Friday, April 27, 2007

Investment Newsletter Performance

Subscribers to my investment newsletters sometimes ask exactly how well our recommendations are doing. They don't have to take my word for it because our performance is regularly monitored by the Hulbert Financial Digest, which also tracks the performance of almost 200 other investment newsletters. According to Hulbert, the Forbes Special Situation Survey (SSS) returned 26.5% (excluding dividends) over the year ending March 31, making it the third-best performing investment newsletter during that period. In comparison, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained just 11.2%. What’s more, if you compare us to newsletters that focus only on domestic equities like we do, we are actually No. 1.

Furthermore, SSS has been consistent over the long term. Ever since Hulbert began tracking us in January 2002, we have produced an annualized return of 14.6%. The annualized return on the Dow during the same time is only 4.1%. It is true that a handful of newsletters managed to beat us, but at least some of them relied on the use of margin, short selling, or derivatives. Their performance is not necessarily due to good stock picking. It can be explained at least in part by market timing and the use of leverage. In contrast, SSS does not assume that subscribers buy stocks on margin or employ other kinds of strategies. Our returns are solely the result of stock-picking ability.

The Forbes Growth Investor (FGI), which relies on a quantitative, momentum-based model also did well, significantly outperforming the market averages since Hulbert began tracking it. It has produced an annualized return of 9.0% since January 2002. Because this newsletter has a diversified recommended list of 50 stocks, it tends to be less volatile than SSS.

We credit these outstanding results to our disciplined screening process. Most importantly, for SSS, we rely on our proprietary discounted cash flow (DCF) model. We are sometimes told that our model is not realistic. This is absolutely true. Indeed, our model is overly conservative. For example, if we believe a company can realistically grow revenues by 10% each year, we might model only 5% growth. If we believe the operating profit margin is likely to be around 15%, we might model only 10%. We do this because we are not trying to determine what a stock is actually worth. Instead, we are trying to determine what it is worth at a minimum. In other words, our methodology is designed to find reasons not to recommend a stock. However, if despite all our conservative assumptions we derive a minimum intrinsic value that is greater than the stock’s market price, that stock becomes a candidate for recommendation.

It is interesting to note that Warren Buffett, perhaps the greatest investor of all time, also relies on a DCF methodology to determine a company’s intrinsic value. He points out, however, that two analysts using this methodology will rarely derive the same intrinsic value. This is because DCF analysis is as much art as it is science. It is prone to error because it requires making assumptions about the future. It is precisely for this reason that we try to make our assumptions as conservative as possible.

DCF analysis does not always work. For example, during the dotcom boom of the late 1990s stocks that DCF analysis flagged as overvalued continued to go up. This was because of overly optimistic investor sentiment. Barring such unusual periods, we believe a conservative DCF approach is the best way to pick undervalued stocks over the long term.

For FGI, we rely on a proprietary quantitative model. This product is more short-term oriented and puts a lot of weight on price and earnings momentum.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

China vs. India

This is the final day of the Forbes cruise. We are actually pulling into Hong Kong at the moment. I see a lot of mountains and many beautiful tall buildings. I will spend one more night on the ship then fly back to New York tomorrow afternoon.

Jim Michaels, former Editor of Forbes magazine, moderated a spirited discussion yesterday about the merits of investing in China and India. John Dessauer, who travels to China frequently, was not keen on investing there. He thinks there is insufficient transparency. He would not even recommend buying ADRs of Chinese companies. He prefers to invest in large U.S. conglomerates such as Citigroup and Wal-Mart that are conducting business in China. But Arjuna Mahendran was willing to pick a few Chinese stocks. He particularly favors oil company CNOOC. Warren Buffett also likes Chinese oil, but he prefers PetroChina.

Despite all the excitement over China, Jim Michaels thinks India offers better opportunities for investors. He said the Chinese are focused on manufacturing low-cost items, but the Indians are specializing in high-skilled services.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bulls on Board

Forbes magazine Publisher Rich Karlgaard started off the 11th Forbes Cruise for Investors this morning with an excellent presentation. He said Americans seem to hate a good economy, but that’s a good thing for investors because it keeps expectations low. He pointed out that there is a correlation between one’s view of the economy and one’s view of President Bush. He also talked about the media and how it tends to lean left and focus on the negative. He even made some predictions about real estate. He said the gap between real estate prices on the coasts and prices in the interior is greater than it has ever been. He believes that baby boomers will increasingly retire to interior regions of the country. He favors college towns in low tax, non-union states.

