Dyna International, a pile of cheap assets but is there anything else?

If it isn't apparent to readers I have a natural curiosity about life.  I just wonder about things, I don't know why, and I can't help it; I'm curious.  I have young kids who ask 'why' often in an attempt to learn about life and their surroundings.  I've come to realize I'm no different than my kids, I've never stopped asking 'why', it's just that my questions and research have become more structured.

There have been many times where I've been sitting drinking out of a glass with a design on it and had the thought "I wonder who makes this?".  I've also had the thought when looking at similar commodity products "why would anyone want to manufacture or sell these items."  There is a subset of products that people use that don't appear to have a reason to exist.  It's hard to fathom how the companies behind these products make money.  For most companies the answer is that all work is outsourced to China, or Vietnam, or somewhere else cheap.  In a world of automation where I presume plastic and nylon cost the same worldwide I'm not sure why China is a better answer than somewhere closer, but I'll accept it at face value.  Maybe this is my curiosity getting in the way again.

Dyna International (DGIX) is a perfect example of the type of company I've wondered about above.  They make travel coffee mugs with sports team logos as well as a number of belt buckles.  The large majority of belt buckle designs are patriotic in nature with themes of America, guns, trucks, eagles and things associated with motorcycles and the wild west.  There is even a model that incorporates a bottle opener which is ironic because the type of beer I associate with belt buckles comes in cans and screw off tops.

The majority of the company's products are licensed items.  For example a coffee mug with the Steelers logo on it, or drink glasses with logos.  These types of glasses are great gifts for sports fans.  I speak from experience, all of my wife's family has Cincinnati Red's glasses that they love compliments of us.  Items with team logos will remain popular and sell at premium prices as long as sports and sports teams are popular.  Many designs are downright ugly, but they sell.  I'm speaking from experience again as we have a set of ugly Steelers beer mugs from their 2005 Super Bowl win.  At the bottom of the cup visible with each sip is a logo reminding the drinker that the Steelers won the Super Bowl.  I can't quite explain why we purchased these as they're hideous, but at the time we thought they were great.  Maybe some of you are laughing thinking "I'd never do that", that is until your team wins and you find yourself buying kitschy items with logos hanging all over them.

The problem with licensed material is that licensing carries a heavy cost.  The entity that makes the most money on the licensed material are the sports league itself.  Manufacturers creating products with logos are surviving with razor thin margins.  What's even more impressive about the industry surrounding these logo items is that Dyna International is a distributor to retailers.  Either the retailers are heavily marking up their products or there is really no money to be made at the point of sale.  All of the products on their site require a three unit minimum purchase and an approved account.  They aren't targeting a traditional internet buyer.  In the most recent quarter the company earned a net profit of $78,722 with a net margin of 1.7%, slim indeed.

The company's financials follow the same ebb and flow that most retailers do, losses for the first two quarters, a slight profit in Q3 and outsized profits in Q4.  As of September 30th the company had a year to date loss of $20k that should be resolved with fourth quarter earnings.  If history is any guide the company could earn anywhere between $.02 to $.05 a share for the year.  If they hit the low end the stock would be trading for a multiple of 10x earnings.  And at the high end ~4x earnings.

The company typically pays over a million dollars a year in licensing costs.  This gives them incentive to produce and promote their own line of goods without licensed logos such as their belt buckle collection.  If the company were to shift the revenue mix of products from licensed goods to unlicensed goods then earnings could dramatically increase.  But I don't see that as very likely.

What is attractive about Dyna International is their valuation.  The company has $8.3m in equity and $6.5m in net current assets.  With a market cap of $1.4m Dyna International falls deeply into the category of a net-net, and a profitable one at that.  The majority of their assets are receivables and inventory.

