Value investing, growth investing, and vibes investing

or

The Vibes Speculator

You hear about two schools of investing. Value investing, and growth investing. First, value investing.

Value investing involves generating a number for what a company’s intrinsic worth might be, comparing that number to the price the company’s shares are trading for on the stock market, and buying when there’s a discount (plus a margin of safety to account for the risk). You want to buy stocks that are cheap, on sale, and wait for their prices to return to what they should be.

Howard Marks, in his new memo “Something of Value” for Oaktree Capital, has a great definition of value investing, and we’re taking that as our text today. We would quote it extensively, but there’s a stern disclaimer on it. After an email correspondence with Oaktree Capital, I appreciate their denial of my request for permission to use lots of quotes in this piece.

We encourage third parties that are interested in sharing Howard’s memos with an audience to write their own summary/article about the memo and then link to the memo in its entirety on our website. Howard’s memos are meant to be read/viewed in their entirety and removing specific quotes can lead to them being taken out of Howard’s intended context. Also, as we operate in a highly regulated business, we are required to include our legal disclosures to Howard’s writings, and removing portions of his writing without the disclosures attached goes against our internal policies.

as Leia Vincent of Oaktree put it to me in an email. I see their point.

Check out Marks summary of value investing, paragraph four.

investing was pioneered by Benjamin Graham, whose teachings were transcribed by David Dodd, Graham taught Warren Buffett. There’s a lot to love about value investing. It’s bargain hunting. It almost feels virtuous. You must be rational to be a value investor. You must have emotional discipline as the market goes up and down.

Value investing is widely preached. Aswath Damodaran of NYU, who wrote a little book on the topic, will teach you on YouTube. Shawn Badlani spoke about his training as a value investor on episode 8 of my podcast, Stocks: Let’s Talk.

Value investing thinking has served Shawn pretty well. Every investor would be wise to study valuation.

As Marks acknowledges though, value investing has significant downsides. You’ve got to do a lot of calculating of discounted cash flow for one thing. Math, which is maybe not that hard, but tedious. There are computers, which can help you with the math. I like Guru Focus (you gotta pay to be a member) which can do shorthand estimates for you, like this one for Tesla:

but that can only get you so far, and it also reveals another problem. Value investing has imbedded in it both an attraction for the rational and a torture for them: stocks aren’t always trading for what they should be worth.

That is, their price isn’t always what it “should” be. That’s supposed to be an advantage, if you buy them when they’re cheap, and wait for the equilibrium that must come, when their true value will be revealed.

But what if that never happens? Consider the angst of Value Stock Geek, a smart writer on this subject. How long do you wait for the stock to achieve the correct price?

Not only that, but for all that math, you’re still just guessing! All your calculations are only as good as your inputs, some of which are guesses!

Plus, you’re competing against Warren Buffett, Munger, Aswath Damodaran, Shawn, Value Stock Geek, and literally one million other people. Wall Street has been sucking off physicists, computer scientists, “quants” of all kinds, taking them away from useful work and putting them into complex valuation shops. Their computers are faster, more powerful, and more expensive than yours, I guarantee. Their computers blow your puny computer out of the water. They’ve got an Alienware Aurora R11 with Intel Core i9 10900KF and an Nvidia GTX 1650 Super – RTX 3090, with 2TB M.2 PCIe SSD + 2TB SATA HDD and you’ve got an Epson 512K with 5.25 inch floppy disc. Who’s gonna kill if you’re playing Red Baron?

So much for value investing.

Then there’s growth investing.

The story of Marks’ memo is of how spending time during the pandemic with his son Andrew has opened his eyes to the second major school: growth investing. Marks memo describes how now he has his son Andrew living with him, and Andrew is opening his eyes to the thinking of a growth investor.

Growth investing is about assigning a valuation to a company that may not yet have shown its value, but whose growth, as measured by one metric or another, has a potential to grow into cash flows of great value.

