Archive for the ‘Investment process’ Category.


It is widely understood that stock prices are forward looking – they discount the future expectations of cash flow of a company. In bear markets, these expectations are lowered as markets extrapolate recent trends (and assume a recession forever). On the flip side, the reverse happens during bull markets, when investors extrapolate the recent good results into the future and assume that there will be no hiccups along the way.

Finally, we have markets like now, where investors have gone ahead and extrapolated ‘hope’ and discounted that too.

The idea funnel

I maintain a 50+ list of stocks which I track on a regular basis and have created starter positions in a few companies which appear promising. The process i follow is to create a small position (usually 0.5% to 1% of my personal portfolio) and then track the company for a few quarters/ years.

In atleast 50% of the cases or more, I realize over time, that I am not too excited about the prospects of the company and exit the stock immediately. In a few cases, however the company and its stock may still hold promise. In such cases, I start raising the position size in the portfolios I manage.

The above approach allows me to run experiments with lots of ideas and controlled risk.

Discounting infinity and beyond

I am now noticing that some of the positions I hold on a trial basis have started running up based on hope.

Let me take one example to illustrate – Repro India.

Repro India is a printing business with operations in India and Africa. The company performs print jobs for publishers for all kinds of printed materials like books, reports etc. The company has had a chequered past with uneven performance.

The company was growing till 2012-14 with rising sales in India and Africa. The return on capital of this business was mediocre as the printing business involves high fixed assets, high and sticky receivables with average operating margins in the range of 15-18%.

The export business in Africa went into a nose dive in 2014 due to the drop in oil prices. The company was not able to collects its receivables as these African countries faced currency issues and hence incurred losses. Since then the company has been slowly recovering the receivables and nursing the business back to health. In addition the domestic business continues to be competitive and sub-optimal due to the lack of any competitive advantage

I would normally avoid such a company unless there are some prospects of improvement or change in the future. One such possibility exists for the company. This is the new BOD – books on demand business of the company.

The BOD business is similar to an aggregation model followed by companies such as uber or Airbnb. In the case of repro, the company has a tie up with Ingram (another US based aggregator) and other publishers in India to digitize their titles and carry them on its platform. These titles are then made available through ecommerce sellers such as Amazon or flipkart. When a user like you and me finds this title and purchases it, Repro prints the copy and delivers it you.

The business model is depicted in the picture below (From the company’s annual report).

The above business model ensures that there is no inventory or receivables for Repro or the publisher. The payment is received upfront and the product is delivered at a later date. This is a win-win business model for all the value chain participants as it eliminates the need for working capital. As a result, this business model is able to earn a high return on capital with the same or lower margins than regular publishing

Illustration from the company’s annual report

Repro is doing around 40-50 Crs of sales in the BOD segment and growing at around 70-80% per annum. The company has loaded around 1.4 Mn titles on its platform and plans to load another 10 Mn+ titles in the future. This business is at breakeven now. The BOD business has a lot of promise and it’s quite possible that the company will do well.

However, success in the business is not guaranteed. The company needs to scale its operations and could face competition from other print companies in the future (as the entry barriers are not too high).

The market of course does not care about the uncertainty. There are times, when markets refuse to discount good performance in the present and then there are time like now, when the market is ready to discount the ‘hope’ of good performance in the future. The stock sells at around 100 times the current earnings. As the legacy printing business continues to be mediocre with poor economics, it is likely that the high valuations are mainly due to the exciting prospects of the BOD business

I had created a small position a couple of months back and have been tracking the company. The stock price has risen by around 50%, 60% since then even though the company is just above breakeven on a consolidated level.

I am optimistic about the prospects, but the execution needs to be tracked. I am not willing to pay for hope and so I am a passive observer for now.



I recently responded to an email Q&A from PJ Pahygiannis. We covered some of the following questions and more
– Describe your investing strategy and portfolio organization. What valuation methods do you use? Where do you get your investing ideas from?
– How long will you hold a stock and why? How long does it take to know if you are right or wrong on a stock?
– What are some of your favorite companies, brands, or even CEOs? What do you think are some of the most well run companies? How do you judge the quality of the management?
– What kind of bargains are you finding in this market? Do you have any favorite sectors or avoid certain areas, and why?
– How do you feel about the market today? Do you see it as overvalued? What concerns you the most?

My response has been published on You can read the entire Q&A here. I hope you find the Q&A useful


A commonly used thumb rule in investing is that a company selling below a PE of 10 is likely to be cheap and one above 30 is likely to be expensive. I have been guilty of using this rule, often subconsciously and have paid a heavy price for it.

The advantage of writing a blog for 10+ years is that I don’t have to go anywhere to find examples of mistakes. I can always find one I have committed and written about it.

To see the example of a PE driven investment gone wrong, read the analysis of Facor alloys here. In a year’s time, I realized that I had made a mistake and exited this position with a 12% loss – you can read my analysis here.  If I had held on to the position, I would have lost close to 85% of my investment, even as the stock continued to sell at a very low valuation (current PE being 3)

Reasoning from first principles

In the above video, elon musk talks about reasoning from first principles. Why should one do that?

Reasoning from first principles leads one to understand the fundamentals factors driving the issue in question. So how do we apply this concept to investing?