Many investors like to discount a net-net's inventory and receivables then wave the adjusted valuation as an excuse to pass on an investment.  That's not unlike someone who tries on an outfit on sale and then complains that the color isn't right or the fit isn't perfect as an excuse to not buy.  If Dyna International were to declare a fire-sale tomorrow then I agree that it's unlikely they'd realize their inventory or receivable accounts.  But this is a company in motion, they've been profitable for years and this year appears to be no different.  If they've had no issues selling their inventory at stated value, and collecting receivables in the past then why should we presume anything is different now without any evidence?  With evidence that their inventory or receivables are deteriorating I would agree, but in the absence of evidence it's just a flimsy excuse to not purchase a cheap company.

The bigger issue with Dyna International is the size of the company.  With only a $1.4m market cap the float is small and not many investors can build a material position.  The CEO even states in his letter to shareholders that the price is prone to fluctuate dramatically from the purchase of 100 shares, or $22.  With the low share price and lack of available shares it's no wonder investors aren't lining up to buy in size.

Even with the company's small size and mediocre business I think companies like this are worth a position when one can get enough shares.  The company is selling for 16% of book value and 21% of NCAV. At these prices there isn't much downside left, maybe something good will happen and shareholders will finally be rewarded.

Disclosure: No position

The math of returns

I just released the fourth issue of the Oddball Stocks Newsletter and wanted to share a short excerpt from the introduction letter.

The topic is the timing and security selection criteria necessary to achieve market beating returns:

"To demonstrate my thinking here is a simple example.  Let’s consider a hypothetical $1,000,000 portfolio comprised of 10 equal weighted undervalued stocks.  In our portfolio we’ll assume that each stock is trading for 66 2/3% of book value and is worth 100% of book value for a potential 50% return.  Let’s imagine that three positions ($300,000) appreciate 50% to fair value each year, which would be $450,000.  If the rest of the portfolio remained flat for the year the investor’s return would be a quite satisfactory 15%.  Now at this point in time it isn’t as if we’ve lost hope in the other seven names, but they haven’t done much yet.  If an investor sells the appreciated securities and reinvests them in securities selling for 2/3 of BV and repeats this process year after year the portfolio will continue to earn above-market satisfactory returns.

For one to achieve market beating returns only 1/3 of the portfolio needs to appreciate at least 50% a year.  The rest of the portfolio can stagnate or even fall slightly.  The key to this is accepting that different portions of a portfolio are in different stages of value realization. One needs the patience to see ideas through, and the wisdom to minimize losses.  In this imaginary portfolio positions are held for a maximum of three years, if at that point they haven’t appreciated it’s time to sell and find a replacement.  Or if a position appreciated before the three year holding period was realized the position was sold and replaced by a new lower valued position."

When reading investment blogs or message boards I'm struck by how many people are looking for home run investments.  Rather finding investments with at least 50% appreciation potential and not losing money can generate market beating returns.  It's much harder to find stocks that will reliably double, triple, quadruple or more in a few years.

The above example should be a great gut check for what's in your portfolio.  A single loss or two requires gains from the rest of the holdings to be higher.  It's easier to avoid losses rather than finding home run stocks.  A portfolio with market generating returns doesn't need to be comprised of multi-bagger stocks, it needs to be one that avoids losses.

When a portfolio continues to hold losing positions, or invest in positions that consistently drop it's like a paddler trying to navigate a boat against the current.  It's possible to paddle upstream but it's a lot of work.  Avoiding losses is like paddling with the current, a bit of effort combined with the current results in a quick journey.

If you're interested in reading the rest of my thoughts on the subject, or reading about a number of very attractive companies profiled in this issue consider subscribing to the Oddball Stocks Newsletter.

Orange County Business Bank: Undervalued with a catalyst

Not all banks are created equal.  While all banks take in deposits and make loans the type of deposits and loans make a difference when it comes to the quality of the bank.  In the banking world the ideal customer is a business customer.  Business deposits are larger, business loans are larger, business customers are less needy and a bank can differentiate itself through customer service.  While all banks aspire to business banking it shouldn't be a surprise that there are specific 'business banks'.

