Category Archives: Investor Psychology

Avoiding the Death Zone–the Four Horsemen and the Nifty-Fifty


Climbers say that when you are over 24,000 feet, you enter the “Death Zone. Mistakes become lethal.

The death zone is the name used by mountain climbers for high altitude where there is not enough oxygen for humans to breathe. This is usually above 8,000 metres (26,247 feet).[1] Most of the 200+ climbers who have died on Mount Everest have died in the death zone.[1] Due to the inverse relationship of air pressure to altitude, at the top of Mount Everest the average person takes in about 30% of the oxygen in the air that he or she would take in at sea level; a human used to breathing air at sea level could only be there for a few minutes before they became unconscious.[1] Most climbers have to carry oxygen bottles to be able to reach the top. Visitors become weak and have inability to think straight and struggle making decisions, especially under stress. WIKI

So what does this have to do with investing?  When you pay too much for growth or quality, you may never recover. VALUATIONS MATTER ALWAYS!

First review the Nifty-Fifty Era when fifty stocks were “must own” for institutions in the 1970s due to their growth and quality.  Money managers herded into them similar to this: Money Managers Herding Video.

valuing-growth-stocks-revisiting-the-nifty-fifty  (Note page 22, you as an investor would have eventually broke even, but almost no one would have been able to seat through the 1980’s UNDER-PERFORMING a declining stock market!

Nifty Fifty   Ignore the second half of these notes.

Now think about how the pattern repeated in the Internet years of 1996 to 2000 when MSFT and INTC were the must own stocks of their era.

MSFT Monthly

INTC monthly

Congratulations! If you bought back in 1999/2000 when the press was lauding these “must own” stock for the future, you are now in the black.

Even if you pay too much for stable, high quality companies, you can lose even as the companies grow sales, cash flows and earnings year after year after year. Note: KO_VL_Jan 2013 (See P/E ratio as a proxy for investor enthusiasm and compare to financial metrics).   What is not to like?  So why did the price go sideways for almost a decade after 1998?   Investors adjusted their expectations.

Sun MicroSystems Case Study

One thing to never forget is that the market is mostly efficient but not ALWAYS efficient or correct. 2 plus 2 equals 4 not 10.   The last Internet frenzy gives a perfect case study in Sun Microsystems (SUN).

Sun Microsystems has always intrigued me. For a number of years, it seemed as if the company could do no wrong. During the early 1990′s, Sun occupied the top position in high performance computer workstations, a category of computing that has since virtually disappeared thanks to advances in PC hardware. Despite desperate attempts to unseat it from its leadership position by worthy competitors like HP, DEC, and IBM, Sun was able to prevail.

If you had purchased Sun stock in May of 1994, you’d have seen it skyrocket to nearly 100 times its value by August of 2000, just 6 years later. Had you kept it at the historical high price of $253/share, you’d have seen your investment lose more than 98% of its value when it came back down to just $3.17 a share by October 2008.

SUNW/JAVA stock price meteoric 100x rise and fall


It is easy to pull out a historical chart and say, “Look at the bubble popping.”  But note what the CEO had to say about the price of his company’s stock in 2002:

Q: Sun’s stock hit a high of $64 or adjusted in the chart above of $250. Did you think what tech stocks were doing two years ago was too good to be true?   (Date of the interview was March 2002).

A: No, she trained me well, and the stock made a nice move since we got married. But two years ago (2000) we were selling at 10 times revenues when we were at $64. At 10 times revenues, to give you a 10-year payback, I have to pay you 100% of revenues for 10 straight years in dividends. That assumes I can get that by my shareholders. That assumes I have zero cost of goods sold, which is very hard for a computer company. That assumes zero expenses, which is really hard with 39,000 employees. That assumes I pay no taxes, which is very hard. And that assumes you pay no taxes on your dividends, which is kind of illegal. And that assumes with zero R&D for the next 10 years, I can maintain the current revenue run rate. Now, having done that, would any of you like to buy my stock at $64? Do you realize how ridiculous those basic assumptions are? You don’t need any transparency. You don’t need any footnotes. What were you thinking?

