Category Archives: Investing

Some Thoughts on Investing from My Recent Interview

In the first few years of this blog I posted occasionally, but still much more than the last few years, on investing and economics. Now I mainly post on those topics on the Curious Cat Investing and Economics blog (see how the name and that practice are in sync with each other?).

I was recently interviewed about investing strategies and thoughts and decided to share that with the readers of this blog. Some excerpts from the interview:

I have maintained a portfolio that I call the sleep well portfolio for 10 years (started April 2005). I hardly have any turnover (under 2% annually I think) and hold stocks I would be comfortable locking in a vault for 10 years. The largest holding there is Apple, followed by Google; I also still really like Google as a long term investment. The stocks in the portfolio for the entire period are: Google, Amazon, Toyota, Intel, Pfizer…

We got out of the “Too Big to Fail” crisis, but have not addressed the core problems – and likely have made them much worse. We didn’t take the opportunity to address the financial system risks created by the actions of “Too Big to Fail” banks. And it seems to me we have left the central banks in a very vulnerable position. They have already played strategies that previously seemed impossible due to the position they were placed in, and if it happens again, what are they going to be able to do? I think the risk of massive economic failure is large enough to consider in an investment portfolio.

How would you suggest an investor guard against the potential for a massive economic disaster?

John Hunter: My main thoughts on that are to greatly value companies that are likely to weather economic calamity greater than any since the great depression. Having tons of cash obviously helps (Apple, Google…). Having a business model that puts a company in a position to make money (even if it is a lot less than they are making today) if the economy does extremely poorly, is also good (Apple, Google, AbbVie…).

It is possible for the economy to be hit so hard Apple, Google, etc. lose money. But if that happens, I believe huge numbers of other companies are going to be out of business, and the economy will be in shambles…

The sleep well portfolio has beaten the S&P 500 by about 220 basis points (on an annual rate of return basis) (see details on how marketocracy calculates returns – they reduce returns by 200 basis points to simulate investment adviser fees). The interview includes much more details as well as links to posts on my investing blog going into more detail.
Continue reading

Toyota Posts Record Profit: Splits $15 million in Pay and Bonus for top 21 Executives

After posting record profits of $17.9 billion Toyota proposes to increase the pay and bonus for the top 21 executives to $14.9 million. That is not as you might expect just the increase in the bonus to the CEO. That is the entire pay and bonus for the top 21 executives. That places all 21 together below the top 50 CEO paydays in the USA.

Toyota’s net income for the year surged 89.5%. While the profits are partially due to good management at Toyota the decline in value of the yen also greatly aided results.

Management Pockets A 19% Raise As Toyota Racks Up Records Profits

Toyota proposed 1.52 billion yen ($14.9 million) in combined compensation and bonuses to 21 directors, including President Akio Toyoda, in a notice to shareholders Tuesday. The Toyota City, Japan-based company paid 1.28 billion yen the previous fiscal year.

By comparison, total pay for union workers increased 8.2 percent [this was linked to an article as a source but the link was broken, so I removed it] on average from last fiscal year. The carmaker granted the union’s request for workers’ average bonus to rise to 2.44 million yen, the equivalent of 6.8 months of salary.

The company forecasts a 2% slip in net profit to $17.5 billion for 2015.

Toyota continues to generate cash flow extremely well and has over $20 billion in cash at the end of their 2014 FY. They are also increasing the dividend to stockholders and buying back more stock.

Less than a handful of USA CEOs that is took more from their companies treasuries than all 21 off the Toyota leaders take together led their company to greater earnings than Toyota (only a few companies earned more: Apple, Google, Exxon…). The thievery practiced by senior executives in the USA is immoral and incredibly disrespectful to the other workers at the company and the stockholders.

ExxonMobil did earn more and their CEO took $28.1 million. I think Chevron and Wells Fargo may have earned more than Toyota with a CEOs taking $20.2 and $19.3 million respectively.

Alan Mulally, Ford CEO, took $23.2 million while the company earned $7 billion. If you can ignore his massive and disrespectful taking what he doesn’t deserve he has been an acceptable CEO in other ways.

