Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How I manage my portfolio and keep track of 50+ stocks

I never set out to create a series of posts outlining the basics of my investing philosophy, but it appears to have happened.  This post joins the past two and fills in some gaps on how I implement my investment style.  I also wanted to take some time to answer a question I get asked a lot, how do I actually manage a portfolio with more than 50 stocks.

I've heard it said that a typical NFL game's outcome can be broken down to three pivotal plays.  What this means is you can go back and review a game and there are usually three plays where if they went the other way the losing team would have won.  Sometimes a game can hinge on less than that.  The outcome of one play can change a game from a loss to a win, or a win to a loss.

It's my belief that most successful investments are similar, their outcome and success can be distilled down to a few important factors.  If I can't simplify an investment to a small number of pivot points I will pass on the investment, because monitoring the company and estimating an outcome is too difficult.

Let me explain with a few examples.  The easiest example is a net-net, or a company trading below book value.  There are a lot of different things investors can research about the given companies, their margins, their competitors or their management.  The first question I ask is whether the company is worth NCAV or BV?  If it is then why isn't it trading there?  If a company is worth their asset value then the next question is what will it take for the company to trade there?  Most of it time it's just that the market needs to recognize value.  After I've determined the company is undervalued and I need to be patient all I need to monitor is that business continues as usual at the company.

Distilling an investment down to a few pivotal facts makes following a company easier and also simplifies the selling decision.  If I determine a company has an undervalued piece of real estate and suddenly the real estate is sold then it's time to sell.  If I think a CEO is holding the company back and they're replaced and nothing changes then I need to sell.

My goal is to reduce an investment idea to a set of factors that if true would validate the thesis and result in a gain, and if false would invalidate the idea.  Keeping an investment simple isn't just a matter of simplifying the investment idea, it also includes investing in simple companies.

Readers are aware that most of the time I invest in small companies, usually because that's where opportunities exist, but also because they're easy to understand.  I have two annual reports on my desk from small unlisted companies, both are 15 pages or less.  I can read and analyze the companies in a half hour at the most.  One of them sends only an annual report, the other sends an informative letter quarterly plus the annual report.  The time commitment for both of those companies is about an hour a year at the most.  I can spend an hour a year and keep up with two companies that I'd like to own at a lower price, right now I own single shares of each to stay on their mailing list.  I have a few dozen companies like these two.  They send out short annual reports and it doesn't take many hours to keep up with them.  I also like to scan through the OTC Markets financial reports page.  I will open and read or scan the filings for any company that's filing within the past few weeks.  I can usually read and keep up on dozens of companies without much time spent.

Finding easy to understand, easy to follow companies whose investments hinge on a few factors is one thing, fitting them into a portfolio is another.

Just as investors like to classify themselves as certain types, readers seem to classify me as well.  I'm often thought of as a net-net investor, or maybe a low P/B investor, or a bank investor.  I certainly invest in those types of stocks, but I don't limit myself either.  I manage my portfolio in a somewhat unique fashion.  It's hard to build a portfolio around one specific type of investment idea.  What does a spin-off investor do when there are no spin-offs?  What does a net-net investor do when there are no net-nets?  I guess they'd sit on cash until those opportunities arose again.

What I have done is to divide my portfolio up into a number of different styles.  Low P/B stocks, cash box stocks, net-nets, banks, quality companies I'd hold etc.  My goal is to never let any of these specific strategies overwhelm the entire portfolio.

Dividing my portfolio allows me to diversify across strategies, and it also allows for new investments when one strategy starts to top out.  Right now in the US there aren't many net-nets left, but that's fine, I have been finding cash boxes, some special situations and a few attractive banks.  I'm still able to buy cheap companies even though there aren't net-nets abounding.

The last thing investing like this does is it allows me to compare and fit new investments into a framework of existing investments.  If I'm looking at a bank stock I can compare the bank's relative value to the other banks I own.  If the bank is more expensive than my current holdings I need to either know why it's worth holding or reconsider the position and add to an existing position.  I do the same with all of the other types of investments I own.

To end this post I distilled my approach into a few simple bullet points:


  • Follow companies that are simple to understand.
  • Follow companies that publish short annual reports that are quick to read and easy to understand.
  • Invest in multiple strategies, never let one overwhelm the portfolio.
  • Compare new ideas to existing ones

With the above guidelines I'm able to manage my portfolio without spending a lot of time keeping track of what I own.  I can dedicate most of my time finding new companies I'd like to buy.




7 comments:

  1. How are you still finding opportunities in this market? Are they all traded OTC? With the market as high as it is, I haven't found a compelling stock in a long time.

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    1. I'm still finding plenty of opportunities. I just purchased a few banks recently, one at 50% of BV and a few times earnings. A company I own and have written about in the past reported today, they're at 60% of NCAV and 3x earnings.

      Conrad Industries, another company I've written about reported as well, they're still fairly cheap. They're at less than 10x earnings, maybe 6x earnings if you back out the cash and growing nicely.

      I just look off the beaten path. The ideas aren't laying around, but they're out there.

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    2. Interesting. Are you at all worried though about deploying cash while the market seems to be making new highs every week?

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  2. Hi Nate,

    Well, you have got my attention. Al tough probably not in the way you think. I'm actually quite interested in where you got your philosophy from which results in the above post. Do you want to post a list of books you have read about investing that ultimately arrived to your philosophy?

    As most of the posts, a great post this one!

    -Rens

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    1. Rens,

      I'm not sure where my philosophy is from. I've read a few of the value investing tomes and thought a lot about this on my own. I guess you could say it's my own distilled version of investing.

      My nature is to figure things out on my own, so when I started to create a portfolio I had to figure out how to manage it. I created something that I can handle and something that seems to be effective.

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  3. Nate,

    50+ positions indicates that your analysis is more mechanical and low conviction. I'll contrast that observation with the fact that some of your posts show detailed analysis and near term catalysts. I'm much more concentrated as I can't keep up with that many positions.

    How do you take into account the conviction in your thesis when sizing positions? What delta would there be between in max position size in high and low conviction opportunities?

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    1. currygoat,

      I think you're mis-reading what I wrote. In one of the two previous posts I addressed this. I have 50+ positions, but they're not equal sized. If there is something I like I will buy substantially more than something that I'm happy to hold.

      Many positions are high conviction, and I will buy more. But I also don't let my confidence in my analysis overwhelm my portfolio with a few concentrated bets. I've been in stocks that I was sure would go to the moon to sit flat and then eek out a few percentage points. I've had other investments go to the moon that I never expected.

      Sometimes we have a sense of what might be possible, but it's always just a sense.

      I'd note that even concentrated investors returns seem to fall in the 15-20% range over time. There are guys like Greenblatt who is a clear outlier, but for most others that seems to be the limit on returns.

      Right now concentrating a portfolio is en vogue. Why not, the market has been a rocket since 2009, and being in the five or ten right stocks have been great. But look at the great investors who lasted cycles and cycles, they weren't riding a wave with a few stocks.

      There's a book The Value Investors that I'd recommend reading. There are interviews with famed investors in there who have been investing for 20/30/40 years through all sorts of conditions. None of them did that with a few stocks. Even Greenblatt recognized that the environment had changed for his style and it couldn't work anymore and he got out.

      A friend of mine uses this analogy. He views his portfolio as a store, think of a general store. You're selling packs of gum, food, beer etc. Sure you make more selling the beer, but you still make money on the gum. The gum isn't going to move the needle, but those consistent sales add up over time. A portfolio is the same. Some small positions that do 50% aren't going to move the needle, but they do add up.

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