Orange County Business Bank (OCBB) is one such bank located in Orange County, California.  While researching the bank I found a newspaper article where the CEO explained why the bank was founded.  From 1992 to 2000 the number of local Orange County banks declined from 42 to 9.  At the same time there were over 100,000 businesses registered in the county alone.  The bank's founders saw an opportunity to serve a unique market niche.  The bank was formed in the depths of the market crisis in 2002, which is when they IPO'ed and raised $20m.  The bank then went back to the market a second time and raised an additional $30m in 2004.

The following table grabbed from CompleteBankData.com shows how the bank has performed over the past nine years:

With this bank the numbers tell the story.  Here is a bank that grew from zero at their IPO to $249m in assets in 2009.  The bank wasn't immune from the financial crisis when their portfolio took a hit in 2010.  In 2010 the bank charged off 4.57% of their loans, a significant amount.  Since then charge-offs and non-performing loans have declined.

The bank's troubled loans never came close to causing problems for the bank because the bank has been significantly overcapitalized since their founding.  Since the IPO the bank's Tier 1 capital has never dropped below 25% and recently has risen above 30%.

The bank's extra capital is part of the reason their returns on equity is so low.  With excess capital the bank has capacity to make additional loans or conduct an acquisition.  In the most recent quarter the bank announced that assets and loans grew as well as net income.

While excess capital give management options for the future it's also a thorn in the side of shareholders.  Shareholders contributed $50m in initial capital to create the bank and then watched management sit on the cash for the last decade.  The bank managed to survive the crisis due to the war chest but has since seen capital erode from crisis losses.  It's no wonder that the stock is ignored and investors are frustrated.

There are two things that make this bank attractive from an investment perspective.  The first is their valuation.  The bank is trading for $5.85 whereas book value stands at $8.59 per share.  At current prices the bank is trading for 68% of book value.  There are not many banks trading for less than 70% of book value at this point in the market cycle.  For a bank to be trading around 2/3 of book value either signifies that the bank has serious problems, or it's seriously ignored.

The second attractive aspect is related to the bank's troubled loans.  Most of the time a bank charges off bad loans and the loss is forgotten.  The bankers at Orange County Business bank have continued to pursue loan recovery even after their loans were written off.  In their second quarter press release the bank included a statement that was bolded announcing that they'd made a loan recovery in the amount of $2m plus interest.

The bank passed through the recovery in the recent quarter reporting $.46 per share in earnings and an increase to book value of $3.5m.  While the record earnings were a one-off event the book value increase was not.  The bank reported that they are continuing to aggressively pursue loans that have been charged off, which means it's possible there could be some potential future recoveries.

In the end this is a small bank trading at a sizable discount to book value that continues to be profitable.  If anyone is building a basket of cheap banks this is one to include.

Disclosure: No position

Value investing myths

If something is repeated often enough people will eventually start to believe it.  Buffett always buys "good" companies, and Graham bought companies on the verge of bankruptcy.  Investors who buy into good companies doen't need to worry about the price they pay.  Whereas Graham investors need to be worried because eventually all net-nets go to zero.

Sometimes the truth is more nuanced.  Would Buffett disciples be surprised to read a story about Buffett buying in and out of a small stocks in his personal portfolio?  Would investors be surprised to read a quote by Graham about preferring quality factors in companies they look at?

On Buffett: In 1999 he purchased a $3.3m stake in Bell Industries.  The technology company was in the process of restructuring and had sold off a large division.  Buffett purchased his Bell stake in December of 1999 and by January 18th of 2000 he had already sold out for a quick 50% gain.  The famed 'buy and hold' investor had purchased into a tiny tech stock and flipped it for an 80% gain in less than two months.  The LA Times sums up the investment perfectly:

"Buffett, 70, made his wealth and reputation as a long-term, buy-and-hold investor by using Berkshire as his vehicle for buying major stakes in companies and then patiently waiting years for those investments to soar in value.

