I have nothing against the airline industry, other than the fact that it is injurious to investor wealth.  There are other industries such as sugar which fall in the same group, where most of the players are not even able to meet their cost of capital over a business cycle.

I got several comments, where it was noted that there are some companies such as spice jet in the airline industry could turn out to be successful. A comparable example is bharti airtel which has done well in a fairly competitive industry with poor profitability (telecom)

I do not deny the fact that it is possible to find a profitable company which manages to buck the trend. There are often profitable companies in terrible industries and poor performers even in profitable ones (such as FMCG)

A probabilistic exercise

Let play a game of chance. Suppose I give you two dices and say that if you roll a 1,1 or  6,6 (both dices turn up one or six), I will pay you  5 for every one rupee you wager. Will you play this game?

If you understand the concept of expected value, you will decline it (read here about it and I will strongly recommend you to understand this concept thoroughly). You may get lucky once a while (roughly 5% of the times) but over a long period of time you will lose money by playing this game (you will lose 1 rupee 95% of the times and gain 5 rupees, 5 % of the times giving a net loss of .7 for the game)

So what does this game have anything to do with investing in an airline? Let me explain –

If you read through the previous post closely, you would have noticed that roughly around 16 or more airlines have failed till date and all the current ones are also losing money (some of these could fail too –at least for their shareholders). So even if spice jet or some other airline succeeds, you are talking of a 6-7% success rate in the industry.

Will you play a game where the probability of success is less than 10%? If yes what should be the payoff?

Well, venture capitalists who make such investments (low probability of success) typically expect a payoff of 20 or more for every rupee invested, to earn a respectable return on capital. Can you expect the same from spicejet or Jet airways?

But I am not putting all my money on airlines

You can make an argument that one is not really putting all his money in the airline industry and hence the above probabilities don’t apply. That is really not the case, as the said probabilities do apply to the specific idea, if not to the entire portfolio.

At the same time think of it – If you put a certain portion of your portfolio in industries with poor economics and high levels of failure, are you not setting yourself up for failure?  The ex-ante probability of success in all such cases is quite low. If you are really a smart investor, does it not make sense to invest in industries where the chance of success is high to begin with and then on top of that you can apply your considerable skills to improve the eventual outcome.

The counter argument

I can only think of two counter arguments to my logic

The first one is that if one has some special skills or insight into the industry and thus an edge over the market, it makes sense to invest in that industry inspite of the problems. Even in such as case, I cannot think of a scenario where most of the investors would have a considerable edge in a wide range of industries (including the lousy ones).

The second counter argument is the graham style of investing – pick a lousy company so cheap, that when the industry turns a bit, this company goes from a bargain price to just about cheap. I have done this several times in the past and made some money from it. This is however a 1-2 year game of cycling through such stocks on a regular basis, and constantly looking for the next one. There is nothing wrong with it except, that it requires wide diversification and constant effort to look for new ideas.

Ignoring industries with poor economics or governance?

Does the above post mean that one should just ignore and never try to learn about an industry which is known for poor economics? I think that would be silly. It is not like one will get some kind of infection or loose money just by reading about such an industry. One should practice safe investing, but that does not mean one should not learn about these companies.

Let me give an example – I am quite allergic to real estate companies. The industry has extremely poor governance, unethical practices and is a cesspool of corruption. At the same time, it does not mean that one should never study or look at real estate companies.

I am actually reading the annual reports of several real estate companies and find some of them interesting and surprisingly clean! The question I am now grappling with is how do you value a realesate company? That will most probably be the next post

Look for diamonds in a diamond mine

I think one should be intellectually honest with oneself. If you genuinely think that you have considerable insight into some industry and can do well inspite of the poor economics of the industry – then more power to you.

In my own case, inspite of understanding the poor economics of the sugar or metals industry, I have invested some money in the past and learned an expensive lesson.

I think it is far more profitable for investors to look for diamonds in a diamond mine, than go searching for one in a coal mine.

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