Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Cost of Complexity

I mentioned in my post on Monday that:

In [Donald] Yacktman's view, businesses with both low capital intensity and low cyclicality (Coke: KO, Pepsi: PEP, and P&G: PG are the specifics mentionedare likely to earn the highest returns.

The benefits owning shares in quality businesses long-term (especially if bought when occasionally selling at a fair or better than fair price) comes down to potential returns relative to risk.

Simple to understand? Certainly. Easy to implement as a core investing approach? A bit less so.  

The evidence to support the merits of owning shares in these kinds of businesses long-term isn't hard to find nor is it particularly complicated. A simple insight can sometimes trump details and complexity. When it occasionally does, use it. What's simple can beat the complex and, in fact, often does.

Yet simple isn't always better. It is just that what is used should be neither more simple nor more complicated than it need be.

It's possible, of course, to make things too simple.

Science views complexity as a cost. That additional complexity must be justified by the benefits. 

"In science complexity is considered a cost, which must be justified by a sufficiently rich set of new and (preferably) interesting predictions..." - From the book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman

Well, investors ought to view complexity in a similar way. 

Investing is always about getting the best possible returns, at the lowest possible risk, within one's own limits. Since it is already inherently enough of a challenge, there's no need to make it more so by adding unnecessary complexity. Don't use calculus when arithmetic will do the job. Save the more powerful tools for when they can actually add value (and especially avoid some of the worse-than-useless overly complex theories taught by modern finance).

Now, just because something is relatively simple doesn't mean lots of homework isn't necessary.

There absolutely is lots of hard work involved.

The reason for and advantage of owning shares in some of the quality franchises -- superior returns at less risk if bought well -- is clearly not all that difficult to understand. Having enough discipline, patience, and the right temperament to stick with it is the tougher part. 

Well, that and maybe not becoming distracted by the various forms of investing alchemy cloaked in incomprehensible faux sophistication: 

"...most professionals and academicians talk of efficient markets, dynamic hedging and betas. Their interest in such matters is understandable, since techniques shrouded in mystery clearly have value to the purveyor of investment advice. After all, what witch doctor has ever achieved fame and fortune by simply advising 'Take two aspirins'." - Warren Buffett in the 1987 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter

Quality stocks. Less drama. Little mystery. Effective. 

Think of them as the "two aspirins" of investing. 

I'm sure that many will still choose to own shares of the highest quality stocks primarily for "defensive" purposes. I doubt that changes anytime soon. Somehow, the thinking goes, they'll jump in and out while not having mistakes and frictional costs to subtract from total return. Sounds good in theory. I'm sure there are even some who can make that sort of thing work for them. There are likely even more who incorrectly think they can.

So, despite the evidence, investing in high quality businesses long-term remains an approach that's still not frequently employed.*
(I mentioned in the previous post that Jeremy Grantham has described these high quality businesses as the "one free lunch" in investing.)

It's a subject I've covered many times on this blog (okay...maybe too many times based upon the number of related posts I have listed below) because it just happens to have been and remains a cornerstone of investing for me.

Unfortunately, investors need more patience now compared to when valuations were quite attractive not too long ago (though at least it's not nearly as bad valuation-wise as it was a decade or so ago). Most of the best quality enterprises are rather fully valued right now.
(Over the shorter run -- less than five years -- anything can happen as far as relative performance goes. It's the longer time horizons -- more like twenty years or so -- that the "offensive" merits of high quality businesses become more obvious. A full business cycle or two. I realize that some, or maybe even many, market participants consider five years to be longer term these days.)

Still, it makes sense to embrace any simple, understandable, yet effective method of delivering above average risk-adjusted returns while generally avoiding the esoteric.**


Finally, the assessm
ent of risk is necessarily imprecise and is certainly not measured by something like beta. Real risks does not lend itself to the all too popular quantitative methods. What can be measured, should be, but much of the important stuff can't be measured all that well. 
It requires a mixture of both quantitative and qualitative.

"You've got a complex system and it spews out a lot of wonderful numbers that enable you to measure some factors. But there are other factors that are terribly important, [yet] there's no precise numbering you can put to these factors. You know they're important, but you don't have the numbers. Well practically everybody (1) overweighs the stuff that can be numbered, because it yields to the statistical techniques they're taught in academia, and (2) doesn't mix in the hard-to-measure stuff that may be more important. That is a mistake I've tried all my life to avoid, and I have no regrets for having done that." - Charlie Munger in this speech at UC Santa Barbara

When it comes to managing risk (and many other things), it's often a mistake to allow the less important but easy to measure stuff to triumph over what's more meaningful if tougher to measure. 

Adam

Long positions in KO, PEP, and PG established at much lower than recent market prices. No intention to buy or sell shares near current valuations.

Related posts:
The Quality Enterprise, Part II - Aug 2012
The Quality Enterprise - Aug 2012
Consumer Staples: Long-term Performance, Part II - Dec 2011
Consumer Staples: Long-term Performance - Dec 2011
Grantham: What to Buy? - Aug 2011
Defensive Stocks Revisited - Mar 2011
KO and JNJ: Defensive Stocks? - Jan 2011
Altria Outperforms...Again - Oct 2010
Grantham on Quality Stocks Revisited - Jul 2010
Friends & Romans - May 2010
Grantham on Quality Stocks - Nov 2009
Best Performing Mutual Funds - 20 Years - May 2009
Staples vs Cyclicals - Apr 2009
Best and Worst Performing DJIA Stock - Apr 2009
Defensive Stocks? - Apr 2009

* To me, the shares of many of these businesses are not especially cheap these days even if they have been at times over the past few years. It's worth waiting for a good price then acting decisively when valuation is attractive. Since each is unique, the necessary homework to build some depth of knowledge and understanding can be done while waiting for the right price. These may be lower risk but they're certainly not no risk. Margin of safety still matters. There's no way around the preparation and patience required in investing. 
After figuring out what's attractive at a certain price lots of waiting is inevitably necessary.
** Some may become bored by the straightforwardness. A few may even choose more complicated, high risk journeys just to enhance the challenge. Long-term Capital Management (LTCM) comes to mind. Charlie Munger said it best in this 1998 speech:

"...the hedge fund known as 'Long-Term Capital Management' recently collapsed, through overconfidence in its highly leveraged methods, despite IQ's of its principals that must have averaged 160. Smart, hard-working people aren't exempted from professional disasters from overconfidence. Often, they just go aground in the more difficult voyages they choose, relying on their self-appraisals that they have superior talents and methods." - Charlie Munger's 1998 speech to the Foundation Financial Officers Group

Uncomplicated, understandable, yet effective ways to produce attractive risk-adjusted returns should be embraced. Sophisticated or esoteric methods, especially those involving leverage, should not. Best to be wary of overconfidence in any profession. It can get even the most talented into trouble.


Munger's Speech to Foundation Financial Officers - 1998
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