Now, the same music is playing but the players have changed. 
New Four Horsemen1

New Four Horsemen

Are now driving the performance of the general stock indexes:

Fab Five

The Fab Five are “NEED TO OWN” stocks for money managers who wish to NOT underperform in the short-term.

  1. AMZN VL
  2. Goog_VL
  3. FB_VL
  4. MSFT VL
  5. GE_VL   certainly the the financial metrics, growth, and rising stocks prices make these easy “one-decision” stocks.

Let’s take AMZN because this company has a dominant position in retail that seems to be growing.

Amazon Key Stats

  • Trailing PE: 950.63
  • Forward PE:  117.65
  • Market Cap: $311.04 billion
  • Book Value: $26.50 per share
  • Share Price: $663.54
  • Price/Book: 24.27

Read more at How Amazons Long Game Yielded a Retail Juggernaut. Can’t you see many Americans becoming addicted to Amazon’s Prime service? Poor Wal-Mart and other retailers. However, IF AMZN doubles in market cap over the next 10yrs or a 7% annual return, and ends up trading at 21.9x earnings (current SPX p/e) in 2025, it needs to grow net income 55%/yr! Since 1973, 0.28% of companies have grown earnings at 55% for 10 years (Source: O’Shaughnessy). Do you like those odds?  Or are you so smart that you can tell that AMZN will win the lottery?

While valuation augur for CAUTION for stocks IN GENERAL:

GMO 7-Year 2015-11

The Bubble Right in Front of Our Faces

The True Contrarian

A MUST-READ ARTICLE:  The Nifty Fifty Becomes the Feb Five

Because when you enter the death zone you need to remember:


Have a great weekend and Thanksgiving for those in the USA!   How is your analysis of Valeant progressing? I hear crickets.

Update: The top 10 stocks in the S&P 500 are +13.9%. The other 490 are -5.8%. Largest spread since the late 1990s. Can you hear the bells ringing?

The Valeant Saga, Part III; Master Class in Deep Value Investing by Icahn


Part II on Valeant  Let’s pretend you are asked to evaluate the situation for Mr. Ackman.  He is in deep #$%^& and has brought in fresh eyes to advise him. Pershing Square has had to install two hotlines–Hotline 1: for investor suicide calls and Hotline 2: for investors who wish to phone-in death threats.


All bad joking aside, you have a huge pile of information to present the critical issues.  Do you advise Mr. Ackman to buy more, sell immediately, sell down to a “more reasonable amount,” or hold?  Use reason not opinion or emotion to guide you.

Step back and ask what are the important issues?  What is Valeant worth? Can you know that?   Pretend you are an investigative journalist trying to uncover the story.

You can start here with company documents:

What does Valeant do?  Does Valeant have assets or a business method that gives the company a higher sustainable return on capital?   What roll-ups/acquisition firms have been very successful in the past and how was success achieved?

Then you can read all the rumours and commentary swirling around Valeant, but be quick to focus on what you determine to be important.  There are several links in the documents for you to follow further.

If anyone has other information to share please post in the comment section.

Also follow the links to the prior posts on Valeant to read the comment sections.

In a week, we will go through this exercise.   Now YOU have the chance to do the work.

Good luck and have a great weekend!

Excellent Video of Carl Icahn below.

The Ongoing Saga of Valeant Part II

Dead Cat

Post 1 on Valeant is here

Is Valeant the Next Enron–NYT

  1. Bronte Capitals Comments on Valeant Conference Call  The Bronte posts will give you a thorough background on the controversies surrounding Valeant and Philidor.
  2. Valeant and its captive pharmacies-Bronte Capital
  3. Simple Proof that Philidor has shipped drugs where not licensed

A torrent of SeekingAlpha articles:

You can follow the reactions of investors and analysts at Seeking Alpha.

Hedge Fund Herding  The psychological aspects of following others and the pressures of the short-term performance derby. Lesson: Never cease to do YOUR own thinking and analysis.

Ackman down 16% and will hold CC on Valeant this Friday (Oct . 30th)  Below are charts of Ackman’s portfolio. The sharks front-run the potential liquidation as Ackman’s investors go queasy.

Ackman Portfolio

Ackman Blowup?

Link to CC on this Friday at 9 AM EST

Readers should share if they believe there are actionable lessons here for investors in terms of psychology, portfolio management and analysis.  Time is precious so we need to learn the important lessons.

