At 91, the man Warren Buffett famously dubbed a "superinvestor" is still picking unloved stocks.
Walter Schloss has lived through 17 recessions, starting with one when Woodrow Wilson was President. This old-school value investor has made money through many of them. What's ahead for the economy? He doesn't worry about it.
A onetime employee of the grand panjandrum of value, Benjamin Graham, and a man his pal Warren Buffett calls a "superinvestor," Schloss at 91 would rather talk about individual bargains he has spotted. Like the struggling car-wheel maker or the moneylosing furniture supplier.
Bushy-eyebrowed and avuncular, Schloss has a laid-back approach that fast-money traders couldn't comprehend. He has never owned a computer and gets his prices from the morning newspaper. A lot of his financial data come from company reports delivered to him by mail, or from hand-me-down copies of Value Line, the stock information service.
He loves the game. Although he stopped running others' money in 2003--by his account, he averaged a 16% total return after fees during five decades as a stand-alone investment manager, versus 10% for the S&P 500--Schloss today oversees his own multimillion-dollar portfolio with the zeal of a guy a third his age. In a day of computer models that purport to quantify that hideous and mysterious force called risk, listening to Schloss talk of his simple, homespun investing methods is a tonic.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
America's biggest mortgage bond insurers collectively need a $200 billion (£101 billion) capital injection if they are to maintain their key AAA credit ratings, a figure that dwarfs a plan by New York regulators to put together a capital infusion of up to $15 billion, a leading ratings expert said yesterday.
The failure to maintain their AAA ratings will lead to a further round of multibillion-dollar writedowns among the Wall Street banks and other large owners of the bonds, Sean Egan, of Egan Jones Ratings Company, said.
It would also push some of them into receivership, Mr Egan added.
The current financial crisis was precipitated by a bubble in the US housing market. In some ways it resembles other crises that have occurred since the end of the second world war at intervals ranging from four to 10 years.
However, there is a profound difference: the current crisis marks the end of an era of credit expansion based on the dollar as the international reserve currency. The periodic crises were part of a larger boom-bust process. The current crisis is the culmination of a super-boom that has lasted for more than 60 years.
Boom-bust processes usually revolve around credit and always involve a bias or misconception. This is usually a failure to recognise a reflexive, circular connection between the willingness to lend and the value of the collateral. Ease of credit generates demand that pushes up the value of property, which in turn increases the amount of credit available. A bubble starts when people buy houses in the expectation that they can refinance their mortgages at a profit. The recent US housing boom is a case in point. The 60-year super-boom is a more complicated case.
Friday, January 25, 2008
Warren Buffett's daily Burlington buys continue. Berkshire Hathaway has bought Burlington Northern Santa Fe shares on 11 of the 12 trading days through last Tuesday, January 22.
Berkshire may have bought even more yesterday or today but there is sometimes a lag of one to two days between a purchase and its disclosure.
Swiss Reinsurance Co., the biggest reinsurer, said billionaire investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. took a 3 percent stake and will assume a share of its non-life business. The shares rose the most in four years.
Berkshire will get 20 percent of Swiss Re's property and casualty business over the next five years, Swiss Re said today in an e-mailed statement from Zurich. Swiss Re will use capital freed up by the transaction to finance an additional share buyback of up to 1.75 billion Swiss francs ($1.6 billion).
Billionaire Wilbur Ross is in serious talks to take over Ambac Financial Group, according to a media report, but broader efforts to rescue the sector will take some time, a New York state regulator said on Thursday.
Monday, January 21, 2008
John Shapiro, co-founder and managing director of Chieftain, said his firm sent the letter after failing in other attempts to get management to change.
"Their emphasis has been growth, not return to shareholders," he said. "There's nothing wrong with growth, but if you overpay for it, it dilutes the value to shareholders."
Shapiro said Comcast has spent over $80 billion on acquisitions in the past decade, often paying more than 20 times operating cash flow. And he contended that Comcast spends money on things outside its core cable business, such as regional sports networks, Internet sites and the wireless spectrum.
If Comcast can afford to overpay for acquisitions, Shapiro said, then it should buy back its undervalued shares. But buybacks have so far been "modest relative to their capability," he said.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
There is a school of thought that says that the value of a business is entirely in its future cash flows and that all assets are tools that provide that cash flow. In essence, many people believe that assets and equity should be ignored entirely. Let's look at it from a private owner perspective and follow it up later in the week with an examination of Buffett's early partnership letters:
Wall Street firms have a talent for getting themselves into trouble together. They all were long Internet stocks when Internet stocks collapsed and they'll all be long North Korean credit-default swaps whenever North Korea gets hot and then crashes.
