A 1990s Bubble Stock Today

Marcus Lemonis, the host of CNBC’s popular show “The Profit”, recently lambasted a struggling business owner by saying, “You can’t spend the revenues, dummy.” Hey, we have to take our truths wherever we can find them. And almost eighty years ago, Benjamin Graham added some elegance to that notion when he stated that intelligent men often mistake a company’s rapid overall growth for the amount of profits that would actually be someday attributable to the shareholder.

Charlie Munger called high revenue/low profit businesses “good until reached for” because the money you saw reported on paper looked nice until you actually tried to convert it into cash that shows up in your bank account. Buffett, too, addressed this concept tangentially when he stated that his favorite businesses are the ones that permits the owners to extract ever-growing sums of cash each year without threatening the company’s competitive position or ability to self-fund growth. The Berkshire Hathaway investment in See’s Candies has emerged as the Exhibit A for this type of business over the past half-century.

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John Bogle’s Stock Market Prediction

John Bogle recently got asked by Benzinga what kind of returns investors should expect over the coming decade. He assumed that investors owned a portfolio of 50% large stocks (index-fund based) and 50% bonds (U.S. government issued). He argued that he expects 5% earnings per share growth, 2% dividends, and -3% returns due to valuation compression from the S&P 500 as a whole. He expects the P/E ratio to switch from nearly 20x earnings to 15x earnings. This amounts to a 4% return from the stock portion of a portfolio.

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The Folly of Form over Substance

During every market cycle, fads happen. They become very obvious in hindsight, but the tricky part is recognizing them in real time. My prediction? Some real estate investment trusts that are currently being touted by investment analysts will be trading at the exact same prices five or so years from now (assuming the markets are rationally valued at that time.) Even if the profits grow, the countervailing force of valuation compression will be a nasty offset ensuring mediocre returns.

I’ll give an example. I just finished reviewing a company called Iron Mountain. It is a giant data manager that stores documents, communications, and official records for corporate clients. The investor community loves this stock for three reasons. It is asset light, as the majority of the capital expenditures involve securing data rather than investing in factories and real estate. It is perceived as a very scalable business because corporate clients can be added easily with a low marginal cost. Thirdly, it pays a high dividend and recently converted to a REIT status, and this is currently favorable with income investors (because the interest payments from competing investment opportunities like high-quality bonds have been at historic lows for more than five years.)

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Kinder Morgan After The Merger

Kinder Morgan has been one of the best income investments in the world for people that discovered the company and acted upon it. The original Kinder Morgan—the one with the KMP ticker symbol—benefitted from a great confluence of factors that led to 20% annual returns between its 1997 founding and the November 2014 merger.

The story began with Richard Kinder getting passed up for CEO of Enron. He responded by offering $25 million for Enron Liquid Pipelines L.P. Without a doubt, it is one of the great ironies of American corporate history that the eventually bankrupt Enron sold off the most lucrative, cash-generative assets in its portfolio to avoid executive rivalry and focus on derivative trading in the energy sector instead. Illusory trading was favored over pipeline infrastructure that could build a great company. While Enron was becoming asset light and lying about it, Kinder took the pipes and ran with it.

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Finding the Hot Spots of American Business

The general theme of my investing articles has been this: Buy healthcare. Buy energy. Buy consumer staples. There may also be a place for tobacco, telecommunications, and utilities depending on your moral sensibilities, desire to receive dividend income while giving up long-term growth, and willingness to deal with the lid on growth that results when you have to rely upon regulators to achieve rate increases.

Some things, like long-term retail investing, are debatable. Equally credible arguments can be made in favor of long-term investing in companies like Walgreen, Wal-Mart, and Target. Others can point to Woolworth, A&P, and Sears to make the opposite case. And then the buy-and-holders can point out that the Sears spinoffs of All-State, Discover Card, Morgan Stanley, and Lands’ End made it a superior investment (stock calculators no longer accurately report this information because they treat spinoffs as one-time special dividends and then reinvest it into the parent company because the calculators no longer actually track the individual spinoffs and their dividends payments). Reasonable minds tend to disagree on retail.

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