In search of elusive catalysts and the paradox of managing money

It seems as if a public investment pitch isn't complete without a "catalyst".  The catalyst is some supposed future event that is predicted to unlock value.  Catalysts give many reasons to invest in specific stocks, and the lack of a catalyst is usually given as a reason to avoid a stock.

Many times a catalyst is nothing more than a mirage.  In very inefficient markets catalysts do exist. I have found a number of dark or illiquid companies that issue press releases with future plans to unlock value only to see the stock show no reaction.  In inefficient markets finding a catalyst can be like finding the keys to the kingdom.  But outside of tiny stocks and forgotten foreign markets catalysts are about as rare as NYSE listed net-nets.  Theoretically they're possible, but they seem to have all disappeared in the 1950s.

What is mentioned as an investment catalyst is sometimes a generic statement of how potential value can be unlocked or more often wishful thinking. In many cases the probability of a catalyst prediction coming true is no greater than that of a lucky guess.

A friend of mine is a movie director and he likes to say that all movies fit into one of seven basic movie plot patterns.  Business is similar, companies and industries have profit and lifecycle patterns.  Predicting what might happen at the end of a movie (or business story) because one knows the pattern isn't spotting a catalyst, rather it's good investing.

I understand the attraction to catalysts.  Investing is dominated by professionals, and professionals need to generate results in order to keep their jobs.  While we'd all like to think that investment managers are beholden to their fiduciary duty we should first recognize that they often have a greater duty, the one to their families, friends, significant others, or themselves.  Hungry mouths at home and the pursue of lifestyle ultimately drive investment returns.  A manager is going to take an action that preserves their job over one that maximizes capital.

Markets are short term oriented because the managers who manage the majority of the markets need to be.  They are graded on their weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly results.  In a world where hourly results can be measured you can be sure someone is measuring them.  I believe the reason that the investment world became short term oriented isn't because managers are greedier now than in the past.  It's rather than short term, and extremely short term results were hard to measure before the mass computerization of finance.  When trades were settled via paper it was hard to know where a fund stood hourly.  The information wasn't available.  Now a manager can know where they stand tick by tick.

We all say that we're not short term oriented, but many of us do check our portfolios daily or hourly.  No one can really turn off the market forever.  Even when we own extremely long dated assets such as a house we're noisy to know what the neighbor two doors down sold for, even if we're not looking to sell.  There is some primal urge to know our financial position when possible.  In the iPhone age we can have our net worth balance at our finger tips.  In the past this was a task to be completed with a calculator and stack of financial statements at year end.

Patience doesn't exist in the professional investing world.  Many managers can't afford to be patient, they have too much career risk.  Even if a manager has a patient personality their investors do not.  This is especially true for funds that are larger, quoted daily and thrive on asset flows.  Hedge funds have a bit more runway due to redemption periods and lockups.  But make no mistake, no matter how patient John Paulson is assets are running out the door because of a patience mismatch between himself and investors.

It's easier for a smaller manager to practice patience.  At the lowest level someone managing their mother-in-law's wealth might have the most latitude.  A manager who finds a dedicated group of like minded investors will likewise have the ability to think longer term, but they are still beholden to their investors.  Outside investors, unless extremely unusual will never be as patient as many managers.

The textbook solution to this problem is for a manager to adopt permanent capital in the form of buying up an entire business and rolling shareholders in like Berkshire Hathaway did.  The problem with this route is that a business requires attention and dedication to keep the wheels from flying off daily.  Anyone who says anything otherwise has never worked in business.  Where people are involved there are problems.  A business that generates abundant idle free cash flow without any managerial input is mythical and as rare as a goose that lays golden eggs.  Ask yourself, why would someone who owns a company generating cash in absurd amounts with zero management work decide to sell?  Either the seller is stupid and foolish, or there is something unseen.

The only capital that can be invested freely is what I term 'careless capital'.  This is capital that the holder or manager doesn't need.  A wealthy individual can afford to invest in illiquid stocks or private businesses with multi-decade holding periods because they don't need the money.  There is no penalty to locking up money.

This is true for myself in some senses.  I don't live off my portfolio, and the proportion of it invested in illiquid stocks is an amount that I can be eternally patient with.  I don't need the money for anything, and if it turns out that it's passed onto my kids in 50 years that would be a result I'm satisfied with.  I have other parts of my portfolio that will eventually be used, and I can't afford to take the lockup risk with those funds.

