Getting to Zero: Value and Risk Management

Why it's valuable to calculate how your investment price can go to zero

Author's Avatar
Dec 04, 2015
Article's Main Image

Any time you manage other people’s money, risk management should be defined as preventing the permanent impairment of capital. Nothing can be riskier to an equity investor than losing all your money. Anybody who loses sight of this is – quite frankly – both a terrible fiduciary steward and value investor.” - Duncan Farquhar

In a recent article, Science of Hitting discussed the difficulty in adding to your position after Mr. Market plays havoc on the stock’s price and valuation. Making the decision to double down is tough for several reasons.

First, is there something the markets know that you don’t? Has your research been thorough enough to fully support your thesis? Second, allocating additional capital to the investment reduces your ability and flexibility as you move from cash. You have essentially lost a potential opportunity to invest in additional holdings. At the Nintai Charitable Trust, we worry less about the latter (the “Opportunity Risk”) and much more on the former (“Downside Risk”). When a holding drops considerably in the portfolio, we focus less on the drop per se and more on the risk our capital could be permanently impaired.

As Farquhar points out, managing other peoples’ money requires us to be both wise financial stewards and prudent investors. To achieve this, we think one of the first goals in investing is to protect to the ultimate downside – that unfortunate point when you know your investment has either suffered such losses it requires herculean efforts to get back to even orworse – bankruptcy and the total impairment of capital.

Getting to Zero

At the Nintai Charitable Trust, a key component in the investment selection process is creating models that get our investment to exactly that place – broken, impaired, bankrupt. As a means of achieving this, we will test each model, estimate and assumption and find a way to reach a zero valuation. Put more simply, we want to know how this investment opportunity’s capital can be permanently impaired.

We think this process is helpful in a couple of ways. First, we’ve found it more likely than not that our investments drop in price after our initial purchase. In this case we are in the dilemma discussed by Science. By knowing what it will take to permanently impair our investment thesis, we are far more comfortable in making the decision to purchase additional shares or not. Second, breaking an investment thesis is as important as building one. I’ve found that we are far more receptive to data for having taken both sides. Cognitive dissonance is less, ego and bias’ impacts are reduced, and we see the company’s actions in a far different light. We think both of these reasons make us far better investors in the long term.

Key Components

After we’ve gotten comfortable with a possible investment, we will generally deconstruct our business case and pressure test them in five ways: revenue, credit/debt, management, competitive moat, and regulatory. The goal in each is to find what events and/or assumptions are required to break the business in terms of strategy, operations, and financial performance.

A Macro-Cardio Event - Revenue Collapse: We generally base this model on the economy having another event similar to the 2008 to 2009 recession. What impact would 10%, 25%, 50%, and even 75% reduction in revenue do to our valuation? What percent of the company’s customer base would need to stop buying? What events would be necessary to make that happen? We are surprised sometimes by the ease in which we can see these conditions develop. A great example of this has been natural resources. Whether in the oil industry or rare earth, we have seen some companies lose 50% of their revenue in roughly six months.

Cut Off the Oxygen - Credit Markets: I’ve written previously about how little thought we give to the credit markets until they don’t operate efficiently. Much like cutting off oxygen, it can get your attention real quick when it’s not available. We have a tendency to test this field in two ways. First, what happens if the company’s WACC is raised by 100%? Or 500%? Second, we test what happens to the company’s operations if credit was no longer available. Could the company still function? Would it still be a going concern? Don’t think this matters? During the 2007 to 2008 Great Recession, it was a frequently heard complaint that credit couldn’t be found on any terms.

Temporary Insanity - The Fallibility of Management: Finding management who are successful long-term allocators of capital is tough. What’s even tougher is waking up and reading your management has announced an M&A deal of a catastrophic nature. Since roughly 80% of all deals destroy value, it’s not far fetched to see your investment’s team making such a move. Here we create models based on both dilution and addition of debt. What impact will a deal that dilutes by 25% have on long-term returns? If the company takes on $2 billion in debt, what impact does this have on the financial assumptions we have previously made? While not an M&A deal, we have seen a significant change in the allocation of capital at Nintai Charitable Trust holding Qualcomm (QCOM, Financial) through stock buybacks and the assumption of considerable long-term debt.

The Competitive Moat is Filled: Most of the companies the Nintai Charitable Trust invests in have wide competitive moats. Before investing we will look for the impact competition might have in reducing returns, margins or market share. In particular we look to measure the impact of any pricing or “commodification” of the company’s offerings. At what point does competition begin to effect returns on equity and capital? Force increased R&D spending. Squeeze gross and net margins? All of these will be tested – along with assumptions – to hypothetically break the investment’s competitive moat.

The Government Decides to Help: In today’s market environment, the regulatory stretch of both state and Federal government is wide and deep. In analyzing risk, another component we test to extreme is the chance that regulators get more involved in our investment’s business model. Here we test for pricing impact, compliance costs, or regulatory approvals. Nintai Charitable Trust holding Intuitive Surgical (ISRG, Financial) faces challenges in this area. Whether it be DDMAC marketing compliance to FDA product approval, we have modeled out to the extreme what impact these might have on our investment.


I’ve written frequently about the idea that outperformance is really more about not losing than swinging for the fences. Nothing can devastate long-term returns than an investment that permanently impairs your capital. Just like a tech investor in 2000 or financials investor in 2007 to 2009, you will find how difficult it is to recover from catastrophic losses. At the Nintai Charitable Trust, we think the best way to manage risk against such events is to make them happen before you invest. By “getting to zero” before you invest a dime, we think you can both improve your investment returns and be a better financial steward of your – or your investors’ – capital.