On the Job With Simple As… My Research Process
When I did my Q&A thread a while back I promised at least one person that I would share my general research process. So here you go...
Every analyst has his/her own way of conducting due diligence. There certainly is no one correct way to come to an investment decision, however, I’d argue that there are certainly several wrong ways, but that is neither here nor there for the purposes of this post. What I am going to describe in this write-up is my personal routine for conducting due diligence. As a disclaimer I would like to state that this is in no way a comprehensive list and my process can vary significantly based on the business and other factors. So, if you use this template to get up to speed on a business and end up missing something crucial don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Also, I think it is necessary to point out that my “process” has evolved significantly since I started managing a bit of money in 2008 and has progressed even more since beginning as an analyst. Howard Marks said, “[An] Investment approach must be intuitive and adaptive rather than fixed and mechanistic.” I do not think the importance of this belief can be overstated.
Throughout the write-up I will link to tools that have influenced me or that I think are great resources. In fact, at least one of them is listed twice because I think it is just that great of a resource.
The Investment Process
I’m going to begin by listing some resources that I believe were instrumental in helping me to learn to think like an investor and/or gave me a solid understanding of economics/markets, etc.
Economics in One Lesson
Economic Principles by Ray Dalio
Valuation by McKinsey
Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders
The Most Important Thing Illuminated
You Can Be a Stock Market Genius
The Little Book That Still Beats the Market
Margin of Safety
Fooling Some of the People All of the Time
Mike Price at Columbia ‘06
Fundamentals of Value Investing by Bruce Greenwald
Hedge Fund: The Investment Life Cycle
Anatomy of the 10-K
I’ll consider this post a success if you monkeys understand the two simple main points I’ve tried to relay…
1) You need to think independently of everyone else and come to your own conclusions. Howard Marks said it best, “Unconventionality shouldn’t be a goal in itself, but rather a way of thinking.” In short, you have to be different and better.
2) You should know your target company better than your dominant hand knows your Johnson.
To illustrate these points, I have a short but sweet second list of general resources that may seem odd for a fundamental equity guy to recommend. However, I believe you’ll understand why I consider them so important if you really think about it and maybe even agree with me.
Before I get in to the meat of the write-up I’d like to point out that I make use of nearly all SEC filings, Investor Days, Conference Call transcripts, Industry Reports, Industry and customer contacts, etc. There is a wealth of information out there about your target, go find it… [Part of what makes a good analyst is being able to find places to look for information. Use your imagination.]
What drives revenue?
The first thing I want to know about a business is how it makes money and, to dig a little deeper, how it defines it’s revenue - producing segments. If you can’t get a handle on how the business drives its revenue then it’s probably not a good idea to invest. Even further, how a management team divides up a business provides a great deal of insight in to what management thinks is important and how they are situating the company competitively for the present and future.
If you don’t understand how a business drives revenue then what do you know about the business? Essentially nothing.
What are you doing when you make an investment in a business? You are taking an ownership stake in a company based on the understanding that the operators of the business will execute a plan to provide you returns on your investment greater than your required return. Therefore, understanding what the operators of the business think is important and how they plan to compete in the marketplace is very important and should be one of the first things you understand about a business.
A quick, easy and not completely relevant example is Google. It isn’t completely relevant because Google doesn’t segment its business this way, but I think it will get my point across.
Google’s main revenue driver is its search/advertising business. You can call this its “bread and butter” or “cash cow”. A cash cow is usually characterized by high margins, solid returns on capital and strong free cash flow, and high barriers to entry – Warren would call this a durable competitive advantage. You generally want a cash cow because the large amounts of free cash flow it produces has the ability to organically fund other “growth” segments/areas of the business. Sometimes you get lucky and the cash cow for a business is strong enough and has enough run- way that it is a compelling investment in and of itself. This certainly seems to be the case for Google at the moment as its stranglehold on mobile is only going to get stronger while there are certainly a lot of improvements for Larry & co. to make in the area that can provide strong returns. However, more often than not there just isn’t a whole lot of room for growth/improvement in the cash cow that can realistically provide solid returns on its own going forward. This is when you need the growth segments financed by the cash cow to keep pushing the company forward. For the purpose of this exercise in mental masturbation we are going to assume that the company’s “Google Glass” division and “Driverless Car” division are the growth segments for Google. Each division is being financed internally by the free cash flow from the search/advertising business and each is – theoretically – well positioned to lead its respective market and, as such, may be considered a catalyst for multiple expansion, etc.
[Once again, this example was purely an exercise in mental masturbation and should be treated as such. I am fully aware that there are factual inaccuracies in the example as it relates to real-life Google. Therefore, there is no need to point them out.]
By now you should really have an understanding of how the business drives its revenue and a general idea of the way management sees the company competitively based on the way it segments the business. Which happens to allow me to transition nicely in to…
At this point I’m going to take what I know about the company’s revenue drivers and management’s competitive mindset and judge the viability of each in the marketplace. Every company discloses a list of competitors, but sometimes the list isn’t that good and even if it is I don’t like to take anything at face value so having an understanding of revenue drivers and management’s mindset allows me to hand pick a universe of competitors.
