Building a Portfolio

Investments are typically analyzed singularly, and collection is considered a “portfolio.” This is a mistake because, while each investment has its own risk and return profile, the combination represents one single combined investment. In other words, a portfolio should be thought of as one investment with its own risk-adjusted return profile. That is, an investment with its own risk-adjusted return. It has dynamic components which consist of each investment within the portfolio. But a portfolio should not be viewed as a collection of investments with different risks.In thinking about where to invest, one of the most important components is to first think about the industry or sector where the company competes. It is important to target specific industries that are worth the investment. A great company within a mediocre sector is not worth the time. As an example, GE, once one of the world’s most valuable companies, has lost most of its market value because it competed in sectors, such as large turbines for energy generation, that were no longer attractive. It doesn’t matter if, according to GE’s standards, it was the number one or number two competitor in that sector. The sector is not worth the time. As it has now been shown, that matters more than how successfully one competes.Of course, it does matter how well a company competes once you chosen an attractive sector. An example here is Nvidia, a company that not only participated in an extremely attractive sector – specialized integrated circuits for intense processing, initially focused on gaining and then artificial intelligence – it competed effectively to become an industry sector leader. As a result, its value has increased almost 10 X in the last seven years.Different sectors have different risk components, and different companies competing within the sectors also have different risk profiles. It is appropriate to combine securities with different risk profiles, in both its sector and competitive position. Each of these companies can be thought of as a growth, defensive, cyclical, or stable investment, for example, depending on these different profiles.Fundamentally, a successful investment strategy combines companies competing successfully in attractive sectors offering unique risk-adjusted return when combined into a single portfolio. It is this investment strategy where the risk-adjusted return is superior. What do we mean by risk-adjusted return? A simple way to explain this is through an “S” curve, as demonstrated below. There is a relatively flat bottom increasing in degree and slope. Sometimes, the slope will increase at an increasing rate, a phenomenon known as “convexity.” We will discuss this later, but convexity is one of the key attributes to an attractive investment. But, as we can see, those returns begin to diminish as we approach a changing slope in the curve.There is a relative flattening at the top of the curve. This is true for every investment. The timescale may be different (attractive returns might be earned for a short time or, potentially, for decades, but, returns eventually flattened). There is no escape from this phenomenon.

Asymmetry and Convexity

If asymmetry and convexity exist, this investment will have a much greater risk-adjusted return, and those positive returns will increase at an increasing rate. Obviously, these are the most attractive components to the most successful investments. How do we find them? A dynamic that has emerged globally combining industry disruption, technical innovation, customer loyalty, and a worldwide market is the “closed loop” business. This is where a company provides a product or service that is innovative, useful, and generates significant demand. Customer feedback for that product or service provides a “loop” that enables the company to understand its customer better and the attractiveness or negative aspects of the company’s product or service. The customer feedback now enables the company to provide a better product or service and be a more formidable competitor. There is now a loop connecting the company and the customer. If a company is essentially able to close this loop so that the customer values the company’s product or service so highly that the customer will not look for competing products, this will enable the company to grow at an increasing rate. Essentially, this closed loop is a value-generating competitive weapon that improves the product offered, retains customers gets better feedback to make an even better product, retains and attracts even more customers, etc. It enables more effective capital investment, more efficient operations, and improves decision-making from better customer data and responsiveness. This creates a virtuous cycle that spirals the business upward creating a sustainable competitive advantage generating increasing returns. As a result, a company that creates a closed loop with its customers will create the most attractive returns. Another critical component to identify an attractive investment is when a company provides a product or service essential to all competitors within an attractive market segment. In other words, the “arms dealer” to that industry. Arms dealers typically represent a singularly attractive investment opportunity. While the term speaks to a specific legal standard, essentially, monopolies are constructed within industry sectors constantly. A valuable product or service, while perhaps initially part of a fragmented industry, ultimately consolidates into a few, and sometimes a single source supplier. As you can probably see, the arms dealers and monopolies are essentially closed-loop businesses. Often unmentioned, yet the most important component to an investment’s story is the team managing the business, especially the CEO. We have discussed businesses that build slight competitive advantages and the network effect built monopolistic positions or understood how to play a role as the provider of an essential product to all competitors in a growing industry. But without doubt, the most important component of all of this is the people managing the business. Extraordinary companies are built by extraordinary people.