Continue reading

Kleptocrat CEOs and Their Apologists

I am disgusted by the lack of ethical and moral fiber of CEO’s (along with their cronies and apologists) in the USA. This lack comes out in many ways (see all the scandals at the too-big-to-fail banks etc.) but the problem I am upset about now is the increasingly commonplace kleptocrat behavior.

CEOs, and their cronies, were well paid decades ago. As their greed about their pay got to be unethical Peter Drucker started to speak out against their ethical failures. As those abuses became more extreme he increased his objections.

What Peter Drucker railed against was minor compared to the ethical meltdowns we allow in those serving in executive positions today.

Bloomberg study on What CEOs are Taking From Corporate Treasuries

Across the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of companies, the average multiple of CEO compensation to that of rank-and-file workers is 204, up 20 percent since 2009

The average ratio for the S&P 500 companies is up from 170 in 2009, when the financial crisis reduced many compensation packages. Estimates by academics and trade-union groups put the number at 20-to-1 in the 1950s, rising to 42-to-1 in 1980 and 120-to-1 by 2000.

These CEOs act like kleptocrat dictators, taking what they can and challenging anyone to do anything about it. As with the kleptocrats they surround themselves with apologists and spread around the looting (from corporate treasuries for the CEO and the countries for the dictators) to those that support their kleptocrat ways.

Extremely Excessive Executive pay is so critical I classify it as a New Deadly Disease. I have discussed the problems created by allowing such morally and ethically bankrupt people in leadership positions: CEO’s Taking What They Don’t Deserve (2011)CEOs Plundering Corporate Coffers (2008)Tilting at Ludicrous CEO Pay (2007). In 2005 I spelled out some of the problems we face when we have kleptocrats running our companies:

The excesses are so great now they will either force companies to:

  1. take huge risks to justify such pay and then go bankrupt when such risks fail (and some will succeed making it appear, to some, that the pay was deserved rather than just the random chance of taking a large risk and getting lucky)
  2. make it impossible to compete with companies that don’t allow such excesses and slowly go out of business to those companies that don’t act so irresponsibly
  3. hope that competitors adopt your bad practice of excessive pay (this does have potential as most people are corrupted by power, even across cultural boundaries). However, my expectation is the competitive forces of capitalism going forward are going to make such a hope unrealistic. People will see the opportunity provided by such poor management and compete with them.

As long as the pay packages were merely large, and didn’t effect the ability of a company to prosper that could continue (slicing up the benefits between the stakeholders is not an exact science). The excesses recently have become so obscene as to become unsustainable.

Continue reading

The Market Discounts Proven Company Leadership Far Too Quickly

Developing a strong executive leadership culture is not a short term effort. It isn’t based on one person. It almost never deteriorates quickly. Yet markets continually overact to minor blips on the long term success of companies. I think this is mainly due to a failure to appreciate systems and a failure to appreciate variation along with plenty of other contributing factors.

The market’s weakness does provide investment opportunities. Though taking advantages of them is much more difficult than spotting a general weakness. While excellent management almost never becomes pitiful overnight (regardless of how often talking heads would have you believe) business can change very quickly due to rapidly changing market conditions. Avoiding the purchases when the underlying business has sustained a significant blow that excellent management will deal with but which will reduce the value of the enterprise going forward is key to taking advantage of the market’s silly overreaction to bad news (or even calling things “bad news” that are not actually bad just not as awesome as some were hoping for).

My positive opinion of Toyota’s management has continued for a long time. A few years ago an amazing number of people were all excited about the “decline of Toyota” and wrote about how Toyota’s ways had to change. I wrote at the time was this is needless hysteria and if Toyota just focused a bit more on applying the Toyota’s management methods they would be in great shape. The problems were due to Toyota’s mistakes in practicing the Toyota Production System not in a weakness of those practices.

