I have been reading a few behavioral finance books on the various biases which impact us as investors (and in other walks of life too). I have picked up this topic of study for a very specific reason.

I have been analyzing my investment process and am realizing that the weakest link continues to be the various biases which commonly impact us. If I look back at the last 15 years of my investing life, I can safely say that I was fluent in the basics in the first couple of years and could identify good ideas by the fifth year.

The above statement would imply that I was an expert by year 5 and poised to be a good investor. Unfortunately the reality was far from that – you can read my journey till 2008 here. Knowing what to do is different from doing it.

Let me list a few biases and how I was impacted by them. I will also try to explore what one can do to avoid them

Social proof

This is a bias where in one is influenced by other investors and the general mood of the crowd. I wrote about a mistake I committed a long time ago – purchase of SSI and IT mutual funds during the dot com boom.

Although I was new to investing (around 3-4 years), I understood the importance of valuation and of not overpaying for stocks. Inspite of being cautious for the majority of my portfolio, I still went ahead and committed 25% of it to IT related stocks. As I look back, I recall that the main reason was that a few of my friends were investing heavily in this sector (and getting rich). In addition to this, a nice and pretty broker also recommended a few hot mutual funds (such as ICICI technology fund) which were sure to make me rich in a few years.

How could I miss?

I managed to lose 80% of my capital in a short period of six months. This was unmistakable evidence that I had made a spectacularly wrong decision. Ever since then, I have followed a few simple rules to avoid getting influenced by the crowd

Do not buy hot stocks. If the media is talking a lot about some hot sector or all my friends are getting into it, I will just avoid it. As a result I did not touch the real estate and infrastructure stocks during the 2007-2008 period and spared myself of a lot of agony

– Do not take stock tips from anyone, especially pretty girls 🙂

Anchoring bias

This is a bias wherein one gets fixated on a variable in the decision making process and uses that to make all subsequent decision. This is a difficult bias to recognize and overcome.

I had been following Crompton greaves limited for some time and decided to buy the stock in 2011 after the company reported poor results in the first quarter. The stock dropped quite a bit after that and I started purchasing the stock as it ‘appeared’ cheaper compared to the past results.

In the case of stocks, investor returns are dependent on future performance, but the data to evaluate that comes from past performance. It is an art, more than science, to evaluate the past results and arrive at an appropriate conclusion. In the case of Crompton, I got anchored to the price and the past fundamentals and did not weigh the state of the industry and management issues more heavily.

How should one avoid this bias? Once you have purchased the stock, it is very difficult to avoid the anchor of the purchase price and past performance. The best approach I know of is to be aware of this bias and constantly question your reason for holding a stock.

Commitment and consistency bias

This is a tendency to be consistent with one’s behavior in the past. It is a good way to behave in life – if you have been a decent and honest person once, you want to continue and be committed to that behavior.

However this behavior can cause a lot of trouble for an investor.  Once you have purchased a stock, there is a tendency to be committed to it and as a result one tends to underweight any negative information about the company.

Look at any stock boards – majority of the investors are talking about the positives of the company. If you are already invested in the company, does it make sense to find any additional information which just confirms your belief? How will that benefit your decision?

I have suffered from the same bias and I can’t think an easy way to avoid it. I have purchased value traps like Cheviot Company and held onto them even though the company continues to deliver mediocre performance and the stock price was stagnant.

The approach I take now is to rank all the companies in my portfolio in a descending order of attractiveness. This forces me evaluate more idea more objectively. Once I have my rank, I compare any new idea with the last idea in the list. If the new idea is better than the last one on the list, it gets replaced.

The title of this post comes from the concept of Darwinian selection – kill the weakest ideas to make way for the stronger one. This also reduces the impact of the commitment and consistent bias.

I plan to cover additional biases such as the authority bias, availability bias and more in the subsequent posts.

 
 

About

Supreme industries is a leader in the plastics processing industry and processed around 2.45 Lac metric tonnes in 2012. The company processes polymers and resins into various plastic products. The broad verticals for the company are as follows

– Plastic piping including CPVC pipes
– Consumer products such as molded furniture
– Packaging products such as specialty and cross laminated films
– Industrial products such as Industrial components and Material handling products
– Construction business wherein the company has developed a corporate park on some excess land in Mumbai

The company has around 22 plants across the country which has helped it in reducing the transportation cost for the products (an important factor for operating margins).

Financials

The company achieved a topline of around 2900 Crs and is expected to close the current year at around 3500 Crs. In addition the company earned a profit of around 240 Crs (8% Net margins) and should be able to achieve a single digit growth during the year. The lower growth in net profits is due to lack of sale of commercial property in the current fiscal.