My take-away so far.

First, Valeant’s Low Valuation and Rip Roaring Growth (Aug. 20th 2015 by Barrons  Note the author’s focus on growth–but IF that growth is not sustainable within a franchise (protected above the cost of capital profit margins) then  cause this: changed investor expectations:


And that ladies and gentlemen is called a permanent loss of capital IF investors paid too much for growth in a company doing roll-ups of commodity-like products (generic drugs) at unsustainable retail prices (competition and insurer push-back will cap price gains).


Meanwhile, investors face the second most overvalued equity market in history (Source: Hussman Funds).

Valeant Case Study in Progress


There is an ongoing battle over Valeant’s (VRX) valuation and business model between short-sellers and investors.   This opportunity allows us to improve our analysis skills and understanding of business models.  Also, how will Sequoia, an owner of over 20% of Valeant’s equity, handle their portfolio?

My first question is whether Valeant is a franchise with durable competitive advantages or a roll-up of commodity products dressed-up in a fancy industry (Pharma)?   We should use this case to learn how experienced analysts present their opposing views.

First: What’s not to like?  Valeant has rapid growth with huge profit margins? Of course, the PERFECT investment is a company that has high returns on capital and can constantly redeploy its capital at the same high returns.  The classic case would be the early (pre-2000) history of Wal-Mart (WMT) as the high returns generated from its stores could be redeployed into new stores on the borders of their regions which had economies of scale in administration, advertising, and management costs per unit of sales.  WMT did not have, for example, advantages in gross margins, but net profit margins. See WMT_50 Year SRC Chart.

What would be the source of Valeant’s high returns and competitive advantages?

Sequoia (a well-known value fund with an excellent long-term record) saw strong competitive advantages.  See their recent investor transcript:

Sequoia-Fund-Transcript-2015-August  Note the date of the transcript and the questions regarding Valeant concerning Philador and Sequoia’s 20% concentration.

Other investors (Charlie Munger, Citron) disagreed:

April 2, 2015 from

…..Recently, during a shareholders meeting for the Daily Journal Corporation, a newspaper where he serves as Chairman, Munger had this to say about Valeant Pharmaceuticals Intl Inc. (TSX:VRX)(NYSE:VRX): “Valeant is like ITT and Harold Geneen come back to life, only the guy is worse this time.”

What exactly does Munger mean by this?

A little history lesson

Who exactly was Harold Geneen? And what did he do at ITT that’s so infamous?

Geneen took over ITT Corp in 1959 when it was still mostly a telegraph and telephone company. After being blocked by the FCC in an attempt to buy the ABC television network in 1963, Geneen decided to diversify away from the company’s traditional business and completed more than 300 acquisitions during the decade in areas such as hotels, insurance, for-profit education, and the company that made Wonder Bread.

Geneen used cheap debt to finance these acquisitions, which later proved to be the company’s downfall. After Geneen’s retirement as CEO in 1977, subsequent CEOs spent much of the next two decades paying off the debt by selling most of Geneen’s acquisitions.

Is Valeant really comparable?

On the surface, Valeant looks like it could be pretty comparable to ITT. Since merging with Biovail in 2010, Valeant has made more than 30 different acquisitions, most of which were paid for with debt or by issuing shares.

Since the end of 2010, Valeant’s debt has skyrocketed from US$3.6 billion to US$15.3 billion. Shares outstanding have also gone up considerably from 196 million to 335 million. It’s obvious that Munger is onto something.

But on the other hand, I’m not sure Valeant is anywhere close to being as bad as ITT was. For one thing, all of the company’s acquisitions are at least in the same sector. ITT was buying up hotels and car dealerships, while Valeant is buying up pharmaceutical companies. Valeant’s efforts scale up a whole lot better than ITT’s ever did.

There’s also a bit of hypocrisy coming from Munger on this issue. Munger is actively involved in a company that does pretty much the same thing as ITT did back in the 1960s. Sure, Berkshire doesn’t use much debt or engage in hostile takeovers, but Berkshire and ITT have more in common than Munger is willing to admit. Both attempted to dominate the business world using a roll-up acquisition strategy; Buffett and Munger were just a little more patient with their plan.