But as his earlier experience with Bell showed, that's not always Buffett's practice when he pulls out his own wallet. In that case, Buffett bought a 5.3% stake in Bell in early December 1999, triggered a surge in Bell's market price, and then dumped his stake a month later for a profit of about $1 million, or 50% on his original investment." (source)

Now onto Benjamin Graham.  Graham is often associated with purchasing stocks feature low statistical measures such as price to book, or price to earnings.  One area that Graham has left a mark is by suggesting investors who purchase companies trading below NCAV can consistently outperform the market.  Lost in the past 70s years has been some of Grahams warnings and suggestions around buying net-nets.  Graham as shown below suggested investors purchase net-nets with high earning power, high returns on equity, or an imminent catalyst.  His original framework has been diluted to "buy anything trading below NCAV no matter how terrible the company is".  Here is what Graham originally wrote:

"Nevertheless, the securities analyst should exercise as much discrimination as possible in the choice of issues falling within this category. He will lean toward those for which he sees a fairly imminent prospect of some one of the favorable developments listed above. Or else he will be partial to such as reveal other attractive statistical features  besides their liquid-asset position, e.g., satisfactory current earnings and dividends or a high average earning power in the past. The analyst will avoid issues that have been losing their current assets at a rapid rate and show no definite signs of ceasing to do so." (Security Analysis p595-596)

His plea to appreciate quality wasn't isolated to those paragraphs.  Sprinkled throughout Security Analysis are recommendations that investors look for higher quality companies over lower quality companies.  At one point he even recommended that investors simply buy the best company in each industry when the entire industry hit its low point in the business cycle.

How is it that these messages have been lost to the sands of time?  But more importantly does that mean anything for us now?

CreditBubbleStocks has captured the current sentiment towards value investing with his post titled "Value Investors Obsessed With "Compounders", ROE; Don't Care About Liquidation Value Or Margin Of Safety"  The post is short and worth reading, his point is that what is considered value investing today bears little resemblance to what value investing has traditionally been.

Value investing has morphed from buying average things cheap to buying companies with high returns on equity.  I have read a few blog posts where Buffett disciples proclaim that there is no price too high to pay for a company with high returns on equity.  Of course this line of thinking is lunacy.  As a company grows larger their returns fall, this isn't math, it's common sense.  If a company can grow at 20% forever they will eventually run out of humans to sell things to.  A perfect example is Wells Fargo, which is praised for their high returns on equity.  A few months back I ran a simple simulation and if they can continue to grow at 15% a year in less than 20 years they will be the only bank in the US with 100% marketshare.  It's possibly they can keep up their high returns on equity due to financial engineering, but it's more likely their returns will naturally fall as they grow.  Nothing can grow forever.

What Buffett, Graham, Schloss and others realized was that buying anything for far below what it was worth was a winning proposition.  These famed value investors kept things simple, they purchased obvious values and didn't base their investment on assumptions or approximations of the future.  American Express in the wake of a scandal was a good purchase for Buffett and is a great example.  If one thinks about the salad oil scandal it fits Graham's advice better than the platitude of a great company at a marginal (high?) price.

For those who manage billions of dollars it is difficult to find truly cheap companies.  But for anyone who isn't managing billions I firmly believe the best course of action is to find decent companies selling for absurdly low values.  But like Buffett and Bell Industries I'm also not opposed to buying something below average if the price warrants it and selling when the opportunity arises.

One characterization I hate is that companies that don't earn their cost of capital are worthless.  When I read things like this I have the thought that if this statement were true then American enterprise would cease to exist.  Do you think the company that services your furnace earns their cost of capital?  Or the local grocery store, or your mechanic, or almost any non-Wall Street company?  The large majority of companies in America and around the world provide a service for customers, pay employees an income and provide an owner a modest income with a little bit left over to reinvest in the future.  Without these companies our lives would be much more difficult, imagine fixing your own furnace, car, and growing your own food!  It seems like we would all be a lot poorer if it weren't for low margin companies that don't earn their cost of capital.

Yet in the world of Wall Street and academic finance a family owned grocery store should either close their doors, or engage in financial engineering to artificially boost their financial metrics that pile on risk.  Of course Wall Street is very happy to sell said products that achieve these goals, maybe that's why there's such a push?