Looking at a chart of Toyota’s stock price from 2007 to today it peaks at about $137 in January 2007 and bottoms at $58 in early 2009 and now is at $96. Toyota’s stock price has been priced richly due to respect for management and consistently strong cash flow. As it fell below $75 there you no longer had to pay a premium for excellent management, but that management was still there. I like getting bargains when I buy stocks. One of the things I have learned I am too focused on bargains and I should be more willing to accept less of a bargain to get great management systems – so I have adjusted, and have improved my results. When I can get a great bargain and great management it is wonderful, though sadly a rare occurrence. Toyota’s price now seems reasonable, but not a huge bargain.

The market continually gets overly excited by either actual problems or perceived problems. I wrote about this happening with Netflix 2 years ago. Netflix made some mistakes and faced some tough business issues. The evidence of sound, sensible, effective management vastly outweighed the evidence for management failure – yet there were hundreds of articles about the pitiful failure of Netflix management.

Continue reading

Continual Feeding

I like growing things. I think it is part the connection to system thinking I have had since I was a kid. I like finding ways to leverage my effort so that I put in a bit of thought and effort and then get to enjoy the fruits of that effort for a long time. This idea also guides my investing approach.

I planted a vegetable garden in my yard a few years ago. My strategy was to find methods that gained me what I wanted (yummy food) without much effort required from me. I don’t want to deal with persnickety plants. Basically I composted leaves, grass and yard waste. I put that into the garden spot and put in some seeds and small plants to see what would happen. I watered things a bit early on and if we had very little rain for a long time. But in general my attitude was, if I could get success with some plants with this level of effort that was good. Only if nothing would grow would I bother with more involvement from me.

photo of wineberries

Wineberries in my backyard.

Luckily it turned out great. Lots of great tomatoes and peppers and peas and beans and cucumbers and more, and very little effort from me.

I actually even had more success with wineberries. I didn’t even have to plant them (some bird probably seeded them for me and I just let them grow). It was wonderful for several years. Then I had a huge area with huge amounts of tasty berries: it was wonderful. Sadly then birds started to eat them before I go them and I got far fewer good berries than before. The berries were so good I went to effort to keep the birds from devastating my reward (to some success but with much effort). Oh well, I didn’t really mean to get onto that – those berries were just so great.

Now I am living in Malaysia and growing plants on my balcony. It is wonderful in many ways but one of the issues is I have to continually water the plants. Even though we get a great deal of rain, not nearly enough reaches the plants (and also the dirt doesn’t retain the water well – especially given the small volume of the containers). So if I want the fresh vegetables I have to continually water the plants. This goes against my desire to plant seeds and let me sit back and enjoy the bounty of my limited efforts (ok it is still pretty limited).

Continue reading

Taking What You Don’t Deserve, CEO Style

The excesses to which CEO’s and their board buddies go to in taking from corporate treasuries what they don’t deserve continues to amaze me. The level to which the bad behavior is accepted is apparent in the lack of progress at dealing with those that are taking what they have no moral right to. As shouldn’t have to be explained (but maybe does) leadership isn’t about avoiding being indicted. The levels to which these people take from the organization they are suppose to be leading is a very sad commentary on our leaders. They act as though the corporation exists to enrich them, and their friends, personally: and all the other stakeholders are just leeches on the system.

CEO’s deserve to be paid well. As they were in 1970. As their abuses (with the support of subservient boards) became greater and greater the outrage increased. Peter Drucker moved from defending highly paid CEOs (say 20 or even 30 times the median employee pay) to expressing dismay at the massively excessive pay packages in the 1990s (which were much lower than that taken by the current crop of self important leeches).

Taking such excessive amounts from the corporate treasury is innately dis-respectful to all other employees (though usually they through large amounts of cash at those they have to see often which bring them into the camp of those taking instead of the masses being taken from). Whatever nice words they use to try and give an illusion that they respect those they work with (or their stockholders, suppliers, customers, communities…) doesn’t change their disrespectful actions.