But just because Munger exaggerates how bad Valeant’s acquisition spree has been doesn’t mean the stock is necessarily a buy at these levels. The company had earnings of just $2.67 per share in 2014, putting the stock at a P/E ratio of nearly 100 times. Yes, earnings are expected to grow substantially in 2015, but the outlook is simple. For the stock to continue performing, the company must continue to make acquisitions.

After making more than 30 acquisitions in just a few years, it’s hard to keep finding deals that will not only be big enough to make a difference, but will also prove to be good long-term buys. There’s so much pressure on management to keep buying that a serious misstep could be coming. If that happens, this hyped stock could head down in a hurry.

Although I don’t buy Munger’s alarmist concerns about Valeant, I agree with him on one thing. The stock just isn’t attractive at current levels.

A potential acquisition target, Allergan, Inc., points out its worries over Valeant’s business model. investor-presentation-may-27-2014-1 on VRX

Citron, a short-seller, attacks with a report: Valeant-Part-II-final-b. Valeant is another “Enron.”  Use the search box on this blog and type in Enron and follow links to review that case.  Enron never showed the profit margins that Valeant is currently showing.   NEVER take another person’s statement on faith.  Check it out for yourself. 

Valeant today (October 26th, 2015) counters Citron and answers investors’ concerns with 10-26-15-Investor-presentation-Final4 Valeant and video presentation:

Ok, so what is Valeant worth?   Can you make such an assessment?  How do you think Mr. Market will weigh-in?   If you owned a 20% stake in Valeant, how would you manage the position?   What are the main issues to focus on?

This may be too difficult to analyze for many of us but we have  or will have many documents and reports to provide insights.  Remember that there are two sides to every narrative. Can we move closer to reality or the “truth”?

Note and type in VRX.   What type of investor owns Valeant?   Will momentum investors stick and stay?

Your comments welcome.

Sign up for Whitney Tilson’s emails on investing.  Worth a look:


Brazil EM

Friday, September 25, 2015

No Mas, No Mas! The Vale Chronicles (Continued)!

Some of my Brazilian readers seem to be upset that I used “No Mas”, Spanish words, rather than Portuguese ones, in the title. To be honest I was not thinking about language, but instead about a boxing match from decades ago, where Roberto Duran used these words to give up in his bout with Sugar Ray Leonard.

I have used Vale as an illustrative example in my applied corporate finance book, and as a global mining company, with Brazilian roots, it allows me to talk about how financial decisions (on where to invest, how much to borrow and how dividend payout) are affected by the ups and downs of the commodity business and the government’s presence as the governance table. In November 2014, I used it as one of two companies (Lukoil was the other one) that were trapped in a risk trifecta, with commodity, currency and country risk all spiraling out of control. In that post, I made a judgment that Vale looked significantly under valued and followed through on that judgment by buying its shares at $8.53/share. I revisited the company in April 2015, with the stock down to $6.15, revalued it, and concluded that while the value had dropped, it looked under valued at its prevailing price. The months since that post have not been good ones for the investment, either, and with the stock down to about $5.05, I think it is time to reassess the company again.


John Chew: At least the author has a process to reassess his investment.  I believe the critical flaw in his analysis (easy to say in hindsight) was not noting the massive mal-investment due to distorted credit markets caused by central bank policies. To normalize iron ore prices you would need pre-distortion prices going back twenty-five years.

Read more: No Mas!

Capitulation in Gold (Continued….)

Continuing from where we left off in the capitulation series, a case study,

Gold-COT (1)

Silver-COT (1)


The above charts show the massive swing in sentiment as speculators moved from long to short expecting gold to fall INEVITABLY to $1,000 or so the pundits say:

What's uglier than gold

Demand for gold bullion remains stronger than the supply offered through the futures market–the co-basis is rising:


Meanwhile, could divergences be developing in miners vs. gold? Note prior bottoms in 1986 (bear market rally) and 2000, the beginning of a major rally.

bear divergence



Mining stocks shunned


This post is not a recommendation but compiling the case study of capitulation in gold and associated miners. Remember Why Gold Mining is a Tough Business_Pollitt (a MUST read!) and Why-is-gold-mining-such-a-crappy-business Summary and…

ray-dalio (2)

Templeton  John Chew: Don’t ever just concentrate in one gold stock since the company and operational risks can be high.  SDGJ by Sprott offers diversification and sensible companies. Sprott Junior ETF Mining. Why even consider investing in such a bad industry? Because of price and the counter-cyclical nature of these stocks. You buy when the industry is losing money and hated and sell when the pundits recommend it and the trend is forever extrapolated higher.  There is no law that miners won’t go lower; miners are extremely volatile moving up and down 10% in one day.

