CPG and Capital Theory

The book Capital Returns is too good to summarize. The book itself is a summary of Marathon Asset Management’s investor letters from 2002-2015. The intellectual flexibility that firm demonstrates is inspiring.

One key takeaway is analyzing industries through a capital cycle theory lens. The capital cycle can be described as follows:

  • High returns on capital lead to competition entering an industry.
  • The new competition increases the amount of assets chasing the same dollars of profit.
  • More assets fighting over the same profit dollars reduces margins.
  • Reduced margins decentivize entrants, drive out competition, and enable the surviving companies to begin increasing margins.
  • Repeat

Accordingly, firms and sectors with the lowest asset growth tend to outperform. The phenomenon is called the asset-growth anomaly. See https://www.aqr.com/Insights/Research/Journal-Article/Investing-in-the-Asset-Growth-Anomaly-Across-the-Globe for a solid paper on the topic. That theory is a major reason I like the beer industry so much despite the rise of craft entrants. Globally, I still perceive the industry to be very rational and I view brewpubs more as restaurant competition rather than brewer competition. That said, it’s impossible to view more assets chasing beer sales dollars as bullish for Big Beer. But I digress…

A lot of traditional consumer brands discuss disruption. Why? Historically, traditional large brands leaned on retail distribution channels, dominated shelf space everywhere, scaled production and distribution to enhance margins, and pushed their messages out via advertising. See https://www.forbes.com/sites/antoinegara/2018/04/30/jorge-paulo-lemann-says-era-of-disruption-in-consumer-brands-caught-3g-capital-by-surprise/#2607284d1f9b. Today, the internet eliminated traditional advertising and distribution barriers. Therefore, it is easier to have launch a new brand.

Moreover, consumers are willing to trust brands quickly. Therefore, the brand equity that used to serve as a consumer short cut has eroded. That said, social media influencers and internet marketing are not very discerning. Time will tell whether brand equity makes a comeback. Watch the documentaries on the Fyre Festival on Netflix or Hulu to determine whether you think its plausible that consumers begin to crave the certainty of Big Brands again.

Regardless, barriers to entry are clearly lower than they used to be.
The perception of viability attracts assets to the industry. When new assets chase returns faster than industry profit pools grow, total profit declines. Importantly, Mr. Market knows that. So it’s worth looking to see how entities are priced given the facts. Kraft Heinz is a traditional CPG company impacted by these trends; though mostly because of consumer’s willingness to trust private label brands. Its valuation relative to history looks like:

Source: Bloomberg

I’m not extremely excited about those multiples because a 16x EV/EBIT equates to less than a 5% unlevered (EV/NOPAT assuming no interest expense) cash flow yield on a firm that isn’t growing. Moreover, competition remains strong and private label attacking market share is likely to continue. Personally, I’d like to see Kraft Heinz offer a return on equity north of 12% (PE of ~8.3x) before I got excited given the facts as I understand them.

But, I will continue to watch “melting ice cubes” because when facts and/or results change they can offer very attractive risk/rewards. More importantly, no one else likes to own them. Historically speaking, out of favor companies outperform the most loved companies. Though this last “bull run” makes me wonder whether that rule changed. Time will tell.

The Merits of Writing

First and foremost, SCG is not an investment advisor and does not recommend buying shares in AB InBev.  The investment discussed below has substantial risk and should only be considered after lengthy due diligence.  That said, I recently purchased shares of AB InBev @ $68.37/sh.  Therefore, readers should presume I am promoting my own position when I am talking about AB InBev going forward. 

I recently presented an investment in AB InBev to a group I belong to, The Manual of Ideas, as my “Best Idea of 2019.”  That was my first presentation to the group.  Thus, I took career/reputation risk discussing this investment.  Moreover, it’s an investment with a credible bear thesis so I have a reasonably high chance of looking “obviously foolish.” As if that weren’t emotionally taxing enough, yesterday I saw some numbers released that created some “fast thinking” panic.  Bud and Bud Light both apparently saw U.S. volume declines in excess of 6%.  See https://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/ab-inbev-reveals-super-bowl-ad-plans/316173/?mod=djemCMOToday.

My first reaction to the story was “Great, it took exactly one day for my ‘Best Idea of 2019’ to blow up.” Then I started to do some math and write. 

To begin, I have a high degree of confidence the cited numbers relate to AB InBev’s U.S. business.  The U.S. market accounts for ~31% of sales attributable to AB InBev (AB InBev only owns ~62% of AmBev but consolidates 100% of the entity’s sales).  In 2016 Bud and Bud Light accounted for ~60% of AB InBev’s U.S. volumes.  Presumably this percentage declined as brands like Stella and Michelob grew their percentage share in AB InBev’s portfolio.  But, let’s assume 60% is the correct number and volume production equates to sales.