What's odd about the subprime crash is Goldman Sachs Group Inc. A single firm took a position contrary to the rest of Wall Street. Giant Wall Street firms are designed for many things, but not, typically, to express highly idiosyncratic views in the market.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Inside a Sears store in the Cincinnati suburbs, Steve Sunderland, the vice president for store initiatives at Sears Holdings, is exuberant as he shows off his company’s latest experiment. With his oversize blue blazer and slightly nasal voice, Sunderland bears a passing resemblance to Steve Carell of The Office. Periodically, he interrupts our conversation to race over and hold a door open for a customer or to call out, “Have a great day, ladies!”
At this particular Sears store, Sunderland is point man for the latest test run by hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert, who is using the company as a petri dish to try out his ideas for the retail business. (Read more about Eddie Lampert.) Instead of the usual layout, which groups merchandise by type—clothing, toys, appliances—this two-level store is organized around rooms of the home, including a kitchen, kid’s bedroom, garage, and laundry room. The areas are set up, Sunderland says, “holistically.” Refrigerators and stoves are in the kitchen area, and washers and dryers are in the laundry zone.
The goal is to create a Cheers atmosphere, referring to the 1980s sitcom in which Boston barflies make up a surrogate family. Sunderland calls this “dwell.” Each area has its own pavilion, anchored by a computer kiosk called the Oracle, set up to search out Sears products. Sears has adapted the Willy Wonka, everything-is-edible approach to the mock-up rooms. Everything within them, including the paint on the walls, is for sale.
Guess who's helping Bank of America pay for its $4.1 billion purchase of Countrywide Financial? Answer: The taxpayers of the United States.
That's because Bank of America, which is solidly profitable, will be able to use some of Countrywide's losses to offset its own taxable income. The tax break could total about half a billion dollars over the first five years, according to an estimate by tax guru Robert Willens, who left Lehman Brothers Friday after a 20-year run and will be in business as Robert Willens LLC starting next week. The losses could be worth considerably more to Bank of America starting in the sixth year, depending on how big Countrywide's losses are when Bank of America formally acquires it.
Now consider a couple of scenarios. Chenault misses all the targets but the market booms, returning 10% a year, and AmEx stock matches it. After their full term of ten years, his options would be in the money by $258 million - but he wouldn't get any of that. Why? Well, AmEx's stock presumably rode a rising tide, and his shareholders could have done just as well with an index fund while exposed to less risk. Alternatively, the market returns just 6% a year, in line with what many experts predict, but under Chenault's leadership AmEx hits all the targets and the stock returns 9% a year. Chenault collects a pretax gain of $222 million after a decade - an awful lot, but his shareholders are $35 billion richer than if they had chosen an index fund, and he's a hero.In either scenario, compensation lines up with performance. That's a goal that CEOs and boards should aim for, and that politicians should vow not to hinder as they try to feel voters' pain this spring.
Don't give up.....
One day I decided to quit...
I quit my job, my relationship, my spirituality... I wanted to quit my life.
I went to the woods to have one last talk with God.
"God", I asked, "Can you give me one good reason not to quit?"
His answer surprised me...
"Look around", He said. "Do you see the fern and the bamboo?"
"Yes", I replied.
"When I planted the fern and the bamboo seeds, I took very good care of them.
I gave them light.
I gave them water.
The fern quickly grew from the earth.
Its brilliant green covered the floor.
Yet nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo.
In the second year the Fern grew more vibrant and plentiful.
And again, nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo. He said.
"In year three there was still nothing from the bamboo seed.
But I would not quit.
In year four, again, there was nothing from the bamboo seed. I would not quit." He said.
"Then in the fifth year a tiny sprout emerged from the earth.
Compared to the fern it was seemingly small and insignificant...
But just 6 months later the bamboo rose to over 100 feet tall.
It had spent the five years growing roots. Those roots made it strong and gave it what it needed to survive.
I would not give any of my creations a challenge it could not handle."
He asked me. "Did you know, my child, that all this time you have been struggling, you have actually been growing roots".
"I would not quit on the bamboo.
I will never quit on you."
"Don't compare yourself to others." He said.
"The bamboo had a different purpose than the fern.
Yet they both make the forest beautiful."
"Your time will come", God said to me.
"You will rise high"
"How high should I rise?"
"How high will the bamboo rise?" He asked in return.
"As high as it can?" I questioned.
"Yes." He said, "Give me glory by rising as high as you can."
I left the forest and brought back this story.
I hope these words can help you see that God will never give up on you.
Never, Never, Never Give up.
