Here is how a typical investment write-up usually looks like:
- Business description…….
- History of business…….
- Segment Information…….
- Industry information……
- Management Information……
- Recent development…….
- Financial information…….
- Ratio analysis…….
- Risk factors…….
- Bull and bear argument…….
- Valuation and margin of safety…….
Is there anything wrong with this routine? Aren’t you supposed to know as much as possible about a company you are interested in investing in?
This may sound provocative but my answer to both of these questions are “no.”
Before I proceed, a clarification seems necessary. There are huge differences between studying a company and making investment decisions about a company. The biggest difference is the former is knowledge accumulation while the latter is what we call “in practice.” I think when you study a business as part of your knowledge accumulation process, the structure listed above will serve you well. However, for an investment analysis write-up, I think we may need to consider Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio)’s Horse Handicapping approach in order to get the most out of the research process.
To appreciate Buffett’s approach, it might be useful to use the inversion principle and discuss the disadvantages of the common approach. The problem with most investment analysis, in my opinion, is that so much time and effort is spent on finding information that may not even be relevant or material to the thesis. This may sound provocative but I think there is a fair amount of truth in it. For example, I was reading a write up on Apple on a widely known investment website and to respect the author, I will not disclose the title of the article here. The author discussed in great details about the most recent quarterly revenue, management guidance, iPhone and iPad’s superiority, Apple’s strong balance sheet and etc. In the end, the author showed his model and concluded that Apple is cheap at this price.
The analysis was very detailed and I can tell the author spent a lot of time on his report. However, it didn’t convince me to buy Apple. I’ve seen similar write-ups on Weight Watchers International, IBM, Johnson and Johnson. You name it.
What’s missing in these write-ups? You may disagree but I think Mr. Buffett would agree that they don’t address something extremely important - i.e the one or two factors that make the investment idea succeed or fail. This is the essence of Buffett’s Horse Handicapping approach. You have to nail down the most important factors that can make your horse win or lose, otherwise your odds are not going to look good. In Apple’s case, the most important factors are:
- How likely will the balancing feedback loop dominate the reinforcing feedback loop for Apple’s most lucrative products? In other words, what is the likelihood that Apple will maintain or lose its dominance in the smartphone and tablets market and what data should we track to support our hypothesis?
- What are the odds that Apple can come out with another revolutionary product that can reach the market size of iPhone and iPad?
I have revamped my investment research process by incorporating Buffett’s handicapping technique and I have to say, it has completely changed the way I approach an investment idea. You really have to experiment it by yourself to see the power of this approach. Obviously the trick is identifying the right factors. And only knowledge and experiences can do the trick.