If 60% of 31% of sales are fading at 6.6% the result is a 1.2% decline in total sales.  That sales decline doesn’t account for the offset in growing brands such as Stella Artois and Michelob Ultra.  That’s actually not that bad. My projected returns rely on U.S. sales declining at 2% per year.  See below.

Do I wish Bud and Bud Light were growing in the U.S.?  Yes.  But I knew they weren’t.  The 6.6% number scared me emotionally.  But once I got rational and “thought slow” I realized I had accounted for that possibility via a conservative underwriting.  That said, rapid volume declines could put my margin assumptions under pressure but as of now I think those margin assumptions are reasonable.  Time will tell.

Without writing I probably couldn’t be so rational about the results because of how badly I want this idea to work.  The presentation induced emotion that otherwise might not have been there.  Thankfully, writing has me thinking slow.  This investment may not work.  But at least the investment’s success or failure won’t be caused by my emotional reaction.

What Should AB InBev Do About Bud and Bud Light?

The investment thesis in AB InBev is not a U.S. focused thesis. That said, the U.S. business is important for AB InBev’s debt repayment. Therefore, data points such as Bud and Bud Light falling 6+% y-o-y are concerning.

I’d like to see more resources diverted towards the craft beer portfolio, Stella Artois, and Michelob Ultra. Those brands are growing nicely. See https://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/news/2018/10/01/here-are-the-top-20-best-selling-beer-brands-in.html. The recent repackaging in the “Taste of Belgium” 12 pack (Stella, Leffe, and Hoegarden in one 12 pack) is a good packaging innovation. While Bud Light remains important, I don’t believe marketing will solve the consumption trends in that brand; it’s more about milking the cow rather than driving growth.

Longer term, I’d like to see the company figure out how to activate the craft beer portfolio they’ve acquired. Perhaps they should borrow a page from Starbucks and create the beer equivalent of Starbucks Roasteries. A group of really awesome beer shrines in urban environments could be a decent way to remain corporate but also authentic to beer lovers.

Most importantly, AB InBev should focus on emerging markets. The relative scale advantages AB InBev enjoys matter immensely in those economies. Expanding the beer category and offering consumers a reasonably cheap alcoholic beverage solution offers true growth potential in EM. Furthermore, any and all potential distribution advantages should be solidified over the next 3-5 years. Those investments would generate solid ROIC for years to come.

After paying down debt and widening the emerging market moat AB InBev should probably diversify further away from beer. This would be natural as the company already bottles and distributes Pepsi and Gatorade in LatAm. Whether the diversification efforts lead to non drug related beverages or marijuana related beverages remains to be seen. For the near future, let’s work with the portfolio we have and pay down debt. Acquisitions can wait.

Disclosure: Long AB InBev

Cash Flow is King, But Sometimes it Isn’t

In my younger years I was too focused on hard and fast rules.  Rule 1 was cash flow is king.  Rule 2 was buy cheap.  If a company wasn’t generating meaningful cash it fundamentally wasn’t worth investing in.  I wouldn’t even consider Rule 2.  After all, a company is worth the cash it generates in the future; discounted to today’s values.  Below is a model that illustrates this concept.  Each cash flow has a 10% discount rate applied to it.

*Assumes a 10% required rate of return

You can see how much weight the early cash flows have to the calculation. Which is to say that $100 generated in “Year 1” is worth $90.91 in today’s dollars while the $100 generated in “Year 10” is only worth $38.55 in today’s dollars.  Therefore, the cash flows at the end of a 10 year model need to be substantially larger than the near term cash flows in order to be worth the same amount in today’s dollars.  This impact is exacerbated when near term cash flows are negative.   

That has always been a hurdle for me because I lack the confidence to  accurately foresee cash flows 10 years from now.  Furthermore, the required growth in cash flows caused greater uncertainty and doubt.  A negative consequence of that mental barrier/bias is I almost always missed out on growth companies because they tend to use cash while they grow.  Thus, current cash flows in growth companies are not representative of mature cash flows.  A recent presentation by Aswath Damodoran illustrated this point with this slide:

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c20_S-QgvsA&t=2s

Damodoran highlights the cash needs of companies in different life cycles very well in that slide.  In my experience, a lot of money can be made investing during the high growth part of the life cycle (assuming you pay a reasonable price).  I believe the reason stems from the fact that the future is still uncertain so it’s still possible to have  investing edge (Note: the dispersion of future cash flows in growth companies arguably means there is more risk associated with investing in them). 