Investment guru Warren Buffett is bringing forward plans to expand his NetJets Europe venture, investing £400m to add 39 business jets to a fleet of 174.
He has accelerated plans to meet soaring demand in Britain for private jets as business travellers shun security delays and congestion on scheduled flights.
Buffett is expected to announce tomorrow that NetJets Europe, which has its headquarters in South Kensington, west London, chalked up 73,622 flights last year - more than 200 a day - a rise of more than 17% on 2006.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
SMART DRESSING INVOLVES sending subliminal messages, particularly when a serious job is at stake. This is something that even high-ranking business leaders can underestimate.
In commerce, unlike in Hollywood, fashion plays a largely uncredited role. Business schools train graduates to shine their shoes for an interview. But once established, apart from avoiding the obvious gaffe -- a coffee-stained shirt or a visible rhinestone bra strap -- many executives spend little time contemplating what to wear to a job interview. At their peril.
I recently suggested to Dorothy Waldt, a New York executive recruiter, that CEOs and other high-level job candidates must know what to wear by that stage in their careers. "You'd think!" she said when she had stopped laughing.
"People don't understand the messages that their clothes send," says Ms. Waldt, a recruiter with CTPartners. Women sometimes don't realize how often a tight shirt or a low neckline comes across as seductive. People who meet them are likely to assume the sexual innuendo is intentional.
William Ackman, whose Pershing Square Capital Management LP hedge fund returned 22 percent last year, increased his bet against MBIA Inc. and said the bond insurer may need to raise $10 billion in capital to protect its policyholders.
Pershing Square increased its short positions in stock of MBIA, the biggest U.S. guarantor of bonds, and Ambac Financial Group Inc., Ackman said in an interview on Bloomberg Television today. His New York-based fund is buying more credit-default swaps of MBIA's holding company, which are used to bet on a company's ability to repay debt, he said.
``Most every week we have increased our short position,'' he said.
Ackman, 41, who co-founded a hedge fund, Gotham Partners LP, less than a year after graduating from Harvard Business School, said his bond-insurer bets gained billions of dollars as the stocks and bonds tumbled in recent months.
His stakes in Target Corp., the second-biggest U.S. discounter, and McDonald's Corp. forced executives to take steps to lower costs and consider asset sales. In December 2005, while pressing McDonald's management, Ackman worked a half-day at one of the chain's restaurants in South Florida at the invitation of a franchisee.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Thanks for surfing over from the Sellers Capital web site. Here is the interview that Joe Bradley, founder of Investor’s HOTLINE, conducted with Mark Sellers, managing member of Sellers Capital, LLC, and portfolio manager for the Sellers Capital Fund.
You can listen to Mark’s explanation of what traits make a great investor, how conviction and other emotions impact the investment process, and which strategies average investors should consider utilizing. He also discusses his own investment approach, names some of his favorite picks and issues cautions on some past favorites. Mark tells what he is not buying and why, and he warns listeners about a common pitfall for value investors that he must watch himself.
At the start of any year, we often see articles that attempt to zero in on the "Best Stocks for the Coming Year." For 2008, many will emphasize recession-proof stocks, companies unconnected to the housing market, or stocks that can benefit from the booming commodities markets. However, such a short-term focus can be borderline backward-looking, and many stocks featured in such articles may wind up better known as the "Best Stocks of 2007." We're in it for the long haul, and we use forward-looking valuations to seek out firms with sustainable competitive advantages that currently trade at a discount to what they're really worth. With a little patience, we can take advantage of the market's disquiet to root out long-term opportunities.
We've compiled a list of five companies with stocks that are well-positioned to outperform in the coming decade. These firms share two key qualities. First, they possess either a wide or narrow moat that should remain intact--if not widen--through 2018. Second, transient negative news has driven their share prices into bargain territory. Each carries our 5-star rating as of this writing, meaning that their shares can be purchased for considerably less than where we peg their intrinsic values.
“In a difficult retail environment, we were pleased with our comparable store sales during this period,” said Eduardo Castro-Wright, Wal-Mart Stores U.S. president and chief executive officer. “Wal-Mart’s food performance was very strong, which helped drive traffic to other areas of the stores.
“Our price leadership position was clear very early in the holiday season, and customers responded throughout the period to our pricing and merchandise offerings, which were supported by well-integrated advertising and in-store communications,” he said. “Customers were also pleased with the improvements they saw through our faster, friendlier check-outs, as well as their overall in-store experiences. Our stores were well-merchandised and did a good job managing inventory throughout the Christmas season.”
Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is once again adding to its stake in Burlington Northern Santa Fe after taking a break for the last few months.