Recently, growth chasing has worked out very well. The one quote I’ll lift from Marks:

the performance of value investing lagged that of growth investing over the past decade-plus (and massively so in 2020)

It’s easy to understand why that might be. The speed at which the fast growing companies grow is almost incomprehensible. In 2002 the so-called facebook at Harvard was a physical book the college handed out with pictures of faces in it. In 2020, eighteen years later, one young person’s lifetime, $FB has two point five billion people using it every month. Facebook has swallowed up billions of dollars in advertising, helped wipe out at least two thousand local newspapers, and influences world events, from elections in the USA to ethno-religious violence in Burma.

Scary stuff, if you’re an innocent citizen. Groovy if you’re a shareholder of Facebook (I am not).

Or take Amazon:

For a sense of scale, it took Amazon more than 14 years—58 quarters after its May 1997 initial public offering—to make, cumulatively, as much profit as it produced in the latest quarter alone. Keep in mind that Amazon consistently lost money for its first several years as a public company.

(first article when I Google “when did Amazon finally make a profit?” ) From Wikipedia:

The company finally turned its first profit in the fourth quarter of 2001: $0.01 (i.e., 1¢ per share), on revenues of more than $1 billion. 

A traditional value investor would not have been into Amazon in 2001.

The endgame for growth investing is you grow so big you’re the biggest animal in the pond and you have no competitors, only, in this pond example, small frogs to amuse you, and minnows to tickle your feet, and perhaps birds, and someone (local villagers? customers?) just keeps bringing you food because they have to. Or even want to? Or because of a curse? The example fails at this point but you get the idea.

Picking those winners can be hard. You need to choose what metrics of growth to focus on. The important metric may not be how much money you’re making. This seems to defy logic and economics and years of Wall Street lore, but that is how the market has reacted. The word is out that even if a company is not only not making money but is losing more and more money, that can in some cases be fine, that can still be fine, as long as they’re swallowing market share.

(This has created some funny wins for the consumer, like MoviePass).

So: value and growth. Marks’ memo is lucid well-expressed thinking on how his thinking is evolving about the blend of these two schools.

i just read the memo and agree, it is really good.  love the idea that value investing just means buying something for less than it’s worth, even if that thing you’re buying is a fast growing company with a high current p/e multiple.

Now, there’s also technical investing, which seems to be people studying candlestick charts, and then trying to reverse-divine the algorithms that make automated trading decisions in Flash Boys style scenarios. I admire these folks, and there’s probably something to it, but it’s not for me.

There’s also momentum investing, where you chase where you think the herd is going, based on anything from complex systems of pattern recognition to just what people seem to be talking about and what’s in the headlines. I used to study this school, and it’s very fun.

What I’d like to propose is a new school.

Vibes Investing.

Vibes Investing we discussed on episode 7 of Stocks: Let’s Talk, with the legend Liz Hall.

We believe Vibes Investing has a bright future.

Is vibes investing even investing? Is growth investing investing? Most definitions of investing say something about “an expectation of achieving a profit,” or “a reasonable expectation.” What we’re talking about here may be something more like speculating. A different and perhaps equally noble pursuit.

The vibes speculator would not compete against the quants and the computers. The vibes speculator would look for signals the computer couldn’t see, invisible, unquantifiable signals. The vibes speculator would look for growth, but not according to any metric that might be spotted by a million growth investors. The vibes speculator would feel the growth.

I’ll have more to say on the topic of vibes speculating. I’ve considered launching a prestigious and expensive newsletter, The Vibes Speculator. Or perhaps a small book on the topic. I’m not sure if the book would be in the category “business” or “humor.”

If you control a budget at a well-funded company I’d consider giving a talk on vibes speculating for an extravagent fee.

If you have thoughts on vibes speculating, get in touch. It’s an exciting conversation.

(Disclaimer: none of what I say is investment advice of any kind. These are the musings of an enthusiastic amateur. If anything the sign that amateurs are talking about the stock market is a classic signal of a market top.)



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