Most people can reasonably forecast the future of Coke.  Forecasting LaCroix’ future is more difficult.  Furthermore, Coke’s valuation very driven by existing cash flow rather than future cash flow.  Thus, it’s less likely to be materially mispriced because everyone is looking at the same information in the same way.  This makes buying Coke very cheap very difficult and probably limited to severe market corrections.  Waiting for those opportunities probably isn’t the best investing strategy because holding cash and waiting for a crash can cause behavioral mistakes.

I’ve learned from my mistakes and now try to look at a business or investment at the time of maturity.  I would not summarily dismiss purchasing a building during the construction phase while it was not earning maximum rent and was consuming cash while contractors completed renovations/build out.  Buying a business is no different.  

Making money investing is a difficult pursuit.  Nuance and flexibility are rewarded much more than hard rules and style conviction.  As I’ve let go of my style as a “value” investor looking for cheap cash generation I’ve begun to see opportunity in buying smaller firms at growth inflection points.  The key is determining which part of the life cycle a firm is in and analyzing that particular situation accordingly.     

The Importance Of Entry Price

When is an investor most likely to permanently lose money?  When he/she enters an investment.  Therefore, investors should be extremely cautious before entering an investment.  In theory this sounds nice, but in practice the fear of missing out (FOMO) can cause investors to buy too early.  

Some basic math shows the risk of buying at elevated prices.  I recently looked at Adobe Systems Inc.  I haven’t done enough work on the company to have informed opinion about the success of their recent acquisitions and whether management is capable.  That said, I am used to their Adobe branded products because I use them frequently.  Therefore, I understand Adobe’s core product is fairly integral to a business setting and they are priced on a subscription basis.  

Wall Street loves subscriptions because they tend to reduce churn and increase revenue certainty.  Consumers tend to renew subscriptions (sometimes without even realizing it), tend to not request their money back once billed, and cannot defer purchases because a company simply bills their credit cards.  Therefore the existing revenue streams of subscription companies are very likely to continue.  Furthermore, price increases tend to be easier to pass on to consumers since there is less sticker shock (many consumers don’t even check their subscription bills). 

Another thing Wall Street loves is software companies.  Why?  Because once a software company gets traction with customers there is minimal incremental capital to signing up the next customer.  Therefore, most of the additional revenue becomes cash flow to the business.  Thus, once a software firm achieves a minimum viable scale each additional customer becomes immensely valuable (assuming the cost to acquire that customer is less than the lifetime value of the customer). 

Adobe is subscription based and has hit scale.  Therefore, Wall Street loves it.  I decided to take a look because there has been a sell off in tech stocks lately.  Below is a very simple back of the envelope model I built.

I built the model assuming that Adobe continued trading at roughly 30.2x free cash flow.  I decided to increase Adobe’s buyback ratio over time and allowed for free cash flow growth in excess of GDP growth.  These are reasonable assumptions because Adobe probably won’t need all the cash it generates and should be able to raise prices.   

This seems reasonable so far, but the results rest on the assumption that Adobe will continue to trade at 30.2x free cash flow.  Is that reasonable?  Perhaps.  The current yield on 30 year treasury bonds is roughly 3.4%.  The current yield on Adobe is 3.3% (1/30.2; the inverse of the free cash flow multiple).  So, investors are willing to accept slight less free cash flow yield than risk free bonds today because they deem Adobe’s growth and earning certainty worthy of that bet. It’s important to stress that Adobe currently trades at a lower cash flow yield than risk free assets. 

Interest rates have been depressed for a long time now.  I have no idea whether they will continue to stay at these levels or not.  But, its reasonable to ask what happens if rates revert to their long term average of ~4.5%.  For purposes of this illustration lets assume that happens over the next 3 years.  The investment result is below (assuming Adobe trades at a similar yield to 30 year bonds). 

In the example above the business performs exactly as it does in the first scenario.  However, the multiple contraction decreases a shareholder’s 5 year return from 35.3% to 9.0%.  In that scenario, a shareholder would earn less than 2% per year.  That return is certain to reduce a shareholder’s purchasing power over time.  

Therefore, identifying a business worthy of investment is a necessary but insufficient condition to becoming a good investor.  Tradeoffs must always be made.  Bad businesses will sell at extraordinarily cheap prices at times.  They may be worth buying.  Conversely, good businesses selling at extraordinarily high prices may not be worth the risk of wealth destruction.  Reasonable minds can differ about which companies to buy and sell.  But price and risk must be a critical part of the discussion.  

