Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Invest Like It's The End of the World and Be Rewarded

It's been nearly four months since I last posted - it's always about quality not quantity, eh? Needless to say, I've been - and happily so - swamped with reading annual reports and finishing up my first book, due out in October. Nonetheless, with investors of all stripes turning thier heads looking for answers, I'm here to say I don't have any. But I do have some thoughts on what seems to be a prudent approach to our craft.
I have a lot of respect for Ian Cumming and Joe Steinberg, the top brass at Leucadia. Like everyone else, they had a dismal 2008. Many of Leucadia's investments - commodities, real estate, wineries - are simply dependant on the economy turning around. But one year a track record doesn't make. But 30 or so years it does and Leucadia's results over that time have been off the charts: book value per share has increased at a 17.3 compounded annual growth rate from 1979 - 2008.

So naturally, I enjoy reading the company’s annual letter to shareholders for any nuggets of wisdom or investment ideas since Leucadia is nothing more than a conglomerate of investment holdings. Reading Leucadia's annual letter over the weekend, I was intrigued by Cummings and Steinberg's assessment of the future.

"Out of prudence we have a pessimistic view as to when this recession will end. To think otherwise would be to gamble about the beginnings of good times whereas by imagining a bleak future we will most likely survive for the good times to arrive."

I find the above statement to be one of the greatest pieces of investment wisdom I've come across recently. Investors would be well served to take the above assessment and apply it to their investments going forward. I like to call it an “invest for the worst and hope for the best” kind of approach to investing today.

My approach stems from the fact that investors are crazy if they are analyzing most businesses based on 2007 profits/multiples. Don't get me wrong: we could very well be easily sitting in the midst of the greatest buying opportunities of a lifetime. Indeed, I lean towards this view. However, it's with prudence that investors must assume that the market will remain in a funk in order to profit handsomely when spring does come. Because if you assume the worst, your investment process, by default, will become much more skeptical. All investors should arm themselves with a healthy does of skepticism at all times.

The wonderful thing about 45% market declines is that many stocks fall a lot a harder, thus setting the setting for phenomenal returns. Forget the preverbial 50 cent dollar - they are a dime a dozen today. Thirty cent - even ten cent dollars - can be found today with a little extra effort.

True value investors are not afraid to pounce if a security is widely undervalued. They time stock prices and not stock markets. In a recent interview Buffett said he would relish the opportunity to be in his 20's all over again today.

We're certainly not out of the woods yet, and it seems that it really won't be until 2011 until the economy recovers again. But it's a guessing game as to when the stock market will turn - they are forward looking creatures after all. But then again, value investors aren't timing stock markets.