I wrote the following on it


Quite simply, the one absolute and immutable fact of investing is that the value of an asset is the sum of the discounted free cash flow, it will generate over its life time. The above statement does not mean that an asset cannot sell above or below this value from time to time, but anyone holding an asset over its life time, cannot make more than the cash flows its generates over this period.

Lets break the above point down into its key components

– Free cash flow
– Lifetime
– Discounted

You can find multiple definitions of cash flow, but the one which I like to use is the cash you can receive from the asset, without impairing its long term earning capacity. Lets apply this to a simpler example than a company – A house or a flat where it is easier to analyze the cash flows.

Free cash flow – Can be estimated as follows : Gross rent – taxes – maintenance expense – other overheads

Maintenance expense usually involves repairing the house, cleaning it after the tenant vacates it and any other expense incurred to keep it in a rentable conditions. Other overheads can be society & broker charges to let out a house etc. So after paying out all these costs, the cash left behind would be the recurring free cash flow to an owner.

Lifetime –  This is the period an asset can be expected to generate a cash flow. In case of a flat or house one can take as it as 30 years, before one has to permanently replace it with a new construction. In an extreme condition you can stretch it to 50 years, however try letting out a very old house and you may realize that the rentals are much below the market rates.

Discount – The definition of discounting can be found here. Usually this depends on the riskiness of an asset.

So how would you value the house or flat now?

The gross rental yields these days are usually around 2-3%. At these yields , one is in effect paying 50 times pre-tax free cash flow. This of course assumes 100% occupancy and no taxes.

Over the long term these rentals usually follow the inflation rate. So over the life of a flat or a house, you will earn back around 60% of the cost in the form of rental. The value of land underlying a house or a flat has been known to appreciate at the nominal GDP rate (GDP growth + inflation rate).

If you put all these cash flows together and discount it at around 10%, the final DCF value comes to about 1.5X purchase price. In other words, the asset is generating an IRR of 12%.

Is this cheap or expensive? It depends on what you believe the price of land will be 30 years from now and if 12% is good enough for the risk and effort of managing a rental property.

The problem with PE ratios
As you can see from the above example, the PE ratio is dependent on several variables which we had to estimate upfront. In the case of some assets such as a rental property, it may be possible to estimate it with a certain level of confidence.

This is however not always the case

Let say, for the sake of example, that the house turns out to be on an old burial ground where there are ghosts and so one want to rent or buy that land 🙂 . What happens then? Well the entire investment goes to zero.

On the other hand, lets assume that the government announces a large IT park close to the property and the rental go up by 5X. Irrespective of the actual increase in the property price, the cash flow based valuation definitely goes up as the rentals have increased drastically. This is what has occurred in several cities across the country in the last 10 years.

So the initial PE turns out to be cheap or expensive depending on the subsequent cash flows and terminal value of the asset

PE ratio in equities is even more misleading
In the case of companies, the problem we face is that the cash flows are quite difficult to estimate, there is no fixed duration and the terminal value in the real long run for any business is usually 0.

In the example of Facor alloys, the PE appeared to be low based on the recent cash flow (as of 2010) which had been in excess of 30 Crs. As a result, if one assumed that these cash flows would persist, the company appeared cheap at  3-4 times cash flow.

The above assumption turned out to be wrong. The cash flows were at a peak due to a cyclical high in demand from the steel industry. In addition to a crash in the demand, the management diverted the cash flows to another sister firm which demonstrated poor corporate governance.

In effect, the expected cash flow and duration turned out to be wrong. In such a scenario, the PE ratio was simply misleading.

As a counter example, consider the case of CRISIL (a past holding) which has always appeared expensive based on the usual measures of valuation. However the company has delivered above average returns as it has generated the expected cash flows without much variability in a fairly predictable fashion. The competitive position continues to improve and the company is likely to keep growing with a high return on invested capital for the foreseeable future.

Understand the business
The only way to evaluate if a company is over or underpriced is to be able to predict its cash flow. The higher the valuation, the longer the prediction period.

So if a company is selling for 2 times earning and you are fairly confident that the current cash flow will persist for 5 years, then you have a bargain. On the other hand if you are looking at a commodity company whose cash flows depend on the price of a volatile commodity, then making any prediction is usually a waste of time. You may be able to look at some long price charts of the underlying commodity and get lucky from time to time, but good luck with trying to make it keystone of your investing strategy.

On the flip side, if you are looking at a company selling for 100 times earnings, one needs to have a high degree of confidence on the expected cash flow for 20+ years and beyond. Anyone claiming such clairvoyance is worth of worship !!

The sweet spot is usually when the valuations appear reasonable (in 15-25 range) and one can make a reasonable estimate of the cash flow based on an in-depth understanding of the company, its industry and the competitive situation.

In summary, the best way to approach an investment candidate is to filter out the extreme cases and then dig into the business as much as possible. This should help one make a reasonable estimate of the cash flows and its duration. Once you have a reasonable fix on these key inputs, doing a valuation and comparing it with the market price is the easy part.

Homework: Is coal india Ltd a value stock?

It is selling for 10 times earnings net of cash for sure. Personally I think the PE ratio here is meaningless. One is making a bet that Coal will continue to be a dominant fuel for us for the next 10-20 years in face of dropping cost of solar and other energy sources such as Natural gas. In addition there is also the headwind of climate change regulations and drop in prices globally. In short I don’t know enough to predict the cash flow and hence the idea is a pass