A filing with the SEC minutes ago reveals purchases of Burlington stock today, yesterday and Tuesday. Earlier today, Berkshire disclosed a small purchase on Monday. So, every day of the week so far, Buffett has bought some Burlington.
They are the first disclosed purchases since a string of buys that began last spring and ended in October.
The largest purchase came yesterday (Wednesday): 435,700 shares at $77.12 each. That's also the lowest price of the three most recent buys, but above Monday's $76.55. Many of last year's disclosed purchases were in the neighborhood of $80 a share.
New Zealand's Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Nepal's Tenzing Norgay Sherpa became the first to conquer Mount Everest, died in hospital on Friday. He was 88.
New Zealand flags flew at half mast at Scott Base in Antarctica on Friday, mourning the loss of one of the greatest adventurers of the 20th century.
"The legendary mountaineer, adventurer, and philanthropist is the best-known New Zealander ever to have lived. But most of all he was a quintessential Kiwi," New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said on Friday in announcing Hillary's death.
Hillary scaled the world's highest mountain in 1953, telling companions after the climb: "We knocked the bastard off".
Thursday, January 10, 2008
I hope that you enjoyed part one of my chat with Larry Pitkowsky of the Fairholme Fund. In part two of our discussion, we dig deeper into the Fairholme Fund's search strategy and portfolio construction, which has several similarities to my approach in managing the Morningstar Ultimate Stock-Picker's Portfolio. We also touch on two asset-rich companies that have recently migrated onto my watch list. To listen in to part two of my talk with Larry, please click on the link below:
My Christmas story — the one I’ve been telling and retelling these last 10 days — began on Friday, Dec. 21.
It was early in the morning, and I had awoken with the sudden, sinking realization that a present I had bought for one of my sons hadn’t yet arrived. It wasn’t just any present either; it was a PlayStation 3, a $500 item, and a gift, I happened to know from my sources, that he was hoping for.
Like most things I buy online, the PlayStation had come from Amazon.com. So I went to the site and tracked the package — something, thankfully, that is a snap to do on Amazon. What I saw made my heart sink: the package had not only been shipped, it had been delivered to my apartment building days earlier and signed for by one of my neighbors. I knocked on my neighbor’s door, and asked if she still had the PlayStation. No, she said; after signing for it, she had put it downstairs in the hallway.
Marty Whitman and Al Zucaro, stock pickers with a knack for buying low, may be dripping in sweat after they snapped up U.S. mortgage insurers that shed more than 40 percent of their value in the past three months.
MGIC Investment Corp., PMI Group Inc. and Radian Group Inc., the industry's three largest firms, had their worst year in 2007, declining as much as 78 percent. Whitman bought into the slump to become the largest stakeholder in Philadelphia- based Radian. Zucaro became the No. 1 investor in PMI of Walnut Creek, California, and the second-biggest for Milwaukee-based MGIC.
``We're just going to have to sweat it out for the next 18 or 24 months,'' said Zucaro, who runs Old Republic International Corp., parent of the industry's sixth-largest company.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
When Chinese want to impress our clients or business partners, we usually take them to a private dining room, preferably at an expensive restaurant. Then we'll close the door and overwhelm our guests with numerous courses of delicacies and round after round of toasts with Chinese hard liquor known as baijiu, or white liquor.
A banquet is a business obligation in China, and Chinese believe it has to be conducted behind closed doors in order to establish a close business relationship. Case in point: Some restaurants in China only have private dining rooms. They've gotten rid of public dining space entirely.
But in my five years of living in the U.S., I've never had a meal in a private dining room. When I dine out with Americans, especially at hip restaurants, they often prefer tables close to the door -- the least-favorite spot for most Chinese. The reason: Americans want to see who's coming and who's going. And they want other people to see them as well.
For nearly two decades, Ajit Jain, head of the reinsurance unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, has been looking to get into the business of insuring bonds issued by municipalities.
This week, Mr Jain took his first “baby step” into this multi-billion dollar industry, and agreed to insure the payments on a bond issued by a US municipal borrower in the secondary market.
The premium Berkshire Hathaway charged was higher than its rivals’, yet it still got the business. With the insurance group getting ready to insure deals in the primary market, whether it can continue to command a higher price than others will be the key.
In a rare interview in his office in Stamford, Connecticut, this week Mr Jain said: “Having talked to some of the issuers and having talked to some of the dealers on [Wall] Street, it became clear to us that if we got into the market with our name, we’d be able to command a premium price”.
Donald Trump, eat your heart out.
While less well-known than the brash American developer’s company, Qatari Diar has quietly grown in just its first two years to become one of the biggest real estate companies in the world, with properties from London to Cuba.