After I determine my target’s competitors I can begin to get a handle on how a business should operate in the space in respect to competitors and customers.
Essentially I am asking three questions:
1) How does the market see my target?
2) How do competitors see my target?
3) How do customers see my target?
By now I should have an understanding of how my target is seen from most of the interested parties, namely the market, competitors and customers. While I’m answering these questions I’m developing an understanding for how the industry works as whole and am starting to think about how it is changing and what it may look like in the future.
If you take a step back and look at what I’ve got floating around in my head at this point… I know how the business drives revenue as well as where it is competitively situated. I also have an idea as to where the industry is headed as well as a general understanding of how management thinks of the business going forward. And, almost by accident – but, not really – my research has given me the same general understanding of my target’s competitors. I know how each competitor drives revenue as well as how each management team is situating its business going forward.
My thesis is probably starting to form at this point, but I’m going to have to keep calm and contain my excitement because there is still too much work ahead of me to get distracted. This leads me to one of the most important parts of – as well as possibly my favorite – my research process…
Why is management so important to me?
As I previously stated, when you invest in a business you are taking an ownership stake in the company with the understanding that the operators of the business will execute a plan to provide you returns on your initial investment that are greater than your cost of capital.
Therefore, in my opinion, in order to make an investment you not only need to be confident in management’s plan going forward, but also in the management’s ability to execute that plan in a volatile and perpetually changing environment.
I divide my analysis of management in to two areas:
1) Structure and Incentives
By structure of management I mean that I look at who makes up the BoD and what each person brings to the table amongst other things as well as the operators of the business and what they bring to the table… amongst other things. Larry Robbins’ great letter about HMA is a perfect resource to learn about this stuff. A copy was floating around WSO not too long ago so you should be able to find it on the site.
Management’s incentive is pretty straight - forward. I want to make sure that management’s compensation structure aligns closely with what I want as a shareholder as well as my time frame for the possible investment.
Analyzing management’s decision-making is where it gets fun and interesting! Basically, I’m judging management’s capital allocation decisions based on realized returns and future positioning. If I’m feeling really bold I may throw together a bare- bones operating model and run the company over the past few years to see if I would’ve done anything differently.
By this point I’m going to have an idea of how confident I am in a management team’s ability to execute on its strategy. Industry environments are constantly changing as is the overall economy and an exceptional management team can do a lot to position a company for continued success as well as limit downside risk.
My thesis is continuing to come together and now I’m going to sit down and talk with my boss and/or the most senior analyst on the team about what I have so far. This update is not mandatory or necessary, but I like to hear other people’s opinions and be as intellectually honest as possible. I may even talk to a few guys in the industry whose opinions I trust. As we should all know, “You gotta know what you don’t know.”
Right now I’m far enough along in my thesis that I’m committing to really get down and dirty in this thing. What I’m going to do now is dissect the financials in pretty great detail.
Basically, I’m going to tear the company to pieces line- item by line- item as deep as I can, going back usually 5 to 7 years. Anything that catches my eye, either good or bad, will go on a list of questions for management that I have been compiling since the beginning of my research.
This isn’t a post about financial statement analysis and it’s already unbearably long so I will refrain from going in to detail, but as always, will post some resources I’ve gotten a lot of insight from.
By this point you should really have a good grasp on the company’s accounting procedures and know that there isn’t any funny business going on in regards to the way they report things, etc. This process should also reinforce everything you have learned about their competitive positioning, capital structure, and the way they drive revenue. I wait longer to actually model out the historical financials than most but that does not mean that I am not intimately familiar with them before this point.
Speak with Management
At this point I’m going to sit down with management and ask them any questions I have up to this point.
Model and Valuation
After management has answered my questions I generally feel like I’ve got a good handle on the business and what is going to happen going forward. So my next step is to sit down and try to knock out my forward model. I think it is important for me to say that I always model each company from scratch. No two companies are the same and you really do get a much deeper understanding if you start from scratch rather than just dropping stuff in a template.
I will not be able to finish the model in one sitting because more questions will come up that need to be answered and I will find an answer to those on the fly as they arise.
When it comes to valuation you just really need to find a way that works for you personally. My valuation method in skeleton form:
1) Derive projections from thesis.
2) Stress –test projections
3) Derive range of values for the business
I’m kind of vague on the valuation portion of this write – up not only for the reason I pointed to above, but because finding the exact valuation for my target is not my main priority. Basically, all I am looking for from my valuation is a reasonable range of value for a given set of operating scenarios.
My take on value isn’t very complicated. Essentially, in my eyes, value is a product of:
3) Cost of Capital (Also called Discount Rate or Required Return)
What’s more important – in my opinion – than a scientific and precise valuation is that you understand what is going to cause the market to realize the intrinsic value of the asset and that you get the timing of the catalyst correct. If you’re too early you can get forced out the trade before anything materializes for any number of reasons and if you’re too late you’ve lost some upside at the very least.
