About Me

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This is written with serious investors in mind, though sometimes they're just drafts in progress. I'm a former reporter, private investigator and institutional equity analyst who digs deep to find niche undervalued and undiscovered securities. I manage money for individuals, institutions and family offices via my business Long Cast Advisers. This blog is part decision-diary, part investment observations and part general musings about Philadelphia sports. It should not be viewed as a solicitation for business or a recommendation to buy or sell securities.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Brief Advice on Interviewing Management

I worked earlier in my career as a writer and reporter so I have some experience interviewing people, a skill that comes in handy when assessing management.

These are three short rules to interviewing management that I learned in my early 20's. It's very basic but essential so as to not waste anyone's time:

1. Ask open ended questions. The inverted way of saying this is: Do not EVER ask "yes" or "no" questions. We all do it. Get in the habit of not doing it, by whatever means necessary. The corollary to that is ...

2. Do not ask leading questions. It traps yourself in your own presumptuousness.

3. Silence is your friend. Don't fall prey to the knee jerk reaction of filling empty space and as much as you can, do NOT finish their answers. Invite them to continue to expound on whatever they are talking about.

I recently read somewhere a suggestion to not interview mgmt b/c it creates biases. I find that a mgmt interview puts qualitative skin around the financial bones so I try to be aware of flattery ("Oh, great question" etc) and all the other bullshit people put forward when they talk to me.

One of the ways I try to avoid those biases is by asking myself ...

"how often do you think they repeat this narrative? do they actually believe it or are they just used to saying it? how can I get them off this narrative and get them to talk about things on the 2nd level"

... insincerity is the enemy of revelation.

Management is such a critical component in the long term success / failure of small companies that not understanding their motivations, their perspective and their imaginations leaves too much to the whipsaw of quarterly results, about which, sometimes even they have no control. But they are responsible for the long term operational maneuverings of a company, and that is the essential key to a company's long term growth and profitability and an investors ability to compound wealth repeatedly.

We all have our own truths, in life and in business, and investing is simply a way to handicap them, to quantify them, to wager on them. I don't profess to know more than anyone nor to have answers about everything. But I have a bit of experience interviewing people and I just wanted to share one tool that I think is essential to learning more about an investment.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

EMH and the "CON" in Consensus

Anyone who spends time in business meetings, or on boards, or in any engagement with other people (including even sitting around a table and deciding what to have for dinner), probably recognizes that the efficiency of a meeting - ie the achievement through consensus of an optimal outcome - often declines as more people are involved.

And yet, one of the basic tenets of the efficient market hypothesis is that when it comes to market prices, a larger cohort achieves the most efficiency since the price aggregates information "dispersed amongst individuals within a society." (Recall that "efficient" in EMH isn't fitter / happier / more productive but is more a form of "consensus").

But why should a wider and larger base of participants yield more "efficient" results in the stock market, when so much evidence in other avenues of life exists to the contrary?

Perhaps we should think more productively about how often - and where - its likely to be wrong. I think that's a muscle investors regularly exercise.


The trouble with "consensus" - in a meeting and in the stock market - is that people are often anchored on the last comment, or the last stock price, or "what everyone else is doing" - and they mistake these data points as "sources of information" when actually they're forms of biases.

I recall reading once how the last thing Buffett looks at when analyzing a business is its price and chart, preferring to read all other filings first in order to make his own unbiased assessment divorced from the anchoring phenomenon.

It's a useful parable on how to not use consensus. Another is William Goldman's famous saying: "Nobody knows nothing." I say that to myself all the time.


The trend towards passive indexing - a massive trend - is supported by three things:

1. Efficient market hypothesis. If you can't beat the market, why bother trying?
2. Active management returns, which "on average" underperforms the market
3. The difficulty of identifying skilled asset managers who consistently outperform the market over long periods.

So the consequence of taking the EMH as fact has trillions of dollars in consequences.

As well, the "poor returns of active investors". But just as a reminder for a moment; investing is a zero sum game. There are two parties to every trade, a buyer and a seller. Reason therefore dictates that in aggregate, the average of all active investors, after fees, should underperform the market, roughly by the delta of fees.

Now, investors who want to follow a benchmark with the most undifferentiated and readily available solution can and should pursue the lowest cost index funds available to them. Anything else - anyone steered to a higher cost model - is a con job.

But investors who want a differentiated solution - who want an experience apart from and are willing to accept results that are different from the market - should either spend time learning how to invest or find someone with experience and skills who can do it for them.

The difficulty of finding that person, the difficulty of separating luck from skill, salespeople from super investors, wheat from chaff, etc. is the third and perhaps largest foundation of the trend towards passive investing.

It's so difficult even for institutions to identify high quality investment managers, and doubly so for individuals.

All in, you have this easy solution (passive investing) that solves / avoids the problem of having to find good managers yet still supports Wall Street's desire to separate you from your money. It plugs perfectly into the rubric of the industry as it already exists.


