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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Nine lessons to learn from Seth Klarman


So what do we know about how Klarman invests? Here are some insights into his approach.

What’s your advantage over others? 

The investment markets are crowded. Thousands of professional investors spend their days trying to find the next big thing, but they can’t all win. In order to get ahead you need to do something or know something that others don’t. This is not easy. Are you really smarter than the crowd?

Buy what others are selling

Going against the crowd can be profitable. People often sell assets due to temporary, short-term factors. This offers opportunities for investors who can take a longer view. Examples of such situations are litigation, fraud, financial distress and ejection from an index.

Go where others don’t

Following on from the above two points, it makes logical sense that you are unlikely to make a lot of money buying FTSE 100 shares, as professional investors follow them too closely. Look at lots of different asset classes. For example:
• Opportunities often exist in ‘spin offs’ – smaller businesses sold by bigger companies. Professional investors often sell holdings in these companies because they are too small and this temporarily depresses their value, spelling a buying opportunity.
• Research bonds in bankrupt companies: often these bonds sell for a fraction of what they are worth. If the company is turned around, investors can make massive gains. There are often similar opportunities in distressed property.
• Don’t confine yourself to domestic markets. Foreign markets are often less crowded and can be subject to levels of political and regulatory uncertainty that present opportunities. In the preface to the sixth edition of Benjamin Graham and David Dodd’s book, Security Analysis’, Klarman uses the example of South Korea in the early 2000s where investor pessimism saw multinational companies selling for as low as one or two times their annual cash flow. Smart investors made a killing buying these stocks.

Focus on risk before you start thinking about returns 

Research shows the pain of losing 50% of your money far outweighs the pleasure to be had from making a 50% return. To be successful as an investor you must focus your research on the risks of a company’s business model and its industry. Remember that the first rule of investment is not to lose money. Also remember – and this is particularly pertinent to technology companies – that today’s good business may not be tomorrow’s winner (see my colleague Tim Bennett’s points on the importance of economic moats for more on this).

You are buying a stake in a business, not a piece of paper 

Investment success comes from buying the cash flows of businesses for less than they are worth. These cash flows come from the real world, not punting numbers on a computer screen. So focus on free cash flow rather than profits. And look at balance sheets to see risks like too much debt or big pension fund liabilities.

Know when to sell

Value investors start selling when assets are 10-20% below what they think they are worth. Owning fully valued assets is a form of speculation – you are betting on someone paying more than they are worth, not on the market recognising the true value of the assets.

Don’t invest with borrowed money 

The ability to sleep well at night is more important than a few more percentage gains.

Don’t rely on the market to provide your investment returns 

If bond coupons or stock dividends (paid out by companies) can provide a large chunk of your returns, you are less reliant on fickle and volatile markets for capital gains. Buying bonds below their redemption value is another good strategy.

Don’t be afraid to do nothing

Always hold cash when cheap assets are scarce. Be prepared to wait.

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