No Cure for Gravity

You cannot escape physics. The value of every investment starts at zero. Entropy is our natural state (thank you to the Second Law of Thermodynamics) meaning that we are constantly fighting the destruction of value. There is always a force, equivalent to gravity, pushing an investment down. Value is created by the efficient use of capital and the created, sustainable competitive advantage. Consistent investment in a thoughtful portfolio will create sustained value, but it is work, and you will always be fighting natural physical forces. One recent example is the financial crisis of 2008 to 2009. 40% of the average equity value was destroyed in this time. However, if one invested consistently at the height of the market and continue to invest through the crash and then ultimate recovery, and investor still earned over 9% annually. Thoughtfulness, consistency, patience, and determination is the most effective way to fight gravity and thermodynamics. The most important way to fight physics and the ultimate effect of gravity is to determine what you are looking for first. Highlight growth, disruption, sustainability – what will have a long-term value creating effect. What sectors make the most impactful difference? Recently, as we look at technology, biotechnology, and other important sectors, we see above average returns because of the impactful nature of the sectors. But technology is also permeating finance (Fintech) and entertainment (streaming services) that are disrupting incumbents and creating disproportionate value to the new entrants. Is this sustainable? Will the disruptors capture value, or will more established companies ultimately win? Observation, questioning assumptions, testing models, and assuming no knowledge regardless of historical experience are the only cures for gravity.

Animal Spirits and the Madness of Markets

When to sell is more important than what to buy. One of the biggest mistakes investors make is thinking that their purchase decision is the most important decision they will make. This is misguided because most losses are lost opportunities. They may be buying decisions that were never made, but most likely, they are selling decisions where the decision to sell was made too soon. When Warren Buffett owned 5% of Disney in the 1960s, he made a 50% return. He happily sold the stock. But investment decisions should not be made based on historical returns. Once again, all investments are predictions for the future. Regardless of whether the investment you currently hold has generated a great return or lost you money, what will it do from this point on?

Buying or selling is a crucial investment decision because you are always either buying or selling. There is no such thing as “holding.” If you own something you have bought it. If you would not buy it today but continue to own it simply because you bought it in the past, and not making an investment decision, just simply being inactive. If you are an investor who is buying or selling. Selling decisions tend to be inefficient. One does not need to be active, but one does need to think like an owner. If you own a great company, there is little reason to do anything else other than stay on top of developments within that company and industry to make sure they can remain a great company. Eventually, they will revert to the mean. More than anything, that is an investor’s job – figure out when the company will revert to the mean. That means they will either be losses or tremendous gains in the future as this trend occurs.

Nothing stays above average.

Beware of Experts

Look at the facts not the opinion about the facts. Anyone holding themselves out as an expert has, a very deep but narrow knowledge base that is rarely universally applicable. Fundamentally, listening to opinions rarely give useful insight. Often, it assumes looking backward but does not apply to the current situation. Global commerce, trade (and trade wars) tariffs, flexible manufacturing, and global markets, along with technological innovation and automation create significant pressures against inflation, regardless of employment levels. These are the set of facts to be considered, not an assumed economic model where few people understand the actual inputs from 50 years ago.Another example looks at revenue projections based on historical business models. But what happens when those business models are changing? We discussed the example of the metamorphosis from Blockbuster to Netflix where a fundamental change in the business model made revenue projections from the historical model meaningless. Then, Netflix had to change their business model again to one of the original production and international expansion – once again obviating existing models for revenue. Facts are what happened. Specific and verifiable. Knowledge is the appropriate combination of facts. Knowledge comes from understanding the facts that matter. Wisdom is the insight that leads to prediction. At its core, any investment strategy predicts the future. To predict the future effectively one needs the wisdom to grasp what will happen. Of course, this cannot be known, and there are many random events that can affect the future (see Anti-fragile and Fooled by Randomness by Naseem Taleb), and uncertainty should always be factored into any investment decisions or predictions.

First Principles – Disruption’s Source

“Assume no knowledge” (Socrates)

No successful company can create or sustain its competitive strength without constantly examining its First Principles. It means defining a problem effectively, understanding the actions needed, and then implementing those plans. This requires a unique combination of perspective, talent, drive, and organizational flexibility. It is rare, but when discovered, it is where the most valuable investments are found. Defining a problem in its most basic form is essential for the most effective solutions. Most thinking stays at a superficial level because not enough thought is given to the problem one is trying to solve. There are many examples of this but mostly it comes from an attitude that says “it can’t be done that way” until, of course, someone does it.

This is the true source of any disruption. It is not simply doing things differently but looking at how the same thing can be done in a more basic and fundamental way. Assumptions about how things work (“assuming knowledge”) impedes innovation. “We’ve always done it that way” is usually the death knell of creative thinking. Many examples exist but some fundamental and obvious examples range from several well-known developments and innovations that were generated more from asking simple, basic questions instead of coming from some ill-defined inspiration.

Obvious answers only come from asking the right questions.

