, using a mixture of rationalization and denial to to justify doing so.  Shefrin and Statman coined this the "disposition effect" and  Terrence O'Dean looked at the trading records of 10,000 investors in the 1980s to conclude that this irrationality cost them, on average, about 4.4% in annual returns. Behavioral economists attribute the disposition effect to a variety of factors including over confidence (that your original analysis was right and the market is wrong), mental accounting (a paper loss is less painful than a realized loss) and lack of self control (where you abandon rules that you set for yourself).

So, is there anything that we can do to minimize the disposition effect? I don't have the answer but here are some things that you could consider. I employ the first two in my portfolio and while I cannot quantify how much they have saved me, they have brought me peace of mind.
  1. Regular value audits: The easiest path to the disposition effect is denial, where we refuse to look at the investments that we already have in our portfolio because we are afraid of what we may find. In fact, think about how much time we spend trying to come up with new investments to add to our portfolios (it is always more fun to start anew) and how little time we spend on maintenance investing. One practice that I have instituted for myself is that I have to value every company that is already in my portfolio at least once a year. It forces to me to take a look at the company, as if it were a new investment, and decide whether it deserves to stay in my portfolio another year. Since I have about 40 stocks in my portfolio, it does require some discipline but I think it has been well worth the cost.
  2. A selling rationale: Even with these value audits, I (like most investors) find it difficult to let go of losers, since selling a stock that has gone down is an explicit admission that I made a mistake. So, I provide myself with cover, especially at year end. For every winner that I sell each year (and I do sell one or two that have become over valued, at least in my judgment), I look for a loser (which is also over valued, in my judgment) that I will unload to reduce my tax exposure. Thus, rather than having to admit that I made a mistake, I can pat myself on the back for a savvy tax trade. Delusional, I know, but it helps...
  3. Automated rules: If the first two suggestions don't work, there is a third option, which is to take control of the decision out of your hands. You can put in a stop loss order, specifying that a stock that drops more than X% from your original purchase price, it gets sold automatically. It is a bludgeon, because that stock may very have become a bargain, but you may be saving yourself some bad disposition effect losses.
  4. Decision making separation: If it is the unwillingness to admit to your own mistakes that lies at the heart of the "disposition effect", it may be alleviated (at least in part) if the person making the assessment of whether to hold or sell a losing stock is not the person who made the mistake of buying the stock in the first place. Perhaps, mutual fund managers should work in pairs, with one manager responsible for making new investment picks and the other in charge of monitoring existing investments. Impossible to do for individuals, you might say... but I am considering talking to my wife about splitting the investment management role in our family. She can be the stock picker and I could be the stock assessor or vice versa.... One of us gets to make judgments on the other's mistakes.. On second thoughts, scratch that idea..
So, as we watch the Yankees tackle their A Rod problem, it is worth remembering that we all have our own versions of the same problem: a reluctance to admit to our past "investing" mistakes and let sunk costs be sunk costs.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Private Equity: Too disruptive or not disruptive enough?

From my past blog posts, you should know that I am not a political blogger, but Mitt Romney’s background as a key player at Bain Capital has made private equity a hot topic this political season. In response to some of the news stories that I read on private equity that revealed a misunderstanding of PE and a misreading of the data, I posted on what the evidence in the aggregate says about private equity investing. Reviewing that post, I noted that PE fit neither side’s stereotype. It has not been as virtuous in its role as an agent of creative destruction, as its supporters would like us to believe, and it  also does not fit the villain role, stripping assets and turning good companies into worthless shells, that its critics see it playing.

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to give a talk on private equity at Baruch College, based upon that blog post. That talk is now available online (in two parts) and you can get it by clicking below:
The session is a little long (with the two parts put together running over an hour and a half). So, feel free to fast forward through entire sections, if you so desire. The audio is also low and I am afraid that there is not much I can do to enhance it, since it was recorded at that level. However, the iTunes U versions of these presentations have better audio and you can get them here:
I have also put the powerpoint slides that I used for the session for download and you can get to it by clicking here.

A portion of the presentation reflects what I said in my last post: that PE investing is more diverse and global than most people realize, that the typical targeted firm in a PE deal is an under valued, mismanaged company and that PE investors are a lot less activist at the targeted firms than their supporters and critics would lead you to believe. Here are a few of the other points I made during my talk (and feel free to contest them, if you are so inclined):

1. Why private equity? 
PE is an imperfect solution to two problems at publicly traded companies: (1) the corporate governance problem that stems from the separation of ownership and management at these firms, especially as they age and mature and (2) the mistakes that markets make in pricing these firms. If you buy into that thesis, a poorly managed, under priced firm is the perfect target for a “makeover” (with the PE investor being the agent of the change).