John Dessauer spoke next. He was extremely bullish about the stock market. He sees stocks going much higher primarily because of corporate earnings growth. He says stock price appreciation has lagged earnings growth rates. Therefore, he believes it will require a strong rally in stocks to straighten things out. According to Dessauer, those who warn about slowing earnings growth are simply wrong.

In addition to the presentations, the cruise has been wonderful. As usual, the food is great. However, the seas have been extremely rough the last couple of days. Running on a tread mill was all but impossible. I finally had to give up after half a mile. In fact, most people look drunk simply walking around on board trying to keep their balance.

Cho Was Purely Evil

Now we know his name. Cho Seung-Hui is the Virginia Tech student who in just a flash of time killed 32 innocent people, injured 14 others, and disrupted the lives of tens of thousands. He was a loner who talked to no one and had no friends. Today he is world famous and will never be forgotten by the loved ones of those he killed. By the time the media is through, we will know all his deepest and darkest secrets. And we will hear all the experts theorize about what went wrong and how an immigrant Korean child could grow up to become one of the greatest evil doers in American history.

Just a couple of days ago I briefly wrote about my favorable impression of Koreans. I have no doubt that Koreans all over the world are absolutely shocked by Cho’s crimes. I am sure many are now feeling shame and trying to understand how one of their own could have done so much evil. This is nonsense. Cho was not one of their own. He was not one of anyone’s own. The fact that he was of Korean descent is about as relevant as his height or his weight or the color of his hair. This guy was pure evil. And as we know, evil comes in all colors, lives in all countries, and practices all religions.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Investing Like Buffett

The 11th Forbes Cruise for Investors continues. Today we heard from Marilyn Cohen, a fixed-income specialist who also writes a regular column in Forbes magazine. We also heard from Arjuna Mahendran, Chief Strategist Asia Pacific at Credit Suisse. Both made excellent presentations. I also gave a presentation, which focused on my research on Warren Buffett. For the past several months I have been writing a book about Buffett. While there are a number of books already in publication, they are all “love” stories. I believe my book is the most objective one by far. While I criticize Buffett for advocating certain views that I believe hurt investors, I also conclude that he is clearly the greatest investor of all time. My respect for him has grown immensely since I began this project. If all goes according to plan, the book will on the market by next spring.

Horror in Blacksburg

I’m on the high seas cruising from Osaka to Hong Kong. I woke up Tuesday morning at 5:00 am our time (which was 5:00 pm Monday in New York) and turned on the television to find out how the stock market had done. Instead, I was horrified to hear news of what was being called “The Virginia Tech Massacre.” I was stunned. I spent five years of my life studying at Virginia Tech where I earned two graduate degrees. Blacksburg is one of my favorite places in the whole world. I absolutely love it. I also considered it one the safest places to live. I couldn’t believe this kind of horrible tragedy could occur in such a wonderful place. I extend my deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of all the innocent victims of this terrible crime.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Polite Societies

I'm in Osaka, Japan. I just boarded the Crystal Symphony for the second half of the 11th Forbes Cruise for Investors. I arrived Saturday evening, which of course, was Saturday morning in New York. I'm still jet-lagged.

I haven't been in Asia long, but I have made a number of observations. Let me start with the flight. I took Korean Airlines from New York to Seoul then changed planes for Osaka. The service was outstanding. The stewards and stewardesses were wonderful. The food was as good as anything you would expect to find in a fine restaurant. I had steak for lunch and an arrangement of seafood wrapped in phyllo dough for dinner. I had a second codfish dinner on the flight from Seoul to Osaka. Both planes were Boeing 747s. Since I flew business class, there was plenty of leg room. The seats reclined to an almost horizontal position, making it much easier to get some sleep.

Getting from Kansai International Airport in Osaka to the Westin Hotel was easier than I expected. The airport is not near the city and I heard cab fare runs around $200. So I took a bus to the New Hankyu Hotel and a taxi from there to the Westin. That cost about $25 in total. The Westin was very nice, but there was no wireless Internet access and no wired access in the rooms. The next morning I had a delicious traditional Japanese breakfast. I'm not exactly sure what I ate, but I do know there was a lot of seafood involved. In any case, I really liked it. I've had plenty of sushi back home, but this was the first time I ate a real Japanese breakfast. By the way, the tea was excellent. It was much better than what I've had in typical Japanese restaurants in American.