This about the absurdity of return on equity for a few moments.  Consider a company that has $100 in capital, and earns $5 a year.  At present they have a paltry 5% return on equity.  If the company were to take on $99 in debt that costs 3% a year their earnings are now reduced to $2 a year.  But that $2 in earnings on $1 in equity is now an astounding 200% return on equity.  My example is clearly simplified, the $99 in debt goes somewhere and doesn't magically make equity disappear.  Of course if a company did want to make that money disappear they'd simply buy back shares.  This example company would be a darling of Wall Street, with high returns on equity and giant per-share figures.  Of course to hit these metrics the company went from being stable to increasingly fragile.  A slight bump in revenue could send the company into bankruptcy court for a default.

I had a conversation with someone recently where they mentioned they considered a 10% return on equity to be the bare minimum a bank should be making, and that banks below that were considered below average.  This investor said they only looked at banks that earned 15% on their equity, a value they considered appropriate for a US bank.  Interesting enough a bank earning 10% on equity or higher isn't just average, they're far above average.  In the most recent quarter the average return on equity for all banks in the US was 7.75%.  Banks earning 15% or more on their equity are in the top 12% of US banks, of which only a handful are traded.  What this person considered average criteria to themselves was actually very stringent criteria for an investment.

Many investors need to stop fooling themselves about what they're doing.  There is nothing special to buying high growth companies, or companies with great brands.  This alone forms the basis for most of the market, the market is obsessed with growth and growing companies.  There's nothing wrong with looking for good companies, or for looking for great brands, but don't make the mistake of paying too much.  There are many wealthy investors who have made fortunes buying stocks of great companies in bear markets from disenfranchised investors whose growth narrative vanished before their eyes.

At the right price many companies are worth a purchase.  But to me the sweet spot is finding a good company at a very low price.  These companies don't always have great ROE's, but at some point 50% of book value and a few times earnings is good enough for me.  Two examples of companies that fit this description are Pardee Resources or Citizens Bancshares that I profiled recently.  My portfolio is filled with companies like this, Installux, PD-Rx, Solitron, Precia Molen, Conduril, Kopp Glass, Conrad Industries and others to name a few.  It's easier to find small companies with average or above average operations at great prices compared to compounders at anything less than nosebleed prices.  Would I ever consider buying a compounding company?  Absolutely, when the price is right.  I purchased some Berkshire in the midst of the financial crisis for example.

If I could encourage value investors, or aspiring value investors to do one thing it would be to use their imagination.  Acquiring companies, private equity firms, and budding managers use their imagination to take many sleepy companies to great companies by thinning the ranks, introducing new products, or selling unprofitable divisions.  Yet many value investors invest as if what is happening now will happen forever.  Just like Wells Fargo won't grow at 15% forever a small company with a profitable niche selling for a few times earnings won't be independent for long, they'll be acquired.  The most dangerous type of thinking of investing is to think about things as if they were linear events.

The whole premise of valuing investing is purchasing something for less than it's worth.  But I feel that value investing has hit it's 1998 moment where we're inventing new metrics like 'eyeballs per click' and other goofy things to justify a new narrative.  If one looks deep enough, or in enough offbeat corners of the market they will always find value.

Special situation opportunity in Harvard Illinois Bancorp

Management at many small companies is often accused of being 'asleep at the switch', a figurative expression for failing to act quickly.  But it's not often that proof of a company's management physically asleep during corporate meetings appears on the internet as is the case with Harvard Illinois Bancorp (HARI).  The picture below was taken by bank activist investor Joseph Stilwell at the Harvard Illinois Bancorp annual meeting, it shows the Chairman taking a nap during a portion of their meeting.  We don't know why he's asleep so we can only speculate.  I'm guessing it's from all the wild nights at the country club after so many long days of golf..

Harvard Illinois Bancorp is a bank with $170m in assets located in Harvard, Illinois.  Harvard is a small town located a few miles from the Wisconsin border and many miles from anything else.  The bank has three branches and has been serving their local community since 1917.