What Happens When You Buy Assets Down 80%? farber

We’ve done a lot of articles on value and drawdowns on the blog before (search the archives).  I was curious what happens when you bought the US equity sectors back when they were really hammered (French Fama to 1920s).

Average 3 year nominal returns when buying a sector down since 1920s:

60% = 57%

70% = 87%

80% = 172%

90% = 240%  The average of 80% to 90% down is a triple.


Average 3 year nominal returns when buying an industry down since 1920s:

60% = 71%

70% = 96%

80% = 136%

90% = 115%


Average 3 year nominal returns when buying a country down since 1970s:

60% = 107%

70% = 116%

80% = 118%

90% = 156%

Venezuela in Collapse; What we are reading

Venezuelas Crisis Nears Tipping Point  The failure of socialism and interference in free exchange reaps a bitter harvest for the people. 
      3.   John Paulson on Gold – Reuters
      4.   Bill Ackman on CEOs – CNBC
      5.   Crossfit’s Business Model – Quartz
      6.   A Conversation with Peltz and Ackman – Jim Cramer (CNBC)
      7.   Viewing Stocks As Bonds

 – Donald Yacktman

     9.   Podcasts: The Innovator’s Dilemma
      10. Letters: FairholmeTocqueville | Third Point | ML | GMO
HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND!  Sign up at for news on investing.
The End of the Central Bank Mal-Investment now comes deflation. 

Perpetual Capitulation


An ode to the end of a con

How long can deception go on?

When prices are set By banks printing debt

All trust in the “markets” is gone!

There is no stand-alone Narrative regarding gold today (June 2013), as there was in 1895. Today gold is understood from a Common Knowledge perspective only as a shadow or reflection of a powerful stand-alone Narrative regarding central banks, particularly the Fed … what I will call the Narrative of Central Banker Omnipotence. Like all effective Narratives it’s simple: central bank policy WILL determine market outcomes. There is no political or fundamental economic issue impacting markets that cannot be addressed by central banks. Not only are central banks the ultimate back-stop for market stability (although that is an entirely separate Narrative), but also they are the immediate arbiters of market outcomes. Whether the market goes up or down depends on whether central bank policy is positive or negative for markets. The Narrative of Central Banker Omnipotence does NOT imply that the market will always go up or that central bank policy will always support the market. It connotes that whatever the central bank policy might be, it will drive a market outcome; whatever the market outcome, it was driven by a central bank policy.

The stronger the Narrative of Central Banker Omnipotence, the more likely it is that the price of gold goes down. The weaker the Narrative – the less established the Common Knowledge that central bank policy determines market outcomes – the more likely it is that the price of gold will go up. In other words, it’s not central bank policy per se that makes the price of gold go up or down, it’s Common Knowledge regarding the ability of central banks to control economic outcomes that makes the price of gold go up or down.

Instead, the focus of the mainstream Narrative effort moved almost entirely towards what open-ended QE signaled for the Fed’s ability and resolve to create a self-sustaining economic recovery in the US. And it won’t surprise you to learn that this Narrative effort was overwhelmingly supportive of the notion that the Fed could and would succeed in this effort, that the Fed’s policies had proven their effectiveness at lifting the stock market and would now prove their effectiveness at repairing the labor market. Huzzah for the Fed!


gold IR

Negative News Tends to Cluster at MAJOR bottoms:

  1. Gold Could Go To $350
  2. Gold Sends a Message
  3. Gold Could Plunge to $800

My Jaw Dropped: Long gold, short US stocks, Short US Dollar

low gold


commodities and emerging market equities


Will the US Dollar Continue its Rampage Higher? 272660136-Raoul-Pal-GMI-July2015-MonthlyRate hikes and goldRate hikes are “bad” for gold?

rising rates bad for gold
Zweig Calls HighStocktoCommodityAtAllTimeHighInvestors above flee tangible assets for financial assets. Taken to an extreme, input costs for companies will go to zero and profit margins to infinity. Reality?