The Same Investment Mistakes Occur Everywhere In Life: The Too Hard Pile

The more I look at different “deals” the more I get convinced everyone is looking at the same stuff in different wrappers.  My first home purchase was located at the corner of Division and Clybourn in Chicago.  It was a very cool property with an incredible view of Chicago.  In fact, it probably had the best views of the city I’ve seen.

Why was I able afford it?  Because it had a massive downside.  The home was located near Cabrini Green.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabrini%E2%80%93Green_Homes

I was betting on Cabrini Green coming down and the neighborhood drastically changing.  I figured even if I paid a little too much for the property the neighborhood would change so much that the price I paid would look like a bargain.

So why was this “investment” unsuccessful?  For starters, the global financial crises came and development completely stopped.  I probably should have known the housing market was phony when I could get a loan as a law student and provide no documentation.  But, at the time I wasn’t able to think the way I do now.  So let’s put the greater housing market in the “outside of my control bucket” for now.

More importantly, I was the dumb money.  I should have done more research to figure out whether the neighborhood changing was a realistic expectation.  Once I moved into the home I learned that my alderman and the alderman for the low income housing across the street were different people.  That means they were serving different masters. Therefore, they had different incentives.

Those incentives are massively important in a city like Chicago.  Alderman have a ton of power.  That was a fact that I could have known but didn’t even think to look into.

Which leads me to comment on the most important piece of advice Warren Buffett has ever given: create a too hard pile.  I am fairly confident in my ability to see a home in an existing neighborhood and determine whether that home is a reasonable value.  What I am not comfortable with is my ability to determine (1) which neighborhoods will gentrify and (2) the rate they will do so.  Therefore, an investment that requires gentrification by a certain date should be “too hard.”

For the longest time I thought Buffett said things were “too hard” when he couldn’t really understand them.  But, can’t Buffett understand almost any business concept?  Yes.  So how do 90% of the things he looks at end up in his “too hard” pile?  Because their success is too difficult to determine.

At the moment I believe the common stock of General Electric is incredibly cheap.  In fact, I think it’s quite possibly the deal of a lifetime.  Yet, Buffett isn’t buying.  Why? I believe there are issues within the entity he thinks are “too hard.”  I suspect he looks at some of the business lines and views turning them around in a similar vein to how I should have viewed the potential gentrification of my first neighborhood.

Remember, there is no requirement to play a game you don’t understand and/or want to get involved in.  No is a perfectly fine answer.  Get in the habit of saying this is “too hard.”  It will help your results over the long term.

 

The Evolution of a “Value” Investor

I have a tendency to need to make my own mistakes.  I wish I could learn from others more quickly, but it seems as though personal experience is my only reliable teacher.  So, it is with some hesitancy that I have to admit that only recently have I understood the growth investor’s mindset.

I initially got interested in investing when my grandmother’s friend, John Runnette, sent me The Intelligent Investor, The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism, and Common Sense on Mutual Funds.  Mr. Runnette must have had a sick sense of humor because 2 of those books are written by John Bogle, who founded Vanguard.  The other, written by Benjamin Graham, is the layman’s version of Warren Buffett’s bible.

My personal experience left me thinking there is no way markets are rational.  I lived through the 1999-2001 period and John sent me those books in 2009.  Thus, I was in the middle of watching the second gut wrenching crash in a decade.  Therefore, the idea of a market portfolio was inherently unacceptable to me because I “knew” that was a silly idea.  Surely, the “enterprising investor” as Graham described him/her could outperform those silly indexers.  Right?  Well, it turns out this is a very difficult game.

My dad likes to say “I knew all the answers and then the questions changed.”  That is how I am beginning to feel about investing.  That said, the fundamental tenant of viewing a stock as a part ownership interest in a business AND paying a reasonable price for that interest will never go away.  What I’ve learned over time, however, is the previous sentence is far more nuanced than it may appear.

What is a reasonable price to pay?  The answer to this question depends on a number of factors, but the most important components are whether the business (1) is growing or shrinking and (2) requires additional investment to grow or shrink?  Please see the post on The Importance of ROIC and Growth for more information.

A business that is both growing and doesn’t require additional investment should grow in value over time.  In fact, that growth is likely exponential assuming the ability to grow continues over time.  Therefore, you can pay a lot more for the existing business because the growth in value will probably bail you out.  In the long term, if you identify a company like this early enough in its lifecycle then its hard to see a scenario where you will lose much money (especially if you repeat this process a number of times).