Before October 1st Harvard Illinois Bancorp was a fairly standard small bank value investment.  They began as a mutual bank that converted to a public holding structure in 2010.  After the IPO the bank traded for less than book value and has earned just shy of $1m in the trailing twelve months.  Famed mutual-conversion activist investor Joseph Stilwell owns 9.87% and has been both pushing for a sale and initiating proxy fights at the bank.

This almost looks like just another sleepy bank trading at a depressed valuation waiting for a sale to occur.  The bank released news on October 1st that makes an investment much more interesting.  At the beginning of October the company noted that $18.1m in repurchase agreements sold to them by Pennant Management on loans backed by the USDA were potentially fraudulent.  The bank isn't sure what they're going to do about the loans, if they write them down completely their book value will be reduced to zero and regulators will most likely force them to raise additional capital.  If the company is able to recover some or all of the value from these loans then the company is cheap.

How did this happen?  Pennant Management is an investment advisor firm located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that manages an $850m loan portfolio.  Purportedly a Florida businessman named Nikesh Patel had his company fabricate $170m in loans allegedly guaranteed by the USDA that they sold to Pennant Management.  Patel used the proceeds to fund a lavish lifestyle and open a restaurant business in India.  Pennant Management has sued Patel's company for selling them 25 loans, which were then placed in client portfolios or sold to clients such as Harvard Illinois Bancorp.

The case is interesting in that Pennant felt they were protected by the USDA guarantee.  Patel's company was a USDA approved lender and had supposedly been vetted rigorously.  It's unclear how much vetting Pennant did on their own, or if they just relied on the USDA stamp of approval.  Pennant only purchased guaranteed loans with the expectation that if something were wrong with the underlying credit the USDA would back the loan.  The problem is the USDA claims they have no record of any of the loans that Patel sold.  Given this evidence the USDA states that it's unlikely they will back the loans because there were no loans in the first place.

Given these facts it appears that Harvard Illinois is stuck in a bind.  They have a large amount of securities that are completely worthless.  Pennant Management has claimed that they intend to do their best to recover as much as possible for their clients.  Pennant and their parent company manage over $30b, so it might be possible for them to reimburse some of their client's loss out of their own coffers.

The investment case here rests on the expected outcome from the securities fraud.  If Harvard Illinois recovers 100% of their investment then this is a bank with a $6m market cap that has equity of $20m and earned $1m in the past year.

If the bank is required to write down the entire amount of their holdings and raise capital the value becomes unclear.  If their capital is eliminated from the write down they will be required to raise about $13m by the FDIC.  With Stilwell pushing for a sale it's likely the bank might just decide to sell rather than find capital.  But in such a situation it's unclear whether shareholders would receive anything other than a tax loss carry forward.

The opportunity lies somewhere in the middle.  Clearly the best case scenario is one where the bank recovers their entire investment, but I view that scenario as unlikely.  What will probably happen is they'll end up writing down a portion of their investment and then suing to recover the rest.  The question is how much can they recover, and how long will it take?  If more than 50% of the funds are recovered then Harvard Illinois Bancorp looks very cheap at these levels.  If less than 30% is expected to be recovered then this is fairly priced.  Anything less than a 30% recovery would probably be a total loss given the potential for a capital raise.

Disclosure: No position

Value Investing Seminar [recording]

I recently participated in a Value Investing Seminar hosted by Marketfy.  It was an enjoyable experience for both me and listeners I've talked to.

In my presentation I covered my investment process, an oddball stock highlighted in the Oddball Stocks Newsletter, my rationale for investing in banks, and a bank also profiled in the newsletter.  If you didn't have a chance to watch the seminar live you haven't missed out.  You can now watch it anytime, I've linked to it below.  I presented and took questions for an hour, my presentation is the first in the video right after the introduction.