After breakfast, I returned to my room and read The Daily Yomiuri, an English-language newspaper. One story really caught my attention. It turns out that "more than 400 Osaka municipal government workers lied about their academic backgrounds when they applied for posts designed for workers who had only graduated from high school or middle school." That’s right; these people actually denied having graduated from college! I've heard plenty of cases of people embellishing their resumes in order to secure better jobs than they were qualified for, but these workers had done exactly the opposite. They had purposely downplayed their qualifications. Either finding a job in Osaka is very difficult, or this is a society that suffers from an extreme case of humility.

Perhaps the one thing that strikes me most about the Koreans and Japanese is how incredibly polite they are. I realize my perception may be skewed. After all, I was primarily exposed to people working in service industries. They are required to treat customers nicely. But the workers here seem to be in a league of their own. Of course, we are all aware of what happened to all those manufacturing jobs that used to be found in the U.S. If customer service jobs could be outsourced as easily, I'm not sure what kind of work would be left in America.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ethanol Is Not The Solution

With crude oil and gasoline prices at high levels, it makes sense to look for alternatives. President Bush seems convinced that ethanol is the best solution to our energy problems. Ethanol certainly has a lot going for it. Most importantly, it is relatively easy to manufacture automobile engines that can run on high ethanol-content fuel.

But like gasoline, ethanol comes with its own share of problems. For example, it isn't as efficient as gasoline. As a result, it takes more ethanol than gasoline to drive the same number of miles. Also, growing demand for ethanol is pushing up food prices all over the world. This is because today's ethanol is made from sugar or corn. Both products are widely used in all kinds of foods. President Bush says we should make ethanol from switch grass, but that's not so easy.

So in the end, will we be trading our dependence on expensive gasoline for even more expensive ethanol? In order to protect U.S. farmers, our government taxes ethanol imports, but can the U.S. even make enough ethanol to meet its expected needs? And what will happen when those tariffs are eventually reduced or eliminated? Instead of being dependent on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), will we become dependent on a new Organization of Ethanol Exporting Countries (OEEC)?

I'm not saying we should not use any ethanol. Ethanol certainly will help reduce our reliance on oil and gasoline. That's a good thing. But I am saying that ethanol by itself is not the answer. What we really need are technologies that allow us to drive more miles at a lower cost. One way to achieve that is with more fuel-efficient cars. Don't get me wrong. I am not in favor of government mandates that dictate how many miles per gallon cars must get. Rather, I prefer market forces. Let gasoline rise to $4 or $5 per gallon and we will quickly see new solutions. In my opinion, the best solution in the near term is the plug-in hybrid vehicle. Since most people drive less than 50 miles a day, a car that can go that far on electricity before having to switch over to gasoline will significantly reduce our appetite for foreign oil.

Of course, a more immediate solution is to drive smarter. The last time gasoline prices topped $3 per gallon, demand actually fell. That's because people took matters into their own hands. Many who own gas guzzling SUVs also own more fuel-efficient passenger cars. They parked the SUV and drove the car. Some started car-pooling. Others began using public transportation. Those who couldn't do these things began planning better to minimize the number of miles driven.

Unfortunately, when people respond in this manner and demand falls, gasoline prices also fall. After a while, people notice the lower prices and revert to their old ways. Demand rises again and so do prices. We end up in a vicious cycle. If we really want to get serious about energy conservation, perhaps it is time to consider a floor on gasoline prices. This is a solution many economists favor, but you certainly won't find any politicians talking about it.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Forbes Investors Roundtable Discussion

Last week we hosted a Roundtable discussion with a few notable investment experts at our headquarters at Forbes. Participants included Barbara Marcin, Mike Holland, Joe Battipaglia, and Nikhil Hutheesing. Our discussion began with an overview of the economy and stock market. Barbara, Mike, and Nikhil were all bullish. Joe and I were bearish. Each of the participants also presented some of their best investment ideas for the year. The full report is available only to subscribers of the Forbes Growth Investor and Special Situation Survey investment newsletters.