The title of this post was actually meant to reflect my thoughts on the time required to mull over and consider a potential investment. It is also meant to be a “break” from the heavy analyses going on in prior posts on MTQ and SIA Engineering. There is another analysis coming up and planned for Boustead’s FY 2011 results. This post is to summarize some of the thoughts I have gone through while taking bus/MRT recently, and follows closely on my previous post on “Pace of Research”. I guess you can say that I would recommend reading both posts back to back, as this post is sort of a “follow-up” to the previous one.
So what exactly does the title mean? While pace of research was meant to assess how dedicated one should be while researching a company, to the extent of whether he can allocate sufficient time to dig deep into a company’s financials, stakeholders and business model; period of contemplation addresses the issue of how long one should study a company before deciding if sufficient research and study had been taken. This would naturally translate into a reasoned decision to purchase shares in the Company. The problem is that different companies have different characteristics, and I admit that some do require a lot more monitoring and following up than others, purely due to not just the nature of the business but also the way the company is run. Add to that strategic management decisions, varied management styles and an evolving business model and you get some very subjective views on how long one should evaluate a company before committing. I will now attempt to state, broadly, how much time one should adequately devote before making an informed decision.
Note that the default conditions for investment will be required, such as good margins, good and consistent free cash flow, steady earnings and decent ROE. What differs is the nature of the business and the type of industry the Company is in, as I shall elaborate.
For companies in cyclical industries, one has to at least observe one entire economic cycle relating to that industry before deciding when, or whether, to buy some shares. Examples would be companies in construction or property like Tat Hong or Capitaland, where the housing boom/bust cycle would determine if valuations are demanding or not. Therefore, the period one should take should stretch into years if one wishes to fully understand the business cycle and determine when to make a purchase. Of course, history can always serve as a guide but the future may not always repeat itself in the same way. I would think these companies are best avoided unless you can time the cycle very well and go in at the point of lowest valuation, and just before the economic uptick.
Cash-Rich Companies in declining industries
Companies such as GRP would qualify, as they are very cash-heavy but are mired in a business which is declining and competitive. One should observe such companies to the extent that they actually plan to do something with the cash hoard, or if they undertake actions (e.g. M&A) to improve the business model. Alternatively, the investor could also study the company as a yield play, with potential to generate good FCF even in a declining industry. The time period in this case could be anything from a few months (for research) to perhaps one or two years to observe and study Management’s decisions.
Companies in new industries with low barriers to entry (many new entrants)
These are companies which have had a first-mover advantage with respect to a new and emerging industry; and therefore are enjoying supernormal profits, margins and very good cash flow. Some examples may include palm oil, bio-fuels and solar panels which are at the cutting edge of technology. However, more time needs to be spent observing such companies as many new entrants, seeing the huge profits being made by the incumbent, may scramble to grab a piece of the pie as well. The ever-changing economics and dynamics within the industry would require a longer-term study before any commitment is made. In addition, there is also not much history to fall back on as these industries may be relatively new.
Fast Growth Companies
Fast growth companies are those which are aggressively expanding, conquering new territories, opening new offices in new countries, and generally engaging in active M&A or corporate actions. They usually do not pay a dividend as profits are reinvested to grow the business. For such companies, one should observe only as long as one should in order to gain comfort on their plans, and current growth strategy. Once an understanding is formed, a position could be taken up without waiting for too long. Of course, one should also watch out for valuations – growth companies usually trade at higher valuations as a lot of potential future growth is already factored in. Investors may wish to discount for this growth in order to maintain some margin of safety.
Stalwarts and Stable Conglomerates
The final category of companies which I would like to comment on are the stalwarts, or stable blue-chips, as well as conglomerates. These would include ST Engineering and SingTel for the former and Keppel Corporation for the latter. SIA Engineering would also probably fall into this category. This type of companies probably require the least amount of monitoring and observation, as they already have an entrenched market position, steady earnings and decent cash flows. One would simply need to understand the business and be comfortable with the financials and numbers before deciding to invest, and this should not take a whole lot of time.
To summarize, the length of time taken should not be inordinately long, otherwise one may miss out of very good opportunities to accumulate shares in well-run companies, as well as miss out on the compounding effects of their investments growing over the years. Yet, one should not be unduly hasty in committing to a purchase before one has done sufficient research, otherwise the consequences could be disastrous and detrimental to one’s wealth.