I have made serious errors is investing in companies that are in decline but they are selling at “discounts” to my estimate of what they are currently worth.  The problem with these situations is the business value is eroding over time and the value can decline below your entry price.  While I believe there is merit to the strategy of buying these kind of companies (see Tobais Carlisle’s book Deep Value), I think the only suitable approach is through an ETF (the cost effective option; Toby is releasing the ETFs with ticker symbols ZIG and ZAG shortly) or very diversified portfolio.  This is because the stratefy depends on mean reversion and requires a large number of bets to work.  Any one “cheap” business losing its value can go to $0.

It took me a very long time to realize that cheap relative to today’s value is not the only definition of value investing.  Further, it took me a long time to realize that cheap relative to today’s value tends to realize investment results via an investment “rerating” or increasing in market value.  This creates a problem because there are many times those investments don’t have too much organic growth (though they can).  Therefore, when the investment increases to an investor’s estimate of its true value that investor needs to sell and find the next idea.  The downsides of that approach are the investor (1) pays capital gains and (2) has to find the next idea.

Therefore, an investor can find him/herself with too much cash relative to what they would prefer.  Having too much cash may not sound like a problem.  In practice, however, having cash can create the feeling of needing to deploy it.  That feeling has led me to make mistakes (this is a common problem).

All of this is to say that my approach is now to attempt to limit my investible universe to companies that have long growth paths in front of them and don’t require much incremental capital to grow.  I will always be attracted to “underpriced” situations but hope to spend much more time looking for great businesses that can grow and trade at reasonable prices.  Easier said than done…

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

100 to 1 in the Stock Market:  https://www.amazon.com/100-Stock-Market-Distinguished-Opportunities/dp/1626540292

Chuck Akre Talks At Google: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O38I7QIc_eQ

Deep Value: Why Activists and Other Contrarians Battle for Control of Losing Corporations https://www.amazon.com/Deep-Value-Investors-Contrarians-Corporations/dp/1118747968

Tobias Carlisle Talks at Google: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1r1vJZ80Z7I

 

Active vs. Passive – the debate that can’t be settled:

Should you be active or passive?  That depends.  It should also be your second question.  Your first question should be “how much money am I willing to invest for 5-10 years minimum without feeling scared if that amount drops by 30-50%?”  No one has any clue what will happen tomorrow.  You must set yourself up for success.  And success only comes by controlling your emotions and sticking to your savings/investment plan when conditions are so scary that others aren’t sticking to their plans.

The next question I would encourage you to ask is “what is the purpose of my investments?”  For some this may appear to be a silly question.  The answer is obviously to grow them.  That is my goal too, but I also really enjoy picking the companies to make investments in.  I enjoy the process of reading earnings transcripts and regulatory filings.  It leads me down a path of trying to find out the truth about the world around me.

So, I am naturally inclined to pick stocks rather than invest in ETFs. But, in my pursuit I run the risk of realizing suboptimal returns.  When my life is over there is a chance an investment in the S&P would have outperformed my stock picks.  That is a risk I am comfortable with for a number of reasons, but you have to decide whether you would be comfortable with that risk as well.

Why am I comfortable with the risk of underperformance?  For starters, my goal is to make investments where the chances of permanently losing money is low.  Therefore, my perceived risk is lower than it would be if I were in an index fund.  Is that a logical conclusion?  No, because I am not a robot and I probably am overconfident in the business prospects I am investing in.

The natural response to what I just said is “well, then why don’t you just do what is logical?”  And the reason is I fundamentally don’t trust indexing.  I may be slightly conspiratorial or illogical, but I know in my heart that if things go really really wrong and I start reading about improper index construction I would bail on my investment. Bailing on your investment because of emotion is the path to financial destruction. 

There are many studies that show the average investor in a fund severely underperforms the fund that investor is invested in.  The reason is they lack the conviction to hold when times are tough.  As a side, sometimes it is difficult to hold when your investment is performing well.  That may sound a bit odd, but it is true.  Letting your “winners run” is a skill that must be learned.  I have cut many winners short and snatched greatness away in order to secure good results.

Investing “success” comes from doing what makes YOU comfortable enough to make the process work for you.  Investing failure is destined to find you if you compare your results to someone else’s results, an index, or some other metric AND deviate from your preferred style because you want someone else’s results.  First, those results are looking in the past.  Second, you must stick with their style when that style is out of favor.  You cannot borrow someone else’s conviction.

In closing, being a good investor requires knowing yourself and committing to be true to yourself.  So take time to think about your risk tolerance and your beliefs.  Not taking that first step ensures failure.  That said, it is only the first step to success.