Many of the questions related to my presentation centered around investing in foreign stocks.  I wrote a post explaining how I think about foreign stock investment as well as my process for investing in foreign stocks.  There were unfortunately more questions than I had time to answer.  And most unfortunate is that I never received a list of the unasked questions.  If you watch the video and have a question could you please email me with the subject [seminar question] and ask your question?  I'll then do a post where I answer all of the questions I receive.

Presentation Outline and Newsletter Sample

I know when I watch a seminar I like to have a copy of the presentation slides to work through on my own.  I've posted the slides as a PDF linked below.

If you watch the video or look through my slides I think you'll notice two things.  The first is that I don't have any secrets besides turning over a lot of rocks.  The second is that this is labor intensive and can be frustrating if you don't know exactly where to look.  Fortunately the reward discovering  investment opportunities such as Pardee Resources and Citizens Bancshares.

If Pardee or Citizens seems attractive to you then the next step is to research the companies.  Citizens Bancshares is an SEC filing company, most readers won't have any trouble finding information on them.  Pardee Resources on the other hand is a dark company, they don't file any reports with the SEC.  Investors need to purchase a share and then contact the company with proof of ownership to obtain financial information.  I created my presentation from my writeup of Pardee for subscribers to the Oddball Stocks Newsletter.  I don't sell past issues, but thought that now that my thesis for Pardee was out in the open that maybe it was time to share my original thinking.  Linked below you'll find a sample of the newsletter featuring the Pardee writeup.  If you like companies such as Pardee and are looking for more then consider subscribing to the Oddball Stocks Newsletter.

Subscription information: http://www.oddballstocksnewsletter.com

Disclosure: Long Pardee, Citizens Bancshares

Portfolio Strategies: Foreign stocks and low information stocks

Most investors hold the majority of their portfolios in domestic stocks.  This isn't a surprise, investing domestically is familiar, and feels 'safer' than investing abroad.  For investors willing to explore the unfamiliar I believe there are advantages to geographically diversifying a portfolio.

Investing exhibits a strong locality bias.  Investors are more likely to invest in a local company compared to a company located on the other side of the country.  Investors are more likely to invest in a company in the same state rather than one in a different state.  I've met investors who only invest in Pittsburgh companies.  It's not uncommon to find a fund that specializes in a small local sector.

The world is a big place with many different types of people and just as many different types of securities.  In a local market there might be 3-5-15 different companies to choose from, whereas worldwide there are over 60,000 public stocks.  Unless an investor specifically wants to limit their strategy to a narrow geographic niche it's reasonable to assume that globally there would be many more potential investment opportunities.

The difficulty with investing abroad is the difficulty with anything abroad, it's different.  I live in the United States and I've traveled to Canada a number of times.  Canada and the US are extremely similar, they look the same, we speak (almost) the same, our cars are the same etc.  But for all the similarities there are slight differences.  When I visit Canada the differences are noticeable, they are slight, but noticeable.  A related thought is that I'm always amazed at is how culturally united the US is. I can travel to the other side of the country and everyone speaks the same, they have the same stores, and I can navigate without any issues.  Going from Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City is more similar than Pittsburgh to Toronto.

Many of the complaints I hear about foreign stocks could also be made about companies that are low information stocks.  These are companies that are dark whose shareholders need to buy a share then contact management for further information.

There are two objections I commonly hear about foreign stocks and low information stocks.  The first is that it's hard to get information, and the second is how do you know it's true?

The first step is finding stocks to research in a broader manner.  I prefer to create wide screens focused on a single country then go through the screen results one by one.  If a country is small enough I won't use a screen, I'll just look at each stock listed in the country.  An example of a screen I might employ would be all stocks in Germany selling for 1.25x book value or less.  I would then work through the list sequentially.

It's at this point that a little creativity needs to be employed.  I prefer to read an annual report for companies that I invest in, but sometimes they're hard to come by.  Most foreign exchanges have information on listed companies such as summary financial statements and a link to news postings.  Some exchanges have full financials, or links to them.  In other countries it's necessary to find the name of the securities regulator and look up companies through their website.  Here's a little trick, Google the company on the domestic Google, you'll get better results.  For example Googling "Precia" on Google.fr brings back much better results compared to the same search on Google.com.