2. Who are these PE investors? 
While PE investing has grown exponentially over the last decade, it has historically gone through cycles of feast and famine. While many of the largest PE firms have an institutional fa├žade now, most of them also have a strong individual investor at the core, setting the agenda. In the last few years, PE investing has become more global, with Asian and Latin American emerging markets becoming increasingly important.

3. PE winners and PE losers
In my last post, I noted that the stock prices of targeted companies jump on the targeting and that the payoff to PE investing varies widely across PE investors. Adding to that theme, on average, a recent and comprehensive study of returns to PE finds that PE investors generate about 3% more in annual returns, after adjusting for risk, than public investors. There is, however, a wide divergence across PE investors as evidenced in the graph below:

Thus, the top 10% of PE investors beat public investors by about 36% annually but the bottom 10% of PE investors underperform public investors by about 20% annually. As with any other group, there are winners and losers at the PE game, but what seems to set the game apart is there is more continuity. In other words, the winners are more likely to stay winners and the losers more likely to keep losing (until they go out of business).

4. Is PE a net social good or social bad? 
There are three critiques of PE investing. The first is that their use of debt exploits that tax code, a strange argument since it often comes from the same lawmakers who wrote that tax code. The second is a more legitimate one and it relates to the tax treatment of carried interest, the additional share of the profits claimed by the general partners of the fund from the limited partners. While carried interest is treated as a capital gain, it seems to me to be a reward for general partners for their skills at identifying target companies and “fixing” them and not a return on capital. If so, it should be taxed as ordinary income. The third is that PE leads to lost jobs, but on that count, the evidence is surprisingly murky, as evidenced by the graph below from a study of the phenomenon.

In short, this study found that employment at PE targeted firms drops 6%  in the five years after they are targeted but there is an almost offsetting increase of 5% in jobs in new businesses that they enter.

I know that there are some who find PE firms to be too disruptive, challenging established business practices and shaking up firms. Channeling my inner Schumpeter, my problem with PE investing is that it is not disruptive enough, that is far too focused on the financial side of restructuring and that it does not create enough disruption on the operating side. In short, I want PE investors to be closer to the ruthless, efficient stereotypes that I see in the movies and less like the timid value investors that many of them seem to more resemble. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

The disclosure dilemma: Why more disclosure has led to less information

The last three decades have been the golden age of disclosure, as both accounting rule writers and regulators have pushed companies to reveal more and more about their prospects to investors, both in the US and internationally. Some of this push can be attributed to more activist investors, demanding more information from companies, but much of it can be traced to accounting fraud/malfeasance, where companies held back key information from investors, who paid a price as a consequence. In response, legislators, the watchdog agencies (SEC and its equivalents) and the accounting rule-writers (GAAP, IFRS) have all responded by increasing the amount of information that has to be disclosed by firms. That should be good news for investors, but here are the contradictions that I see:
  • If the objective of “disclosure” laws is to prevent the next Enron, Parmalat or Worldcom accounting scandal, it clearly has not worked, since we seem just as exposed as we have always been to these problems. If anything, companies seem to have become more creative in hiding “bad” stuff, in response to disclosure laws, making it more difficult to detect problems. 
  •  If the objective is to help investors value companies better, it has not worked either. To me financial disclosures are raw data, when I do valuation, and I must confess that I find financial statements more difficult to work with today than I did thirty years ago, when disclosure laws were less onerous.
So, what gives here? Why have these increased disclosure requirements not worked the magic that they were supposed to? While we can point to lots of reasons, including imperfections in the disclosure requirements, I think that the biggest problem is that the disclosure rules have turned financial disclosures into data dumps. To see my point, take a look at the 10K for a publicly traded company, even a small one, and you will see a document that runs into tens or even hundreds of pages. For instance, Procter & Gamble’s most recent 10K runs 239 pages and it is slim next to Citigroup’s most recent 10K which runs more than 300 pages.  If you are interested in valuing Procter & Gamble or Citigroup, you have to work your way through these pages, separating the wheat from the chaff, or more specifically, information from data. Faced with information overload, it is easy to get distracted by the legal boilerplate (you might as well throw out the entire section that discusses risk) and the trivial details that clutter modern disclosures. In my estimate, less than 10% (and that is being generous) of a modern financial disclosure has any value to an investor and to find this information, here are some things to keep in mind: 
  1. Read with focus: Know what information you are looking for, before you start looking for it.  In other words, reading a 10K, just looking for useful information, is equivalent to digging up your backyard, looking for interesting stuff. Your most likely outcome is that you will end up with a mountain of dirt and little to show for your work.
  2. Don’t sweat the small stuff: If you are valuing a $ 60 billion dollar company, you can afford to skip over that section that describes in excruciating detail a $25 million real estate lease that the company has entered into or the $50 million lawsuit filed against the company. 
  3. Don’t cater to your inner accountant: We know that accounting has its fixations and that financial disclosure often cater to these fixations. Thus, there are large chunks of these documents that are dedicated to how intangible assets have been “fair valued” or goodwill has been “impaired” (a mythical asset that exists only in the accounting world). Since I don’t trust accounting fair value judgments to begin with and goodwill has but a peripheral role (if that) in cash flow based valuation models, I can afford to skip these sections. 
As some of you already know, I do teach a valuation course at Stern and my invite to anyone who is interested in sitting in still holds. Since a key part of doing valuation is learning how to work with financial disclosures, I recently put together a webcast on disclosures, where I used P&G’s most recent 10K to value the company. If you are interested, you can find the webcast with the supporting material (the 10K, my slides and my valuation of P&G). In fact, they are part of set of webcasts I am doing on the nuts and bolts of valuation:

