Just been re-reading Charles Mungers’ classic speech – A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business. In it Munger provides some great insights into what happened to the net net stocks popularized by Ben Graham.
Here’s an excerpt from that speech:
The second basic approach is the one that Ben Graham used—much admired by Warren and me. As one factor, Graham had this concept of value to a private owner—what the whole enterprise would sell for if it were available. And that was calculable in many cases.
Then, if you could take the stock price and multiply it by the number of shares and get something that was one third or less of sellout value, he would say that you’ve got a lot of edge going for you. Even with an elderly alcoholic running a stodgy business, this significant excess of real value per share working for you means that all kinds of good things can happen to you. You had a huge margin of safety—as he put it—by having this big excess value going for you.
But he was, by and large, operating when the world was in shell shock from the 1930s—which was the worst contraction in the English-speaking world in about 600 years. Wheat in Liverpool, I believe, got down to something like a 600-year low, adjusted for inflation. People were so shell-shocked for a long time thereafter that Ben Graham could run his Geiger counter over this detritus from the collapse of the 1930s and find things selling below their working capital per share and so on.
And in those days, working capital actually belonged to the shareholders. If the employees were no longer useful, you just sacked them all, took the working capital and stuck it in the owners’ pockets. That was the way capitalism then worked.
Nowadays, of course, the accounting is not realistic because the minute the business starts contracting, significant assets are not there. Under social norms and the new legal rules of the civilization, so much is owed to the employees that, the minute the enterprise goes into reverse, some of the assets on the balance sheet aren’t there anymore.
Now, that might not be true if you run a little auto dealership yourself. You may be able to run it in such a way that there’s no health plan and this and that so that if the business gets lousy, you can take your working capital and go home. But IBM can’t, or at least didn’t.
Just look at what disappeared from its balance sheet when it decided that it had to change size both because the world had changed technologically and because its market position had deteriorated.
And in terms of blowing it, IBM is some example. Those were brilliant, disciplined people. But there was enough turmoil in technological change that IBM got bounced off the wave after “surfing” successfully for 60 years. And that was some collapse—an object lesson in the difficulties of technology and one of the reasons why Buffett and Munger don’t like technology very much. We don’t think we’re any good at it, and strange things can happen.
At any rate, the trouble with what I call the classic Ben Graham concept is that gradually the world wised up and those real obvious bargains disappeared. You could run your Geiger counter over the rubble and it wouldn’t click.
But such is the nature of people who have a hammer—to whom, as I mentioned, every problem looks like a nail that the Ben Graham followers responded by changing the calibration on their Geiger counters.
In effect, they started defining a bargain in a different way. And they kept changing the definition so that they could keep doing what they’d always done. And it still worked pretty well. So the Ben Graham intellectual system was a very good one.
You can read Charles Mungers’ classic speech here – A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business.
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