Much like my feelings about the search for a precise valuation, I find the search for the “correct” cost of capital to be – in the gentlest terms – a fool’s errand. The best investments are not made because you nailed the discount rate in percentage terms and if making an investment decision comes down to whether you go with a 10% or 12% discount rate I can say with almost absolute certainty that it won’t be a good investment.
I often find it helpful to know what discount rate the market is implying when I am looking to make an investment, but rarely – if ever – is the absolute number of great concern to me. Approximating a required rate of return is mostly a way to keep investment risk at the forefront of my mind. Risk is anything from macro on down to the guy/girl on the other side of your trade. Often, you may start with the market - implied discount rate and then adjust it based on everything from macro factors to industry/company factors and finally to the generally psychology of the other market participants.
Finally, I think it’s pretty important to understand that at any point in time a single driver of value can dominate the others. If we look back to not too long ago, in the tech bubble growth was the main driver of valuations and returns fueled the housing bubble. Today, one can certainly make the argument that risk is the driver of the current bull market. With liquidity being pumped in to the market and treasuries at rock-bottom yields it seems as though investors have re-priced risk in the search for return.
By this point my thesis is pretty much complete and I have a general range of value for the business. Now I’m going to begin to prepare for my pitch.
Before I bring it to my boss for the real deal I want to feel like I’m prepared to answer any question he can throw at me confidently. I try to know more about the business than anyone, even the COO in a lot of cases, so this is a great test for me.
Every firm and PM is going to have a different structure for how they like an idea to be pitched. Some places may have a more formal process that involves multiple investment memos, etc. while my fund is pretty informal. My boss has never so much as asked me to write something down let alone write-up an investment memo. Everything is done via face-to-face conversation or maybe a phone call if one or both of us is out of the office when a discussion is necessary. I personally love this informal structure and believe it is great for my development as an analyst.
Basically, my pitch boils down to five basic steps:
1) Company/ Why market it wrong
3) Upside %
4) Downside %
5) Brace myself for a game of 20(0) questions
I think it is important to mention that even though the way I pitch an idea seems simple, in reality it is far from it. I generally have multiple conversations with my boss about an idea before I actually sit down with him for the actual pitch and like I said earlier I come prepared to answer any possible question about my idea.
Much of what I described here is not very difficult. Most anyone can break down some financial statements or slap a value on a business. To do well you need to be able to time inflection points, properly handicap the risk/reward scenarios and determine the appropriate cost of capital (required return) for the risk profile of the investment. Each of these is extremely difficult in practice and is – in my opinion – what separates a great analyst from a good analyst.
The things I listed in the paragraph above that – I believe – separate a good analyst from a great analyst (and eventually allow a great analyst to become a PM) only come with experience. Risk includes everything from macro to the other guys in the market and it’s likely you’re not going to be able to pick these things up overnight or even in a few market cycles. Hell, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever truly get it. [I’m including myself in the collective ‘You’ here.]
Inexperience isn’t damning for a young guy/girl in the business, even if it is difficult to overcome. If you work hard, stay humble, and make a point to be intellectually honest you’ll likely be more than OK.
A final, but very important part of my process that I forgot to mention is that I spend a great deal of time observing the way my target’s stock price moves/reacts to market/macro/micro news. Basically, this helps me to understand the psychology of those I am trading with in the market. I learn what they think is important about the business/stock relative to what I think is important about the stock.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
The Alchemy of Finance
The Hour Between Dog and Wolf
Thinking, Fast and Slow
The Practicing Mind
Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises
The Social Animal
The New Market Wizards
Hedge Fund Market Wizards
The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making
Reminisces of a Stock Operator
I’ll try to answer any questions as quickly as possible in the comments. Enjoy!
A few videos I think may be helpful to you all:
Interview with Jeff Ubben the Founder of ValueAct Capital. These guys have been absolutely killing it for the past few years. They’re just about as good as it gets on the Street.
Michael Price at the London Value Investors Conference. This guy doesn’t talk very often so you should probably listen.
Howard Marks at the Milken Institute Conference.
I’m including a few macro guys here because I think they have pretty interesting perspectives on the investment process, especially risk, and macro has always interested me in a lot of ways.
I was going to write an entire post about choosing the correct boss/place to work, but remembered this interview by Seth Klarman and realized he could do a much better job than me. Rarely does he speak in public so I take every opportunity I can to listen and learn from one of the better investors of all time.
I have to preface these two videos by saying that I am not a huge fan of Bill Ackman’s investing style, but as you can probably tell from my original post and answers to questions in the comments I don’t dismiss any investing style and feel that you can learn something from listening to almost anyone even if it is what not to do. With that said, Ackman has been a very successful investor over the course of his career and I would consider myself lucky to have even a fraction of the success he’s enjoyed.
The Psychology of Human Misjudgment – A fairly famous speech by Charlie Munger.
David Einhorn on the Federal Reserve. Here is a copy of his “Jelly Donut” Paper that is discussed in the video.
Jim Chanos on the Psychology of short selling.
Leon Cooperman on investing/leadership.