I am afraid that things will only get worse for investors. The push towards more disclosure, well intentioned though it might be, is unstoppable and  will create more bulk in annual reports and company filings, and more distractions for investors.

While I am sure that I will be ignored, here are my suggestions to the regulatory and accounting disclosure czars if they truly want to help investors:
  1. Focus on principles, not rules: The principles that govern valuation are simple and robust, but they seem to take a back seat to rules when it comes to disclosure requirements. To provide a simple example, capital expenditures should measure what a company invests in its long term assets, whether those assets are tangible (land, building, equipment) or intangible (human capital, brand name, intellectual property). Not only are the accounting rules governing capital expenditures unnecessarily complex but they are internally inconsistent, with different rules governing tangible and intangible investments. (Prime exhibit: the treatment of R&D expenditures). 
  2. Less is more: My wife, who is the "organizer' in our house, has a very simple rule for everyone in the family. For every new item that any of us buys, one item has to be removed (given away or abandoned) from our closets. It is an excellent rule, since in its absence, we would undoubtedly hoard what we already have, on the off chance that we might need it in the future. I would propose a similar rule in disclosure. When companies are required to disclose something new, an old disclosure requirement of equal length has to be eliminated, thus preventing disclosure bloat.
  3. Target investors, not lawyers: As I browse through financial disclosures, I am struck by how much of the content is written by lawyers, and for lawyers, with the specific intent of shielding companies from lawsuits and/or regulatory backlash. While I understand that companies are gun shy about being sued, and that this protection is necessary,  it may be time to allow companies to file two disclosures, one for lawyers and one for investors. Using P&G as my example, I could construct an investors' 10K, about 20 pages in length, stripped off all the legalese that the full 10K includes.
  4. Let accountants do accounting (and not valuation): I know that "fair value" accounting is here to stay, but  I believe that the push is misguided. By requiring accountants to play the role of appraisers, it asks them to play conflicting roles: provide a faithful recording of what has happened in the past (traditional accounting) while also forecasting the future (a key component of making valuation judgments). In the process, I think that we will end up with financial statements that do neither accounting nor valuation well and that investors will pay the price.
Looking forward, investors will increasingly be tested on their capacity to separate the data that matters (information) from the data that does not (noise or distraction). There is an interesting twist (and I thank Bill, who commented on this post for this insight). The increasing complexity of financial disclosure does open up the possibility that investors who can navigate their way through these disclosures and separate information from data will have a competitive advantage over other investors, who give up in frustration.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Winning (losing) by losing (winning): The power of expectations

If you are a baseball fan, I am sure that you know that both the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs last week. While there was some celebration in New York on the news, it was nothing compared to the jubilation in Baltimore. The reason is not hard to fathom. In the last 16 years, the Yankees have made the playoffs in all but one, and with their payroll and heritage, Yankee fans view the playoffs as an entitlement, rather than a bonus. For Baltimore fans, whose team has not had a winning record (forget about making the playoffs) in a long time and was not expected to have one this year, it is a hugely positive surprise. It reinforces the message that it is now how well you do, but how well you do, relative to expectations, that determines the response.

