Yes, those of you who saw the title are probably thinking it looks very familiar ! It was actually a quote from Warren Buffett when he mentioned that you “pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus”. I must admit yours truly was quite stumped when I first came across this statement and was wondering what it meant and what implications it had. Initially, I thought he was referring to paying high prices for shares of companies and thereby agreeing with what everyone thought about the company – a form of herd behaviour. Later I realized I was quite wrong when I was thinking about the stock market and the full meaning of this statement hit me like a bolt of lightning from above.
In the context of this bear market, we can be considered to be experiencing one of the worst bear markets and recessions in at least the last 70 years. In fact, economists and market experts have termed this period as “The Great Recession” as many aspects mirror the Great Depression era of the 1930’s, with the exception of more globalization now, more co-ordinated stimulus efforts and more liquidity being pumped into each economy by respective central banks. Most investors have seen their portfolios literally melting like hot candle wax since October 2007 to the troughs seen in October 2008 and more recently, March 2009. Economists and government officials have gone on record stating that the recession does not seem to be lifting any time soon and there is a lack of clarity and visibility on how things will turn out. In Singapore, the MAS revised their GDP forecasts for Singapore for FY 2009 to a range of -6% to -9% (from -2% to -5% just a few months back). Exports are falling off a cliff and year-on-year GDP growth rate for 1Q 2009 has slumped 19% to make it the worst quarter since Singapore became independent.
So what does all this news portend for the retail investor ? Well, for starters, Mr. Market has become very pessimistic and is willing to pay very low prices for most companies, be they good or bad. This is where the phrase comes in – we tend to pay high “prices” (i.e. valuations) for a cheery consensus (clarity and certainty). The words in brackets help to explain the sentence in the context of how it should be viewed. Valuations are low when there is a lack of clarity, companies are reported declining profits and analysts are scrambling to value companies based on Price-to-book, rather than Price-to-Earnings. This is because earnings have become so uncertain that a different metric must be used, they argue. Price to book is “safer” in that it assumes a more conservative stance with respect to a company’s book value, which is usually the liquidation value of a company after accounting for its assets and liabilities; rather than volatile earnings which can fluctuate from period to period due to the severe slump in consumption and lack of financing options for growing the business.
Hence, an investor cannot have the best of both worlds. I repeat, it is impossible to have the cake and eat it too ! What I mean is that one cannot have clarity and certainty on a Company’s future growth and earnings, yet expect to pay a low price for it. A “cheery consensus” means that everyone is happy and satisfied with a company’s future, and thus when this happens, we inevitably end up paying a very high “price” for it, meaning margin of safety would be lesser; as compared to when the future is cloudy and murky and uncertainty reigns.
The lessons one should take away from this is that uncertainty is the friend of the buyer of long-term values, after assessing the corporate strategies and financial fundamentals of the company in question of course. Uncertainty is the only guarantee in the stock markets and as investors, we deal with uncertainty ALL THE TIME. Every earnings report is uncertain, as is the ability of a company to continue to pay dividends and grow earnings. What investors need to realize is that instead of avoiding uncertainty, we have to manage it actively and learn to live with it. We have to learn to pay low prices for a certain tolerable level of uncertainty, and to be able to bravely invest even when the future is highly uncertain (as it is as of this writing).
How can one mitigate against the risks of being wrong about uncertainty and buying a dud company ? I for one use qualitative metrics such as Management experience, how they navigated previous downturns, their track record over 5-6 years in growing the business, their conservatism (or aggressiveness) as well as how they allocate capital. To give some pertinent examples, I will use Tat Hong and Swiber to illustrate.
Swiber recently bought back some of the company’s shares at a price above S$1.00 when it could have used the cash to fund its capex program. Now it is fervently selling off OBT and also part-ownership of its vessels (Swiber Victorious and Swiber Chai) to raise more funds as the downturn intensifies. This is what I call a “horse behind cannon” move as Management should have anticipated the global credit crunch more astutely and begun to conserve cash instead of using it on share repurchases at much higher prices than the current market price. To me, this is a classic case of poor allocation of capital on the part of Management and also an inability to properly manage a crisis, reflecting inexperience. This is not surprising since Swiber is only a 13-year old company established in 1996, and was only recently listed in 2006.
Tat Hong, by contrast, has shown much resilience in its business model as it switches from an equipment sales company to a rental company. Management has about 30 years of experience in this industry and have been through crises such as the Asian Financial Crisis and the Dot.Com bust. Through such crises and economic downturns, they have learnt how to conserve cash and protect profits from eroding quickly. The experience from past recessions has served them in navigating the current rough seas, and even though they are not totally unscathed, at least I view them as being more astute in Management capital than Swiber.
So the key to investing successfully is to observe Management’s quality and to avoid paying too high a price for a “cheery consensus”. Learn to expect uncertainty and to invest because of it, as that is the only way one can lock in low valuations and achieve one’s desired margin of safety.