But here's where I think EMH and the passive trend have it all wrong and where the opportunity for good investors grows everyday: Finding high quality capital allocators is the only job within the entire investment ecosystem. I take an almost ideological view on this and I think its where investing shares at least as much with the practices of other art (and ethics) as it does with finance and accounting.

As a steward of capital seeking to invest in publicly traded companies I look for executives who allocate capital wisely. These CEO's and CFO's in turn look for managers who can manage capital (staff, equipment, etc) effectively. They in turn prize employees that convert their labor productively, and on and on.

It's the capital equivalent of turtles all the way down.

But since passive investing disabuses the notion that anyone can outperform the market, and EMH says that prices are all accurate, the conclusion is to ignore the search for better capital allocators and simply spread your bets and diversify.

Which is why the price for capital allocators is going down.

But the value of finding good capital allocators - from the CEO down to the line worker, from the endowment to the startup investment manager, from the QB to the special teams coach - is not going away. And for those who desire exceptional outcomes, it never will.

Over time, we who search for good capital allocators will get better at it while the competitive field diminishes.


I was going to write more about a specific idea I've been working on, but I'm still drawing information on it so I'll close with a brief comment on investing with incomplete information.

The other day I wrote about an inference drawn from one company to learn something incremental about another company. It helped to lock in gains and avoid losses for my clients and since a penny saved is a penny earned, I feel it justified my 1% fee.

The opposite of those inferences is acknowledging and valuing incomplete information when making investment decisions, and compensating for that with price and portfolio positioning.

I think good stockpickers, even when they dig down for that 3rd, 4th or nth piece of information, acknowledge the limits of what they know.

For this reason, I am cautious of detailed checklists, b/c it risks creating a false impression that on completing it, we'll have certainty. There never is certainly. I prefer a broad functionary checklist at the top of which I write in big letters: "What don't I know?"

Even as we dig a bit deeper and contextualize financial data with qualitative information, there are always going to be unknowns and surprises.

There's a value to what we don't know. I believe for "good investments" - and by that I mean investments in companies managed by "quality capital allocators" - time and patience is the best way to manage and offsets the risks of the unknowns. It seems an important concept that EMH totally ignores.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

FTLF and An Investment Manager's Responsibility to Their Clients

On November 1, I sent an email to a friend ...

"I have concerns about FTLF 3Q and shorter term traders should likely lock in gains"

... and I sold shares for clients. The genesis of the caution was my review of GNC's 3Q16 10Q, which stated ...

"[GNC's] Domestic franchise revenue decreased $2.4 million to $85.8 million in the current quarter compared with $88.2 million in the prior year quarter primarily due to lower wholesale sales associated with lower retail same store sales of our franchisees as well as the earlier timing of our annual franchise convention, which resulted in $6.3 million of lower sales in the current quarter as compared with the prior year quarter."

... if GNC domestic franchise sales were impacted by the timing of the convention at the end of June, it made me wonder how much of FTLF's astounding $8.7M in 2Q16 sales were pulled forward as a result of the convention.

So I looked at the timing of the convention in prior years and it didn't take long to see a trend ...

... hard to know precisely how much the "convention bump" impacts sales, but I know that 1Q tends to be the seasonally strongest (b/c of new year's resolutions) and it tapers from there. So I just combined 2Q & 3Q together to get a sense of the typical two-quarter figure relative to seasonally peak 1Q sales.

I saw that in a "normal" year (whatever that means) 2Q + 3Q sales ~ 1.6x to 1.8x of 1Q sales. I used those multiples to back into a presumed 3Q16 sales figure in FTLF and at the high end, it inferred $5M in 3Q16 sales.

My stomach dropped at that moment, about as much as the stock dropped when FTLF preannounced 3Q16 sales of $5.3M.

This being the first time such a "surprise" has happened while managing outside money, it got me wondering about how much information of this information I should share. I decided to do nothing, but it seemed like there was no right answer.

Ideas are the lifeblood of an investment manager. It is their passion, their purse and their intellectual capital. That I have been sharing some of them freely has been a function of my own interest in having an open diary into my thoughts, growth and maturation as an investment adviser managing outside capital.

But as I've grown my AUM and client base - and having just struggled with this uncomfortable situation - maybe it is time to rethink that model and morph towards something different, either a paid subscription / advisory or simply quarterly and annual letters for clients, as others investment mgrs do.

I'm not sure how this will change aspects of what I write about in the future, but over time, all things evolve and I imagine this blog will as well so as to avoid this situation in the future.

Either way, my sole commitment - my fiduciary responsibility - will always be first and foremost to my clients.

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All rights reserved. This blog is not a solicitation for business nor a recommendation to buy or sell securities. This blog is for entertainment purposes only. I am under no obligation to provide any updates on any position I write about here.