Biotech Fantasy2Biotech Fantasy

Capitulation IV; Analysts Like to Herd; Agony and Euphoria

Miner Sentiment

Bloomberg hating on gold. “Looks like a short”, “Nothing uglier”, “Not even an asset”…AFTER miners drop 90%.

What's uglier than gold

“The Direxion Daily Gold Miners Bear 3X Shares, or DUST, is up a whopping 99 percent in July.” via @

Grant on gold July 22 2015 Zweig   The same analyst who suggested buying miners within 1% of the all-time top in Sept. 17, 2011 now says gold is a “doorstop” in July 17, 2015.  NOW, he tells me!  Journalists chase price and sentiment.


Goldman sees gold to $1,000 (July 2015) and Goldman sees gold at 1840 by end 2012  Note a pattern?


Media piles on late in trend:

Perhaps today the absurdity has reached the apex of its crescendo with this utterly ridiculous “letter to gold bug” published by Marketwatch:   It’s time to surrender and let the yellow metal fall to its bear market low

Better analysis: Gold Warns Again and Heavy wears the crown

yen and gold

Amazon Beats


amzn 1 yr

How analysts react after Amazon reports–follow the herd recommendations regardless of price. Analysis?

The headlines reported that AMZN’s sales were up 20% year over year for Q2 and that net income had swung from a loss of $123mm to a profit of $92 million yr/yr for Q2.  While those numbers are what they are, sales growth from Q1 to Q2 was a mere 2.9% – pretty much in-line with the rate of inflation.

The media propagandists attributed AMZN’s highly “surprising” quarter to big gains in its AWS business segment, which is its cloud-computing business.  However, if we drill down into the numbers made available in its 8-K, we find that the AWS segment represents just 7.7% of AMZN’s revenue stream vs. 6.6% of revenues in Q1.   Sure seems like a lot of manic hype over well less than 10% of AMZN’s business model.

As it turns out, AMZN’s AWS business model, like everything else it does, is seeded in low quality sources of revenue that will ultimately prove to be unsustainable.  Why?  See this comment sent to me by someone who read my Amazon research report and who used to specialize in high tech accounting for Silicon Valley start-ups:

I audited many of the high fliers that crashed and burned, took companies public & was at the printers the day the bubble really burst which ultimately tabled that IPO…Amazon Web Services is growing by leaps and bounds and a significant amount of those $’s are coming from venture backed start-ups. Almost the entire Silicon Valley and other startups outside the Valley use AWS. Venture backed startups have exploded just as AWS revenues have exploded…That segment of their business will get walloped which right now seems to be a main source of their operating income.  

Read more: Dot con

Notice the difference between mining stocks and Amazon–Deja-Vu of the late 1999’s/2000.  Remember the music Sugar Ray

amzn fomo


Capitulation Selling-A Real-Time Case Study


The chart above shows an index of gold and silver miners relative to the S&P 500, breaking now to a new extreme.  Will the world need to produce and find more minerals and metals or will the world just need health care and bio-tech?


The read line is the co-basis that is rising as the dollar rises relative to gold. This indicates rising demand for physical and more futures selling. Bullish.

So who is selling?

The Fed’s decision to restock the rate toolkit has got the gold market very nervous,” George Zivic, a New York-based portfolio manager at OppenheimerFunds Inc., which oversees $235 billion, said by phone. “We have already seen that gold did not perform as a safe-haven investment. There is not a single motivating reason to own gold.”


Who knows, perhaps money managers are funding their long equity positions with short gold positions.

“It looks like the end of an era for gold,” said Howie Lee, analyst at Phillip Securities in Singapore, adding that China had been grappling with oversupply after importing a record volume in 2013.


Money managers (a few of them) finally see gold as undervalued.





I am posting this so as to have a record of certain market events.  I seek out where the most marginal or urgent seller is operating AFTER a long decline (four years).