The value of its portfolio? Nearly $40 billion.
Leading this new real estate powerhouse is Nasser Hassan Al-Ansari, who, at 40, is representative of a new generation of Persian Gulf business leaders. Educated in the United States and Europe, they have greater financial sophistication and more-global ambitions than their predecessors.
Much of the conventional wisdom about Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s negative effects on local communities is off-base, according to a study on the "Wal-Mart effect" by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
Across a number of measures, the giant retailer's impact is probably a net positive, and overall its footprint on a community's well-being appears smaller than most perceive, economist Terry Fitzgerald said in the bank's "fedgazette" magazine.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
For hedge fund magnate Kenneth C. Griffin, 2007 was the best year ever. His Citadel Investment Group emerged as one of Wall Street's top opportunists, picking up the pieces of fallen peers on the cheap. With such deft moves, Citadel rang in 30%-plus gains last year, vs. 12% for the average fund.
How could Griffin top that in 2008? An initial public offering of Chicago-based Citadel might do the trick. That would not only cement his reputation as a power player on the Street but also pad his bank account. The 38-year-old Harvard grad, who welcomed his first child in early December, is already estimated to be worth more than $2 billion.
Monday, January 07, 2008
Investor A buys shares in XYZ Corp., confident that the company is undervalued. He or she invests in the business, and shortly afterwards, the stock drops by as much as 50%. For well over a year, the stock price remains dormant. All the while, the investor sees share prices rising at other businesses he or she's familiar with. Investor A reassesses the situation and does nothing.
Investor B, also favorable on XYZ Corp., begins buying shares a year later at about one-half of Investor A's cost basis. The following year, Mr. Market catches up with XYZ, and the stock doubles. Investor A is back to even, and Investor B is sitting on a 100% gain.
Which investor would you rather be? With hindsight, it seems that Investor B looks rather smart and savvy, while Investor A just got unlucky buying at the wrong price or the wrong time. Actually, the situation should be viewed from a totally different perspective.
What is the upside for their shares?
Fannie and Freddie are selling for 25% or 35% of what they are worth. The upside is three- or four-fold once the mortgage crisis unfolds. These stocks in the $20s don't make any sense, even in a bear case where they have to raise lots of capital. Even if Freddie has to issue $5 billion in equity at $20 a share, massively diluting the existing shareholder base, you still come up with earnings power of almost $4 a share. In a best-case situation, assuming nobody else gets back into this market and they are the only game in town, you can get $9-$10 of earnings power for a stock that is in the $20s. You don't ever see that kind of risk/reward trade-off. Hence, big positions for us in both Fannie and Freddie.
Years before Melinda French met and married Bill Gates, she had a love affair - with an Apple computer. ¶ She was growing up in Dallas in a hard-working middle-class family. Ray French, Melinda's dad, stretched their budget to pay for all four children to go to college. An engineer, he started a family business on the side, operating rental properties. "That meant scrubbing floors and cleaning ovens and mowing the lawns," Melinda recalls. The whole family pitched in every weekend. When Ray brought home an Apple III computer one day when she was 16, she was captivated. "We would help him run the business and keep the books," she says. "We saw money coming in and money going out."
Of all the tricks that life can play, it's hard to imagine any stranger than what befell Melinda French. Today she is living in a gargantuan high-tech mansion on the shores of Lake Washington, married to the richest man in America - and giving billions of dollars away. When she married Bill Gates 14 years ago, she bought into a complex bargain. On the one hand, she became half of what has turned out to be the world's premier philanthropic partnership. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has assets of $37.6 billion, making it the world's largest. In that total is $3.4 billion that Warren Buffett has already given, and still to come are nine million Berkshire Hathaway B shares, currently worth $41 billion, that he has pledged to contribute in coming years. Assuming that Berkshire (BRKA, Fortune 500) shares continue to rise and that the Gateses continue to bestow their own wealth on their foundation, Melinda and Bill will very likely give away more than $100 billion in their lifetimes. Already the foundation has disbursed $14.4 billion - more than the Rockefeller Foundation has distributed since its creation in 1913 (even adjusted for inflation).
Thursday, January 03, 2008
I hope that 2008 finds you well. In late 2007, I interviewed Larry Pitkowsky of the Fairholme Fund (FAIRX), which is one of the funds I closely follow in managing the Morningstar Ultimate Stock-Picker's Portfolio. In part one of my chat with Larry, we discuss Fairholme's focus on "betting on the jockey" as well as the role that cash plays in their portfolio construction. We also touched base on a few of our mutual stock picks. To see part one of my chat with Larry, please click on the link below.