Markets and Valuations

The current low interest rate environment increases the discounted present value of future cash flows and reduces the return demanded for every investment. In other words, when the Fed funds rate is zero, 6% bonds become disproportionately attractive. Buyers have now bid bond prices up until yields are now significantly less. What does it mean if the prices of stocks and listed credit instruments are at levels not driven primarily by fundamentals reasons (i.e. current earnings and the outlook for future growth), but in large part because of the Fed’s buying, it’s injection of liquidity, and the resultant low cost of capital and the market’s lower demanded returns on financial instruments? My conclusions are limited by inadequate foresight and influenced by my optimistic and pessimistic biases. Experience teaches it is hard to get the answer right. Or, as Charlie Munger has said, “it’s not supposed to be easy. Anyone who finds it easy is stupid.” At the risk of being stupid, equity investments in companies, including the five largest, with the unique competitive positions and “closed-loop” business models will remain excellent investments. In addition, certain fixed income securities paying high yields with attractive long-term risk-adjusted safety are extremely attractive and are being ignored in this unique interest-rate environment. This combination will create substantial value. Unique macro forces created by the central banks, unprecedented and sustainably low interest rates combined with pandemic-tested sustainable business models have created truly unique opportunities.

AI Does Not Live Up to the Hype

The history of AI shows that attempts to build human understanding into computers rarely work. Instead, most of the field’s progress has come from the combination of ever-increasing computer power and exponential growth in available data. Essentially, the ability to bring ever more brute computational force to bear on a problem-focused on larger data sets have given increasing usefulness. But, it’s limitations are also magnified in sharp relief more than ever. The bitter lesson is that the actual contents of human minds are tremendously, irredeemably complex…They are not what should be built into machines. Machine learning doesn’t live up to the hype. These systems are fundamentally brittle, and always break down at the edges where performance is essential and consequences much direr. There are many potential applications that can be effective and useful tools. They are simply much less ambitious than the current hype would indicate, but they are also far more realistic.

Technology and Turmoil

Productivity, expansion, and entrepreneurship were enabled through the adoption of new technology. Undeniably, the net economic benefit was substantial. But lives were disrupted, jobs were lost, and what would be seen with a historical perspective as an obvious beneficial choice, was anything but obvious to those so immediately and negatively impacted. Technological advancements produce net benefits for society. But for every advancement, there is a cost. Leadership and subsequent public policy must address this shortfall. As in the past, the solution has been training and education leading to economic inclusion and prosperous lives. and subsequent public policy must address this shortfall. As in the past, the solution has been training and education leading to economic inclusion and prosperous lives. History has taught us the net benefit of technological advancement, the turmoil it brings, and the solution required.

Medical Intelligence

Medical Intelligence

Medical Intelligence is a new discipline, converging human and artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence will not replace human intelligence, especially in medicine. Diagnosis and treatment will remain a human endeavor. But AI will be an indispensable tool helping human intelligence effectively deliver better quality healthcare. The overwhelming benefit is that it raises the bar for all practitioners. A minimum level of quality medical care can available globally. The higher standard for diagnostic accuracy, therapeutic recommendations, and overall care from this mass of data gathering will improve overall health and wellness everywhere. Applied effectively, these tools also drive down overall healthcare costs, diagnostic errors, and unnecessary procedures. Greater accuracy eliminates needless testing and procedures significantly and delivers effective care more quickly. Diagnosis is more immediate, recovery times faster, care more available, and overall expenses reduced.

Pandemic Time

Pandemic Time

Instead of “internet time” we now have “pandemic time.” The need for advanced systems to keep society functioning, manufacturing moving, and give consumers some sense of safety is immediate. Driving innovations – whether those innovations are in health care, technology or other areas of production and manufacturing – is essential to not only offset the impact of the global pandemic but stay competitive and sustainable long after the current health crisis has subsided. Technological advancements, especially machine learning and other powerful software tools, combined with developments in nanotechnology, monitoring, and global communication networks will accelerate a profound change that will permeate all aspects of business and manufacturing. Advanced technologies were set to indelibly affect all aspects of industry in about five years. The curve to successfully implement the best tools and make processes more efficient, informative, and effective has been accelerated by the pandemic. The need for automation and systematic tools to keep society functioning, keep manufacturing moving, and give consumers some sense of safety and confidence is immediate. More than anything, driving innovations – whether those innovations are in health care and life science, technology or other areas of production and manufacturing – is now seen as essential to not only offset the impact of the global pandemic but stay competitive and sustainable long after the current health crisis has subsided. Technological advancements, especially machine learning and other powerful software tools, combined with developments in nanotechnology, monitoring, and global communication networks will accelerate a profound change that will permeate all aspects of business and manufacturing.

An Unprecedented (every ten years or so) Event

An Unprecedented (every ten years or so) Event

Since major disruptions and market discontinuities occur on a regular basis (every 7 to 10 years is regular enough for this definition), understanding that these opportunities will arise and to be clearheaded about how to best take advantage of them, invest in the long-term, and capture disproportionate returns should be the rule – not the exception. The world may seem riskier, but risk-adjusted returns are much more favorable. Market modulation will interrupt rational pricing. We are having a moment of extreme downward pricing pressure on assets that are perceived as riskier, and upward pressure on prices for safer assets. This can be easily represented by the pricing differential between government securities and lower investment grade fixed income securities. One security has rallied substantially, while spreads between government securities and high-yield debt have widened dramatically.