Expectations and Outcomes
The expectations game is not restricted to sports. It spills over into politics, as attested to by the Obama and Romney teams jockeying to set expectations for the presidential debates and it definitely permeates markets. In particular, there are two news stories over the last couple of weeks that illustrate how critical expectations are in determining how we gauge performance.
  • On September 27, 2012, Research in Motion came out with its  earnings report, revealing that revenues dropped 31% and that it lost $235 million in the most recent quarter. Terrible news, right? The company's stock jumped 18% on the news!!
  • A few weeks ago, Apple introduced its newest iPhone, selling more than 5 million iPhone 5s over the first weekend and setting itself on target to beat prior records for smart phones sold. The big story, though, was about a free Map app that Apple was offering with the iPhone, that was misbehaving. The company has lost almost $40 billion in market value in the last two weeks!!
To a first-time market observer, the market reactions may seem perverse, with the market rewarding a company reporting bad news (RIM) while punishing a company (AAPL) for its success, but bringing in expectations levels the playing field. The news about Research in Motion in the last couple of years has been unremittingly negative, and investor expectations for the company have hit rock bottom. In fact, the very fact that RIM did not see revenues go to zero and operating losses wipe them out may be such positive news that investors bought the stock. Conversely, almost everything that Apple has touched over the last decade has turned to gold, and people seem to expect the company to be perfect in executing everything that it does. Thus, the negative reaction to the Maps fiasco may be more a recognition on the part of some investors that Apple is not infallible and that the next error they make could be much more damaging.

Playing the expectations game
The crucial role that expectations play in how markets read outcomes is not a secret and companies try to manage the game, with varying degrees of success. For publicly traded companies, this involves walking a very fine line, where you talk down expectations without talking down the stock price. Yesterday, for instance, Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard, told the world that it would take a lot longer for HP to fix its problems. Was she trying to be honest with markets or trying to bring down expectations to the point that she will be able to beat them more easily? It is almost impossible to tell, but whatever her rationale, the stock dropped 13% on the announcement. 

Why do some companies manage expectations better than others? Here are some factors to consider.
  1. The audience: In providing guidance to markets, companies have conventionally thought of equity research analysts (especially sell side) as their primary audience. Ultimately, though, it is investor expectations that drive the game, and while analysts may influence those expectations, they are (in my view) more follower than leaders. The companies that are best at moulding expectations talk to investors, though they might use analysts as their messengers.
  2. The information: For a company to try to guide expectations, it has to have better information than investors do and be able to convey that information to markets. In particular, rather than just suggest that earnings expectations are too high, providing information on specifics such shipments or margins to back up the guidance will increase the impact it has. Companies argue that the Reg FD, the SEC's rule restricting selectively providing information to analysts, has restricted their capacity to provide meaningful guidance but note that the regulation does not prevent companies from making public disclosures to all investors.
  3. Credibility:  To be credible, companies that try to manage expectations have to be seen as trying to do both manage them down (when they are too high) and up (when they are too low). Too many companies seem to think that managing expectations just implied lowballing earnings and revenue numbers. A study of company guidance statements, the primary device for managing earnings expectations by Factset found that almost 80% of guidance provided by firms in the third quarter of 2012 was negative & designed to lower expectations (rather than raise them). A company that always tries to talk down expectations, while beating expectations each period, is like the boy who cried wolf, more likely to be ignored than listened to.
  4. Results: The game's denouement occurs when the actual news (earnings or other) comes out and investors measure it relative to expectations. If investors feel that companies are fudging the number or cooking the books to deliver actual earnings that beat expectations, they will at some point stop reacting to the news
It is the fact that information disclosures have become a game that has led some companies to choose not to play the game at all, either because they view it as a distraction from their mission of creating long term value for stockholders or because they think it is futile. In fact, my sense is that the payoff to companies from playing this game is become smaller over time and that more companies should consider the option of not playing.

Profiting from the investment game
Can you profit from the game? After all, there are lots of investors who try. In my earlier post on earnings reports, I noted the time and energy expended by analysts and portfolio managers trying to get ahead of the next report.  Without rehashing the evidence, I will draw on my favorite proposition in investing. Success at the investing table requires you to bring something to it, and to win the expectations game, you have to have an edge and here are the possible ones:
(1) Sector or company specific knowledge: You could invest resources in learning the inner details of companies in a sector (technology, health care) and use that knowledge to make judgments on which companies will deliver positive surprises and which ones will under perform.
(2) Forensic accounting skills: Accounting statements contain clues about future earnings, and a microscopic examination of current accounting statements may provide clues about the future.
(3) Inside information: I know, I know. It is illegal, at least in the United States, but that does not stop some from trying to use it to get an advantage.
I am too lazy to immerse myself into sector specific information, don't care much for delving deep into accounting statements and both too risk averse/outside the circle to get or use inside information.

Even if you don't want to play the quarter-to-quarter expectations game, you can perhaps turn the game to your advantage in one of two ways. The first is to use it in timing your investments, buying stocks that you think will deliver long term value (and were on your list of "buys" anyway) after they fail to meet expectations. Thus, if you have always wanted to add Apple to your list, you may feel that the Maps debacle is exactly the right time to jump in. The second is to build an investment strategy of buying (selling short) stocks right after "big" expectations failures (successes), on the assumption that investors are likely to be over reacting to the news. That is a strand of contrarian investing, albeit with a shorter time horizon and I posted on this strategy a few month ago.