Fortunately for me as an English speaker, and you as an English reader we have an advantage in the investing world.  Many companies worldwide put their full reports in English, or English updates that provide enough context to muddle through the foreign language annual report.  I've used translation sites with some success as well.  I've found that Romance languages translate into English well, whereas Asian languages do not.  English is a very popular language for business and most large companies accommodate this.  Small companies in smaller markets usually don't publish reports in English, but sometimes they do.  My experience has been the smaller the country the more likely it is for a company to publish reports in English.

The language and understanding barrier is a hard one for most investors to get over.  I want to look at the issue differently.  When investing domestically we read annual reports cover to cover because we can, and because we've been told that we need to know all of that information to make an informed decision.

I want to propose that not all of the information in an annual report is necessary to make a good investment decision.  I'd go a step further and say the amount of information needed to make a decision to invest is directly proportional to the company's valuation.  If my investment thesis is that a company will grow at 15% for the next three years then I need to have channel checks and a lot of supporting information before I feel comfortable with that decision.  If a company is selling for 50% of their net cash and are profitable I just need to ensure I'm not walking into a trap.  I prefer to not buy investments where the outcome of my investment hinges on fine print buried on page 178 of an annual report.

If a company's valuation is low enough, and I can adequately diversify then an investment decision is reduced to defining the thesis and getting enough information to confirm or deny it.  When investing in any lower information stock I think it's worth keeping in mind that there will always be another cheap company.  If there are any unresolved questions, or something that doesn't sit right you should move on without hesitation.  As mentioned above, there are over 60,000 stocks in the world.  If you are going to have a portfolio of 50 names it's likely you'll be able to find 50 stocks that fit your criteria perfectly if you're patient.

My first criteria for a foreign investment is a stable and solid balance sheet.  This is because a strong balance sheet protects me against errors.  If I can buy a company with a net cash position that is generating free cash flow I can afford to be patient and wait for my desired outcome.  A larger gap between fair value and my purchase price gives me room for error.  If I purchase a company at 30% of book value and it turns out it's only worth 60% instead of 100% I will still double my money.  This is an important point, the larger the valuation gap the safer the investment.  This is true as long as the company is operating in a business as usual manner.  A company that was profitable for decades and then lost their biggest client isn't a business as usual investment.

The second criteria for a foreign investment is that it needs to be based on valuation, not a specific event.  In the US it's possible to participate in special situations where the outcome of an event is binary and results in a gain or loss.  Usually these situations require additional research and have the potential to be very profitable.  I won't invest in situations like this in Europe, or abroad.  I want to keep my investments simple.  I am looking for average or above average companies at very low valuations.

One way that I keep myself safe with foreign or low information companies is by buying companies where the owners have a large ownership stake.  Additionally I prefer companies that pay dividends, and especially companies whose owners pay themselves via dividends.  Dividends are more common outside the US.  It isn't hard to meet this criteria.

My process for investing overseas isn't any different from my process investing domestically.  But I've found something interesting.  Earlier this year I looked at my performance from domestic stocks compared to foreign stocks.  I have done much better investing in non-US companies.  I spent a lot of time thinking about this and I believe it can be attributed to the fact that I'm much more selective when investing abroad because I want to ensure a great margin of safety, but also because I'm trying to protect against things I might not know.  In the US I feel more comfortable with companies I research and at times I've been known to take a flyer on a questionable net-net or something else because I feel like I have a good grasp of the situation.  Sometimes these things work out, but sometimes they don't.

A post like this wouldn't be complete without a paragraph on fraud.  My impression is that investors have a universal view of fraud.  That view is that fraud doesn't happen in their own country, but it happens everywhere else.  My own view is that there are fraudulent companies everywhere, nowhere is safe.  Use common sense, if a company appears too good to be true it probably is.  It's not worth spending time on fairy tale companies when there are tens of thousands of other companies to look through.