Company CEO 2010 Pay
   
5 year pay CEO % of 2010 Earnings total employees
UnitedHealth Group Stephen Hemsley $101,960,000 $120,470,000 2.2% 87,000
Qwest Communications Edward Mueller $65,800,000 $75,000,000 company lost $55 million *
Walt Disney Robert Iger $53,320,000 $147,080,000 1.3% 156,000
Express Scripts George Paz $51,520,000 $100,210,000 4.4% 13,170
Coach Lew Frankfort $49,450,000 $137,870,000 6.7% 8,200
Polo Ralph Lauren Ralph Lauren $43,000,000 $155,250,000 9.0% 24,000
Gilead Sciences John Martin $42,720,000 $204,240,000 1.5% 4,000

Executive pay from Fortune, annual earnings from Google Finance, employee totals from Yahoo Finance. * Quest was merged into CenturyTel and I can’t find Quest employee data.

This problem is far worse in the USA than anywhere else. Some CEO’s have become jealous and urged that they be allowed to take more so they can not feel so sad about how much less they make. And so companies from other countries are moving in the wrong direction. The USA continues to move so quickly away from any sense of propriety however that they seem to be gaining on the rest of the world for how badly we can do in this area. There are of course, companies in the USA that don’t believe in letting the CEO treat themselves to whatever they want. Costco is a great example of this. That CEO respects his fellow employees and customers. We need more outrage at those CEOs that refuse to lead and instead just seek to take whatever loot they can before they leave.

Related: Another Year of CEO’s Taking Hugely Excessive Pay (2007)CEO’s Castles and Company PerformanceHonda’s top 36 employees received $13 million total (2006)

Continue reading

When Companies Can Treat You Like an ATM, Many Will Do So

The End of Refrigeration

One small custom chip, some relays, a transformer, a couple of heat sinks, and a bunch of passive parts. Maybe a build cost of $20-30 or so? But GE’s price to me was $250, plus $150 for the 20 minutes it took to pull out the old one and swap in the new one.

Paying $400 for a big piece of physical gear plus a couple hours of labor didn’t bother me. Paying $400 for a primitive circuit board and a few minutes to plug it in does.

Bottom line: $400 because a $2.02 Song Chuan 832 Series 30 A SPDT 12 VDC Through Hole General Purpose Heavy Duty Power Relay burned out.

This is a combination of companies 1) not being customer focused, 2) short term thinking, 3) very ologopolistic markets (very little competition). So when you are looking at this from the view of providing the best system, for in this case refrigeration, it is not a very difficult solution. You would want to minimize loss (have parts last) and in case they don’t minimize replacement cost. You would design the entire system so the parts that do burn out are easily replaceable and cheap and ideally notify you which part is broken (without the need for expensive contractor visits).

However, if your goal is to maximize company profit it is easy to see how you would develop a system that rips off the customer (very expensive part replacement, huge text messaging fees…) and attempts to capitalize on very little competition in the marketplace and customers that cannot reasonable analyze the system to see how they will be penalized by choosing your very expensive to maintain equipment. It is what they seem to teach in business school – take as much advantage of your customers as you can get away with. I prefer the Jeff Bezos school of thinking

There are two kinds of companies, those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less

It is a vastly different mentality to try to charge customers less as Amazon does (rather than say the practices of: Verizon, Bank of America, AT&T or Comcast). Your organization has to focused not on your quarterly profit (and if you are think kind of company, probably your personal bonus targets) but in serving your customers well, and in continually improve the value you provide to customers. And the company takes a share of the value just as all other stakeholders do (customer, employees [not just those in the c-suite)], suppliers, society…). Not only do I want to be a customer of this kind of company, I want to be a stockholder.

Related: Drug Prices in the USAWorse Hotel Service the More You PayCustomer Service is Important$8,000 per gallon printer inknew deadly diseases (often companies rely on bad “intellectual property” policies to restrict customer options)

6 New Kiva Loan to Manafacturing Entrepreneurs

I have been a big fan of Kiva for quite some time, and have written about it previously: Kiva – Giving Entrepreneurs an Opportunity to Succeed, Thanksgiving: Micro-financing Entrepreneurs. I made 6 new loans today to manufacturing entrepreneurs in the USA (and Mexico); Tajikistan; Nicaragua; Armenia; and 2 in El Salvador. The webcast above shows Armen Tsaghikyan in Armenia. It does seem like his process maybe could use a benefit from a bit of application of lean manufacturing ideas.

