Friday, December 16, 2005

“Good To Great” or “Consistently Superior” ?

Much of my work for the last decade has involved measuring the performance of publicly-held U.S. corporations. There is really only one body of work of which I am aware that sounds remotely similar to mine. The Wall Street Journal has made a few references recently to that body of work, by Jim Collins in his book, “Good to Great,” published in 2001. I decided to acquire a copy and read it myself. Amazon was very helpful in providing me with an inexpensive copy, with no benefit to Collins in the process.

What I found upon reading Collins’ methodology was an odd mixture of quantitative and qualitative bases of analyses. There are a variety of problems with his methods, which I will address both here and in subsequent posts.

To start with, Collins uses cumulative returns over long periods of time to judge a company as “good” and/or “great.”

However, my own research on large U.S. publicly-held companies reveals that among companies which outperform the S&P 500 average total return over a period of years, firms which consistently outperform the S&P index, on average, create shareholder wealth at a much higher rate than companies which earn most of their total returns with a few years of outstanding performance.

This is a very non-trivial issue. If, as CEO, your decisions are guided by the desire to “maximize the present value of the firm”, how do you choose when to maximize that value, which in turn maximizes shareholder wealth? Will the decisions you make enrich some shareholders at the expense of others because they own your company’s stock at different points in time?

It is highly likely that a consistently-superior firm’s great wealth creation is a reward for not forcing investors to be market-timers. Collins completely misses this distinction in his work. Since it is the first screen by which he typifies companies, it therefore compromises the entire remainder of his findings and body of work as described in the book.

I must admit, I was rather shocked that such slipshod and simplistic quantitative definitions of “good” and “great” performances would exist in a book so seemingly well-regarded in the business community. Perhaps it is yet another case of the broad class of mediocre managers and leaders being unable to distinguish “great” work when they see it.

As I read more of Collins’ book, I will post additional comments on the differences in approach and findings between his work and my own.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

GM- The Truth At Last?

I checked my blog posts to see when I first wrote about the GM situation. On October 18th, I first wrote of my expectation that GM is now in what will come to be seen as its death throes. With the title "Speaking Truth to Power," I questioned why so many media and brokerage analysts failed to seriously question GM's future viability, in the face of so much evidence of its travails.

Yesterday's downgrade of the company's debt by Standard & Poors may now give these parties the "cover" they seek to express their true feelings. According to today's Wall Street Journal story on the subject, S&P's rating of GM now places it in a category in which 5.7% of whose companies typically default within a year. So, now we have at least one quantitative estimate of GM's viability over the next twelve months. Since GM is involved with the Delphi situation, I stand by my belief, expressed many weeks ago, that the former will be merged, acquired, or in bankruptcy at the end of two years from now.

It is noteworthy that S&P, perhaps a more "neutral" analyst than many brokerages, is quite clearly concerned about the revenue and market-share dilemmas facing GM, rather than the company's self-diagnosed cost-control challenges.

What I now wonder is how much value in investors' portfolios has been destroyed by GM's roughly -19% return from October 18th until yesterday's closing price? How do the sell-side analysts defend their silence then, given this recent loss in GM's value? I don't track how many downgrades were issued, or when, by various analysts since mid-October. What I do know is that the media and analytic climate two months ago was one of relative silence in the face of what seemed pretty obviously the beginning of the end for GM.


Go placidly amid the noise and haste,and remember what peace there may be in silence.
(Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952)

I thought of this poem the other day while watching an end-of-day report on trading in the stock market on CNBC. It captures very nicely my style of investment amidst the daily frenzy of the equity markets.

Most portfolio managers trade more frequently than I do. My twice-yearly trading allows my positions to quietly run their course, often amassing substantial returns while others would “rebalance” away profits. This half-year has been no different in that regard, with energy issues earning double-digit returns.

I have, however, come to terms with the steady drumbeat of sell-side analysts and media pundits, such as Jim Cramer. Daily volatility is now something I expect, as it represents other investors and traders entering and exiting the market on any particular day. These daily price fluctuations assure smooth and liquid trading on the two days per year I will trade. With few exceptions, the actual movement of the market over a few hours on any given day is not that large.

So I now “go placidly”, holding my positions patiently while observing the daily frenzy. No matter how volatile the daily price moves, the monthly volatility is less affected. And so are even longer-term moves of prices and indices. My portfolio may experience some volatility due to short-term market exuberance, but in the longer-term, the superiority of the portfolio’s selections typically reappears. The key is to not succumb to daily or weekly concerns due to traders’ constantly-shifting valuations, but maintaining the discipline of my investment process.