The key to investment success this year has been simple: buy the most expensive stocks and avoid the cheapest ones. That’s not what we do at Poplar Forest and our investment results reflect our continued commitment to a value-based investment process. While we’re concentrating on stock prices relative to long-term normalized earnings and free cash flow at the company level, investors currently seem to be focusing on short-term macroeconomic factors. The pre-occupation with recession and risk is understandable, but I believe it has been taken to an unreasonable extreme.
In the midst of the panic last December, and as described in my last letter, we got a visit from a hysterical Chicken Little and his friends. As you know, Chicken Little is chronically bearish – always looking at the glass as cracked and half empty. Henny Penny goes with the flow and tends to get caught up in the emotional tide of markets – selling when her friends are worried and buying when they’re optimistic. Ducky Lucky is able to keep his emotions in check – he sticks to a long-term plan and re-balances his portfolio when allocations drift away from targeted levels. Ducky Lucky best embodies the Warren Buffett maxim to “be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” After such a strong move in the first quarter, the threesome stopped by our office again in late March to get our current take on the market.
Most of us are familiar with the idiom taken from the old folktale of Chicken Little: “the sky is falling.” This central phrase from the folktale has been adapted for modern times to describe an unreasonable fear—and today is used to describe the irrational behavior driving the current “risk off” market environment. In this quarter’s letter, J. Dale Harvey, Poplar Forest Capital’s Chief Investment Officer, discusses how macroeconomic fears are creating distortions between good business fundamentals and valuation multiples. We believe many of the current overriding fears in the market today are unwarranted, thus creating a great buying opportunity.
"At Poplar Forest, we approach investing the way I shop at Oliver’s – by focusing on what’s on sale. We don’t buy every special (some things are on sale for worrisome reasons), but when we see a good deal on a great stock, we jump on it. I think this bottom up approach is better than preparing a list at home (equivalent to a top-down forecast), then simply buying everything on that list. And can you imagine the index fund approach to grocery shopping – simply buying a little of everything in the store?" - J. Dale Harvey
While it may be difficult to believe after having won three of the last four NBA championships, in the not so distant past, the Golden State Warriors looked like a value investment. At an estimated current market value of $3.1 billion, they are anything but a value investment today, and are certainly a far cry from the $450 million price tag when they were an unloved and underappreciated team just eight years ago. In this month’s quarterly letter, Dale discusses the importance of imagination, conviction and patience in value investing, especially when value investing is out of favor. Just as Joe Lacob and Peter Guber applied these traits when purchasing the downtrodden Warriors in 2010, we continue to apply them every day in our investment process while sticking to our game plan of seeking market-beating, long-term results for our investors.
“We want to understand the volatility of each underlying business, how much leverage is being deployed, the downside in a recession and the price we are paying relative to the underlying value of the company. We invest in companies for the long run when we see a favorable tradeoff between these risks and expected returns in a normal/mid-cycle time frame. We think a recession is likely sometime in the next few years and we want to be comfortable that we will survive a spill in the financial halfpipe without a trip to the intensive care unit. We believe that judgement, hard work and discipline are keys to our investment survival.” - J. Dale Harvey
“Wildfires and earthquakes shouldn’t really come as a surprise to those of us who live in California, yet, when they occur, it is still a shock. The advice we get is to “expect the unexpected” – to prepare by setting aside drinking water and shelf-stable food that might be needed in an emergency. There are parallels to the idea of planning for the aftermath of a natural disaster and being prepared in advance of an unexpected market downturn. For one, financial strength is a factor that is emphasized in our analysis of investments – I suppose that’s akin to having your home bolted to the foundation, a practice that reduces earthquake damage. At Poplar Forest, we also prefer companies that have sustainable free cash flow, which may be equivalent to those supplies of water and canned food. Finally, we use scenario analysis to examine how our investments will perform, not just in good times, but also in the equivalent of investment wildfire.” - J. Dale Harvey
“When looking at stocks, I think from the perspective of someone who owns the whole business with plans to own it indefinitely. The enterprise is sure to have both good and bad years, but what I concern myself with is the average year – what I consider “normal” – or, said another way, what the business should be able to do as opposed to what it currently is doing. Where others may get scared away by sub-normal results, the opportunity to close the gap between current and normal whets my appetite.” - J. Dale Harvey
“Too often, I’ve seen investors chase performance to their detriment while ignoring opportunities to invest in good strategies when they are out-of-sync with the broad market. While it may sound counterintuitive, Poplar Forest’s results right now are as bad as they ever have been relative to the S&P 500®, and I believe that makes this a particularly compelling time to invest with us.”- J. Dale Harvey
For many investors, the current investment environment feels challenging. The new administration in Washington is charting a very different path than that pursued by the Obama team. For much of the preceding eight years, the Federal Reserve was the focus of investor attention.