When you look at investors who are pursuing permanent capital they're already wealthy.  The ones who aren't wealthy yet and are pursuing it via fund management fees or or buying companies in an effort to turn them around.

If one were to plot investor patience on one axis and wealth on the other I think you'd see an extremely strong correlation between very wealthy and very patient.  Buffett talks about buying and holding forever because he can.  If Berkshire went belly up this week he'd still have around $1b in personal wealth in his personal portfolio.  It's easy to invest 'forever' when you have a $1b backup plan.

Along with the lack of patience another trend I've noticed in finance has been the move towards more extreme investment strategies.  Most investors would be best served with a simple strategy, and most funds fail to beat simple strategies.  It's strange that every professional is pursuing the oddest and most complex approach out there as if doing simple there were too elementary for them.

I like to ski and I enjoy watching ski movies.  But ski movies have been changing in the last decade.  The pioneer of ski films is Warren Miller who made excellent movies that showcased skiers and locations that seemed accessible to anyone with determination and practice.  But that's changed in the last decade.  Now ski films are in a race to outdo each other with bigger mountains and more extreme locations.  If someone could shoot a movie skiing on the moon they would.  Even something formerly extreme like skiing in Antarctica is too passé now.  Instead viewers get to watch skiers on camels and in dune buggies trying to get to the most remote peaks in Africa or Asia.

Investing has followed a similar path.  Everyone wants to be in bankruptcy restructurings or turning retailers into hedge funds.  There are very few investors like Walter Schloss who are happy to continue implementing the same strategy year over year.  Even if Schloss' strategies work for a manager they eventually become boring for full time practitioners who want to move onto more exciting things.  Look at the evolution of any successful large investor.  How they started is not what they're doing now.  In most cases they've moved from buying passive stakes in companies to either actively attempting to influence management, or purchasing entire companies outright.  Ask any investment manager who used to invest in net-nets why they moved on, the answer is always either "too big" or "too boring".

It seems the grass is always greener no matter who you talk to.  Ask any business owner what they see themselves doing someday and you'll probably hear some variation of "quietly managing my investments".  They want to leave the stress of day to day business management to be involved at a more abstract level.  Anyone who's ever ran or owned a business can confirm that simply reading and buying stocks is much easier.

Yet aspiring investors want to take the opposite path.  After having years of abstract experience with business they somehow decide that "getting their hands dirty" is a good next step.  Exchanging annual reports, research, trading and industry gossip for endless meetings about strategy, positioning, growth initiatives and other corporate mumbo-jumbo.  Not to mention actual human interaction with the people doing the work to move a business forward.  Hundreds if not thousands of little fiefdoms with little warlords fighting each other for the status of running high profile projects or having the largest reporting groups.  Why anyone would aspire to this is beyond me, yet many do.

The grass is greener for everyone.  Business people want to get out of business and invest.  And investors want to throw themselves into the fray of buiness and take action.

What's the moral to this story?  The moral is that you need to beware before outsourcing your thinking to someone else.  Everyone in the market and business has different motivations, some visible, most invisible.  Some are playing for status, others for money, some for vengeance, or reasons unknown.

When following an investor into an investment realize that it's highly unlikely that both of your motivations are the same.  Even if both parties are satisfied with the investment outcome that doesn't mean motivations were aligned.  Searching for a catalyst in the predicted action some investment manager, or corporate manager is a fools errand.  People don't act the way anyone predicts, especially if they're aware of the prediction.

Think about who's money a person making a recommendation is investing.  Many recommend things for other people's money.  The managers share in the upside and very little of the downside.  This is compared to an individual who retains 100% of the upside but also 100% of the downside.  If I ever seem risk-averse consider that it's because I'm investing my own capital verses client capital.

If an investment manager losses all of their clients capital they are out of a job, but will find another one relatively easily, especially with the right brand on their resume.  If an investor losses their portfolio they don't have a backup plan, they are broke and in search of something to keep the lights on and stay off food stamps.

The best catalyst for value is something that's under priced to one who has the patience to hold it until value is realized.  If it sounds simple it's because it is.  Two components are needed, value and patience.  Buying anything at a low enough value and waiting always results in satisfactory returns.

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 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.

Interested in learning more about banks? Buy my book The Bank Investor's Handbook (Kindle and paperback available)

Disclosure: No position