It is great to be able to help out people whether it is providing useful information (like I hope my web site and blog do) or a small loan of capital that allows some capital improvements. Many of the loans through Kiva amount to providing a loan to get additional supplies (often they have very limited capital). But my favorite loans are those that allow for purchases of new equipment that will make them more efficient.

It is easy to help out yourself; you can loan as a little as $25. The 10 members of the Curious Cat team have made 292 loans for a total of $12,000. Comment with the link to your Kiva page and I will add a link on Curious Cat Kivans.

Related: Kiva Fellows Blog: Nepalese Entrepreneur SuccessMore Kiva Entrepreneur Loans: Kenya, Honduras, Armenia…100th Entrepreneur Loan

Warren Buffett’s 2010 Letter to Shareholders

Warren Buffett has published his always excellent annual shareholder letter. His letters, provide excellent investing insight and good management ideas.

Yearly figures, it should be noted, are neither to be ignored nor viewed as all-important. The pace of the earth’s movement around the sun is not synchronized with the time required for either investment ideas or operating decisions to bear fruit. At GEICO, for example, we enthusiastically spent $900 million last year on advertising to obtain policyholders who deliver us no immediate profits. If we could spend twice that amount productively, we would happily do so though short-term results would be further penalized. Many large investments at our railroad and utility operations are also made with an eye to payoffs well down the road.

At Berkshire, managers can focus on running their businesses: They are not subjected to meetings at headquarters nor financing worries nor Wall Street harassment. They simply get a letter from me every two years and call me when they wish. And their wishes do differ: There are managers to whom I have not talked in the last year, while there is one with whom I talk almost daily. Our trust is in people rather than process. A “hire well, manage little” code suits both them and me.

Cultures self-propagate. Winston Churchill once said, “You shape your houses and then they shape you.” That wisdom applies to businesses as well. Bureaucratic procedures beget more bureaucracy, and imperial corporate palaces induce imperious behavior. (As one wag put it, “You know you’re no longer CEO when you get in the back seat of your car and it doesn’t move.”) At Berkshire’s “World Headquarters” our annual rent is $270,212. Moreover, the home-office investment in furniture, art, Coke dispenser, lunch room, high-tech equipment – you name it – totals $301,363. As long as Charlie and I treat your money as if it were our own, Berkshire’s managers are likely to be careful with it as well.

At bottom, a sound insurance operation requires four disciplines… (4) The willingness to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained. Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. The urgings of Wall Street, pressures from the agency force and brokers, or simply a refusal by a testosterone-driven CEO to accept shrinking volumes has led too many insurers to write business at inadequate prices. “The other guy is doing it so we must as well” spells trouble in any business, but none more so than insurance.

I don’t agree with everything he says. And what works at one company, obviously won’t work everywhere. Copying doesn’t work. Learning from others and understanding what makes it work and then determining how to incorporate some of the ideas into your organization can be valuable. I don’t believe in “Our trust is in people rather than process.” I do believe in “hire well, manage little.” Exactly what those phrases mean is not necessarily straight forward. I believe you need to focus on creating a Deming based management system and that will require educating and coaching managers about how to manage such a system. But that the management decisions about day to day operations should be left to those who are working on the processes in question (which will often be workers, that are not managers, sometimes will be supervisors and managers and sometimes will be senior executives).

Related: Too often, executive compensation in the U.S. is ridiculously out of line with performance.Management Advice from Warren BuffetGreat Advice from Warren Buffett to University of Texas – Austin business school students2004 Warren Buffet Report
Continue reading

Six Sigma Interview with Jack Welch

The short video includes some interesting points by Jack Welch on six sigma. GE was a huge company and did plenty of things that could be criticized. But often those criticizing take it much to far and disregard the sensible things GE understood and was doing well.

Quotes by Jack Welch: “variation is evil” “Will six sigma companies get more valuation in the marketplace? Not unless they produce results. You can’t put up a slogan that says we are a six sigma company and think the pe is going to move.”

Related: 3M CEO on Six SigmaManagement Advice FailuresNew Rules for Management? No!Has Six Sigma been a failure?