Leverage – Debt increases risk. The easiest way to reduce your risk is to not have leverage, especially margin leverage, in your portfolio. Margin leverage is one of the few ways that you can be correct in your investment analysis, and ultimately in the result, but still lose money. It’s not worth it.
The second easiest way to reduce your risk is to not invest in companies that have excessive leverage. Having excessive debt on a company’s balance sheet can lead to problems. Having excessive debt also limits opportunities. One of the key components to the “Balance sheet to income statement investing” that I advocate is the ability for a company to take on debt when they see an unusually attractive opportunity. Better to buy a company with little debt and a strong balance sheet that can use that strength to safely take advantage of those opportunities by adding a reasonable amount of debt. They can’t do it if they are already overleveraged.
Margin of safety – Let’s go to Michael Mauboussin quoting Warren Buffett, “We believe the best and most practical way to restate the margin of safety
concept is to think about discounts to expected value. The combination of probabilities and potential outcomes determine expected value.”
Says Buffett, “Take the probability of loss times the amount of possible loss from the probability of gain times the amount of possible gain. That is what we’re trying to do. It’s imperfect, but that’s what it’s all about.”
A large margin of safety is helpful for many reasons. One, it gives you the opportunity for outsized gains. Two, it mitigates the effects of mistakes in analysis. And three, it helps protect against unknowable and unforeseen market and company-specific stresses.
Know your investment well – In order to know if you have a margin of safety, you must know your investment well enough to roughly determine its intrinsic value. Or, if you want to take the Mauboussin approach, determine the expected value. Clearly you must have the skillset to analyze a company. You also have to have the humility to recognize that the intrinsic value cannot be determined for some, perhaps most, companies. Other times the intrinsic value can be determined, just not by you. There is no shame in having a “too hard” pile. Mine is high.
I am attracted to companies where there are a low number of variables that are at least somewhat measurable. This is easier to do if you are relying on a company’s balance sheet rather than their income statement. It is also far easier for a company to manipulate their income statement, so this approach has the added benefit of higher predictability. Some investors believe that just because a company is small, it is more risky. This isn’t true. Those investors think that because a stock price moves more rapidly, a stock is more risky. They’re mistaken. Intelligently investing in smaller companies can dramatically reduce your risk. Most of the least risky companies I have invested in have been small. They were not risky specifically because of their low price relative to their actual value. They also were much easier to analyze.
Temperament – Here is where the self-awareness and Intellectual honesty fit in. This is a never-ending process and it is not easy. Nearly every investor, including the best, have succumbed to the market’s excitement and depression at one point. I don’t think it makes me a hippy to say that it is vital to protect your psychological wellbeing. Effective analysis consists of thousands of small judgments while researching a company. It’s a big risk if you can’t make those judgments with a clear head. This is also where ideology can blind you, and being blind as an investor is a dangerous thing. An investor always has to be mentally prepared to the idea that he is wrong, and if so, be willing to change his opinion.
Read the full insightful report from Arquitos Capital Management here