The company has been able to maintain an ROE in excess of 25% for the last 6 years. The debt equity levels have dropped from around 1.5 to around 0.6 during this. The company has also been able to improve the asset turns from around 2.5 in 2007 to 3.5 in 2012 as a result of an improvement in working capital turns (mainly driven by lower receivables as a percentage of sales).

The company has also improved its net margins from around 4% in 2007 to around 8% in 2012 driven by an improvement in overhead costs and depreciation as % of sales.

Positives

The company operates in a commoditized industry and as a result several products of the company earn low margins. The company is now focused on developing new products (called valued added products) such as CPVC pipes, cross laminated files and composite cylinders which have a higher operating margin (17%) than the other commoditized products such as molded furniture. The company plans to increase the contribution of these value added products to around 35% by FY15 and expects to improve the overall operating margins to around 15-16% levels

The company has a wide distribution and production network and well established brands in the plastics product space. The management has been able to use these assets effectively in entering higher margin products while exiting the commoditized segments at the same time.

The per capita consumption of plastics is around 7 kg versus almost 30-70 Kg in other countries. As a result, the industry is likely to see sustained growth for sometime as the per capita consumption increases with a rise in the income levels. In addition to the demand tailwind, companies like supreme are likely to benefit further as the industry continues to consolidate and the market share shifts to the organized players.

Risks

The company operates in a highly fragmented and commoditized industry. Although the company has been able to maintain the margins and a high return on capital by constantly introducing higher margin products, the moat or competitive advantage is not deep.

Brand name and a wide distribution network provide some level of competitive advantage, but the resulting moat is not wide and deep. As a result the company will have to constantly innovate to keep the return on capital high. The profitability could get hurt if there is a rapid commoditization of the various segments.

Competitive analysis

The plastics industry is a fragmented industry with a large unorganized sector, especially in commoditized products. The company has different competitors in each segment of operations.

In the case of PVC pipes the key players are finolex, chemplast sanmar, Jain irrigation, astral poly etc. In the packaging products there are around 6-7 large players and several un-organized ones. In consumer products nilkamal and Wimplast are the two key players. Finally in the industrial component segment there are a wide range of players ranging from Motherson sumi to Sintex industries.

Most major players earn an ROE of around 13-14%, with high leverage , except for astral poly which has an ROE of around 22% with low levels of debt (due its focus on a high margin and high growth product – CPVC pipes).

Overall the industry does not have high return on capital- due to the commoditized nature of the products. Supreme industries has been able to break away from the pack due to a portfolio approach to products (exit low margin products and move into high margin ones).

Management quality checklist

–          Management compensation – compensation is around 5% of net profits. This is on the higher side, though not excessive

–          Capital allocation record – The capital allocation record of the company has above quite good in the last 6-7 years. The management has been investing in high return projects and has also used some of the cash flow to reduce the level of debt. The ROE as a result has improved from the 20% levels to 30%+ levels in 2012

–          Shareholder communication – adequate. Management provides decent amount of disclosure in the annual reports and also conducts quarterly conference calls to discuss about the performance.

–          Accounting practice – appears conservative

–          Conflict of interest – none appear to be of concern

–          Performance track record – the management has been fairly transparent about its performance goals (growth and return on capital) and has been achieving them consistently in the last few years. In addition the management has been in this business for the last 40+ years and understand it very well.

Valuation

A discounted cash flow with conservative assumption of around 7-8% margins and 15% topline growth (10% volume growth + 5% inflation) gives a fair value in the range of around 530-570 per share. The growth assumption appears to be conservative as the company has delivered a 12% volume growth in the past. The risk is mainly around net margins which could come under pressure if there is faster commoditization in the industry.

The company has sold between a PE of around 8-9 and 18-20 in the past. The current PE of around 15 is at a midpoint and as a result the company does not appear to be overvalued.

Finally the company has shown a higher growth and Return on capital as compared to almost all other players in the industry (except astral poly) and hence has a higher PE (but not much) than others.

In summary the company does not appear overvalued and may be undervalued by around 30-35% from its fair value.

Conclusion

Supreme industries operates in a growth industry (due to increasing demand for plastic products) where the average profitability is quite poor. The company has been able to perform better than the other players by being focused on the newer and higher margin products. The management is as focused on ROC (return on capital) as on growth as compared to several other players who are pursuing growth at low returns.

Inspite of the above average returns and competent management, the company is unlikely to enjoy very high valuations like the FMCG industry as the overall profitability of the industry is low and the pricing power of branded products not very high. Supreme industries appears to be modestly undervalued and the returns are more likely to come from a consistent increase in profits than from revaluation by the market.

