The Value Fund is up 10.1% so far in 2013 and 18.0% over the past 12 months (both figures are after all fees and expenses). Our results have been held back somewhat by our sizable cash position which has been an anchor in this ever‐upward market. Fortunately, our cash has now been almost entirely deployed and the portfolio is likely to remain fully‐invested going forward.
Building the initial portfolio in a prudent and disciplined manner has taken some time. Longer than initially expected to be frank. However, preservation of capital is one of our key tenets of investing at GreensKeeper. Whereas many investors start with the upside when focusing on investment opportunities, we start by focusing on the risks involved. We would rather wait for very attractive opportunities to invest in great companies at attractive entry‐points rather than settling for mediocrity. And great companies rarely stumble badly so we wait patiently for opportunities to present themselves. Our purchases of shares in Western Union (NYSE:WU) and Coach, Inc. (NYSE:COH) are perfect examples:
Our preservation of capital mentality may cause us to miss out on some of the upside in the short‐term, especially in bull markets like the present, but long‐term our capital should be safe and continue to grow.
GreensKeeper Inaugural Annual Meeting – May 28, 2013
GreensKeeper hosted its first‐ever annual meeting several weeks ago and we had an excellent turnout. After a brief presentation on Value Investing and the Value Fund we opened up the floor to some Q&A. The quality of the questions coming from the audience was first‐rate.
One of our goals at GreensKeeper is to pass along the value investing principles that we were taught by our investing heroes (Graham, Fisher, Buffett and Munger). It seems that our clients are returning the favour by asking tough questions that keep us on our toes. Hopefully we held our own and we are already looking forward to next year’s annual gathering.
Apple, Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) – In the “Too Hard” Pile
As a consumer I love Apple, Inc. What’s not to like? They make fantastic products that are user‐friendly and often leading‐edge. At first glance the stock also appears attractive. The company has pricing power, market‐leading margins, a cult‐like legion of customers and a fortress‐like balance sheet with $145 billion of cash and equivalents. And the shares appear cheap – trading at less than 12x earnings. A value‐investor’s dream, correct? Perhaps not.
We decided to pass on Apple for a very simple reason – our inability to predict what the company will look like in the coming years. Rapidly changing technology is fantastic for consumers but not so much for investors. Change is the enemy of business.
In fiscal 2012 Apple’s flagship product – the iPhone – accounted for more than 60% of Apple’s operating profit. My personal favourite – the iPad ‐ represented another 10%‐15% of Apple’s operating profit for the year. In other words, three quarters of Apple’s operating profit comes from two products. The iPhone did not exist seven years ago. The iPad only came into existence in 2010.
Apple’s talented engineers and other employees notwithstanding, we believe that no one can tell what Apple will look like in five years. We know that we can not. Will competition cause fat profit margins to erode or lead to a loss of market share? Will the company go back to earning $6.20 per share as it did only five years ago or will earnings continue to grow from here? We simply don’t know with any degree of conviction. The industry simply changes too fast and in ways that we find impossible to predict. As a result, we can’t properly value the stock. In investing, there is no shame in saying that you don’t know and moving on. However, failing to recognize your limitations is likely to bring future pain.
Some would argue that Apple’s walled garden or “ecosystem” will keep the company’s customers tied to its products and coming back for more. We believe that in time the quality of Apple’s “moat” will reveal itself to be less secure than those who own the stock are assuming. A hot new smartphone (e.g. the Samsung Galaxy S4) may be all that it takes to lure away customers or at least put downward pressure on margins. Or maybe a competitor will invent a product that we haven’t even dreamed of yet.
Perhaps we are being too harsh on Apple’s future prospects and we acknowledge that the company may continue to be the market‐leader in premium smartphones, tablets and whatever comes next. Or Apple’s next products could be failures like the Apple Pippin and Newton. In either case, without a high degree of conviction about how things will evolve from here we choose to invest our money elsewhere. In a universe of investment opportunities there is no need to come to a definitive conclusion on the future direction of every stock. We simply choose to look for and invest in opportunities that are easier to predict.
Where To From Here?
Many (most?) investors are fascinated by the daily fluctuations of the stock market. CNBC, BNN and other business news programs fill countless hours of their programming days featuring “experts” that try and give meaning to recent market moves and predict the way forward. Investors are thus conditioned to search for meaning in Mr. Market’s every twitch. It is a Pavlovian‐like process.
As a result, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that we are asked countless times about our thoughts on the future direction of the markets and the basis for that opinion. What may surprise you is our answer. Judging from the long silence and puzzled look that usually follows our standard response it seems that it surprises others as well.
In the short‐term (a day, a week, a month or even a few years) we believe that the direction of the stock market is totally unpredictable. In other words, it can not be predicted consistently by anyone. Accordingly, we don’t spend any time trying to figure it out. It is simply a waste of time to try.
However, over the long‐term the stock market is upward trending. Inflation alone will increase the level of the S&P500 Index over time as it is stated in nominal (as opposed to real) dollars. In addition, companies generally pay out annual dividends that are less than they make in annual profits. The retained earnings that they reinvest in their business generally result in higher future earnings.
Instead of trying to predict the future direction of the stock market, at GreensKeeper we spend our time studying individual companies that are unloved (and hence cheap). We try and determine if they are cheap for a valid reason, ever hopeful that on occasion we find a situation where the market has overreacted to a passing phenomenon. Provided that our work is first‐rate, the company’s business of high quality and its balance sheet in good shape, our results should be more than satisfactory in both up and down markets. In fact, many of the stocks that we own were purchased with plenty of bad news already priced in. Consequently, on a relative basis they should outperform more in down markets.
The more interesting question to ask us is whether we prefer bull vs. bear markets. Bull markets like the one we are currently experiencing make most investors feel good as their investment portfolio grows with each passing month. Unfortunately it also makes it increasingly difficult to find bargains.
At GreensKeeper we prefer sideways to down markets. The reason is quite simple. Bear markets and volatility create panic and the flight response that causes people to sell at exactly the wrong time (when stocks are cheap). Bear markets nurture severe stock mispricing. Provided that we are positioned to act (we are) and can do so with equanimity (we can), fear is our friend. That said, we are very comfortable operating in both bull and bear markets and are ready to exploit opportunities when they present themselves.
Founder & President