Stocks discussed in this post are for educational purpose only and not recommendations to buy or sell. Please contact a certified investment adviser for your investment decisions. Please read disclaimer on the blog.

 
 

‘Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked ‘– Warren Buffett.

It’s now clear to the entire world, that we as a country have been swimming naked. If you look at the last 50 years of our history, the 2003-2008 period looks more like an aberration or accident. We benefited from a wave of liquidity and enthusiasm for the BRIC countries (including India) and as a result were able to grow in excess of 8%, inspite of not having the institutional structure (such as a responsive bureaucracy) to support it.

Now the tide (liquidity and enthusiasm) has gone out and the visible symptom of years of mis-management is the crash of the rupee. I am extremely pessimistic about the macro picture and the ability of our political system to fix it.

….and yet my finger is itching to press the buy button !!!

No, I am not blind to the risks and as depressed about the country as any other Indian. Let me explain my reasoning behind this apparently contradictory stance.

What are the options?

Let’s define the problem – The main outcome of the currency crash and other macro problems on the common investor is a further rise in inflation. We are likely to see double digit inflation for some more time. This is likely to destroy the real value of our capital if we do not find means of protecting or growing it.

So if you have some capital (equity, real estate, cash  or FD) with you, what are the options for it ?

IF you decide to hold cash or some form of an FD (which seems to be the safest bet), you have to keep in mind that the real return (after deducting the 10%+ inflation) is likely to be negative. For reference – do a search on East Asian crisis of the 90s and other such events in the past. You will realize that any form of fixed income investment did far worse than other alternatives.

The second option is real estate. I have been pessimistic about real estate for a long time and with low gross yields of 2-3%, think it is overvalued. However if one has the skill to find some undervalued property and can hold on to an illiquid investment for some time, then this could be a possible option. At the same time, if you are thinking of using a loan  to finance it – forget about it. If the currency rate continues to depreciate, we may see a further rise in interest rates (which has already started) and the loan which you are planning (or already have), may become even more expensive.

The next option is gold. This seems to be a good option as it is likely to hold value in real terms as the currency continues to depreciate. I think there is some truth in it – though I don’t think I understand how to value gold and hence I am not likely to go for it. In addition, gold at best is a defensive option (will protect principal, but unlikely to grow it in real terms over the long term)

I know that readers of this blog already know where I am going with this logic – equities. But before I get there, let me digress a bit.

I think the number one asset to invest at any point of time is you. If you invest (money and time) in developing your skills and become really good at whatever you do, then macro factors are unlikely to impact your earnings in the long run. If you are a talented, the market will pay you for what you are worth (and more of it in a depreciated currency).

The last option, which seems to be the most risky is equities. The reason it appears to be risky is due to the vividness of the risk. If you own a stock and inflation rises, the impact is visible immediately. On the other hand, options such as cash or real estate seem to be safe as we do not get a quote on it daily. However that is just a false sense of safety as the real value is eroding silently. A fixed deposit or debt instrument in the last five years has lost value due to inflation and so has real estate (if it has not appreciated by more than 12% per annum).

The case for equities

One can easily point out that equities are no better as the index has dropped in the last five years and hence the loss is even higher in real terms. That is true if you have been invested in the index for the last few years. At the same time, there are several companies such cera sanitaryware or crisil which have done quite well during the same period.

The key point is this – if you are an investor who can evaluate stocks (as quite a few readers of this blog are), then a carefully selected portfolio of above average companies (defined by high return on capital and good management) has done quite well in the last five years in spite of the extreme macro environment.

Let’s look at the same point mathematically – If you are able to buy a company, which is earning around 20% return on capital (and can do so for the next 3-4 years), one is likely to double his money in this period (unless the economy implodes completely) if the valuation remains the same. Finding such a company is not easy, but if the market keeps dropping, one is likely to find good companies at attractive prices

There are some caveats to the above suggestion –

You have some amount of skill in finding good companies. Investing blindly worked only from 2003-2008.

You have the patience and courage to hold onto stocks when the market is collapsing and everyone around you is heading for the exits

You don’t need the money in the next five years. If you are retired or need money in the near term, please don’t think of putting it in the stock market.

My plans

I keep a wish list of stocks – these are companies which I would like to buy, but the price was never attractive in the past. One such company was crisil, which I bought in 2008 and have held on to it since then. There are a few other companies such as ITC , Marico (and more) in the list which I am watching. If the market keeps dropping, my wish may come true.

In summary, if you want to protect your capital from the impact of inflation, you need to find investments which have the capability to generate a 20%+ return on capital and are priced reasonably. If you look at the history of various asset classes across countries and time periods, equities come closest to it.